It’s hard to imagine a list of the all-time best action movies that doesn’t include 1981’s rip-roaring Raiders of the Lost Ark near (or at) the very top. For that, blame the critics — or, more specifically, blame the four critics (out of 71) whose pans of the Steven Spielberg classic prevented it from landing in the upper echelons of Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the best action-adventure movies ever made.
To compound matters, there’s also the site’s loose definition of what constitutes “action.” Metropolis rests all the way up at number two, but can this brainy sci-fi classic really be designated as an action film? The 39 Steps, Yellow Submarine, The Seventh Seal — all great movies, but none that would best be classified as an action flick. (“Hey, did you ever see that great action film Yellow Submarine?”)
With that in mind, some of the more tenuous titles have been removed, but the site’s ranking by “Adjusted Score” (employing a weighted formula that takes into account the number of reviews a film has received) has been retained. With all caveats noted, here are Rotten Tomatoes’ 15 Highest Rated Action Movies Ever.
15. THE TERMINATOR
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 100%, with 56 reviews
Aliens just missed making this list, but James Cameron is nevertheless represented by his other science fiction classic from the 1980s.
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe 1984’s The Terminator only grossed $38 million during its original run and received reviews that, while largely favorable, were hardly raves (although TIME magazine was one of the very few media outlets savvy enough to include the film on its year-end “10 Best” list). But the movie found its sizable audience on video and sparked a franchise that continues to this day (although the less said about Terminator Genisys, the better).
With its iconic role for Arnold Schwarzenegger as a murderous cyborg, an excellent turn by Linda Hamilton as future resistance leader Sarah Connor, a slew of cutting-edge effects, and endlessly quotable quips, the propulsive action sequences almost become an afterthought in the face of so much excellence. And, yes, the rumor is true: Cameron considered O.J. Simpson for the role of the Terminator but ultimately felt audiences wouldn’t accept him since he was “too nice.”
14. STAR WARS
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 93%, with 104 reviews
The Empire Strikes Back may hold the highest rating of any Star Wars film on Rotten Tomatoes (94%, with 88 reviews), but the site’s adjusted scoring system places two other entries from the saga above it (see also #5).
The 1977 original is one of the pair that makes the cut, and that can hardly be deemed a surprise. Arriving in the midst of a decade in which science fiction cinema was largely being defined by fatalistic and futuristic tales (Soylent Green, The Omega Man, the Planet of the Apes sequels, etc.), Star Wars creator George Lucas instead looked to the past — not only for the setting of his story (“A long time ago…”) but also for his inspiration; adopting the fast-paced thrills and whiz-bang action of the Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s.
13. THE SEARCHERS
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 100%, with 41 reviews
John Ford’s The Searchers is generally considered the greatest Western ever made — even the American Film Institute, with its 2008 list of the Top 10 Westerns, placed the 1956 release in the number one slot.
It is indeed great, though not perfect: the comic relief is occasionally clumsy, and the humiliating treatment of the Native American woman Look (Beulah Archuletta) remains problematic. Otherwise, this is American moviemaking par excellence, with John Wayne cast in one of his defining roles. The Duke plays Ethan Edwards, a cowboy who wants revenge against the Comanches who slaughtered his brother and his family. Even more than vengeance, though, he wants the satisfaction of killing the one surviving family member, a teenage niece (Natalie Wood) who’s been “tainted” now that she’s been raised for several years by the Comanches.
Ford’s breathtaking visuals (the final shot is part of cinema lore), Wayne’s brilliant performance, and Max Steiner’s haunting score are merely three of the numerous attributes responsible for this picture’s lofty status.
12. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 97%, with 77 reviews
Steven Spielberg himself has frequently stated that David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is the movie that initially inspired him to become a filmmaker — and it’s hard to imagine a better recommendation than that.
The winner of seven 1962 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this opulent epic finds Peter O’Toole delivering an astonishing, star-making performance as British adventurer T.E. Lawrence, a World War I officer who becomes a hero to the Arab people for leading them in battle against the Turks. He finds allies in Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif, whose first appearance is unforgettable) and Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), but over time, his status diminishes as he’s overtaken by fatigue and his own demons.
Running nearly four hours in length (at least in the definitive cut that became widely available following a 1989 restoration), this intelligent epic features a tremendous score by Maurice Jarre as well as expansive battle scenes dazzlingly orchestrated by Lean.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 97%, with 74 reviews
It’s expected for filmmakers to mature over the course of a lengthy career, but most observers would be hard-pressed to declare that any subsequent Steven Spielberg flick (with maybe a couple of exceptions, like Saving Private Ryan) blows away 1975’s Jaws in regards to expert direction.
Entrusted with Peter Benchley’s gargantuan bestseller about a great white shark terrorizing a New England oceanfront community, Spielberg found himself working with extremely thin source material. And with only one other big-screen credit (1974’s The Sugarland Express) under his belt, the potential for disaster was enormous — even more so since the mechanical shark created for the film didn’t work most of the time.
The director, drawing from a screenplay (by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) that improved upon the book, ultimately fashioned an instant classic whose success owes as much to his superb orchestration of the thrilling set-pieces and shock sequences as it does to John Williams’ brilliant score and the knockout performances by Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss.
10. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 2
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 96%, with 310 reviews
Beginning as a magical mystery tour for kids and ending as a mature saga about solidarity and sacrifice, the Harry Potter film franchise maintained a high level of integrity and a commitment to quality throughout its 11-year run. These qualities are very much in evidence in 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, the eighth and final entry in the J.K. Rowling adaptations.
From the Quidditch matches to the Triwizard Tournament, action and excitement have always been mainstays of the Hogwarts-set saga. This concluding chapter follows suit, as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) continue to search for the Horcruxes that will allow them to possibly defeat Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). The climactic life-or-death match between Harry and Voldemort brings the whole series to a rousing conclusion — along the way, Radcliffe admirably holds nothing back in an ofttimes ferocious performance, while the late Alan Rickman remains a high point as he deftly handles the complex role of Severus Snape.
9. STAR TREK
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 95%, with 333 reviews
Or Star Trek Origins: Kirk, as this 2009 reboot of the venerable Gene Roddenberry property basically examines the early days of the franchise’s leading player, detailing the circumstances that defined him, first as a kid and then as a young adult. Yet J.J. Abrams and company also introduce a wild card in Romulan warrior Nero (an unrecognizable Eric Bana), whose nefarious actions lead to an alternate reality for the brash Kirk (Chris Pine), the brainy Spock (Zachary Quinto), the wisecracking Dr. McCoy (scene-stealing Karl Urban), the strong-willed Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and the other Enterprise occupants.
Fans will enjoy the inside references, yet since the movie is laced with plenty of humor and several exciting battles, it’s unlikely the uninitiated will find themselves bored. Abrams also peppers his film with many familiar names and faces, some of them fleeting. Then again, this casting seems to echo his whole approach to this revamped Star Trek: be playful, be unpredictable, and full speed ahead.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 93%, with 347 reviews
A global phenomenon, this 2012 entry in the 007 franchise finds James Bond (Daniel Craig) tangling with the enigmatic Silva (Javier Bardem), a mad, philosophical gent who vows to exact his revenge on MI6 head M (Judi Dench) for a betrayal he suffered in the past.
Skyfall accomplishes many things, all of them well. It introduces surprising new characters (including a gruff groundskeeper played by the great Albert Finney), reconfigures familiar roles from the past (e.g. Q, Moneypenny), provides in-jokes for series fans (a beloved car makes an appearance), and, most intriguingly, offers a measure of backstory for the agent with a license to kill.
While none of the action sequences can match that incredible parkour opening from 2006’s Casino Royale, neither do they disappoint, with some of the highlights including a battle atop a moving train, a shadowy skirmish in a skyscraper, and a roughhouse session involving an amusing cameo by a Komodo dragon.
7. THE DARK KNIGHT
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 94%, with 317 reviews
The middle entry in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster trilogy might be the first superhero movie that exudes a palpable sense of dread and menace that tugs at the nerves in a manner both disturbing and delightful. Even in other great comic book movies like, say, Deadpool or The Avengers, everything feels grounded in fantasy. No such safety net is offered with 2008’s The Dark Knight — it wears its danger on its sleeve.
Christian Bale, who often makes humorlessness look less like a performer’s choice and more like an established school of acting, builds on his Batman Begins characterization as his dour Batman/Bruce Wayne squares off against a villain who wants “to watch the world burn.” That would be the Joker, and in the role that posthumously won him an Oscar, Heath Ledger is simply mesmerizing as a whirling dervish of cackling, lip-smacking, cheek-sucking sin.
6. THE HURT LOCKER
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 98%, with 256 reviews
An Academy Award winner for Best Picture, 2009’s The Hurt Locker follows the three members of a bomb squad during the final remaining weeks of their tour of duty in 2004 Iraq.
Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is the leader of the outfit, a man as reckless as he is efficient when it comes to defusing bombs (it’s believed he holds the record in this unenviable category). Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, Renner’s fellow MCU star) is the most professional — that is to say, most stable — member of the team, anxious to get away from a job he despises. And Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is the young pup of the outfit, a clean-cut kid terrified that his life will soon get snuffed out.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and scripter Mark Boal (both earning Oscars for this film) follow the trio around as an on-screen marker counts down the number of days left in their rotation. Maximum suspense is not only derived from their individual encounters with specific bombs but also from the larger question of whether all — or any — of them will make it out alive.
5. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 92%, with 364 reviews
The second Star Wars flick to make this list begins working its magic with the first line, glimpsed in that now-iconic opening scrawl that rolls into the background: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” And with that, 2015’s The Force Awakens is off and running, with many familiar faces (Carrie Fisher, R.I.P.) being joined by a roster of exciting new figures.
These characters are indicative of the respect writer-director J.J. Abrams and co-scripters Lawrence Kasdan (who also co-penned The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Inside Out) pay toward the past, present, and future of the franchise. All of the story’s ties to previous movies are measured and make sense, and the kinetic energy also feels more of apiece with the original trilogy than with the prequels. That’s because Abrams has graciously patterned the look after the earlier trio, with many of the visuals created with models (as opposed to computers) and actual earthbound locations (as opposed to green screens).
4. SEVEN SAMURAI
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 100%, with 57 reviews
A fixture of world cinema, 1954’s Seven Samurai is merely one of seven movies directed by Akira Kurosawa that proudly sports a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Yet while some of the other titles — efforts like Sanjuro and The Hidden Fortress (incidentally, one of the primary inspirations for Star Wars) — contain their fair share of adrenaline-pumping action, Seven Samurai is the one most renowned for its incredible action sequences. It’s also significant for the number of technical and thematic elements that were assembled and improved upon by the fastidious filmmaker— the use of multiple cameras to shoot the same scene was fairly rare back in 1954.
Kurosawa’s first samurai film, as well as the favorite movie of star Toshiro Mifune, Seven Samurai has inspired countless motion pictures over the ensuing decades, from such acknowledged remakes as 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and its 2016 update to more diverse yarns like 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars and 1998’s A Bug’s Life.
3. THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 100%, with 45 reviews
“Welcome to Sherwood, Milady!”
Many cinematic Robin Hoods have come and gone, but none could ever touch Errol Flynn’s wondrous portrayal in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. He’s irresistible as Sir Robin of Lockwood, rallying his Merry Men to help him steal from the rich and — well, you know the routine. Olivia de Havilland is his romantic match as Maid Marian, while Claude Rains and especially Basil Rathbone (one of the most famous of all screen Sherlocks, along with this guy) provide the delicious villainy. Flynn’s climactic swordfight with Rathbone is particularly legendary.
An Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, this superb swashbuckler won Oscars in all other categories in which it was competing (Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score). An added bonus is the most vibrant use of Technicolor ever — viewers taking note of the lush forests and bright costumes might feel like Mel Brooks’ coked-out king in History of the World – Part I when he exclaims, “Everything is so green!”
2. KING KONG (1933)
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 98%, with 54 reviews
A gargantuan hit upon its original release and subsequent reissues, 1933’s King Kong goes beyond being a mere staple of film history. In much the same manner as The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life, this masterpiece about “The Eighth Wonder of the World” long ago entered into the national consciousness as an enduring part of our heritage.
This “beauty and the beast” variation about a great ape and the woman he loves (Fay Wray) is a passionate and brutal motion picture, and the pertinent themes that have been endlessly debated over the years — among them, a treatise on slavery as well as a look at raging sexuality — still make it a favorite among film scholars.
Under the auspices of producer-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, Willis O’Brien contributed extraordinary stop-motion effects that brought to life many classic sequences, including Kong’s destruction of a native village, his battles with prehistoric beasts, and his tragic last stand atop the Empire State Building.
1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 97%, with 357 reviews
In a post-apocalyptic future, road warrior Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) forges a testy relationship with warrior Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as they both take on savage ruler Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). That’s the central thrust of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the first film in the Mad Max series since the original trilogy (starring Mel Gibson) ended over 30 years ago.
This 2015 winner of an impressive six Oscars works as a standalone film, although it’d be a shame for anyone to miss the earlier installments in this powerhouse series. While the story’s feminist stance and progressive politics have only been enhanced in the frightfully brief time since its original release, it’s the breathtaking kinetic thrust that earns the picture its spot at the top of this list, with Miller relying more on physical feats of derring-do than he does on CGI. Yet it’s the vehicular action that towers above everything else — like the ones in Mad Max and The Road Warrior, they’re among the best car chases ever shot (and edited) for the cinema.
Fast and furious, this revolutionary Road is a solid two hours of maximum overdrive.
Do you agree with RT’s rankings? Let us know in the comments!
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