From bullet ballets to sci-fi epics, kung fu classics to superhero adventures — the greatest big-screen adrenaline rushes ever
All you need to make a movie, a wise French man once said, is a girl and a gun. It helps, of course, if you throw in a few explosions, several car chases, some knockdown mano a mano fistfights, a smattering of kung fu and any number of swordfights as well. Action has been a part of the movies since the days of Keystone Kops and mustache-twirling villains tying up heroines on railroads tracks; you could even argue that the Lumiere brothers’ short of a train pulling into the station, which allegedly caused audiences to scream and flee the room, was the world’s first example of an action movie. The holy trinity of cinema, i.e. thrills, chills and spills, has been a main attraction of the medium for decades. And once the Age of the Blockbuster really kicks into gear in the early 1980s, you couldn’t throw a rock at a multiplex without hitting something that hyped up the “motion” into motion pictures.
Not all it-blowed-up-real-good films are created equal, however, so we’re shouting out the 50 best action movies of all time — the crème de la crème of martial arts flicks, bullet ballets, men-on-a-mission adventures, swashbucklers, superhero franchises, sci-fi spectacles, wuxia epics, and a whole lot more. These are the films we go to when we want an uncut dose of that kinetic-cinema rush. Strap yourself in.
You don’t need to be familiar with the original 1960s spy show — the one where Robert Vaughn and David McCallum got into Bond-lite adventures (though to be fair, Ian Fleming was a creative consultant for the series) — to dig Guy Ritchie’s big-screen adaptation, which channels the era’s espionage-a-go-go style while adding a dash of Cold War grit. Henry Cavill is Napoleon Solo, the C.I.A.’s suavest agent; a pre-scandal Armie Hammer is Ilya Kuryakin, his KGB counterpart. They’re both fighting over who gets to bring Alicia Vikander, as well as her scientist dad’s plans, back to their respective bosses. Eventually, the three of them team up to fight a common enemy. Taking a break from his Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur franchises, Guy Ritchie reminds you that he can put together some mean fights scenes and chase scenes — several, in fact — and make the sight of Cavill casually eating a sandwich before driving a cargo truck off a ramp and landing on top of a boat seem like the most natural thing in the world.
When the President’s plane goes down behind the walls of the nation’s most dangerous, maximum-security penal colony — a.k.a. the island of Manhattan circa 1997 — there is only one person you send in to rescue the leader of the free world: former Special Forces soldier, current federal prisoner and all-around badass Snake Plissken. John Carpenter’s gritty, dystopian B movie didn’t just give the world a truly unique antihero in Kurt Russell’s reluctant savior. (No one has ever rocked an eyepatch onscreen better. No one.) The writer-director also gifted moviegoers with a funhouse version of Horror City as a playground of the damned, perfect for shoot-outs with punk crazies and chase scenes across mine-laden bridges. And while everyone from Adrienne Barbeau’s magnum-wielding moll to Isaac Hayes’ A-No. 1 criminal, The Duke, to Carpenter’s synthy score contribute to this futuristic free-for-all, it’s Russell who makes this man-on-a-mission flick feel like it’s constantly on the move.
You might possibly accuse Takashi Miike’s yakuza flick of being a little derivative in the narrative department: A cop (Sho Aikawa) is determined to take down a mobster (Riki Takeuchi) by any means necessary. No one can say that the prolific Japanese filmmaker doesn’t present this old chestnut of a story with a maximum amount of panache and a 200 beats-per-minute pace: It opens with a power chord-driven montage of falling bodies, superhuman drug binges, arterial spray and flying bullets. Even after Miike takes his finger off the puree button, it’s still a gonzo, go-for-broke version of a typical two-sides-of-the-same-coin movie. And as for the ending? Let’s just say it’s one of the greatest cinematic exit strategies ever, and one which takes the entire action-film genre to its logical endgame.
Welcome…to the Rock. The best Michael Bay movie by a huge margin (all apologies, Armageddon fans) turns Alcatraz into the sight of a hostage situation, with a gung-ho rogue general (Ed Harris) threatening to reduce the Bay Area to rubble. In order to neutralize the situation, the FBI enlists the only man to ever successfully escape the floating prison — and damned if it isn’t Bond 1.0 himself, Sean Connery. It’s one of the few of the director’s movies to actually put his signature “Bayhem” to good use, especially when it comes to blowing up San Francisco landmarks and staging some sly cat-and-mouse work within the tourist site. And the secret ingredient? That’d be Nicolas Cage, playing a nerdy biochemist and finding the perfect middle ground between his early-career goofball eccentrics and his mid-career men of action.
The movie that officially kicks off the era of Liam Neeson: Greatest AARP-Age Action Hero Ever, starts innocently enough: A doting, overly protective dad tries to repair the relationship with his teenage daughter after years of being an absentee father. She wants to go to Paris with her best friend for the summer. He’s worried that something will happen to his baby girl. Naturally, she is kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers within 12 hours of landing in the City of Light. Only her Pops used to be a “preventer” for U.S. intelligence agencies, see, and by the time Neeson delivers his justifiably famous “what I do have are a very particular set of skills” speech, you get the sense that he is not your ordinary helicopter parent. The fact that we get to those skills amply demonstrated over the next 100 minutes essentially remade the Irish actor into punching, kicking, shooting superstar. It turns out we had a genre icon hiding in plain sight the whole time.
“I didn’t kill my wife,” claims Dr. Richard Kimble, a man falsely accused of murder. “I don’t care,” replies U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard, determined to capture this fugitive regardless. Then, after Gerard has managed to get the jump on his target, Kimble dives off the side of a massive dam, right into the drink. That’s only one of several hold-your-breath high points in Andrew Davis’ big-screen adaptation of the 1960s TV show, with Harrison Ford desperately trying to hunt down the one-armed man actually responsible for the crime before Tommy Lee Jones can nab him. It is essentially one exhilarating featuring-length chase scene after another, all of them blessed with the addition of Ford in prime heroic form and Jones bringing the dry, cranky wit (his reading of “My, my, my, my, my… What. A. Mess.” is priceless). When we saw this in a theater back in the day, the audience spontaneously burst into loud applause after Kimble’s narrow escape from a prison bus. It still feels like an appropriate response.
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