Empire’s 50 greatest action movies
From the taciturn classics of the ’70s, through the cartoonish ’80s and on to the superheroic present day, allow Empire guides you through their 50 favorites.
50. Lethal Weapon 2
Barely a day goes by in the Empire office without someone shouting “Dip-lo-mat-ic-imm-un-it-y!” in a bad Afrikaans accent: this is a film that has entered the public consciousness. There’s action, conspiracy, a truly hissable bad guy, and the fact that it actually manages to surprise us by killing off Patsy Kensit. The first Lethal Weapon‘s rougher edges have been sanded off: this is heading more towards action-comedy territory. But it gets more brutal in a dark final act where the cast is dramatically thinned out.
49. Enter the Dragon
Bruce Lee’s final film (not counting the ones cobbled together after his untimely death) is arguably the one that “started it all”, kicking off the jones for kung-fu that swept mainstream culture in the west in the 1970s. Even Roger Moore’s Bond tried to get in on the craze. Lee plays a Shaolin martial artist working undercover for British Intelligence to bring down the villainous Shih Kien. Culturally it’s fascinating, but purely as a movie experience it still cuts the mustard more than 40 years on. It’s testament to Lee’s sheer power and charisma.
48. Kill Bill Vol. 1
Vol. 2 was more of a measured-paced, dialogue driven Western. But Kill Bill Vol. 1 is Quentin Tarantino’s Eastern, lovingly channelling the marshal arts movies he most adores. It’s even got Sonny Chiba in it. The plot is almost perfunctory: Uma Thurman‘s “The Bride” is almost murdered on her wedding day, but recovers to seek revenge on the perpetrators, including ultimate goal Bill. We’ll get to him next time, but for Vol. 1 it’s all about the journey rather than the destination. Still, it manages an extraordinarily choreographed fight sequence, as The Bride hacks her way through dozens of opponents on her way to Lucy Liu’s formidable O-Ren Ishii.
While David Lynch arguably has a better handle on how dreams actually function, there’s no arguing with the brio and spectacle of Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending sci-fi heist flick. His dream worlds are piled layer on layer, allowing for some head-scratchingly intricate plotting. Strong performances all round too, from Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Michael Caine and particularly Tom Hardy in his breakout role. But it’s the set-pieces that stay with you, like the shifting cityscapes, the snow sequences, and that fight sequence in the building with a shifting point of gravity.
46. Battle Royale
A high-concept masterpiece, this controversial effort (several attempts were made to ban both film and its source novel in Japan) from Kinji Fukasaku continues to provoke discussion with its devastating premise: a class of teenagers are taken to an island, fitted with explosive collars and told to kill one another until only one remains. It’s gory – but this is not violence for its own sake. Fukasaku’s got something powerful to say about intergenerational distrust, modern society, our attitudes to violence and one another and modern Japan as a whole.
Famously remade by Sergio Leone as the Western A Fistful Of Dollars, it’s perhaps less well known that Yojimbo is itself an adaptation of an American source: Dashiel Hammett’s hard-boiled 1929 novel Red Harvest. It’s effortlessly transposed to the Samurai idiom however, with Akira Kurosawa’s gruff regular star Toshiro Mifune erupting occasionally into brief bursts of sword-wielding action as he plays two rival clans off against each other for his own ends. Mifune returned as the same character in the follow-up Sanjuro.
Mixing action thriller with disaster movie tropes in the way Die Hardhad done previously, Speed can basically be described in terms of its setpieces: the lift, the bus and the train. The middle section is the principal one, of course: Keanu Reeves is on a bus with a bomb on it, which will explode and kill all its passengers if its speed drops below 50mph. Dennis Hopper is the aggrieved bad guy on the phone giving instructions, and Sandra Bullock is, reluctantly but pluckily, at the wheel. Thrills! Spills! Near misses! Romance, even! Most impressive is the way that, despite seemingly limited options for drama in its enclosed space, the bus section never outstays its welcome. Only the final train sequence feels slightly tacked on. Director Jan De Bont had been Die Hard’s cinematographer, clearly watching John McTiernanclosely for some tension tips.
43. Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom
The modern trend for making sequels “darker” surely dates back to this blood-soaked effort, with its human sacrifice, child enslavement and Indy himself being possessed by the Dark Side. It actually takes place before Raiders Of The Lost Ark) – meaning the repeated gun/sword gag doesn’t actually make sense chronologically – and sees Indy in India, trying to procure sacred stones from an evil Thuggee cult to save a beleaguered village. While the bookends of the original trilogy are funnier, this one stays with you longer, albeit in nightmares.
42. Mad Max 2
The original Mad Max had its share of awesome vehicular chase sequences, but nothing that quite prepared audiences for what was to follow. The plot is simple: Max gets roped into helping a besieged community escape the marauders outside. But it’s the crazy world and character-building, vehicle design and pedal-to-the-metal action that’s important: unstoppable forward momentum and a focused, blistering vision.
The high watermark of John Woo’s stint in Hollywood, Face/Off is full of all the slo-mo action gunplay and doves you’d expect. The story – cop and gangster swap faces and lives during a protracted game of cat-and-mouse – is high-concept bordering on nonsensical. But what makes it work are Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, playing not only their own characters but essentially each other. Travolta actually has more fun, cutting loose as one of Cage’s loopy bad guys. Cage, after some madness at the start, has to reign it in a bit to play Travolta. It was probably for the best.
40. Captain America: Civil War
Marvel’s most ambitious outing to date set everyone’s favourite super-squad against each other – and sent a few of them home to patch up their suits. The idea of pitching 673 (or thereabouts) superheroes against each other was a dizzying notion, but the brothers Russo pulled it off with aplomb, introducing a unanimously crowd-pleasing baby Spidey in the process. Worried about superhero fatigue? Those fears completely vanish by the time you reach the film’s airport battle opus.
39. Hell Drivers
British grit from 1957, with a rambunctious crew of hard men competing to drive dangerous loads along dangerous roads in as fast a time possible. It all takes place in believably downbeat locations, and the chase sequences – the final one in particular – are thrilling, thanks to the direction of blacklisted Hollywood exile Cy Endfield. And the cast, to modern eyes, is extraordinary: led by Stanley Baker and stacked with British tough guys who’d go on to greater fame. Look out for (deep breath) Sean Connery, Patrick McGoohan, William Hartnell, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, Herbert Lom and Sid James.
The title refers to the Buddhisst statue which, in a shocking act of vandalism, has its head sawn off by the minions of an evil businessman. It’s up to headline star and fight choreographer Tony Jaa to retrieve it: a quest he undertakes in punishingly brutal style. It’s a b-movie plot, but Ong-Bak rises above by eschewing any wire work for grittier and more down-to-earth Muay-Thai beatings. The dedicated fight team were all prepared to take a pummelling for real. Their pain is the audience’s gain.
37. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The plot, involving the recovery of a stolen sword and a couple of pairs of lovers, might seem a little far fetched at times, and the subtitled dialogue a touch too stately, but the sheer scale of Crouching Tiger‘s setting, cinematography and fight choreography will leave all but the most stone-hearted impressed. Delicate, dialogue-heavy scenes are torn apart by Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi as they blast up and over treetops, through the air, and into their enemies with such balletic grace you can scarcely believe your eyes.
36. The Fugitive
Harrison Ford is on his best Action Dad form – see also the Jack Ryanfilms – in this ‘90s big-screen remake of the venerable TV series. As in the show, he’s on the trail of the mysterious one-armed man who murdered his wife and got Ford framed for the crime. On the run – a journey including the spectacular set piece of Ford flinging himself down a storm drain – he has to deal with the formidable tenacity of pursuing agent Tommy Lee Jones. Jones’ dogged, dryly humorous screen persona here was so successful that he recycled it for any number of films subsequently, including the Ford-less official Fugitive sequel US Marshals.
35. Road House
Ridiculous cod-zen philosophy clashes headlong with bone-crunching action in this ‘80s classic. “Nobody ever wins a fight,” Patrick Swayzeintones solemnly… but he does tend to come out of them pretty well. The set-up has the Swayze as a bouncer at the seedy titular establishment, the Double Deuce. But his attempts to clean up the joint lead him into violent confrontation with local heavy Ben Gazzara and his goons. Along the way Swayze gets to do a spot more dirty dancing – this time with Kelly Lynch – and a modicum of throat ripping. It’s tosh, but glorious tosh.
34. The Crow
Alex Proyas’ adaptation of James O’Barr’s graphic novel deserves far more appreciation than the morbid notoriety it garnered from Brandon Lee’s tragic death on set. Ingeniously transposing High Plains Drifterto a dystopian urban Detroit, it’s the story of an unstoppable revenge-killer from beyond the grave who incredibly remains sympathetic thanks to Lee’s performance. And though it’s dark and violent in a way that comic-book movies are rarely allowed to be these days, it’s still leavened with a seam of grim humour. Arriving at the height of grunge it was also perfectly placed to ride the alt-rock wave, and did so without ever feeling like an embarrassing studio attempt to appeal to a yoot movement: The Crow rages to a soundtrack that still feels credible two decades later.
33. The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah’s ferocious Western re-wrote the rule book for onscreen violence: the film is bookended by notorious onslaughts of blood-spurting and slow-mo slaughter. It begins with a botched robbery, progresses to One Last Job stealing rifles from the US Army for cigar-chomping Mexican warlord general Mapache, and climaxes with an apocalyptic last stand at Mapache’s hacienda. The thesis is that the Bunch are men out of time, left behind as the march of progress leaves them obsolete in the developing American West. But while the film’s brutally nihilistic, it’s also curiously sentimental: Peckinpah bought into those myths of the West far more than his Western-legend predecessor John Ford.
32. The Bourne Ultimatum
Five years on from his introduction in The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon’s amnesiac super-agent reaches the end of his journey (at least until he went on the run again in 2016). The conclusion of the original Bourne trilogy is a snare-drum-tight thriller that at last gives some closure to Treadstone’s most successful-but-unpredictable experiment as he embarks on a breakneck world tour. The biggest hit of the three, it also established Paul Greengrass as arguably the premier thriller director currently plying his trade.
31. The Killer
Adding 37 percent more slow-mo to the decade, John Woo exploded out of Hong Kong action cinema and into the international spotlight with a run of badass crime flicks in which Chow Yun-Fat wasted ruthless gangsters in big jackets and there would often be doves. Following A Better Tomorrow, Woo’s pioneering use of gun-fu, a lucky charm in Yun-Fat and those doves all came together in the blazing church-set crescendo to this attention-grabbing maelstrom of Triad carnage. Nestled amid the awesome pyrotechnics are ageless themes of honour and redemption worthy of Woo’s main influences, Martin Scorsese and Jean-Pierre Melville.
30. The Vikings
Kirk Douglas just turned 100. Half that extraordinary lifetime ago he was an unlikely but nevertheless impressive Einar Lodbrok, headlining Richard Fleischer’s comic-book Norse epic alongside the equally askew Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine and Janet Leigh. Mead is quaffed, buxom wenches are goosed, and the tone is… shall we say “broad”. But the scenery’s spectacular, the pace is fast and the action-choreography satisfying (Howard McCain’s Vikings-Vs-Alien sci-fi Outlander “homaged” it wholesale). And Douglas’ one-eyed warrior is fierce.
29. Police Story
The first of six (seven if you include Once A Cop), but still the best of them: an exuberant outing for Jackie Chan at the height of his diminutive ass-kicking powers. Chan’s mission is to protect an important witness to a crime lord’s, er, crimes. But it all gets rather complicated by the fact that she has her own agenda. Along the way there’s an immense car chase through a shanty town and a sequence where Chan has to stop a big bus with just a pistol. It all ends up with a massive rumble in a shopping mall. Pure slapstick action-comedy excellence.
28. The Adventures of Robin Hood
Technicolour swashbucklery, as Errol Flynn’s green-hosed merry man takes on the dastardly might of Basil Rathbone’s Guy Of Gisbourne, in the service of Claude Raines’ waspish King John. It’s justly reputed as a thoroughly jolly romp, but there’s a steel to Flynn’s flashing blade that he often misses the credit for. He can trade a quip, slap a thigh, clash a foil, string a bow and roister a jape with the best of them, but he’s also a great romantic and a stirring rebel leader.
27. Safety Last
Of course, most stars of the silent era performed their own stunts, from the Keystone films of Mack Sennet, to Charlie Chaplin and, best of all, Buster Keaton. But arguably the most famous image of the lot is Harold Lloyd hanging off a clock face at the climax to Safety Last. The long-shots of Lloyd climbing the building actually are of a double, but the mid-shots and close-ups are all Lloyd, as are the clock-dangle and all the dicking about on the top of the building – and it is genuinely the top of a building and not a studio mock-up. No strings attached, and he only had three fingers on his right hand. Still vertiginously, viscerally thrilling, in a way CG could never achieve.
26. John Wick
The set-up (they killed his dog and now he’s mad as hell) verges on parody, and the plot (gunman steadily works his way up the opposition’s organisational chain) as perfunctory as they come. But John Wick was an instant classic nonetheless. It’s partly the self-aware humour; partly the sheer cool and charisma of Keanu; and partly the brio of the action sequences: almost Raid-like in their single-minded, bloodthirsty focus. Everyone’s afraid of John Wick, and as he head-shoots and executes to a truly mind-boggling bodycount, you can see why.
25. The Rock
Glossy Michael Bay action from the days when that meant something other than Transformers. This is actually only his second film – following the original Bad Boys – but it’s a confident, swaggering slice of macho action: a men-on-a-mission yarn about an ex-con breaking back in to Alcatraz to square off against hostage-taker Ed Harris. Sean Connery, evincing monstrous star power, is the pissed-off former agent (almost Old Bond, kind of The Prisoner’s Number 6) press-ganged back into action. Nic Cage is the younger suit sent to chaperone him. Both are on their very best form, in one of the truly great action films of the ‘90s – and indeed all time.
The third James Bond movie and perhaps the quintessential one. Connery’s Bond is at his most charming and deadly, while not yet the quipping cartoon he’ll become. Connery is still invested in the material; there’s a great, megalomaniac villain with a ridiculous scheme; and there’s the Aston Martin DB5 with “modifications”, ushering in the era of escalating Q-branch nonsense. Exciting, funny, and even a reasonably close adaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel, it was the first Bond film to really nail the ongoing formula. For better or worse…
23. The General
It’s no exaggeration to say that there are few joys greater in life than Buster Keaton’s The General. Alongside possibly Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill, Jr., The General marks the high point of Keaton’s directorial career. First released in 1926, it was initially greeted with indifference by moviegoers and a chorus of disdain from critics. The Civil War adventure left Keaton physically bruised and financially battered, with that old loco left down a gorge and Old Stone Face shackled to MGM and creatively stymied. Since then, though, The General has gained the richly deserved status of silent masterpiece. If you don’t know the story, suffice to say that Keaton is a railwayman stuck between two warring armies, with his beloved gal (Marion Mack) to defend and his treasured train to rescue. Things don’t run smoothly.
So much more than a high-concept action movie about a cyborg policeman, RoboCop is also a savage satire and a religious parable, with its structural narrative nicked from folk mythology. The deeper you go into it, the more you find. But it works as a shoot ’em up too. Its savage, gonzo violence and truly hissable villains perhaps work so well because they’re from an outsider’s skewed perspective: Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, here only making his second English-language film. The sequels (and remake) increasingly missed the point. Verhoeven’s later Starship Troopers is RoboCop‘s real spiritual successor.
Jason Statham already had an action franchise in the Transporterfilms, but Crank was the one that really cemented him as the Stath we know and love today. Neveldine/Taylor’s berserk high-concept takes the DOA model of a poisoned hero up against a very personal time limit, but amps it up so that he constantly needs adrenaline surges to survive on the way to finding the antidote. Hence car chases through shopping malls, impromptu sex, copious fights… Statham is the granite centre of the madness: almost Buster Keaton-like in his stoic single note of constant simmering annoyance.
The idea of Jean Reno as a taciturn, super-efficient “cleaner” (of crime scenes) first show’s up in Luc Besson’s Nikita, where he appears for a single eccentric sequence as Vincent. Four years later he was Leon: essentially the same character (Besson has suggested they’re cousins) but this time front and centre, with some actual dialogue. It remains an extraordinary film, for its violence, its insane performance from Gary Oldman as villain Stansfield, and for the queasy pseudo-romance at its centre between Leon and stray waif Mathilda (the then 12-year-old Natalie Portman).
Pretty much the apotheosis of the lunkheaded ‘80s one-man-army action subgenre, Commando pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against the entire military force of Dan Hedaya’s corrupt South American general. Many explosions, machine-gunnings and knifings later, Arnold is, of course, unscratched. Hoorah! There’s a also a great bit when he escapes from a plane by jumping off its undercarriage; the whole business with killing David Patrick Kelly last; and – who could possibly forget? – Vernon Wells sporting a Village People moustache and a chainmail wifebeater. For decades only available in the UK in a heavily censored version, you can now buy a fully unadulterated director’s cut on Blu-ray. What times we live in.
18. The Raid
Seemingly from out of nowhere came the sudden arrival of one of the most blistering action films of the 21st century to date: a ferocious curio stemming from Indonesia but written and directed by Welshman Gareth Evans. The premise is simplicity itself: Iko Uwais’s greenhorn cop and a small SWAT team are sent into the deadliest housing project in Jakarta, the kind of place that’d give even Snake Plissken second thoughts: a labyrinth of Silat-skilled villains and big bosses… oh, and guns. Lots of guns. They have to fight their way to the top of a tower block and back out again. And that’s pretty much it. But it’s not so much the destination as the journey, which is so intense it’ll leave you with actual bruises. The Raid 2 – a massive and unexpected expansion, keeping the extreme violence but adding a level of Once Upon A Time In Indonesia-style epic drama – followed two years later. The third in the projected trilogy has been promised but has yet to materialise.
17. The Wages of Fear
Two trucks. Four men. Enough nitroglycerine to blow up South America. These are heady ingredients for any thriller, but the genius of Henri George Clouzot’s downbeat stunner lies in its murky, masterful characterisation. He invests the first half in developing his quartet of desperate men, each willing to risk it all for a stack of oil company greenbacks, so that by the second, a nerve-ripping ride up mountain passes and through tortuous jungles, we’re right there in the cab with them.
16. Fast Five
The moment when the Fast & Furious franchise suddenly grew wings and flew. The first trilogy had petered out with the almost straight-to-video Tokyo Drift. The comeback fourth instalment had re-grouped and rebooted but hadn’t got anybody particularly excited. But then there was this: a holiday in the Rio sun that wasn’t over-reliant on series continuity. Fast Five reimagines the brand as a ridiculously high-octane Italian Job-style crime caper – climaxing with a vault robbery in which massive safes are dragged round busy streets by Dodge Chargers, causing maximum destruction. And of course, this was the first of the Fasts to drop The Rock on proceedings. Which is always an excellent idea.
15. Casino Royale
Finally able to adapt the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels (after decades of rights issues), the Bond franchise’s gatekeepers took the bold move of re-starting the entire elderly franchise. Although Judi Dench remains as MI6 chief M, this is a younger Bond’s first mission, in which we see him earn his 00 status with his first kill, and in which the gadgets are kept to a minimum (a defibrillator in the Aston; Q doesn’t even show up for another two films). The controversy about Daniel Craig’s casting seems quaint now (someone made a whiney website – imagine the furore on social media if he was cast today), and it’s fascinating to look back, post Craig’s bored-looking turn in Spectre, and see the fire with which he absolutely owns the role, from the opening free-running chase to the airport battle and the climactic destruction in Venice. And yet, the film’s most thrilling sequence, somehow, is a lengthy card game. It’s a fascinating franchise that can count its 21st film as one of its very best.
14. Hard Boiled
John Woo’s later work might have tailed off somewhat (see Mission: Impossible II – or, if you prefer, don’t), but his super-stylish Hong Kong period remains virtually untouchable, and Hard Boiled is the best of the lot. Even if it does sacrifice emotional development in Chow Yun-Fat’s kick-ass cop Tequila on the altar of gun porn, it remains a guns-a-blazing, walls-exploding, tea-room-destroying, hospital-devastating triumph, and a must-have for every action fan. It’s so influential that it took Woo global and slung Chow into the big time, all whilst carrying a shotgun in one hand and a surprisingly large baby in the other.
13. The Driver
Pared down net-noir from Walter Hill: the action director’s action director. Immense car chases are the order of the day, peppering a lean storyline about Bruce Dern’s cop on the trail of Ryan O’Neal’s getaway driver. Heavily influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Le Samourai, The Driver is so stark that it doesn’t even name its characters, simply giving us The Driver, The Detective, The Player and so on. And the minimalism also extends to the dialogue, of which O’Neal has practically none. Not a success on its initial release (Hill believes if he hadn’t already had The Warriors set up, his career wouldn’t have survived it), it casts a long shadow: most recently on Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.
12. Point Break
Kathryn Bigelow’s surfing-and-skydiving extravaganza remains as preposterous as it is glorious. Keanu Reeves’ undercover agent infiltrates the cult-like bank-robber gang of Patrick Swayze’s action-zen guru Bodhi… and comes to question his life choices. The truly breathtaking action spectacle coupled with the bollocks macho-grunge philosophising (to which Swayze was no stranger, having already done Road House) make it a classic already, but with Bigelow at the helm there’s a whole other level of genre critiquing, embodied wonderfully by Lori Petty’s character, constantly exasperated at the idiocy all around her. The remake dutifully piled on the action but missed that aspect entirely. Petty’s feisty Tyler got replaced by Teresa Palmer’s vapid, floaty hipster chick.
11. First Blood
Rambo was forced into the role of one-man-army superhero for the daft sequels, so it’s refreshing to revisit First Blood and find a thrilling pulp drama about a PTS sufferer driven over the edge by bullying small-town petty-mindedness. Sylvester Stallone is a decent actor when given the opportunity, and John Rambo in this film, crucially, is almost believable: the crunchy action kept under tight control by director Ted Kotcheff. It’s a decent adaptation of David Morrell’s page-turning novel too, although Brian Dennehy‘s Sheriff Teasle gets shorter shrift, and the devastating ending is changed so that Rambo lives.
10. Mad Max Fury Road
Almost unbelievably this is a studio movie: Warner Bros. trusting a significant budget (estimated at $150m) to George Miller’s undiluted, berserk vision. That vision includes vehicles fuelled with blood, ‘Doof Warriors’ playing flaming guitars as they hurtle into battle, CG used in respectful subservience to jaw-dropping practical stunts, and Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Immortan Joe presiding over a religious cult seemingly inspired by a Duran Duran song that was inspired by the original Mad Max films (“Wild Boys always shine”, remember). Fury Road takes notes from John Ford’s Stagecoach and Sergio Leone’s Dollars films while forging its own route, and sits alongside the previous Max films while paying no attention to continuity whatsoever. This is filmmaking as myth, legend, campfire tale. Sequels have been mooted but it’s hard to imagine ever experiencing anything like Fury Road again.
9. The Terminator
Strange how the biggest action hero of the decade earned that accolade by playing one of that same decade’s biggest villains. Even stranger when you consider said action hero wasn’t even physically suitable for the part, as originally envisioned by James Cameron. After all, the T-800 cyborg was supposed to blend in, be a hidden assassin, look… normal. Not, for example, like a hulking Austrian bodybuilder last seen hacking people up with a broadsword in Conan The Barbarian. Still, The Terminator hit huge and gave us two ’80s icons in one: the larger-than-life Arnold Schwarzenegger, with his catchphrase, his rippling muscles and his extensive, explosive ordnance. And the steely-grinned, red-eyed nightmare from the future, which until the firey final act lurked beneath that sculpted physique.
8. The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan’s special genius lies in building his comic book films around a theme and making them stronger for that. The theme of Batman Begins was a city’s response to fear (good drinking game: count the uses of that word / variations on it during Begins). This time, it’s about the fine balance in our lives between control and chaos. Oh, and Heath Ledger‘s Joker perfectly balances Christian Bale‘s fiercely controlled Batman.
7. The Matrix
Every now and again a film comes along that’s dubbed a “game changer”. Some deserve it more than others, but the effect of The Matrix on the 21st century’s action cinema can’t be understated. The Wachowskis can’t quite be credited with creating a new visual language (FX man John Gaeta credits Michel Gondry and Katsuhiro Otomo with the original “bullet time” effects), but the use they put it to was so thrilling and eye-popping that it seemed entirely new. Backing up the extraordinary spectacle was a mash-up of lofty ideas cribbed from William Gibson and Jean Baudrillard: The Matrix felt like it had a brain as well as balls. And the casting was also note perfect, transforming the public perception of Keanu Reeves overnight from dim-bulb stoner to deadpan killing machine (a role he continues to enjoy in the likes of Man Of Tai-Chi and John Wick). Imitated to the point of audience fatigue by subsequent films (including its own sequels), it still seems fresh almost 20 years on.
John McTiernan‘s second feature is proof that the unremarkably generic can be elevated to ridiculous greatness by the right director and cast. A mash-up of the men-on-a-mission war movie and an alien / then-there-were-none slasher horror, McTiernan slips in some sly swipes at the action genre along with some groan-worthy homoeroticism – but more-or-less keeps a straight face. It’s full of iconic moments like the Ol’ Painless jungle destruction and the final one-man-army mud fight. And Arnold was, arguably, never better.
5. Seven Samurai
The perfect fusion of action and character, East and West, blockbuster and arthouse, Kurosawa’s first entry into the samurai genre is one of the great masterpieces in any language. The great director creates distinct, memorable characters out of seven luckless samurai hired to defend a poor farming village from marauding bandits, showcasing his heroes as rounded but dignified outcasts – Takashi Shimura’s noble leader and Toshiro Mifune’s crazed hothead are the standouts. All human life is here, as are debatably cinema’s greatest battle scenes: the climactic showdown in the rain is the stuff of cinematic legend.
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Nazis, the Staff of Ra and a boulder the size of a small house were the order of the day for Harrison Ford in his first Indy outing. An archaeologist protagonist (proteologist?) may not sound all that exciting, but Steven Spielberg and George Lucas‘ franchise follow-up to Star Wars succeeded on every level, not least of which was not taking itself too seriously. Lesser prequels and sequels followed, but [Raiders] cemented Ford as a Hollywood heavyweight. Face-meltingly good stuff.
3. Terminator 2
The action, the pace, Sarah Connor’s biceps, the clever early switcheroo where you think Arnie’s the bad guy and Robert Patrick is the good guy – only you’re wrong – and the further considerations of what time travel means for the present are all effective. But it’s the effects and the set pieces that really blew our collective socks off. Incredibly, they’ve barely dated at all.
Imagine Aliens getting announced in our current social media age. ‘Alien is perfect – leave it alone!’ the internet would bleat. ‘Get some original ideas, Hollywood!’ And of course, the internet would be wrong. James Cameron, in those days a former FX guy who’d directed a low-budget cult- sci-fi called The Terminator (plus Piranha 2: Flying Killers) took Ridley Scott’s gothic space horror and extrapolated it into a war movie, expanding the mythology in the process. We’d seen the face huggers and the xenomorphs before. But now, in one of cinema’s greatest shock reveals, we had a queen…
1. Die Hard
In the 1980s, action movies tended to be the preserve of steroid-addled muscle men, chain-gunning their way to body-counts of infinitude. At the decade’s close, a TV comedy star and a sci-fi/horror director made an action movie about a regular schmoe in the wrong place at the wrong time… and inadvertently made the greatest action movie of all time. It’s sometimes easy to forget that John McClane was a product of the 1980s (only Holly McClane’s hair and Ellis’ coke habit really signpost the era), but that’s what you get for being a timeless classic. Yippee ki, and indeed, yay.