While we tried to keep the choices action-movie centric (which meant excluding some classic films like Star Wars, which just didn’t feel at home with the rest of the movies chosen), there’s undoubtedly some genre-bleeding, but you can rest assured that every movie on our list will raise your adrenaline and have you craving more car chases, slow-motion shootouts, cocky one-liners, and most of all, epic explosions.
In celebration of Die Hard’s 31st anniversary, join us as we countdown the 12 of the most outstanding action movies ever made. Buckle up!
12. John Wick (2014)
Chad Stahelski’s John Wick film is adored by both critics and audiences alike and 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 seeing.
Following the outstanding box office success of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, it was announced that a fourth John Wick movie is scheduled to be released on May 21, 2021.
11. Mission Impossible (1996)
It’s easy to forget that Tom Cruise was already a movie star by the time the Mission Impossible series rolled around (circa 1996). What he didn’t have was a franchise to call his own, and that’s where a contemporary re-hashing of a once-popular television series from the 1960s came in. Directed by Brian De Palma and featuring Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, Mission Impossible is an excellent action/spy film that holds up remarkably well almost twenty years later. The movie, which sees Hunt framed for the deaths of his team after a seemingly routine operation goes terribly awry, features a tightly wound script that emphasizes the cerebral elements of spycraft rather than the physical ones, with Hunt using his brain as often as his brawn to find the double agent responsible for killing those closest to him. With plenty of twists, lots of action (including a still-thrilling chase scene atop a moving train) and a supporting cast including Jon Voight, Emilio Estevez, Ving Rhames, and Jean Reno, it’s a great action flick that kicked off one of the most successful film franchises of all time.
10. Predator (1987)
We know, we know. You can’t include Star Wars, but you can include Predator? It’s about aliens, man! Well, yeah, but it also takes place in the jungle and features more machine guns and biceps than you can imagine, which we’re taking as a sign it lands closer to “action” than “science fiction” in the genre discussion. Directed by the legendary John McTiernan and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his career, Predator follows Delta Force Major Dutch Schaefer and his team as they scour the jungle looking for evidence of a special operatives team that had vanished six weeks earlier. When members of the Dutch’s team start to go missing, they learn they’re being hunted for sport by an alien with superior technology and know-how. Cue the machine guns and biceps. While initially critiqued for its somewhat flimsy plot, Predator has become an action movie classic that helped define many of the tropes we recognize and expect from the genre today.
9. Top Gun (1986)
Directed by Tony Scott and starring the indomitable Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Top Gun is the quintessential action movie; it’s got fighter jet dog fights, it’s got dialogue so distinctively cheesy it’s glorious, and it’s got Kenny Loggins telling us to ride into the Danger Zone. What more could you ask of the genre, really? In all seriousness, Top Gun requires a certain suspension of disbelief when watching. Yes, there’s some parts of the film that are genuinely bad. The strangely misplaced homoerotic volleyball montage? Take it for what it is, laugh, and move on to appreciate the film for the awesome piece of action cinema that it is. Also starring a young Val Kilmer, Kelly McGillis and Anthony Edwards as Maverick’s trusty wingman Goose, Top Gun is a requisite course in any action movie education.
8. Speed (1994)
We’ve come to expect action from Tom Cruise, and one could say the same about Keanu Reeves. While he’s made occasional (and often ill-advised) turns towards the dramatic, his most successful films are usually filled with gunfights and fisticuffs. 1994’s Speed is no exception. A movie so ridiculously awesome that it features not one, but TWO modes of transportation placed on unfinished roads/railways. That’s right, two. Also starring Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, and Jeff Daniels, Speed follows young Los Angeles Police Officer Jack Traven (Reeves) as he attempts to thwart a bomber (Hopper) who has placed a bomb on a bus and set it to explode should the vehicle drop below fifty miles per hour. It’s a ridiculous premise that plays surprisingly well, as the movie features a great sense of momentum (pun intended) and really zips along. There’s good chemistry between Reeves and Bullock, and Hopper gives an excellent turn as the villain, making this mid-’90s action flick a must-watch for anyone who has the need for speed.
7. The Bourne Identity (2002)
Drawing its title from the Robert Ludlum novel of the same name (a text with which it shares few similarities), The Bourne Identity saw Matt Damon transition from “the genius janitor in that Robin Williams movie” to a veritable action star. A riveting film which follows former assassin Jason Bourne (Damon) through his quest to recover his memory, The Bourne Identity also stars Chris Cooper, Franka Potente, Clive Owen, and Julia Stiles. One of the first films to debut the now-common “shaky-cam” filming of fight sequences, The Bourne Identity was followed by two equally successful films (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, respectively) to form one of the most critically and commercially respected action trilogies of all time. With Damon expected to reprise his role as Jason Bourne in an of-yet untitled sequel, it would appear that the franchise is set to move forward with its combination of quality filmmaking and heart-pounding action.
6. Lethal Weapon (1987)
The spiritual forefather to the buddy cop genre, 1987’s Lethal Weapon, directed by Richard Donner and starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, follows two mismatched police detectives as they attempt to unravel the mysteries behind the mysterious death of a prostitute. One of the earliest iterations of the “good cop, bad cop” formula, Lethal Weapon is the film that made Mel Gibson a star and gave us the instantly recognizable line “I’m too old for this…[you know how it ends].” Featuring a great soundtrack (the saxophone!) and an eerily villainous turn by Gary Busey, this film spawned three sequels, only one of which was able to live up to the high expectations set in Lethal Weapon (Lethal Weapon 2, while not quite as charming and deft as the original, is not without its highlights).
5. The Matrix (1999)
We’re willing to concede that The Matrix trends a little closer to science fiction than it does action; however, in light of the film’s overwhelming influence on action filmmaking, fight choreography, stunt work, and visual effects, it’d be a crime not to include it here. Another action classic starring Keanu Reeves along with Carrie Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, and Hugo Weaving, The Matrix follows a computer programmer, Neo (Reeves) as he discovers that his reality is actually a simulation devised by sentient machines to subdue the human population for use as an energy source. Directed by the Wachowski siblings, it’s a revolutionary film that changed the action genre forever with the induction of the “bullet time” technique, which saw slow-motion choreography interspersed with regular action sequences. While the disappointing sequels never truly lived up to the promise of the first film, they did continue to deliver the same excellent fight sequences and sci-fi action as this first film, leading to one of the more profitable (if not always critically lauded) action franchises in recent memory.
4. Point Break (1991)
Unless we’re experiencing some deja vu, we’ve hit yet another action classic starring the omnipresent Keanu Reeves. 1991’s Point Break, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and also starring Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey and Lori Petty, follows former star quarterback Johnny Utah (now a hotshot police detective) as he attempts to hunt down The Ex-Presidents, a group of bank robbers who always wear masks of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, etc. Following his partner’s hunch, Utah goes undercover to discern whether charismatic surfer Bodhi (played by Patrick Swayze) and his adrenaline junkie buddies are the men behind the bank robberies. It’s a great film that has been copied several times over (The Fast and the Furious is almost a direct adaptation, with Paul Walker and Vin Diesel portraying the roles of Reeves and Swayze, respectively). As Utah gets in deep, he begins to enjoy the surfer lifestyle and wonders whether Bodhi is capable of committing the crimes of which he’s accused. Action sequences ensue, including a gorgeous skydiving sequence that was filmed without any computer-generated effects.
3. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Let’s not forget there were action stars before Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves. Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course, is the original action star and a man whose legacy need not be explained. That legacy peaks with 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which saw Schwarzenegger and director James Cameron take their legendary villain from the first Terminator film and make him a protagonist, tasked with protecting young John Connor (played by Edward Furlong) and his mother Sarah Conner (played by the incredibly badass Linda Hamilton) from the more advanced T-1000 (the terrifying Robert Patrick). It’s a landmark piece of cinema whose visual effects (both CGI and animatronic) hold up extremely well on a repeat viewing; seriously, go pop in the Blu-Ray and try and figure out how they made this film almost 25 years ago. It looks way, way better than most of the stuff you see now.
2. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Thanks to Star Wars (1977), Harrison Ford was already an action hero by the time he was cast as treasure hunter Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, it was his performance as the professor/archaeologist/all-around charmer that convinced the world he could carry a franchise all by his lonesome. In many ways, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect film; Ford and the rest of the cast are spot on, it looks absolutely beautiful, and it’s got laughs and thrills in equal measure. Featuring a tight script with the most notorious baddies of all (those damn Nazis!), Raiders isn’t just an important action film, it’s an important film period.
1. Die Hard (1989)
This is the second John McTiernan film to appear on this list, and that’s no accident. The man knows his way around an action film, and he just so happened to craft the greatest one of all time with 1989’s Die Hard, a film which should require neither introduction nor praise (since we’re assuming anyone reading this article has already seen it, because IT’S DIE HARD!!). Starring Bruce Willis as John McClane, the wise-cracking, cowboy-loving, trouble-causing New York police detective determined to foil a group of thieves led by Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, Die Hard established so many of the action movie tropes, stereotypes, and clichés consistently found in action movies today. Those films and the genre as a whole owe Die Hard a great debt for establishing a formula upon which most action movies have worked off of. It’s the greatest action movie (and the greatest Christmas movie) of all time, the kind of flick you have to finish every time you turn it on.