Best action movies
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
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.—Trevor Johnston
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
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
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.
Even the supporting actors are superstars: Jim Kelly supplies effortless cool as a take-no-shit competitor who won't tolerate racist cops, and John Saxon delivers his typical hangdog charm. Angela Mao, the Lady Whirlwind herself, delivers a short stunner of a set piece as Bruce’s sister, and 21-year-old Sammo Hung and his stunt squad (including a young Jackie Chan) are on fire. Shih Kien, with over 30 years of experience as a mandarin of menace, picks his teeth with the scenery as the evil one-handed Mr. Han, and the muscle-bound Bolo Yeung based his entire subsequent career on his performance as Han’s henchman. Full of underground dungeons and goofy gadgets, this is 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
Director: John Woo
Cast: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen
Best quote: “It’s like looking in a mirror, only not.”
The killer scene: Confused for the enemy and slammed in a high-tech prison, a surgically altered supercop gets a visit—from himself.
Flesh for fantasy
Arguably the craziest screenplay ever bought by Hollywood, Mike Werb and Michael Colleary’s spec script literalized the two-sides-of-the-same-coin dynamic found in most action movies, by adding a nauseating surgical component in which hero and villain actually swap faces. (Never mind if these elective procedures were even possible, much less survivable.) Fortunately for the young writers, their material found a team with just the right amount of nuts. John Travolta, riding high on his Pulp Fiction rebirth, along with the ever-unpredictable Nicolas Cage were both lured by playing double roles—and, to some extent, each other’s famous mannerisms. Undoubtedly, the film’s ace in the hole is Hong Kong transplant John Woo, who never quite found free expression in his adopted America until this winner. Face/Off is a glorious compendium of the director’s signature preoccupations: dapper gun-to-gun standoffs, gooey emotional exchanges and a killer instinct for motorboat chases.—Joshua Rothkopf
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
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
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
Director: John McTiernan
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Bill Duke
Best quote: “You’re one ugly motherfucker.”
The killer scene: The gruesome death of Carl Weathers—his arm may be gone, but his machine gun keeps firing
Guns don’t kill people, aliens do
There’s a killer alien running loose in the jungle. What to do? Send Schwarzenegger after it! “You’re one ugly mudda-fucka!” The director, John McTiernan, is never mentioned among the greats—certainly not as frequently as James Cameron or Steven Spielberg. Maybe there’s a reason for that: He likes his cigar-chompin’ heroes, simple men who enter a situation calmly and defeat the odds. But between this film and Die Hard, McTiernan has a legacy that few can claim.
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
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
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
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-happy mechanical behemoth that is ED-209.—Keith Uhlich
Directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
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
Director: Sergio Leone
Cast: Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale
Best quote: “How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants.”
The killer scene: Frank kills a kid after he’s called out by name.
If there had to be a final Western, this would be it. The gorgeous nostalgia supplied by Sergio Leone's mythic 1968 summation work—in many ways a tombstone for a certain kind of Western hero, of an "ancient race," as Charles Bronson says—packs a wallop. The story, cobbled together by the director and young film enthusiasts Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, plays like a collection of the genre's greatest hits: the tense, real-time set pieces of High Noon; the mysterious hero of Shane; the encroaching antlike forces of civilization as explored in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This being a Leone film, though, the proceedings are infused with a luridness that might best be called "Italian": The bangs are big, the score (one of Ennio Morricone's most beautiful) is twangy, and the faces are craggy and huge, filling the widescreen frame completely.—Joshua Rothkopf
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Director: Gareth Evans
Cast: Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Donny Alamsyah
Best quote: “Pulling a trigger is like ordering a takeout.”
The killer scene: A fight in a brightly lit drug lab features three cops and a hell of a lot of broken necks.
You thought your neighbors were jerks?
The plot is simple. A SWAT team has to defeat all the baddies in a tower block in order to reach the big boss man at the top. It’s basically a video game in cinematic form. And that’s not a bad thing. This 2011 Indonesian beat-’em-up was a surprise international success, led by handsome young star Iko Uwais, who shoots, kicks, punches, stabs and clawhammers his way through countless sweaty thugs in a brilliant display of the Indonesian martial art of pencak silat. The character development may be negligible and the plot threads may fray as the cops flit between floors, but that’s more than made up for by the myriad ways Welsh director Gareth Evans shows you how to snap someone’s neck. At points it feels like an hour-and-a-half-long version of the Oldboy clawhammer-corridor fight scene, but it’s dirty, grimy and violent enough to keep you watching.—Eddy Frankel
Director: Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender
Best quote: “Heroes of the day.”
The killer scene: In a display of almost inhuman dexterity, Keaton uses one dislodged railway sleeper car to knock another out of the path of his train.
A dream in steam
Arguably Buster Keaton’s crowning achievement—and inarguably one of the greatest silent comedies ever—this story of a train conductor, his girl and the American Civil War is the dictionary definition of a masterpiece. It’s the oldest full-length feature we have on our list; many would say it’s the best one, too. Most jaw-droppingly, none of these special effects—from bridge derailments to actual cannonfire—were created with animation or computers. (What’s a “computer,” asks Hollywood of the mid-1920s.)
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
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
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.
Director: Mark L. Lester
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Hedaya
Best quote: “I lied.”
The killer scene: A shopping mall bust-up is a scenery-smashing action scene for the ages.
Arnie’s one-man army
Is this the trashiest film on our list? Perhaps. Is it a whole lot of fun nonetheless? Abso-goddamn-lutely. To be fair, it can be tricky to tell exactly what Commando is trying to achieve: On the surface, it’s a meathead shoot-’em-up with a kid-gets-kidnapped, muscley-Dad-goes-bananas plot that Chuck Norris would scoff at. But is it as dumb as it seems? Arnie, for one, is undoubtedly playing it for laughs. If the moment where he drives a dump truck through the window of a gun store to replenish his armory isn’t enough, the scene where he strips down to his trunks—in grotesque close-up—should be. The final gunfight on the grounds of an ornate mansion also feels weirdly off-kilter: The bullets and bodies fly, but almost every shot is filled with images of brightly colored, beautifully arranged flowers. Amazingly, director Mark L. Lester is still in business, though his last movie, 2013’s Poseidon Rex, currently has a 2.5 score on IMDB.—Tom Huddleston
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
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
Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong
Best quote: “Do you want revenge? Or do you want the truth?”
The killer scene: One hammer, one hallway, one shot
Revenge is a dish best served with dumplings.
The giant shadow cast by this film is a tribute to the unbeatable movie-fu of its director, Park Chan-wook: It’s not until the 40-minute mark that the audience even remembers to breathe. Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is just your average terrible father when he’s suddenly imprisoned for no reason inside a hotel room for 15 years. There, he goes more than a little bit insane, turning his body into a living weapon. When he’s released without explanation, he unleashes hell as he searches for his mystery tormentor, pausing to eat a live octopus (his first meal in over a decade that isn’t dumplings) along the way. Much like eating an octopus, this movie is painful and disgusting, but also vital and alive, powered by so much cinema bravado that you can forgive just how much of its plot relies on hypnosis and knockout gas.—Grady Hendrix
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
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
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey
Best quote: “Back off, Warchild. Seriously.”
The killer scene: As Simon Pegg once accurately enthused, “the greatest foot chase in film history,” Reeves pursuing Swayze through the backstreets of L.A.
Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learning how
Does Kathryn Bigelow ever find herself wondering, even in the wake of all the awards, critical love and controversy surrounding her “serious” projects like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, whether she’ll ever make another film as purely pleasurable as Point Break? This is one of those rare films where everything—and we mean everything—just works: The plot ticks like an atomic clock, the dialogue is both flawlessly functional and genuinely funny (“Guess we have an asshole shortage, huh?” “Not so far…”), and the combination of surfing, skydiving, Eastern philosophy and bank robbing means there’s never a dull moment. Best of all are the mismatched central characters, dually personifying the film’s celebratory pastiche of masculinity, and played with a wink by the wonderfully weird combo of Reeves and Swayze. There are persistent threats of a remake, but you can’t improve on perfection.—Tom Huddleston
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: 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, 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: 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 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 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
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 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
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 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: 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
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
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 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
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
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
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 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
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 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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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: 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 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
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
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.
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
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
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: 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-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
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
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