Whenever a film lands with audiences, Hollywood often follows through with an inevitable sequel, as studio heads begin volleying for franchise potential. Any follow-up to a successful release often carries with it the expectation of “bigger,” “better”, and essentially “more”, as the studio and filmmakers aim to raise the bar and blow out what worked so well the first time. This desire to up the ante can sometimes take the first film’s premise too far, thereby spoiling the fun, but when it comes to action films, a grander scale and higher stakes can create a moviegoing experience that stands the test of time.
As Jason Statham reprises his role from the 2011 film The Mechanic for Mechanic: Resurrection, we take a look back at the best action movie sequels to hit theaters. For the record, we’re only looking at direct sequels. So don’t expect to see beloved franchise reboots like Mad Max: Fury Road or Casino Royale on this list. Also, we’re focusing on traditional forms of action rather than more genre-specific adventures involving fantasy or sci-fi. In other words, series like Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings — which feature action sequences amid a broader tale — are excluded, as is Kill Bill: Vol. 2 since it’s the second half of a single story. Those guidelines in mind, let’s delve into the list at hand.
Here are the 15 Action Movie Sequels That Are Actually Awesome.
15. X2: X-Men United (2003)
Longtime fans were elated when the Marvel mutants finally made the leap to the big screen in director Bryan Singer’s 2000 release X-Men. However, that film spent so much of its runtime setting up the world of telepath Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), amnesiac Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) Brotherhood of Mutants that it ultimately felt like the prologue to a much better adventure to come.
Thankfully, X2: X-Men United more than lived up to the promise its predecessor built up in its final moments, starting with the introduction of fan-favorite Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) in the standout opening sequence. Featuring more kinetic action, more character development, and a hell of a setup for a third film (which would ultimately disappoint), X2: X-Men United is a stronger film in every conceivable way and still arguably stands among the best the franchise has ever produced. Superhero sequels rarely get better than this.
14. Desperado (1995)
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez first made waves with the micro-budget indie El Mariachi in 1992. When it came time for his sophomore effort, the director opted for this sequel to his breakout hit. Trading in original star Carlos Gallardo for up-and-coming star Antonio Banderas in the lead role (though Gallardo does take on a supporting role), the film follows a guitar player (Banderas) on a revenge-driven quest to take down the leader of a Mexican drug cartel (Joaquim de Almeida).
Desperado is proof positive that its predecessor was a mere hint at the style and attitude that Rodriguez could bring to the screen. Banderas would later go on to play the title character in The Mask of Zorro, but his role here is just as iconic to action fans. Moreover, Desperado represents the first collaboration between Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, as the latter director (and occasional actor) has a memorable — albeit brief — role to play here. The film is also the first of many Rodriguez projects to feature Banderas and/or co-star Salma Hayek.
13. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
Thanks in large part to Shane Black’s stellar script, Lethal Weapon became one of the most popular action films of the late 1980s. So when director Richard Donner and stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover reunited for the sequel (with Black only receiving a “story by” credit), hopes were high that the second film could recapture the magic of the original release. Although the addition of Joe Pesci and the downplaying of Riggs’ (Gibson) suicidal tendencies takes the series to some lighter places, Lethal Weapon 2 leverages the dynamite chemistry between its leads to keep the franchise running strong.
This time around, Riggs and Murtaugh (Glover) are on the trail of South African drug dealers, and their enemy’s protection by diplomatic immunity leads to one of the best action movie one-liners of all time. Even though the subsequent two films would mark a steady decline for the Lethal Weapon series, this second film manages to successfully balance the darkness of the original with the fun that moviegoers expect from a Hollywood action film.
12. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
Fifteen years had passed since Tom Cruise first played super-spy Ethan Hunt in the film adaptation of 1960s television series Mission: Impossible. Still, the fourth time proved to be the charm with this installment, which marked the live-action debut for director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille). Re-focusing on the team-oriented aspect of the Impossible Mission Force, the additions of Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton, as well as an expanded role for Simon Pegg (who first joined the franchise with J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III) created the strongest ensemble the series had seen up to that point.
In addition, a major setpiece that sees Hunt scale the Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest structure — takes full advantage of the fact that the film was shot partially using IMAX cameras. With a charming cast, unforgettable spectacle, and Bird’s distinctive visual flair, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol earned critical acclaim and soon became the highest-grossing installment in the series and the highest-grossing film of Cruise’s career.
11. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Similar to the way X2: X-Men United expanded upon the world populated by Marvel’s mutants, this Sam Raimi-directed sequel to Spider-Man takes audiences further into the mind of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). The character has always been defined by the conflict between his crime-fighting career as the friendly neighborhood webslinger and his ordinary life as a student and photographer. Never has this been captured quite as well as in Spider-Man 2. More than simply raising the emotional stakes of the character, Spider-Man 2 delivers some of his best action to date, namely the breathtaking battle between Spidey and Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) aboard a speeding train. Though three Spider-Man films have been released since this one, Raimi’s second visit to the franchise — which earned an Academy Award for its ground-breaking visual effects — remains the high-water mark to date and the film that Spider-Man: Homecoming will inevitably be measured against when it arrives next year.
10. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Earlier this summer, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass re-teamed for Jason Bourne and, though that film proved to be a box office hit, it lacked the warm response from fans and critics alike that the actor and director’s third entry in the franchise had received nearly a decade ago. Perhaps it’s because The Bourne Ultimatum delivered such a pitch-perfect conclusion to the character’s arc, lending the action sequences a sense of emotional culmination that had been building throughout the previous two films. Whatever the case may be, this action-heavy entry, which won Oscars for its sound mixing, sound editing, and film editing, makes effective use of Greengrass’s shaky camera style and showcases why Jason Bourne remains Damon’s signature role. No wonder The Bourne Ultimatum remains the highest-grossing of the five Bourne films thus far and is considered by many to be the series’ creative apex as well.
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Captain America: The First Avenger accomplished the impossible in making the Star-Spangled Steve Rogers into a credible big-screen action hero, but this follow-up single-handedly transformed him into arguably one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Along with the moral fiber that made him such a distinctive member of The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier brings the hero into the modern era, complete with an updated fighting style and a direct confrontation with the more complicated society that he’s awakened into, as embodied by the rough-around-the-edges Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The film delivered game-changing ramifications for the MCU at large and introduced audiences to directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s keen understanding of how to make the Marvel heroes pop like few other filmmakers had. Through deeper exploration into its characters, The Winter Soldier adds complexity to the franchise and effectively set up the equally praised Captain America: Civil War.
8. Fast Five (2011)
Until Fast Five, the Fast and Furious franchise had experienced its fair share of ups and downs. After the box office success of the 2001 original, the series meandered a bit before finally reuniting its core cast nearly a decade later for the simply titled Fast & Furious. With both Paul Walker and Vin Diesel in tow for the first time since that initial film, the franchise appeared to be back on track. However, no one expected director Justin Lin’s third time at the helm to become such a landmark for the series.
By dropping the street-racing premise that kicked off the films, Fast Five reinvented itself as a heist film and reunited many of the supporting characters from previous entries, at last tying them all together. The addition of Dwayne Johnson as the now-fan-favorite Hobbs only increased the series’ appeal and led to the most successful installment to date. In short, Fast Five reinvigorated interest in the franchise and created the foundation that culminated in last year’s $1.5 billion worldwide box office take for Furious 7.
7. Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
Ask any fan of action films what the best ever made is, and chances are, Die Hard will be among the most popular responses you’ll hear. So naturally Fox pushed the weirdly titled Die Hard 2: Die Harder out just two years later. However, it took original Die Hard director John McTiernan returning to the franchise to bring audiences a sequel that truly honored the spirit of the first film.
Tying directly back to the crisis John McClane (Bruce Willis) faced at Nakatomi Plaza, Die Hard with a Vengeance is the only installment to date that is principally set in McClane’s native New York City and sees the cop teaming up with a shop owner (Samuel L. Jackson) to solve a terrorist’s (Jeremy Irons) deadly game of riddles. Rather than simply rehashing the first film’s premise, this third film builds upon it in interesting ways, reversing its confined chaos setup into a full-blown attack on the city streets. Willis and Jackson crackle as the unlikeliest of “buddy cop” duos, and the film rightfully emerged as one of the biggest action hits that year.
6. The Raid 2 (2014)
When The Raid: Redemption hit domestic theaters in 2012, no one knew that they were about to experience one of the most impressive action films in years (read our rave review). Director Gareth Evans only had a couple of film credits to his name before he and stars Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian teamed to create this non-stop exercise in martial arts mayhem.
For the sequel, Evans took the first film’s one building set and expanded it into a sprawling crime epic that has just as much in common with thrillers like The Departed as it does with its own predecessor. While the film introduces a number of memorable new characters, perhaps none compare to the in-your-face carnage of “Hammer Girl” and “Baseball Bat Man.” Far more complicated, more violent, and featuring a larger assortment of nefarious characters, The Raid 2 is a triumph of action storytelling. Even if it isn’t quite the relentless action extravaganza of the first film, the sequences featured are just as brilliantly choreographed and feel twice as earned.
5. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
If the test of a sequel is to build awareness, fan goodwill and the larger appreciation for the franchise at hand, then this George Miller classic — released as simply The Road Warrior in the United States, due to the first film’s obscurity stateside — certainly qualifies. Mel Gibson makes a second appearance on our list, reprising his role of “Mad Max” Rockatansky, and while its predecessor chronicled Max’s descent into madness, this sequel is a redemption story of sorts, pitting the character against a particularly nasty biker gang.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior establishes Max’s tendency to pull himself out of his wanderer status long enough to assist those in need before returning back within himself, and The Road Warrior was well-regarded for skillfully taking the style and energy of the original Mad Max to a broader scope without sacrificing ingenuity. What Miller puts onscreen long stood as the pinnacle of his signature franchise, at least until Mad Max: Fury Road came roaring onto the screen last year.
4. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Raiders of the Lost Ark may still be considered a cinematic landmark, but even though this third entry in the adventure series didn’t quite reach the acclaim of the original, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a clear winner for second place. Director Steven Spielberg draws audiences closer into Indiana Jones‘s life than ever before, delving into his early years with a prologue sequence and then exploring his troubled relationship with his father (Sean Connery) as the pair tangle with Nazis.
The film’s humanization of its iconic hero aside, it also features one standout action sequence after another, culminating in Jones’s encounter with the Holy Grail itself (“You have chosen… wisely.“). Screenwriter Jeffrey Boams — who already appeared on this list with Lethal Weapon 2 — clearly has a solid grasp of how to build out an action franchise, and considering the divisive (at best) response to 2008 release Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, many fans likely wished that Last Crusade had truly remained the final entry in the series.
3. The Dark Knight (2008)
Few franchises have accomplished as big a turnaround as the Batman films. From the low point of Batman & Robin, Christopher Nolan resuscitated the Caped Crusader’s big-screen reputation with the 2005 release of Batman Begins. Yet, that film turned out to be just a warm-up for this influential sequel, which changed the industry’s approach to comic book adaptations and set a new standard for superhero cinema.
The Dark Knight does more than continue the story of the previous film. It pays off its teasing final scene in a huge way, reimagining Batman’s arch-nemesis in the form of Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker. Sure, the film tells the story of a costumed hero fighting crime and protecting his city streets, but The Dark Knight feels more like a Michael Mann crime thriller than the latest film about a character who once wore a suit featuring rubber nipples. All we can say is that Ben Affleck better bring it with his announced Batman solo film if he hopes to escape the shadow cast by this instant classic.
2. Aliens (1986)
Cinephiles will eternally debate which of the first two entries in the Alien franchise is truly superior. Luckily, for our purpose, Ridley Scott’s 1979 original is more concerned with scares than action. So that leaves James Cameron’s war film/sci-fi epic, which finds Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley awakening decades after first crossing paths with the acid-spewing xenomorphs. Leading a group of Marines back to the creatures’ home planet, Ripley faces hordes of them this time and becomes a maternal figure to young Newt (Carrie Henn).
From its many quotable lines (“Game over, man!“) to such fan-favorite characters as Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), Aliens has handily sustained a fanbase over the last 30 years, as evidenced by the cast and crew’s recent reunion at San Diego Comic-Con. The fact that fans, and filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, are still hoping to deliver a film that honors the characters and storylines of Aliens — a route that 1992 release Alien 3 sadly didn’t take — is a testament to its staying power.
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
It seems that no one quite does action sequels like James Cameron. Just a few short years after delivering one of the best ones ever with Aliens, the filmmaker pushed technology forward to bring audiences this unforgettable follow-up to his own 1984 cult classic. Arnold Schwarzenegger — one of the world’s biggest movie stars at the time — shifts from villain to hero, as his T-800 teams with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) to protect future resistance leader John Connor (Edward Furlong) from the shape-shifting T-1000 (Robert Patrick). Much has been said about how the film’s pioneering CGI holds up remarkably well decades later, but what makes this the crowning achievement in the Terminator franchise (which has never recovered from the standard set by this film) is how perfectly the spectacle supports the larger themes and character-driven drama of the film. So many films have tried to duplicate the accomplishment of T2, but there’s no other action sequel that has come close.
Of course, even with the exceptions we stated at the outset of this list, there are countless other action-packed films that could have easily been in contention for this list. Any number of James Bond films could have qualified, and then there are superhero sequels Superman II and Blade II, Jason Statham release Crank 2: High Voltage, and any number of other entries in the franchises we did include. However, we’re confident in our selections here but equally as interested to hear what we may have missed.
Which action movie sequel do you think is the best one ever made? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.