Jordan Ruimy Counts Down 10 of the Greatest Action Films Ever


by Jordan Ruimy

“Mad Max: Fury Road” has single-handedly redefined what an action movie can do. George Miller worked on his baby for the better part of 30 years and his vision was finally unleashed on screens nationwide a few weekends ago to the ravest of rave reviews. Where does this “Mad Max” stack up with the others? I’m pretty sure it’s on par with, if not better than, 1982’s “The Road Warrior”, a film that changed the action movie game over 30 years ago. Will “Fury Road” be as indelibly treasured a decade or two from now? Time will tell, but the feminist angle – a kickass Charlize Theron – and chaotically edited action might be a sign of things to come with the genre (could be a good thing or it could be a bad thing). When the movie was done all I could think of was how all these young, hip, new superhero movie directors coming from the indie scene just got schooled on how an action movie should be made…all this by a 70-year-old filmmaker.

“Die Hard” changed the action genre almost 30 years ago; ever since then it has evolved in numerous, interesting ways, (mind you not all successful) but it’s given us a handful of great movies. “Fury Road” is only the latest addition to this ever-evolving genre. Where do we go from here? What will be the consequences of a post-“Fury Road” action world? As A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times, “Miller has reminded us that blockbusters have the potential to not only be art, but radically visionary – even the fourth in a series. What a lovely day, indeed.”

Here are ten movies — all released within the last 30 years — that tried to change the game, succeeded and made it a lovely day for blockbusters.

1) Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
James Cameron’s blistering sequel to the 1984 classic is much more of an action movie than its predecessor. Like many of the movies on this list, it first garnered mixed reviews before being re-evaluated years later as a masterpiece. Teaming up with Ah-nuld’s Terminator, a buffed up and kickass Linda Hamilton tries to stop the viscerally frightening T-1000, sent from the future to kill her troubled son John Connor. I remember being a teenager when it first came out and I had never seen action scenes staged quite like this before, nor had I ever witnessed special effects as inventively surreal and chaotic. I still haven’t. The special effects still hold up to this day and so does the beating heart that Cameron injects into his characters. It had everything the 21st century action film would strive for, yet none have come close to replicating this 1991 movie’s triumphant achievement.

2) Die Hard (1988)
Action movies are not the Academy’s thing and for good reason. They are – most of the time – loud, abrasive, dumbed down and ultimately artless films (“The Expendables” anybody?) but sometimes a movie like “Die Hard” goes beyond genre boundaries and achieves something special through sheer perfection of the craft. John McTiernan’s “Die Hard” isn’t high art, but it got the job done in high octane fashion and set the standard for what an action film should be like in the 21st century. It spawned numerous rip-offs in the 90’s and still does today, none of which have attained the excitement of McTiernan’s original. It is in fact not overblown to say that “Die Hard” set the standard for the perfect modern action movie.

3) The Matrix (1999)
The action movie was dying in 1999, Arnold was just not Arnold anymore, and there wasn’t a new action star to come and take over the throne. “The Matrix” is where the action movie went techno. Literally, it went beyond the technological and creative limits we thought were set for action. For better or for worse, “bullet time” reinvigorated the genre and shattered the clichés for a whole bunch of new ones to come. This is where the surreal got mixed into the action and canonized a whole bunch of copycats. Imagination and originality crept into the equation and signaled a whole new generation of mainstream filmmaking built on ideas as much as action. “The Matrix” was an inspiration for up and coming filmmakers and the countless camera tricks that were to come. Hell, even music videos changed their style because of it. The film was not just built on getting your pulse pounding, but also on getting your mind blown. Its Asian cinema-inspired leaps signaled the start of something new at the movies. Of note, another triumphant female heroine was introduced in the form of Carrie Ann Moss’ Trinity. The sequels disappointed, but we’ll always have the original.

4) The Killer (1989)
If you want to know where Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and even Johnnie To learned to fabricate their over-the-top violence, look no further than this 1989 John Woo classic. Starring Chow Yun-Fat as a lethal assassin who accepts one last hit in order to restore a young girl’s vision, this Chinese action movie’s influence was felt all over cinema and is justly called an important landmark in the genre. Just a year after its release, Luc Besson basically ripped it off for the excitingly entertaining “La Femme Nikita” and a few years later for his now classic “Leon: The Professional”. Much of the borrowing from Woo’s film is superficial—two-handed gunning, doves flying, near operatic kills – but it paved the way for the possibility of making bloody violence look artistically eloquent. Woo followed up with another classic, “Hard Boiled”, but to this day nothing in his career can top “The Killer”.

5) Aliens (1986)
“Aliens” taught us to never underestimate the stupidity of man. “Get away from her you bitch” exclaimed Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley at the climax of this 1986 sequel to “Alien”, a film that epitomized female power in a male dominated society. Like many of James Cameron’s other films, this featured a strong, kickass female lead. If the original movie veered more towards the horror genre, Cameron shifted the emphasis towards a more action packed screenplay with an abundance of quotability. When Vasquez gets asked by her peers, “are you a man?” she hilariously replies “no, are you?” The feminist undertones are present, but one cannot go without mentioning the action sequences that left the viewer without a heartbeat by the end of the film’s pulse pounding 146 minutes. To this day Ripley is still the set example for what a female action heroine should be.

6) Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
You can’t deny the sheer impact of Mad Max: Fury Road. Director George Miller’s Fourth installment of the film franchise is proof that not all blockbusters should be greeted with an indifferent shrug. If anything, this brutal action film is even more intense and exciting than its predecessors. With its nihilistic outlook on human nature and a nasty, in-your-face style, this is Miller’s triumph through and through. The amount of detail that he brings to every frame is as obsessively meticulous as any Wes Anderson picture I’ve seen, as is the editing by Margaret Sixel, which – as we stand – is most deserving of next year’s Film Editing Oscar. Edited at breakneck pace and staged with manic fury, Sixel is the unheralded hero here. The celebrated one is of course Miller who’s passion and vision comes through in every frame. The total control he must have had with this project to pull off what he did on screen is unheard of, which is good for him and great for us.

7) The Bourne Trilogy (2002-2007)
“The Bourne Identity” introduced movie-goers to a new type of action hero and a new style of action. Gone were the big-budget, explosion-laden, slick, special effects extravaganzas, in was a gritty template, naturalistic action sequences, and hand-held camera fight scenes. Our hero was no longer the cocky son of a gun trying to save the world; he was trying to save himself and find out who he was. Whatever you think of these movies you can’t possibly deny the impact it’s had on this decade’s action fare. Heck, even James Bond has been dubbed “James Bourne” by many. Liam Neeson was basically Jason Bourne in the “Taken” movies, ditto Keanu Reeves in last year’s “John Wick”, Angie Jolie in “Salt”, Tom Cruise in “Jack Reacher”. Hand to hand combat was replicated in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, and even Christopher Nolan used Bourne-esque moves in his “Dark Knight” trilogy.

8) The Fugitive (1993)
Another Best Picture nominee, this one stars Harrison Ford and is based on the popular 1960’s television series. Accused of a murder he did not commit, Ford’s John Kimble tries to find the one-armed man who killed his wife in order to clear his name. Fairly standard, but expertly done and a true classic of the genre. While Arnold, Stallone and JCVD were blowing stuff up and strutting their roided bodies on screen, Harrison Ford and “The Fugitive” knocked our socks off with wild stunts, Andrew Davis’ tight direction, and a believable story that had us invested in the characters. They really just don’t make them like they used to. Tommy Lee Jones won a Best Supporting Actor, besting out – huh – Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List? But that’s just a whole other story I won’t get into.

9) Predator (1987)
If there’s any genre that calls for the acceptance of guilty pleasures, it’s action. You probably have this 1987 classic starring Arnold Schwarzenegger to thank for that. Carl Weather and Jessie Ventura compliment Ah-nuld in this testosterone fuelled beast hunt in the Central American jungle. Not sold yet? At one point Bill Duke says “This shit makes Cambodia look like Kansas”. I can’t say the plot is rocket science, but there’s something incredibly exciting happening here – a feeling that we just checked our brains at the door and let this pop culture milestone whiplash us. All credit is given to director John McTiernan who, one year away from his “Die Hard” triumph, takes a B-movie level script and elevates into a classic of the genre. Not convinced yet? Just tell me a smile doesn’t appear on your face when Arnold, finally face to face with the hunter utters “You’re one ugly motherfucker.” Classic.

10) Speed (1994)
“There’s a bomb on the bus”, Dennis Hopper screams halfway through this tense 1994 action movie. No worries, a strong and determined Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves try to stop the devilish Hopper. Psychotic and scary as hell, Hopper brings real evil to the movie, determined to wipe out anything in his path. With shades of his gas-huffing Frank from “Blue Velvet”, mixed with his deranged Feck of “River’s Edge”, Hopper’s villainous Howard Payne owns every frame he’s in and leaves a mark on the film, even when not onscreen. It’s a profoundly disturbing portrait of a man gone haywire that set the bar for the audacity, insanity and level at which a mainstream movie villain can go. Just think about it, every movie villain since Payne has had the freedom to go to extremes that might not have been available without this movie.

  • UBourgeois

    I don’t know if I’m quite ready to thrust Fury Road into the canon quite yet (It’s plenty wonderful and inventive, but does it really rock the genre in ways Miller hasn’t already?), but even that aside, this list is missing some critical entries! For example:

    Heat – Truly one of the most unimpeachably excellent action films in cinema, Michael Mann’s masterpiece. How The Fugitive and Predator made it on here ahead of Heat I’ll never understand.

    Hard Boiled – Really, The Killer but moreso. I suppose this is just a matter of opinion, though, as having both on the list would seem excessive.

    Robocop – Admittedly less of a properly “good” action film than something like Die Hard, but the satire is perfectly on-point, incredibly subtle, and perfectly executed in that Verhoeven way.

    The Mission – This could reasonably be Election or Breaking News or something else, but there’s gotta be a Johnnie To film on here. Yeah, he owes a big debt to John Woo, but I think he’s definitely surpassed his predecessor at this point.

    Point Break – Obviously the best ridiculous 90s action flick featuring Keanu Reeves. Speed can take a seat.

    This isn’t even counting some excellent martial arts/samurai/sword-and-sandal/whatever kinds of films that may or may not count depending on how rigidly you define “action film”.

  • Derek

    For most fans of Johnnie To , overall the mission was still the best .

    But if we only focus on ‘action’ , exiled was the best one of Johnnie To .

  • Mac

    I’m sure more people will chime in with pictures that you “missed”…

    JURASSIC PARK – Spielberg takes his time getting to the action, but when it starts, it doesn’t let up until the end. The T. Rex attacking the kids in the car, the raptors stalking their prey through the compound, a car crashing through the trees. This movie throws in a heap of adventure and just the right amount of scares. It’s a classic.

    SPIDER-MAN 2 – This sequel managed to improve every aspect of the first installment – better screenplay, better villain, and better action. The fight on the train, the bank heist and even an operating room scene each make this comic-book movie a standout.

    THE INCREDIBLES – Animation counts, doesn’t it? One of Pixar’s best movies. Great for the family, too!

  • Nick Johnson

    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the greatest action movie of all time. Period. End of discussion.

  • msd

    How do we define action films? It’s tricky because so many cross genres. I think MMFR is first and foremost an action film, that’s what Miller set out to do, whereas I don’t think of Heat as an action movie, more of a crime drama or thriller that also has action it.

  • Bryce Forestieri

    Great choices, Jordan and the other readers. I don’t much care for the BOURNE trilogy and its appalling hand held/editing though I like the first one well enough; but the rest I’m down with and particularly encouraged by mentions of PREDATOR (whose sequel is more than worth a look too) and ROBOCOP. Let’s not forget about THE TERMINATOR which I prefer to the sequel.

  • Ryan Adams

    How do we define action films? It’s tricky because so many cross genres.

    As Mac said, lists like this are a thankless task because rather than show solidarity with Jordan’s solid choices or remark on his reasoning, the first reaction is to say: But you forgot Blank!

    Because we all have our personal favorites, we try to headline pieces like with wording that doesn’t make any claim as the be-all end-all authority. It’s no different than any of us listing our own personal top 10 of anything.

    It seems to me that Jordan has chosen not to always go for movies that are non-stop action from first shot to last, but instead to look for action movies that have a brain in their heads. Movies of any genre that are well-known for their action set-pieces should qualify.

    A list I made would probably include more Asian titles but The Killer is certainly one of the finest of those.

    How anyone have have any doubt that Fury Road didn’t vault into the top 20 of all time on the basis of any single set-piece it contains just baffles me. The fact that it contains 4 or 5 such qualifing set pieces is just mind-blowing. As the adrenaline of first viewing wears off and people begin look more carefully at what Miller achieved and how, Fury Road is going to become the stuff of film school frame-by-frame analysis in ways that make the vast majority action movies look silly.

  • Brett Pribble

    Solid list. I’d switch out number 1 with number 2, though. Yippee ki-yay!

  • m1

    I haven’t seen enough to list the greatest action films “ever,” but up for consideration would be:

    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
    Spider-Man 2
    Mad Max: Fury Road
    The Dark Knight
    Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
    The Avengers
    The Incredibles
    The Bourne Ultimatum
    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
    The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
    The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

    and some others.

  • Ryan Adams

    Can we just pause in awe for a few moments to remember the way we got hammered in this 5-year span:

    1988: Die Hard
    1989: The Killer
    1990: Total Recall
    1991: Point Break, Terminator 2: Judgment Day
    1992: Hard Boiled

    and then look at Oscar’s Best Picture in the same era:

    1988: Rain Man
    1989: Driving Miss Daisy
    1990: Dances with Wolves
    1991: Silence of the Lambs
    1992: Unforgiven

    and then consider which of these films has had the most enduring influence — even contemporaneously to one another. and how this peak of action spectaculars gave Hollywood a desperately needed jolt of electroshock juice to remind moviemakers where their balls are.

  • m1

    It’s actually Return of the King, and not Fellowship, that I would consider. Though Fellowship is fine.

  • Joseph

    Solid list that’s hard to argue with, and I agree that Mad Max: Fury Road catapults to the near top of the list. I think your blurbs under each film highlight why they belong on the list. To me, it’s not as important which films make the list. It’s more important if the person who made the list can defend their choices. You have done that well.

    What I would have included:

    1. At least one film by Johnnie To, although since you put John Woo, maybe you felt it was unnecessary.

    2. Crouching Tiger, as some have suggested, should be here. So, too, should House of Flying Daggers. I suppose like Ryan I would’ve loved to see more Asian films here since their action is significantly superior to Hollywood, whether it’s the gangster films like The Killer (which you did include), the historical epics like Flying Daggers or even Red Cliff (another John Woo masterpiece, but more of a war film I suppose), or the martial arts comedies like Police Story 3 and Drunken Master.

    3. I think the Raid and The Raid 2 deserve to be acknowledged. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, the films are relentless and utterly exhilarating to watch unfold.

    4. Edge of Tomorrow because it’s one of the few contemporary Hollywood blockbusters I’ve seen that incorporates action and slapstick comedy.

    I’m sure there are other under-the-radar action films I’ve loved over the years and cannot remember right now, but overall, this list gets it.

  • Ryan Adams

    Joseph! I had written a comment that was virtually identical to yours. I named the same movies for the same reasons.

    But then I decided not to hit submit, because I had just written “Lists like this are a thankless task, blah blah, everybody is all like: You Forgot Blank!” blah blah :) So I would’ve felt like a two-faced schizo editor trying to play it both ways.

    But I’m sure Jordan will be quick to agree that the purpose of articles like this is not to have everyone nod in slackjaw agreement like bobbleheads do on other sites elsewhere.

    Here at AD we can agree on some things and then feel free to expand the conversation. If Jordan had made a list of 25 films, he would surely have caught all the ones we’ve been naming as our own favorites — (and then some interesting fringe titles from #25-#50 would be the ones we brought up).

    Anyway, Joseph, thanks for picking up the baton I dropped — (your comment is better written than my rant, too).

  • Jordan Ruimy

    Right on, appreciate all the comments about what SHOULD/SHOULDN’T be on the list. Joseph and Ryan basically nailed it. I write lists like these to get people talking, reflecting and thinking about the most worthy. As mentioned earlier on, I had a list of about 50 essentials and narrowed it down to 10. Not an easy task and a lot harder when trying to find the perfect criteria for what is/what isnt an “action” movie. For example, if “Heat” was considered an “action” movie it would have easily cracked the top 10- just look at the profound effect its had on movies since its 1995 release. Most notably in ChristopherNolan’s “The Dark Knight”, the action sequences in that Batman movie are basically ripping of Mann’s masterful direction. It’s the same damn technique.

    These came very close to making the list:

    Hard Boiled
    The Terminator
    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
    The Raid/The Raid 2
    Point Break
    The Road Warrior
    Raiders of the Lost Ark
    Casino Royale

  • Chris Price

    The Raid: Redemption is still my favorite action film of the new millennium. The Raid 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road are close behind and basically tied in my mind. Other films since 2000 I would include:







    UNITED 93

    3:10 TO YUMA







    THE RAID 2


  • Chris Price

    I wouldn’t even begin to try and unpack action films in the 80’s and 90’s. That’s like trying to sift through all the great music released from 1965-1974

  • Bryce Forestieri

    CASINO ROYALE! So so good! And don’t forget GOLDEN EYE! Ugh so many.

  • Igor Sousa

    Garreth Evans is probably the most promissing newcomer when we talk about action films. There are not many in this list, anyway. Our hopes are still with Miller, Verhoeven, Cameron….

  • Al Robinson

    My favorite action movies over the years:

    Star Wars – 1977
    The Empire Strikes Back – 1980
    Raiders of the Lost Ark – 1981
    The Terminator – 1984
    Die Hard – 1988
    Jurassic Park – 1993
    Independence Day – 1996
    The Matrix – 1999
    The Lord of the Rings – 2001, 2002, 2003
    Iron Man – 2008
    The Dark Knight – 2008
    Avatar – 2009
    Inception – 2010
    The Avengers – 2012
    Guardians of the Galaxy – 2014
    Mad Max: Fury Road – 2015

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  • Desmond

    CHRIS , Johnnie To ‘s election (2005) , an action film ?

  • Carlos

    Very good list although I would replace the fugitive for Jurassic park. I would have also placed Fury Road number 1 as I am still in awe with this movie 😉

  • Ryan Adams

    It’s Johnnie To’s 60th birthday this year. I had a post drafted back in April to pay tribute to him. I’ll dig that up and expand it sometime this summer.

    I had written a paragraph about how Johnnie To is almost the anti-Woo — insofar as the action in a To film is sometimes more of a suspended state of sustained tension that’s not always carried through to consummation. In a Johnnie To movie, the guns are such fetish objects we almost don’t need to see them blasting to be acutely aware of their power. *(but, man, when they do start blasting!)

    So I think it’s possible to recall Johnnie To films as filled with more violence and action that they actually have. All the same, many of To’s action set pieces are pure mainline adrenaline — so witty and elegantly choreographed they imprint on our memories in strange ways.

  • Bryce Forestieri

    Looking forward to that tribute, Ryan! I adore Johnnie To.

  • Jon

    Clearly I am the only one who thinks RUNAWAY TRAIN from 1985 was awesome in every definition of the word. Also features Oscar nominated performances by Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as well as a screenplay based from Akira Kurosawa. I mean what more could you want?! Oh yeah it is thrilling too.

  • Mac

    @ Jordan: In your article, you mention you only list films “released in the last 30 years”, which is why I figured you didn’t include Raiders of the Lost Ark on your fantastic list. However your post above suggests that you purposely left it off despite it being 34 years old.

    If you could have included Raiders of the Lost Ark, it really should be included. Probably even #1. Many people gripe that Reds was the rightful winner of the 1981 Best Picture Oscar over “Chariots of Fire”, but they are wrong: Raiders of the Lost Ark is the more impressive movie of the trio. Karen Allen should have even been up for Best Supporting Actress, if not won over Stapleton’s slight performance in Reds.

  • Jordan Ruimy

    Yeah, I made sure whatever made the top 10 was released within the 30 year time-frame. Should have excluded Raiders from the Runners-up. But yeah, That would would probably be one of the five greatest ever. I’d probably have included The French Connection and Bullitt in that all-time list as well. The definition of an action movie changed around 1988 with “Die Hard”, which is why I set up the 30 year rule.

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  • Pandiman

    The action set pieces in True lies, Rambo III, and Golden eye were very good too.
    Great List and all the movies in the comments too.

  • I’m A Panda

    First of all, Speed? I love it, but straight up that was a shitty movie. Next, how did you manage to make a list of 10 action movies without mentioning Quentin Tarantino? Kill Bill should be up there with Die Hard!
    And I still have no idea why Mad Max is being talked about like it’s the best movie of the decade. It was well directed and the stunts were excellent, but it seriously lacks content. I’ve heard more dialogue in a short film. More than half the lines are one-word exclamations: “NOW! STOP! NO!” I guess mindless action just isn’t my thing.

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