Ask any film buff to name one of Hollywood’s top movie genres, and action is sure to come up. A perfect example of the mesmerizing escapism filmmakers can provide, action flicks thrill audiences with memorable heroes, terrifying villains, and thrilling sequences that illustrate why we go to the theater to see the spectacle on the biggest of screens. It’s hard to imagine the industry thriving if it weren’t for action movies, as they have been popular for generations of audiences.
From spies to cops to archeologists, there are plenty of action films that have entertained audiences and still inspire as much awe now as they did when they were initially released. But which ones stand out from the pack and can rank among the genre’s elite? We present Screen Rant’s 10 Best Action Movies Ever Made.
NOTE: Films are presented by order of year of release and are not ranked in any way.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
It’s hard to believe now, but when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were pitching Raiders of the Lost Ark, they had trouble getting a studio to buy in (even after the success of Jaws and Star Wars). Luckily, Paramount thought the project was a worthy investment, and audiences everywhere got a brand new action hero to add to the pantheon of greats: Indiana Jones. Using their love of 1930s and 1940s film serials as their guide, Spielberg and Lucas provided viewers with a fun and rousing adventure that delivered in more ways than one.
The film represents Spielberg at the height of his directorial powers, as the filmmaker crafted masterful action sequences that are still beloved to this day. Due to the practical nature of the stunts and camerawork, moments like Indy going under the truck and his battle by the plane went down in movie lore. All the action felt real and was soaked in suspense. In addition, the cast was top notch too. Harrison Ford was obviously the right choice for the lead, but his co-stars weren’t slouches either. Paul Freeman and Ronald Lacey made for captivating villains we loved to hate, while the feisty Karen Allen and jolly John Rhys-Davies proved to be fine allies for the journey.
First Blood (1982)
Already with Rocky Balboa under his belt, Sylvester Stallone added another iconic character to his filmography when he took on the role of John Rambo for the action/thriller First Blood. In the film, Rambo is a Vietnam veteran trying to get acclimated back into society. Roaming through town, he is accused of being a “drifter” by the pushy sherif Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) and is subjected to unwarranted abuse. Triggering violent flashbacks of his time in the war, Rambo fights back for his life and freedom against the town’s authorities.
Featuring one of Stallone’s finest dramatic performances (his last scene is gut-wrenching), First Blood was very raw and authentic, especially compared to the over-the-top sequels that it spawned. A high-profile film that dealt with the severe aftereffects of fighting in Vietnam, the movie’s screenplay operated as a nice bit of social commentary, illustrating the advances we still had to make in our society when it came to the treatment of our military’s veterans. That strong substance complemented the thrilling action audiences could really care about, giving this franchise humble and appreciated beginnings.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
One of the best sub genres of action is the “buddy cop,” and this Richard Donner film is one of the finest example of how to do the formula right. Even more so than the action sequences, the characters is what set this film apart from the rest (including its many imitators). Thanks to the irresistible pairing of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Riggs and Murtaugh went down as one of action’s greatest duos. The dynamic between the loose cannon Riggs and by-the-books family man Murtaugh was interesting to watch and added moment of tension even when they weren’t trying to solve their case.
Lethal Weapon is also noteworthy for its powerful themes of the importance of friendship. The film is fun to watch, so it’s easy to forget that Riggs has some dark demons he’s trying to confront, contemplating suicide when we first meet him. Seeing the relationship between the two cops develop over the movie’s running time is arguably its most rewarding aspect, as it pays off with a heartwarming ending (the symbolic gesture of giving Murtaugh the bullet as a gift) that was the perfect exclamation point for a thrilling ride that never gets too old for us to take over and over again.
Die Hard (1988)
Perhaps the finest pure action film ever put to camera, the original Die Hard is a classic of cinema that still holds up more than 25 years after its release. Though the story is pretty simple (John McClane (Bruce Willis) must defeat an army of German terrorists attacking Nakatomi Plaza), it was groundbreaking nonetheless. One of its more notable aspects is its painting of McClane as a vulnerable action hero. Compared to his contemporaries like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Willis was an everyman protagonist we could all relate to. Every hit he took drained something from him – to the point where he wasn’t sure if he was going to get out of the building alive.
We’d be remiss to not mention Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), one of the best villains the genre has seen. At times classy, sophisticated, and terrifying, the leader of the merry band of thieves was the ideal foil to McClane’s All-American “cowboy” persona. These iconic characters added great amounts of heft to the number of legendary sequences director John McTiernan came up with (elevator shaft, shooting the glass, etc.), making Die Hard a necessary piece of viewing on Christmas Eve for any movie fan.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Director James Cameron upped the ante considerably when he returned to the world of Skynet and made what is considered one of the greatest sequels of all-time. Always one to push the boundaries of filmmaking, Cameron’s film was a watershed moment for Hollywood special effects, pioneering CGI technology that would go on to become a staple of the industry in the decades since. The T-1000 (Robert Patrick) was a mind-blowing creation, seamlessly shifting shapes to give the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and John Connor (Edward Furlong) a suitable foe as they looked to stop Judgment Day from happening. The nail biting chase sequences pushed things to the next level.
Technical innovations aside, the primary reason Terminator 2 is so beloved by many is the emotional story that it told. “There is no fate but what we make” is a great theme to run with, but the father/son relationship that formed between John and the T-800 was even more powerful. The two shared a special bond throughout their adventure and learned a lot from their brief time together. It’s hard not to shed a tear whenever Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) lowers the T-800 into the steel and the “killing machine” gives a well-timed and meaningful thumbs up to let John know everything will be all right.
Point Break (1991)
Kathryn Bigelow’s adrenaline filled and action packed thriller is noteworthy for several reasons. Introducing moviegoers to new action star Keanu Reeves, the film brilliantly paired the laid back actor with the charismatic Patrick Swayze, creating a fascinating dynamic between their characters Johnny Utah and Bodhi. Their relationship is one of the driving forces of the movie, giving Point Break some nice substance to compliment the action scenes. As Johnny got deeper and deeper into the world of surfing, his budding friendship with Bodhi was the source of dramatic tension, with the undercover cop’s actions being called into question.
But as an action film first and foremost, Bigelow had to deliver in that department – and she did in spades. Moments like Utah’s foot chase with Bodhi and when Johnny jumps out of an airplane without a parachute are filled with suspense, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats as they wait for what happens next. The craftsmanship on display cemented Bigelow’s status as one of the premiere action directors, setting the stage for awards-friendly nail biters like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. If you want to know why this year’s Point Break remake is so maligned as it heads to theaters, take the original for a spin one night.
Bad Boys (1995)
These days, the name Michael Bay inspires dread in the hearts of many moviegoers, but his career got off to an exciting start with this buddy cop action/comedy. Starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, the pairing blew audiences away with their funny banter and great chemistry. Not only was it groundbreaking to see two black cops take center stage in a film like this, Bad Boys further subverted genre expectations with the film’s set-up. Much of the comedy comes from the suave playboy Mike Lowrey (Smith) and married family man Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) having to impersonate each other, flipping their roles and trying to adjust to different lifestyles.
Bad Boys was also Bay’s first foray into the realm of feature-length filmmaking, and he immediately put his stamp on the project and introduced audiences to his brand of action. Though not as outlandish as some of the films that would follow, early on in his directing days, Bay already had a firm grasp on slick visual designs, and his ability to helm big-scale action sequences was unparalleled. Yes, some criticized Bad Boys for being more style than substance, but that didn’t stop it from being entertaining to watch. Is it any wonder why people are foaming at the mouth for a third go-around with this crew?
The Matrix (1999)
Equal parts creative and revolutionary, the Wachowskis delivered one of Hollywood’s defining examples of sci-fi filmmaking with The Matrix. It’s been parodied to death in the years since its release, but the “bullet time” effects the film introduced are still as jaw-dropping to watch now as they were when viewers first saw them. The technology allowed the filmmakers to push boundaries and break action movie conventions, as heroes could dodge bullets and bounce off of walls as they fought against their foes. Smartly incorporating the rules of the computer program at the film’s heart, The Matrix was able to give us something we’ve never seen before.
But all that slick action would have been superficial if it wasn’t for the heady story that really made the film what it was. An interesting take on the hero’s journey archetype, The Matrix was wholly original, filled with concepts and ideas that instantly became a part of cinematic lore. Not only that, the actors were at the top of their games. Keanu Reeves proved to be the best choice for Neo, and thespians like Hugo Weaving and Laurence Fisburne were there to lend a helping hand of gravitas to the project. If only the sequels could have been as awe-inspiring.
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
One of the defining film series of the 2000s, the Jason Bourne franchise definitely ranks among the genre’s elite. One of the few instances where a series gets better as it goes along, star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass reached new heights with this third installment. Further developing his mastery of the “shaky cam” aesthetic, Greengrass proved that the controversial technique could genuinely be an art form, immersing viewers in heart-racing action. The director also made sure to incorporate real, practical stunts into the proceedings, giving us tense fight scenes that hit home with every punch. We’re still stunned every time we see Bourne battle Desh (Joey Ansah).
Like so many other entries on our list, what really elevates Bourne Ultimatum to the top is the sheer amount of substance that Greengrass unpacked to make the film interesting as well as exciting. Learning more about Bourne’s past was a compelling angle to explore, giving the movie some serious dramatic heft. It also didn’t hurt that the cast was in terrific form. Returning players like Damon, Joan Allen, and Julia Stiles added layers to their characters with compelling and honest performances. Plus, David Strathairn’s slimy Noah Vosen was one of the franchise’s best villains. Audiences can’t wait to see Damon return to the series, and this film is a big reason why.
The Raid: Redemption (2012)
In an age of overused CGI and over-the-top action scenes that dip into implausibility, The Raid was there to show action filmmakers how it’s done. A breath of fresh air when it was released, director Gareth Evans combined the sheer awesomeness of Indonesian martial arts style Pencak Silat with revolutionary camerawork that made viewers a part of the action. His techniques behind the camera allowed him to craft one of the best made action movies (from a directorial perspective) in recent memory, as it relied more on practical stunt work than anything else. That’s what made it so groundbreaking.
Evans also blended genres to great effect, ramping up the tension throughout the film’s running time by mixing in elements of a survival horror flick. There was danger at every turn, and audiences never left the edge of their seats because of it. Also, the villains in The Raid rival the most notorious evildoers that Hollywood concocts these days, making the proceedings tense and very ominous. There’s a reason why so many people are down on the proposed English language remake. This film is so good, it’ll be hard to top it.
There are so many action classics to pick from, that we couldn’t fit them all on the proper list. Here are a few honorable mentions that just missed the cut:
- Any James Bond film: with so many iterations of the famous spy, it’s hard to single out one as the “best,” since they’re all so different. Goldfinger and Casino Royale (pictured) rank among the top.
- The Rock: One of Michael Bay’s finest with entertaining turns by Nic Cage and Sean Connery
- True Lies: Not the most iconic James Cameron/Arnold Schwarzenegger collaboration, but a humorous spy spoof/thriller that delivered spectacle
- Top Gun: Audiences got the need for speed in Tom Cruise’s breakthrough action role, and the Navy recruiting numbers skyrocketed as a result
As always, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to share your favorite action movies in the comments below. And be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to catch more fun videos.