In a moviegoing landscape dominated by superheroes and space-farers, it seemed unlikely that an ultraviolent R-rated action thriller about an ex-hitman killing lots and lots of people would kickstart one of the 21st century’s most lucrative franchises.
But thanks to the visceral direction by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, breathtaking stunt choreography and “gun fu,” and of course, a compelling lead performance by the immortal Keanu Reeves, that was exactly the case with John Wick. Its quick pace and non-stop action make for unparalleled entertainment. So, here are 10 fast-paced action thrillers to watch if you like the John Wick franchise.
12 Léon: The Professional (1994)
Written and directed by the great Luc Besson, Léon: The Professional stars Jean Reno as a contract killer named Léon and a young Natalie Portman as Mathilda, the 12-year-old orphan he takes under his wing after a corrupt DEA agent kills her family.
Said DEA agent, Norman Stansfield, played by Gary Oldman, is one of the most memorable villains in film history. Léon and Mathilda form a strange kind of bond as the former reluctantly teaches the latter to kill for a living, and their relationship keeps all the action anchored by a strong emotional core. All in all, the movie is fantastic.
11 Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
Christopher McQuarrie became the first director in the history of the Mission: Impossible franchise to return for a second film when he helmed Fallout last year, having made Rogue Nation a couple of years earlier (and he recently signed on to direct the seventh and eighth movies back-to-back).
Very few action movie franchises feel as fresh and brilliant in their sixth entry as the Mission: Impossible series did when Fallout hit theaters. With Tom Cruise pushing himself to do bigger and more daring stunts than ever and Henry Cavill joining the cast as the butt-kicking August Walker, Fallout is the boldest, grandest, most visceral Mission: Impossible movie to date.
9 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller’s belated revival of the Mad Max franchise, 2015’s Fury Road, is basically a feature-length car chase. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the villainous Immortan Joe rules over the last remaining natural resources with an iron fist. One of his generals, Furiosa – played spectacularly by Charlize Theron – liberates his enslaved wives and takes off down the titular road to take them to a safe haven.
Along the way, as Joe and his goons relentlessly pursue them, they’re joined by Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy). Miller made fantastic use of practical effects, using CGI sparingly, to make Mad Max: Fury Road a breathtaking, cinematic ride.
8 Dredd (2012)
Just as blunt, grisly, and ultraviolent as the 2000 AD comics it’s based on, Dredd is a non-stop thrill-ride. Set in a police state in a dystopian future where law enforcement officers have no rules to abide by besides their own judgment, Dredd is a comment on autocracy. The lead character, Judge Dredd, played by a wonderfully stern-faced Karl Urban, is joined by a young, inexperienced rookie, Judge Anderson, played by audience surrogate Olivia Thirlby, as they take down a drug empire operating in an apartment building.
The violence in Dredd plays like a satirical opera, shot in super slow-motion with saturated colors to reflect the euphoria of the drug users.
7 Hard Boiled (1992)
Directed by the great John Woo, the founding father of “gun fu,” Hard Boiled is a Hong Kong action thriller about a hard-as-nails cop teaming up with an undercover agent to take down a crime syndicate.
Woo penned the plot outline for the film that Barry Wong expanded into a full-length screenplay (although Wong died during production, after which the script was tweaked a bunch of times), and specifically designed it to both tell an incredible story and pack in as much action as possible. The movie’s lead character, Tequila Yuen, portrayed by Chow Yun-fat, is a veritable badass. He gave action cinema many of its coolest hallmarks, like diving through the air whilst firing two guns at once (see above).
5 Kill Bill (2003-2004)
Despite releasing it in two separate parts, Quentin Tarantino considers his martial arts opus Kill Bill to be one movie. It’s probably the slowest-paced film on this list, but the action scenes are just as long and drawn-out and meticulously crafted down to the last detail as the dialogue scenes, so it works out pretty well.
Uma Thurman stars as the Bride, an ex-assassin whose old crew kill her fiancé and everyone she loves and leave her for dead to prevent her from getting a clean break from the business of killing. What follows is a blood-soaked rampage of revenge.
4 A History of Violence (2005)
David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is technically a comic book movie, but not in the traditional sense. There are no capes or aliens or sky-beams, but there is a reluctant hero who discovers powers he didn’t know he had.
Viggo Mortensen stars as a mild-mannered diner owner whose forgotten, dormant experiences as a gangster in Philadelphia is reawakened one fateful night when a couple of guys try to stick up his business. The movie is a multi-layered lasagna of meaning, using violence to both entertain the audience and make them think about its place in our society and our history.
3 Atomic Blonde (2017)
Charlize Theron worked behind the scenes to get this adaptation of the graphic novel The Coldest City made right. It’s an action-packed neo-noir set during the Cold War, right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The plot revolves around a list of secret agents, but it’s not really about the list. The list is simply a classic Hitchcockian MacGuffin, which is to say, one that the audience isn’t expected to care about and is only there to get the characters from one action set piece to the next.
Atomic Blonde was helmed by John Wick’s uncredited co-director David Leitch, who handled the fight scenes with just as much grace and rhythm and ferocity as those from his earlier film.
2 Taken (2008)
Taken revitalized Liam Neeson’s career in very much the same way that John Wick revitalized Keanu Reeves’ career. Prior to showing off his “very particular set of skills” in Taken and birthing the “geriaction” subgenre of action cinema, Neeson was a respected dramatic actor known for historical roles like Oskar Schindler and Rob Roy.
Now, he struggles to grab audiences’ attention unless he’s holding a gun. In Taken, the first (and still the best) of his action movies, Neeson plays Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA agent whose daughter is kidnapped while vacationing in Paris. Of course, that was a big mistake, because now, Mills is coming for them.
1 The Raid (2011)
Gareth Evans’ gut-wrenching thrill-ride The Raid has a deceptively simplistic premise. It begins with a cop leaving his family behind to join a tactical squad in taking down a crime lord operating out of an apartment building. As soon as the team enters that building, it’s all-action.
The fight choreography is spectacular, the set pieces are almost unbearably intense, and the conflict builds expertly throughout the film. For example, in one scene, the lead is trapped in a wall, and a gangster randomly jams a machete in and out of the wall, and he has to both stay quiet and avoid the blade.