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16 Greatest Action Movie Stars Of All Time, Ranked

March 16, 202414 Mins Read


  • Denzel Washington proved to be a versatile action star in complex movies like Man on Fire and The Book of Eli.
  • Sigourney Weaver challenged action movie conventions with strong performances in the Alien franchise and The Assignment.
  • Steve McQueen, known as the “King of Cool,” captivated audiences with his engaging screen presence in action classics.

The best action movie stars of all time made their mark on the genre by portraying tough-as-nails heroes, stalwart sidekicks, despicable villains, and everything in between, though all gained a legacy from starring in the most pulse-pounding big screen experiences. Various actors have stepped into the action genre over the years, with some great examples who bucked typecasting and proving to be solid action stars like Colin Firth in The Kingsman and Bob Odenkirk in Nobody. However, the greatest action movie stars are synonymous with the genre and have helped to define it.

The following actors are the best action heroes of all time. While the list could easily be much longer, it is narrowed down to include only those actors who rose to fame almost exclusively thanks to their action movies. Therefore, action stars that specialized in the best martial arts movies or the best western movies are not included. Though they have certainly made their impact on the genre, actors within those niches likely deserve their own list altogether. Therefore, here are the sixteen greatest action stars of all time.


10 Best Action Movies That Helped Revolutionize The Genre

Several amazing action movies helped revolutionize the action genre with groundbreaking special effects, engaging fight scenes, and original stories.

16 Denzel Washington

Notable Action Movies: The Equalizer, Man on Fire, Book of Eli

Denzel Washington will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest actors of all time, having won two Oscars so far and secured the stunning feat of being nominated in every decade since the 1980s. However, while his dramatic chops are never in doubt, Washington has also proven himself a very effective action movie star as well. Some of his earlier work in the genre, like Ricochet and Virtuosity didn’t showcase his still as effectively, Washington would prove himself later.

Some of the best examples of this include
Man on Fire, The Book of Eli,
Out of Time

Washington’s action movie roles were often in more complex movies that gave him a strong character to play. Some of the best examples of this include Man on Fire, The Book of Eli, and Out of Time. However, he also embraced popcorn action movies like Unstoppable, Safe House, and Deja Vu. Later in his career, Washington founded his first movie franchise with The Equalizer movies which also gave him his best action movie role where he impressed many with his visceral fighting skills.

15 Sigourney Weaver

Notable Action Movies: The Alien Franchise, The Assignment, Vantage Point

It is no secret that women have been underrepresented in action movies over the years, which makes it all the more important when a female action movie star emerges to challenge the genre’s conventions. Such was the case with Sigourney Weaver who created one of the best action movie characters of all timewith Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise. The first Alien movie stealthily hides that Ripley is the true star for much of the movie until she is thrust into the spotlight in the climax.

However, there was no mistaking her as the action hero at the center of the sequel Aliens. Weaver brought a soft and caring vulnerability to the role while also being a thrilling maverick who was willing to take on the alien monster one-on-one. Weaver even earned an Oscar nomination for the role, a rarity in the genre.

14 Steve McQueen

Notable Action Movies: The Towering Inferno, The Great Escape

Nicknamed “The King of Cool,” Steve McQueen has one of the most engaging screen presence in movie history, and he put it to good use in action movies. McQueen made a name for himself by stealing the show from other talented actors in big star-studded action ensembles like The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. Even by doing so little, the viewers were transfixed by his easy-going yet focused attitude.

While McQueen cemented his cool guy persona in other action movie roles like Le Mans, The Towering Inferno, and The Getaway, it was his role in the cop thriller Bullitt that most action movie fans remember best. Featuring one of the most famous car chases in movie history, McQueen’s insistence on doing most of the driving stunts himself so the audience could see him behind the wheel would influence countless action movie stars that followed.


10 Action Movies Where The Action Is Realistic

Action films often fall into the trap of hyper-focusing on spectacle, but some notable genre entries contain realistic, grounded action scenes.

13 Liam Neeson

Notable Action Movies: The Grey, Taken

Liam Neeson’s rise to action hero fame is a unique one because, unlike most action stars, this genre is not where he started. The Irish actor began his career in the 1980s but earned his breakout role as Oskar Schindler in 1992’s Schindler’s List. Afterward, he was cast in major franchises, such as Star Wars and The Chronicles of Narnia. It wasn’t until 2008 though that Neeson finally broke into the action genre. From Taken to The A-Team, Neeson stands out because of his versatility and unexpectedness. He may be older and less buff than other action stars, but he can still capture an audiences’ attention with his rugged charm.

12 Dwayne Johnson

Notable Action Movies: Fast & Furious Franchise, Jumanji, Rampage

Dwayne Johnson is another action star with a unique career path. First and foremost, he began his career not in acting, but as a professional wrestler, earning the nickname, “The Rock.” In 2001, he quickly took the film industry by storm, starring in action films like The Scorpion King, Hercules, San Andreas, and the Fast & Furious franchise. Johnson is another action star with amazing range and digestibility. The Rock impresses both adult and youth audiences, and thus, is likable to nearly all viewers. Despite being strong and serious on-screen, there’s no doubt that he is a kind person, and for that, he is an action hero to look up to.

11 Tom Cruise

Notable Action Movies: The Mission Impossible Series, Edge of Tomorrow

Although Tom Cruise made his name in dramas, he has undoubtedly embraced his action hero status. Cruise first entered the action genre in 1986 in Top Gun, but it took about a decade for him to return to the genre with the Mission: Impossible franchise. Other later films include Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and Edge of Tomorrow. Ultimately, what makes Tom Cruise special is his dedication. Cruise is well-known for performing his own stunts, including cliff jumps and flying planes. This drive to not only portray an action star, but to be an action star in real life is definitely something to be impressed by.

10 Michelle Yeoh

Notable Action Movies: Supercop 2, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tomorrow Never Dies

Michelle Yeoh is now known as much for her dramatic roles as for her action movies, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t left a lasting impact on the genre. She rose to fame after starring alongside Jackie Chan in the Supercop movies where, like him, she showcased her willingness to throw herself into dangerous stunts. Yeoh’s American breakout role was in Tomorrow Never Dies where she played a Bond Girl more impressive than 007 himself.

Even her Oscar-winning role in
Everything Everywhere All At Once
highlights Yeoh’s fighting skills.

Yeoh is also great at seeking out powerful and unique genre movies that do something new and also give her a chance to give a real performance. Such is the case in Ang Lee’s beautiful and exciting martial arts movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Even her Oscar-winning role in Everything Everywhere All At Once highlights Yeoh’s fighting skills, and still counts among one of the best Michelle Yeoh action movies.

9 Jason Statham

Notable Action Movies: The Transporter, Meg, Hobbs & Shaw

An actor that was arguably born to be an action star is Jason Statham. Best known for films such as The Expendables and the Fast & Furious franchise, Statham has been a part of the action genre since the late 1990s, and his career is still going strong. Though it may seem strange for an actor to continuously play very similar roles, Statham’s ability to embody action characters simply makes him perfect for the job. Having studied martial arts in his youth, and also being a footballer and diver, Statham is ideal action hero material, and these days, he has certainly been cemented as action hero royalty.

8 Kurt Russell

Notable Action Movies: Escape From New York, Backdraft

Despite being one of the older actors on this list, Kurt Russell is still pervasive in the action genre, and for this, he is most definitely impressive. Though Russell’s acting career began in his youth, it wasn’t until the 1980s that he became a fixture of the action genre. In particular, Russell’s collaborations with director John Carpenter like Escape From New York and The Thing brought the actor deeper into the genre with films like Tango & Cash and Tombstone. Russell is also a unique action star because of his tendency towards vulnerability. He positively influenced the genre by showing that an action hero can be both heroic and emotional.

7 Keanu Reeves

Notable Action Movies: Constantine, Speed, John Wick

Though Keanu Reeves has worked in many different genres, his greatest successes seem to be his action roles, and most likely, this is not a coincidence. Reeves had his breakthrough role in 1989 with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and in that same period, he established himself in the action genre with films like Point Break and Speed. However, Reeves shot to true action hero status with two major franchises: The Matrix and John Wick. Keanu Reeves has the energy of a kind and gentle man, but when it comes to his action movies, the actor can be especially ruthless and dangerous. In this way, he is both enjoyable and dynamic.

6 Bruce Willis

Notable Action Movies: Die Hard series, Red

Bruce Willis has had an incredible career that all began with one single role.

Having starred in over one hundred movies, Bruce Willis has had an incredible career that all began with one single role. In 1988, Willis made waves in the action genre with his portrayal of John McClane in Die Hard. The movie’s success, and the success of its sequels, catapulted Willis into unbelievable fame, and from there, he continued his climb into action hero stardom. Some of Willis’ best movies include Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys and The Sixth Sense. Though Willis has retired from acting, his impact in the genre and Hollywood at large is significant. His portrayals of rough-and-tumble characters are iconic.

5 Clint Eastwood

Notable Action Movies: Dirty Harry, In The Line Of Fire, Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood is a Western icon with the genre being closely connected with the action genre over the years. Following the era of John Wayne, Eastwood revitalized the Western genre with Spaghetti Westerns and Revisionist Westerns that gave audiences a new look at the familiar genre stories. He perfected the strong, silent hero who could intimidate enemies with a stare. However, few can deny that Eastwood is also one of the greatest action movie stars, even when he’s not wearing a stetson.

Even later on in his career, Eastwood continued playing tough guy roles while embracing his age in movies like
Unforgiven, In the Line of Fire,
Gran Torino.

While Westerns are what Eastwood is best known for, perhaps his most iconic role is in the cop thriller Dirty Harry movies. Eastwood seemed to relish playing anti-heroes like Harry Callahan with the character becoming the archetype of the loose-canon cop that is all over the action genre. Even later on in his career, Eastwood continued playing tough guy roles while embracing his age in movies like Unforgiven, In the Line of Fire, and Gran Torino.


10 Action Movies That Have Only 1 Real Action Scene

The action movie genre has found many ways to have only a single action scene, with isolated fights that make up for the fact that they stand alone.

4 Sylvester Stallone

Notable Action Movies: Cliffhanger, The Expendables Series

It’s impossible to talk action stars and not bring up the iconic performances of Sylvester Stallone. In 1976, Stallone punched a hole through the action genre with his breakout role as Rocky Balboa in Rocky. From there, he made his name in franchises of his own creation including the Rocky sequels, Rambo, and The Expendables. For a time, Stallone was one of the highest-paid actors of the era. Ultimately, Sylvester Stallone is nothing short of an icon in the action genre. His long-running action franchises mean his name has never once been forgotten. And even in his 70s, Stallone continues to make his mark in the action genre.

3 Harrison Ford

Notable Action Movies: Air Force One, Indiana Jones movies

The oldest action hero on this list is also one of the most quintessential. Harrison Ford’s first ever starring role as Han Solo in 1977’s Star Wars was all that was necessary to make him an incredible movie star. Along with four Star Wars sequels, Ford went on to star in franchises like Indiana Jones, Blade Runner, and Jack Ryan. Although these films are far from his only acting credits, they make up his most popular roles, and in the end, these parts are the reason that Ford is forever considered a cultural icon. His undeniable charm and embodiment of the quick-thinking, physically adept action hero make him absolutely unforgettable.

2 Jackie Chan

Notable Movies: Drunken Master, Police Story, Rush Hour

There are countless international action stars that deserve recognition in th genre but are somewhat underrated as they fail to reach American audiences as often. However, Jackie Chan is an action star who transcends language with his amazing features of martial arts as well as his hugely entertaining physical comedy. While he was initially known as a kung-fu movie star, Jackie Chan quickly proved he was more than suited to more generalized action movies too.

While other stars have performed their own stunts, Chan has put himself through more and been injured more than any other.

Jackie Chan became a star in his native China thanks to movies like Drunken Master, Police Story, and Supercop, and they helped establish him as a name in America as well. Rush Hour proved that he could headline an English-language action movie too, which led to other movies like Shanghai Noon, mixing his energetic style with comedic action scenes. While other stars have performed their own stunts, Chan has put himself through more and been injured more than any other.


10 Action Movies With Groundbreaking Choreography

As the years go on, the action genre has only gotten better, with its choreography becoming more detailed and enhanced. But which movies would film fanatics say will stand the testament of time.

1 Arnold Schwarzenegger

Notable Action Movies: Terminator series, Commando, The Running Man

The best action hero of all time is Arnold Schwarzenegger. This actor did not simply play action heroes; he was one. In his youth, Schwarzenegger made a name for himself as one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time. Then, in the 1980s, he pivoted to acting and starred in Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator franchise. The Terminator alone was enough to secure the Austrian actor’s fame, and yet, he continued to build a flourishing career in movies and politics. With his iconic accent, iconic name, and iconic look, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the type of action hero that cannot be ignored, and for this reason, he is the best.

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