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The 50 Best Action Movies - Ranked (PART 2)


 

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 2, numbers 25-1:


25. Léon


Before the days of his more divisive films like Valerian and Lucy came the age of The Fifth Element and Léon: The Professional. These proved his capability of making unique and fresh concepts that for many of us helped shape our love of cinema. Léon is a dramatic action film with a heart. It just so happens to also feature one of the most diabolically unstable villains of the 90s. A professional hitman takes a twelve year-old girl under his wing after her family is murdered. At his side an unusual but tender relationship forms as he teaches her about life and perhaps a bit more sinister, the ways of a professional assassin. They surprisingly find balance in one another so when the bad guys arrive to ruin it all, Léon takes it personally and sets out to destroy her tormentor once and for all. Jean Reno as Léon is quietly meticulous and when he needs to be, extraordinarily ruthless. It’s a privilege to watch him as the titular Léon guiding the innocence of his little Mathilda.     


24. 1917


This is one of those rare kinds of films that when I see it I don’t understand how anyone can find fault in it. It promises a concept with themes and an innovative, challenging way to capture it all and delivers on all of it beyond measure. It is in my opinion the closest a movie can get to being perfect. Its storyline elicits tension and drama. It creates epic moments of terrifying action and violence. The relationship between the two friends and soldiers is tangible and all the more tragic when it reaches its final moment. The urgency of his mission, the unimaginable outcome if he fails. And to make it even better, it features the work of Roger Deakins as he pieces together one of the most epic single takes in history. Sam Mendes directs. It is masterful filmmaking.  


23. Logan


After nearly twenty years of movies ranging in quality from decent to downright awful, it became clear Hugh Jackman’s time as Weapon X was coming to an end sooner rather than later. Until recent news of course Jackman would announce he had one more turn as the multi-clawed anti-hero left in him. And if we were to believe the rumors and hype, we were finally getting the R rated, uninhibited Wolverine we had always dreamed of seeing on the big screen. Talented filmmaker James Mangold would return to direct Logan, starring one last time (or so we thought) the man himself. Now of course an R rating is no guarantee of quality but what it clearly allowed the creators to accomplish is something extraordinary. In a story fit for a Hollyweird movie itself, the swansong of Jackman’s time as Wolverine would not only be his best turn as the character but it would become one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. It was even nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars. It is a violent, tragic tale of our most beloved hero finding the world he’s loathed for so long is finally turning against him once and for all. It just may be his last chance to leave the world a better place than he left it.   



The original Die Hard will remain the best of the franchise but that will come further down the list. While I agree with the argument that the original is the best of the Die Hard films, Vengeance will always be my favorite of the original three. It is John McClane at his most beaten down and cynical. He is bruised and hungover before we even see him on screen for the first time. I believe McClane is at his best when he’s lost all control of his personal life and takes every bit of his frustrations out on the bad guys who just happen to be unlucky enough to be pulling whatever bullshit caper they concocted. This particular scheme just so happens to be mastermind by the brother of Hans Gruber, Simon, who of course has an affinity for Simon Says and a massive hatred for McClane for obvious reasons. Bad news for McClane. And then of course there’s the man himself, Samuel L. Jackson as the bitterly, begrudgingly angry sidekick of sorts, Zeus. Chaos ensues in New York and it’s a gritty, hilarious clusterfuck that only McClane could possibly survive. 



I’ll be honest, this list took me a lot of time to find an order I was comfortable with. This was one of the hardest to place. I could probably place it in the top ten if I felt so inclined but here I will keep it. Collateral is an astounding piece of dramatic action with amazing moments of in-depth character mining discovering who these two polar opposite human beings are and just what exactly they are truly capable of. It’s clear from the get-go that Cruise’s character Vincent is irreparably severed from the human race as a normal, functioning participant of the species. He is a sociopath in a career perfected for soulless husks like him. He is thriving. Until he meets Max, a hapless, deluded taxi driver stuck in a job meant to be nothing more than a means to an end. Surprisingly it’s the clash of taxi driver and professional hitman that rips Max from his trance that’s hypnotized him for years. Forced to chauffeur the maniacal Vincent from murder to murder, Max slowly becomes more emboldened and less accepting of the fate he knows awaits him at the end of their terrifying night together. The turn he encounters in the finale of their grim night of errands is something no one could have ever anticipated. The action, in true Michael Mann fashion, is authentic and head-spinning with tactical accuracy and weapon acumen demonstrated by Cruise that is phenomenal to watch him carry out. He is a machine of immense detail and output. His turn as the villain of Max’s nightmares may just be Tom Cruise’s best performance of his career. 



Christopher Nolan has mastered the ability to find the perfect balance between arthouse obscurity and implication and the mainstream box office blockbuster. Inception is layered with hidden meanings and maddening ambiguity. It is somehow epic in scale and scope and yet as personal and intimate as someone’s dreams. The premise is refreshingly original and its execution equally as fascinating. The characters are complex yet mysterious and tragically damaged. Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb is efficient, calculating and when he needs to be, merciless. Much of the burden placed on him he secretly spreads to his unsuspecting team as they navigate the literal dreams of a complete stranger. This is a new kind of corporate espionage previously only dreamed of. The action sequences incorporate the rules and chaos of dreams making for some wholly unique moments of defying gravity, essentially freezing time and even encountering the dead. Inception is one of the most complex, utterly mesmerizing pieces of cinema ever made.



I’m cheating again and placing two movies in one spot. It’s my list. Deal with it. James Cameron took an idea and somehow flipped it from the first to the second. What was an unstoppable machine is altered to fight for the resistance and protect the future of mankind’s best chance of survival. The first Terminator is a more stripped down chase film that pits a heartless killing machine against humanity’s last hope in the form of a woman destined to birth John Connor, the man said to turn the tide of a future war between man and machine. In a stroke of pure genius and magical filmmaking, Cameron gave us T2 and proved once and for all that sequels can in fact be superior to the original. I adore The Terminator but in my opinion T2 is on another level of masterful storytelling and making imagination into reality. From page to screen, the complete two-film saga of the Connor’s harrowing journey of survival and time travel is nothing short of astonishing, perfect cinema. And Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800 is as perfect casting as it gets. The stars aligned to bring him into the fold. From villain to hero, The Terminator is an emotionless robot that still somehow learns and demonstrates humanity better than most actual humans. The battle between the T-1000 and the T-800 is as innovative as it is immensely entertaining.



This is the point in the franchise when they apparently decided to test the very limits of stunt work and seemingly gravity itself. The globe-trotting adventure of Ethan Hunt as he uncovers a plot to unleash World War III is visually stunning and adrenaline fueled intensity. The excitement climaxes in a sequence shot beginning at the 123rd floor and climbing precariously to the 130th floor all while racing against time as a massive sand storm approaches. And of course it’s all on the outside of the world’s tallest building, The Burj Khalifa. Cruise hangs by a rope, swinging, climbing and falling like he isn’t nearly 2,000 feet in the air. Part 3 was the beginning of a change for the franchise and the possibilities awaiting them. Ghost Protocol is the full realization of those possibilities coming to fruition. It would only lead to even bigger and more amazing sequences which at the time felt, dare I say… impossible.   



This movie feels like the culmination of decades of stunt work, gunplay and fight training finally getting its ultimate recognition. An action movie winning Best Picture? In your dreams, pal! Well now those dreams have been made a reality. One of the most unique, completely unhinged Oscar winners in history, Everything Everywhere All at Once feels like imagination itself was discovered directly in the minds of its creators and was filmed on location in their very brain matter. It features exemplary martial arts and stunt work, visual splendor and intimate character development that feels so unbelievably raw and human despite being so absolutely manic and outlandish. If you want a movie that goes for gusto in every way unimaginable, look no further. Michelle Yeoh proves she still has the prowess of her younger self jumping and fighting alongside Jackie Chan. Ke Huy Quan makes his glorious return to the big screen and he is transcendent. There are films you watch and films you experience. This is every bit the latter.  



Every true auteur has their missteps and Ridley Scott is no exception. But to become a master of this medium, it means among the filmography must lie the masterworks. Yes he has created things like House of Gucci and Exodus but those are drops in a bucket of pure brilliance. He is the creator of Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator, American Gangster and The Martian. And then of course there’s Black Hawk Down, a war story masterpiece. Based on true events, Scott and cast make a harrowing and tragic recreation of true heroism and valor. The loss of life is extensive and the meaning of it is all but completely missing from the entire endeavor. Their presence in Africa was meant for good but only achieved chaos and further highlighted the ongoing genocide. Through efficient teamwork and significant military training, the capabilities of America’s elite, Rangers and Delta Force are on full display. It’s exciting certainly but undeniably horrific.



So early in his career, Jackie Chan demonstrated his abilities as a martial artist and stuntman but perhaps more astonishing was his willingness to stretch the limits of his own abilities and the extent to which anyone was willing to follow him. And what makes these two films especially fantastic? He wrote, directed and starred in both of them. The mall sequence in the first film alone makes it worthy of being mentioned among the best. He utilizes every item on every floor to fight his aggressors. He dips, dives and dodges with insane precision all the while taking repeated real shots to his head, chest and stomach. His legs get pummeled and still he pushes. Part 2 continues the greatest strengths of Chan who channels the greatest stuntmen to piece together some of the most memorable martial arts and action sequences ever put to film. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin would be proud.  



A rarity in Hollyweird is being able to say that several movies into a franchise and the quality with each new entry is only getting better. Ghost Protocol, fantastic. Rogue Nation, more contained but equally as engaging. And then there’s Fallout. The HALO mission alone is historic. As usual, Tom Cruise is the first actor to ever attempt a HALO jump. He fell out of a C-17 at 25,000 feet and low opened his parachute below 2,000 feet. It is a maneuver normally reserved for military personnel sneaking into enemy territory and trying to remain undetected. Never mind hanging from the bottom of a helicopter and then falling from it guided only by a rope. He also learned to fly a helicopter to perform aerial stunts including a spiral maneuver. He rides motorcycles, jumps from rooftop to rooftop (breaking his foot in the process), and then of course the fighting sequences. He is a machine and it’s something of an honor to be able to say I grew up watching Tom Cruise perform some of the most amazing stunts ever put to film. The follow-up, Dead Reckoning is phenomenal and one of my favorite movies of 2023 but for my money I don’t see them ever truly topping Fallout. 



By the story’s end Tom Cruise is the heroic bad ass we all know him to be. The only difference, and one of the best aspects to this movie is that in the beginning of this tale, he is an outright coward and is willing to lie, cheat and beg his way out of any real responsibility. Without warning he is jettisoned into battle and is forever altered when he literally dies and by extraordinary means returns to life at the start of the day that originally ended with his demise. And he can do this over and over again. It’s his sudden knowledge of the future and his brutal training with Rita Vrataski that he is molded into the quintessential future soldier capable of defeating the alien enemy once and for all. The action sequences and unique story combine for one of the best films in Tom Cruise’s extraordinary filmography. His cowardice is hilarious and feels like fresh territory for him. The hardened soldier he becomes feels earned and all the more vital when you learn along with him that his newfound ability to see what is to come is what will ultimately save the world. Also Emily Blunt is equally as awesome too. This needs a sequel immediately. 



Another action movie that paved the way for countless others still mimicking and copying from it to this day. After Mad Max, Mel Gibson established himself as an action icon playing the damaged, suicidal police officer, Martin Riggs. This is the movie that started the trope of polar opposite cops being paired together creating a sort of hostile odd couple situation. The beauty in it is despite their philosophical differences, when the shit hits the fan, they have each other’s back. Alongside Riggs is the mild-mannered family man, Roger Murtaugh who just wants to get through the day and return home to his family. With his new, out-of-his-mind partner, that may prove difficult. Before long they are intertwined in a mystery involving drugs and murder. Murtaugh is level-headed and wise. Riggs is wild but highly trained and not to be trifled with. If you can think of a buddy cop trope, it likely started right here. 



Out of context saying that certain people “do violence well” and celebrating it makes you sound a bit, well, crazy. But if ever there was a person to commend for their ability to make shocking but equally exciting action sequences and moments of extreme violence, it’s the man, the myth, the legend, Quentin Tarantino. For a long time it could be said that Kill Bill was his most violent adventure to date but then 2012 came along and gave us Django Unchained. But regardless of how insanely violent and comically bloody Unchained is, Kill Bill is where he first truly let out his urge to shock and awe with over-the-top violence and fight sequences. The Bride, in her yellow tracksuit, reminiscent of Brue Lee’s Game of Death, Hattori Hanzo steel in hand, serving her own kind of ultimate justice. The Crazy 88 surrounding her on all sides, Vernita Green already dead and O-Ren Ishii waiting on the edges of the impending epic battle of sword and severed limb. Epic.  



We’re at the point on the list where each title doesn’t really require an explanation of why it’s listed in the first place. It is Indiana Jones in his iconic debut. It is the premiere of the fedora and whip. He’s the pragmatic fighter, the brawling archeologist. His swagger is mythical and his adventures legendary. He is the epitome of brave, even when it has to be snakes. It is classic Steven Spielberg collaborating with longtime friend and working partner, George Lucas. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. It’s Harrison Ford in the midst of Han Solo in Star Wars and Rick Deckard in Blade Runner. The stunt work is intense, the action sequences are historic. And then there’s John Williams. Those musical notes recite an entire franchise of classic imagery that plays in the minds of every fan who knows the genius of Indy and his whip, reluctant but somehow willing and always finding a way to one up the Nazis.  



The original is a classic. There’s no debating it. But it’s also limited being constrained to its decade. Maverick is the full realization of what is actually possible with such an exciting premise. With better cameras and more intensive training, Top Gun for the modern era is far more amazing than anyone thought possible. After so many unfortunate delays, Maverick finally debuted in 2022 and reshaped the very foundation of Hollyweird. In a time of fear for the future of movies, Top Gun: Maverick flew in and saved the day. The sequences, often caught in camera, are flawless and utterly breathtaking. Tom Cruise is top notch as usual. His supporting cast is phenomenal and their commitment to their roles and physical requirements is nothing short of astonishing. It’s nostalgic while always having an eye to the future. And I think best of all, it honors the legacy of Tony Scott, may he rest in peace. 



The idea here is to ratchet up the tension minute by minute and Speed achieves this goal in spades. Keanu Reeves is the epitome of leading man. He takes on the menacing Howard Payne who is the brain to Traven’s brawn. They clash repeatedly, winning and losing against one another. Each moment brings a new challenge only to be solved and replaced all over again. The bus must maintain 50 mph all the while trying to negotiate with a madman. A barreling bus filled with civilians, an unsuspecting city of Los Angeles, a bomber on the loose, Sandra Bullock at the wheel and Keanu Reeves careening uncontrollably at the center of it all. The idea of an impending explosion is always at the forefront of your mind as you watch this utter chaos unfold that suggests it could all only end in mayhem and fire. Dennis Hopper is hatefully entertaining, Bullock is the character we vicariously live through and Reeves is the perfect hero, damaged, angry but undeniably the right man for the job. This is as exciting as movies get. 



What I imagine was a huge gamble, James Cameron took the very horror oriented Alien and pumped it full of testosterone and big ass machine guns. The result is the rare sequel that rivals the original. Cameron seems to have a knack for expanding stories in logical and exciting ways only improving on what was established in the first film. While still maintaining the intensity and mythos of the Xenomorphs, he multiplied their numbers greatly, brought back the bad ass Ripley, added colonial space marines and pitted them against one another in the confines of a space colony on the moon LV-426. Wearing the now iconic alien stompers, Ripley dons the power loader exoskeleton to face the Queen herself. She told them repeatedly to not do the very thing they do and in the end she’s left to dispose of the problem all over again. Fifty-seven years after the Nostromo incident, no lesson learned, nothing has really changed. Game over, Man! Game over!    



A theme I’m beginning to notice is that a lot of the movies on this list broke ground in some way. They made history by being the first at something that is now a household technique or story premise. They perfected computer imagery or popularized concepts and theories still debated nearly thirty years later. The Matrix is undeniably one of those movies that changed the landscape of movies forever. The slo-mo, multi-camera shots of Neo bullet dodging has been recreated and mocked but never surpassed. The red pill/blue pill question is still hotly debated. The concept of reality not being as it is perceived. It’s a film made twenty-five years ago but is somehow as timely as ever. The lobby sequence, the trinity foot chase, the Morpheus rescue attempt, the betrayal of Cypher. It’s all seared into the collective memory of every movie fan. The characters of Neo, Trinity and Morpheus are one of the best trios in cinema and their adversary, the formidable Mr. Smith and the impending machines operated by artificial intelligence are all cogs in the machine that make up The Matrix. It was clear when it was released that this was something special. Nearly three decades later, I think it’s safe to say that feeling was spot on. 



To the haters, this is nothing more than recency bias. To the people capable of actual thought know better. A decade ago, thirty years ago or two weeks ago, it didn't matter; when Mad Max: Fury Road was released it was an instant action classic. Tom Hardy is the sane madman Max tormented in a world of absurdity and feral chaos. Furiosa is battered by her own turmoil and the downfall of her people. Under the control of Immortan Joe, Furiosa and the War Boys trek into dangerous territory. Little do the boys know, Furiosa has other plans. At the beginning their relationship is mildly put, rocky, Max and Furiosa quickly realize they need one another to survive the relentless pursuit of Joe as he seeks his wives back who only view him as their tormentor and captor. Water is currency and greenery basically nonexistent. Fuel is coveted and fought for to a world altering and ending extent. The action sequences caught in brilliant, vibrant color are exhilarating to watch. The constant pace of the heroes being pursued with extreme prejudice is thrilling tension ratcheted up to eleven. It’s bizarre, off kilter and just plain different. It’s also incredibly brave in what it attempts, how it utilizes its characters and who it ultimately deems the true hero of this mad, mad world. It leaves your head spinning with excitement about what you just saw and what might be possible in further sequels or prequels. Needless to say, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is eagerly anticipated. If it’s half as epic as Fury Road it will stand in the upper echelon of cinematic masterpieces. 



The Raid films are proof that a story can be both grueling and beautiful often at the same time. The fight sequences, some lasting nearly ten minutes, are masterfully choreographed and expertly executed. They are brutal, captured in long, single takes and feature bone breaking brutality. This is martial arts and gun technique combined to create some of the most mesmerizing fights sequences ever captured on film. Gareth Evans delivers two very differently paced stories that when joined together create their own kind of two-pronged action crime saga. In The Raid: Redemption, the story is streamlined involving a SWAT team raiding an apartment building controlled by a mobster and his ruthless army of killers. For about ninety minutes it is pure, chaotic gun combat and hand to hand barbarity. In The Raid 2, the story consists of Rama, survivor of the first film, as he infiltrates the criminals of Jakarta with hopes of bringing down the syndicate and exposing the corruption that has seeped into his own police force. More reminiscent of The Godfather, The Raid 2 is no less intense and certainly no less brutally raw. Together they are one epic story of crime being threatened by those willing to stand up to it with a resounding refusal to move or to be coerced. Think about the differences in pacing and style choices between Kill Bill vol. 1 and vol. 2. While certainly a part of the same story they are two very distinct chapters that act as both a martial arts film and western. The Raid is the pure, simple action thriller and The Raid 2 is the extended long game featuring the same characters simply in a different stage of the same story. 


3. John Wick, 2 , 3 , 4


Keanu Reeves had already demonstrated his ability to perform martial arts fight sequences having of course starred as Neo in The Matrix. He had done the action movies like Speed and Point Break but little did we realize the true capability and determination of Mr. Reeves until he brought to life Mr. Wick. By all appearances the trailer seemed to be for another forgettable action movie. At the time Chad Stahelski and David Leitch were not yet household names in the world directing. This is where they would make their bones. In October of 2014 we witnessed the lengths one highly determined, highly trained retired assassin would go to when mindless thugs kill the last vestige of his beloved wife whom he recently lost to cancer. Each new chapter in the legend of John Wick grows the mythos and expands the underworld that trained him and made him who he is today. He encounters new foes and old, all seemingly curious to see if he’s actually returned to the world he once swore off. The John Wick saga is the greatest kind of absurdity and grand world building that make the story of John Wick a fully realized, enormously complex beehive of assassins for hire and the hierarchy they are each bound by. This is one of the rare franchises where, arguably, each new addition is better than its predecessor culminating with Chapter 4. Part 4 features some of the most astoundingly intricate and painstakingly choreographed fight sequences and car chases ever created all in someway featuring the staggering abilities of Mr. Reeves himself. It is gun fu, originated by John Woo and absolutely perfected by Stahelski, Leitch and of course Reeves. This entire franchise is cinematic glory and what an honor it is to have experienced each chapter as they were released. I fear we will never see anything like it ever again. If it is truly over, Chapter 4 is the finale executed to unimaginable perfection.



Die Hard is a lot of things. It was proof that Bruce Willis was an action star in the making. He was the everyman stranded within horribly dire situations where only his lack of tact and tendency to make things worse before they get better are the only things standing between lawlessness and order. His lack of decorum and inability to find the humanity in his foes led to some imperfect and therefore immaculate action and fight sequences that will forever stand the test of time. As McClane he is messy and violent. He’s angry about his personal life and the fact that these ne’er-do-well thieves are interfering with his time trying to reconnect with his estranged wife is only making him angrier and more vindictive. He is shoeless, hopeless but never out of the fight. As Hans Gruber carries out his diabolical robbery, McClane is the ever-elusive monkey wrench that continuously gums up the works. McClane is a meddlesome nuisance and he seems to take great pride in it. These criminals picked the wrong Christmas party to crash. Die Hard is the action movie for which all other action movies are compared. It is perfectly paced, filled with memorable scenes of McClane being his reluctant hero self. It doesn’t get much better than this. Yippee-Ki-Yay, motherfucker!


1. HEAT


For many reasons, HEAT is at the top of the list but for starters, Michael Mann’s style choices when it comes to action sequences and gun tactics always strike me as choices made for the sake of accuracy and intensity. He seems to believe in authentic sound design, especially when it involves gunfire. The bank robbery scene is massive enough and so perfectly structured and executed that it could make this list on the merits of that single scene alone. The authenticity of their training as an elite team have been examined by actual weapons and tactics experts declaring the maneuvers and team work to be highly realistic. The opening scene of several masked men robbing an armored truck sets the tone for the entire movie. It establishes the lengths the criminals are willing to go but also sets up the groundwork for their ultimate confrontation with the obsessively persistent robbery/homicide detective, Vincent Hanna. Of course another reason this makes the list is the much anticipated face to face between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Two screen legends in a massive, grimy crime saga featuring amazing action sequences and it’s the moment when two polar opposite individuals sit across from one another over a cup of coffee that is seared into the minds of anyone who has experienced this film. Their conversation about life and where they’ve been and where they hope to be, metaphorically, philosophically and literally, is nothing short of cinematic poetry delivered by two masters of their craft. Heat is the kind of film that transcends when and where you feel like watching it. When it’s on, you watch it. Despite its near three-hour runtime I never tire of it. It is my favorite action movie of all-time. I will argue until my last breath that its significance in the world of cinema cannot be overstated. It is the epitome of an action masterpiece.


Honorable Mention


Original Title: L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat


My inclusion of this I admit is a bit pretentious but I believe in acknowledging what was that overall influenced the state of what we now know as action movies or thrillers. The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat is not just the title of this sixty-second scene created in 1896, it is the “plot” long before movies became a means of storytelling. It is quite simply footage captured of a train arriving at a train station. The placement and angle of the camera allowed for audiences to experience the unexpected thrill of watching a train appearing to come straight at them. It is said that many of the first audiences ducked and screamed, apparently believing the train may in fact hit them. The modern understanding of film as we know it was in no way a realization yet and the simple concept of what’s on screen simply not being real was never a thought to consider at the time. It was, by all accounts, the first true thriller. A thousand mile journey begins with a single step. This is step one.

 

Okay, that's it! That's all I wrote. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments. Trust me when I tell you I could rearrange this list a hundred different ways. I get it.



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