5. Dwayne Johnson
When WWE star Dwayne “The Rock Johnson” made his debut as an actor playing the horrible-looking CGI’d villain of The Mummy Returns (2001), absolutely no one would bet that guy would be one of the biggest stars in the universe in 15 years. And yet here we are, in the age of Johnson, and you know what?
When he puts some effort into it, he’s really good! Granted, drama is not his thing, but he can be goofy when you ask him too, and hilarious at that – just look at 2005’s Be Cool and some later efforts, like HBO series Ballers and Kevin Hart co-starrer Central Intelligence.
He’s been great as the leading man in the slightly offbeat version of Hercules made by Brett Ratner in 2014, too, and brought some much-needed conscious ridicule to Michael Bay’s most absurd (and best, in a way) movie, Pain & Gain.
4. Bruce Willis
Let’s get one thing straight: not only is Bruce Willis a great actor, he’s been a great actor ever since his 1985 to 1989 stint on TV comedy Moonlighting, which launched his career and earned him one Emmy.
He’s also been terrific as John McClane in the Die Hard franchise, but especially the three first films, in which Willis’ charm and willingness to let the audience come with him in those harrowing survival journeys were the backbone of the films. He’s also done some great comedy, as in Death Becomes Her (1992), Bandits (2001) and his three-episode stint on Friends, which earned him another Emmy.
As for drama, just spend a few moments thinking about his performances in The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Sin City (2005), 16 Blocks (2006) and Looper (2012), and you’ll see that Willis has a way for making characters unforgettable, and composing them with understatement and charisma.
3. Vin Diesel
Vin Diesel gave one great performance in his career. It was in Sidney Lumet’s penultimate film, the harrowing courtroom drama Find Me Guilty, which told the true story of a mobster who defended himself on court, and matched wits with Peter Dinklage’s Ben Klandis in front of the jury.
As anyone with half a knowledge of Game of Thrones knows, going up against Dinklage is not a feat for any actor, but Diesel’s personality in this film is larger-than-life, his most primal acting instincts, those of someone used to win hearts and minds as a leading man, informing the character in meaningful, colorful ways.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been waiting for a second dramatic performance by Diesel ever since. If he finds a truly great director to guide him, he could be stunning – maybe it will come on this year’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the new Ang Lee movie.
2. Jean-Claude Van Damme
Jean-Claude Van Damme has only gotten better with age. Let’s be completely clear, he was no great thespian when he became a star in the late 80s and early 90s, but he has championed independent and experimental directors and used his star power to make deeply weird action movies in his time.
He brought John Woo to Hollywood in Hard Target (1993), made two completely bonkers films with Vietnamese master Hark Tsui (Double Team and Knock-Off) and grew progressively as an actor in his Ringo Lam movies (Maximum Risk, Replicant, and the great In Hell).
After his plunge into obscurity, he came back in a devastating performance as a twisted version of himself in JCVD (2008), which includes a singularly touching monologue delivered with honesty, rich emotional depth, and cathartic force.
Since then, he’s been great in both new and philosophical Universal Soldier movies (2009, 2012), and directed/wrote/starred in a true masterpiece, The Eagle Patch/Full Love, released in 2010 and 2014 under two different cuts.
1. Liam Neeson
You knew he was going to be at the top of this list. And we all know of Liam Neeson’s rich history of dramatic and powerful roles before his submersion into action cinema post-2008. He was supremely great in Schindler’s List (1993), and memorable in Michael Collins (1996), Kinsey (2004) and a host of other parts.
But even in his action-hero mode, Neeson has a way of bringing emotional depth and his unique brand of character development to his leading men. He’s good in the first Taken movie, the one that started this whole thing, but he’s been god again since.
A quick look at Paul Haggis’ The Next Three Days (2010) and Jaume-Collet Serra’s actioners Unknown (2011) and Run All Night (2015) gives you a good reason why Neeson has become such an action star. He’s also great in Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014), and, most notably, in Joe Carnahan’s The Grey (2011).
Author Bio: Caio Coletti is a Brazilian-born journalist, a proud poptimist, and has too many opinions to keep them all to himself.