Whether it’s our basest human tendencies toward competition and argumentation, an obsessive quirk of some hobbyists, or a simple marketing ploy, we love ranking things and pitting them against each other. From restaurants on Yelp to human beings on Uber, we love to rate things and force them into comparative structures, no matter how much harm we might cause in the process. ‘Best Of’ lists are extremely popular, and feed into the awful, divisive impulses of people (as evidenced by the comment section below), so what better genre to rank than the one solely focused on people fighting each other — action?
Then again, these lists can be extremely useful. They shine a light on titles which more people should see, bringing exposure to a variety of films while also validating the opinions of others and celebrating the truly worthy. Now, it’s tricky to list the best action films ever made, because few films solely exist within one single genre, most of all action, but we’ve done our best. While there are obviously many films which debatably could be listed here (and will be mentioned in the comments as dull people call this author a talentless idiot for not including them), the following are the most essential and greatest of all time.
Updated June 29th, 2023 by Sean Shuman: If you’re an action die-hard or are just looking to catch up on the best action films of all time, you’ll be happy to know that we’ve updated this article with additional content.
30 Police Story
Before Jackie Chan became a household name in the world of martial-arts movies, his earliest films cemented him as a modern-day Buster Keaton. The best example of this is Police Story, directed by Jackie Chan himself in 1985. When a detective succeeds in the messy arrest of a drug lord, the subsequent protection of a police secretary will push just about everyone into the crosshairs of nefarious gangsters.
Featuring several of Jackie Chan’s most famous moments, Police Story is an amazing showcase of his physicality and large-scale action sequences. It also features his most infamous stunt, wherein Jackie slides several stories down a pole through broken glass and heated light-bulbs. After the stunt’s completion, he’d be left with severe burns and multiple shattered bones. But, despite him almost dying several times throughout the film’s production, Police Story remains both a fan-favorite and personal favorite of Jackie Chan himself in his vast filmography.
29 El Mariachi
Robert Rodriguez’s feature film debut, El Mariachi, was made with about $7,000 in the early 1990s. Carlos Gallardo plays a traveling musician simply doing what he does best to get by. But when an assassin carrying a similar-looking guitar case starts to wreak havoc, a story of mistaken identity will see our mariachi fighting for his life in a wide-spread manhunt.
The first entry of the aptly named “Mexico Trilogy,” El Mariachi overcomes its low budget with slick cinematography, welcomed humor, and plenty of creative filming techniques. While Gallardo would be replaced by Antonio Banderas in Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, we can’t help but root for him as bullet casings and dulcet guitar tones rain down in equal measure. It’s an incredibly charming debut that, frankly, still looks amazing despite its miniscule budget.
28 Edge of Tomorrow
Live. Die. Repeat. Based on an original story created by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow may come off as a typical Tom Cruise action flick on the surface. But underneath the typecasting is something a little more profound. In a future where Europe is occupied by an alien threat, a lone public affairs officer is forced to participate in the conflict. After seemingly dying in action, he reawakens the morning prior with a full recollection of the events leading to his demise.
A time-loop action film, Edge of Tomorrow is a surprising outing from Cruise and Emily Blunt that twists a typical sci-fi action film into something far more brilliant. Combine that with practical exo-suits, unique alien designs, and how time-travel interacts with warfare, and you have a brilliant standalone film that left fans begging for a sequel.
27 Hot Fuzz
The middle entry of the Cornetto trilogy, Hot Fuzz sees the familiar duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost team up once more in both a love-letter to and parody of action films. A former London constable is reassigned to a quiet, down-to-earth village named Sandford. Paired with an oafish partner, things couldn’t be more peaceful and serene. But, after a grisly incident sparks a fire in our constable, the town’s answers may be a cover for something far more nefarious.
Hot Fuzz combines Edgar Wright’s frantically comedic style with a thorough appreciation of what came before. It takes the established stereotypes associated with the genre and takes them to the nth degree with a boisterous grandeur. It also happens to be incredibly funny, which is also a plus. Frequently cited as the best of the Cornetto trilogy, Hot Fuzz is practically required viewing for anyone who’s a fan of action flicks.
26 Hardcore Henry
Hardcore Henry answers the age-old question: could a first-person video game work as a movie? Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, but those prone to motion sickness may want to avert their eyes. A film deliberately light on plot, Hardcore Henry sees our titular hero revived as a cyborg after an accident leaves him mute and amnesiac. After being attacked by a mysterious organization, Henry and a friendly stranger named Jimmy must fight their way through modern-day Russia in order to rescue the woman who revived him.
Hardcore Henry is a ninety-minute sensory overdose seen through the eyes of our violent protagonist, with not much else going for it. However, they squeeze just about every bit of action they can out of this unique gimmick, with Parkour, graphic violence, gunfights, and some physical comedy filling up its brisk runtime.
25 Ip Man
Does Ip Man embellish the real life of its eponymous Wing Chun master? Yes, absolutely. But that’s not to say that this 2008 Donnie Yen action flick isn’t worth seeing. Ip Man sees Yen playing one of the most famous practitioners of Wing Chun both before and during the Japanese occupation of China, tasked with surviving the harsh living conditions while passing his knowledge onto others. If you’re not particularly intrigued by this concept, you may like to know that Ip Man also would mentor the late, great Bruce Lee later in the 1950s.
Utilizing its historical context for a bit more emotional weight, Ip Man is a surprisingly dramatic action film that also doesn’t skimp on the ludicrous fight scenes. With not a single moment wasted due to its stellar pacing, it’s also a complete breeze to watch and re-watch again and again.
Crank, as well as Crank 2: High Voltage, are some of the most hilariously over-the-top action films of the mid-to-late 2000s. The first film in this frenetic duology sees Jason Statham play an assassin named Chev Chelios, who finds himself in a particularly sticky situation. In a similar vein to Speed, Chev is in a race against time to cure a poison currently running through his veins. How can he buy himself more time? Simple: all he has to do is keep his heart rate up with a constant stream of adrenaline.
Crank is a film that appropriately never lets up. There’s simply no time for breathing room, as Chev bounces between gang fights, reckless driving, illicit drug use, and more in his search for a cure. Combined with Statham’s comedic timing, both Crank films are an uproariously good time if you have an afternoon to kill.
23 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Arguably the most well-known and critically lauded wuxia film internationally, Crouching Tiger, HIdden Dragon sees Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat co-star in a brilliant action film directed by Ang Lee. After an ancient sword, the Green Destiny, is stolen during a delivery to a prominent governor, a pair of warriors find themselves battling their internal desires and external foes on their journey to reclaim their prized possession.
Notable for it’s focus on female characters after the release of Mulan, along with taking place in an imagination-tinged recreation of Qing dynasty China, this brilliant martial arts film has just about every actor actively participating in their own stunts. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was also a breakout film for Michelle Yeoh in the west, introducing her to the US more than twenty years before Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Topping Ridley Scott’s act after the first Alien was tricky. It’s great that James Cameron likes challenges because he left his mark in the franchise with this fantastic (and more action-oriented) sequel to the 1978 space horror thriller. The Xenomorphs are back in Aliens, and this time is a whole nest of them. Aliens is a pulse-pounding action film that elevates the lore of the property to new stances and makes it a household name.
Sigourney Weaver returns as Ellen Ripley in a story set 57 years after her last battle with the Xenomorph in the Nostromo. She must join a team of armed Marines to face the horde of deadly creatures and try to rescue a group of colonizers. This movie has intense suspense, thrilling shootouts, and one-on-one fights where Ripley must fight the Alien Queen to ensure her survival. It’s the perfect blend of horror, sci-fi, and near-constant adrenaline-fueled action you can’t dare to miss.
The ’80s feel synonymous with the age of the action star, and while everyone was fawning at everything made by Stallone or Arnold, along came a sleek guy named Peter Weller who delivered his second-best performance (first goes to Naked Lunch, of course) in the first RoboCop. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, RoboCop is a powerfully satirical and classic action film blending multiple dystopian elements with thrilling shootout and fight sequences.
The story is set in a crime-ridden Detroit in a not-so-distant future and follows Alex Murphy, played by Weller, a police officer who Clarence Boddicker and his gang brutally murder. OCP manages to resurrect him as a powerful cyborg programmed for law enforcement. As RoboCop, Murphy fights corruption on every level of the corporate ladder and numerous dangerous criminals. This action piece is so well-paced that we explore Murphy’s inner conflicts while striving to reclaim his lost humanity. The amazing script contains social commentary, explosive action sequences, and memorable quips, and is ridiculous fun.
20 Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Don’t be so surprised; James Cameron could easily fit a quarter of this list. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a direct sequel to the first film, set 12 years after its events. The story begins with Sara Connor locked up in a mental health facility while John Connor lives with a foster family. The groundbreaking sequel raised the bar for visual effects and storytelling in cinema for years to come, and like Aliens (and more recently, Avatar: The Way of Water) proved that Cameron could outdo himself and raise the action in franchise sequels.
Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as the Terminator, but this time he’s on the side of good after being reprogrammed by the future John Connor to protect himself in the past from the T-1000, a new Terminator model created using liquid metal. Edward Furlong debuted as young Connor, and Linda Hamilton returned as Sarah. This wild sequel was the most expensive film ever made for its day and changed the game for Hollywood blockbusters with its heart-pounding action sequences and jaw-dropping visual effects.
In 2008, everyone already knew Liam Neeson was a fantastic actor, but no one could foresee how much of an excellent action star he would become. At 56 years old, Neeson took on the role of retired CIA agent Bryan Mills and made everyone drop their jaws with the fast-paced and intense first entry of Taken. The film, directed by Pierre Morel, is one of the most intense thrillers ever made, one that opened the doors for aging movie stars to energize their careers as action movie stars.
In the film, Mills is an overprotective, divorced father of a 17-year-old. After being convinced by his former wife to grant permission to their daughter to travel, he finds out her daughter has been kidnapped after landing in Paris. Mills takes matters into his own hands and goes on a relentless mission using his unique set of skills and a no-nonsense attitude to track down the ruthless human traffickers and kill each one of them.
18 The Raid
Some of the best action films are small-scale situations depicting the harsh realities experienced by authority figures in other regions of the world. Such is the case of The Raid. This incredible action film is directed by Gareth Evans and stars Indonesian martial arts superstar Iko Uwais as rookie cop Rama. The movie takes place in a single location: a building used by a gang to protect hunted criminals, and every single floor is packed with people more than willing to kill the Swat team to avoid being captured.
Rama must bear witness as each crew member is taken out while he fights his way out of the building, trying to capture the crime lord taking refuge there. The Raid takes hold of your senses and won’t let them go, as Rama uses everything in his hands to deal with the unending wave of criminals going after him. This movie has intense shootouts, incredibly choreographed fights, and brutal violence. It’s a visual feast that’ll keep you at the edge of your set until the very end.
17 Kill Bill
2003’s Kill Bill remains Quentin Tarantino’s flagship action title, and it was somewhat of a standalone flick in a genre that was experiencing a general air of malaise in the noughties. The feet-fetishizing, Asian-cinema-inspired, enigmatic Jackie Brown director has always been a devout bastion of rebel-rousing dialogue, and comic-strip style violence, so, Kill Bill was representative of what the auteur could deliver when he departed from his archetypal field of the crime-drama.
The film, based on 1973’s Japanese action-thriller, Lady Snowblood, follows the story of The Bride (Uma Thurman), who following a lethal attack from her boss, Bill is left comatose. After waking from her period of prolonged insensibility, The Bride has one thing on her mind: vengeance. Going on a samurai-sword-wielding, retribution-motivated killing spree, the fearless samurai with her unmistakable yellow, all-in-one tracksuit tracks down her nemesis, Bill. The movie contains, arguably, one of the defining action sequences of the decade as she takes on the Crazy 88 in a scene for the ages.
Steve McQueen was the true action-movie godfather, the first real action star that seemingly embodied his characters off-screen as well as in front of the camera. Bullitt was a watershed moment for the genre, and it set the blueprint for the future of the action movie with its enthralling car chases and breathtaking set pieces.
Peter Yates’ 1968 film, adapted from author Robert L. Fish’s novel, Mute Witness, tells the story of police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, a laconic, unreadable man who is tasked with protecting Johnny (Pat Renella), a man whose testimony could secure the conviction of an infamous mob boss.
15 Leon the Professional
At just 13 years of age, Natalie Portman made her feature film debut in truly iconic fashion, as orphan, Mathilda in 1994’s Leon the Professional. The cult classic, that pitches the irrepressible Jean Reno alongside the young, future star delivers one of the finest, most authentic on-screen father-daughter-like relationships ever.
When her entire family is wiped out by corrupt DEA officer, Norman Stansfield (played exceptionally by Gary Oldman in a truly absorbing performance of ultimate treachery), Leon, an Italian hitman who resides in her apartment block reluctantly takes her in, and the angelic, yet fierce Mathilda becomes his protégé.
One of cinema’s greatest travesties is the fact we’ve only ever seen Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in four movies together, albeit the rarity of their concurrent outings makes the occurrence even more noteworthy. Their second cinematic pairing (and the first time they ever shared the screen together) was in Michael Mann’s 1995 classic, Heat.
In what can only be described as an exhilarating, action-packed affair, Pacino presents Lieutenant Vincent Hanna, a high-ranking officer in the LAPD who actively pursues notorious career-criminal and bank robber, Neil McCauley. In this ensuing game of tantalizing cat and mouse, more akin to a game of chess than a mindless Tom and Jerry-style hunt, Hanna methodically mirrors his adversary’s every move in order to catch him in the act. Famously, Pacino and De Niro only appear in two scenes together, although both are blockbuster moments in cinematic history.
13 The French Connection
If Bullitt paved the way for action cinema to truly unleash itself, then The French Connection is perhaps its first masterpiece (and no, Point Blank is not an action film). For a long time, the action genre simply couldn’t compete with other genres; the violence, realism, camerawork, and editing that great action usually needs basically didn’t exist until the ’70s, for a variety of reasons. The closest any genre came to this would be the Western, with films like The Wild Bunch coming closer to actual action than most other films prior to the ’70s.
This 1971 film from Exorcist director William Friedkin, on the other hand, is a gritty, exhilarating journey through the dank depths of New York City as cops pursue the drug trade. With a career-defining performance from Gene Hackman as Detective Popeye Doyle, Friedkin’s documentary-like direction immerses viewers in the action, making the outstanding chase sequences some of the greatest of all time.
12 Unleashed (Danny the Dog)
Jet Li is rightfully considered one of the best action stars of all time, and while he’s given many gravity-defying performances, his work in Unleashed (also known as Danny the Dog) is his most underrated and arguably his best.
With a script from Luc Besson (Leon the Professional, The Fifth Element) and direction from Louis Leterrier (the Transporter films, Now You See Me), an incredible techno score from Massive Attack and RZA, and beautiful performances from Li, Morgan Freeman, and Bob Hoskins, it’s mind-blowing how little-known Unleashed is. The film follows the slow self-awareness and revenge of a bodyguard, trained from a young age with a shock collar to work for a gangster.
11 The Rock
For many, Michael Bay is the bane of Hollywood, a director whose dependence upon explosions and smudgy CGI has ruined action cinema; for others, he’s created some of the most consistently fun movies of the past three decades. Both parties can probably agree that The Rock is simply an amazing movie (good enough to sit next to the greatest auteur in the Criterion Collection).
The Rock has extremely fun performances from Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage (as well as a soulful Ed Harris), as a pair of men tasked with infiltrating Alcatraz to save the world or whatever; honestly, the plot doesn’t matter much, it’s the energy, dialogue, acting, and epic fun of the whole thing that makes The Rock a somewhat cheesy but timeless action classic.
In conclusion, this film has captivated audiences with its mesmerizing storytelling, compelling performances, and stunning visuals. It has transported us to worlds both familiar and unknown, evoking a range of emotions that have left a lasting impact. The director’s artistic vision and the collaborative efforts of the cast and crew have brought this story to life in a truly extraordinary way. From the gripping plot twists to the heartfelt moments of connection, this film has reminded us of the power of cinema to inspire, entertain, and provoke thought.
Whether you’re a fan of the genre or simply a lover of great storytelling , this film is not to be missed. It’s a testament to the magic of filmmaking and serves as a reminder of the profound impact that movies can have on our lives. So grab your popcorn, sit back, and immerse yourself in this cinematic masterpiece.