Before we unlock the list of our top action movie stars, we have to establish what’s an action movie. We define it as a film where the main protagonist faces incredible odds in a race against time, heavily using stunts, weapons, explosions and chase sequences to tell the story.
For the past 40 years, action films have been a staple in cinemas. The evolution of the genre has gone through many forms over the decades due to expanding budgets, over-the-top stunts and the reliance of technology (e.g. CGI). From the edgy trailblazers of the ‘1970s, to the renaissance of the ‘80s, and the super-sized violence of the ‘90s, action films and their stars have captivated global audiences. Today, however, a “rated R” action film is almost a thing of the past, giving way to less bloody superhero fare and PG-13 options like Transformers.
In creating this cream of the crop list, many difficult choices were made as to who to include and who to leave out. This isn’t a martial arts list, so some favorites like Donnie Yen missed the cut. Classic heroes like Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, to modern day tough guys like Jason Statham and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, were heavily considered as well. In needing a one man/woman wrecking machine to save us from aliens, criminals, robots and governments, these are our picks for the 16 Greatest Action Stars of All-Time.
16. ANGELINA JOLIE
There are very few actresses like the talented Angelina Jolie that can go from delivering a dramatic, Oscar-nominated performance, to rescuing the day in a shoot ‘em up action film. At first glance most people might not see her as an action star, but if you take a closer look, her filmography is filled with action films, with Jolie redefining the role of what a woman can do in the genre. Starting with Gone in Sixty Seconds, Angelina really embraced the action role playing Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider films. Even though the films weren’t as successful as hoped, they positioned her as a go-to Hollywood action star, next to the likes of Will Smith and Tom Cruise.
In Mr. & Mrs. Smith she played an assassin married to Brad Pitt, that could be deadly while looking stunning in a dress. She followed that up with arguably her most famous action film, Wanted, once again playing a super assassin. Those two films along with 2010’s Salt, have proven that not only can Angelina deliver a top shelf action movie but she’s big at the box-office, with those three titles collectively grossing over a billion dollars. At 41 years, there’s more damage left to be done to pad her action credentials.
15. JET LI
Before ever stepping foot in the action movie arena, Jet Li was already one of the top 5 martial arts actors with films like the Once Upon a Time in China series, The Legend, Kung Fu Cult Master, and High Risk. Jet made his American movie debut in an action franchise with 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4. From there, U.S. audiences got to see how innovative his skills were mixed in with gunplay, playing the hero in action titles like Romeo Must Die, Kiss of the Dragon, The One, and Cradle 2 The Grave. During that run from 2000 to 2007, Jet made 7 studio action features, cementing his place as a successful international action star.
One of Jet’s most praised action films is Unleashed, written by Luc Besson and directed by Louis Leterrier. Playing an enslaved man with the mentality of a child and dog, Li goes on a hyper-violent revenge spree, packed with gritty and impressive stunts. Even though he’s gone back to his native China to make epic fantasy adventures like The Forbidden Kingdom and The Sorcerer and the White Snake, he’s still very much a presence in the action genre like with his role as Yin Yang in the guns and knives dream team of The Expendables films.
14. MILLA JOVOVICH
Rick Grimes and his friends have nothing on this zombie killing machine. Whether she’s killing the undead or beating up aliens in space, Milla Jovovich fights her way onto this list as one of the most successful action stars of recent years. Just how prolific of a badass is she? Well, if you read our 15 Deadliest Action Stars list, you’d know that her body count is at 1,292 putting her currently at second place on the all-time list. Not to mention, she’s been carrying her own franchise, Resident Evil, for six films which only a handful of men can say. That’s two decades of destruction and thrills.
Is Milla gorgeous? Of course, but stick a weapon in her hand and watch her mow down whomever or whatever gets in her way. While the Resident Evil films may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s hard to argue against her role of Leeloo in Luc Besson’s action adventure, The Fifth Element. Playing a Supreme Being that happens to be an ultimate weapon makes Milla even more cool regardless if she’s wearing a toilet paper outfit. Tack on Ultraviolet to her credits and she’s an unstoppable warrior.
13. JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME
Bring up any conversation about action films and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s name is bound to show up, as the man is synonymous with the genre. During the early ‘90s, Van Damme was arguably the most popular action star in the world, roundhouse kicking or shooting his way through entertaining films that played like video games. “The Muscles from Brussels” has walked that thin line of action star and martial arts star over his career. He’s showed off his fancy feet skills in films like Bloodsport, Kickboxer and Death Warrant. He later became a full-fledged, action movie star with mainstream hits like Double Impact, Universal Solider and Hard Target.
While we’ll give him a pass for his role as Guile in the guilty pleasure Street Fighter, JCVD’s biggest hit and best reviewed film is Timecop, the 1994 sci-fi action title that had him playing a cop tracking down time bandits. With the case of most traditional action stars, Van Damme went through a low period of forgettable straight-to-video titles in the ‘2000s that offered glimpses of past success. His career got a shot in the arm in 2008 as he played himself in the semi-fictional JCVD. That movie created a career resurgence with action titles like The Expendables 2 and sequels to older hits like Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning.
12. CHUCK NORRIS
Clearly Chuck made this list due to his animated series, Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos. Well, maybe not, but having your own Saturday Morning cartoon never hurts.
By now we’ve all know the legend that is Chuck Norris. We’ve seen the memes, read the facts and seen our fair share of Walker, Texas Ranger clips on YouTube. As much fun as we’ve been having with the bearded tough guy, we can’t forget that during his prime years – next to Bruce Lee – he was the baddest man on the planet. He has a legit marital arts background as a Karate Grand Champion and even created his own fighting style with Chun Kuk Do. How did Chuck make his feature film debut? By fighting Bruce Lee in that iconic scene from 1972’s The Way of the Dragon. That fight propelled his action move career which covered much of the ‘70s and ‘80s with films like A Force of One, Silent Rage, Missing in Action and Invasion U.S.A.
Known for punches and spinning kicks, Chuck became a nightmare for bad guys and a hero for movie fans. The zenith of his action star run came with his role as Major Scott McCoy in The Delta Force movies. Whether by knocking out or blowing someone up, he always saved the day!
11. MEL GIBSON
Today he might be more known for his controversial rants or for stepping behind the camera as a director for films like Hacksaw Ridge (which got him an Oscar nomination). But let’s never forget that this man is Mad Max, Martin Riggs and William Wallace. He may not have the martial arts background as some on this list, or the imposing physical stature of others, but Mel is a Grade-A action star.
He shot to fame as Mad Max Rockatansky, surviving the post-apocalyptic badlands in the original Mad Max trilogy. From there he basically helped create the buddy cop action formula in the Lethal Weapon films, alongside Danny Glover. If that’s not enough for you, he starred and won an Oscar for directing everyone’s favorite epic historical war film, Braveheart. Those three films alone are a staple in many a man cave.
With a rich resume that includes dramatic and comedic roles, Gibson’s action films are what made him an international star, creating an intense and brooding hero that movie audiences loved to get behind. From the epic chase sequence in The Road Warrior, to his final showdown fight with Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon, Gibson’s career is littered with classic action moments that have helped define the genre.
10. KEANU REEVES
When we first met him as Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, no one could have guessed the action movie run Keanu Reeves would have. We may have dubbed him an unlikely action star in the past but this unassuming actor has embraced the role of hero and created a path filled with iconic action roles.
At 52 years old, Keanu has been a card carrying member of the action star group for over 25 years now, proving that he can consistently deliver blockbuster hits like the upcoming John Wick 2. The sequel serves as a reminder of the longevity he’s had at the top, hardly ever going through a dull period which most stars of the genre experience. Starting with Point Break in 1991, Reeves showed us how cool he could be as FBI agent Johnny Utah. He then changed the way we all look at buses in the thrill ride Speed, with Sandra Bullock. Next he and The Wachowskis flipped the genre on its head, revolutionizing the industry with his role as Neo “The One” in The Matrix franchise, bullet time camera and all!
9. JACKIE CHAN
Jackie Chan almost dying in each of his films became sort of a twisted trademark for the action star, a drawback of performing his own stunts. That dedication to his craft is what has made Jackie a favorite with moviegoers all over the world. The living legend started his career in movies as a teenager performing stunts in Bruce Lee films like Fist of Fury. He couldn’t have asked for a better training ground to become an action movie star, as soon he became a martial arts star with films like Drunken Master and The Fearless Hyena.
What set Jackie apart from other stars was his use of comedy, mixing it in with the jaw-dropping stunts he’d perform. His skilled choreography was meant to illicit laughs just as much as it created ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’. During the boom of action films in ‘1980s, Chan joined the fray with thrilling films like the Police Story series, The Protector and Crime Story. In 1995, Jackie landed on the Hollywood radar with Rumble in The Bronx, which paved the way for the mega hit, Rush Hour, pairing him with Chris Tucker. That franchise along with other hits like Shanghai Noon, is a big reason why his action legacy is hard to beat!
8. KURT RUSSELL
You didn’t think we were going to leave Snake Plissken off the list?! While any action star can run around with a gun, it takes a special talent to talk smack while doing so. And the best smack-talker on this list is the cool and always cocky, Kurt Russell. Kurt has the uncanny knack of creating distinct and memorable characters, with big personalities that sometimes overtake the movies they’re in. That could be the case with Snake and Escape from New York, where Kurt’s portrayal of Plissken is far more entertaining than the film itself.
Kurt’s partnership with director John Carpenter was highly successful for both, not only giving us Snake Plissken but two more action Gods in the forms of R.J. MacReady in The Thing (1982) and Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China. In both films he plays the everyman hero, stuck in extraordinary/supernatural situations and reacting accordingly with his funny and clever one-liners. Outside of those cult classic hits, Russell did the standard ‘80s action film Tango & Cash, going toe-to-toe with action icon Sylvester Stallone. With movies like Backdraft, Tombstone, Stargate and Soldier, Kurt has continued to churn out quality action films over the years, truly earning him that action hero badge.
7. CLINT EASTWOOD
One of the pioneers of action, the resident elder statesman of this group has created cinematic characters that resonate beyond the genre. While today’s current generation might see Clint just as an acclaimed director or not really appreciate his days as an action hero, the man’s resume speaks for itself.
Making a name for himself first in Westerns, the foundation of Clint’s action hero status is found with his “Man with No Name” character. While Westerns aren’t necessarily traditional action films, Eastwood created the greatest and most dangerous cowboy character of all-time. He served as the anti-hero for Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns: For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars. After achieving fame in that space, Clint created the standard by which all rule-breaking, renegade action cops would follow in the form of “Dirty” Harry Callahan in the 1971 classic, Dirty Harry. Not only did that arguably become Clint’s signature role, but it propelled him down the action film path in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Eastwood’s impressive run would include: Magnum Force, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Enforcer, The Gauntlet and Sudden Impact.
It’s been over 25 since we last saw Clint being a bad-ass as Bill Munny in Unforgiven, but we’ll always have that Dirty Harry line of “Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”
6. BRUCE LEE
Hands down, the greatest martial arts figure of all-time. If this list was about the best martial arts film stars, Bruce Lee would be number one. No question. What can we add that already hasn’t been said about the legend, a man who has influenced every action star, combat fighter and athlete that has come since his time.
Bruce will always be the exception to the rule when it comes to action movies as even though he never fired a gun or wasn’t involved in an high-octane stunt, he brought martial arts cinema to the states on a mainstream level. His fighting techniques and the story elements found in his films have been duplicated in countless action films since the ‘1970s.
Starring in only 4 big feature films before his tragic death, Bruce Lee will always be remembered as a skilled and smart fighter that stressed strategy and a spiritual philosophy over brute strength and size. Bruce’s first taste of action and fame came as Kato in the TV series The Green Hornet. The jewel of his legacy however is the 1973 film Enter the Dragon, that influenced movies and also video games with its tournament boss structure. Even today, action filmmakers and actors are trying to capture just a small piece of what made the master so brilliant on-screen.
5. HARRISON FORD
There’s more to Harrison Ford than being Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Granted, you don’t need more than that to prove you’re a cool scoundrel and rebel. While some cinephiles might nitpick that Star Wars isn’t an action film or that the Indiana Jones films are more adventure movies, both franchises have Ford doing more than his share of action and stunts.
Harrison Ford currently sits at the top of list of highest grossing actors of all-time, which shows how popular he is with audiences and what good of an eye he has in choosing projects. Some actors tend to collect props or costumes from movies they’ve been in. Ford takes it one step further collecting scars from the crazy stunts he’s done over the years. He recently broke his leg in The Force Awakens but more dangerous than that, the man survived a real life plane crash in an aircraft he was piloting.
When not busy starring in game changing blockbusters, Ford has experimented with varying levels of action characters such as Rick Deckard in Blade Runner (which he’s set to reprise in Blade Runner 2049), Jack Ryan in the Tom Clancy films and Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. He’s also played a kick-ass president in Air Force One, and joined his action brethren in The Expendables 3. Just don’t tell him he’s action star because he already knows!
4. TOM CRUISE
Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that Tom Cruise is a bona fide movie star. He’s basically the prototype of what every modern actor aspires to when it comes to starring in big time action movies. Tom’s cut from the same cloth as Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford as solid actors that shine as action heroes. Outside of personal controversies and his thing with Scientology, Tom is about the closest thing to a sure thing you’ll find in Hollywood when it comes to box-office success.
While most picks on this list started heavy with action roles then tapered off, Cruise is the opposite, amassing more action movies later in his career. He started with Top Gun but it wasn’t until 1996 with Mission: Impossible that audiences got to see Tom running around like a mad man and surviving crazy stunts. Next to Jackie Chan, Tom is one of the handful of big movie stars that actually does some of the riskier stunts asked of him. Outside of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Tom’s been in Minority Report, The Last Samurai, Collateral, Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow. Don’t be surprised if Tom keeps the action movies coming for another 30 years as the man’s a machine (not literally we hope).
3. BRUCE WILLIS
One look at Bruce and you wouldn’t guess that he’s one of the most prolific action stars in cinema history. He doesn’t possess amazing fighting skills or have a body made of muscles on top of muscles. He’s about as average looking as you can get, especially now with the bald head (no offense), but the man’s swagger and charisma is what makes him standout. With that scowl on his face and gun in hand, he’s a one-man army, comfortable with bullets whizzing by and explosions almost taking him out. While other action stars aren’t known for their acting skills, you could say that Bruce is a talented actor that just happens to excel in action movies.
The character he’s most synonymous with is that of John McClane in the Die Hard franchise. Using the Nakatomi Plaza as his own personal destruction derby, Willis took down Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his terrorist buddies in a glorious fashion. The mega success of the original along with the subsequent sequels, placed Bruce right up there with his contemporaries (and Planet Hollywood partners) of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Over the years Bruce has been racking up the action star points with roles in The Last Boy Scout, The Fifth Element, Armageddon, and RED. His versatility and business savvy has enabled him to change and thrive with the action trends.
2. SYLVESTER STALLONE
If action movies had their own Mount Rushmore, Sly would certainly have his spot secured as one of the four faces. This man was put on this planet to blow stuff up and fire big guns while yelling like a madman. He’s that tough, man’s man that your father and grandfather would sit through an entire movie marathon for. We know what he’s done in a boxing ring but he’s reached legendary action movie status for being an indestructible solider, as well as being that anti-hero that often steps over the edge for justice.
Rambo started out as a character that was a casualty of war and a symbol of the Vietnam War, that quickly morphed into a poster child of an American strength, right next to Superman and the bald eagle. Stallone’s John Rambo became the standard by which all other action hero characters are compared to. He’s literally destroyed armies by himself and prompted little children to ask Santa for toy machine guns in the ‘1980s.
During that decade, fans were guaranteed a Stallone movie every year including cult favorites like Cobra and Tango & Cash. He flexed his action muscles in the ‘90s with films like Cliffhanger, Demolition Man and Assassins. While his glory days are behind him, as we’ve seen with The Expendables, Sly’s still got it!
1. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER
“Remember Sully when I promised to kill you last? I lied.” As John Matrix in the testosterone fueled Commando, Arnold Schwarzenegger uttered those final words to David Patrick Kelly (Sully) seconds before dropping him over a cliff. That quote may not be as known as other’s in Arnold’s collection but it served as an example that the man was great at making threats in his action films.
Taking our top spot is the Austrian legend that went from being Mr. Olympia to becoming a professional ass-kicker on the big screen. A man of his massive size with that thick of an accent shouldn’t have been the international action star that he was, but he proved all the naysayers wrong, doing it better than anyone. There’s nothing in the action genre he hasn’t done. It doesn’t matter if he’s fighting on Earth, in space, in the future or in world of fantasy and magic, Arnold was always in hero mode.
No Arnold movie is the same. More than any other action star, he’s created a varied list of loved characters and movies that stand on their own, offering a different layer to the man. There’s Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Predator, Total Recall and True Lies. And those are just the top tier! In his prime he was a real-life superhero, disposing bad guys and aliens while dropping some awesome one-liners.
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