Our list of the 10 greatest action movies of all time. For more great video content and Top 10 movie lists, subscribe to our YouTube channel.
The action movie has been a classic Hollywood genre for almost a century, and is repsonsible for most of the highest-grossing movies ever made. We’ve covered all genres and decades to pull togeher our Top 10 list of the greatest action movies of all time.
10. Group/double act
What is it?
Starting us off at number 10, we’re taking a look at the action team. Whether a buddy duo or multi-member force to be reckoned with, classic film history is replete with team-based action movies.
An FBI agent and a former British spy team up to take on rogue marines in The Rock (1996). The IMF team avert a nuclear terrorist attack in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018). And an aging gang’s final bank robbery ends in fistfights and gunfire, in The Wild Bunch (1969).
Our first pick is from the pantheon of classic 80s action movies. From director Richard Donner, it’s Lethal Weapon (1987).
After two detectives – volatile, suicidal Riggs and controlled family man Murtaugh – are partnered – and clash – with one another, they uncover a drug trafficking ring and, in apprehending the criminals, form an unlikely bond.
From a screenplay by Shane Black, Lethal Weapon features the 80s prodigy’s hallmarks of a strong character dynamic, twisting narrative, razor sharp dialogue, and Christmas setting and its this, combined with superb practical effects work and iconic lead performances from Mel Gibson and Danny Glover , that allowed Donner to craft some of the decades most character-driven, engaging, and thrilling action set pieces.
Gibson and Glover’s most beloved work, the definitive buddy cop movie, and one of the best action pictures of the 80s.
9. Martial arts film
What is it?
At nine, we’re looking at martial arts films. A subgenre where hand-to-hand combat becomes a storytelling device, martial arts movies have given us classic movies from all over the world.
A rookie commando has to fight his way up a high-rise apartment building in The Raid (2011). The search for a stolen sword leads to a fury of fists and kicks in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). And in Enter The Dragon (1973), a kung fu master enters a fighting competition to find his sister’s killers.
We’re heading to a simulated reality for our winner, though. From Lana and Lily Wachowski, The Matrix (1999).
The classic simulated reality film, the Matrix tells the story of Neo and his journey from computer hacker Thomas Anderson to The One – the saviour of mankind.
A seminal slice of thought provoking sci fi back in 1999, the influence of The Matrix on action movies since is difficult to overstate. Featuring world class fight choreography from martial arts legend Yuen Woo Ping, groundbreaking visual effects in the bullet time sequences, and one of the most imitated gun shootouts in recent memory, The Matrix is a masterclass of action subgenre-blending that elevates the film to all-time great level. A cultural phenomenon on its release, an influence still seen in action films today, and a game-changing martial arts movie.
8. Classic Hollywood
What is it?
Thought of predominantly as a modern movie invention, action movies can actually be traced back almost one hundred years. Classic Hollywood has provided some iconic action films, and that’s where we’re going for 8th position.
In Goldfinger (1964), 007 foils a tycoon’s diabolical plan in one of the most action-packed James Bond outings. A team of criminals parachute across enemy lines on a top secret operation in The Dirty Dozen (1967). And a group of allied soldiers band together to escape a POW camp in The Great Escape (1963).
Our choice though, is taking us even further back. We’re in Sherwood Forest for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). When Prince John plots to overthrow King Richard, Sir Robin Locksley rounds up a band of men to stop the treasonous Prince.
Still the greatest big screen depiction of England’s legendary folk hero, The Adventures of Robin Hood is Hollywood swashbuckling at its finest. Director Michael Curtiz guides us expertly through a technicolour romp of a tale, Errol Fylnn is magnetic as the acrobatic, charming Robin and, in the adrenaline-pumping climax where our hero crosses blades with Basil Rathbone’s dastardly Sir Guy of Gisborne, Curtiz mapped out a blueprint for the next 70 years of action movies. The most influential sword fight ever filmed, the most entertaining version of an iconic character, and the greatest classic Hollywood action movie.
7. Superhero movie
What is it?
The biggest film genre in Hollywood this century is surely the superhero movie. Big on budget and spectacle by their very nature, the superhero film guarantees high octane action.
A team of superheroes join forces to save the world and define a generation in Avengers Assemble (2012). Peter Parker faces fading powers and an iconic 8-armed foe in Spider-Man 2 (2004). And, in Black Panther (2017), the King of Wakanda is forced to defend his country from a powerful new enemy.
Three Marvel comics titles there but, for our pick, we’re going for a DC icon. From director Christopher Nolan we’re in Gotham City for The Dark Knight (2008).
A year into fighting crime, Batman faces his toughest challenge yet when agent of chaos The Joker appears to rob banks, murder officals, and cause anarchy in Gotham.
Sometimes overshadowed by Heath Ledger’s towering performance as the Joker, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is nonetheless a masterwork of spectacular action.
Using – as is the Nolan way – practical effects wherever possible, the bank heist sequence is one of the great action openers, the midpoint car chase moves like a rocket and the high-frequency hostage rescue is a heart-in-mouth climax. One of the great movie villains, outstanding set pieces beginning to end, and the greatest superhero action film ever made.
6. Non-Hollywood action film
Who are they?
Not just Hollywood, action movies have become a film genre staple around the globe. Action classics have been made all over the world, and it’s non-Hollywood films we’re looking at for our 6th place.
42 schoolchildren are banished to a desert island to kill each other until only one remains in Battle Royale (2000). A ronin and six others protect a village from pillaging bandits in Seven Samurai (1954). And 4 delivery truck drivers become embroiled in a death race in The Wages of Fear (1953).
Our pick, though, is a shoot ‘em up classic. From iconic ‘90s filmmaker John Woo it’s Hard Boiled (1992). When an alcoholic cop loses his partner in a shoot-out, he joins forces with an undercover officer to bring down the gun smugglers responsible.
Later heading to Hollywood with mixed results, it’s Woo’s slick Hong Kong period that forged his reputation as a master of action, with Hard Boiled the jewel in his crown – a gun-toting, bomb exploding, set-destoying extravaganza. Hell-bent on taking down a criminal syndicate, Chow Yun Fat’s Tequila blazes his way through streets, offices, tea rooms, and bad guys on his way to a one shot hospital climax that rivals any shootout sequence ever filmed. A thrill-ride of bullets and destruction, a virtuoso director’s most celebrated work, and the greatest non-Hollywood action movie ever made.
5. Car chase movie
A classic trope of the action movie is the car chase. On occasion, filmmakers have decided to make this the premise of their whole movie and, sometimes, action classics have been produced.
A music-loving getaway driver picks out the perfect soundtrack for every job in Baby Driver (2017). A mild-mannered salesman finds himself in a deadly game of pursuit with a monstrous truck in Duel (1971). And an LA cop must stop a bus dipping below 50 miles per hour and detonating a bomb in Speed (1994).
It’s with a 21st century take on a 1970s creation where we find our favourite, though. George Miller’s modern classic Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
When Max Rockatansky and battle-hardened general Furiosa flee with a tyrant’s 5 wives, it leads to a death defying chase as the warlord mounts a frenetic pursuit.
With its stunning use of practical effects and flawless choreography, Mad Max: Fury Road is the gold standard for car chase movies. Crafting a 120 miles per hour race across a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Miller’s command of a captivating story, a star-laden cast, and phenomenal stunt work is a masterclass in action filmmaking. Throw in the raving mad war boys and a manic flaming guitarist and you have. The best action film this century, a hurricane-like viewing experience, and the ultimate in car chase movies.
4. Science fiction/action film
What is it?
Bound only by a filmmakers imagination, the science fiction movie has been a playground for action directors for decades. Countless classics have came from sci fi, and we’re going there now for our fourth position.
A team of thieves enter people’s dreams to steal secrets and deal with subconscious security in Inception (2010). A man discovers his life is a false memory, and the people who planted it want him dead in Total Recall (1990). And, in Predator (1987), a team of commandos become prey to a bloodthirsty alien.
Our science fiction pick, though, wasn’t too difficult a choice. From writer-director James Cameron, it’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).
11 years after the events of The Terminator, the liquid metal T-1000 and reprogrammed T-800 are sent back in time, with young John Connor their respective targets for termination and protection.
With a budget 15 times that of the first film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day returned with groundbreaking visual effects which, when combined with masterful set pieces, produced a film rarely equalled as an action spectacle. The motorcycle chase is exhilarating, the T-1000 taking a shotgun blast to the head is jaw-dropping, and the helicopter crash is practical effects brilliance.
Effects-driven set pieces that have barely dated, one of the most popular blockbusters ever made and science fiction action yet to be matched.
3. Fantasy action/adventure film
What is it?
Into the top 3, and we’re switching from science fiction to fantasy. Whether magic, folklore, or supernaturally-inspired, the fantasy genre is home to some of the most memorable action films.
A space-based fantasy, Star Wars (1977) changed action films forever in 1977. Jurassic Park (1993) gave us blockbuster action on a scale rarely matched before or since. And The Two Towers (2002) combines hero’s journey storytelling with huge spectacle, delivering one of the great battle sequences.
Huge titles there and, for our choice, it’s another iconic film. From blockbuster legend Steven Spielberg it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
When Indiana Jones discovers the location of the Ark of the Covenant, he becomes locked in a race with a band of Nazis to retrieve the powerful artifact.
A throwback to 1930s hero serials, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a rollercoaster ride of rolling boulders, writhing snake pits, and horseback truck chases, and a masterclass of breathless momentum and breathtaking action. The euphoric opening is among the best 12 minutes in blockbusters, and not before or since have such classic adventure thrills felt so timeless. Add Harrison Ford, a fedora, and a bullwhip, and you have one of popular culture’s most enduring characters, Spielberg’s most thrilling picture, and the greatest action adventure film in Hollywood.
2. One man army movie
What is it?
A long-standing tradition of the action movie is the one man army. Films based on a person so dangerous they can take on seemingly hundreds of bad guys single-handedly have produced some of the most popular action movies, and that’s what we’re looking at for second place.
An aging assassin comes out of retirement when a gang of mobster’s kill his puppy, in John Wick (2014). A Vietnam vet’s rage is unleashed on the police officers who treat him brutally in First Blood (1982). And a betrayed general takes on the might of ancient Rome in Gladiator (2000).
Our runner up, though, is perhaps the definitive one man army film. Welcome to the party, pal, in Die Hard (1988).
New York cop John McClane visits his wife’s office on Christmas Eve and, when terrorists gatecrash the party, mounts a one-man hostage rescue mission.
Cementing John McTiernan’s position as a top action filmmaker, Die Hard is the most intense game of cat and mouse in movies. Crammed with creativity, the film is a 2 hour rush of brutal fist fights, elevator explosions, and glass-shattering shootouts. That it established Moonlighting’s Bruce Willis as an A-list movie star is tribute not just to Willis’ performance, but to the film’s standing as cinema’s most imitated action movie.
A Christmas classic, the definitive Hollywood action movie and undoubtedly the greatest one man army film.
1. Female-led movie
What is it?
All too rare in Hollywood, the female-led film has almost become an action subgenre of its own. Some of the great movies of the genre feature a woman protagonist, so that’s what we’re focusing on for our overall winner.
An Amazonian princess leaves her home to end a war and save the world in Wonder Woman (2017). A criminal is trained as a secret government-controlled assassin in La Femme Nikita (1990). And a young waitress becomes the target of a time-travelling, killer cyborg in The Terminator (1984).
The Terminator could have easily been number 1 but, instead, it’s another James Cameron 80s classic. We’re on an express elevator to hell, in Aliens (1986).
When contact is lost with a terraforming colony, Ripley returns to the exomoon with battle-ready marines, to find the compound infested with alien parasites.
With more explosions and more extraterrestrials than Ridley Scott’s 1979 original, Aliens is less subtle horror, more white knuckle war movie. Propelling the story forward at a breakneck pace, Cameron takes us from one breathtaking set piece to the next, each more grippingthan the last. That he does so while turning Sigourney Weaver into an action star, creating a movie with thematic depth, and introducing the Alien Queen as villain is testament to Cameron’s brilliance as a filmmaker.
One of the great movie sequels, astonishing blockbuster screenwriting and, for us, the greatest action film ever made.
So, what are your thoughts? Do you agree with our selections, or have we left out some of your favourite action movies? Let us know in the comments section below, and don’t forget to subscribe, like, and share for more All The Right Movies videos.
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