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The 50 Best Action Movies - Ranked (PART 1)

Updated: Apr 12


I tend to bloviate about how much I love movies and how great they are. Let's be honest, you don't really care. And that's okay. So with that in mind, I'll get right to the point. These are the best 50 action movies ranked... by me. Remember this isn't the end-all be-all list where I claim that anyone's differing opinions don't matter. This is just one dummies thoughts. As random as they may be.

This is Part 1, numbers 50-26:

Criticized for being an unworthy homage to the popular 80’s crime drama, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice has always been in my mind a sexy, action thriller with a compelling storyline and tremendous action sequences. The score feels like a soundtrack that you would put on in your car at 2am, windows down and the darkness enveloping you. The grainy look of nightlife in Miami feels dangerous yet somehow strangely alluring. The action scenes are quintessential Mann with focus clearly on accuracy to technique, realistic gunplay, sound design and satisfying the audience’s need to see the villains get their comeuppance. 

A lot of Schwarzenegger’s movies have a kind of theme or heavily set within a genre such as science fiction. Commando is one of his most straight to the point, stripped down stories of a man determined to rescue his daughter and destroy the bad guys. And it’s oh so satisfying to watch. When he hangs Sully over a cliff by his ankle before just dropping him. His final push into the compound, obliterating everything and everyone in sight. And what is the best scene in my opinion, when he raids the gun store and finds a treasure trove of automatic awesomeness. It’s the scene that shows this man’s true determination to save his daughter at any cost.

48. Ronin

This is one of Robert De Niro’s most underrated, underseen action films and it’s also one of his best. It’s a team-up of characters that take jobs requiring discipline in firearms and precision driving. They set out to obtain a mysterious case they’ve been hired to retrieve. There is a kind of reverence for the violence but more so for the skills of these soldiers for hire. Throughout the film are wonderfully orchestrated gun fights and even better car chase sequences featuring fantastic sound design that highlight the power and agility of their vehicles as they navigate through crowded Paris highways and rural, narrow mountainsides. The action sequences are long, the story of betrayal is intriguing and the collection of elite, outcast specialist characters all heighten the mystery consisting of a hostile environment that forces them to trust no one. It's last man standing. 

Akira Kurosawa directs with masterful intent and iconic cinematography. The tale of farmers hiring a trained samurai who then recruits six other samurai to battle bandits has inspired countless cinematic homages, ripoffs, successes and failures. One of the most significant classics, The Magnificent Seven, directed by John Sturges, directly adapted the story of these seven samurai and changed it to a western, samurai replaced by gunslingers. The final battle between trained samurai, prepared townspeople and the 40 bandits wreaking havoc is remarkably epic and surprisingly visceral. It is a demonstration of everything working perfectly. It is an inspiring action masterclass that is hard to deny. 

Much of the Rambo series went with a heavy amount of action, endless body counts and slow motion, muscle rippling gunfire. Its more contained debut however is less concerned with the action, although there is plenty to enjoy and more focused on the mental state of a Vietnam veteran forced to take his most personal fight into the mountains of rural Washington. His adversaries were the elusive Viet Cong and North Vietnamese military but now, in his own country, must go against a cruel, small town Sheriff and his deputies as they pursue him with ill intent. The violence is more minimal than its sequels but far more meaningful. Rather than mindless violence, John Rambo feels every death as it mirrors the horrors he experienced fighting in Vietnam. It is the beginning of a flawed but legendary action hero played to perfection by Sylvester Stallone. He is Rocky. He is Rambo. Iconic.

Funny. Violent. Quintessential Edgar Wright. What’s not to love? Simon Pegg and Nick Frost team up in a hilarious love letter to the action genre. It revels in how over-the-top it is and takes complete pleasure in the absurdity of an entire small town in Gloucestershire, England being complicit in a murder mystery all motivated by maintaining their image of being the repeated “Village of the Year” recipients. The action is big and the humor constant and whip-smart. It is part two of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. It is the trio of Wright, Pegg and Frost at the top of their game. 

One of the biggest cinematic events of my lifetime, Endgame is the culmination of ten years worth of storytelling and buildup. Acting as a part two of sorts to Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame is the promise that the devastation left behind by Thanos is merely the beginning of a battle between good vs evil and that our heroes were not going to sit idly by and let this tragedy stand. Infinity War was the gauntlet being thrown down, Endgame is the challenge being answered. The clash of Avengers vs Thanos was a promise ten years in the making, finally being delivered. So many times the promise of a great movie is rarely upheld but in the golden age of the MCU, they could do no wrong. 

I’m placing these both at this spot for one reason - In the era of John Wick, the Extraction movies truly feel like the first movies that took the lessons of Wick and utilized them to create some truly remarkable action sequences. More than this though they took the lesson that no matter how hard you train and prep for the action, if you edit poorly and shove shaky-cam in the audience’s face you have wasted the effort of everyone that put everything into those scenes. Storywise they may not be the strongest, but in terms of pure action, Extraction 1 & 2 are shining examples that the action genre is still alive and well. (Olivier Megaton need not apply.)

Over the years you might have noticed a theme in my reviews anytime Michael Bay is involved. I’m not what one might call a fan of his work. But as the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. For every insufferable Transformers movie and Pain & Gain travesty we get something like 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. This is his rare effort where ego seems to be set aside for a compelling, and in this case, true story of heroism and ultimate sacrifice. It is a shining, dramatized look at the modern day heroes who look in the face of madness and never blink. It’s inspiring, action packed and yeah, it’s just plain ol’ badass. Elite soldiers doing what they were trained to do. It’s like watching nature at work. And for a situation that really happened and did not end happily, this is an opportunity for the world to know the story of these giants among men.  

The Daniel Craig era of James Bond is my favorite. I love the gritty approach after so many years of absurdity and tsunami surfing. Less reliant on gadgets and more dependent on his skillset as a fighter and professional deceiver, he is for my money, the perfect Bond. After a decade of this though Matthew Vaughn saw an opportunity to bring back the classic meets modern spy where physics are merely a suggestion. We return to the age of knives in shoes, guns in umbrellas and gadgets galore. Where it meets the modern era is in the moments of violence, cursing and R rated humor. It’s fantastical and ridiculous but undeniably awesome. All this plus great characters is a winning combination. And of course there’s the church scene; in my opinion one of the best action sequences of the last twenty years. It is phenomenal. 

Whenever I see the question, “What’s one movie you think should have gotten a sequel but never did?” I instantly reply with True Lies. This is a property rife with possibilities for sequels including Schwarzenegger and spin-offs focusing on all new characters working within the Omega Sector. If you look up wasted opportunities, you’d see True Lies. James Cameron took his talent for making massive sequences and brought it to the spy genre. And he had the foresight of taking a more comedic approach rather than making this a somber affair. What he created by doing this is something that is unceasingly entertaining. Schwarzenegger is hilarious. Who knew? Tom Arnold is a welcome surprise of hilarity. Jamie Lee Curtis is funny too, and kinda hot if I’m honest. Comedy, action, sex and saving the world. This is a full meal worth of action - appetizer, main course and dessert. Cherry on top? You bet your ass. 

It’s Bruce Lee. I could leave it at that and be completely justified in doing so. It is the definition of a martial arts masterpiece. If Bruce Lee as a man practiced a life of patience, calm and discipline, it was in the movies where he could be the warrior we all believe him to be. The mirrored room. The claw marks. The immensity of Lee’s capabilities on full display is nothing short of iconic. One of the most popular video game franchises of all-time, Mortal Kombat, was inspired by Enter the Dragon. It is one of the most successful martial arts films ever made. It is the blueprint for which countless movies and games have pulled from. It is a mere glimpse into the legend that is Bruce Lee. 

38. 300

Like it or not, Snyder’s influence on modern cinema began here and hasn’t stopped yet. The slow motion has become synonymous with Snyder’s name and stylistic choices. While it can become a tiring crutch to lean on, when it’s done right it can look pretty damn cool. 300 is where it all began for him and it is to this day still one of his best works. It made Gerard Butler a household name and gave us the line of a decade, “THIS IS SPARTA!” Hell yeah it is, Gerard, hell yeah. The elite combat style of the Spartans is ruthlessly efficient and their merciless stance against all challengers makes you want to join the ranks. And if manly eye candy is your thing, I have good news for you. 

If we break up the career of Liam Neeson into two eras, drama and action, The Grey is his best of the action era. Just my opinion of course. It is the most dire, hopeless example of survival and visceral reality of nature’s true lack of forgiveness. The relentless blizzards. The murderous, territorial wolves constantly pursuing and eviscerating these stranded outcasts is both horrifying and dramatically enthralling. The clashing of testosterone is potentially lethal to these men and yet often they can’t help themselves. When you truly pay attention to the actions of these men they can easily be compared to the hierarchy of the wolf pack hot on their heels. So much hostility between man and animal and yet so many similarities. The Grey is distinct for the simple fact that rescue is never a reality for these men. No chopper or plane sightings. No signs of hope beyond their nightmare is ever presented. They are, by any definition, on their own. It also features one of my favorite movie scores ever. It elicits heartbreak and remembrance of those that make this life worth living. And worth fighting for.   

This is another action classic that has inspired countless others. It is the movie that gave Keanu Reeves his chance and he soaked up every bit of it. In his sights is the unmistakable Patrick Swayze as the free living, spiritual bank robber with an affinity for ex-presidents and adrenaline inducing danger. In classic 90s action fashion, Johnny Utah must go undercover as a fellow surfer meant to infiltrate a group of suspected bank robbers who of course also like to surf. Point Break is classic cops and robbers. It features over-the-top action sequences with the rogue, loner cop and the villain who is every bit his equal. Their clash stretches from the streets of L.A., the skies over rural desert and down the way in Australia for the surf of a lifetime. 

It’s kind of fitting that as I type this there is discussion throughout the internet about who will next take on the mantle of Bond, James Bond. In 2005 we were having these same discussions when a bomb was dropped and the next five Bond films had their leading man. Daniel Craig. Of course with all casting news, everyone was an expert and he was absolutely the worst choice for playing the suave spy. Cut to four films later and everyone is begging Craig to come back one last time. (People are idiots with some kind of memory loss because they repeat this cycle with all casting news of any franchise ever.) As great as Skyfall is and as solid of a farewell No Time to Die is, his first outing as Bond is still the best. It features the gritty reimagining of the super spy while still putting on full display his ability to clean up handsomely and is still unquestionably a ladies man. He uses more of his intuition and lack of ethical quandary to achieve his goal. This is the mission that turns Bond from loyal soldier to merciless killer. He maintains his loyalty to his country but becomes more willing to deceive, maim, beat, seduce or even kill to complete his mission. The espionage is intriguing and the action is impactful. The Bond girl, Eva Green is the best Bond girl ever and by far the most beautiful. She also just happens to be as tenacious and strong willed as Bond. I look forward to the next era of Bond but the era of Daniel Craig was damn good and Casino Royale started it all.

This is just a pure, complex and perfectly executed thriller. Gene Hackman is forceful and commanding as Popeye Doyle. He is determined and willing to do whatever he deems necessary to bring his suspects to justice. And of course, the car chase. Thee car chase. The 1966 Pontiac Le Mans. The subway train above head. The sound design of a roaring engine storming through a compact, heavily populated, dinge soaked Brooklyn. It is exhilarating. The behind-the-scenes stories of how the car chase became a reality are almost as exciting as the chase itself. It involves permit-less shooting, bribing and new camera techniques still utilized to this day. Watch Bullitt, The French Connection and The Seven-Ups for exciting car chase sequences and a rogue cop themed marathon. 

The entire original Bourne trilogy is fantastic. But it’s the culmination of the three that takes everything adored about the franchise and is elevated tenfold. In a sea of horribly shot, shaky-cam riddled nauseated cinema, director Paul Greengrass remains the only filmmaker who utilizes shaky-cam to extraordinary effect. Through a combination of his ability to properly execute shaky-cam and award worthy sound design and editing, The Bourne Ultimatum is the rare sequel that outperforms its predecessors in every way. Ultimatum is gritty and unforgiving. Matt Damon delivers his best performance as the memory-stunted assassin. His foes are as menacing and manipulative as ever trying to cover their past of which Bourne is a major factor in. Unlucky for them. This is Bourne’s third outing and it feels like every decision and action he takes is his final straw, no longer possessing any kind of mercy left. He is skilled and deadlier than ever and if we think of this franchise as a trilogy, this is the best way it could have ended. “Jesus Christ… that’s Jason Bourne.” 

From the creators of John Wick. You have my attention. After the first John Wick was released, co-director David Leitch left the Wick franchise to direct his first solo film, Atomic Blonde. It stars the effervescent, immensely talented and otherworldly beauty, Charlize Theron. With fight sequences mirroring the Wick franchise, Atomic Blonde takes a more violent, hands-on approach. Wick takes headshots. Lorraine Broughton beats her targets to death or shoots them point-blank. There is a smoothness to the Wick action. Blonde is a grittier, more personal, in-your-face kind of action. The single take in the stairwell and apartment is absolutely breathtaking to experience. It’s nasty and brutally unforgiving. She gives as good as she gets. The fight choreography and weapon tactics on display are damn entertaining. I want Atomic Blonde 2 right now. I want it yesterday.   

Arnold Schwarzenegger in the jungle fighting an invisible alien assassin alongside an elite group of commandos. Directed by John McTiernan, director of Die Hard. If this isn’t a winning combination I don’t know what is. Inspired by but never surpassed, Predator stands the test of time as one of the best action movies to ever come out of the 80s. “I ain’t got time to bleed.” “If it bleeds, we can kill it.” “Get to the choppa!” “You’re one ugly mother fucker.” The lines are legendary. The action is plentiful and bloody. This is peak Schwarzenegger. 

Perhaps the most tragic of any of the films on this list, End of Watch is the perfect cop movie. It features invigorating action sequences, authentic chemistry between its two main leads, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña and braves the potential pitfalls of taking the story in a dark, tragic direction all ending in heartbreak. The characters feel real and their conversations feel natural and oftentimes hilarious. The style choice of a documentary/feature film hybrid makes this feel more visceral and truthful than any police drama before it. The villains are without morals and believe their strength lies in the destruction of others. The clash between the boys in blue and the gang members tasked with their execution is harrowing and relentless. The relationship between Taylor and Zavala is pure and their trust in one another transcends the violence and ugliness they face together. Their families and fellow police officers all make this feel like a real, lived-in world of people going to work and living their lives. They just so happen to be police officers in the midst of a drug war against Mexican cartels and local gang members.  

When someone says the name John Woo, some think Hard Boiled, others maybe The Killer or Broken Arrow. When I hear the legendary director’s name I think of one movie - Face/Off. If you made a list of the most influential action movies of the 90s it would absolutely be on the list. It is the cinematic definition of over-the-top. From doves and slow motion to outrageous chase sequences and unlimited ammunition, Face/Off is quintessential John Woo and I mean this in the greatest ways possible. I might even argue it’s Woo at his absolute best and most unhinged. I have to imagine the studio oversight on this one was minimal at most. He was left to his own devices and now we have one of the best action movies ever made. Travolta is Cage. Cage is Travolta. It’s ridiculous, yes but undeniably glorious.

Steve McQueen. 1968 Ford Mustang GT. The hillside streets of San Francisco. It’s iconic and lasting. McQueen is of course one of the coolest men to ever live. As Detective Lt. Frank Bullitt, McQueen was determined and virtually unstoppable. The premise and overall structure of this film has been mirrored and outright ripped off ever since. And who can blame them for trying? “If you can’t top it, steal from them and go out strong.” Then there’s the car chase. McQueen in the Mustang. Famed stuntman Bill Hickman in the ‘69 Dodge Charger. The sound design, the editing and the silence overshadowed by massive engines whipping and weaving throughout San Francisco as the cars fly, sometimes literally, without fear or hesitation. It’s a classic for a reason. 

It’s not often that a movie classified as action finds itself cozy inside the embrace of awards season but it does happen. In 2000 it was the year of Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe and Gladiator. Winner for Best Actor. Winner for Best Picture. Robbed for Best Director. Some years the best picture winner is as forgettable as a Tuesday afternoon. Then there’s the years when the winner is the most deserving, the most influential and will go down on lists everywhere as one of the best films ever made. The Godfather in 1972. The Godfather Part II in 1974. Schindler’s List in 1993. Titanic in 1997. Gladiator in 2000. “Are you not entertained!?” The musical score. The cinematography. The ultimate revenge. It takes the best tropes of classic cinema and does them to perfection. It doesn’t get much better than this. 

It’s hard to believe that when Christopher Nolan made the Dark Knight Trilogy he was still finding his identity as a filmmaker with his best work still in front of him. At the end of Batman Begins, Gordon hands Batman a piece of evidence - a playing card, a joker. He warns Batman of the chaos still emanating from the Arkham breakout orchestrated by Ra’s Al Ghul. As we see the card we realize the promise of what’s to come. But in reality we had no idea how groundbreaking the next Batman adventure would be. Jump to 2008 and the hysteria surrounding The Dark Knight was at a fever pitch. Tragically Heath Ledger had just died and his last full performance was on the verge of changing cinema and villains as a concept forever. Initially seen as a bizarre risk for the role of the Joker, Ledger at the direction of Nolan and opposite the screen commanding Bale as Batman, proved the naysayers wrong in every conceivable way. Epic in scope, score and performances, The Dark Knight is to this day one of, if not the greatest superhero movies ever made. It justifiably garnered Ledger his much deserved posthumous Oscar.

To Be Concluded...

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