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The 50 Best Action Movies | Movies

May 24, 202330 Mins Read

Nothing beats the adrenaline rush of pure action cinema – massive blockbuster movies packed with punchy fight scenes, epic chase sequences, tense shoot-outs, and explosions that fill every corner of the screen. It’s a genre that makes stars (like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Dwayne Johnson, and Uma Thurman) and puts them through hell on screen, delivering thrills that pop on the big screen and feel no less impactful at home. And if Hollywood is home to plenty of action behemoths, it’s an arena where world cinema holds its own too.

From the taciturn classics of the seventies, through the one-man-army trope of the eighties, the mismatched-buddy duos of the nineties and the universe-saving superheroics of the present day, allow Empire to guide you through 50 of the best action movies of all time.

50. Fast Five

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The moment when the Fast & Furious franchise suddenly grew wings and flew. The first trilogy had petered out with the almost straight-to-video Tokyo Drift. The comeback fourth instalment had re-grouped and rebooted but hadn’t got anybody particularly excited. But then there was this: a holiday in the Rio sun that wasn’t over-reliant on series continuity. Fast Five reimagines the brand as a ridiculous, high-octane Italian Job-style crime caper – climaxing with a vault robbery in which massive safes are dragged round busy streets by Dodge Chargers, causing maximum destruction. And of course, this was the first of the Fasts to drop The Rock on proceedings. Which is always an excellent idea.

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49. Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde

The story around it may occasionally be a little shaky, but there’s no denying that with Atomic Blonde David Leitch and his 87Eleven team proved that they could do for Charlize Theron what they did for Keanu Reeves. Theron takes to the rough-and-tumble world like a pro, dealing out elbows and taking her lumps. The stairway clash is a particular highlight.

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48. X2: X-Men United

X2: X-Men United

The second movie outing for Marvel’s mutants upped the ante in terms of both character and action. From the impressive, kinetic opening with Alan Cumming‘s Nightcrawler Bamf-ing around the halls of the White House to Stryker’s (Brian Cox) forces storming the X-mansion, it’s a whirlwind of powers, power-plays and fun stunts.

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47. RRR


Tiger-punching! (strictly CG, no stripy kitties were harmed in the making of the movie) Bridge swinging! Combo fighting! Just when you think S.S. Rajamouli’s three-hour epic can’t offer up something to make a previous moment look like kids play acting, he proves you so very, very wrong. Leads Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr throw themselves (sometimes literally) into the stunts to eye-opening effect. Rise! Roar! Revolt! Enjoy!

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46. Police Story

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The first of six (seven if you include Once A Cop), but still the best of them: an exuberant outing for Jackie Chan at the height of his ass-kicking powers. Chan’s mission is to protect an important witness to a crime lord’s, er, crimes. But it all gets rather complicated by the fact that she has her own agenda. Along the way, there’s an immense car chase through a shanty town and a sequence where Chan has to stop a big bus with just a pistol. It all ends up with a massive rumble in a shopping mall. Pure slapstick action-comedy excellence.

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45. True Lies

True Lies

James Cameron answers to no one when it comes to staging action set-pieces (witness his other entries on this list), but with True Lies, he added a new layer of wit and humour to some of them.Arnold Schwarzenegger riding a horse through a hotel, anyone? No? How about flying a harrier jump jet? As usual, his action is driven by character, and in the story of Arnie’s Harry Tasker, a spy whose unknowing wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) is suddenly drawn into his other life, is exploding with possibilities.

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44. House Of Flying Daggers

House Of Flying Daggers

House Of Flying Daggers ©TMDB

Ang Lee‘s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which sits further up this list) has its own bamboo battle, but Zhang Yimou, the second Chinese filmmaker to successfully export wushu to our multiplexes, with Hero, trumps even Lee’s anti-gravity cane-clash in his Hero follow-up. Clearly concerned that his last movie’s fight sequences, while astonishing, neglected the versatile plant, he’s gone all-out here, sending an entire army into a forest, leaping from shoot to shoot, and even getting his combatants to slice off segments of cane and hurl them through the air as deadly weapons. It’s amazing what you can do with bamboo.

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43. The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

One of the most famous films to emerge from the Shaw Brothers studio, this stars Gordon Liu as a rebellious villager wary of the dangerous militia who governs the area. After his friends are murdered, he seeks asylum in the Shaolin temple. He soon decides that in order to save his people he must learn Kung Fu, not just to fight the militia, but to teach the people to defend themselves. Cue the tests he must complete in the various chambers! The final fight is a highlight, but the action within the chambers is almost as impressive.

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42. Enter the Dragon

Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee’s final film (not counting the ones cobbled together after his untimely death) is arguably the one that “started it all”, kicking off the jones for kung-fu that swept mainstream culture in the west in the 1970s. Even Roger Moore’s Bond tried to get in on the craze. Lee plays a Shaolin martial artist working undercover for British Intelligence to bring down the villainous Shih Kien. Culturally, it’s fascinating; as a pure, action-packed movie experience it still holds its own more than 40 years on — testament to Lee’s power and charisma.

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41. Kill Bill Vol. 1

Uma Thurman as The Bride in Kill Bill

Vol. 2 was more of a measured-paced, dialogue driven Western. But Kill Bill Vol. 1 is Quentin Tarantino’s Eastern, lovingly channelling the martial arts movies he most adores. It’s even got Sonny Chiba in it! The plot is all but perfunctory: Uma Thurman‘s “The Bride” is almost murdered on her wedding day, but recovers to seek revenge on the perpetrators, including her ultimate goal: Bill. We’ll get to him next time, but for Vol. 1 it’s about the journey rather than the destination. Still, the film manages an extraordinarily choreographed fight sequence as The Bride hacks her way through dozens of opponents (88 of them, in fact) on her way to Lucy Liu’s formidable O-Ren Ishii.

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40. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1982)

The original Mad Max had its share of awesome vehicular chase sequences, but nothing that quite prepared audiences for what was to follow. The plot is simple: Mel Gibson‘s Max gets roped into helping a besieged community fend off the marauders outside. But it’s the crazy world and character-building, vehicle design and pedal-to-the-metal action that’s important: unstoppable forward momentum and a focused, blistering vision.

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39. Face/Off

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The high-water mark of John Woo’s stint in Hollywood, Face/Off is full of all the slo-mo action gunplay and doves you’d expect. The story – cop and gangster swap faces and lives during a protracted game of cat-and-mouse – is high-concept bordering on nonsensical. But what makes it work are Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, playing not only their own characters but essentially each other. Travolta actually has more fun, cutting loose as one of Cage’s loopy bad guys. Cage, after some madness at the start, has to reign it in a bit to play Travolta. It was probably for the best.

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38. Kung Fu Hustle

Kung Fu Hustle

Between this and Shaolin Soccer, Stephen Chow cemented himself as a potential successor to Jackie Chan, blending loose-limbed fight scenes with firm comic timing. Hustle finds him as Sing, a wannabe gangster who gets into hot water with the Axe Gang. And then there are the tenants of a local tenement who possess incredible martial arts skills…

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37. Bullitt

Bullitt Mustang Ford

Steve McQueen is the all-guts, no-glory San Francisco cop who becomes determined to find the underworld kingpin that killed the witness in his protection. It’s a movie with sequences that that all future car chases would be measured by, and under the sure direction of Peter Yates, most would be found wanting. Rubber-burning action around (and over) the city’s hilly streets makes this a defining landmark in vehicular chaos. The Fast movies might have the scale, but Bullitt has the grit.

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36. The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch

Sam Peckinpah’s ferocious Western re-wrote the rule book for onscreen violence: the film is bookended by notorious onslaughts of blood-spurting and slow-mo slaughter. It begins with a botched robbery, progresses to One Last Job stealing rifles from the US Army for cigar-chomping Mexican warlord general Mapache, and climaxes with an apocalyptic last stand at Mapache’s hacienda. The thesis is that the Bunch are men out of time, left behind as the march of progress leaves them obsolete in the developing American West. But while the film is brutally nihilistic, it’s also curiously sentimental: Peckinpah bought into those myths of the West far more than his Western-legend predecessor John Ford.

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35. Leon

Leon still

The idea of Jean Reno as a taciturn, super-efficient “cleaner” (of crime scenes) first show’s up in Luc Besson’s Nikita, where he appears for a single eccentric sequence as Vincent. Four years later he was Leon: essentially the same character (Besson has suggested they’re cousins) but this time front and centre, with some actual dialogue. It remains an extraordinary film, for its violence, its insane performance from Gary Oldman as villain Stansfield, and for the queasy pseudo-romance at its centre between Leon and stray waif Mathilda (the then 12-year-old Natalie Portman).

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34. Everything Everywhere All At Once

Everything Everywhere All At Once

Few could have predicted that Everything Everywhere, the scrappy indie shot in a few weeks just before COVID shut the world down and featuring both dildo fights and butt plug battles, would end up winning Best Picture. But it earned that and more — and it doesn’t skimp on the action. Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis and Ke Huy Quan (who also took to the Oscar stage to pick up their own well-deserved trophies) make the action moments, no matter how ridiculous, work completely. Could any other film on this list pull off a brawl based around a fanny pack? We’re saying no.

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33. Police Story 3: Super Cop

Police Story 3

Jackie Chan. Michelle Yeoh. Maggie Cheung. Bert Kwouk! The cast list alone is enough to recommend this one, but the third entry in Chan’s Police Story franchise is packed full of the frenetic, physically demanding set-pieces for which he’s so famous. With no CGI, this is all accomplished in camera – and at great risk to the performers (watch the outtakes if you don’t believe us). The shoot-out in the jungle as well as the infamous chase sequence in Malaysia, culminating in Chan and Yeoh’s characters fighting off henchmen atop a speeding train, are perhaps some of the best action set pieces of nineties Hong Kong cinema.

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32. Safety Last

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Of course, most stars of the silent era performed their own stunts, from the Keystone films of Mack Sennet, to Charlie Chaplin and, best of all, Buster Keaton. But arguably the most famous image of the lot is Harold Lloyd hanging off a clock face at the climax to Safety Last. The long-shots of Lloyd climbing the building are of a double, but the mid-shots and close-ups are all Lloyd, as are the clock-dangle and all the dicking about on the top of the building – and it is genuinely the top of a building and not a studio mock-up. No strings attached, and he only had three fingers on his right hand. Still vertiginously, viscerally thrilling, in a way CGI could never achieve.

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31. Commando


Pretty much the apotheosis of the lunkheaded eighties one-man-army action subgenre, Commando pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against the entire military force of Dan Hedaya’s corrupt South American general. Many explosions, machine-gunnings and knifings later, Arnold is, of course, unscratched. Hooray! There’s a also a great bit when he escapes from a plane by jumping off its undercarriage; the whole business with killing David Patrick Kelly last; and – who could possibly forget? – Vernon Wells sporting a Village People moustache and a chainmail vest. For decades only available in the UK in a heavily censored version, you can now buy a fully unadulterated director’s cut on Blu-ray. What times we live in.

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30. RoboCop

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So much more than a high-concept action movie about a cyborg policeman, RoboCop is also a savage satire and a religious parable, with its structural narrative nicked from folk mythology. The deeper you go into it, the more you find. But it works as a shoot ’em up too; its gonzo violence perhaps functions so well because it’s from an outsider’s skewed perspective: Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, here only making his second English-language film. The sequels (and remake) increasingly missed the point. Verhoeven’s later Starship Troopers is RoboCop‘s true spiritual successor.

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29. The Rock

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Glossy Michael Bay action from the days when that meant something other than Transformers. This was only his second film — following the original Bad Boys — but it’s a confident, swaggering slice of macho action: a men-on-a-mission yarn about an ex-con breaking back in to Alcatraz to square off against hostage-taker Ed Harris. Sean Connery, evincing monstrous star power, is the pissed-off former agent (almost Old Bond, kind of The Prisoner’s Number 6) press-ganged back into action. Nic Cage is the young suit sent to chaperone him. Both are on their very best form, in one of the truly great action films of the nineties – and indeed of all time.

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28. Point Break

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Kathryn Bigelow’s surfing-and-skydiving extravaganza remains as preposterous as it is glorious. Keanu Reeves’ undercover agent infiltrates the cult-like bank-robber gang of Patrick Swayze’s zen guru Bodhi… and comes to question his life choices. The breathtaking action spectacle coupled with the bollocks macho-grunge philosophising (to which Swayze was no stranger, having already done Road House) make it a classic already, but with Bigelow at the helm there’s a whole other level of genre critiquing, embodied wonderfully by Lori Petty’s character, constantly exasperated at the idiocy around her. The remake dutifully piled on the action but missed that aspect entirely, Petty’s feisty Tyler replaced by Teresa Palmer’s vapid, floaty hipster chick.

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27. Inception

Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010)

While David Lynch arguably has a better handle on how dreams actually function, there’s no arguing with the brio and spectacle of Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending sci-fi heist flick. His dream worlds are piled layer on layer, allowing for some head-scratchingly intricate plotting. Strong performances all round too, from Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Michael Caine and particularly Tom Hardy in his breakout role. But it’s the set-pieces that stay with you, like the shifting cityscapes, the snow sequences, and that corridor fight sequence with a shifting point of gravity.

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26. Rambo: First Blood Part II

Rambo: First Blood Part II

Rambo: First Blood Part II ©TMDB

It’s been called cheesy and exploitative, but there’s no denying the action appeal of Sylvester Stallone‘s second outing as John Rambo. The one-man army is here headed to the jungles of Vietnam on a mission to infiltrate an enemy base-camp, only to wind up rescuing the American POWs still held captive there. To complete his mission, he’ll blow up anything in his way.

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25. The Killer

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Adding 37 percent more slow-mo to the decade, John Woo exploded out of Hong Kong action cinema and into the international spotlight with a run of badass crime flicks in which Chow Yun-Fat wasted ruthless gangsters in big jackets; there would often be doves. Following A Better Tomorrow, Woo’s pioneering use of gun-fu, a lucky charm in Yun-Fat and those doves all came together in the blazing church-set crescendo to this attention-grabbing maelstrom of Triad carnage. Nestled amid the awesome pyrotechnics are ageless themes of honour and redemption worthy of Woo’s main influences, Martin Scorsese and Jean-Pierre Melville.

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24. Predator

Predator, 1987

John McTiernan‘s second feature is proof that the unremarkably generic can be elevated to ridiculous greatness by the right director and cast. A mash-up of men-on-a-mission war movie and alien/then-there-were-none slasher horror, McTiernan slips in some sly swipes at the action genre along with the oiled muscles and homoeroticism – but more-or-less keeps a straight face. It’s full of iconic moments like the Ol’ Painless jungle destruction and the final mano a mano mud fight. Arnold was, arguably, never better.

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23. Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War

Yes, it’s remembered more for that ending and all the dust (not to mention teary eyes among audiences), but the first of the two massive Avengers movie double bill that wraps with Endgame is also an incredibly impressive action feat. From the early fight in New York against Thanos’ ‘children’, to the face-off in space and the brawl on Titan, it only lets up to allow for occasional exposition and character-building drama. And then there’s that giant conflict in Wakanda (highlight? Thor’s arrival to start laying the smack down) that ends with our heroes soundly defeated. And yet it’s one you want to watch over and over.

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22. Gladiator


Are you not entertained? How could anyone fail to be swept along by Ridley Scott‘s Gladiator – a straight-up swords-and-sandals historical epic that snagged five Oscars and features blood-spattered beheadings? Scott made the film at a fascinating time – in the dying days of studio movies shooting on huge-scale practical sets, and at the dawn of CGI embellishments. Combining the two, the result is a film that feels tangible and tactile, still wowing with its battle scenes, amphitheatre showdowns, and evocation of the Roman Empire at its height. Russell Crowe puts in a stoic performance as Maximus Decimus Meridius – father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and so on – the military general forced into gladiatorial combat, who rules the ring and plots revenge against Joaquin Phoenix‘s effete, patricidal Commodus. Remarkable for its emotion – huge props to Hans Zimmer‘s sumptuous score – as much as its bombastic production values, Gladiator stands head and shoulders above the imitators (TroyAlexander) it inspired.

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21. John Wick: Chapter Two

John Wick: Chapter Two

After the success of the first film – in which Keanu Reeves’ un-retired hitman kills a dozen people over the honour of his car and a much-mourned puppy – there’s a real sense of confidence here: tonally, in the action set-pieces, and in the character himself. Wick has the moves of Chuck Norris, the morals of Abraham Lincoln and the reputation of the abominable snowman – and that level of mythology tips over into the film itself, doubling down on the heightened, labyrinthine secret society of hitmen as Wick goes out to retrieve his stolen car and makes new enemies in the process. Most importantly, John Wick: Chapter Two is not just an action movie. It is An Action Movie. It does not stop. It will not yield. It barely pauses to wipe the splatter out of its eyes before it launches another splenetic ballet of brutality.

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20. The Terminator

The Terminator

Strange how the biggest action hero of the decade earned that accolade by playing one of that same decade’s biggest villains. Even stranger when you consider said action hero wasn’t even physically suitable for the part, as originally envisioned by James Cameron. After all, the T-800 cyborg was supposed to blend in, be a hidden assassin, look… normal. Not, for example, like a hulking Austrian bodybuilder last seen hacking people up with a broadsword in Conan The Barbarian. Still, The Terminator hit huge and gave us two eighties icons in one: the larger-than-life Arnold Schwarzenegger, with his catchphrase, his rippling muscles and his extensive, explosive ordnance. And the steely-grinned, red-eyed nightmare from the future, which until the firey final act lurked beneath that sculpted physique.

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19. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

AT-AT Walkers in Empire Strikes Back

Lumbering mechanical walkers doing battle with mosquito-like rebel fighters. The Millennium Falcon scrapping with TIE Fighters and a superb lightsaber battle on Bespin’s Cloud City. It’s no wonder that all of those fantastic action moments, tied to the emotional storyline, have helped boost Empire to the top of most fans’ Star Wa_r_s Best Of lists. Director Irvin Kershner brought big cinematic flair to George Lucas‘ galaxy and while it may not feature a Death Star battle, it has a dogfight in an asteroid field and the most suspenseful lightsaber fight in the entire saga.

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18. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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The plot, involving the recovery of a stolen sword and a couple of pairs of lovers, might seem a little far fetched at times, and the dialogue a touch too stately, but the sheer scale of Crouching Tiger‘s setting, cinematography and fight choreography will leave all but the most stone-hearted impressed. Delicate, dialogue-heavy scenes are torn apart by Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi as they blast up and over treetops, through the air, and into their enemies with such balletic grace you can scarcely believe your eyes.

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17. The Bourne Ultimatum

The Bourne Ultimatum

Five years on from his introduction in The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon’s amnesiac super-agent Jason Bourne reaches the end of his journey (at least until he went on the run again in 2016). The conclusion of the original Bourne trilogy is a drum-tight thriller that at last gives some closure to Treadstone’s most successful-but-unpredictable experiment as he embarks on a breakneck world tour. The biggest hit of the three, it also established Paul Greengrass as one of the premier thriller directors plying his trade.

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16. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

2018 saw Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise‘s collaboration on the M:I movies blossom into the most successful entry yet. It’s full of the bananas action Cruise has become known for in this franchise: literally throwing himself into harm’s way in search of the most breathtaking action beats. It might not have done much for McQuarrie’s stress levels (or Cruise’s body), but for audiences it’s an adrenaline rush like few others.

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15. Top Gun: Maverick

Top Gun: Maverick

Taking a break from jumping off of things, jumping on to things, or otherwise putting himself in mortal danger for the Mission: Impossible franchise, Tom Cruise revisited one of his breakout films to thrilling, cinema-filling effect. Maverick feels not just the need for speed, but all the feels, complementing the original Top Guns visuals and story while also feeling like a much more accomplished movie. With the cast crammed into real jets screaming through the skies and support from the US Navy, the effect is a ride in movie form, introducing a new batch of young pilots but focusing on Cruise’s titular veteran.

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14. The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

Peter Jackson‘s second Tolkien adaptation shrugged off middle-child syndrome to soar as a great film in its own right. Aside from Boromir, Aragorn and the small-town denizens of Bree, there’s not a huge amount of human representation in The Fellowship Of The Ring. So one of the pleasures of The Two Towers is seeing Middle-earth truly open out after the arrival at Rohan, where the series takes on more of a sweeping, Nordic feel… Building up, of course, to Helm’s Deep, a ferocious action crescendo which features gratuitous scenes of dwarf-tossing. The huge battle includes jaw-dropping clashes and incredible scale, and that’s just one element that ensures Towers belongs on this list. After all, who doesn’t love angry tree chaos?

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13. The Raid

The Raid

Seemingly out of nowhere came the sudden arrival of one of the most blistering action films of the 21st century to date: a ferocious curio stemming from Indonesia but written and directed by Welshman Gareth Evans. The premise is simplicity itself: Iko Uwais’s greenhorn cop and a small SWAT team are sent into the deadliest housing project in Jakarta, the kind of place that’d give even Snake Plissken second thoughts: a labyrinth of Silat-skilled villains and big bosses… oh, and guns. Lots of guns. They have to fight their way to the top of a tower block and back out again. And that’s pretty much it. But it’s not so much the destination as the journey, which is so intense it’ll leave you with actual bruises. The Raid 2 – a massive and unexpected expansion, keeping the extreme violence but adding a level of Once Upon A Time In Indonesia-style epic drama – followed two years later. The third in the projected trilogy was promised but has yet to materialise.

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12. Casino Royale

Casino Royale (2006)

Finally able to adapt the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels (after decades of rights issues), the Bond franchise’s gatekeepers took the bold move of re-starting the entire franchise. Although Judi Dench remains from the Pierce Brosnan era as MI6 chief M, this is a younger Bond’s first mission, in which we see him earn his 00 status with his first kill, and in which the gadgets are kept to a minimum (a defibrillator in the Aston; Q doesn’t even show up for another two films). The controversy about Daniel Craig’s casting seems quaint now (a toxic fan made a whiney website – imagine the furore on social media that’ll meet the next Bond), and it’s fascinating to look back, post Craig’s bored-looking turn in Spectre, and see the fire with which he absolutely owns the role, from the opening free-running chase to the airport battle and the climactic destruction in Venice. And yet, the film’s most thrilling sequence, somehow, is a lengthy card game. It’s a fascinating franchise that can count its 21st film as one of the very best.

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11. The General

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It’s no exaggeration to say that there are few greater joys in life than Buster Keaton‘s The General. Alongside possibly Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill, Jr., The General marks the high point of Keaton’s directorial career. First released in 1926, it was initially greeted with indifference by moviegoers and a chorus of disdain from critics. The Civil War adventure left Keaton physically bruised and financially battered, with that old loco left down a gorge and Old Stone Face shackled to MGM and creatively stymied. Since then, though, The General has gained the richly deserved status of silent masterpiece. If you don’t know the story, suffice to say that Keaton is a railwayman stuck between two warring armies, with his beloved gal (Marion Mack) to defend and his treasured train to rescue. Things don’t run smoothly.

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10. The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan‘s special genius lies in building his comic book films around a theme and making them stronger for that. The theme of Batman Begins was a city’s response to fear (good drinking game: count the uses of that word/variations on it during Begins). This time, it’s about the fine balance in our lives between control and chaos. Oh, and Heath Ledger‘s out-there Joker perfectly balances Christian Bale‘s fiercely controlled Batman.

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9. Speed

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Mixing action thriller with disaster movie tropes in the way Die Hard had done previously, Speed can basically be described in terms of its setpieces: the lift, the bus and the train. The middle section is the principal one, of course: Keanu Reeves is on a bus with a bomb on it, which will explode and kill all its passengers if its speed drops below 50mph. Dennis Hopper is the aggrieved bad guy on the phone giving instructions, and Sandra Bullock is, reluctantly but pluckily, at the wheel. Thrills! Spills! Near misses! Romance, even! Most impressive is the way that, despite seemingly limited options for drama in its enclosed space, the bus section never outstays its welcome. Only the final train sequence feels slightly tacked on. Director Jan De Bont had been Die Hard’s cinematographer, clearly watching John McTiernan closely for some tension tips.

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8. Hard Boiled

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John Woo‘s later work might have tailed off somewhat (see Mission: Impossible II – or, if you prefer, don’t), but his super-stylish Hong Kong period remains virtually untouchable, and Hard Boiled is the best of the lot. Even if it does sacrifice emotional development in Chow Yun-Fat’s kick-ass cop Tequila on the altar of gun porn, it remains a guns-a-blazing, walls-exploding, tea-room-destroying, hospital-devastating triumph, and a must-have for every action fan. It’s so influential that it took Woo global and slung Chow into the big time, all whilst carrying a shotgun in one hand and a surprisingly large baby in the other.

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7. The Matrix

Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix

Every now and again a film comes along that’s dubbed a “game changer”. Some deserve it more than others, but the effect of The Matrix on the 21st century’s action cinema can’t be understated. The Wachowskis can’t quite be credited with creating a new visual language (FX man John Gaeta credits Michel Gondry and Katsuhiro Otomo with the original “bullet time” effects), but the use they put it to was so thrilling and eye-popping that it seemed entirely original. Backing up the extraordinary spectacle was a mash-up of lofty ideas cribbed from William Gibson and Jean Baudrillard: The Matrix felt like it had a brain as well as balls. And the casting was also note perfect, transforming the public perception of Keanu Reeves overnight from dim-bulb stoner to deadpan killing machine (a role he continues to enjoy in the likes of Man Of Tai-Chi and the John Wick franchise). Despite being imitated to the point of audience fatigue by subsequent films (including its own sequels), this still seems fresh almost 20 years on.

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6. Seven Samurai


The perfect fusion of action and character, East and West, blockbuster and arthouse, Akira Kurosawa‘s first entry into the samurai genre is one of the great masterpieces in any language. The director creates distinct, memorable characters out of seven luckless samurai hired to defend a poor farming village from marauding bandits, showcasing his heroes as rounded but dignified outcasts – Takashi Shimura‘s noble leader and Toshiro Mifune‘s crazed hothead are the standouts. All human life is here, as are debatably cinema’s greatest battle scenes: the climactic showdown in the rain is the stuff of cinematic legend.

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5. Raiders Of The Lost Ark


Nazis, the Staff of Ra and a boulder the size of a small house were the order of the day for Harrison Ford in his first Indy outing. An archaeologist protagonist (proteologist?) may not sound all that exciting, but Steven Spielberg and George Lucas‘ franchise follow-up to Star Wars succeeded on every level, not least of which was not taking itself too seriously. Lesser prequels and sequel followed (Last Crusade, however, gives Raiders a run for its money), but this first film cemented Ford as a Hollywood heavyweight. Face-meltingly good stuff.

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4. Aliens


Imagine Aliens getting announced in our current social media age. “Alien is perfect – leave it alone!” the internet would bleat. “Get some original ideas, Hollywood!” And of course, the internet would be wrong. James Cameron, in those days a former FX guy who’d directed a low-budget cult- sci-fi called The Terminator (plus Piranha 2: Flying Killers) took Ridley Scott’s gothic space horror and extrapolated it into a war movie, expanding the mythology in the process. We’d seen the face huggers and the xenomorphs before. But now, in one of cinema’s greatest shock reveals, we had a queen…

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3. Mad Max Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury road

Almost unbelievably, this is a studio movie: Warner Bros. trusting a significant budget (estimated at $150m) to George Miller’s undiluted, berserk vision. That vision included vehicles fuelled with blood, ‘Doof Warriors’ playing flaming guitars as they hurtle into battle, CG used in respectful subservience to jaw-dropping practical stunts, and Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Immortan Joe presiding over a religious cult seemingly inspired by a Duran Duran song that was inspired by the original Mad Max films (“Wild Boys always shine”, remember). Fury Road takes notes from John Ford’s Stagecoach and Sergio Leone’s Dollars films while forging its own route, and sits alongside the previous Max films while paying no attention to continuity whatsoever. This is filmmaking as myth, legend, campfire tale. Sequels have been mooted but it’s hard to imagine ever experiencing anything like Fury Road again.

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2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2 Judgement Day

The action, the pace, Sarah Connor‘s biceps, the clever early switcheroo where you think Arnie’s the bad guy and Robert Patrick is the good guy – only you’re wrong – and the further considerations of what time travel means for the present are all effective. But it’s the FX and the set pieces that really blew our collective socks off. From the aqueduct chase to the Pescadero jailbreak to the assault on Cyberdyne and that final, glorious showdown in the steelworks, this contains four of the greatest action sequences of all time — in one movie! And, incredibly, they’ve barely dated at all.

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1. Die Hard

Die Hard Bruce Willis

In the 1980s, action movies tended to be the preserve of muscle men, chain-gunning their way to body-counts of infinitude. At the decade’s close, a TV comedy star and a sci-fi/horror director made an action movie about a regular joe in the wrong place at the wrong time… and inadvertently made the greatest action movie of all time (read our ultimate viewing guide to understand the full extent of its majesty). It’s sometimes easy to forget that John McClane was a product of the eighties (only Holly McClane’s hair and Ellis’ coke habit really signpost the era), but that’s what you get for being a timeless classic. Yippee ki, and indeed, yay.

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Looking for more to read? Why not check out The 100 Greatest Movies? And if you want to switch genres, find The 50 Best Sci-Fi Movies Of All Time.

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