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The best action movies of all time

From ‘Aliens’ to ‘Zatoichi’: the greatest car-racing, punch-throwing, walking-away-from-explosions thrill rides in cinema

Written by
Matthew Singer
Phil de Semlyen
Joshua Rothkopf

Action movies get a bad rap. Not necessarily from the general public, of course. Audiences love ’em, for the most part, especially if you expand the definition to include superhero flicks and comedies like The Fall Guy. But for hardcore cinephiles, action is too often regarded as cinematic junk food, replacing all story and substance with eardrum-shattering explosions and mindless violence. Sure, you can enjoy one every now and then, but a steady diet of loud noises, death-defying stunts and one-liners? That’s for the normies to consume.

Here’s the thing, though: if the main point of any film is to make you feel something, what produces more visceral feeling than a good action flick? Anyone who’s ever had their senses rattled by a truly great action movie knows that there are few moviegoing experiences that can compare. Another thing: not all action movies are loud and dumb. Some are nearly operatic in scope and balletic in their grace – and sometimes, you might even actually care about the person dodging bullets and delivering throat chops.

This list of the greatest action films ever made is proof that the genre is more versatile than it appears. We polled over 50 experts in the field, from Die Hard director John McTiernan to Machete himself, Danny Trejo, along with Time Out’s writers. The results show that, when done right, there are few things more plainly awesome than an action movie.

Written by Eddy Frankel, Eddy Frankel, Yu An Su, Joshua Rothkopf, Trevor Johnston, Ashley Clark, Grady Hendrix, Tom Huddleston, Keith Uhlich, Dave Calhoun, Phil de Semlyen, Dave Calhoun and Matthew Singer


🔥 The 100 best movies of all-time
😬 The 100 best thrillers of all-time
🪖 The 18 greatest stunts in cinema (as picked by the greatest stunt people)
🥋 The 25 best martial arts movies of all-time

The 101 best action movies ever made

Die Hard (1988)

Director: John McTiernan

Cast: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia

Best quote: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho.”

The killer scene: Alan Rickman’s final tumble: iconic, nostalgic, slightly-shoddy-effects–based glory.

Bruce cannon
So here it is. The No. 1 spot, the top of the skyscraper. The perfect action movie. But does Die Hard really fit the bill? It doesn’t have anything to say about the state of the world. It doesn’t offer much insight into the human condition (though the image of Bruce Willis walking on broken glass could be taken as a poignant metaphor for life’s little brutalities). It isn’t exactly what pseuds would call High Art.

All of which is precisely the point. If cinema is the perfect escapist medium—and until someone invents a virtual-reality device that works, it will be—then action movies are its purest expression, the best way we know of for humanity to shake itself loose from the trappings of humdrum reality and take to the ether. We don’t want to see ourselves reflected, we don’t want understanding or honesty or intellectual insight. We want speed and intensity, wit and wisecracks, cartoon violence and things going boom. We want Die Hard.

The story is so ingenious, it’s incredible no one had thought of it before: A group of terrorists invades a state-of-the-art skyscraper and takes the inhabitants hostage. Their only hope is a man locked in with them, yet free to roam, a lone hero who must pick off the bad guys one by one, arcade-game–style, until he reaches the Big Boss. Admittedly, there are precedents—Assault on Precinct 13 must have been an on-set favorite—but no one had told this tale with such streamlined precision before. It’s little accident that, in the wake of the film’s success, clones sprouted up like toadstools almost overnight, from Die Hard on a boat (Under Siege) to Die Hard on a bus (Speed) and this year’s Die Hard on a musical instrument (Grand Piano).

That said, even the highest of concepts will only work if all the elements are right, and Die Hard is a textbook case of everything falling into place. John McTiernan’s direction pulls no punches, and there are sequences here—like the oft-imitated, never-bettered swinging-through-a-window-on-a-firehose moment—that achieve something close to visual poetry. The script is crammed with humor and invention, and whoever came up with the idea of setting it at Christmas deserves a big medal. But of course, the blue-ribbon winner in all this has to be Bruce Willis, who crashed from nowhere (well, from TV’s Moonlighting) onto the world’s stage, thanks to a combination of antiheroic self-mockery, battered but unbowed machismo and one very grubby T-shirt. Yippie-ki-ay, indeed.
Tom Huddleston
Arts and culture journalist
  • Film

Director: James Cameron

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton

Best quote: “Game over, man! Game over!”

The killer scene: Ripley straps into a Power Loader suit to destroy the alien queen.

Moms and ammo
When James Cameron stepped into Ridley Scott’s space-horror boots to direct the sequel to the brilliant Alien, he didn’t try to ape the sickening, paranoid, slow creep of the original. He just said “Screw that subtlety shit” and went big on explosions, big on aliens, and let the guns (and mech-robots) do the talking. Where before there was endless deep-space dread and grimness, now there was fully fledged big-screen action. Cameron was a relative newbie at the time, having previously only directed The Terminator, but he took to big-budget work with gusto.

Sigourney Weaver is pitted yet again against a vicious many-toothed foe, this time in an abandoned space colony, but now she’s surrounded by weapon-heavy Marines, hell-bent on kicking ass and taking no names. As in Alien, the plot centers around a male-dominated corporation’s obsession with developing bioweaponry, no matter what the human price may be. Yeah, it’s kind of a metaphor for the evils of big business, and sure, it’s an empowering fable about the strength of the female voice in a male world, but we all know what you’re here for: to watch Ripley stomp around in a huge mechanical suit and destroy some shockingly phallic alien bastards. And that’s awesome.
Eddy Frankel
Art & Culture Editor

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Seiji Miyaguchi

Best quote: “If we only defend, we lose the war.”

The killer scene: The villagers’ rain-lashed last stand against the rampaging bandits—the very definition of iconic

Playing the long game
If you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film and wonder why he’s held in such high regard, this all-time classic is all the evidence you need—not least because it inspired Hollywood’s much-loved, if slightly simplistic, remake, The Magnificent Seven. Running over 200 minutes, it’s also a textbook example of making action mean more, because we’re totally engrossed in the lives of the characters. We truly feel the fear and abject hunger of vulnerable farmers, so desperate to protect their new crop that they’re paying hired samurai with their last grains of rice. You also feel the desperation of the masterless ronin prepared to take the job, since at least it means bed and board for a while.

Kurosawa takes an hour to show us what’s at stake, and another hour showing how wise leader Takashi Shimura, volatile wanna-be samurai Toshiro Mifune and their cohorts plan to fend off their marauding foes. When the action does erupt, however, the ebb and flow of strategy is that much more absorbing, the casualties hitting hard, the payoff intense. Filmmaking of this breadth and depth takes courage, wisdom and the formal skills to put your ambitions on the screen. Utterly groundbreaking in its day, the kinetic energy with which Kurosawa’s mobile camera puts us in the midst of some hairy stunts and near-feral skirmishes has barely dated. Every action movie since owes him a debt for the hugely influential manner in which he distills space and movement into the enclosure of great cinema.

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Cast: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan

Best quote: “We’re after men. And I wish to God I was with them.”

The killer scene: One of the bunch sees his foxy former lover laughing in the arms of a fat-cat general—jealousy gets the better of him, and it’s a bloodbath.

Going out with a bang
It’s become customary to talk about Sam Peckinpah’s classic as the tombstone of the Western genre, the moment when Hollywood’s already-tired tradition of white-hat heroics was plunged irrevocably into nihilism, apocalypse and zero-sum catharsis. Then again, no other Western has proven as durably modern, or able to speak to a younger generation like this one. (Not for nothing, The Wild Bunch was comfortably the highest-ranked oater on our list.) It might be time for a rethink: The Wild Bunch is still very much with us, in every movie that gushes slo-mo rivers of blood in the name of brotherly principle, in every action film that lunges for timely political complexity amid the spent ammo casings and slung epitaphs.

The Vietnam War was raging when the movie was being made, and Peckinpah seized on those allegorical resonances, hoping to confront viewers with footage similar to what they were seeing on the nightly news. Call it a mark of his virtuosity (or naïveté) that the movie was met with a polarized response, some hailing it as a masterpiece, other pointing to it as a sign of a bankrupt art form. The Wild Bunch is breathtaking in its uncompromised grubbiness, the almighty dollar leading good men to their doom, and lesser men to a mercenary bounty. It echoes some of the director’s own struggles in Hollywood, but mainly stands as a testament to integrity: Go dark, go deep, and true action fans will follow you to the ruinous end.—Joshua Rothkopf

Police Story (1985)

Director: Jackie Chan

Cast: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung

Best quote: “The success of the operation depended on careful planning.”

The killer scene: The climactic shopping-mall showdown sees Jackie taking a death-defying three-floor plunge down a lighting wire.

Good cop, mad cop
You have to go back to the silent-comedy era of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton to find the equivalent of Jackie Chan in his Hong Kong prime—a star who’d put life and limb at risk to get the shot he wanted. These days the phrase he does his own stunts implies relatively risk-free challenges, but Chan’s ’80s peak delivers a whole other level of insanity. Yes, that really is his gung-ho cop dangling by an umbrella off a moving double-decker bus in Police Story’s opening salvo, one slip away from a bone-breaking fall. (Moments later, the stuntmen tumbling from the top deck to the tarmac all ended up in hospital, lengthening a serious injury list that saw the star form a stunt-team association to pay their medical bills.)

By the time mainstream audiences encountered Chan in 1998’s Rush Hour, age and common sense had caught up with him, and he never quite matched the exuberant blend of comic knockabout thrills and heart-stopping spills from this landmark cop flick, where his character’s pledge to protect state witness Brigitte Lin endangers both of them. The star’s expertise in fight choreography also made him an assured action director, committed to registering the hurt and commitment the performers put in. If he shows his own climactic shopping-mall leap from three different angles, it’s not egotism—only making sure we believe he’d do something that batshit crazy. The after effects of electrocution, burned hands and damaged vertebrae have long dissipated (Jackie says), but the flying three-story fall has since become celluloid legend.—Trevor Johnston

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Director: Robert Clouse

Cast: Bruce Lee, Jim Kelly, John Saxon

Best quote: “Boards don’t hit back.”

The killer scene: Lee takes on an army.

Bruce Lee goes to grindhouse heaven
Bruce Lee’s fame is based on a mere four movies he made as an adult, and Enter the Dragon was the lightning strike that transformed him into an international box-office icon, one month after his death. A legendary movie, it really shouldn’t be: the production was a mess, director Robert Clouse was a hack, and the screenplay, by and large, sucked. But the performances turn a crap sandwich into fried gold. The project’s Hollywood pedigree allowed Lee to ditch all pretense of charming his hometown Hong Kong audience and play a savage superman who’s all oiled muscles and savage grace, coming alive only when he’s in motion. Full of underground dungeons and goofy gadgets, it’s one of those rare cases when what should have been a B-list James Bond knock-off with an Asian cast wound up becoming one of the greatest action movies of all time.—Grady Hendrix 

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Director: George Miller

Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Vernon Wells

Best quote: “Greetings from Lord Humungus, the Warrior of the Wasteland!”

The killer scene: The first appearance of psychotic mutant Humungus and his band of gibbering drones—both hilarious and disturbing

Life’s a gas
It’s no accident that the car chase has become one of the foundation stones of popular cinema. Here is everything you could ever require from an action scene distilled into one easy package: speed, intensity, noise, competitiveness, swearing, gunfire, shiny surfaces and things blowing up. And no filmmaker has ever shot a pulse-pounding pedal-to-the-metal pursuit better than Australian legend George Miller, doing everything short of shoving the audience’s face into the fan belt to ensure that we can feel every bump in the road, every grind of the gears, every fender-bending slam.

The Road Warrior is without doubt Miller’s finest hour as a director, laying down the narrative ground rules in the first 20 minutes or so: Surly postapocalyptic drifter Max (Gibson) agrees to help a group of mullet-haired survivalists drag a truck filled with oil out of the Aussie desert, while a bunch of leather-clad loonies try to stop him. And when Miller pulls out the stops, no director on earth can match him: The closing chase, pitting Max’s V8 Special and accompanying Mack tanker against an army of souped-up dune buggies and rusted-out roadsters, is a symphony of destruction, an epic of excess, and arguably the finest automotive action sequence ever shot.—Tom Huddleston

Hard Boiled (1992)

Director: John Woo

Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Anthony Wong

Best quote: “You’re full of shit, you know that? There’s a toilet over there.”

The killer scene: A cop spits a toothpick faster than he shoots a bullet.

Not over easy
It’s just another day for Hong Kong policeman “Tequila” Yuen (Chow Yun Fat) and his partner, until the sting they’re overseeing at a teahouse goes very wrong. One of the lawmen lies dead. Tequila, meanwhile, blazes his way through the bad guys, putting a bloody end to one gangster with a gunshot to the face. That’s just the opening scene of John Woo’s vigorous rogue-cop thriller—one of his best bullet-riddled ballets. Eventually, an undercover agent, Alan (Tony Leung), emerges to give Tequila a run for his money, though in true Woo fashion, both men find they have similar stoic-macho codes and an identical goal: bring down the criminal syndicate led by ruthless mobster Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong).

Tequila’s love for jazz—he frequents a blues bar run, in a delightful bit of casting, by Woo himself—epitomizes this go-for-broke adventure, which moves between modes (moodily mournful one moment, fiercely kinetic the next) with the sublime confidence of a virtuoso playing at peak form. There’s a valedictory quality to the movie that seems especially poignant in retrospect, since this was the last film Woo made before he spent a decade-plus churning out Hollywood product of varying quality (see our No. 19). What a way to go out, though, especially in the astonishing climax in which Tequila and Alan infiltrate Johnny Wong’s arsenal…which just happens to be housed in a hospital filled to brimming with sick patients and newborn infants. By that point, even Hard Boiled seems too soft a title.—Keith Uhlich

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Director: James Cameron

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong

Best quote: “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

The killer scene: Sarah Connor's apocalyptic nightmare vision of L.A., as the city is blasted to ashes by a nuclear firestorm

A boy’s best friend is his cyborg
It’s interesting to note that, on our recent 100 Best Sci-fi Movies poll, James Cameron’s original Terminator placed in the top ten, with its sequel trailing behind at No. 16. Here, those positions are all but switched, but perhaps that’s as it should be. The Terminator is a perfect science-fiction movie, packed with ideas and invention, but thanks in large part to its tight budget, the action can feel a little constrained. The sequel suffered no such setbacks. By this point the most in-demand director in Hollywood, James Cameron was given a blank check to realize his most extreme destructive visions, and the result is a film that rockets from one incendiary set piece to the next, barely pausing for breath as burned-out trucks, exploding cop cars and crashed helicopters pile in its wake.

It’s also—with the arguable addition of Jurassic Park—the film that proved once and for all what computer-generated special effects were capable of. Admittedly, many of the most impressive effects were in-camera: The aforementioned helicopter crash is a triumph of practical ingenuity. But from the first appearance of the murderous, mercurial T-1000, a steely shape-shifter played to perfection by the blank-faced Robert Patrick, it was clear that something entirely new had been brought into the world. It’s possible to pick holes in the film—it’s sentimental in a way its predecessor wasn’t, and the employment of Arnie’s original Terminator as a comic sidekick can become grating—but as an action movie, this one’s hard to beat. And yet…—Tom Huddleston

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman

Best quote: “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

The killer scene: Chasing a kidnapped Marion down Cairo’s alleys, Indy confronts a black-robed swordsman who clearly wants a little time. Our hero doesn’t have any.

Rolling with the punches
Are these not the most euphoric opening 12 minutes of any movie, forget the action ones? Steven Spielberg and conceptual guru George Lucas always tip their fedoras to the ’30s cliffhanger serials (movies that they were probably too young for, realistically). Rather, consider Raiders as a statement of ceaseless forward momentum, made by two impatient movie brats rewriting the rules of Hollywood. First, we see the dark Peruvian jungle, then the bullwhip, the golden idol, the boulder (the boulder, people), the blowgun-armed natives, the vine leap to the plane and finally, the supreme wink of a gag line, delivered by the pilot: “Come on, show a little backbone, will ya?” All in 12 minutes.

Action movies had never before been this supercharged, nor would they be, by virtually anyone else. It’s a perfect entertainment machine, effortlessly involving to teenage boys (fine, guilty as charged) or anyone looking for a pure hit of hotsy-totsy-Nazi escapism. When the dust settles on Spielberg’s career, many fans will point to his childlike sense of wonderment, supported by John Williams’s stirring orchestral scores and infused in the plots themselves. Raiders of the Lost Ark, meanwhile, just throws you in, with little time to think. (We’re hot on the trail of…the power of the Hebrew God?) It might be more of a masterpiece than any of Spielberg’s other triumphs, simply for unearthing the treasure of the chase, running down the magic for a perfect two hours and then, suggestively, hiding it in a dusty warehouse as if to say: Now it’s your turn. Go find it.—Joshua Rothkopf

Kill Bill (2003/2004)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah

Best quote: “You hocked a Hattori Hanzo sword?”

The killer scene: The Bride unleashes the five-point palm-exploding heart technique.

Mother fucker-upper

Though released in two “volumes,” Quentin Tarantino’s extraordinary martial-arts magnum opus is best viewed as one four-hour whole. The action-packed first part achronologically details the roaring rampage of revenge undertaken by the Bride (Uma Thurman), a trained assassin out to slay the former associates who left her and her unborn child for dead. It culminates in the celebrated House of Blue Leaves sequence, in which our sword-wielding heroine takes down a gaggle of masked antagonists and shaves off more than the hair on the head of Lucy Liu’s yakuza villainess. The second volume becomes more contemplative (ass-kicking mobile-home standoff with one-eyed Daryl Hannah notwithstanding) as the Bride closes in on the gang’s leader: her former inamorato Bill (David Carradine, relishing QT’s pop-infused soliloquies). As always with Tarantino, it’s the words that provide the real action, cutting deeper than any blade could.—Keith Uhlich

Face/Off (1997)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: John Woo

Cast: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen

Best quote: “It’s like looking in a mirror, only not.”

The killer scene: Nicolas Cage, who’s actually John Travolta, gets thrown into a supermax prison, and stages a riot to break himself out.

Personality crisis
How’s this for a mainstream movie premise? A cop redefines ‘deep undercover’ by surgically grafting the face of a criminal mastermind onto his own head – a gambit that backfires when said criminal steals his face and crawls in bed with his wife. It sounds preposterous, if not downright insane. Also, the two principals are played by Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. Twenty-five years later, though, you wish contemporary Hollywood would have the guts to try something so bonkers. But Face/Off could’ve easily been nothing more than an ironically entertaining fever dream if anyone other than John Woo were in the director’s chair. With his third and most successful American movie, the Hong Kong action genius finally got a script he could fully sink his teeth into. He blitzes the screen with slow-mo shootouts, eye-popping setpieces and some rad boat chases, allowing the freeform insanity of Cage and Travolta mimicking each other’s mannerisms to achieve an operatic level of intensity. —Matthew Singer

The Terminator (1984)
  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: James Cameron

Cast: Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn

Best quote: “Come with me if you want to live.”

The killer scene: The police station raid, which goes from ominous to thunderous in the space of three little words. (You know them.)

Robots to riches
For a while, The Terminator was the highest-grossing film of all time in terms of cost-to-profit ratio (it’s since been trounced by The Blair Witch Project). It certainly wasn’t shot for peanuts—$6.4 million was a fair bit of change back in 1984—but James Cameron did manage to squeeze a heck of a lot of bang out of every measly buck. So while it lacks the slick, CG-assisted style and grand scope of its successor (which places on this list at a truly impressive slot yet to come), The Terminator does arguably have the edge in grit, weight and intensity. Add the fact that it was the work of a filmmaker with only one film under his belt (1981’s disastrous Piranha Part Two: The Spawning), it all adds up to something truly impressive: an against-the-odds smash hit that launched the careers of two men who would, over the next decade, completely rewrite the action rule book.—Tom Huddleston

Ong-Bak (2003)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Prachya Pinkaew

Cast: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Suchao Pongwilai

Best quote: “The fucker never gives up!”

The killer scene: A running, jumping, high-kicking marketplace confrontation

Old-school Thai
By the new millennium, filmmakers’ ability to digitally remove support wires changed the onscreen parameters of martial-arts choreography, arguably for the worse. But if Hong Kong and Hollywood had slightly lost the plot, they still did things the old way in Thailand. Enter Phanom Yeerum—a.k.a. Tony Jaa in English–speaking territories—who combined the feline agility of Jackie Chan and punishing close-quarter skills of Jet Li, with his own brand of Muay Thai–influenced destruction. There’s no wire work or CGI in sight as he demolishes the bad people who nicked his village’s Buddha statue, and if he lacks a certain acting presence, his free-flowing parkour-style slinkiness (let’s jump through a ring of razor wire!) more than compensates. The trademark move, however, is the flying elbow to the top of the skull, just one of the many Muay Thai maneuvers with their own special nomenclature. Liked Tony’s “wildcat fight”? Wait till you see his “monkey crossing world”!—Trevor Johnston

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: John McTiernan

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Bill Duke

Best quote: I ain't got time to bleed.

The killer scene: The endgame as Arnie’s battered Dutch faces off against his nemesis and comes out on top. For about 15 seconds...

Rumble in the jungle
It ain’t got time to bleed, but that’s only because John ‘Die Hard’ McTiernan’s other action landmark is too busy giving you a furiously visceral funride as its cast of paramilitary beefcakes take on, and mostly lose badly to, an intergalactic killing machine. Somewhere in amongst the flying cartridges and exploding rifle grenades is a critique of American foreign policy in the ‘80s – if it’s in the Central America, it’s a threat and probably needs blasting with a minigun – and in retrospect, probably its environmental policy too (wince as Arnie, Jesse Ventura and co machine-gun the jungle to smithereens). But never mind all that: Predator’s primal joys come in the continuously changing of the odds – never heavily in favour of humankind in the first place – as one after another of its commandos gets offed, leaving only one for the climactic showdown. Luckily, it’s the right one.—Phil de Semlyen

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Paul Greengrass

Cast: Matt Damon, Joan Allen, David Strathairn

Best quote: “This is Jason Bourne, the toughest target that you have ever tracked. He is really good at staying alive, and trying to kill him and failing just pisses him off.”

The killer scene: Grappling their way through a living room and bathroom, Bourne and a resourceful foe become intimate with smashed furniture and tile work.

Coming home for vengeance
The most recent film in our top 20 is a lasting phenomenon and, more critically, an influence on other contemporary movies. When even the Bond franchise begins feeling a little Bourne-ish, you know the tail is wagging the dog. It helps when you have an actor like Matt Damon, turning Robert Ludlum’s stoic literary creation into his signature role, equal parts ferocity and bruised betrayal (and, yes, superhuman reserve). The screenplay proved extra daring in its post-9/11 moment: Bourne returns home to a somber NYC to confront his masters, who perpetuate a state of fear in a decade that needed no more of it. Bourne is an amnesiac beginning to remember his past; Ultimatum, too, reminds us of a panache that’s largely been forgoken. A metal-crunching Manhattan car chase and a phenomenal assassination at London’s Waterloo station are staged by director Paul Greengrass (United 93) with jazzy fluidity.—Joshua Rothkopf

Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Tsui Hark

Cast: Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Xiong Xin-xin

Best quote: “If we are so rotten, how can our country be saved? Where can we go? There’s no escape.”

The killer scene: Jet Li versus Donnie Yen with absurdly long poles in an absurdly narrow alley

Jet Li saves humanity from itself.
It’s the last days of the Qing dynasty and China is falling apart. The xenophobic White Lotus Cult has declared holy war on foreigners, while the Qing empress is trying to round up and execute Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionaries. Caught between them is Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li), avatar of Confucian virtue and master of martial arts. An actual Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei-hung featured in over 70 films between 1949 and 1970, but received a new lease on life when director Tsui Hark revived him with 1991’s Once Upon a Time in China. But it’s Part II that the fans love, and it’s easy to see why. A nightmarish phantasmagoria of Chinese-on-Chinese violence, only Wong Fei-hung and his strict moral code (and awesome kung fu) stands against the tidal wave of blood unleashed by religious extremists and government thugs alike. Frankly, we could use some of that today.—Grady Hendrix

First Blood (1982)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna

Best quote: “They drew first blood, not me.”

The killer scene: Sly’s put-upon Vietnam vet proves a point by setting an entire town alight

Keep the home fires burning

The film that provided Stallone with a post-Rocky career has often seemed an undervalued affair, overshadowed by the cartoonish excesses of its more commercially successful Rambo sequels. But while the bandana-wearing, M60-toting protagonist eventually became an emblem of Reaganite hawkishness, his origin story is shaped by an almost diametrically opposed sensibility: firmly on the side of embittered soldiers isolated by society after the trauma of combat, and critical of America’s weekend-warrior culture for its unforgivably glib attitude toward firearms. From an early flashback in which Sly’s harassed drifter conflates abusive Oregon cops with the Vietcong who once tortured him, it treats the escalating hostilities with convincing gravitas, while stringing together tautly conceived confrontations in and around the mist-shrouded mountain landscape. For all the blade work, gunfire and explosions, though, it’s Sly’s final emotional meltdown that’s most potent of all, a nakedly vulnerable outpouring where John Rambo’s terrifying, pitiable contradictions are laid bare.—Trevor Johnston

RoboCop (1987)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O’Herlihy

Best quote: “Bitches, leave!”

The killer scene: RoboCop nemesis ED-209 brings a board meeting to a bloody halt.

I was born ’bot

For his second English-language feature, Dutch bad boy Paul Verhoeven took us to a time in the not-too-distant future when Detroit is a crime-ridden, economically depressed metropolis (who’da thought?) in desperate need of a hero. Enter rookie flatfoot Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who is literally shot to pieces on his first day and resurrected by the corporate conglomerate OCP as a steely metallic cyborg who serves the public trust, protects the innocent and upholds the law. (Also: shoots would-be rapists in the gonads.) But something human is still stirring inside. The film is both a biting satire of consumer culture—love those interstitial faux commercials—and an emotional character study (Murphy’s flashes of his former home life are tinged with sorrow). But Verhoeven doesn’t skimp on the memorable action, with gunfights aplenty, a death by toxic waste that will have you gleefully cringing, and an awesome antagonist in the trigger.

The Matrix (1999)
  • Film
  • Science fiction

Directors: The Wachowskis

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Hugo Weaving, Laurence Fishburne

Best quote: “There is no spoon.”

The killer scene: Stop! Bullet time! The Wachowskis and their tech wizards invent a whole new way of shooting action.

Dude, where's my reality?
Combining kick-ass action and chin-stroking philosophy was hardly a new trick, even in 1999. The Wages of Fear is all about the inevitability of death; numerous kung fu flicks contain deeply embedded existentialist ideas; and even The Terminator can be read as a meditation on the implacability of fate. But the way the Wachowskis managed to fuse leather-clad cyberpunk chop-socky thrills with concepts cribbed from Descartes for Beginners still feels fresh and vibrant, 15 years later. To be fair, the central idea is more comfortably old-fashioned and biblical than you might realize: Keanu Reeves’s hero may question his reality at every turn, but so do all saviors of humanity, from Jesus to Batman. What really makes The Matrix fly is the action: With their new “bullet time” technique (essentially a triggered series of hundreds of still photographs taken around a moving subject), the Wachowskis found a way to convincingly “move” the camera within an all-CG environment, revolutionizing action films, music videos and try-hard TV ads for the next decade.—Tom Huddleston

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Sergio Leone

Cast: Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards

Best quote: People scare better when they’re dyin’.

The killer scene: Three hired guns wait for Bronson’s gunslinger at the railway station. And wait. And wait a bit more. And then wish they’d waited even longer.

Death in the dust 
Sergio Leone’s greatest western and a landmark in the genre, Once Upon a Time in the West somehow reinforces the myths of the old west and pulls them apart all at once. It’s there in the casting of Henry Fonda, a long-time upstanding good guy in the genre, as a chilling, child-slaying villain in black. And it’s there in its refusal to equate progress with civilisation (the railroad bring death and corruption in this film) and in its mood of melancholy. With help from Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, Leone pens a dusty requiem to an old way of life that’s embroidered by Ennio Morricone’s musical motifs and delivered with the director’s own trademark extravagance as the bullets begin to fly. Charles Bronson provides an enigmatic centrepiece, with Jason Robarts and Claudia Cardinale delivering swagger and heart – a strange, undefined trio who represent a strange, undefined form of justice.—Phil de Semlyen

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Liu Chia-liang

Cast: Gordon Liu, Lo Lieh, Yue Wong

Best quote: “I wish I had learned kung fu instead of studying.”

The killer scene: When struggling hero Liu finally passes his master’s log-balancing test and gets on his way to becoming a Shaolin warrior

Buddha up
There are numerous claimants to the title of Greatest Kung Fu Movie Ever, but the one that crops up consistently is Liu Chia-liang’s Buddha-bothering, Wu-Tang Clan–inspiring revolutionary epic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. The opening credits are a dazzling work of art in themselves, as Gordon Liu performs his high-kicking martial-arts exercises in an empty, spotlit studio, gold bangles jangling on his wrists. Then the story kicks in: Liu plays Liu Yude, a rebellious student who realizes that the only way to help his downtrodden people fight against Manchu oppression is to learn the ancient ways of Shaolin. But the monks abhor violence—will they aid this charismatic renegade? Like its questing hero, The 36th Chamber achieves a near-perfect balance between violent action and keen-sighted moral, spiritual and philosophical inquiry. The training sequences are second to none—water! fire! heavy lifting!—while the final showdown is a fist-pumping triumph.—Tom Huddleston

Heat (1996)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer

Best quote: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat, if you feel the heat around the corner.”

The killer scene: Finally, acting giants Al Pacino and Robert De Niro stare each other down across a diner booth—the moment is electric.

Cops versus robbers, deluxe
After reinventing television in the 1980s with Miami Vice, Michael Mann took his stylish instincts to the big screen, but he didn’t quite get all the parts working until this film, an extraordinary L.A. crime saga with cool-blue depth. Heat is an action fan’s dream, provided that dream includes room for the serious topic of professional compromise, marital dysfunction and parental abandonment. The movie’s main protagonists—Vincent (Pacino), a hard-driving lieutenant, and Neil (De Niro), a wary career criminal looking for that proverbial last job—both have commitment issues; their game of cat and mouse involves a ton of collateral damage. (Pay note to a 14-year-old Natalie Portman, whose fragile character could use a dad.) When the movie breaks out the guns, it becomes abstractly beautiful, especially during a brazen midday bank robbery scored to Brian Eno’s pumping synth beats. It’s a scene of urban warfare that’s never been eclipsed.—Joshua Rothkopf

Drunken Master II (1994)
  • Film

Director: Lau Kar-Leung

Cast: Jackie Chan, Ken Lo, Lung Ti

Best quote: [Looking at bottle label] “What does it mean when there’s a picture of a skull?”

The killer scene: Jackie, an opponent and a wooden bench—it becomes a woozy dance for three.

The highest kick of all
Don’t be surprised that some sequels place highly on our list. Few genres are as rewarding as action when it comes to second chapters upping the ante, improving on the stunts, pumping up the explosions. Jackie Chan proved himself the king of subsequent installments as his career entered its golden phase in the 1990s. Wong Fei Hung is one of Chan’s most likable creations: the dutiful son of a teacher who nonetheless brings shame upon his family by pursuing the unpredictable art of “drunken boxing,” all dizzying feints and unexpected blows. And it turns out that actually getting soused helps the practitioner; several scenes in Drunken Master II have Chan desperately smashing bottles and guzzling down their contents for strength, even as his challengers rush him. The film’s extended, fire-breathing climax is a high point of Chan’s Peking Opera–trained artistry, a master class in hand-to-hand combat with a video-game–like frenzy.—Joshua Rothkopf

Project A (1983)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Jackie Chan

Cast: Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao

Best quote: “Big Nose, if you don’t jump now, forget about making any more films.”

The killer scene: A three-story drop from a clock tower with no safety nets

Big stunts, big chases, big action: the first “real” Jackie Chan movie
The aforementioned quote was shouted at Jackie by his “big brother,” Sammo Hung, as Chan clung to the face of a clock tower for a week, terrified of the three-story fall he was about to take. But with the aid of Sammo’s gentle abuse, Jackie let go, and the rest is history. The first Jackie Chan movie to combine large-scale stunts with balls-out action, Project A also cemented his onscreen persona as the ultimate Hong Kong everyman, a working-class guy who just wants to get through the day, and maybe take his girlfriend out for dinner. That a gang of pirates doesn’t want that to happen is merely an exasperating complication, like crosstown traffic. Whether he’s staging a bike chase down back alleys, swinging from a chandelier, or almost breaking his neck, it’s Jackie’s endless physical resourcefulness in the face of overwhelming odds that feels like a refreshing shower for your soul.—Grady Hendrix


Lethal Weapon (1987)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Richard Donner

Cast: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey

Best quote: “I’m too old for this shit.”

The killer scene: Gibson and Busey’s stripped-to-the-waist showdown in the rain, the most hilariously homoerotic sequence in Mad Mel’s filmography

Gibson on top
Where would Mel Gibson be without Lethal Weapon, his big Hollywood breakthrough? We like to imagine him back in Oz, far from the cruel attentions of the tabloid press, sinking a few cold ones after a hard day’s work on Australian TV’s Home and Away. Would he have been happier that way? We’ll never know. What we do know is that the world would’ve been robbed of one of the great buddy duos in movie history, not to mention several of its most perfectly delivered wisecracks. The Lethal Weapon series went pretty wildly off the rails in later installments, but the original remains a heady blast of vigilante nihilism, reveling in scenes of excessive drug use, execution and torture (a theme Mel would return to regularly throughout his career). But it’s in balancing these scenes with the cozy suburban warmth of Glover’s family life that the screenplay (by then-25-year-old Shane Black) finds its center, and becomes more than just another full-throttle beat-’em-up.—Tom Huddleston

The Killer (1989)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: John Woo

Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh

Best quote: “Good people are usually misunderstood.”

The killer scene: A final assault in the church is bloodily, dramatically, spiritually excessive in every way.

Brothers in arms
The most dementedly elegiac thriller you've ever seen, distilling a lifetime's enthusiasm for American and French film noir, with little Chinese about it apart from the soundtrack and the looks of the three beautiful leads. It started out as a homage to Martin Scorsese and Jean-Pierre Melville, but the limitless arsenal of guns and rocket-launchers appears to have gotten in the way. Exquisitely-tailored contract killer Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat, Hong Kong's finest actor) accidentally damages the sight of nightclub singer Jennie while blasting a dozen gangsters to kingdom come. He befriends the near-blind girl, and decides to take One Last Job to finance the cornea graft she needs. There are half-a-dozen mega-massacres along the way, plus extraordinary spasms of sentimentality, romance and soul searching.

Bullitt (1968)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Peter Yates

Cast: Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bisset

Best quote: “Time starts now.”

The killer scene: McQueen + 1968 Ford Mustang + San Francisco = action-film history

Cut to the chase
If car chases over the hilly streets of San Francisco are what gets your heart a-pumpin’, this quintessential ’60s shoot-’em-up is the movie for you. Steve McQueen could not be cooler—we like the whole turtleneck-with-shoulder-holster look—and the thing moves faster than a speeding…um…what’s that word again? These action sequences are brilliant: crisp and done without trickery in real locations, lending an extraordinary sense of immediacy to the shenanigans and gunfights.

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Gareth Evans

Cast: Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Donny Alamsyah

Best quote: ‘Let's clean this city’s mess!’

The killer scene: Indonesian SWAT-teamer Rama uses a fridge, a gas canister and a grenade to improvise a corridor-clearing weapon. Do not try this in Homebase

Bet you’re glad you didn’t pay the management fee

By one of those weird bits of movie happenstance, two films with almost identical plots came out close together in the early 2010s: Dredd and this Indonesian actioner from Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans. And it’s no disrespect to the former that it’s The Raid that we’re still talking about a decade or so later. Scratch that, it’s The Raid that we’re still recovering from. The set-up, of course, involves a law enforcer battling their way to reach a superbad at the top of a tower block. That man is charismatic pencak silat superstar Iko Uwais, who pulls out moves we didn’t even know the human body was capable of in punching, stabbing, kicking and hammering his way up myriad storeys of an unusually dangerous housing project. It’s almost too much, except Evans remembers to throw in moments of (relatively) light relief and humanity to help catch our breath before the next round of pummelling starts. The best action film of the decade? Very possibly.—Phil de Semlyen

The General (1926)
  • Film
  • Comedy

Director: Buster Keaton

Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender

Best quote: ‘If you lose this war, don't blame me.’

The killer scene: Keaton rides the cowcatcher of an actual moving train and tosses one dislodged railroad tie at another in order to avoid derailment. It’s crazier than it looks – if he mistimed it at all, the movie might be famous for entirely grimmer reasons.

I choo-choo-choose you
Long before Jackie Chan, Tom Cruise or the Jackass franchise, there was Buster Keaton, cinema’s original pratfall artist and the actor who redefined the boundaries of just how far a movie star could or should go to personally entertain an audience. ‘Movie magic’ had just barely been invented when the guy tossed it all out and said: ‘Screw all that, I’m doing this shit for real,’ and The General is perhaps his greatest achievement, both as a film and as a feat of daredevilry most studios would never dare to insure today. Set during the American Civil War, Keaton plays a Confederate railroad engineer whose beloved locomotive is stolen by Union spies with his paramour aboard. (Yes, the Union are the villains. Hey, it was the ’20s.) Cue what’s effectively a movie-length chase scene, filled with legit cannonfire, bridge derailments and the aforementioned cowcatcher scene, still one of the most famous stunts in film history. Sure, The General is the oldest full-length feature on this list, but it’s not simply a historical milemarker. Even a century later, it leaves jaws slack and hearts racing. —Matthew Singer   

The French Connection (1971)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: William Friedkin

Cast: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider

Best quote: “If that’s not a drop, I’ll open up a charge for you at Bloomingdale’s.”

The killer scene: Gene Hackman chasing a subway train—by car

Here froggy, froggy
Most of The French Connection involves action of the moody, low-key sort, with Gene Hackman as Popeye, a no-nonsense, fists-flying detective on the trail of some big-time French drug importers (“Frog One” and “Frog Two” as the cops call them) in early-1970s New York City. Director William Friedkin sucks up the sights and menacing sizzle of the rundown, wintry metropolis, with a shouty, near-comic raid on a Brooklyn dive bar and ample shots of wet streets, looming bridges and packed subway trains. It’s a master class in tense, doc-style location shooting. But a set piece for the ages comes late in the game, as Popeye commandeers a passing car to chase a hijacked subway train under its elevated track (Friedkin’s camera is mounted on both train and automobile). A final, anticlimactic shoot-out also lingers in memory.—Dave Calhoun

  • Film

Director: George Miller

Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult

Best quote: “Oh, what a day—what a lovely day!”

The killer scene: Racing into battle, an army’s pet guitar player unleashes a raging soundtrack. His ax shoots flames, shaming the memory of Kiss.

On the Road again
The fourth installment of George Miller’s rambunctious post-apocalyptic saga arrives like a tornado tearing through a tea party. In an age of weightless spectacles that studios whittle down from visions to products, here’s a movie that feels like it was made by kidnapping $150 million of Warner Bros.’ money, absconding with it to the Namibian desert, and sending footage back to Hollywood like the amputated body parts of a ransomed hostage. Marrying the mordant frenzy of Terry Gilliam’s cinematic universe with the explosive grandeur of James Cameron, Miller cooks up some of the most exhilaratingly sustained action ever captured on camera. The digital effects, sparingly used, take a backseat to the film’s non-stop parade  of “people actually did that!?” stunt work. With Charlize Theron’s Furiosa behind the wheel, though, Fury Road steers this testosterone-soaked franchise in a brilliant new direction, forging a mythical portrait about the urgent need for female rule in a world where men need to be saved from themselves.—David Ehrlich

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Michael Curtiz and William Keighley

Cast: Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, Olivia de Havilland

Best quote: “You’re a bold rascal, Robin!”

The killer scene: Flynn and Rathbone’s climactic sword fight as all hell breaks loose in Nottingham Castle

Sword of Sherwood
Errol Flynn robs from the rich, gives to the poor and winks at the ladies in what is still the greatest screen version of this durable legend. Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains head an outstanding supporting cast. Way, way too much fun. The movie’s rich three-strip Technicolor gives the whole thing a picture-book quality, yet what we’re seeing here with Flynn at his zenith is actually the forebearer of James Bond, Indiana Jones et al.: the sheer essence of the celluloid action hero.

Commando (1985)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Mark L. Lester

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Hedaya

Best quote: ‘Let off some steam, Bennett.’

The killer scene: The shopping mall brawl to end them all, in which Arnie fights off a gaggle of hapless security guards, pursues the lead baddie to the parking garage, gets run over by a convertible and just keeps on coming.

The original Matrix
Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in better movies, but no movie really got him like Commando. He was already a star by the time he made this shamelessly violent, unapologetically absurd shoot-’em-up, but this is the film that solidified the Arnie cliche in the popular imagination. He redefines ‘one-man wrecking crew’ as hilariously named retired army colonel John Matrix, who goes on an all-time rampage after terrorists kidnap his daughter (a young Alyssa Milano), full of ridiculously huge explosions that send anonymous henchman flipping through the air like Olympic gymnasts, some improbable stealth manoeuvring from a man the size of a redwood and a handful of the greatest one-liners he’s ever delivered. (Although the funniest scene might be the opening montage depicting his placid home life, showing Matrix happily feeding a deer and casually carrying a tree trunk over his shoulder.) It’s certainly trashier than many of the films on this list, but it’s also more purely fun than most of them. Honestly, if you can’t appreciate this kind of magnificently dumb spectacle, then maybe you don’t really like action movies. —Matthew Singer   

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang

Best quote: “A sword by itself rules nothing. It only comes alive in skilled hands.”

The killer scene: The breathtaking dance to the death 60 feet high up in a bamboo forest

Float like a butterfly, sting with a sword

If you first saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in a cinema, you’ll remember the gasps in the audience during the first major fight sequence, as Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi float up from the ground as if gravity has stopped working its magic. Astonishingly beautiful, this is an action film loved even by those who hate such things. The plot concerns a warrior, Li Mu Bai (Chow), who, about to retire, entrusts his sword to Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh); their unspoken love is the heart and soul of the film. Zhang plays the daughter of a local governor who has secretly learned martial arts. Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee has said he wanted to make a tribute to the wuxia films he grew up with. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and scored the highest-ever box-office gross in the U.S. for a film not in English (it wasn’t really about talk to begin with).—Cath Clarke

Dragons Forever (1988)
  • Film

Director: Sammo Hung

Cast: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao

Best quote: “Pigeons—the disciples of capitalism. Goldfish—the disciples of communism. Got it?”

The killer scene: The final fight to end all final fights

The Three Dragons execute a flawless kung fu rom-com
Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao grew up together in a harsh Chinese opera school, and you’d have to go back to the Marx brothers to find performers with their kind of chemistry. In Dragons, Jackie plays a sleazebag attorney defending a slimeball who polluted a nice lady’s fish hatchery. Blocked by the opposing lady lawyer, he hires a small-time crook (“Big Brother” Sammo) and an unhinged surveillance expert (“Little Brother” Yuen) to help him entrap the defendants, but then everyone falls in love. The three amigos can’t stop fighting long enough to do their jobs, but the jokes end with a final fight in a drug lab that is, quite simply, one of the greatest action scenes of all time. This marked the last time the three brothers all worked together, but they went out in style, setting the screen on fire and breaking every jaw in sight.—Grady Hendrix

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Park Chan-wook

Cast: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong

Best quote: ‘Even though I'm no more than a monster, don't I, too, have the right to live?’

Best scene: It’s not really an ‘action scene’ per se, but the moment when Choi Min-sik consumes a live octopus – a real live octopus, mind you – will tie your guts in knots as much as anything else.

Stop! Hammer time
Does Park Chan-wook’s new Korean classic count as an action movie, in the technical sense? Sure, it’s got some banger sequences – emphasis on ‘bang’ – but it could also slot in as a horror film, or a melodrama, or a psychological thriller. In truth, Oldboy belongs to a genre entirely of its own design. But those aforementioned action scenes… well, goddamn. Most of the other directors on this list would give up their filmographies for a sequence as awesome as the side-scrolling hallway fight, as vengeful father Oh Dae-su (a mesmerising Choi Min-sik) mows down a whole crew of henchmen using only a hammer. In a vacuum, it’s monumentally badass. But like the rest of the film, it’s a moment shot through with both sadness and futility, as the movie barrels toward the protagonist’s ultimate, shocking denouement. Again, Oldboy isn’t an action movie in the way others here are – it’s more like a Greek tragedy for the video game era. – Matthew Singer

  • Film

Director: George P. Cosmatos

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Charles Napier

Best quote: “I want what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had, wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it!”

The killer scene: Rambo fires an exploding arrow at a bad guy hiding in a waterfall.

Wham, ’Nam, thank you, ma’am
In this frenetically entertaining sequel—cowritten by James Cameron—snarling ex–Green Beret Rambo (Stallone) is parachuted back into Vietnam on a suicidal top-secret mission by corrupt government officials. (“Sir, do we get to win this time?” our hero asks beforehand.) The perma-sweaty, muscle-bound Sly grunts and grimaces his way through a string of violent set pieces, mercilessly slaying faceless villains with whichever tools are lying around: fishing lines, bazookas, or, in one memorable scene, an exploding arrowhead. Most critics, alarmed by the fantastical anti-Communist politics on display, slammed First Blood Part II. It also waltzed away with a whopping five Razzie Awards. But audiences didn’t care: It became the first film to play on over 2,000 screens in the U.S., and Sly’s third-biggest box-office success to date. Moreover, its blend of high-octane widescreen action and ever-spiraling body count helped set the template for a new breed of OTT action movie.—Ashley Clark

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: John Woo

Cast: Ti Lung, Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung

Best quote: “I am God.”

The killer scene: Chow Yun Fat, two guns, and some potted plants take out the trash

The big bang that birthed a billion heroic bloodshed movies
John Woo’s career was in the toilet when he and Tsui Hark decided to remake Patrick Lung Kong’s 1967 classic, Story of a Discharged Prisoner. Channeling all his frustrations into the script, A Better Tomorrow ushered in a new era of ballistic brotherhood. Ti Lung plays a crook, just out of the slammer, caught between patching things up with his little brother, a cop (Leslie Cheung), and staying away from his old boss (Waise Lee) who wants him back in the game. When the pressure gets to be too much, things explode into two-gunned action with the help of his old comrade-in-arms, Mark (Chow Yun Fat), onetime king of cool, now a limping squeegee man. Written in fire and blood, the image of Mark, a gun in each hand, trench coat flapping like black wings, branded itself into the brains of a generation of action fans, and still appears in movies to this day.—Grady Hendrix

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey

Best quote: "They only live to get radical.”

The killer scene: After a high-speed foot chase through the backstreets – and backyards – of Los Angeles, Johnny Utah finally has Bodhi cornered… but he just can’t pull the trigger, so to speak. 

The first time a person watches Point Break, it’s typically with a certain level of ironic detachment. C’mon, a movie about Keanu Reeves as an ex-college football player turned hotshot detective named Johnny Utah going undercover to bust a gang of SoCal surfer bank robbers led by Patrick Swayze as a hunky zen master known only as Bodhi? Sure, hilarious premise, but is this a film we’re really supposed to take seriously? Then, somewhere around your 20th viewing, you realise your palms still get sweaty during Keanu’s parachuteless skydive and your jaw still goes slack during that iconic foot chase, and you see Point Break for the absolute guilt-free, high-octane, sky-shooting, pitbull-tossing, vaguely homoerotic banger that it is. Not that it isn’t laugh-out-loud absurd at points… or at basically every point. But that’s precisely what makes it one of the most fun, immortally rewatchable action-thrillers ever made, from your first viewing to your 200th. —Matthew Singer 

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Stephen Chow

Cast: Stephen Chow, Yuen Wah, Bruce Leung

Best quote: “I want to be bad. I want to be the killer!”

The killer scene: Chow discovers his inner Buddha

Bruce Lee meets Buster Keaton in Stephen Chow​'s madcap delight 
Crime-ridden 1930s Shanghai is run by the formidable Axe Gang in Stephen Chow’s nitrous high of a martial arts flick. Enter the director-star’s wannabe gangster Sing, who is desperate to join the gang and sets about harassing the slum of Pigsty Alley to prove his bona fides, only to be foiled by a trio of actual martial arts masters. A burst of ​madcap Hong Kong energy that marries Looney Tunes slapstick with a Magnificent Seven-style ​storyline, as the gangsters return to d​uff up Pigsty Alley​, it’s a fun ride with all the intensity ​and craft of the best of martial arts cinema.Any action movie that ends with someone literally punching the planet – via the so-called ‘Buddhist Palm’ – is welcome to join our gang any time.Yu An Su

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Cast: Tom Cruise, Vanessa Kirby, Ving Rhames

Best quote: “What’s done is done when we say it’s done.”

The killer scene: In a film filled with amazing stunts, the bare-knuckle scrap in the bathroom of a Paris nightclub is the real grabber. Henry Cavill’s fist-reloading physicality (fist reloading!) and Cruise’s wiry, against-the-odds vigour and subtle comic timing make for an awesome double act. There’s a reason it’s on this list of the greatest stunts ever

Well, HALO there
From Fast and Furious to the mass of superhero movies, all franchises lose their spark in the end. Not Mission Impossible and definitely not Fallout, a sixth instalment that builds on the strengths of Ghost Protocol to deliver a taut, tense and thrilling blockbuster. What it might lack in visual aesthetic it trades for a string of unthinkable action setpieces, making it the most daring instalment since Brian De Palma’s slick 1996 original, director Christopher McQuarrie keeps things moving at lightning speed. No action sequence is allowed to falter: from the brutal bathroom beatdown, to the hair-raising HALO jump, to the climactic helicopter-on-helicopter battle – and all without resorting to heavy CGI or clever editing. Cruise’s masochistic dedication to entertaining the moviegoing masses makes this one of the most exhilarating mainstream action films in recent years. Mission accomplished.—Yu An Su

The Professionals (1966)
  • Film

Director: Richard Brooks

Cast: Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale

Best quote: “Let’s go to work.”

The killer scene: The explosive dawn raid on the kidnappers’ hideaway

Special delivery
Active from the 1940s to the mid-’80s, writer-director Richard Brooks exemplified the extraordinary changes Hollywood went through during that time, and this all-star Western marks the transition between old-school Hollywood entertainment and the darker tone of the post-studio era. The film takes a men-on-a-mission scenario (old soldiers Marvin, Lancaster and Robert Ryan head south of the border to rescue kidnap victim Cardinale) and infuses it with star-driven banter, intermittent action highlights, and much musing on the transient nature of idealism by hardened pros. While the gunplay and the assault on the villains’ hideout are certainly tame by Sam Peckinpah standards, the characters’ sense that they’re mere hirelings with nothing left to believe in definitely anticipates The Wild Bunch, making this a movie that’s perfectly enjoyable on its own terms, but even more fascinating when viewed in the wider context of what was to come.—Trevor Johnston

Ip Man (2008)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Wilson Yip

Cast: Donnie Yen, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Simon Yam

Best quote: “I want to fight ten people.”

The killer scene: Opponent has a large sword, Donnie has a dried cattail. Place your bets.

Keep calm and carry on
Best not look here for a historically accurate portrayal of the eminent real-life martial artist Ip Man, who later mentored Bruce Lee and recently inspired Wong Kar-wai’s latest offering, The Grandmaster. The facts are sacrificed for yet another commercially savvy epic of Chinese national resistance against Japanese invaders. What you will find, however, is a great role for the occasionally wooden Donnie Yen, whose straight-backed demeanor and lightning moves make him more dramatically convincing than usual as the reserved bourgeois adherent of the wing chun school, discovering his true role as inspirational leader during his community’s darkest hour. While the action highlights are inventive and crunching in equal measure (particularly when Yen gets his hands on various handy implements), director Yip’s careful, nuanced unfolding of the protagonist’s progress makes this a surprisingly engrossing watch, even for martial-arts skeptics.—Trevor Johnston

Kill Zone — S.P.L. (2005)
  • Film

Director: Wilson Yip

Cast: Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Wu Jing

Best quote: “He used to be real cool. He turned a suspect into a half-wit with only one punch.”

The killer scene: A semi-improvised alleyway beatdown

The rebirth of Hong Kong cool
In 2005, Hong Kong action cinema was dead. Then Wilson Yip, director of junk like The Mummy, Donnie Yen, a 42-year-old also-ran, and Sammo Hung, then serving time in movie jail, came out of nowhere with this sleek butt-kicker that shot 50,000 volts through the genre’s heart. Inspector Chan (Simon Yam) has been trying to arrest triad kingpin Po (Hung) for years but now he’s got a brain tumor. Inspector Ma (Yen) is taking over his cases and who cares? But Yip serves up these cliches with Dark Knight levels of bleakness, and Donnie Yen delivers intense badassery that is downright religious in its sheer conviction, culminating in a semi-improvised back-alley brawl, followed by a smackdown with Sammo that only ends when every table in the world is broken.—Grady Hendrix

Ben-Hur (1959)
  • Film
  • Drama

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet

Best quote: “Hate keeps a man alive—it gives him strength.”

The killer scene: Hold tight for the epic chariot race to end ’em all

Swing low, sweet chariot
It’s got a cast of thousands, stretches of religiosity, a dab of leprosy and even a cameo from Our Lord Jesus, but the chariot race remains the prime reason this sword-and-sandal Oscar winner represents a strain of pre-digital epic cinema we’ll never see again. Before Charlton Heston faced off against enemy Stephen Boyd in this film’s vast Circus Maximus set built at Rome’s Cinecittà, Hollywood action sequences involved the second unit covering the stunt work, then the editor dropping in back-projected inserts of the star. Ben-Hur changed the game forever, since Heston and Boyd trained for months to handle chariots in close-up, ace stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt’s team provided death-defying spills, and director William Wyler planned his widescreen camera angles so the whole assembly worked as a dynamic construct. The white-knuckle realism still works thrillingly, and—George Lucas’s Phantom Menace rerun included—simply can’t replicated by today’s pixel-crunching technology.—Trevor Johnston

True Lies (1994)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: James Cameron

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bill Paxton

Best quote: “Can you hurry up? My horse is getting tired.”

The killer scene: The guns-blazing helicopter chase across the Florida Keys’ seven-mile bridge

Back in the 1990s, Islamic terrorism was a big goof. James Cameron could happily present a gang of wanna-be nuclear bombers as pratfalling jokers, bungling their way through a suicide mission like Allah’s own Keystone Kops. Now, of course, it doesn’t seem quite so amusing. What does still work, however, is the central conceit, based on a little-seen 1991 French comedy called La Totale! Part James Bond, part Homer Simpson and part his own bad self, Arnie plays it to the hilt as Harry Tasker, an undercover CIA agent who leads a double life as a suburban family man—at least until wife Jamie Lee Curtis smells a rat. One of Cameron’s lightest, least apocalyptic projects (the occasional atomic explosion aside), True Lies is a film of simple, perfectly executed pleasures: gun battles, helicopter chases and saucy screwball misunderstandings. Those terrorists still leave a bad taste, though.­—Tom Huddleston

The Blade (1995)
  • Film

Director: Tsui Hark

Cast: Zhao Wen-zhuo, Xiong Xin-xin, Song Nei

Best quote: “I kill pigs for money.”

The killer scene: A final fight unfolding so fast, it blisters your eyes

The Unforgiven of martial-arts movies
Tsui Hark deconstructs the world of chivalrous heroes, turning it into a man-eat-dog hellscape where mercy is just another word for “weakness.” Reimagining Chang Cheh’s landmark 1967 film, The One-Armed Swordsmen, as a psychotronic phantasmagoria full of scars and tattoos, mutilation, amputation, sexual frustration and heavy chunks of steel-splitting muscle and breaking bones, Tsui rolls his superstylized camera through the dirt and turns the freeze-frame into a tombstone. Sharp Manufacturers is a sword factory protected from the violence raging outside its walls by Master, who tolerates zero nonsense. But his daughter (Song Nei) is bored and decides to play with the help, manipulating two apprentice sword makers into a contest for her affections, unleashing a tidal wave of sex and blood that drowns them all. By the time the last body hits the ground, the audience has been battered into submission.—Grady Hendrix

Léon: The Professional (1994)
  • Film

Director: Luc Besson

Cast: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman

Best quote: “I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven.”

The killer scene: Gary Oldman guns down Natalie Portman’s family in a cramped Manhattan apartment while under the influence.

The oddest odd couple

Hollywood action meets European art house in Luc Besson’s first American film. This is the most twisted Pygmalion story in the history of cinema, in which a hangdog lonely hit man, Léon (Jean Reno), teaches streetwise 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) the art of killing after a psychotic cop (Gary Oldman) takes out her family. The pair finds redemption in each other: Léon, a man who calls the houseplant on his windowsill his best friend, learns to love; Mathilda finds security and strength. The film splits audiences: Is their relationship sweetly touching or, given her age, troubling? Is Oldman the scariest, most deranged villain since Jack Nicholson in The Shining? Or an overacting ham? Wherever you stand, Léon is slick, stylish and unpredictable, with its share of explosive action scenes.—Cath Clarke

The Bourne Identity (2002)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Doug Liman

Cast: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper

Best quote: “You’re U.S. government property—you’re a malfunctioning $30 million weapon.”

The killer scene: Death by ballpoint pen when Bourne takes out a machine-gun–armed assassin in his Paris apartment

He’s on his own side now
Director Doug Liman considered Russell Crowe and Sylvester Stallone to play the CIA operative with a hard-core case of amnesia. Now it’s impossible to imagine any actor other than Matt Damon in the role. Watching The Bourne Identity, the first film in the series, Damon looks touchingly young, bringing vulnerability to the near-superhuman Jason Bourne, who is pulled out of the sea by fishermen with bullets in his back and his memory wiped. The mega-successful conspiracy-thriller franchise has reinvented the genre, kick-starting a new generation of gritty action movies by lending them the texture of real life. You can certainly trace Bourne in Daniel Craig’s 007 films, but, according to Damon, there are a million miles between Bourne and Bond, whom he calls “a misogynist, an imperialist. He’s all the things that Bourne isn’t. He kills people, then drinks a martini.” The protectiveness is sweet, really.—Cath Clarke

The Wages of Fear (1953)
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Film
  • Action and adventure
  • Recommended

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Cast: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck

Best quote: “When someone else is driving, I’m scared.”

The killer scene: The bitter end, which fulfills the bleak promise the entire film has been making all along

Trucking hell
Before the rise of Lucy’s Luc Besson and his cavalcade of Eurotrash shoot-’em-ups, the French were not a nation noted for their propensity for cinematic action. They seemed to prefer films about cigarette-smoking intellectuals, shabby policemen and gone-to-seed strippers—not, say, giant robots who enjoy smashing stuff. But there was a time, long ago, when nail-biting thrills and tough philosophical statements about man’s inhumanity could sit quite comfortably side by side, a trend that reached its peak with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s dizzying The Wages of Fear. The tale of four hopeless losers forced by poverty and desperation to take a job driving trucks filled with nitroglycerine dynamite across the worst roads in the Amazon jungle, this is an unrelentingly sweaty, grimy, dread-filled experience. But it’s also one of the cinema’s toughest, least forgiving portraits of men on the edge, barreling toward certain death and bitching miserably every inch of the way.—Tom Huddleston

Director: Chad Stahelski and an uncredited David Leitch

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen

Best quote: “People keep asking if I'm back and I haven't really had an answer. But now, yeah, I'm thinking I'm back.”

The killer scene: Wick takes out henchmen in a neon-lit dance club filled with pounding techno and appreciative onlookers.

Keanu, rising
An action franchise was born and we took notice. John Wick (Keanu Reeves, channeling his euphoric whoa of yore) is a recent widower and secret assassin whose final gift from his cancer-stricken wife—a floppy-eared beagle—is snuffed out with a sad little yelp during a brutal home invasion by Russian thugs. Wick recovers in record time, then out come the guns, the rifles and the mysterious gold coins, as Game of Thrones' hapless Alfie Allen (forever destined to be a picked-upon target) finds himself pursued by a ruthless, legendary killing machine that every other character seems wise enough to fear. John Wick is action manna for its cleanly designed gun-fu sequences, ones you can actually follow. The film's codirectors, veteran stunt experts, have designed the movie within an eye for impact, and there's an elegant sparseness here that's thrilling. We didn’t go in expecting poetry but we’re glad we went.—Joshua Rothkopf

Flash Point (2007)
  • Film

Director: Wilson Yip

Cast: Donnie Yen, Louis Koo, Ngai Sing

Best quote: “Stop trying to be cool all the time! Why don’t you just arrest people?”

The killer scene: The final half hour of nonstop, thighs-around-face mayhem

Donnie Yen stars in the most Donnie Yen movie ever.
For the audience who found its Kill Zone—S.P.L. too intellectual, Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen deliver Flash Point, which is to martial-arts movies what MMA is to gay porn: unconscious macho camp. But like all good drag shows, it’s also a total guilty pleasure. Donnie Yen doubles down on his self-conscious cool, all peacock struts, leather jackets and skinny jeans as he infiltrates a Vietnamese gang with undercover buddy Wilson (Louis Koo). The two bros frequently meet on the beach, topless, to see who has the better bod. The first 50 minutes are devoted to characters repeating that Donnie is a “loose cannon.” The final 30 minutes are a nonstop orgy of mayhem showcasing Donnie’s new-school action choreography that features boxing, judo, MMA, Muay Thai and karate. The greatest metaphor for this flick is its central image of a ticking time bomb stuffed inside a roast turkey.—Grady Hendrix

300 (2006)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Zack Snyder

Cast: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West

Best quote: “My arm!” “It’s not yours anymore.”

The killer scene: The astonishingly intense final fight, marking the end of Leonidas

Greeks for geeks (of the action variety)
In this blistering (and gloriously campy) historical epic, director Snyder makes remarkable use of computer technology to bring Frank Miller’s sprawling graphic novel to life. With its stunningly detailed visuals, rigorously controlled color scheme and clean, episodic storytelling, it remains the purest example to date of cinema-as-comic book. A murderer’s row of quality acting talent—including Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender and Dominic West—lines up to stab, spear and slash their way through a blood-spattered retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae. Special mention should be made of Rodrigo Santoro, who gives a deliciously ripe performance as the bejeweled, pierced and ultra-sadistic villain Xerxes. The film inspired a dismal spoof (Meet the Spartans) and a feeble sequel (300: Rise of an Empire), but laid the groundwork for a new wave of brutal, sexed-up sword-and-sandal fare like Spartacus: Blood and Sand and HBO’s Game of Thrones.—Ashley Clark

The Prodigal Son (1981)
  • Film

Director: Sammo Hung

Cast: Yuen Biao, Lam Ching-ying, Sammo Hung

Best quote: “You sissy! What kind of cult kung fu was that?”

The killer scene: A duel with an opponent whose knuckles drip with heavy jade rings

A vindication of the badassery of wing chun
Let’s learn about wing chun! Founded by a Buddhist nun, this fighting style with its up-close contact and low kicks is constantly dissed as sissy fu, but The Prodigal Son dumps that junk in a grave. Yuen Biao plays a cocky kung fu brat whose rich daddy secretly pays his opponents to lose. When a Chinese opera company comes through town, its cross-dressing diva, Leung (Lam Ching-ying), turns out to be a wing chun master who teaches the brawling brat a lesson. Yuen is suddenly desperate to become Leung’s student—and Leung is just as desperate for that not to happen. Lam Ching-ying (Bruce Lee’s stunt double) struts his stuff as the asthmatic Leung, with shaved eyebrows and a beanpole physique. An actual student of wing chun, Lam dispenses elegant beatdowns in fights that turn into musical numbers, as well as wrist-locking, joint-cracking battles fought on narrow gang planks.—Grady Hendrix

Eastern Condors (1987)
  • Film

Director: Sammo Hung

Cast: Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Joyce Mina Godenzi

Best quote: “It’s the Americans’ fault. They got us into this. Fucking America! Goddamn America!”

The killer scene: Coconuts, vines and palm fronds become deadly weapons.

If Sammo Hung had been in charge, we’d have won Vietnam.
One of Sammo’s four masterpieces, Eastern Condors is a Vietnam War movie that replaces politics with punching, angst with ass-kicking. It’s 1976 and the Pentagon offers Sammo and 11 other Chinese prisoners a deal: go back to Vietnam and destroy a weapons cache they left behind and be given their freedom. But before boots even hit the ground, the mission goes totally FUBAR—it’s canceled halfway through their parachute drop and a teammate nicknamed “Stammer” screws up his rip-cord countdown. Making matters worse, an elite Vietcong kill squad is on their trail, led by Yuen Wah, a giggling, fan-flicking psychopath who minces into action before ripping out shoulder blades. Brimming over with Russian roulette, tiger cages, child soldiers and phenomenal female-freedom fighters, the climax features eight of Hong Kong’s best martial artists going at it hammer and tongs, as Hung’s prowling camera glides between three simultaneous fights. Suck it, Oliver Stone.—Grady Hendrix

Rambo (2008)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Sylvester Stallone

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Graham McTavish

Best quote: “Burma’s a war zone.”

The killer scene: Rambo lays waste to a bunch of soldiers with a mounted machine gun.

Last blood?
When we last saw one-man army John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in 1988’s ill-conceived Rambo III, he was riding off into the sunset with the mujahideen. Twenty years later, Islamic freedom fighters are kinda-sorta not in favor, so he’s somehow made his way to Thailand where he works a cushy job as a snake handler. Along come some missionaries on a humanitarian journey to Burma, and Rambo—against his better judgment—agrees to lead them through the war-torn country. How do you think that goes? This is the first time Stallone directed one of his own Rambo scripts, and the film feels infused with his particular brand of cartoonishly monosyllabic machismo, which is perversely a virtue. Think too hard about what happens (every peacenik inevitably turns violent; the villains are child-raping mass murderers) and you’ll see this is as hysterically reactionary as movies get. But Stallone makes his one-sided, pro-interventionist argument with such intoxicating fervor—especially in an astonishingly bloody finale filled with decapitations, bullet-riddled bad guys and a visual equation of Rambo to Jesus Christ—that the fantasy becomes impossible to resist.—Keith Uhlich

Spartacus (1960)
  • Film

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons

Best quote: “A good body with a dull brain is as cheap as life itself.”

The killer scene: There’s really only one contender here, and it involves the film’s title preceded by the word I’m.

Romanes eunt domus
Whenever critics try to minimize Stanley Kubrick as a cold, monolithic creator, they always get hung up on Spartacus. Here is a film that displays almost none of that master filmmaker’s customary traits: It’s lusty and full-throated, sprawling and sentimental, and as far as it’s possible to get from the clinical, claustrophobic Kubrick of cliché. The director didn’t work on the script (penned by blacklisted leftist Dalton Trumbo), hence all the authority-baiting socialist rhetoric that underpins its mythic account of slave rebellion. Additionally, Kubrick surrendered creative control to producer Kirk Douglas, a move he would never make again. But surely it’s the mark of a great artist to be flexible, and one of the pleasures of Spartacus—particularly in its vast, flaming battle scenes—is feeling that pull between the messy grandiosity of an old-fashioned Hollywood epic and the artistic precision that Kubrick strived to bring to the proceedings. Maybe he should’ve cut loose like this a little more often.—Tom Huddleston

Wheels on Meals (1984)
  • Film

Director: Sammo Hung

Cast: Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung

Best quote: “Dumb and crazy are two different things.”

The killer scene: Chan himself called the final fight with karate world champ Benny “The Jet” Urquidez as a career-best scene.

The pain in Spain
Years before the 1992 Olympics, Jackie Chan hit Barcelona in this comedy-actioner evidently angled toward international audiences. Ironically, they weren’t so interested, since the humor in this caper—where food-truck partners Chan and Yuen tangle with a mysterious missing heiress—is still very much playing to the Hong Kong market. If not exactly smoothly assembled, the result still has a lot of puppyish charm, with the happy-go-lucky twosome at its fleetest, and the usual quotient of oof-tastic pratfalls. It does take too long to get to warp speed, but by the time Chan and Yuen tackle a team of henchmen in the villain’s castle, the film really takes off—especially when Chan lines up against undefeated world karate champ Benny “The Jet” Urquidez in an encounter whose speed of movement beggars belief. Was there ever a badder dude named after an Elton John song?—Trevor Johnston

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Sergio Leone

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach

Best quote: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”

The killer scene: Three men step onto a sun-baked mesa, preparing to draw in the tensest Mexican standoff in movies.

Some spaghetti with your American beef
Italian maestro Sergio Leone invented a delicious kind of cinematic foreplay—his action scenes explode into violence but you remember the buildups more vividly: sweat collecting on knotted brows, fingers creeping toward triggers and, most iconically, two big eyes filling the screen. Grander spaghetti Westerns were on the horizon (including Leone’s own poetic Once Upon a Time in the West, but arguably, none were as critical as this one), ramping up the brutality that made the genre feel like a subversive comment on an increasingly warlike America. His stars came from Hollywood, but once they arrived in Rome—and, soon after, the Spanish deserts passing for the Old West—they were in a country of one filmmaker’s supreme imagination. So much modern action grammar comes from Leone and his genius composer Ennio Morricone, who transformed twangy doom guitars and shrieking ay-ya-yas into the natural sound of the frontier.—Joshua Rothkopf

“The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1896)
  • Film

Director: Auguste and Louis Lumière

Cast: A train

Best quote: [Silence]

The killer scene: The locomotive comes right at us.

The little engine that could
The legend goes like this: At the premiere of pioneer filmmakers Auguste and Louis Lumière’s one-minute, single-shot document of a train pulling into a coastal French station, audience members jumped out of their seats, convinced the locomotive was racing toward them. Truth or apocrypha? Many scholars have argued for the latter, but the myth took hold and persists to this day. (Martin Scorsese’s 3-D fantasia Hugo even re-creates the purported incident.) Once you hear the tale, it’s impossible to divorce the film from it—the fantasy is too attractive, and it perfectly ties into the ethos of the action movie, which thrives on goosing our emotions by making us believe (if primarily on a subconscious level) that we’re truly in the thick of things. All the bullets we’ve dodged, all the cars we’ve crashed, all the trains we’ve ducked away from, they all start here.—Keith Uhlich

Vanishing Point (1971)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Richard C. Sarafian

Cast: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger

Best quote: “The last American hero to whom speed means freedom of the soul.”

The killer scene: Newman puts pedal to the metal heading straight for a police roadblock.

Road to nowhere
He collects the white Dodge Challenger in Denver on Friday at 11:30pm, due for delivery in San Francisco on Monday at 3pm. Impossible? The question doesn’t apply when our antihero’s odyssey is less endurance challenge than existential metaphor for the bleak state of post-’60s America. Sure, there’s something ineffably watchable about these big old gas-guzzlers sliding all over the asphalt as Newman’s Kowalski outmaneuvers police in three states, though director Sarafian’s really interested in the wide, wide shots where the car’s just a speck against a massive landscape. It certainly puts in cosmic context the anti-authoritarian trajectory, allowing an ex–speedway racer to win the hearts of the poor, the black and the hippified as Cleavon Little’s DJ, Super Soul, broadcasts his exploits. A stunningly astringent finale offers no easy solutions for a divided nation. It’s a cool touch—though it would have been cooler had Super Soul put some actual soul music on the mundane rock soundtrack.—Trevor Johnston

From Russia With Love (1963)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Terence Young

Cast: Sean Connery, Robert Shaw, Lotte Lenya

Best quote: “Oh, James, will you make love to me all the time in England?”

The killer scene: The fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in an old-school train compartment, en route from Istanbul

The Gospel According to Saint James
The second Bond movie has Sean Connery returning as 007, now sucked into a cat-and-mouse plot when he has to travel to Venice and Istanbul to try and retrieve a code-breaking device. Robert Shaw and Lotte Lenya are memorable SPECTRE villains, but this first sequel now stands out for its Hitchcock-Le Carré qualities: a slow-burn plot centered on a train ride through Europe. That said, it also introduces elements repeated since: the signature pre-titles action sequence and a penchant for speedboats and helicopters. It’s somehow both leisurely and brutal.—Dave Calhoun

Unleashed (a.k.a. Danny the Dog) (2005)
  • Film

Director: Louis Leterrier

Cast: Jet Li, Bob Hoskins, Morgan Freeman

Best quote: “Like my saint of a mum used to say, ‘Get ’em young and the possibilities are endless.’”

The killer scene: Jet Li’s one-punch takedown of an overgrown gimp

Jet Li is ready for his close-up now, Mr. DeMille.
Considered the best actor among the action-hero aristocracy, Jet Li proves that he’s got the chops to play a street kid brutalized from birth to become a human attack dog “unleashed” on the enemies of his mob-boss master, Bob Hoskins. This story of a man-dog running away to live with a gentle piano tuner (played by Morgan Freeman, no less) and his hottie daughter dances right on the razor’s edge of risible, but the feral thesping of Hoskins and surprising charm of Li keep it anchored. So does the brutal action design by Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix), full of nipple gnawing, head butting and savage smackdowns in narrow bathrooms. It could all be a metaphor for Li’s career. After all, Unleashed is ultimately about a young martial artist who wants to run away from his masters so he can stop beating people up and simply entertain them.—Grady Hendrix

Star Wars (1977)
  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: George Lucas

Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher

Best quote: “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

The killer scene: The final trench run, as X-Wing fighters peel off in unison to the sound of John Williams’s triumphant trumpet fanfare

Makin’ wookiee

In comparison with your average modern blockbuster, in which the story grinds to a halt every 15 minutes to make room for another eye-scorching set piece, there’s very little action in the first Star Wars movie: an extended chase through the Death Star corridors, a perfunctory sword fight between two knightly codgers and a pair of space dogfights, and that’s pretty much it. Sure, to ’70s audiences raised on the creaky likes of Planet of the Apes and TV’s Star Trek, that may have seemed like a lot, but why do modern movie lovers return so regularly and enthusiastically to this particular film? The answer lies in George Lucas’s mythic storytelling and the narrative momentum he manages to sustain throughout. From Star Wars’ opening blast of laser fire to its climactic fireball, it keeps raising the dramatic stakes, giving the impression of action even when the characters are just sitting on their backsides chatting about exhaust ports. It’s a lesson we hope J.J. Abrams has studied well.—Tom Huddleston

Pedicab Driver (1989)
  • Film

Director: Sammo Hung

Cast: Sammo Hung, Lau Kar-leung, Billy Chow

Best quote: “Fatty! Your thick head has hurt my foot.”

The killer scene: The killer scene: Old Master vs. Young Master: Sammo Hung vs. Lau Kar-leung

Back to butt-kicking basics
Between 1986 and 1989, Sammo Hung directed, choreographed and starred in four classics, three of which make this list: Dragons Forever, Eastern Condors and Pedicab Driver. Although it ended his jaw-dropping string of hits, Pedicab Driver remains a charming throwback to old-school Chinese cinema given an adrenalized action injection. Sammo plays a pedicab-driving slob in 1940s Macau, in love with a woman who can’t see past his belly. The movie is mostly a charming comedy of blue-collar manners until a satanically evil pimp takes a piss on paradise. At which point, Sammo straps on his suspenders of justice and marches off to restore order, bare-knuckle style. A celebration of hand-to-hand combat, featuring kung fu legend Lau Kar-leung showing off his chops, this flick does for lumberjack shirts what Bruce Lee did for yellow jumpsuits.—Grady Hendrix

Zatoichi (2003)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Takeshi Kitano

Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa

Best quote: “Even with my eyes wide open, I can’t see a thing.”

The killer scene: Zatoichi slices and dices his way through a gang of sword-wielding gangsters, all without batting an eyelid.

In the kingdom of the blind, a samurai will slice you up.
A combination of oddball surrealism and vicious violence, this 2003 Japanese reboot of the classic samurai series makes for some uncomfortable viewing. The film revolves around Zatoichi, a “blind masseur” who takes it upon himself to single-handedly protect a village from a greedy gang terrorizing the locals with extortionate protection fees. So far, so Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves—but darkness starts slipping in with tales of child prostitution, political assassinations and gory murders. Zatoichi bumbles and stumbles his way through town, slicing up any wrongdoers with a flick of his hidden katana, before eventually leaving a pile of dismembered yakuza bleeding on the ground in a brilliantly graceful final fight. Adding immeasurably: It’s all laced with surreal humor, and the film ends with a massive, choreographed tap-dancing scene.—Eddy Frankel

Runaway Train (1985)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Andrei Konchalovsky

Cast: Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay

Best quote: “I’m out of my cage now!”

The killer scene: Any of Voight’s eyeball-rolling, scenery-chewing soliloquies on the subject of life’s brutality and unfairness

Enter the Voight
A classic case of as-advertised satisfactions, this thunderously OTT action melodrama—adapted from an original outline by Akira Kurosawa—sees Jon Voight’s psychotic convict escape from an Alaskan prison with goofy rapist Eric Roberts in tow. Stowing away on the last freight train back to civilization, the pair realizes it’s in deep trouble when the driver keels over from a heart attack. Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky may be the only man to have worked with both Andrei Tarkovsky (he cowrote Andrei Rublev) and Sylvester Stallone (he would go on to direct the underrated Tango & Cash), and he brings both sensibilities to bear here: Runaway Train isn’t just a high-speed chase flick, it’s also a batshit faux-Shakespearean meditation on man’s animal instincts. The result is completely ludicrous, but as brakes screech, sparks fly, and Voight’s lip-curling nut raises his fists to the sky and curses a hateful God, it’s impossible not to be swept along in the slipstream.—Tom Huddleston

North by Northwest (1959)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason

Best quote: “You gentlemen aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?”

The killer scene: So many to choose from, but the surreal crop-duster chase is an essential sequence from the Master of Suspense.

A monumental achievement
It’s easy to forget how radical Hitchcock’s greatest action comedy is, given all the things that make it so deeply 1959: Cary Grant, that impeccable gray suit, a raging Cold War, the ol’ wrong-man scenario. Then again, this is also the film with a brazenly sexual Eva Marie Saint (and that train plunging into the tunnel), as well as a seesawing Bernard Herrmann score that feels like the beginning of all of Hans Zimmer’s ominous blasts. North by Northwest belongs on any serious list of action essentials, at the least for offering up a framework for the upcoming James Bond series. The sheer size of the spectacle Hitchcock served up in VistaVision is still apparent in today’s elephantine offerings; to watch these characters scramble across the impassive face of Mount Rushmore during the climax is to witness the modern action movie being born.—Joshua Rothkopf

  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Robert Aldrich

Cast: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes

Best quote: “Donald Duck’s down at the crossroads with a machine gun.”

The killer scene: Jim Brown’s race for glory ends in disaster in front of the Château Rennes.

12 angry men
Not every corner of London was swinging back in 1967. In and around the suburban Borehamwood studios, a rough-hewn band of Hollywood roustabouts were busy creating a film that stood in direct opposition to the hippie dream—and just about everything else. Brutal, bloodthirsty and belligerent (with a moral compass bent way out of shape), The Dirty Dozen is one of the most unlovely films ever to be released by a major studio. It’s also, of course, an absolute blast, as Lee Marvin’s hard-bitten major recruits 12 death-row inmates for a WWII suicide mission way behind enemy lines. The majority of the film is taken up with scowling, yelling and scrambling up ropes in the training yard, but when the big finale arrives, it’s everything you hoped it would be: The buildup of tension is immaculate, and when the bullets start flying, all hell really does break loose.—Tom Huddleston

Police Story 2 (1988)
  • Film

Director: Jackie Chan

Cast: Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Kwok Hung-Lam

Best quote: “Jackie, don’t do anything stupid!”

The killer scene: A children’s playground provides the perfect setting for Jackie versus various pipe-wielding henchmen.

Once more with feeling
Jackie Chan obviously knew the frisky comedy and life-threatening spills in the original Police Story would be hard to top. So he took a different strategy in the sequel: a more developed procedural plot involving a bomber at large, and a fuller role for concerned girlfriend Maggie Cheung. Unfortunately, all this proves slightly stodgy in practice, rendering the thrills on display somewhat subdued. It’s a shame, really, since taken on its own terms, the action’s very much prime Jackie—not least a couple of dazzlingly fleet fight scenes, plus the addition of a firework-throwing deaf-mute villain. As ever with Chan, the lure here is absolutely no special-effects fakery, and end-credits outtakes reveal the physical toll incurred, not least for costar Cheung, who almost had her scalp ripped off when a stunt went wrong.—Trevor Johnston

The Dark Knight (2008)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart

Best quote: “Why so serious?”

The killer scene: A shot of the Joker sticking his head out of a speeding car window to taste the night air is at once appealingly puppyish and weirdly terrifying.

Smile, though your heart is breaking
The first and third installments of Christopher Nolan’s lucrative Batman reboot are, like so much of the director’s work, excessively po-faced and portentous, demanding that the audience swallow the concept of an aristocrat in eyeliner battling crime in a growly porn voice. But sandwiched in the middle came this near-flawless conspiracy thriller, featuring the greatest screen villain since Darth Vader drew his last rattling breath. The announcement of tween-friendly pretty boy Heath Ledger’s casting as the Joker was the cause of huge controversy and debate in the nerdosphere, but the results speak for themselves: This is a hurricane of a performance, as unnerving as it is beautiful to watch—the emergence of a towering talent. Rather than be hemmed in by Nolan’s Swiss-watch directing style, Ledger subverts it at every turn, railing against the prison of action-movie precision in the same way his unhinged character batters at the walls of moral conformity. The result is something very rare in the blockbuster age: true unpredictability.—Tom Huddleston

Raging Bull (1980)
  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci

Best quote: “You punch like you take it up the ass.”

The killer scene: Jake LaMotta’s defeat at the hands of Sugar Ray Robinson

Great punch line
Martin Scorsese’s evocative black-and-white biopic about real-life brawler Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is an intensely physical movie, tracing with operatic grandeur its protagonist’s life from volatile middleweight contender to an obese has-been. The punches land hard in and out of the ring—LaMotta’s confrontations with his long-suffering wife (Cathy Moriarty) and loyal-to-a-fault brother (Joe Pesci) often seem bloodier than any of the astonishingly visceral slugfests. It’s also a deeply spiritual film, in no small part due to De Niro’s monastic commitment to the role. His much publicized regimen—training with LaMotta himself to get into tip-top fighting condition, then plumping himself up for the final scenes via a four-month eating binge—is the ultimate in actorly sacrifice.—Keith Uhlich

Dirty Harry (1971)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Don Siegel

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Andrew Robinson, John Vernon

Best quote: “I know what you’re thinking, punk…”

The killer scene: The gibbering Scorpio killer gets an entire bus of hijacked schoolkids to join him in a rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

Cleaning up the streets
In the mid-’90s, rumors abounded of a big-screen adaptation of Alan Moore’s The Dark Knight Returns, set to star Clint Eastwood as Gotham’s glowering caped crusader. But the truth is, Clint had already said everything he needed to say about the fascist appeal of vigilante crime-fighting with this one, arguably his most iconic screen role. Here is the template for every subsequent hard-bitten antihero, Batman included, the major difference being that instead of a millionaire playboy lurking in his mansion, Harry Callahan was blue-collar to his core: a crumpled flatfoot living in a two-room walk-up and existing entirely on a diet of whiskey, cigarettes and slinky bebop jazz. He even had his own Joker to contend with, Andrew Robinson’s giggling Scorpio killer (based on San Francisco’s real-life Zodiac case), whose megalomaniacal schemes laid the groundwork for legions of unhinged comic-book villains to come. Listen closely, and you can almost hear Christopher Nolan frantically scribbling notes.—Tom Huddleston

  • Film
  • Drama

Director: David Lean

Cast: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins

Best quote: “This is war! This is not a game of cricket!”

The killer scene: The climactic bust-up between heroic Holden and madman Guinness is both gripping and tragic.

Men at work
People know it better these days from the gang’s demoralized whistling in The Breakfast Club—that’s the “Colonel Bogey March,” originally used as WWII soldiers trudged their way into their POW camp. David Lean’s epic has a bit of stuffiness to it: It’s a big prestige picture that won a lot of Oscars. But there’s no denying that when that bridge finally goes kaboom, we’ve seen one of cinema’s greatest action scenes. There is no clear distinction between heroism and villainy; Lean uses the massive CinemaScope canvas to keep us at an emotional remove from the characters so they seem like checkerboard pieces moving toward a fixed, destructive point.

Hero (2002)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Zhang Yimou

Cast: Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung

Best quote: “Today you will learn the essence of your culture.”

The killer scene: Jet and Tony walk on water in an aerial duel over a picturesque lake.

The official version

After Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (see No. 36), it was only a matter of time before a Chinese filmmaker made it his mission to top Taiwanese-born Ang Lee’s martial-arts game changer. The surprise was not so much that Zhang Yimou applied his visual bravura to a movie of beguiling extravagance, but that he did so in service of a Qin-dynasty saga that played like a metaphorical endorsement of centralized political authority. Marquee names Jet Li and Donnie Yen promise fist-pummeling action, yet Zhang’s refined sensibility instead offers a dance-influenced take on combat that is all flowing robes, swathes of primary color and essentially choreographic displays of menace. Hero is utterly entrancing, if clearly the product of extensive digital postproduction, and though the overlapping perspectives of rival assassins maneuvering against an all-powerful monarch precludes any genuine emotional through line, the film certainly delivers an eye-popping showcase for China’s exquisite traditional crafts and majestic landscapes.—Trevor Johnston

Police Story 3: Supercop (1992)
  • Film

Director: Stanley Tong

Cast: Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung

Best quote: “Supercops in Hong Kong are cheap and plentiful, like commodities in supermarkets.”

The killer scene: That’s actually Jackie himself, swinging from a helicopter’s rope ladder high above the skyline of Kuala Lumpur.

Stuff it, Superman
Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd both tempted fate with insane stunts, but Jackie Chan eclipsed them both—this film is the peak example of an entertainer defying safety for the public’s enjoyment. (Not for nothing has Quentin Tarantino called Supercop’s acts of daredevilry “the greatest stunts ever filmed in any movie, ever.”) The generic plot is just there to get things in motion: a fearless cop, a drug lord, a hapless girlfriend, a much-tougher female sidekick. But once the chase sequences kick in, there’s no going back to what passes for action in Hollywood; this is a movie that raises the stakes to an impossible standard. Chan scrambles up walls, stumbles down hillsides and flings himself onto a helicopter’s trailing rope ladder for the ride of his life. Just as impressively, Michelle Yeoh does a running leap onto a motorbike and burns her way through traffic in hot pursuit, eventually racing alongside a train and Evel Knieveling on top. Staggering stuff.—Joshua Rothkopf

The Rock (1996)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris

Best quote: “Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.”

The killer scene: The San Francisco car chase, in which Cage comes off all Steve McQueen and narrowly avoids getting flattened by a rampaging tram

Frisky in Frisco
Come the mid-’90s—after more than a decade of muscular, monosyllabic, machine-gun–toting hard men—the world was ready for a new kind of action star: not a regular Joe, exactly, but at least a guy who could walk and chew gum at the same time. Enter Nicolas Cage, whose off-kilter energy had made him the darling of the indie scene, but whose real ambition was to be a serious big-time player like his lifelong heroes, Elvis Presley and Superman. His character in The Rock isn’t exactly a wild man—in fact, Cage largely plays the straight arrow to Sean Connery’s old-time criminal, himself the only man to ever break out of the infamous Alcatraz prison. But it was a big step for Cage, especially when the film made buckets at the box office. It’s also worth noting that, in addition to its two charismatic leads, The Rock has another ace up its sleeve in the form of the crackling script, extensively worked over by British sitcom legends Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais. Once in a while, even Michael Bay knows when it’s time for a rewrite.—Tom Huddleston

Thunderball (1965)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Terence Young

Cast: Sean Connery, Claudine Auger, Adolfo Celi

Best quote: “My dear girl, don’t flatter yourself. What I did this evening was for Queen and country.”

The killer scene: An underwater fight between Bond and the baddies

Water story

This was the first Bond movie seriously to concentrate on gadgets and gizmos as a key part of the 007 furniture – although in hindsight, there’s still something quaint about the whole affair, especially since the pre-credits sequence involves nothing more hi-tech than a funeral and a rumble with a cross-dressing assassin in a drawing room. Soon, though, Bond is launching himself out of trouble with the help of a jet pack and we’re plunged into the first of several underwater scenes, as SPECTRE hides some stolen nuclear missiles in the seas off the Bahamas. These subaquatic adventures are the film’s trademark, and Thunderball climaxes with Bond in a perilous battle with a couple of stooges in the tropical deep. The film’s release continued to prove Bond’s worth at the box office, although there were grumbles about both the long underwater scenes (‘Look! We can film underwater! Look!’) and the two-hour-plus running time – the latter becoming a tradition that most Bond films continue to this day.—Dave Calhoun

  • Film
  • Drama

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone

Best quote: “Everyone’s your brother till the rent comes due.”

The killer scene: Robert De Niro’s mysterious ex-agent doesn’t like the looks of one colleague—so he hammers into him with questions and, unexpectedly, a cup of coffee.

Who said the Cold War was done?
A movie for action fans who like a little gab with their gunplay, John Frankenheimer’s supercharged spy thriller strongly bears the mark of its script doctor, David Mamet (writing under the pseudonym Richard Weisz). A bunch of ex-operatives gather at a French warehouse for a job—for a while, they drop science in that Confucius–like way that Mamet fans love. “Whenever there’s any doubt, there is no doubt,” says one of them, sagely. “That’s the first thing they teach you.” And who taught him that? “I don’t remember. That’s the second thing they teach you.” If Ronin were entirely a conversation piece in this mode, it would have no place on our list. The movie is best remembered for a pair of high-speed car chases, staged with maximum realism through the streets and tunnels of Nice and Paris. Frankenheimer, a gearhead since 1966’s Grand Prix and earlier, turns the squeals of high-performance Audis and Benzes into a symphony.—Joshua Rothkopf

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Ke Huy-Quan

Best quote: “Kali ma…Kali ma…Kali ma, shakthi deh!”

The killer scene: The mine-car chase, a flawless example of the tactile power of pre-CGI practical special effects

The reason 70 percent of Americans don’t have passports
“A cinematic form of child abuse” was People magazine’s verdict on Steven Spielberg’s relentless Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel, an accusation that even the director came close to agreeing with. “It was much too horrific,” he would admit later. Looking back, some aspects of the film remain shocking: The mood is intensely brutal throughout, the treatment of Kate Capshaw’s flapping heroine is tawdry and cruel, and the depiction of India is crass, thoughtless and at times outright racist. But as an action movie, Temple of Doom is hard to beat. Bookended by two hurtling-out-of-control action set pieces—first in an inflatable life raft sliding down a Himalayan mountainside, then in a runaway mine car—the film achieves a breakneck intensity topped only by Raiders in the Spielberg canon. The result isn’t really for kids (unless they have a major bloodthirsty streak), but for the rest of us, it remains a gruesome guilty pleasure.—Tom Huddleston

Breakdown (1997)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Jonathan Mostow

Cast: Kurt Russell, J.T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan

Best quote: “You better pray she’s alive.”

The killer scene: An 18-wheeler goes over a bridge, but it doesn’t fall.

Keep on truckin’
Yuppies, beware: Jonathan Mostow’s unbearably tense thriller posits middle America as a parched haven for gun-toting rednecks who will kidnap your wife for ransom. Polo-shirt–clad nice guy Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell) experiences just that after his Jeep breaks down in the desert and his spouse (Kathleen Quinlan) vanishes with too-eager-to-assist trucker “Red” Barr (J.T. Walsh). Taylor’s suspicions that something nefarious is up prove true when Barr and his crew track him down and demand a hefty payoff. But the tables quickly turn. Boasting some of the best vehicular carnage since Steven Spielberg’s Duel (the literally cliff-hanging finale will have your heart in your throat), Breakdown also features a quintessential everyman performance from Russell (an all-American counterpoint to his eye-patch-sporting loner Snake Plissken from Escape from New York) and a truly chilling one from the late, great Walsh, who gives new meaning to the term “quiet menace.”—Keith Uhlich

Full Contact (1992)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Ringo Lam

Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Simon Yam, Anthony Wong

Best quote: “Why don’t you masturbate in Hell!”

The killer scene: A Bangkok car chase that’s all hurtling Detroit steel

A he-man opera so virile, viewers might get pregnant
Saying Full Contact was the first movie to utilize the now-overused bullet cam is a bit like saying that Jesus made some really nice chairs—it kind of misses the point. The Aerosmith of action movies, Full Contact is as iconically all-American as muscle cars and machine guns. Chow Yun Fat plays Jeff, a bouncer who falls in with a trio of fabulous psychopaths led by the amazing Judge (Simon Yam), who pulls a double cross and leaves him for dead. Nope. Next stop: high-caliber revenge. Imagine Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name character versus meth-addled versions of Christopher Nolan’s Joker, Bane and Catwoman, slather the whole thing in feedback; fill it with gun fu; then knock it back like a shot of Jack Daniels.—Grady Hendrix

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
  • Film

Director: John Sturges

Cast: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson

Best quote: “We deal in lead, friend.”

The killer scene: James Coburn’s knife-slinging cowboy gets called out by a cocky gunman—guess who prevails in the showdown?

Japanese import, retooled
Making movies can be an international conversation spanning cultural differences and economic divides. Was Akira Kurosawa was the most important director of Westerns to never actually make a Western? His 1961 Yojimbo would go on to directly inspire Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (and launch Clint Eastwood’s entire movie career). Meanwhile, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, an instant classic upon its 1954 release, was quickly the subject of a Hollywood remake—and the result was this rousing horse opera, loaded with star appeal and panache. A Mexican farming town suffers regular fleecing of its crop by evil bandito Calvera (Eli Wallach, persuasive despite being a Jewish actor from Brooklyn). Enter seven men, hired by the desperate community to make their last stand. All action fans have their favorite of the seven, but recognition should be given to the eighth magnificent guy off camera: composer Elmer Bernstein, whose galloping theme music entered the public consciousness in a deeper way than anything onscreen.—Joshua Rothkopf

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Brian De Palma

Cast: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer

Best quote: “Say hello to my little friend!”

The killer scene: Tony Montana goes out with a bang.

The world is his
Fresh off the boat from Cuba, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is already raising hell, talking down to immigration agents and raring to climb the ladder of the land of opportunity. Miami, he says to his best bud Manny (Steven Bauer), is “like a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked.” But Tony wants the world, and director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone are happy to give it to him (for a price) in their unapologetically violent remake of Howard Hawks’s 1932 crime film. In turn, the ’83 Scarface became an iconic touchstone for hip-hop culture excess. Everything is as over-the-top as the foot-high mound of cocaine that a never-crazier Pacino dips his head into. De Palma orchestrates all the carnage like a master composer: a tense, chain-saw-wielding set piece in a bathroom; a botched assassination in a nightclub; and an absolutely certifiable climax in which Tony takes on a gaggle of hit men with a grenade launcher.—Keith Uhlich

  • Film
  • Science fiction

Directors: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert


Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis


Best quote: “The universe is so much bigger than you realise.”


The killer scene: Michelle Yeoh battles an office of malicious tax preparers, all with a googly eye stuck to her forehead.


Across the multiverse

True to its title, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s (aka ‘The Daniels’) second feature is many things at once: a multiversal sci-fi mind-bender, a moving family drama, an absurdist comedy. But you don’t cast Michelle Yeoh if you don’t also intend for it to kick ass. And that it does, albeit strangely: as mentioned above, this is a movie whose most iconic moment involves Yeoh – mild-mannered immigrant laundromat owner turned interdimensional martial arts avenger – tearing up a tax office with a googly eye pressed to her forehead. There are also fights involving fanny packs. And dildos. And a butt plug. It’s wilfully weird and silly, sure, but the scenes are executed with as much breathless energy as anything Yeoh did back in Hong Kong. They’ll still leave your head-spinning – and your own eyes looking a bit googly.

The Mission (1999)
  • Film

Director: Johnnie To

Cast: Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, Lam Suet

Best quote: “I know people call you the Ice, but do you have to be so coldhearted?”

The killer scene: A shoot-out in a shopping mall at closing time becomes an exercise in modernist abstraction

In the line of fire
Only genre maestro Johnnie To would have the confidence to tackle a project that dispenses with the high-octane carnage de rigueur for a Hong Kong crime movie, turning it instead into a serene exercise in self-referential cool. After a crime boss survives a hit, he pays the five baddest henchmen around town to form a team to protect him and find the would-be killer—a plot so ordinary it’s hardly worth spending time on. So To doesn’t bother. Rather, he lays out a fresco of paranoia as the gun-wielding quintet keep up their individual and collective guard while waiting for the next ambush. And when the action does come, To applies the same Melville-meets-Antonioni mood of studied anomie to the exchanges of fire, turning anticipated set-piece shoot-outs into deconstructed fragments of grace and danger. It’s an action movie about action movies, and all the more fascinating for it.—Trevor Johnston

Machete (2010)
  • Film

Directors: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis

Cast: Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba

Best quote: “Why do I want to be a real person when I’m already a myth?”

The killer scene: Machete bolts a machine gun to the front of his chopper before laying waste to a bunch of scumbags.

The fake Machete trailer was a rousing start to the Robert Rodriguez—Quentin Tarantino Grindhouse project, giving us the glorious sight of menacing character actor Danny Trejo upgraded to leading-man status as the titular ass-kicking vigilante. Several of the best bits make it into this feature-length expansion. But it's mostly a grind: Tons of new narrative deadweight (self-satisfied references to the current immigration debate; a listless Lindsay Lohan as a habit-clad avenger) dilute the thrill of the film's cheerily exploitative high points. But Trejo brings both playfulness and gravitas to the archly juvenile proceedings, even as co-director-cowriter Rodriguez treats him like a cutaway sight gag whenever things bog down.—Keith Uhlich

The Legend (1993)
  • Film

Director: Corey Yuen Kwai

Cast: Jet Li, Josephine Siao Fong-fong, Zhao Wen-zhou

Best quote: “Don’t worry, Mom’s here!”

The killer scene: A fight on a tower turns into combat on the heads and shoulders of the spectators.

All you need is Mom
Some action movies are super serious orgies of violence, but The Legend does a charming tap dance on their heads. Jet Li plays Fong, a young martial artist who loves showing off and chasing girls. When wealthy Tiger Lu holds a tournament wherein whoever beats his wife in combat gets to marry his daughter, Fong loses—but his mother (played by 46-year-old comedian Josephine Siao Fong-fong) refuses to let family honor die. So she disguises herself as Fong’s brother and winds up not only winning the contest, but also the heart of her opponent, Mrs. Tiger Lu herself. A gender-swapping head-spinner, The Legend overflows with breezy invention; it’s the kind of movie where things get so complicated that the only way to sort it all out is for an adult to show up on horseback, swinging her sword and settling everybody’s hash.—Grady Hendrix

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Joss Whedon

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo

Best quote: “Puny god.”

The killer scene: Tom Hiddleston’s deranged demigod Loki is battered into a fine paste by the Hulk, producing the quote above.

The real A-Team
It seems almost quaint now, 12 years and approximately 9,300 universe-expanding movies and TV shows later, but in 2012, the very idea of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America et al sharing the same screen for a full feature seemed utterly mind-blowing. If it had fallen flat, the multiplex – and really, mainstream entertainment in general – would have looked very different over the past decade. Begrudging credit due, then, to writer-director Joss Whedon: he may have later been outed as a supervillain of sorts, but he delivered here. Given everything that’s happened in the MCU since, the plotting matters very little now, but Whedon seemed to realise that even then, and instead gives the fanboys everything they could possibly want: snappy, wisecracking dialogue; big, explosive, heart-racing action sequences; and plenty of ‘holy crap, this is actually happening!’ moments. Most notably the classic wrap-around shot showing the gang fully assembled for the first time. It established the template for every major superhero flick that followed. While the sequels got bigger, louder and more ‘epic’, none were as singularly pleasurable.—Matthew Singer

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Renny Harlin

Cast: Geena Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Cox

Best quote: “Life is pain. Get used to it.”

The killer scene: Brian Cox’s brief but poignant soliloquy on why dogs lick their assholes—a moment of pure screen magic (seriously)

Come back, Shane!
For a while, it looked as though screenwriter Shane Black’s career was over. He’d stormed into the big leagues with Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, but then The Last Action Hero was a flop, this rip-roaring revenge thriller did disappointing business, and his directorial debut, the wonderful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, sank without trace. Seven years of inactivity followed, before a genius at Marvel had the guts to put him in charge of Iron Man 3. It should never have taken so long: One viewing of The Long Kiss Goodnight is enough to prove that Black is one of the finest Hollywood writers of the past few decades, combining straight-up action thrills with insightful, memorable characters and more witty rejoinders than you can shake a Glock at. The plot here—Geena Davis’s amnesiac housewife discovers that she used to be a CIA assassin—may be hokey, but when the one-liners are this perfect, it matters not.—Tom Huddleston

Armour of God (1986)
  • Film

Directors: Jackie Chan and Eric Tsang

Cast: Jackie Chan, Alan Tam, Rosamund Kwan

Best quote: “I believe in a powerful religion. The name of my god is money.”

The killer scene: Jackie leaps from a high cave mouth (actually an airplane), landing on a hot-air balloon rising hundreds of feet in the sky. None of it is done with computers.

Indiana Chan and the Temple of Boom
This mid-’80s smash for Jackie Chan—his highest-grossing movie up to then—should be remembered for many things: its euphoric fight scenes, the playful way it has with lit sticks of dynamite, the successful transplantation of Harrison Ford’s treasure-hunting Raiders persona to a foreign idiom. But among action cognoscenti, Armour of God is known for one thing, a terrible mishap that nearly killed its star. Skipping from a building’s ledge onto a nearby tree, Chan snapped the branch and fell 15 feet, landing on his head and cracking his skull. (In true Chan style, you can see the actual accident in the end-credit outtakes, a gimmick he picked up from The Cannonball Run.) Miraculously, Chan survived, even though he’s still got a hole in his head. It didn’t prevent him from pushing his limits further.—Joshua Rothkopf

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen

Best Quote: “Are you not entertained?”

The killer scene: Break out the chariots for a Coliseum showdown that gives Ben-Hur a run for its shekels.

Slaving away at spectacle

Exactly the kind of big, fat hit that Hollywood was invented to make, Gladiator brought out the best in everyone. Star Russell Crowe pounded hard on the screenwriters for revisions; his vengeful performance as Maximus, the officer turned slave turned inspiration to hoi polloi, cemented his stardom as a thinking man’s action hero, long before any phones were flung. Across the moral divide, Joaquin Phoenix offered up the first real hint of his mastery as the vicious Commodus, power-mad and cackling his way to an imperious thumbs-up. But most of all, director Ridley Scott rose to the occasion, reminding us of the grandeur he hadn’t attained since Blade Runner. (Those digital tigers and flaming arrows didn’t hurt.) The so-called “Gladiator effect” turned audiences onto Roman history in droves, but mainly it fired up their bloodlust, just like an action classic should.—Joshua Rothkopf

War (2007)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Philip G. Atwell

Cast: Jet Li, Jason Statham, John Lone

Best quote: “My gun’s bigger than yours.”

The killer scene: Rogue reveals his true identity.

Battle royale
Batshit doesn’t even begin to describe Philip G. Atwell’s seriously entertaining meld of the cop movie and the martial-arts drama. The log line is simple enough: FBI agent John Crawford (Jason Statham) is out for revenge against the infamous assassin known only as Rogue (Jet Li), who killed his partner many years before. But all is not as it seems, and the narrative surprises keep coming with the same fast-and-furious momentum with which Lee and Statham take down anyone in their way. It’s always a pleasure to watch the granite-faced Statham plow through a series of interchangeable henchmen, though he slowly becomes second fiddle to the ever-limber Li, for reasons we wouldn’t dream of spoiling. The action scenes—shot by Taken helmer Pierre Morel and dreamt up by ace choreographer Corey Yuen—are a consistent delight, especially Rogue’s epic sword fight in a yakuza-owned auto shop, during which he reduces anything made of plateglass (and there’s a lot of it) to rubble.—Keith Uhlich

Lone Wolf and Cub 2: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)
  • Film

Director: Kenji Misumi

Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Kayo Matsuo

Best quote: “When I was little, my father was famous. He was the greatest samurai in the empire, and he was the shogun’s decapitator.”

The killer scene: Three women demonstrate their ninja-carving skills.

The ultimate father-son bonding experience
When Daigoro is a year old, his father, Ogami Itto, gives him a choice: the ball or the sword. Framed for treason, Ogami must flee—and if Daigoro goes for the ball, his parent will murder him. If the boy goes for the sword, though, he’ll be taken along on a mission of vengeance. Daigoro chooses the sword and so Ogami pushes him around Japan in a heavily armed baby carriage, trying to clear the family name. Foreheads are sliced open, breasts are sliced open, faces are sliced open, walls gush blood, stomachs gush blood, and chests spray blood with the force of a fire hose. But that’s the point: The world is a nightmare of violence and all we can do is try to protect our children from it. We usually fail. A black-metal samurai film (one that heavily influenced the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who sampled it extensively on 1995’s Liquid Swords), this only ends when the final high-pressure blood spray coats the camera in an impenetrable layer of dripping gore.—Grady Hendrix

Romancing the Stone (1984)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito

Best quote: “Look at those snappers, Ralph!”

The killer scene: The car chase, during which Alfonso Arau’s smirking drug trafficker takes our heroes on a tour of his remote village (“My father planted that tree!”)

The birds, the bees and the bullets
Not content with simply riffing on Raiders of the Lost Ark’s popular style of popcorn adventure, Robert Zemeckis took inspiration from another classic Hollywood source, the screwball comedy, for this likable South American romp. Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas are perfectly matched as the city girl and the roughneck adventurer on the trail of a lost emerald in the Colombian jungle, while Danny DeVito adds welcome comedy value as a sleazy criminal klutz. In comparison with other ’80s genre favorites (including Zemeckis’s next film, Back to the Future), Romancing the Stone does look rather low-rent—the sneering Colombian villain’s much-touted “private army” seems to consist of about five sweaty extras in moth-eaten fatigues. But where the film scores is in its witty treatment of the gender struggle between Turner and Douglas: At the film’s climax, Kathy dispatches the bad guy single-handedly while poor Mike is stuck halfway up a wall.—Tom Huddleston

Shiri (1999)
  • Film

Director: Kang Je-Gyu

Cast: Han Suk-Kyu, Choi Min-sik, Kim Yun-Jin

Best quote: “Ever seen parents eating the flesh of their own children? With your Coke and hamburgers, you wouldn’t know!”

The killer scene: A Mexican standoff that will break your heart

Korean tensions get the Bruckheimer treatment
The movie that kicked off Korea’s current cinematic renaissance, Shiri smashed box-office records, becoming a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Two South Korean special agents are seriously out-classed when a team of do-or-die North Korean commandos (led by Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik) hops the border, planning to blow up a North–South Korean soccer game designed to better international relations. The action is Michael Bay 101, but Shiri was the first film in which North Koreans were depicted as actual human beings who suffered—not simply Commie baby-eaters from hell. South Korea’s national genre is the melodrama, so it makes sense that there’s an explosive core of weaponized heartbreak at the center of this movie, which ends with the most iconic shot in Korean cinema: a North Korean and a South Korean aiming their guns at each other, neither of them wanting to pull the trigger, both of them having no choice.—Grady Hendrix

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li

Best quote: “I take you to the best place for mojitos.”

The killer scene: Sonny and Isabella ride the speedboat to Cuba.

Undercover brothers

“I’ll never doubt you,” says Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) to his partner, Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell), in Michael Mann’s moody and mesmerizing police procedural, a true love letter to men of action. It’s an adaptation of the iconic 1980s series on which Mann served as executive producer, and strikes off in boldly different ways from the Armani blazers and eye-searing pastels of its predecessor. Photographed on pore-enhancing digital cameras that lend a strikingly antiseptic sheen to daylight scenes and a gorgeously pixelated humidity to night shots, the film follows Crockett and Tubbs as they attempt to infiltrate the empire of South American drug lord Montoya (Luis Tosar). Crockett seduces the bad guy’s moll, Isabella (a shrewd and sensuous Gong Li), and both cops draw the ire of Montoya’s second-in-command (John Ortiz). Mann certainly puts Crockett and Tubbs through their paces: Best in show is a close-quarters standoff between the duo and some white-supremacist underlings in a mobile home, culminating in one of the most cathartic gunshots in cinema history.—Keith Uhlich

13 Assassins (2010)
  • Film

Director: Takashi Miike

Cast: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yûsuke Iseya

Best quote: ‘No mercy! There's no samurai code or fair play in battle! No sword? Use a stick. No stick? Use a rock. No rock? Use your fists and feet! Lose your life, but make the enemy pay!’

The killer scene: The climactic battle sequence fuses Shaw Brothers and Akira Kurosawa in a masterful ballet of warfare.

Slice to see you

Although he’s done a bit of everything in his prolific career, Takashi Miike is still associated with a few specific things: namely, the exploitation of social taboos for pitch-black comedic effect, usually featuring a lot of human entrails. So when he remade an obscure 1960s samurai epic, you’d assume he’d take the genre to transgressive new extremes. But 13 Assassins is a surprisingly traditional picture, a reverential throwback to the feudal period pieces of Akira Kurosawa. It’s not just an homage to those movies, though – it stands among them. Sure, there are moments of grisliness, including a ritual seppuku and several decapitations. For much of its runtime, though, Miike shows a good deal of restraint relative to what he’s put on screen in the past. Then the final hour arrives, featuring an exhilarating 45-minute blur of blades and blood and explosions and flaming bulls (you read that correctly). It’s a career highlight from a filmmaker who has always known how to orchestrate violence, using his skill to create a brutal kind of beauty. – Matthew Singer

Bullet in the Head (1990)
  • Film
  • Drama

Director: John Woo

Cast: Tony Leung, Jacky Cheung, Waise Lee

Best quote: “As long as we have guns, the world is ours.”

The killer scene: A nightclub robbery that’s excessive even by John Woo standards

Brotherhood of pain
Violence is relentless—and certainly not pretty—in this epic of curdled brotherhood released between Woo’s better-known The Killer and Hard Boiled. As three childhood friends segue from the mean streets of 1967 Hong Kong to the moral chaos of war-torn Vietnam, the mood of the gunplay changes, its previous flamboyance now anguished, almost appalled. The director’s penchant for bromance is more central than usual: Jacky Cheung risks life and limb to pay for best pal Tony Leung’s Hong Kong wedding, yet when they and wingman Waise Lee quit town for lawless Saigon, the latter’s increasing lust for stolen gold turns the trio’s seemingly undying affections into burning hatred. Woo gives us Days of Being Wild, The Deer Hunter and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre all in one movie—a deliriously sincere, operatic magnum opus with a fierce passion unlike anything else in his filmography (or anyone else’s).—Trevor Johnston

Duel to the Death (1983)
  • Film

Director: Ching Siu-tung

Cast: Norman Chu, Damian Lau, Eddy Ko

Best quote: “You can’t kill us all!”

The killer scene: Shaolin monk versus giant ninja

Tripping tigers, hidden ninja
The directorial debut as fever dream: Action choreographer Ching Siu-tung (Shaolin Soccer, Hero) spent 11 years working on other people’s action movies so this is the explosive release of all his ideas that were too crazy for those films. Once every decade, China’s best martial artists take on Japan’s to see which country will rule the martial-arts world. This year, two of the challengers discover a conspiracy to rig the competition and also…ninjas! Kite-riding ninjas, giant ninjas made up of tiny ninjas, burrowing ninjas, red-wigged teleporting demon ninjas, sword-pogo ninjas, ninjas that jump out of other ninjas when they get split in half. Psychedelic visions torn straight out of Ching’s subconscious and dripping with id juice. No death is final until a head is severed, then flies through the air, gets impaled on a tree branch, utters a threat (“You can’t kill us all!”) and explodes.—Grady Hendrix

Sorcerer (1977)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: William Friedkin

Cast: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal

Best quote: “You wanna pick your nose in this truck, you better clear it with me first.”

The killer scene: The rickety bridge sequence is the most intense, relentless and, according its director, difficult scene he ever shot.

Bridge over troubled water
No major stars, no women, one of the most misleading titles in film history and a certain audience-grabbing summer blockbuster to contend with (see No. 67): It’s no surprise William Friedkin’s mud-spattered remake of trucking-with-dynamite classic The Wages of Fear didn’t exactly set the box office alight. That title, by the way, refers partly to the concept of fate—the unknowable, magical element that no human being can control, and which inevitably gets us in the end—and partly to the name scrawled on the side of one of two trucks tasked with shipping a load of dynamite through the Amazon jungle to the site of a raging oil fire. Like the original, this isn’t so much a pedal-to-the-metal thrill ride and more a master class in slow, mounting tension: Gears grind, wheels spin, brakes fail, bridges collapse, tropical rain thunders, and the drivers (and their incendiary cargo) sweat, quiver and threaten to explode at any minute.—Tom Huddleston


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