Liven Up Your Evening With 29 of the Best Action Films Ever Made

Tom Nicholson
·15-min read
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Photo credit: -

From Esquire

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 the best action films ever.

A Better Tomorrow (1986)

It's hard to over-emphasise quite how important Hong Kong cinema's action boom in the Eighties and Nineties was in shaping what the modern action film is now. We could tell you that it was very, very, very, very important, and that would still be underplaying it. Arriving with very little fanfare and made for a pittance, A Better Tomorrow announced its director John Woo as a major force in action cinema and Chow Yun-fat as a breakout star. Any film you've seen in the last 30 years which pits a hitman/hardman/criminal whose strict ethical code sets them against the underworld they operate within has a little of A Better Tomorrow in it.

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Hell Drivers (1957)

A film about some hard-pressed lorry drivers being encouraged to deliver more gravel than is strictly safe on pain of sacking does not sound that thrilling. Hell Drivers is one of the most thrilling British films of the pre-Bond era though. Tom Yately pitches up at Hawletts, a haulage company where drivers thrash their trucks through a 20-mile round trip and turn a pretty stressful job into a simmering cauldron of testosterone. Red (Patrick McGoohan) is top of the leaderboard, reckless enough to take a shortcut nobody else will, and he won't let any newcomer knock him off it. It's hard to imagine Hollywood going anywhere near a film built around words like 'gravel' and 'haulage company' but there's a hard edge to Hell Drivers which sets it apart. It's blessed with an early appearance from Sean Connery, too.

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Seven Samurai (1954)

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At more than 200 minutes long, Akiro Kurosawa's greatest masterpiece probably isn't an action film to chuck on of a Friday night after three beers and a Dinner Date. It is, however, a carefully paced meditation on desperation and violence, and a touchstone of the more thoughtful Westerns which followed it. In feudal Japan, a small village uses the last of its reserves of rice to pay seven masterless ronin to protect them from raiders and make sure they don't starve. You've seen it referenced, lampooned, homaged and nodded to more times than you know, and the steady pace slowly ramps up to an absolutely gigantic barney.

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13 Assassins (2010)

In this remake of the 1963 film, Shinzaemon Shimada leads the baker's dozen of pro sword wielders in an attempt to take down the callous Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira in 1840s Japan. They don't expect to get out of it alive, but given what a rancid type Matsudaira is, they plunge in anyway. Cue a lot of extremely good swordplay and a climactic battle which runs to 45 minutes long. Director Takashi Miike always manages to make room for genuinely affecting character beats amid the bloodshed though.

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Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Sergio Leone had sworn off making another Western after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but came around when he had the chance to cast Henry Fonda, long his favourite actor, as the cold, villainous hired gun Frank. Charles Bronson is 'Harmonica', the man Frank is bearing down upon. There's a fight brewing over the one water supply in the desert town of Flagstone, and while the action unfolds at Leone's usual considered pace to one of Ennio Morricone's great scores, it's an action epic to lose yourself in.

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Léon: The Professional (1994)

Luc Besson's stylish crime thriller is built on an extremely strong central trio: there's Jean Reno as the Italian hitman Léon, Natalie Portman in her feature debut as lonely preteen outcast Mathilda and Gary Oldman on absolutely storming, 1000-percent shouty Oldman form as drug-addled drug cop Norman Stansfield. When Stansfield and his cops kill Mathilda's family, Léon takes her in and begins to tutor her in the subtle art of bumping people off. The target: Stansfield. But he's not going down without a lot of gunplay and some of Oldman's most inspired shrieking histrionics.

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The Bourne Identity (2002)

The film that killed off Pierce Brosnan's James Bond and reshaped every action film that followed it. Before Jason Bourne, action movies were mostly about impossibly large men doing implausibly athletic killings and then mangling cheesy one-liners. Post-Bourne, everything got a bit gritty, a bit real, a bit hard to stomach. This was the kind of action movie in which offing bad guys looked more like a job than a laugh, and where you felt every punch and car crash viscerally. Without Bourne, you don't have Daniel Craig's it-hurts-me-when-I-hurt-you James Bond. And the world would be a worse place.

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Casino Royale (2006)

See? Casino Royale was Daniel Craig's first run-out as the new 007, and 14 years on it's still the high-watermark (we're feeling very hopeful about No Time to Die, though). The previous film in the franchise, Die Another Day, had featured an ice palace, an invisible car and that CGI surfing scene. Its successor opened with a parkour-style chase in which you could almost taste Bond's sweat, and closed with him being having his knackers battered in a seatless chair and watching the woman he loved drown in the Grand Canal. This was a post-9/11 Bond movie, a spy film about secret agent making tough choices about who to sacrifice and when torture might be justi. It was an action movie with consequences and it finally fleshed out a character who had sometimes seemed like little more than a philandering psychopath with a drinking problem.

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The Wages of Fear (1953)

Unknown to each other, four unfortunate misfits are stuck in the desert town of Las Piedras. The only way out is an aeroplane ticket, but none can afford it. Then a job comes up. It could be a way out, but it's only for the truly desperate. A team is needed to drive jerry cans of the incredibly unstable explosive nitroglycerine, and any jolt could set it off during the 300-mile trip across lumpy, bumpy desert roads. Rickety bridges, boulders, and – wouldn't you know it – unexpected roadworks make things even trickier. It was later remade, brilliantly, as Sorcerer by William Friedkin. Friedkin reckons he didn't, but he definitely did.

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Yojimbo (1961)

In mid-19th century Japan, a roaming samurai arrives in a small town where local lords are scrambling to put themselves at the top of the food chain. The freelance swordsman is recruited as a secret weapon by one faction, but it's soon clear that he's got much bigger ideas in mind, and intends to bring all the bloodshed to an end. Akiro Kurosawa's quite astonishingly violent film shocked audiences when first released, but its influence is enormous. The Westerns from Hollywood and Italy which followed Yojimbo pinched some it its moves, including its droll sense of humour, and a remake – Sergio Leone's magnificent A Fistful of Dollars – spread Kurosawa's influence even further.

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Runaway Train (1985)

Kurosawa was originally on board this particular ride too, his story elevating what could initially have been a fairly rote disaster-action flick into something more thoughtful. Speed 2: Cruise Control doesn't end, as Runaway Train does, with a quote from Richard III. Violent bank robber Manny (Jon Voight) persuades the easily led Buck (Eric Roberts) to help him bust out of prison, and they manage to sneak on board a train. But suddenly it starts speeding up. Soon their flight for freedom turns into a battle for survival.

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Battle Royale (2000)

There's been a massive recession in near-future Japan, and the kids are bored and hopeless. Juvenile delinquency is getting to be such a problem that the only way to sort things out is to force the worst kids to fight to the death on a remote island. When class 3-B are launched into it, including conscientious student Noriko and mourning classmate Shuya, shifting loyalties, improvised bombs and splenetic violence ensue. The moral: don't trust anyone over 30.

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Duel (1971)

Steven Spielberg's lean, taut, Hitchcockian feature debut pits put-upon everyman David Mann (Dennis Weaver, on especially fraut, frothing form) against a truck driver who suddenly cuts him up on an empty desert road. Mann overtakes; the truck swings out in front of him again. Slowly it dawns on Mann: this truck driver isn't going to let him get out of this trip alive. Who's driving the truck? Why do they want Mann dead? And will Mann and his rapidly expiring car make it home?

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

It's quite hard to comprehend now just how gigantic a phenomenon Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was when it came out. Even now everything about it just seems so big: big emotions; big, lush, sweeping vistas of 18th century China, during its last Imperial days; and, of course, gigantic, gymnastic sword fights. The martial arts sequences are still operatically beautiful, and counterpoint with the primly buttoned down emotional lives of its characters, who tend to ache quietly for each other before busting out their swordsmanship and Wudang skills.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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Commando (1985)

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.

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Robocop (1987)

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.

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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.

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Speed (1994)

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.

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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.

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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.

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Snowpiercer (2013)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Aliens (1986)

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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