While actors like Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger may seem like the prototypical action stars, time has proven that big-screen heroes often come from the unlikeliest of places. In fact, some of the most popular and influential action heroes buck convention to offer a new and surprising take on the kinds of stars that populate these crowd-pleasing films.
We take a look back at some of the most memorable characters in action movies and the actors and actresses who took audiences by surprise with just how well they nailed the part. For our ranking, we’re taking into account the effectiveness of the performance, the level of surprise inherent in the casting and the impact the role has had on both the career of the performer as well as the industry itself.
Here are 15 Actors Who Did Surprisingly Well in Action Roles.
15. Liam Neeson, Taken (2008)
Liam Neeson was no stranger to action films when he took on the role of Bryan Mills in this Pierre Morel-directed thriller. Darkman, Batman Begins and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace were just a few of the actor’s past adventures, but for the most part, few considered Neeson an action star, thanks largely to his stellar dramatic work in films like Schindler’s List and Michael Collins.
However, Taken changed all that, marking something of a new beginning for his career. The film became one of Neeson’s biggest hits and developed into a franchise of its own, but even more impressively, its release transformed the actor into a full-fledged action icon in his late 50s. Since Taken, he has worked almost exclusively within the action thriller genre, including hits like Non-Stop and Unknown.
14. Milla Jovovich, Resident Evil (2002)
Resident Evil may be one of the few video game series to develop into a reliable big-screen franchise, but it also launched star Milla Jovovich into the pantheon of female action heroes. A supermodel best known for her scene-stealing roles in films like The Fifth Element and Zoolander, the actress wouldn’t become a household name until she inhabited the role of Alice in the first Resident Evil film more than a decade after her big-screen debut.
While Jovovich has continued to headline the series through all five installments – and is set to return for the sixth (and purportedly final) entry in 2017 – Resident Evil helped her to build a film career around her newfound action star status. She subsequently starred in other action films Ultraviolet, A Perfect Getaway and The Three Musketeers, though none of her film work has managed to capture the enduring appeal of Resident Evil.
13. Will Smith, Bad Boys (1995)
Considering that Will Smith has since become one of the most successful movie stars of all time, it’s difficult to imagine a time when he wasn’t a mainstay on the big screen. Yet, this Michael Bay film marked his first leading role, following his breakthrough supporting turn in 1993 drama Six Degrees of Separation. At the time, Smith was better known for the lovable goofball persona featured in his music and his NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Bad Boys proved that the fun-loving Smith could be a credible big-screen badass, and in fact, the actor played the smoother, tougher half of the film’s central duo opposite a neurotic Martin Lawrence. The following year, Smith followed up his performance as Mike Lowrey with an even more crowd-pleasing appearance in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. The rest, as they say, is cinema history.
12. Kate Beckinsale, Underworld (2003)
Kate Beckinsale made her film debut in the 1993 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, and the actress followed that role with a string of period dramas before ultimately crossing into the Hollywood mainstream with Pearl Harbor and Serendipity in 2001. However, it was her 2003 debut as the vampire warrior Selene in Underworld that made her a true star.
Shifting dramatically from her more subdued film work to date, Beckinsale brought poise, grace and power to the role, which she has reprised in three sequels. In addition, the actress has lent her action star status to films like Van Helsing, Whiteout and the 2012 reboot of Total Recall, interspersing these roles with appearances in smaller dramas as well. Beckinsale is set to play Selene once again in Underworld: Next Generation, set for release this fall.
11. Michael Cera, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
When one thinks of onscreen tough guys, Michael Cera is probably not the first person to come to mind. Yet, the charmingly awkward star of Juno and Superbad is just that in this underrated film adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s cult comic book series. Cera stars as the titular slacker/bassist, who must face off against the seven past loves of current flame Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
The film itself is a wonderful blend of rapid-fire humor and over-the-top action, and it’s all anchored by Cera’s performance as the unlikely warrior at the center of it all. While the actor does bring that same nebbish quality to the role that he is known for, his Scott Pilgrim is believable as a powerful fighter within the context of the video game-inspired world the film creates. It’s a credit to Edgar Wright’s pitch-perfect direction and Cera’s own specific skills.
10. Keanu Reeves, Point Break (1991)
The Matrix. Speed. John Wick. Nowadays, Keanu Reeves is synonymous with some of the best action films of the last couple of decades, but when Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller hit theaters, the actor was still perhaps best known as the dumbfounded brunette half of the time-traveling duo in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Playing undercover FBI Agent Johnny Utah then was a notable change of pace, creating the possibility for Reeves to take on more physical roles.
Opposite Patrick Swayze’s enigmatic Bodhi, Reeves proved that he wasn’t limited strictly to comedy. Moreover, Point Break instilled faith in critics and audiences alike that the charm he brings to his light-hearted projects could actually prove to be an asset in the right context. An idealistic FBI agent, after all, might face some of the same frustrated or awestruck moments as a hacker who realizes he may be mankind’s savior or a cop who finds himself in over his head aboard a speeding bus.
9. Linda Hamilton, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi thriller The Terminator delivered a memorable leading lady in Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. However, as great as the character was in that film, she was restricted largely to running away from her cybernetic attacker (Arnold Schwarzenegger). In its sequel though, Cameron subverted expectations by turning Sarah Connor from a target into a survivor.
Hamilton worked out extensively to play this new version of her original character, and psychologically, she embodied the role of a woman burdened with knowledge of humanity’s impending doom. In the process, T2‘s Sarah Connor became one of the most unforgettable female action heroes of all time. The way in which she is transformed from its predecessor is indicative of how Cameron’s sequel brilliantly subverts expectation, setting a new bar for the franchise that has still never been met even 25 years later.
8. Chloe Grace Moretz, Kick-Ass (2010)
Based on the title by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., Kick-Ass still stands as one of the most popular R-rated comic book films to date. The film’s self-referential tone and more realistic take on superheroes nicely foreshadowed the recent success of Deadpool, but without a doubt, one of its most surprising elements was the scene-stealing Hit-Girl, as played by Chloe Grace Moretz (Let Me In, The 5th Wave).
Moretz was only 13 years old when the film was released, and her foulmouthed, ultra-violent vigilante was certainly the juiciest role the young actress had taken on up to that point. Since then, she has been busier than ever before, popping up in countless films across all genres and reprising her signature role in the 2014 release Kick-Ass 2. Still, it all started with the initial shock value and surprising badassery she displayed as a child in Matthew Vaughn’s film.
7. Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The thought of funnyman Chris Pratt – then known best for his role as dopey Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation – leading a team of anti-heroes in a film version of this Marvel Comics title must have seemed ridiculous to some. Once Pratt showed off his Indiana Jones-style charm and adventurous spirit in the film’s marketing materials, however, all doubt soon disappeared.
As Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star Lord), Pratt proves that he was born to be a movie star. His comic timing and newly sculpted physique (which first made a supporting appearance in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty) positioned him as a fan-favorite character worthy of standing beside Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in a future Marvel film (more on him later). In addition, the film’s surprisingly massive box office haul launched Pratt directly onto the A-list, a status confirmed by his similarly successful role in Jurassic World.
6. Helen Mirren, RED (2010)
Oscar winner Helen Mirren is one of the most respected actresses working today, and whenever she shows up in a film, audiences instantly know they’re in for something special. Even so, few moviegoers expect the revered Mirren to whip up a gun and start blasting away. Alongside co-stars Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich, the actress had a blast as retired CIA agent Victoria Winslow.
Mirren hasn’t really tapped into the action genre much since shocking audiences with her gunplay in RED (aside from reprising her role in the 2013 sequel, that is). However, the novelty of seeing the usually subdued performer let loose in a film like this isn’t one that will likely fade with time. In fact, Mirren’s appearance here is one of the few elements of RED that elevates the film.
5. Sigourney Weaver, Aliens (1986)
Much like the Terminator franchise’s Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley is a character that undergoes a significant evolution from her introduction to her sophomore appearance, a fitting comparison, seeing as James Cameron directed both the first two Terminator films as well as this sequel. In Ridley Scott’s Alien, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was a powerful officer and ultimately emerges as the sole survivor of the Nostromo‘s mission, triumphing over the xenomorph that dispatches her crewmates.
Yet the sequel sees Ripley become a much more imposing figure. Awaking from stasis after 57 years, she is fiercer and more confident than ever before as she fights hordes of xenomorphs, including the queen herself, and becomes the maternal protector of young Newt (Carrie Henn). The film features an ensemble cast – including Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Paul Reiser and Lance Henriksen – but none of the character’s have had the lasting impact of Ripley, who stands among the all-time greatest female action heroes.
4. Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man (2008)
During the late 1980s/early 1990s, Robert Downey Jr. was a promising young star with a bright future and an Oscar nomination (for 1992 biopic Chaplin) under his belt. Unfortunately, his personal problems interfered with his talent, and Downey was forced to prove himself worthy of the spotlight once more. Despite his proven versatility, however, few expected him to help launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe with his now-iconic interpretation of Tony Stark in director Jon Favreau’s Iron Man.
Representing one of the best pairings between star and character, the casting of Downey as the sarcastic “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” was so strong that it skyrocketed his career to new heights, ushering in a series of reappearances in Marvel Studios films that would make the actor one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood. Moreover, Iron Man led to Downey earning a second Oscar nomination – this time for Tropic Thunder – and a lead in another action franchise with Guy Ritchie’s popular Sherlock Holmes films.
3. Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity (2002)
Courtesy of Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon became a go-to young dramatic star (Saving Private Ryan, The Talented Mr. Ripley), but it was Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity that turned his career towards more action-heavy roles. Until that point, Damon had yet to take on such a project, let alone that would require him to train for months to play the amnesiac hero.
Damon’s Bourne, of course, went on to headline an ongoing franchise based on the Robert Ludlum novels, and most critics and fans feel that the series improved when Paul Greengrass came on to direct the original’s first two sequels. As for Damon himself, he has since taken on roles in action thrillers like Green Zone (again with Greengrass), Elysium and The Adjustment Bureau, but none has had the success as the Bourne series. Luckily for fans, the actor returns to his most famous role this summer in Jason Bourne.
2. Uma Thurman, Kill Bill: Volumes One and Two (2003, 2004)
When Quentin Tarantino cast Uma Thurman in his “roaring rampage of revenge,” the actress herself was still best known for her Oscar-nominated role as Mia Wallace in the director’s own masterpiece Pulp Fiction. Naturally, moviegoers everywhere were excited to see what the pair would concoct next. Nevertheless, few expected Kill Bill – which was ultimately released as two separate volumes – to deliver as unforgettable a lead character as it does.
As The Bride a.k.a. Black Mamba a.k.a. Beatrix Kiddo, Thurman is as powerful a warrior as the screen has ever seen, an unstoppable force powered by pure rage and vengeance. Yet, in addition to that steely determination and ruthless precision, the actress imbues the character with a softer side that humanizes her in flashbacks and allows the audience to feel emotionally connected to her throughout every side of her epic journey. Thurman had yet to take on a role this action-heavy, and her acclaimed performance(s) in Kill Bill make The Bride one of Tarantino’s greatest creations to date.
1. Michael Keaton, Batman (1989)
It was the casting decision that sent shockwaves throughout the geek community before the Internet even existed. Just a few short years after Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns delivered what is widely considered one of the greatest Batman stories ever told, Tim Burton cast his Beetlejuice star Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader, and fans everywhere were outraged.
At the time, Keaton was largely recognized for his comedic work in films like Mr. Mom and as the “ghost with the most” in Burton’s aforementioned second film. So one can’t exactly blame the skeptics for failing to see how the actor could work as the tortured superhero. Looking back now, the actor remains an entire generation’s preferred version of the character, and his casting in Batman is still one of the most often cited whenever an unlikely candidate nabs a major role in a comic book film.
As the cinematic landscape continues to evolve, we hope to see even more stars surprise us with crowd-pleasing roles in action films. Naturally, those mentioned above are only a few of the actors and actresses so far to make moviegoers pause in their seats and take notice. We’re sure the years to come will bring more candidates for this list and can’t wait to see what the future holds for some of Hollywood’s finest.
Which actor or actress do you think fared surprisingly well in an action film? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.