The Best Action Films Of All Time, According To Someone Who Isn't Stupid
(But who also probably isn't as open to foreign films as they could be.)
In 2021, Rolling Stone published a list of the best 50 action films of all time. In 2023, they tweeted it and some people saw it and then they tweeted about it and then I saw some of those tweets and I tweeted about it too. You know why? Because it sucks! Dumb list for dumb people! Real loser list. Real “oh look at me I am so smart and I have such good opinions” list.
Shut up, Rolling Stone.
A lot of garbage on the list! And a lot of insane exclusions! Instead of just complaining about this on Twitter, as I am often wont to do, I decided to put my money where my mouth is, so I made my own list!
“Best of lists” like this can generally be divided into two classifications: sophisticated lists where the promise is basically “Here are some movies you might not have seen before but I have seen because I have glasses and went to Sundance and people come up to me on the street when I’m not at Sundance and ask me to tell them about Sundance,” and populist lists where salt-of-the-earth every day people can tell snot-nosed critics to go back to Sundance and stay there because we real folk like garbage.
The appeal of both involves pissing the readers off. Don’t worry. There are lots of reasons to get pissed off by my list! For one thing, as I’ll explain, it’s pretty racist lol. (I am not a racist, though. This is an important thing to know about me. Please do not put in the newspaper that I am a racist. Thank you.)
My list is of a rarer variety: the cultural class traitor who is willing to admit that he likes garbage, too.
I doubt you’ll find things on this list that you haven’t seen, or at least had the opportunity to see. These are all very famous movies which is a nice (if not comprehensive) statement about the meritocratic tendencies of the box office. All of these movies deserve their success.
What is an action film? Well, like pornography, you know it when you see it. Mostly it involves a person who has to do things that are hard and physical and could lead to death. Often that means violence, but not always. There is a lot of overlap with thrillers and adventure films and crime movies and 50 other genres.
I think that Action Film™ mostly mean that action is at the heart of something to do with the film. It could be at the heart of the theme. Or it could be at the heart of the appeal. Or at the heart of the experience of watching it.
Some of these movies are not films that most people would probably consider action films, but all but one of them are, in fact, on Wikipedia’s list of action films. There is one move that I have used my discretion to overrule Wikipedia about.
These are pulse-pounding movies that get your blood up. They grab you by the collars and throw you around. Some of the entries are quieter but that’s because they play with action or violence in a different way.
I had the self-restraint not to include movies that go too far over the line into low-octane thriller. I didn’t for instance include Straw Dogs. Straw Dogs is a wonderful classic that is all about the necessity of action. It is quiet and restrained for &5% of the film as Dustin Hoffman is pushed and pushed and pushed and then finally he is pushed too far and is made to act! Action is at the heart of Straw Dogs. So is inaction. But I didn’t include it because it could have opened the door to this list being a thousand movies long.
Here’s the story, Morning Glory: my initial list was still way too long. I had to take a cleaver to it just to get remotely close to 50. That involved the following definitional exclusions.
There were just too many westerns. They overwhelm the list. You lose a lot of good action movies because of this. You lose things like The Wild Bunch but you also lose more recent things like Django Unchained.
NO SAMURAI MOVIES
You can’t ban Westerns without banning Samurai films since Samurai films are just Japanese Westerns. Samurai films aren’t my genre, so there weren’t that many on here, but one of them was Seven Samurai, which is one of the most influential and important action films of all time. But it’s not on here.
NO HISTORICAL FILMS SET PRIOR TO 1900
This is just a natural extension of the previous rules. What you really lose here are films like Gladiator and Crouching Tiger. But it’s just silly to artificially ban movies set in the 19th century but then include sword and sandal epics.
The result of these exclusions makes this list incredibly modern and incredibly American. I want to just acknowledge that. If you like foreign cinema and watch it regularly, congratulations. I support your right to do that, but you and I have different tastes. I hate watching subtitles. It is something I am very reluctant to do. I do it once in a while! But I don’t like it, and I have difficulty enjoying films that require it. If you had one eye, you’d probably find it difficult to read subtitles while also focusing on everything else on the screen, too. If this list were made by a committee, I would have invited someone who likes foreign films onto the committee. But this isn’t a committee, so tough shit.
This is a list by millennial American one-eyeds for the beautiful two-eyeds of any age and nationality who happen to share our tastes.
I did not exclude superhero films. But I did that to make a point. There are some superhero/comic book films on this list, but relatively few. In general, superhero films—which I do enjoy!—just aren’t great action movies.
My last throat-clearing point: just because a movie is ranked higher than another movie doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better overall than the movie ranked lower. For instance, there is one Best Picture nominee that is right in the middle. As an action movie, it is where it deserves to be. (There is also a Best Picture winner on the list closer to the top.)
OK, no more foreplay.
TIER III: CABLE CLASSIC ALWAYS FUN TO WATCH.
Taken has lots of problems. And the sequels are terrible. But you have to hand it to Taken. Liam Neeson is a wonderful action star. Batman Begins deserves some of the credit for that, but Taken is when the world was presented with the opportunity to go down this road with him and jumped at it. It is a good action movie! The script is so bad, but the one scene where he hears his daughter getting taken and then speaks to the abductor is brilliant. It translates to the screen wonderfully. If Taken had a bigger budget and had been developed just a little more—if they had taken the script and said, “Thank you, sir, here is some money,” and then called David Mamet and said, “We will give you a Brink’s trunk to rewrite this script,” and then called Joe Wright and said “we will give you a reasonable wage commensurate with market prices to direct this”—it would have been one of the best action movies ever.
(I actually wasn’t sure if I was willing to include Taken here so I rewatched it and the bad parts of Taken are terrible. The dialogue with his daughter is embarrassingly awful, the entire conspiracy doesn’t make a lot of sense, the supporting cast is pretty bad, but it’s mostly not their fault because they are forced to do the dumbest and most useless shit on Earth. But Liam Neeson is a revelation in this role. Of course, he has now played this same guy for 15 years. Of course! In the words of Harvey from Suits, “If you write Midnight Train To Georgia, you don’t just sing it once.”)
This could have very easily been the worst film ever made. Terrible concept, a terrible script. Cast virtually anyone and have it directed by virtually anyone and the result would be a laughable mess. But John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, and John Woo elevate this drek into one of the most enjoyable and memorable action films of the 90s.
48) Black Hawk Down
Ridley Scott’s 2001 film about the Battle of Mogadishu is a brilliant action film. I almost took it off the list because it is also a war film. I worried that if I included it I might have to then consider Saving Private Ryan or The Great Escape. Those are wonderful movies, but I really don’t think they are primarily action films. They are war movies with action scenes. Black Hawk Down is a pulse-pounding action thriller from beginning to end. The only reason it is not higher is because it maybe isn’t what everyone thinks of when they think of an action film.
47) Enter the Dragon
I don’t love kung fu movies, but Enter the Dragon is the best of them. Bruce Lee is magnetic. This is the only appearance he’ll make on this list, but it’s a banger.
Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for $5 and a cupcake with some friends and it blew up and made him a star, so he was given a real budget to make a sequel. He filled it with two movie stars who were just starting out—Antonio Banderas and Selma Hayek—and hit it out of the park. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Desperado. It crackles with style and energy.
45) Bourne Identity
The premise is so good, and Matt Damon is so good. The Greengrass films get some of the action scenes themselves better, but this first one sets the table for that with the perfect ingredients.
Some people really love Robocop. I cannot claim to be one of those people. But it is unique and enjoyable. It does something that I love: it takes a premise that anyone could have while sitting on a bar stool and then runs the tape to the end. It’s incredibly violent but also not without humor. The whole thing is a satire (though that got lost on a lot of people). It’s not something I rewatch every year but every few years!
43) Air Force One
Talk about a premise anyone could have thought up but only a real one could make sizzle! I’m not saying AF1 is the best movie ever made. It’s just Die Hard on a plane with the president. So what? I’m all in! Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman are pitch-perfect, and Wolfgang Peterson brings all the tricks in his box. The best “President in Trouble movie” and the best “Hijacked Plane” movie.
42) Demolition Man
DM is fun from beginning to end. Snipes vs Stallone. Snowflake PC future. Pre-Speed Sandra Bullock. The seashells. Dirty Denis Leary living in the sewer. Taco Bell. Rat burgers. The whole thing is a blast.
41) Beverly Hills Cop 2
The Good Beverly Hills Cop Sequel. The first BHC script went around Hollywood famously for years and is apparently terrible, but come on, this script must be even worse! The plot of this movie makes no sense. The set pieces don’t make sense. The whole thing is such a piece of shit, and yet! Eddie Murphy makes it work, and when he isn’t on camera, guess what? You’re watching Tony Scott action scenes! The fact that this movie is as good as it is is such a testament to that pair because this should be the worst sequel ever made. (Unfortunately, BH3 is the worst sequel ever because John Landis isn’t Tony Scott, and Eddie Murphy wasn’t in the mood to be funny.)
40) Dirty Harry
Robert Mitchum was offered Dirty Harry and turned it down. He was asked about it once and his reply is my favorite quote any movie star has ever given.
Somebody says, “We really want you to do this script.” And I say, “I’d need an awful lot of money in front to do that one.” And that never seems to be a problem. The less I like the script, the higher my price. And they pay. They may pay in yen, but they pay. Not that I’m a complete whore, understand. There are movies I won’t do for any amount. I turned down Patton and I turned down Dirty Harry. Movies that piss on the world. If I’ve got $5 in my pocket, I don’t need to make money that fucking way, daddy.
Dirty Harry may “piss on the world” but it’s a good action movie!
It’s good that Mitchum turned it down because Clint Eastwood makes Harry Callahan work. He is so watchable as the world’s most famous example of the “breaks-all-the-rules cop.”
It’s a classic. It’s one of the last action films before everything changes for the genre, thanks to a film a bit further down the list. I’m not going to try to convince you to like it. If you don’t like it, congrats, but there’s a reason why so many people do like it.
39) Bad Boys
Makes Will Smith an action star. His schtick with Martin Lawrence holds up. And Michael bay demonstrates an undeniable flair that sometimes in subsequent films, he goes too far with, but here really works. The entire ridiculous joke of Will Smith having to pretend to be Martin Lawrence is so dumb, but works.
38) Mad Max: Fury Road
Rolling Stone called this the best action film of all time, which is absurd, but it is great! Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron race for freedom with some beautiful pregnant ladies in the backseat and a bunch of hideous post-apocalyptic mutants hot on their trail! Everyone loved this movie (though not enough to get the sequel greenlit for a decade), but critics really loved it. People love it so much that I feel like it might actually be overrated at this point, but it is wonderful.
If you think Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels would be a better Guy Ritchie entry on this list, I respect your right to think that. It was close for me. But Brad Pitt’s performance put Snatch over the top for mem
36) Under Siege
Steven Segal is probably the worst actor in history, but his flatness does work in the role of Casey Rybeck, the SEAL turned Navy chef who has to take out the terrorists in Die Hard on a Battleship. But Tommy Lee Jones is really the winner of the film. He chews the scenery as a hippie-turned-CIA-assassin-turned-terrorist. His unleashed mania is a perfect compliment to Steven Segal’s empty stare.
I wonder what Under Siege would be if it had Jean Claud Van Dam in the Rybeck role. JCVD is a far better actor. The movie would be way different, but I feel like it would work.
35) Lethal Weapon 2
It isn’t a perfect movie at all, but it is an ideal action sequel. The characters we learned to love in the first one are given room to cook and play and be merry. There are perfect villains in the South African gang. There is a perfect addition to the core crew in Joe Pesci. Everything works. There is just no way in the world Lethal Weapon 2 isn’t one of the best action films of all time.
34) The Professional
Oh, does this not count as an action film? Fuck you, yes, it does. Jean Reno gives a classic performance as the hitman who lets a young Natalie Portman into his heart. And Gary Oldman as the corrupt DEA agent who slaughters her family? This is Luc Besson’s best film. They don’t make them like this anymore!
The supporting cast in Blade is great but it’s really the Wesley Snipes show and he doesn’t disappoint. Even though it is about vampires, it still feels rooted in reality. The action is swift, brutal, and fun.
32) Point Break
The thing about almost all of these movies is that the perfect recipe is two stars and a great director. Point Break has Patrick Swayze going up against Keanu Reeves in a heist film that has undercover surfers and skydiving. Lori Petti and Gary Busey sing backup. And Katheryn Bigelow just makes the whole thing irresistible.
They remade Point Break a few years ago and it was one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. This movie is so good and so fun. And it didn’t have to be!
The only David Mamet script where people don’t say a lot. John Frankenheimer’s French-set thriller about a group of thieves and criminals brought together to steal a case containing….something. De Niro, Reno, car chases. A supremely underrated film.
30) Man on Fire
A drunken and broken former CIA agent who develops a bond with the young girl he is hired to protect—and then goes on a mission of bloody revenge to get her back after she is kidnapped. Tony Scott, Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken. Marc Anthony! Mickey Rourke! Aces.
29) The Matrix
I am not one of those people who loves The Matrix movies. In fact, I hated each sequel with increasing furor, but the first one? I remember seeing the first one the first time, and it knocked my socks off. The sequels got brought down by all the idiotic mythology, but the initial film is just a thrilling story that grabs you and doesn’t let go. The slow-mo bullet vision thing in the opening sequence was just an announcement that you were watching films change forever.
28) The Rock
Die Hard at Alcatraz. Sold. Greenlight. Nicholas Cage’s best action film. Michael Bay’s best film. Sean Connery’s best “how are you not retired yet?” film. Aaron Sorkin’s best and only action film.
Ed Harris has made a career out of turning supporting roles into scene-stealers and he does it brilliantly in this. David Morse is also great as his number 2.
27) Crimson Tide
I went back and forth with whether this was an action film. It has no violence in it. There is one punch thrown, a few guns drawn, a small scuffle among supporting characters that is immediately broken up, and an extra has a heart attack. But the threat of violence is central to the story. Nuclear war! Most of the film takes place in almost real-time. The way the pressure builds in this underwater tin can is extraordinary. And Denzel and Gene Hackman go at it in perfect fashion. They both know when to play it low, and when to explode. Tony Scott doesn’t bring all the in-your-face edits that he would start to rely on more and more after this film. It’s a more subtle direction. And it works.
26) A History of Violence
This movie also doesn’t have very much action in it, but I think it still counts. Viggo Mortensen is a family man in the middle of nowhere. When two bad guys try to hold up his diner, he offers them the money and asks them to move on. But when he threatens the customers, Viggo reacts and takes them both down. What the hell? Suddenly, he’s on the news, and the ghosts from his past life come back to haunt him. You know for an hour that eventually, he is going to have to do it again, and when it does, the payoff is solid.
TIER II: FILMS PROBABLY WORTH OWNING.
Back to core action films. Cliffhanger is exactly what you want. Big set pieces! Big stars! Unrealistic action! It’s so stupid. But who cares? Sylvester Stallone vs John Lithgow on a mountain in the snow. Renny Harlin before he fucked it all up with Cutthroat Island. They’re finally making the sequel and I’ll be there opening night.
If 1917 isn’t an action movie, then nothing is. It’s a war movie, also. But newsflash: a lot of action in war! And 1917, of all war movies, is the one that is most like an action video game. I loved 1917, but 1917 is actually not very rewatchable because it isn’t broken up into sequences. It’s hard to jump in and out. But that has nothing to do with the experience of watching it the first time. That experience is a hold-your-breath, edge-of-seat experience.
Wolverine is such a timeless character. The three best X-Men films in terms of just Wolverine are: X2, The Wolverine, and Logan. X2 is a bit too much of a superhero team-up film for me to put on this list. The Wolverine has some of the best action sequences and fights in the franchise but it also has a pretty unsatisfying finale.
Logan is the best X-Men movie of all and maybe the best comic movie. Old Man Logan on a violent road trip with Patrick Stewart and a young girl who has Wolverine’s same powers. Pursued by bad people. It’s great and thoughtful, and it has different forms of action. It has a farmhouse gunfight, a futuristic car chase, and a run for the border. It has human action and metal claws action. It is wonderful. It is the highest-ranked superhero film on my list.
Famous for its car chase, Bullit is just a solid action thriller. Steve McQueen is a San Francisco cop who lets the witness he’s assigned to protect get killed and then investigates it himself. You could argue that by including Bullitt, I am legally obligated to include the French Connection, but you know what? Arrest me. French Connection won best picture. Everyone knows French Connection is great. People talk about it every day. I can’t walk down the street without hearing French Connection this French Connection that. No one talks about Bullitt anymore.
21) Mission Impossible: Fallout
I love these movies. I love this franchise. I only reluctantly didn’t include a few more MI films on this list. Fallout is probably the best because it is without fault, but Rogue Nation is also basically perfect. If I was wholly committed to the bit of not trying to appease anyone else, and just going with my personal preferences, I would have found a spot for Rogue Nation as well.