Action movies are some of the most fun you can have at the theater. This is likely because audiences don’t have to do a lot of thinking or follow a bunch of convoluted plotlines. They just need to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Typically, action heroes are protagonists who use fists and guns to achieve their goals. Punching and shooting their way through any problem they encounter until the final showdown with the big bad boss. However, even this long-standing trope is changing as we’re now seeing hyper-intelligent action heroes, like Jason Bourne and Taken‘s Bryan Mills, gaining popularity.
But whether you like them big and burly or quick and clever, one thing an action hero always has to be is tough. The following are the toughest S.O.B.s we’ve ever seen on screen.
Max Rockatansky is a former cop and expert driver. He seeks revenge against the gang that killed his wife and daughter.
Fueled by melancholy rage in The Road Warrior, Max becomes much more cutthroat as most of the oil in Australia has dried up and acquiring it is usually a life or death situation. By the time the third movie rolls around, Max has become so tough that he battles mutant monstrosities for Tina Turner’s amusement.
We’d be remiss to have a list about tough action heroes and not include Chuck Norris.
J.J. “Lone Wolf” McQuade is one tough hombre. Even after being beaten to a pulp and buried alive. All McQuade needs is a beer and his trusty turbocharger to dig himself out of the jam.
Sigourney Weaver manages to single-handedly subvert all female role stereotypes by playing one of the toughest action heroes ever seen in cinema.
In Alien, greenhorn Ellen Ripley manages to face down her fears and defeat the terrifying creature that’s invaded her ship and killed her crewmates. In the sequel, Aliens, Ripley transforms into a take-charge, no-nonsense bug exterminator who claws her way to victory carrying a pulse rifle duct-taped to a flamethrower. By the way, that’s still the coolest improvised weapon an action hero has ever come up with.
Played by Donnie Yen, Ip Man is based on the life of one of Bruce Lee’s most prominent martial arts teachers. He’s a guy who takes quite a bit of provoking to get riled up. But once he does, he’ll crush any opponent who dares to step to him. In fact, Ip Man can take on 10 of the world’s top martial artists at the same time without so much as breaking a sweat.
Basically, if you’re in a room with this guy and you see him roll up his sleeves, all your bones are already broken.
An ex-CIA operative turned bodyguard, Bryan Mills is an expert in self-defense. That’s in addition to tracking people down and making them pay for their crimes.
After using his intelligence, detective skills, and fighting prowess to protect his wife and daughter for three movies, Mills has basically become the kind of father every adult male with children wishes they could be.
The argument could be made that having members of your family constantly being kidnapped constitutes bad parenting. However, we’re still betting there are countless dads out there who secretly want to call their daughter’s boyfriends and say something along the lines of:
“I have a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you!”
A soldier in the U.S. Army at age 19, Martin Riggs became a member of the Special Forces and received specialized training in hand-to-hand combat and weaponry. These skills would later serve him well as a maniac cop working alongside LAPD Sergeant Roger Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon film series.
There’s no better tool to scare crooks straight than a borderline psychopath with a badge. Riggs uses a veneer of psychosis to bring down drug dealers, illegal weapons rings, and various other unsavory crime networks.
A lot of the times Riggs’ strategy for dealing with crazy suspects is to simply out crazy them. And if that means pointing a gun at his head, jumping off 10-story buildings, and laughing like a lunatic while being brutally tortured for information, then that’s just all part of a day’s work.
When we’re first introduced to Jason Bourne, he’s floating in the Mediterranean sea unconscious and barely alive. As he methodically tries to piece his life back together, Bourne learns that he’s a highly trained assassin for a secret project called Treadstone. Although he can’t remember much of his past, Bourne’s muscle memory remains well intact. This means he can still kick all kinds of ass.
Most of the time Bourne is at a huge disadvantage in comparison to his foes, who always seem to have more resources and insight than he does about what’s going on. But thanks to his intellect and amazing improvisational skills, he can take down armed agents with nothing more than a rolled-up magazine or jump down a flight of stairs real quick by using a dead body to cushion his fall.
John Matrix from Commando was once a Green Beret who made a living stomping bad guys all over the world. However, when we first meet him, he’s happily living the retired life at his cottage home in the remote wilderness of California. Here Matrix enjoys many tough-guy activities like hauling around massive tree trunks, chopping wood, and sharing ice cream with his daughter.
Although Matrix’s excellent track record has resulted in his superiors making numerous requests for him to return to the field, nothing has been able to convince Matrix to get back in action. This is probably why a group of hired mercenaries decides to forgo a formal request. Instead, they just kidnap his daughter in order to force him to carry out a political assassination on a South American dictator.
After escaping surveillance by killing his guard with a stealthy elbow/neck-break combo, Matrix jumps off a plane mid-takeoff and sets out to find his daughter. No need to alert the authorities, he just starts breaking necks and blowing away anyone who gets in his way.
When he needs a car, he steals a car. When he needs a plane, he steals a plane. When he needs an arsenal of weapons, he breaks into a gun store and robs the place blind. John Matrix is so unstoppable that by the end of the movie, he’s walking around an enemy fortress as if it were an old side-scrolling shooter; killing everything on screen on his way to the final boss.
With his scruffy beard, leather threads, and trademark eyepatch, Snake Plissken is pretty much the archetypal tough-guy action hero. As a U.S. Special Forces Lieutenant, Plissken earns two Purple Hearts. Plus, he’s the youngest soldier to ever be decorated by the U.S. President for his bravery.
Personality-wise, Snake doesn’t talk much and he doesn’t take too kindly to helping people. But, he’s just so goddamn good at killing people and surviving that the government will continue to do whatever it can to leverage his skills whenever the sh–t hits the fan.
Anyone who’s ever been married will probably tell you it’s never a good idea to mess with a bride. This advice is especially true when the bride happens to be an elite assassin equipped with one of the deadliest swords ever forged.
Beatrix Kiddo, a.k.a. The Bride, tries to leave her life of paid killing behind upon realizing she’s pregnant with Bill’s child. However, being denied his right to fatherhood provokes Bill. As such, he and the Deadly Vipers track Beatrix down, beat her mercilessly, put a bullet in her head, and leave her for dead on her wedding day.
Only Beatrix wasn’t dead. She was only in a coma. After remaining in it for four years, Beatrix awakens and immediately begins enacting her revenge. She does this by doing all sorts of badass stuff like slicing people’s limbs off, dueling the world’s greatest assassins, and using ancient Chinese martial arts to perform instant fatalities on people.
As if getting shot in the head wasn’t enough to prove Beatrix is as tough as they come, she later survives a shotgun blast of rock salt to the chest and getting buried alive in the desert. You just can’t kill this woman.
Not that anyone would ever doubt that John Rambo is one of the toughest action heroes of all time. Just in case you needed a reminder of why he’s on this list, bear in mind that he’s probably the greatest guerilla warfare tactician ever.
According to his mentor, Colonel Sam Trautman, Rambo is the most skilled soldier using guns, knives, and his bare hands. He’s been trained to ignore the pain and harsh weather conditions in order to survive.
When Rambo was in Vietnam, it was his job to dispose of enemy personnel. Killing on a daily basis and achieving victory through attrition whenever necessary. Even when Rambo is double-crossed and left behind enemy lines to be hellishly tortured, he always finds a way to get out. Usually leaving a massive trail of dead bodies behind him.
When Die Hard came out in 1988, the “everyday action hero” concept exhibited by John McClane was quite an anomaly. At a time, stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Segal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme would typically stroll through entire movies full of explosions and bullet storms without so much as getting a scratch.
McClane was a new kind of hero who was constantly injured and bleeding. Although McClane always seems to cheat death, he’s certainly been beaten up and blown up many more times than anyone else on this list. This is probably why the name John McClane is now synonymous with the term “action hero”.