James Cameron may have made a name for himself as a filmmaker, but his hobbies go far beyond cinema. And those interests are infused throughout his entire filmography, which is full of action movies. Cameron is first and foremost an innovator, but his state-of-the-art computer technology is a necessary tool, not a crutch. Cameron grounds his action with likable, everyday people who end up in extraordinary circumstances. So, the hard-hitting action is both relatable and visually stunning. Spoiler warning! Let’s take on the daunting task of ranking James Cameron’s best action sequences, which are some of the best of all time.
10 The Titanic Sinks
In typical Cameron fashion, Titanic is a pretty long movie. And it goes out of its way to establish the newest theories about the infamous disaster. But the majority of the film is actually a romance. The protagonists’ young love possibly includes every trope in the book. For example, the separation of class is a familiar obstacle. But overall, the sentimentality is sweet and fun, thanks to Cameron’s sharp writing. Also, the lead actors have undeniable chemistry and talent. By the time tragedy strikes, it’s surprising how well orchestrated the chaos is. Cameron establishes a foot chase due to Billy Zane’s jealous character. And the sinking of the ship is absolutely terrifying, even if you aren’t already rooting for Jack and Rose. The escalation is paced very well, and the camera allows uniquely thrilling points of view.
9 The Storm
James Cameron is known to have a longtime fascination with the sea, and its depths. He has personally undertaken missions to go as deep as possible. So it’s no surprise that his passion project, The Abyss, is all about deep-sea diving and its mysteries.
When a powerful storm knocks out a cable crane, the drilling crew ends up sinking to the depths. The sound effects and claustrophobia make the entire sequence very immersive. When the rig is flooded, the characters’ race for safety is truly exciting, and results in several deaths. In the middle of the tension, Cameron even works in some humor, with Ed Harris’ wedding ring. The scene is very well-paced and visually compelling.
8 The Jet
True Lies is probably one of the weaker James Cameron films, but it’s still a great time. The movie has its cake and eats it too. It basks in the absurdity and lightheartedness of classic Bond films, and playfully ribs them too. Arnold doesn’t feel quite right for the part, but Jamie Lee Curtis delivers. And Bill Paxton absolutely steals the show as a sleazy womanizer. However, once Arnold gets into the action, he can always sell that.
The hotel chase with a horse is outrageously fun, but the movie’s finale is absolutely bonkers. Arnold pilots a jet, and proceeds to shred up an office building. Then, he tries to hover underneath his daughter, who’s dangling from a crane. It’s just as good as any Bond opening, if not better. The CGI may not be up to par, but it’s a remarkable rush of unhinged adrenaline.
7 The War For Pandora
Avatar is often criticized for essentially being a fireworks show. It wears its messages on its sleeve, and Cameron’s dialogue isn’t quite as organic or witty as usual. However, it’s a very entertaining popcorn film. Its groundbreaking technology is still awe-inspiring, a decade later. The world of Pandora feels lived in, with interesting creatures and fun world-building. Although Cameron’s themes are blatant and familiar, they’re still technically important. And the movie’s finale is absolutely jaw-dropping. It combines an aerial battle, ground assault, and finishes with a one-on-one against the villain. Cameron literally makes use of every ingredient on the planet. It’s an incredible payoff, a lengthy confrontation with plenty of death. It’s a CGI extravaganza that’s only been rivaled by Avengers: Endgame.
6 I’ll Be Back
The Terminator is an all-time classic movie, not just a superb genre film. All the elements of horror, science-fiction, comedy, and romance still hold up to this day. The special effects wizardry of Stan Winston is absolutely iconic, and timeless. His T-800 is promised to be an unstoppable force, and the police station shootout truly delivers on that. The scene begins with “I’ll Be Back”, one of the most iconic one-liners of all time.
Then, the safest place one can imagine—a police station—is absolutely decimated. It’s a clever way to show impressive force. Dozens of armed officers are shredded, even after successfully hitting the T-800. Characters we’ve come to like are killed, and Reese barely helps Sarah escape. It’s a terrific combination of overwhelming gunplay and horror.
5 Fleeing The Motel
This is the big finale in The Terminator—a massive action set piece for a movie with that budget. Since we’ve already had a car chase in the movie, it was wise to escalate the way Cameron always can. In the tunnel, Reese’s many homemade explosives finally come into play. When Reese is injured, Sarah manages to throw the T-800 off its motorcycle. This leads into that fantastic “get out” moment, and allows the audience to breathe. That’s when the Terminator gets its hands on the largest vehicle possible, which they always do. It’s a tremendous exercise in pacing, camerawork, budgeting, and effects. Arnold’s half-cyborg face looks most convincing in these scenes. It’s a brisk, creative sequence that effectively sets up the stalking horror at the end.
4 The Marines Are Ambushed
Aliens is a structurally perfect movie, which still spends the first forty-five minutes attaching you to Ripley. As if you weren’t already a fan of the first film. But that reputation is what drives this sequel. Ripley is traumatized, and now an entire colony is at risk. So, by the time the marines first investigate the shake-and-bake colony, the suspense has been seriously cranked up. First, the marines discover Newt, a red herring. Then, the setting forces them to disarm.
The chaos that ensues is absolutely enthralling. The panic of the soldiers, the abrupt deaths, and claustrophobic setting drive constant tension. All the while, the man in charge is a rookie, and quickly loses control. That’s when Ripley commands one of the greatest on-screen vehicles, and rescues what’s left of the marines. It’s a pure blend of horror and action, including the best elements of both.
3 The Xenomorphs Breach
For all of his whining and cowardice, Hudson goes out with redeeming bravery. The suspense of this scene really helps pay off the big finale of Aliens. Engulfed in red lighting, the trapped characters slowly realize the Xenomorphs have found a way in. The motion tracker's increasing warning is like a panicking heartbeat. And then, the Xenomorphs chase everyone out of the room, with utter chaos.
Hudson is taken out, Vasquez flaunts her grenade launcher, and Ripley fires her weapon for the first time. Burke locks in Ripley and Newt, but finally meets his own demise. Then, Newt leads everyone through a ventilation system. The claustrophobia of that chase is overwhelming, as the survivors try to fire back in the cramped passage. Combined with a perfect score, everything comes to a head when Vasquez triggers her explosion. It takes out the enemy, but also separates Newt from Ripley and Hicks. This adds a personal touch to the action, which was already another perfect blend of action and horror. Losing nearly every character we’ve come to like is difficult, but it effectively ramps up the stakes.
2 Escaping The Galleria
If there’s one thing James Cameron can visualize, it’s an unstoppable force. No matter what manifestation that may take. First, there’s a surprising win at the Galleria for Robert Patrick in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The T-1000's liquid metal concept was also established, revolutionary in and of itself. And then, Cameron delivers one of the best chases of all time. John makes it to his little dirt bike, with the T-1000 in pursuit, driving a massive truck. They speed through a unique setting, with a terrific score. Arnold catches up on a motorcycle, adding an element to the chase wherein a hero has to catch the villain. That generally makes for the best kind of pursuit. The only way to temporarily hinder the T-1000 is to blow up the entire truck he’s driving. It’s a tour de force, full of great movement and distinctly practical stunts, which adds necessary heft.
1 Freeway To The Mill
This chase scene strongly indicates that James Cameron badly wanted to remake the original entry with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Just like the big finale of the first film, there’s a thrilling freeway chase right before the factory confrontation. But this time, the stunts are crazier and bigger. A brave pilot actually flew the helicopter under an overpass. It’s shocking to watch every single time. The T-1000 grows extra arms to continue piloting the chopper while it fires on the fleeing heroes, hitting Sarah. The action eventually ends up with a liquid nitrogen tanker truck. Arnold exits a moving vehicle to riddle the T-1000’s face with bullets, and crashes the truck. This unprecedented level of action leads into “hasta la vista, baby” at the factory. It’s a classic one-liner, a sequence full of daring practical stunts, and as much vehicular speed as gunplay.