Script written by Michael Wynands
Top 50 Best Action Films of All Time
Grab some snacks and find a comfortable seat. You’re in for a wild ride. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 50 Best Action Films of All Time.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the most beloved, well-executed, influential and iconic action films ever made. Most subgenres, like action sci-fi and martial arts films, will be considered, however, we will be limiting it to 1 entry per franchise.
#50: “Bad Boys” (1995)
The third entry in this fan-favorite action-comedy franchise might be the best-reviewed, but the first installment is the one that we keep coming back to. Released in 1995, “Bad Boys” stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, two detectives working narcotics in Miami who must solve a major case or see their department get shut down. The film not only launched the career of Michael Bay, but also solidified his reputation for over-the-top action and explosions galore. Is it a film that’ll make you think? No! But the chemistry between Lawrence and Smith, who improvised many of the film’s funniest lines, is guaranteed to put a smile on your face every time.
#49: “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984)
No matter how unique, entertaining, or well-crafted, action films rarely get any sort of love from the major award bodies. So it’s a real testament to the quality of ”Beverly Hills Cop” that it was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Not only that, but it also got an Oscar nod in the category of Best Original Screenplay. To think… the movie almost starred Sylvester Stallone, who tried to rewrite the film and cut out most of its comedy! Eddie Murphy absolutely shines as detective Axel Foley, showcasing not only his flawless comedic chops, but also proving that he’s got what it takes to sell himself as a viable action star. It’s a blast start to finish.
#48: “Police Story 3: Super Cop” a.k.a “Supercop” (1992)
You can’t make a list of great action films without Jackie Chan’s name coming up at least once - if not a few times! The third movie in the popular “Police Story” franchise, this Hong Kong action film took on a life of its own, finding international success in markets where past installments had limited releases. “Supercop” pairs Jackie Chan with fellow superstar Michelle Yeoh, who impressively manages to keep up with the expert stuntman. Together as Ka-Kui and Inspector Jessica Yang, they must take down a drug lord. The hand-to-hand combat in this film is top-notch, as are the stunts, but it’s Chan’s natural tendency towards physical comedy that makes “Supercop” so rewatchable.
#47: “Baby Driver” (2017)
#46: “Dredd” (2012)
#45: “Furious 7” (2015)
The first “Fast and the Furious” film was a unique look into the street racing subculture. It was a fun and thrilling ride, but few people could have predicted that it would one day evolve into one of the biggest and highest-grossing action franchises of all time. “Tokyo Drift” made it seem as if the series had run out of gas, but the fourth installment gave it a new lease on life and a fresh direction. Each film has its moments, but “Furious 7” is the franchise operating at peak performance. It pushed the adrenaline to new extremes with epic set pieces, awe-inspiring car chases, and bone-crunching brawls. And it manages to do all that while also delivering a dramatic and emotional journey.
#44: “Nikita” a.k.a “La Femme Nikita” (1990)
#43: “The French Connection” (1971)
#42: “Gladiator” (2000)
#41: “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976)
#40: “The Fugitive” (1993)
Following his meteoric rise to fame in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as Han Solo, Harrison Ford easily could have found himself typecast. As his performance in this film proves, however, he’s just as believable in a grounded and gritty thriller. Released in 1993, “The Fugitive” stars Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble, a renowned surgeon who, after being wrongfully convicted of murder, must prove his innocence and avenge his wife. Ford delivers a committed performance, conveying grief and righteous anger simultaneously. Directed by Andrew Davis, master of the action thriller genre, “The Fugitive” makes for a tense but enthralling viewing experience, with just enough comic relief to take the edge off. It was even nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.
#39: “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” (2018)
#38: “Drunken Master II” a.k.a “The Legend of Drunken Master” (1994)
#37: “Con Air” (1997)
#36: “Fist of Fury” (1972)
#35: “Goldfinger” (1964)
With dozens of films in the franchise, picking a single James Bond movie to include in this list was no small feat. Daniel Craig’s iteration of the character has starred in one action-packed installment after another, with his debut as 007, “Casino Royale,” being especially memorable. That being said, Pierce Brosnan’s first outing, 1995’s “GoldenEye,” similarly stands out. Forced to decide, however, we’ve ultimately settled on “Goldfinger,” the first Bond film to be a true blockbuster. Sean Connery fully embodies the character. The film as a whole skirts a fine line of excess and self-parody, all the while delivering genuinely thrilling action; it oozes with sexuality and is packed to the brim with gadgets, cool one-liners and over-the-top villainy - and it all works!
#34: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)
#33: “Total Recall” (1990)
#32: “Commando” (1985)
#31: “Speed” (1994)
#30: “Heat” (1995)
Having Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in a crime drama/action thriller and keeping them apart for much of the film? It seems like a wasted opportunity, but there’s no arguing with results! Directed by Michael Mann, this 1995 film follows the conflict between Neil McCauley, a career criminal, and Lt. Vincent Hanna, who’s on the hunt for the men responsible for a heist that turned deadly. Gritty, grounded, and boasting top-notch performances all-around (including Val Kilmer’s), “Heat” is utterly riveting. It’s often classified as more of a drama than an action film, but when the gunplay erupts, it earns a spot on the list. Mann has a real knack for pulling the viewer into the action sequences for an extremely visceral viewing experience.
#29: “Hot Fuzz” (2007)
#28: “Point Break” (1991)
#27: “Dirty Harry” (1971)
#26: “Yojimbo” (1961)
#25: “Enter the Dragon” (1973)
Considered by many to be THE defining martial arts movie, “Enter the Dragon” is also notable for being Bruce Lee’s last completed film before his passing. Blending kung fu cinema with the then-rising blaxploitation genre, “Enter the Dragon” holds nothing back. Lee is in top form in terms of fighting and acting. While the fight scenes alone are enough to earn this film a spot on our list, what really makes it such a stand out is the attention to detail beyond the action. The film is beautifully shot, the color scheme is visually arresting, and the score is A+. It’s a perfect sendoff worthy of its iconic star, but is even better as part of a double feature with “The Way of the Dragon.”
#24: “Stagecoach” (1939)
#23: “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007)
#22: “Escape from New York” (1981)
#21: “Bullitt” (1968)
#20: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968)
Westerns are a distinct genre, but they tend to feature more than enough action to warrant consideration on our list. Besides, just look at this movie poster! It screams “action.” Directed by the man who invented the spaghetti western subgenre, Sergio Leone, the movie stars Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson in a tale of vengeance. Having already completed his Dollars trilogy at this point, Leone’s version of the American frontier feels extremely rich in detail and is populated with characters to match. The shootouts are downright thrilling (not to mention beautifully shot) and are made all the more engrossing by Ennio Morricone’s score. The film is cited as an influence by many notable filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.
#19: “The Great Train Robbery” (1903)
#18: “Lethal Weapon” (1987)
#17: “Face/Off” (1997)
#16: “The Rock” (1996)
#15: “John Wick” (2014)
Had you tried to pitch us on this film before its release, it would’ve been a tough sell. Keanu Reeves comes from an action film pedigree, but it seemed as if those days were behind him. Oh, how wrong we were! Reeves’ trademark reserved style of acting is a perfect fit for this ex-hitman who comes out of retirement in the name of revenge. “John Wick” feels like a return to the rudiments of the action genre. There are no massive set pieces or gravity-defying car chases, just good old-fashioned fisticuffs and epic gunplay. The fight choreography is inspired, the cinematography is absolutely stunning, and the visuals consistently stylish. Best of all, “John Wick” has given birth to a franchise of uncommonly consistent quality.
#14: “Robocop” (1987)
#13: “Kill Bill: Volume 1” & “Kill Bill: Volume 2” (2003-04)
#12: “First Blood” (1982)
#11: “The Raid” (2011)
#10: “Mad Max 2” (1981)
Released to critical acclaim in 1981, this is one of those rare sequels that overshadows the original. This visceral sci-fi action film is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which resources are scarce and tribal warfare is the way of life. “Road Warrior” boasts thrilling chases, unbridled violence, and some truly remarkable special effects, all bolstered by inspired production design. It’s a wild ride. Of course, you can’t talk about the action cinema glory of Mad Max without acknowledging the 2015 sequel. With Tom Hardy taking over the titular role, and George Miller pushing his unique visual style to the extreme, “Fury Road” gives “Road Warrior” a run for its money, which is saying a lot.
#9: “Hard Boiled” (1992)
With all due respect to “Shoot ‘Em Up” and the way Clive Owen juggles a baby and hordes of faceless goons, “Hard Boiled” did it first and did it better. Released in 1992, this Hong Kong action film stars Chow Yun-fat as "Tequila" Yuen, a police inspector who, following the death of his partner, faces overwhelming odds in his fight against the criminal factions of the Hong Kong underworld. In terms of sheer adrenaline-inducing action, there are a few films that can keep pace with “Hard Boiled.” At the time of its release, the Los Angeles Times crowned “John Woo” the best contemporary action director “anywhere.” If you need further proof, “The Killer” is another classic collaboration between Woo and Chow Yun-fat.
#8: “The Dark Knight” (2008)
As you’ve probably noticed, we’ve opted to keep superhero movies out of the discussion. The thing is, considering how they dominate the box office and the contemporary pop culture landscape, action-heavy though they might be, they’ve become a genre unto themselves. “The Dark Knight,” by contrast, feels much more in line with conventional action cinema. Not only is this iteration of Batman quite grounded, but filmmaker Christopher Nolan also prioritizes practical effects wherever possible. From the Joker’s bank heist, to that epic chase scene through the streets of Gotham, “The Dark Knight” is jam-packed with timeless action sequences that could equally work in a number of non-superhero action films. Of course, having an iconic villain certainly doesn’t hurt its case!
#7: “Predator” (1987)
What can we say? This list was always going to be heavy on the Arnie. He’s a legend of action cinema! But even against the steep competition of his filmography, “Predator” remains a standout. Released in 1987, the film follows Schwarzenegger’s Major Alan “Dutch" Schaefer as he and his men square off against a deadly extraterrestrial hunter. They might have the predator outmanned, but the creature’s got a serious technological advantage. The end result is a film that blends sci-fi, horror, and action into one seriously potent blend of machismo. Critics might not have appreciated it at the time, but its legacy speaks for itself! “Predator” spawned sequels, crossovers, and reboots, but none have managed to recapture the spirit or simple fun of the original.
#6: “Aliens” (1986)
Speaking of crossovers, this is the franchise that “Predator” most notably collided with. But long before that disappointing mashup, xenomorphs made the jump from sci-fi horror to sci-fi action-horror in this James Cameron-directed sequel. Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is once again forced to get up close and personal with the deadly xenomorphs, but this time she’s got some serious firepower and support from a group of Colonial Marines. This translates to a lot of tense, explosive sci-fi action, that, because of Cameron’s use of practical effects, still holds up today. All the extraterrestrial carnage could have come at the expense of substance, but Cameron manages to simultaneously up the emotional stakes for the heroine, making “Aliens” a film that satisfies in more ways than one.
#5: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)
The first installment in one of the most beloved franchises in film history, this movie requires no introduction. “Star Wars” may have put Harrison Ford on the map, but this role solidified his place there. Set in the 1930s, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” follows intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones on a quest to locate the biblical Ark of the Covenant. Taking full advantage of the time period, the film places villainous Nazis between our hero and his goal. Ford is his usual charming self in the role and manages to get into more scrapes during the film’s 115-minute runtime than most people do in a lifetime. With never a dull moment and boasting creative set pieces, this is the gold standard of action-adventure cinema.
#4: “Seven Samurai” (1954)
While we’re on the subject of nostalgic films… How about this absolute classic? Released in 1954 and directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, “Seven Samurai” is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential films ever made - action or otherwise. Set in 1586 Japan, the film tells the story of seven samurai warriors without masters who are hired to protect a village from bandits. It’s an epic adventure with a powerful, character-driven emotional core that has frequently been referenced, cited, and reworked, but never duplicated. The quality of the action sequences, as well as the manner in which they’re shot, feels decades ahead of its time. Any time a film memorably “assembles a team,” you likely have this film to thank!
#3: “The Matrix” (1999)
Though it may sound strange, the widespread parodying of “The Matrix” is actually an indicator of its success and influence. When the Wachowskis released their cerebral sci-fi masterpiece upon cinemagoers in 1999, people didn’t know how to process it. “The Matrix” was a film without precedent, blending cultures, philosophies, and cinematic genres in totally unexpected ways. Of these many innovations, the most obvious and in your face was its visually unique approach to action. From the gravity-defying combat and bullet time, to the epic chase scenes and use of urban spaces, it all felt fresh and wildly exciting. Some of the effects may feel dated today, but they were groundbreaking in 1999 and helped make the action all the more spectacular.
#2: “Die Hard” (1988)
Call it an action movie, call it a Christmas movie, we call it a classic. The world of cinema is overloaded with heroes, but few can hold a candle to John McClane. When his wife’s company Christmas party at Nakatomi is taken hostage, this NYC cop rises to the occasion to single-handedly take down roughly a dozen well-armed goons. And he does it all barefoot! Not only is “Die Hard” blessed with a great hero, but it’s one of the few action films with an equally iconic villain - Hans Gruber. Played to perfection by Alan Rickman, Gruber is intelligent, duplicitous, and embodies that distinct brand of villainous charisma. Gritty, rich in heart, tightly plotted, and seriously quotable, “Die Hard” has got major replay value.
#1: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)
Non-stop action from start to finish. Practical effects that many continue to put on a pedestal to this day. Technology that was years ahead of its time. “T2” delivers everything that you could ask for in a great action film, but also so much more. It masterfully builds on the groundwork laid by 1984’s “Terminator” while upping the thrills by putting Arnie’s T-800 on the side of good and pitting him against the advanced T-1000. Proving that you can do it all in a single film, this epic, action-driven story is further elevated by its humanity - especially the unlikely father-son relationship that develops between John and the Terminator. It’s not just the greatest action film of all time, but also among the best sequels, too.
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