It's a bit tricky to pin down exactly where action films as we know them now started. The Great Escape in 1963? The Great Train Robbery 60 years before?
The pure action film – the oeuvres of Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Segal, Norris, Lundgren and the like, which use the nuts and bolts of thrillers to launch their enormous stars into a series of even bigger explosions – only really got going in the West in the early Eighties, after Hollywood had had its eyes opened to the majesty of the martial arts films coming out of Hong Kong and Japan.
Dr No was an early pointer too: Hitchcock's heroes tended to be resourceful and quick-witted, but the vogue for one who can think, blast or shag their way out of any tricky situation started with James Bond, and the Swiss-army-protagonist is still an action movie essential. There's an odd circularity to how big-budget action films now exist mainly in the superhero film vortex, with protagonists who are the logical extreme of that improbably handy secret agent.
Certainly, we've not lost our appetite for watching people smash seven shades out of each other while searching for some McGuffin or other. Here are 16 of the best action films ever.
Safety Last! (1923)
Yes, it's a rom-com, but the defining image of silent cinema – Harold Lloyd hanging off the hand of a clock at the top of a building – is the most enduring of Lloyd's 'thrill sequences', as he called his action-packed sections of daring stunts. There's a straight line between Lloyd, who lost a thumb and forefinger to a prop bomb which turned out not to be a prop but carried on doing his own stunts, and Tom Cruise's full-blooded commitment to smashing up his knees in the name of Mission: Impossible.
Deep Cover (1992)
Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum head up Bill Duke's noir-styled story of an undercover police officer who goes so extremely undercover that he ends up getting fitted up for dealing cocaine. Fishburne's Russell Stevens is raw, playing every line as if his very nerves are exposed to the open air; Goldblum is his lugubrious attorney, David Jason. (Not that David Jason.)
Baby Driver (2017)
Getaway driver Baby drowns out his tinnitus with eclectic mixtapes while he's swinging cars around Atlanta for the malevolent Doc, and frankly if you put Blur's 'Intermission' and Queen's 'Brighton Rock' on your ultimate driving playlist you've only yourself to blame if you get into scrapes. Edgar Wright's masterfully controlled, powerfully kinetic direction lets the music lead the many, many car chases as Baby goes in for one last job to free himself, escape his past, and bring down the nest of thieves he's trapped in.
Hard Boiled (1992)
The last of John Woo's Hong Kong films is probably his finest. Chow Yun-fat is 'Tequila', a police inspector who's booted off a gun smuggling case when he takes a more agricultural approach to avenging his dead partner than his boss thinks is necessary. Undeterred, Tequila tracks down an undercover cop who's embedded in another gang as an assassin. Together, they plot to take the Triads down. Dazzlingly staged gunplay and shootouts ensue.
The quintessential Arnie film and, perhaps, the quintessential action flick. It's a series of non sequiturs – Arnie and daughter feeding milk to a doe, Arnie disguising a corpse on a flight by giving it the full Weekend at Bernies, Arnie announcing: "I eat green berets for breakfast, and right now I'm very hungry" – conjoined by rocket launcher attacks. Blissful stuff.
Much stranger, darker and funnier than you remember it. Look at Murphy's death scene, in which he's shot into several hundred large chunks. The levels of splenetic violence are so absurd it ends up looking like an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. See also: the bit where a man is literally melted by a vat of toxic waste.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The difference between the campy Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and its follow-up couldn't be more stark. Muscular, bleak, lyrical, pounding and frenetic, Fury Road follows said very angry Max (Tom Hardy) as he helps the battle-hardened general Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to get five women away from the clutches of the water-hoarding warlord Immortan Joe.
A high concept chase thriller that's so high concept you only need the one word of its title to know what it's all about. Dennis Hopper's put a bomb on a bus, Keanu Reeves isn't having that, Sandra Bullock's behind the wheel keeping the whole thing going above 50mph. It's beautifully put together: just when you think it's out of gas, Speed floors it again.
Police Story (1985)
Writer, director and star Jackie Chan is an undercover cop trying to sort out a crime kingpin, and can only do so with the help of several extremely good stunt set pieces including an opening car chase and a finale in which gigantic panes of glass explode and crash all around. Breathless stuff.
Black Panther (2018)
Superhero films are what the big-budget action morphed into once everyone got a bit bored of Jason Bourne-style wobble-camming, and Ryan Coogler and Michael B Jordan's Rocky reboot Creed served notice of their ability to meld affecting character drama and brutal punch-ups. It blossomed here, with Chadwick Boseman, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyong'o fighting to save the beautifully realised Afrofuturist paradise of Wakanda.
Bong Joon Ho's dystopian epic is basically JG Ballard's High Rise, but on a train and with Tilda Swinton doing a Yorkshire accent. The last crumbs of humanity are crammed onto class-divided carriages after an attempt to sort out climate change accidentally turns Earth into a snowball, but there's an uprising brewing among the have-nots.
The Matrix (1999)
It's quite easy to gloss over it now, but The Matrix really did set off a philosophical earthquake inside a a generation's already wobbly sense of self. Are we, like, even here though? Are we just brains in jars? Red pill or blue pill, the Wachowskis' opus is still blistering, still time-melting and still utterly propulsive.
Blade II (2002)
Human-vampire hybrid Blade returns to hunt more vampires in Guillermo Del Toro's comic book adaptation. Two things elevate it: the splattery inventiveness of Blade's weaponry, and Del Toro's mastery of its animation-inspired action sequences.
Con Air (1997)
An extraordinarily high concentration of cinema's most intensely odd character actors, including Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi, are dangerous convicts being flown across America. The prisoners hijack the plane and all hell breaks lose. Cage is the actually-very-nice con trying to do the right thing without letting anyone know he's on the feds' side. Glorious stuff.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Tom Cruise is the PR guy for Earth's United Defence Force, fighting back against an alien invasion, unceremoniously launched into a battle he really doesn't fancy by his chippy boss. He dies, obviously. But then he wakes up. Then it happens again, and again, and again. How? If he can tell the army's talisman, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), he could turn the war.
Point Break (1991)
Keanu Reeves infiltrates Patrick Swayze's gang of cowabunga-ing yahoos in Kathryn Bigelow's organised crime and surfing crime drama, in the process learning a lot about the mysteries of the universe and the true meaning of bro-hood. Yes, this is the third Keanu film on this list. Well spotted.
If Alien was self-consciously a horror set in space, its follow-up goes full-tilt into action. After 57 years in hyper-sleep, Ripley returns to the moon where the crew of the Nostromo picked up their unwelcome cling-on, this time with a gang of marines in tow. They head off to find out what's happened to a colony of humans and – would you believe it! – it turns out that there was more than one of that alien. There were aliens.
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