Well-armed and bulging at the biceps, action movies, along with sci-fi and comic book movies, often get a bad rap. Sure, they prioritise brawn over brains, but the best ones speak to something primal about our attachment to cinema: our need for physically agile heroes, ferocious villains and ticking-time-bomb plots (or, at the very least, things exploding). Here you’ll find the 100 best action movies of all time, voted for by over 50 experts in the field.
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
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.
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 plough 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
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
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 Armand Assante’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
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 weaponised heartbreak at the centre 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
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.
‘I’ll never doubt you,’ says Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) to his partner, Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell), in Michael Mann’s moody and mesmerising 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
Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yûsuke Iseya
Best quote: ‘I shall accomplish your task magnificently.’
The killer scene: The final half hour, a glorious catharsis of Shaw-brothers–style action that deserves comparison to ‘Seven Samurai’
Old-school any way you slice it
Japanese cult director Takashi Miike has a unique problem: He makes too many damn movies. For every ingenious ‘Audition’ (his unforgettable female-vengeance thriller from 1999), Miike has at least ten other rushed efforts to his name. Seriously, the guy’s made more than 90 films in 23 years. Think about that. But when Miike committed to remaking Eiichi Kudô’s underseen 1963 samurai epic, he took his time. He paid attention to the sounds of blades slipping into rib cages. He took special note of a character whose chosen weapon was a whipped-around bag of sand. He created ornate scenes of rampaging livestock and – why not? – lit those CGI bulls on fire. In short, he did justice to the details. The result is a beast of an action movie, one that sends its viewers into giddy states of stupefaction. Fine, so Miike’s since made nine more films. He’ll always have this one. – Joshua Rothkopf
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
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
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
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
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-calibre 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
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 on screen. – Joshua Rothkopf
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
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
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.
After decades spent playing bit-part villains, diminutive hardman Danny Trejo – at the grand old age of 66 – finally bagged a meaty leading role in this gaudy slice of energetic exploitation. He shines as the eponymous ex-federale waging a spectacularly violent revenge campaign against a cavalcade of betrayers. Oh, and he’s also totally irresistible to every woman he encounters, without having to make the slightest overture toward them. Based on a faux trailer that first appeared in Quentin Tarantino and Rodriguez’s ‘Grindhouse’ (2007), ‘Machete’ is a fast-moving romp conducted in gloriously bad taste: You never have to wait long for the next severed head or naked lady to pop up. A juicy supporting cast (Robert De Niro, Robert Downey Jr., Lindsay Lohan, Steven Seagal) are willing to gleefully portray themselves in a seedy light, and it’s hard to miss the swaggering, pro-immigration political subtext that made the film controversial upon release. – Ashley Clark
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 honour 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
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo
Best quote: ‘That man is playing Galaga!’
The killer scene: The final humiliation for Tom Hiddleston’s psychotic demigod Loki, as he’s battered like a rag doll by the marauding Hulk.
How many superheroes does it take to save a planet?
Talk about vindication: By the time of ‘The Avengers’, writer-director Joss Whedon had been through the grinder of cancelled TV shows, mangled scripts and strangled directorial attempts, so it was pretty big of the Marvel company to hand him the reins to the most anticipated comic-book movie of all time. A scant two years later, it’s the third highest-grossing movie ever, and Whedon is the most in-demand director in Hollywood (he’s busy making ‘The Avengers 2’, of course). Despite cramming together the leads from a decade’s worth of superhero blockbusters, ‘The Avengers’ is so much more than just a wisecracking love-in among a bunch of guys in tights. As with much of Whedon’s work, it’s sheer generosity that wins out, both to the characters and the audience: This is an overflowing goody bag of a film, crammed with bar-raising action set pieces, wonderfully sketched characters and just enough old-school Whedon wit to reward those who’d stuck with him all along. – Tom Huddleston
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 arseholes – 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
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
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
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 controlled but often savage black-and-white biopic about the Italian-American prizefighter Jake LaMotta is less a boxing movie in any traditional sense and more a portrait of a flawed hero, difficult husband and troubled Bronx bruiser. But it’s the scenes on the canvas that earn ‘Raging Bull’ its place on this list. Scorsese brilliantly captured the brutal isolation of being alone in a ring with another fighter. With only a few spectators apparent between the bout and a black void beyond, Scorsese keeps his camera close to the action, sometimes cutting sound entirely or slowing down to mirror the boxers’ distorted view of the fight. LaMotta’s ultimate defeat at the hands of Sugar Ray Robinson is the closest most of us will ever get to knowing what it’s like to be punched in the face. It’s impossible not to wince as blood is splattered over the ropes onto the crowd. – Dave Calhoun
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, rumours 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
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 centralised 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 manoeuvring 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
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
Moments of out-and-out action are relatively hard to come by in David Lean’s mosquito-infested POW movie. Instead, this is one of cinema’s purest statements on the amoral nature of human ambition. The so-called ‘hero’s journey’ – as square-jawed William Holden escapes Japanese imprisonment and hightails it to high command, before agreeing to lead a platoon of men back into the jungle to prevent the completion of the titular bridge – is merely a sideshow. The story’s real focus is on Alec Guinness’s psychotically single-minded Colonel Nicholson, whose task of rebuilding the bridge for his pitiless overlords becomes not merely a matter of personal pride, but an all-consuming obsession. In comparison to his latter, sprawling landscape epics like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, Lean’s direction here is relatively unshowy: The absence of music, the naturalistic performances and the preponderance of sweaty close-ups all add up to a brutish, claustrophobic experience. – Tom Huddleston
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 the film'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
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
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.
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 transvestite 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
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
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
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
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 James Bond film rode on the success of 1962’s ‘Dr. No’, meaning that returning director Terence Young had a bigger budget to play with – although modern viewers will be struck by the relative quiet and intelligence of the early 007 outings. That said, much of the Bond format was born here, including placing an action scene before the opening titles (Bond is stalked on the grounds of a country mansion), and supplying an epic-sounding theme song (here crooned by Matt Monro). In some ways, this movie is the bridge between Hitchcock’s thrillers and the more hysterical Bond movies to come, stressed by the central train sequence from Istanbul into southeastern Europe. The plot involves some solid Cold War shenanigans as rogue terror group SPECTRE tries to pull the wool over the eyes of the Soviets while taking revenge on 007 for killing Dr. No. Immortally, a Bond villain for the ages was created in the form of ice-cold Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and her stabby shoes. – Dave Calhoun
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 brutalised 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
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.
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 the opening blast of laser fire to its climactic fireball, the film 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 JJ Abrams has studied well. – Tom Huddleston
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 adrenalised 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
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 terrorising 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
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 realise they're 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
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
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.
Twelve 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
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
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.
Before the rise of 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: 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 ‘Kill Zone – SPL’ 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
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West
Best quote: ‘My arm!’ ‘It’s not yours any more.’
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
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
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
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.
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 fervour – 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
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 minimise 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
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 humour 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
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
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 3D 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
Director: Stephen Chow
Cast: Stephen Chow, Yuen Wah, Bruce Leung
Best quote: ‘This doesn’t make any sense at all.’
The killer scene: Chow discovers his inner Buddha.
Stephen Chow achieves his lifelong dream to become Bruce Lee, only funnier
The Axe Gang rules 1930s Shanghai mostly because they’ve got all the best dance moves. Sing (Stephen Chow) is dying to join them, but he’s completely useless. When he pretends to be an Axe Gang member to shake down the residents of local slum Pigsty Alley, he learns the hard way that Pigsty’s elderly residents are mostly hidden martial-arts masters. The real Axe Gang then hires kung fu killers to redeem their good name, and the movie turns into live-action Looney Tunes.
Exhaustingly entertaining, Chow pulls out all the special effects stops to pay homage to Hong Kong’s baroque, anything-goes midcentury martial-arts cinema, from blind hit men who fight with music, to the landlady whose anger is her weapon – and a No. 1 killer with a No. 1 comb-over. Antic and out of control, its only possible ending comes when someone punches the planet. – Grady Hendrix
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Ving Rhames
Best quote: ‘Red light…green light!’
The killer scene: Ethan Hunt infiltrates CIA’s Langley headquarters, descending on wires like an acrobat into a computer room.
Choose to accept this mission
Over his career, Brian De Palma had been many things: a critics’ darling; a Hitchcock clone; a tweaker of blue-nosed censors with ‘Scarface’ and ‘Body Double’; and even an Oscar player with 1987’s ‘The Untouchables’. But by the mid-’90s, he was a joke—the guy who completely botched ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’. Somewhat surprisingly, the director found redemption in this hired-gun assignment, turning a TV show best known for its theme song into a commercially viable spy thriller. Tom Cruise’s facade had no cracks in it at the time, and the film took clever advantage of dawning digital techniques, making its identity shifts that much more slippery. To be frank, the movie’s not all that memorable. Then again, sometimes all you need is one killer sequence, and De Palma came up with a beauty: a white-on-white plunge into a laser-protected computer room that became an instant classic. – Joshua Rothkopf
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
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.
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
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
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 be replicated by today’s pixel-crunching technology. – Trevor Johnston
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
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 superstylised 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
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
Director: Doug Liman
Cast: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper
Best quote: ‘You’re US 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 hardcore 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
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 the memory. – Dave Calhoun
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Cast: Gordon Liu, Alexander Fu Sheng, Kara Hui
Best quote: ‘I’m delivering the poles of righteousness. You can break one, but you can’t break them all.’
The killer scene: Defanging the wolves.
A bleak, blasted Buddhist action classic
Lau Kar-leung made philosophical motion-picture masterpieces that embodied the essence of kung fu, but ‘Eight Diagram’ is basically a funeral for 29-year-old Alexander Fu Sheng, Lau’s protégé who plays the film’s sixth brother. His character disappears halfway through the movie because in real life he died in a car accident during production; his death hangs over everything like a shroud. When the Yang family is betrayed by its allies, only Sixth Brother (who goes insane) and Fifth Brother (who hides in a Buddhist monastery) survive. Fifth Brother throws away enlightenment for revenge but can’t do it alone, and so at the last minute, his fellow monks show up to ‘defang the wolves,’ wrenching his enemy’s teeth from their mouths with quarterstaffs. But his victory tastes like ashes, and Fifth Brother finally just wanders away into the wilderness, as a howling wind overpowers the soundtrack. – Grady Hendrix
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
Yes, Douglas Fairbanks essentially invented the cinematic swashbuckler during the silent era, yet Errol Flynn’s costumed spectaculars at Warner Bros. in the 1930s went on to exemplify the form for succeeding generations of movie lovers and moviemakers. Tasmania’s finest export had the brawn and agility to carry off the derring-do, wielding bow and blade with conviction, yet it’s his insouciant charisma that truly makes us care. From a river-crossing staff-off with Little John to the arrow-splitting archery competition (and the final reel’s locked swords with Basil Rathbone’s hissable Guy of Gisborne), Flynn’s freedom-fighting Sir Robin whisks us through a string of iconic set pieces, rarely breaking a sweat, always ready with a quip and a cheeky grin. 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. – Trevor Johnston