When discussing the greatest action movies, iconic films like Die Hard and Terminator often come to mind, but what about the little guys? You know, those lesser-known action flicks that can be watched over-and-over, regardless of their popularity. That’s what we’re talking about today: the most underappreciated, but highly recommended action movies that may have flown under your radar. From the cliché and parody filled Last Action Hero to Karl Urban’s Dredd, join us as we highlight a few of the most underrated but awesome action movies of the past 30 years.
Here are 20 of our favorite underrated action films. Enjoy!
20. Tears of the Sun (2003)
Helmed by Training Day director Antoine Fuqua and starring Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci, and Cole Hauser, Tears of the Sun follows Lieutenant Walters (Willis) as he and his team of Navy SEALS attempt to extract a doctor (Bellucci) from the war-torn nation of Nigeria. Released to mixed reviews, we’re here to say that Tears of the Sun is an underrated action flick. While the film’s admittedly subpar screenplay prohibits it from being the film it aspires to be, Tears of the Sun separates itself from the other action movie chaff with absolutely stunning cinematography and some genuinely awe-inspiring set pieces (there’s a terrific action sequence where Willis and his cronies work their way through a burning village, it’s gorgeous to watch). Filled with quality action and drama that doesn’t veer too far into cheese, Tears of the Sun is a quality watch that most definitely deserves the positive run its received on late-night cable.
19. The Punisher (2004)
Based on the popular Marvel comic book series, Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Punisher (2004) might not be everyone’s favorite iteration of the character (especially since Jon Bernthal hit the scene), but given the state of comic book movies at the time, Thomas Jane’s take on the dangerously disturbed Frank Castle was spot on. The film did a wonderful job of honoring the source material by packing in as many explosions and gunfights as they could.
Oh, and let’s not forgot about John Travolta. He plays the man responsible for the death of Castle’s family and while it’s still jarring to see him play the villain, he actually pulls it off.
18. The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Released in the early 90s, The Last Boy Scout features the unlikely but excellent duo of Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans. When a private detective’s protected witness is murdered, he and the victim’s boyfriend (Wayans) team up to investigate her death, leading them down a path of corruption by politicians and one very crooked football team owner.
Considering how popular Willis was as an action star at the time following the wildly successful Die Hard and its sequel, it’s surprising that The Last Boy Scout only grossed a mere $59.5M at the box office. Despite Wayans being relatively new to the scene, the film featured an entertaining and equally ridiculous story full of laughs and excitement that will keep you hooked from start to finish.
17. Demolition Man (1993)
Set in 2032, Demolition Man follows an LAPD officer (Sylvester Stallone) who is blamed for the deaths of civilians taken hostage by a crazed psychopath (Wesley Snipes). After sentencing, both men are cryogenically frozen but after a series of strange events far in the future, the two are thawed, forced to do battle one last time.
While the majority of people reading this have more than likely heard of Demolition Man, given its low 6.6 scores on IMDB and 6.1 on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s clear that some still don’t quite understand how entertainingly hilarious this popcorn-pleasing action flick was. You might have to turn your brain off for a few hours, but you’ll be happy you did.
16. Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Starring Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, and Samuel L. Jackson, Deep Blue Sea is the perfect combination of suspense, action, and cheese. Let’s call it what it is: a B-movie about scientists trapped in an underwater facility who are being hunted by super-intelligent sharks they created – need I say more?
Sure, the story is a little far-fetched, but the acting is excellent (other than LL Cool J, but he also contributes one heck of a cheesy outro song, so all is forgiven) and the action scenes are as entertaining as they are frightening. It’s not perfect, but much better than the 5.8 score it has on IMDB.
15. Wanted (2008)
Released in 2008, Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted follows the boring everyday life of office worker Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy). After learning of his father’s death, Gibson is approached by the mysterious Fox (Angelina Jolie), who informs him that his father was once a member of a secret society of assassins and it’s now his destiny to track-down the rogue assassin responsible for his father’s death.
Underrated or not, Wanted is a must-watch for action movie fans. It’s a thrill-ride featuring some incredible action sequences, stylish violence, and a sizzling Angelia Jolie. Need I go on?
14. The Guest (2014)
While The Guest did receive a relatively fair score on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m sure if you ask your friends, they’ve likely never heard of it. Why you ask? Well, given how unpredictable and fresh the film feels, I think it’s fair to say that Stevens doesn’t quite generate the same kind of buzz as fellow action stars. Which is too bad, because this is definitely a break-out performance for the up-and-coming Legion star.
After an unknown soldier shows up on their doorstep, claiming to be the friend of their fallen son, the Peterson family welcome him into their home with open arms. Unfortunately, his arrival coincides with a string of strange deaths in town, prompting the Peterson’s youngest daughter Anna to suspect and question the soldier’s past. Is he really who he claims to be?
13. Cliffhanger (1993)
Coming off the success of Die Hard II, director Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger was both original and entertaining, featuring some excellent performances by Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, and a young Mary Poppins, a.k.a. Michael Rooker.
After a mid-air heist goes horribly wrong, a former mountain rescuer (Stallone) encounters a group of criminals looking to find the $100 plus million dollars hidden among the mountains following the crash. Once aware of who the men are and what they’re after, Stallone must find a way to prevent the men from finding the money and stay alive in the process.
12. Last Action Hero (1993)
While it’s no Kindergarten Cop or Predator, Last Action Hero is still an above average action flick filled with cheap puns and over-the-top action sequences. The film centers a young kid (Austin O’Brien) who gets sucked into the world of his favorite movie because of a mysterious magic ticket. On the inside, he befriends megastar Jack Slater (Arnold Swartednagger), a stereotypical 90s action hero that must help the kid find his way home
Last Action Hero pokes fun at everything that makes actions films so predictable and shamelessly entertaining. It borrowed familiar tropes from countless movies and when you consider that Arnold was essentially playing a spoof of himself, it made it that much better.
11. 16 Blocks (2006)
When it comes to action films, nobody quite does like Bruce Willis. Directed by Lethal Weapon’s Richard Donner, 16 Blocks is about the hectic journey an aging alcoholic cop takes to safely deliver a key-witness (Mos Def) to the courthouse. Unfortunately, as most movies starring Willis tend to go, a routine task quickly becomes a life-or-death situation for the mustache toting detective and his witness.
While this is by no means Willis’ best action flick, the story is strong enough to keep you hooked, the chemistry between Willis and Mos Def works, and above all else, 16 Blocks is chock full of exciting and over-the-top action sequences.
10. Escape Plan (2013)
Starring action-legends Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Escape Plan exemplifies why one should never judge a book by its cover. Nowadays, great action flicks can be hard to come by, which is why films like Escape Plan shouldn’t be overlooked.
Seeing Arnold and Stallone work side-by-side to break out of one of the most heavily guarded and technology advanced prisons in the world is surprisingly entertaining. The story is a little ridiculous, but it works. I’m not sure how much longer these two can keep it up, but few greats lined up to replace them, Stallone and Arnie can stay around for as long as they’d like.
9. The Losers (2010)
Adapted from the Vertigo Comic series of the same name, 2010’s The Losers has a lot to like, despite the fact that it received decidedly mixed reviews upon its release. It’s got the always underrated Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the starring role of Lieutenant Franklin Clay, whose special forces unit is framed for genocide in Bolivia. It’s also got a slew of underrated and extremely talented performers rounding out the ensemble cast, including Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, Captain America himself Chris Evans, and Jason Patric as the delicious villain Max. On top of all that, it’s got a script that combines solid action beats with the kind of humor we’ve come to expect from your standard, run-of-the-mill shoot ’em up. So why is it underrated? Well, in light of all the decidedly bad films made nowadays, perhaps it’s time we think about praising the standard and run of the mill.
8. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Directed, written, produced by and starring Stephen Chow (we’re assuming he also did the lighting), 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle is one of the more obscure films on this list, despite the fact that it is one of the highest-grossing foreign language films in history. The story of two troublemakers who vow to fight against the leader of an oppressive Deadly Axe Gang, Kung Fu Hustle is an action spectacle that you just gotta see to believe. Featuring some ridiculous and, yes, fantastical kung fu sequences (we thought this’d go without saying), Kung Fu Hustle also features a surprising amount of humor that plays despite the linguistic barriers the film has to overcome for a Western audience. Critically acclaimed upon its release, Kung Fu Hustle is a gem of a film that’s bound to entertain.
7. The Rundown (2003)
This little known 2003 buddy comedy, directed by Peter Berg (Hancock) and starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Sean “That Guy Who Played Stiffler” William Scott, is an absolute hoot to watch. One of our personal favorites, The Rundown isn’t a great movie by any stretch; it features a fairly predictable plot and some pretty corny moments, but damn if it isn’t just a whole lot of fun to watch. Great cast chemistry can often elevate an average film, and that’s most definitely the case here, as Johnson and Scott play well with each other, while Christopher Walken’s villain is also a surprisingly organic contribution to the film. Is it going to win any Oscars? Definitely not, but it’s the kind of movie we’ll never turn off if we stumble upon it when we’re scrolling through the channels late at night. Also starring Rosario Dawson, it’s a nifty little movie with some really great fight scenes.
6. Dredd (2012)
Dredd has been floating around as an underrated action movie since it garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews upon release. It’s still shocking to us, however, how few people have actually seen this film. It’s awesome. It’s bloody, mean-spirited, and grungy to the core, but all of that works so well with the tone of the film. Starring Karl Urban as the titular Judge Dredd, who takes a rookie (Olivia Thirlby) for a ride-a-long that ends in both of them (and many, many bad guys) having a very bad, very bullet-filled day. A tight script that doesn’t meander and solid world-building do wonders for this low-budget (yet highly effective) action thriller that has the gumption to give the beloved Dredd comics the R-rated adaptation it so rightly deserves. Also featuring a great villain turn by Game of Thrones alum Lena Headey, Dredd is one of the most underrated films to come out in the past few years. Speaking of those…
5. Jack Reacher (2012)
The long-awaited feature film adaptation of author Lee Child’s famous military investigator, 2012’s Jack Reacher saw Tom Cruise play the titular character as he attempts to solve the mystery behind a brutal mass killing at the hands of a sniper. The film, which had a mediocre run at the domestic box office despite positive reviews and word of mouth (it scored a weak $80 million domestic gross), did much better overseas, where it grossed over $135 million, leading to a sequel green light somewhere down the road. Directed by the uber-talented Christopher McQuarrie (more on him later), Jack Reacher had the misfortune of being marketed as a Mission: Impossible spinoff without the name recognition, when in fact the film plays more like a thriller than an action piece when all is said and done. Despite that, it still has some devastating action sequences, a few really, really cool fight scenes, and one really angry phone conversation, so it’s worth checking out for any and all of those things.
4. The Way of the Gun (2000)
Before he was directing the aforementioned Jack Reacher, Christopher McQuarrie was best known for both writing The Usual Suspects (1998) and directing this cult classic starring Ryan Phillippe, Benicio Del Toro, Juliet Lewis, Taye Diggs, and James Caan. Following two ill-advised career criminals as they kidnap the surrogate mother of a strange and mysterious man, The Way of the Gun was the subject of many a lukewarm film review upon its release; however, like a fine wine its reputation has gotten much better with age. Now considered an underrated film in the action genre, The Way of the Gun features a particularly strong turn from the savvy veteran Caan.
3. RocknRolla (2008)
While it doesn’t carry the esteemed reputation of its two older cinematic siblings, Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), Guy Ritchie’s 2008 film RocknRolla is every bit as stylish, charming and rough around the edges as its predecessors. It may not revel in originality like its forefathers (it is Ritchie’s third go-around of the “suave British guys steal things from other suave British guys,” after all), RocknRolla makes up for any deficiencies in its plot (which is powered primarily by a MacGuffin, a never-seen painting of immeasurable value) with oodles of charm, humor and a rocking and rolling soundtrack. While some critics complained Ritchie’s visual kit had gotten a bit stale by this point, he still manages to bust out enough new tricks to keep the action engaging. Starring Gerard Butler, Tom Hardy, Idris Elba and Tom Wilkinson, RocknRolla is a worthy conclusion to Ritchie’s unofficial British gangster trilogy.
2. John Wick (2014)
The rare film that is adored by both critics and audiences alike, 2014’s John Wick was a return to form for somewhat disgraced action star Keanu Reeves. The man who starred in seminal action films such as Point Break (1993) and The Matrix (1999), Reeves hadn’t done some real quality work in quite some time before bringing us one of the most awesome action flicks of the past decade seemingly out of the blue. John Wick, which also stars Willem Dafoe, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Ian McShane, and Adrianne Palicki, sees Reeves play the titular assassin who goes on a devastating revenge spree after his dog is killed in a home invasion (it was a parting gift from his dead wife, dammit!). Featuring impressive world-building that draws you in and some of the most incredible action choreography in recent memory, John Wick is the kind of film action buffs love to brag about having seen. Although many will argue the film does not belong on our list, many fans had no idea who or what John Wick was until the second film was released. For that reason, we pay tribute to John Wick because it introduced us to an awesome new action movie franchise.
1. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
We recently had the pleasure of stumbling upon this 1997 film starring John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Minnie Driver and Dan Aykroyd, and man were we glad we did. Funny, heartfelt and featuring some really great fight choreography, Grosse Pointe Blank sees depressed professional contract killer Martin Blank (Cusack) return to his hometown of Grosse Point, Michigan, to attend his high school reunion (and whack a target, of course). While there, he runs into his old high school flame (Driver) and goes to war with fellow assassin Grocer (Akroyd). With great dialogue and a strong performance from Cusack, and featuring a score composed by the legendary frontman of the Clash, Joe Strummer (fun fact!), Grosse Pointe Blank is the late night action classic we’ve long searched for and are very happy to have discovered.
**If you enjoyed this and are also a fan of the sci-fi genre, you’ll want to check out our list of the 20 most underrated science fiction movies of all time.**