Action movies are some of the most fun you can have at the theater. The main reason for this is likely because audiences don’t have to do a lot of thinking or follow a bunch of convoluted plotlines when they go to an action movie. They just need to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Typically, action heroes are known as 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 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 heavy popularity.
But whether you like em’ big and burly or quick and clever, one thing an action hero always has to be is tough, and the following are 12 toughest S.O.B.s we’ve ever seen on screen.
12. Mad Max
Max Rockatansky is a former cop and expert driver who seeks revenge against the gang that killed his wife and daughter. Before the apocalypse, it was Max’s job to keep the highways of Northern and Western Australia safe from the road gangs that rose to power after the government collapsed.
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. And by the time of the second sequel, Thunderdome, Max has become so tough that he’s battling mutant monstrosities gladiator-style for Tina Turner’s amusement.
11. J.J. McQuade
We’d be remiss to have a list about tough action heroes and not include at least one Chuck Norris entry. And J.J. “Lone Wolf” McQuade is one tough hombre. After being beaten to a pulp and buried alive in his truck. All McQuade needs is a beer and his trusty turbo charger to dig himself out of the jam. He also kicks the snot out of Kung Fu legend David Carradine at the end.
10. Ellen Ripley
Sigourney Weaver managed to almost single-handedly subvert all female role stereotypes by playing one of the toughest and most badass action heroes ever seen in cinema.
In Alien, greenhorn Ripley is a scared sh–tless protagonist who 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 is transformed into a take charge, no-nonsense bug exterminator who claws her way to victory carrying a pulse rifle duct taped to a flame thrower—which, by the way, is still the coolest improvised weapon an action hero has ever come up with.
9. Ip Man
Based on the life of one of Bruce Lee’s most prominent martial arts teachers, the Ip Man portrayed by Donnie Yen in the movies is 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. He can even take on 10 of the world’s best 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 of your bones are already broken.
8. Bryan Mills
An ex-CIA operative turned bodyguard, Bryan Mills is an expert in self-defense fighting techniques along with tracking people down and making them pay for the crimes they’ve committed.
After using his intelligence, detective skills and fighting prowess to savagely 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. Although the argument could be made that having members of your family constantly being kidnapped constitutes as bad parenting, we’re still betting there are countless dads out there who have secretly wanted 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!”
7. Martin Riggs
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 skill 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.
6. Jason Bourne
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 back together his life, he learns that he was a highly trained assassin for a secret project called Treadstone. Although he can’t remember much of his past, his muscle memory remains well intact which 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 do stuff like take down armed agents with nothing more than rolled up magazine, or jump down a flight of stairs real quick by using a dead body to cushion his fall.
5. John Matrix
John Matrix from Commando was once a Green Beret who made a living stomping bad guys all over the world. But when we first meet him he’s happily living the retired life at his cottage home in the remote wilderness of California, where he enjoys many tough guy activities like hauling around massive tree trunks, chopping wood and sharing ice cream with his daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano). Although his 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. Which is probably why a group of hired mercenaries decided to forgo a formal request and instead just kidnap his daughter 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 jump 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 the way of him getting to his beloved Jenny. 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 a fortified enemy as if it were an old side-scrolling shooter, killing everything on screen on his way to the final boss.
4. Snake Plissken
With his scruffy beard, leather threads and trademark eyepatch, Snake Plissken is pretty much the archetypal tough guy action hero. As a former U.S. Special Forces Lieutenant, Plissken earned two Purple Hearts and was the youngest soldier to ever be decorated by the U.S. President for his bravery during the Leningrad and Siberia campaigns against the USSR in World War III.
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.
3. The Bride
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, aka The Bride, aka Black Mamba, tries to leave her life of paid killing behind upon realizing she’s pregnant with Bill’s child. But being denied his right to fatherhood provokes Bill, and he and the rest of the Deadly Vipers track her down, beat her mercilessly, put a bullet in her head and leave her for dead in a chapel on her wedding day. Only she wasn’t dead. She was only in a coma, which, after remaining in for four years, awakens and immediately begins enacting her revenge by running around and 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. And as if getting shot in the head wasn’t enough to prove she’s as tough as they come, she later survives to take a shotgun blast of rock salt to the chest and getting buried alive in the desert. You just can’t kill this woman.
2. John Rambo
Not that anyone would ever doubt that Rambo is one of the toughest action heroes of all time, but just in case you needed a reminder why he’s on this list, bear in mind that first and foremost 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; to live off the land and survive by eating things that would make a billy goat puke.
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 he’s 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.
1. John McClane
When Die Hard came out in 1988, the ‘everyday action hero’ concept exhibited by Bruce Willis’ character John McClane was quite an anomaly at a time when 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, leaving red footprints all over Nakatomi Plaza as he runs barefoot over all the broken glass. And though he always seems to cheat death, he’s certainly been beaten up and blown up many more times than anyone else on this list. Which is probably why the name John McClane is now synonymous with the term ‘action hero,’ and why he tops this list.