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Top 10 Dramatic Performances by Action Stars

VO: Dan Paradis
Script written by Q.V. Hough They blow up the scene with a Shakespearian flair. Join as we count down our picks for the Top 10 Dramatic Performances by Action Stars. For this list, we're focusing on deeply moving performances from actors and actresses who are typically associated with action films, or at least known for portraying iconic action characters or heroes. Special thanks to our users Zach Heher for submitting the idea using our interactive suggestion tool at WatchMojo.comsuggest

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Script written by Q.V. Hough

Top 10 Dramatic Performances by Action Stars

They blow up the scene with a Shakespearean flair. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Dramatic Performances by Action Stars.

For this list, we’re focusing on deeply moving performances from actors and actresses who are typically associated with action films, or at least known for portraying iconic action characters or heroes.

#10: Bruce Willis
“The Sixth Sense” (1999)

By the close of the 20th century, this tough guy actor had established himself as a bankable action star, so most fans were a little shocked to see Bruce Willis starring in some psychological drama directed by some guy named M. Night Shyamalan. What happened? Well, you know what happened. Bruce …killed it. And with all due respect to young Haley Joel Osment, “The Sixth Sense” would have been a much different film if it weren’t for the contained sadness exhibited by Willis. Incidentally, Willis’ performance made Wes Anderson’s ears perk up when casting his 2012 classic, “Moonrise Kingdom.”

#9: Tom Hardy
“Locke” (2013)

How’s this for a plot hook? A man drives around for 84 minutes while having 36 phone conversations. No? Well, what if we threw Mad Max in there? Aww, yeah. In Steven Knight’s subdued character study, life itself is conveyed through Hardy’s first-rate performance, as his blue-collar character comes to grips with father issues, an affair, a work disaster, and possible divorce. Hardy effectively locked viewers in, allowing us to ride shotgun and experience his plight in real-time. Not all tough guys can sell such a role, but then again, Hardy is an AC-TOR, and a damn good one.

#8: Hugh Jackman
“Les Misérables” (2012)

He loves slicing dudes up as Wolverine from the “X-Men” franchise, but he also loves fabulous period films. So just imagine the faces of stunned fanboys after they watched the 158-minute “epic romantic musical” that was Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables.” It’s not that Hugh Jackman was any less manly in it. It’s just that some action buffs didn’t realize he was a man of many talents, capable of stepping into Jean Valjean’s shoes and balancing the art of show tunes with ass-kicking. Jackman continues to keep fans on their toes alongside with him.

#7: Angelina Jolie
“Girl, Interrupted” (1999)

She’s the 21st century’s first lady of actions films. If you’re a die-hard Angelina fan, though, you know that she was already handling her business throughout the ‘90s. “Hackers.” “Gia.” “The Bone Collector.” Then came her last film of the decade, in which she portrayed the engaging, sexy and psychotic Lisa in James Mangold’s “Girl, Interrupted.” At this moment in history, Winona Ryder represented all the sweet darlings of Hollywood, and so Angelina Jolie capitalized on every small detail of her character to set herself apart. Lara Croft wasn’t born in England. She was born in a psych ward.

#6: Robert Downey, Jr.
“Chaplin” (1992)
It takes a complicated actor to portray one of cinema’s most complicated stars. Then again, Robert Downey Jr. is just a man, and Charlie Chaplin was far more than just a comical figure. While Downey Jr. had previously starred on “Saturday Night Live,” today he’s known for his “Iron Man” persona. In the early ‘90s, not only did he beat out iconic comedians such as Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, and Peter Sellers for the role, but also he managed to honor the legacy of Charlie Chaplin by producing an honest portrayal, even if director Richard Attenborough flashed his creative license here and there.

#5: Scarlett Johansson
“Lost in Translation” (2003)

In one of her first Golden Globe-nominated performances, the future Black Widow starred opposite a legend of cinema, Bill Murray, while taking direction from Hollywood royalty, Sofia Coppola. At only 18 years of age, Scarlett Johansson proved capable of holding her own while showcasing the charm and grace that would make her a defining sex symbol of the decade. With the always-relevant Murray selling the concept of being “lost in translation,” it was Scarlett that hypnotized viewers with her timeless screen presence and natural charisma.

#4: Christian Bale
“The Fighter” (2010)

With Mark Wahlberg serving as the calm center of David O. Russell’s Micky Ward biopic, Christian Bale managed to combine heartbreak and comedy without going over the edge. As the half-brother of the film’s real-life subject, the actor stepped away from the stoicism of his “Dark Knight” character and produced a fragile man facing his own battle with personal demons. As a result, Bale essentially produced a film within a film, a meta commentary on the perils of mixing family loyalty and drug addiction.

#3: Jennifer Lawrence
“Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)

In a follow-up to “The Fighter,” David O. Russell directed another film about family dysfunction, but with a heightened sense of comedy while tackling depression and bipolar disorder. Winning the Academy Award for Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence renewed the life of her supporting characters, but not because Tiffany Maxwell was necessarily “balanced” herself or committed to a cause like Katniss Everdeen. No, she was just trying to get by like everybody else, and the interactions with Pat Solitano unveiled the beauty of recognizing one’s personal flaws while understanding the perspectives of others. Much like in “Winter’s Bone,” Lawrence brought a sense of truth to her role.

#2: Tom Cruise
“Born on the Fourth of July” (1989)

Based on the real-life experiences of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, who co-wrote the film with director Oliver Stone – also a Vietnam Vet, “Born on the Fourth of July” floored audiences thanks to the lived-in performance of one Tom Cruise – yes, “Top Gun”’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. But this was no cookie-cutter, wink-of-the-eye role for Cruise, as he was tasked with not only making Kovic proud, but also representing the experiences of so many veterans upon returning home from war. And well, he got the job done. Ten years later, Cruise once again proved his versatility in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.”

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
Clive Owen
“Closer” (2004)
Channing Tatum
“Foxcatcher” (2014)
Daniel Craig
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011)
Jean-Claude Van Damme
“JCVD” (2008)
Sylvester Stallone
“Cop Land” (1997)
Will Smith
“The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006)

#1: Liam Neeson
“Schindler’s List” (1993)

As human beings, we’re all flawed individuals. Steven Spielberg’s sobering “Schindler’s List” reminded us that redemption can be achieved through good will and genuine respect for others. Playing the purveyor of decency, Liam Neeson channeled the spirit of Oskar Schindler, a German who saved hundreds upon hundreds of Polish Jews and forever altered their perception of a deeply traumatic experience. At the time, Neeson was most known for his role as “Darkman,” and he would go on to lead the “Taken” franchise, but in 1993, he served as the face of the human spirit and what can be accomplished though patience, positivity, and respect.

Do you agree with our list? What is your favorite dramatic performance by an action star? For more mind-blowing Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to

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