Top 10 Action Movies of All Time

TODD MAN OUT – thoughts rattling around inside the head of Todd

Top 10 Action Movies of All TimeOk, I just saw 300, and I really, really liked it.  I did.  And since the gang at Fiery Dragon are more then just fans of RPGs, the genre of action films plays a big part in whatever kinds of influences that we draw from when designing games in general.  Plus, we just like movies.  As for the contents of this list I can’t speak for the other fiery dragons, but here are the best action movies of all time.*

*Quick note about the guidelines of this particular list; does not include war films because the “action” in war films is not meant to titillate like the action in regular action films do; the more the action propels the narrative forward, the better; the movie actually has to be good; and real stunts over special effects/CGI – Although, like any good action film, I break these rules throughout.

10. The Killer:
  Make no mistake, overall, this is not a great film.  Its acting is stilted, the story is contrived, and any time it tries to go in the opposite direction of all the muzzle flashes, it fails laughably.  However, The Killer is on this list for a reason, and one reason only; that despite all its faults, its no-holds barred, extremely imaginative, deliciously violent, exceedingly stylized action sequences have to be seen to be believed.  This film is to action what porn is to sex.  In fact, the narrative becomes so secondary that you start not to care about the motivation behind all the violence but just how compellingly naughty it all is.  It is so dense with action, that you actually start to experience action overload. That’s because it’s a John Woo film, and like all John Woo films, the story is nothing more then a thin excuse to hammer bolt his incredible action sequences too.  Really, there are several John Woo films you could swap through this spot, but I think The Killer is the best.  Plus, Chow Yun-Fat is one cool dude.

9. Rumble in the Bronx:
  Off setting John Woo in the Hong Kong action parade is the greatest action star of all time, Jackie Chan.  Unlike Woo’s relentless quest for bloodthirsty elegance, Jackie Chan is determined to deliver on the edge-of-your seat fun.  There is no merit of excellence to be attached to the story, acting, or anything else technically related, but Jackie is so compelling, so completely charismatic and precise through the beats of his action sequences that nothing else matters.  And right when you think that he has reached the peak of his physical capabilities, he takes you over the edge by suddenly risking his life in something as silly as a movie stunt.  It is this formula that makes Jackie so great…it is not the fictional situations of the movie that cause tension in the viewer, but the fact that you’re watching your action hero performing death defying acts of bravery for real.  Sometimes, these action sequences are so fast you have to slow down the film just to see how dangerous any given move might have been.  Like the slot for The Killer, really, you could choose a number of Jackie Chan movies to place here, but again, I’ve decided to go with the film that brought him to the North American mainstream.  But I still think it’s the best.

8. Runaway Train:  So, finally an action film where the force of its acting propels the excitement.  Both John Voight and Eric Roberts were oscar nominated for their performances, but really, it is the train in the movie’s title that becomes the real star.  Basically, Voight and Roberts are 2 escaped convicts that find their way on a train whose engineer dies of a heart attack; with the train unchecked, it juggernauts its way through the Alaskan wilderness at high speeds, destined to derail.

The entire movie then becomes a 4 way chess match between the convicts, the train, the dispatchers monitoring the train, and the prison warden obsessively eager to get the convicts back.  Mix in an unforgiving environment, an innocent bystander stuck with the convicts, and an unprepared system of checks and balances and the mayhem is wickedly belligerent.  The brutality encountered in this movie is realistic and raw as our anti-heroes are battered and smashed rentlentlessly in their attempts to stop the train safely.  In fact, the characterizations of self preservation, whether by life or reputation, are so manipulative throughout that it gets to a point where you’re not sure who you would like to see succeed.  Cap off an ending that is not only action filled, but emotionally riveting and you got one primo action film.

7. Raiders of the Lost Ark:
          A classic.  Producer and writer George Lucas harkens back to the day of the “Saturday serials” – episodic action stories showed at movie theaters on Saturday mornings in the 40’s/50’s; sometimes westerns, sometimes science fiction, that always ended in a cliffhanger.  Although Star Wars carries a level of influence from Lucas’s love for this style of action story, Raiders is the ultimate homage to them.  Combine this with story and designs drawing completely from pulp comics/novels such as Allan Quartermain, Tarzan, and Zorro, and Raiders takes you on a ride that is difficult not to love.  Although it may not be as action laden as some of the other films on this list, it is a perfect example where the stuff that happens in between the action sequences is just as interesting as the action sequences themselves.  But when director Steven Spielberg hits you with the action, he proves yet again why he is one of the great masters of film making.  Utilizing the cliffhanger style of action to its maximum, there is never a moment where our hero, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, does not face certain death only to turn it into a desperate act of survival.  Whether it’s matching wits with ancient traps, dastardly Nazis, or acts of God, Indy quite satisfyingly manages to find a way to get on top at every turn.  Raiders went on to reinvigorate the pulp genre and influence just about every action film made since, not to mention the fully loaded franchise the movie launched.

6. Kill Bill, Part 1:
  To a moviephile such as myself, there are stretches where you begin to think that you’ve seen it all, then a movie like Kill Bill comes along.  And Quentin was interested to see if he could direct action…and the answer is a brilliant, arm-hacking, yes.  It’s no secret that Quentin Taratino is a media ambassador for all things 70’s, but Kill Bill is a send up of all things action Orientated in general.  Easily the bloodiest of any other film on this list, the entire movie is an action acid trip, surreal and close to silly at times.  Like Scoriesse, Tarratino manages to make seriously brutal acts of violence almost…funny.  Maybe it’s because the movie does a great job of not taking itself seriously without reducing the tension.  Aside from the obvious reason why this film makes the list – the single handed slaughter of the Crazy 88s – it is really the wide panoramic of film techniques and styles the movie adopts and features throughout.  Black and White, silhouette, and anime are just a few of the many ways Taratino brings the action; not to mention his trademark of chopping the narrative’s timeline into a series of chapters that are mix and matched out of their original timeline.  Uma Thurman, as The Bride, is one of two strong female action heroes on this list that takes on a testosterone soaked picture, hoists it up on her shoulders, and not once do you believe that she is any less tough or capable as any other action hero ever portrayed.  The only reason why this isn’t higher on the list is that Vol. 2 flat out sucked.

5. Aliens:
  At the time this movie came out in 1986, never before had something like Aliens been attempted earlier.  Of course, since then, this movie has been aped time and time again, but has yet to be duplicated to the same effect.  And likely never will.  First off, very few movies can claim to be a science fiction/action/horror/thriller.  In fact, for the first chunk of this movie, there is very little action at all, starting off as a mystery/horror, then building into a thriller, and then exploding into a sequence of action that is relentless and intense.  For the marines, highly trained and full of bravado, they are cut down in numbers almost immediately by the aliens, and then things just keep getting worse and worse for the survivours.  And this is what makes the action so great – the good guys are never actually surviving, let alone wining, they’re seemingly holding on just long enough for the honour of a horrific death.  Yes, there is the unstoppable threat of the aliens, but then they must consider the deadline of a nuclear reactor going critical, party dissention, a traitor in their midst, and contacting their mother ship to send a remote aircraft.  But even the best laid plans go awry, calling upon improvisation and blind courage to make it through.  Sigourney Weaver received an Oscar nomination for reprising the role of Ripley, the no-nonsense, quick thinking, tough-as-nails heroine that takes over the lead of the marines.  James Cameron’s script is impeccable, only exceeded by his direction that brings you in and out of the action through the various perspectives of the marines, unbelievable special effects that still hold up today, and an unforgiving willingness to put his characters through hell at every opportunity.  James Horner’s score helps to accentuate the mayhem, which also received a nomination, and has been used in several other movies and movie trailers since.

 4. Matrix Trilogy:  I’ve included all three here because 2 and 3 are basically one big movie, and 1 is a stand out for taking special effects/CGI and action into a whole different direction.  Well, what can ya say? These movies rule.  The fight scenes get progressively better and better, accented by the manipulation of the matrix, till it evolves into a movie of battling super beings – complete with aerial combat.

In fact, all forms of combat are explored here whether it be fist-to-fist, hand-to-hand, weapon-to-weapon, gun-to-gun, mind-to-mind, or will-to-will; Man vs. Machine, Machine vs. Machine, Machine vs. Environment; One against self, one against one, one against many, many against many; Mind over reality, Mind over surrealism,  Mind over matter; foot chases, car chases, flying ships, exo-skeletal battle gear; etc, etc, etc…oh, and a lot of leather.  On top of everything else, this movie is downright sexy; gorgeously choreographed, gorgeously shot, and gorgeous to look at. It’s pretty much perfect as far as action adventure goes.  The Wachowski Brothers have created a masterpiece in these films, and have immortalized a number of action images that have become iconic in today’s pop culture.

3. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: Yes, one of the Star Wars films HAS to be on this list, and it has to be Empire.  You don’t get cheated on this one, and in the context of when it first came out, it was absolutely mind blowing.  And that is why it scores so high on the list.  Never before and never since has a there been a movie where so much was riding on the outcome of its action scenes.  There’s action and then there’s epic action – Ben Hur chariot race styles – and Empire in the wake of Star Wars was the ultimate definition of it.  Here you have a morality tale of good vs. evil, where good looses every single confrontation.  Badly.  OK, the wampa didn’t fair too well, but aside from that, good gets an ass whooping ever time.  Good manages to survive it all mind you, or else there isn’t a third movie, but by the end of Empire, evil totally deserves a cold one.  The cool thing about epic action is emotional pay-off.  Somehow, despite all the crushing defeats, not once are you any less exhilarated by the outcome.  The movie is so uniquely special for this quality that I doubt very highly that George Lucas, writers Lawrence Kasdan/Leigh Brackett, and the director Irvin Kershner even realized what they were concocting till way after the fact – “Jeez, y’know George, the good guys sure do loose a lot”, “Don’t worry, I’ll cheese it up for good in the next one”.  That aside, the movie is on the list for the snow-walkers alone.  No, actually, it’s on here for the chase scene through the asteroid field.  No, no, let’s go with the light saber duel between Luke and Vader culminating into one of the most famous exchanges in cinema history.

2. Die Hard:  Like a lot of movies on this list, Die Hard ended up influencing the pop culture as a whole after its success.  Indeed, as far as simply-plotted, reality based action films go, this is likely the best of all time.  Ironically, director John Mctiernan has done some of the best action films of all time (Predator, The Hunt for Red October) but also some of the worst (Last Action Hero, Rollerball 2002 – a travesty).  Needless to say, this is his crowning jewel.  Die Hard contains all the elements that usually define most action films; a charismatic hero facing superior odds, a charismatic villain that is not to be taken lightly, and lots of gun fire and explosions.  Some how, though, Die Hard manages to make all these obvious elements seem new again.  Unfortunately, it is for this reason that the movie is not number one – since its release in 1988, this movie has been copied so many times, to its credit of course, that it doesn’t seem so new now.  However, at the time of its release, this picture kicked total ass.  The focal point of this movie’s greatness is the performance of Bruce Willis as John McClane, a cop who finds himself in the middle of a hostage situation at the top of an office high-rise.  Managing to elude the kidnappers, the movie becomes a clever game of cat and mouse as McClane attempts to take on the entire cadre of baddies.  But McClane is no average action hero, in that, as far as action heroes go, he’s extremely average.  Somehow though, through wits, courage, and the fact that one of the hostages is his estranged wife (whom he wishes wasn’t so estranged), McClane navigates, with much difficulty, the never ending, death defying situations that are constantly thrown at him.  This movie takes many cues from Raiders as cliffhanger after cliffhanger is solved by McClane, often with sloppy results, which is yet another reason why this movie is so great; when McClane reacts to survive one obstacle, he inadvertently causes another problem for himself that is just as deadly.  This movie lives off of the motto of “out of the frying pan and into the fire”.


1. Mad Max:  Road Warrior:  Surprised?  Confused?  Maybe, but the reality is that any number of the top 5 could be rotated through the number 1 spot.  Plus, the other 4 are the obvious choices in my opinion, but Road Warrior genuinely deserves to be at the top of the list. On a list where the film budgets are more then adequate, if not downright massive, Road Warrior easily wins for the most bang for its limited buck.  However, its budget does not reflect in the design of the picture, that is, it doesn’t look cheap.  Yes, it’s set in a post apocalyptic future where everything is broken, but that doesn’t mean that its action scenes appear to be any less conservative.  But coping with a smaller budget is no where near the reason why great films are great.  The thing about Road Warrior is that although it utilizes all the usual action film conventions, and the story is extremely simple, it is basically a composite of ALL the films on this list.  Yes, it may be slightly dated, even for a science fiction film, but at the time this movie came out, it was so extreme, that it carried a cult status much like its predecessor.  Like the Hong Kong films, it is totally and completely geared for nothing but action.  Not only that, much of its stunts happen in full shots which are as dangerous as they are spectacular.

But there’s more, of course…

Played by Mel Gibson, Max is the epitome of the anti-hero.  Max is self-sufficient and determined to keep it that way.  Everything is a deal with Max, an exchange for services rendered.  This exchange is so absolute that in one sequence he saves the life of the feral kid (an unwanted sidekick), and then puts the child back into danger literally moments later.  The Villians are raping, pillaging, torturous savages that are relentlessly brutal and uncaring.  Humungus, their leader, pre-dates the look of Jason (from the Friday the 13th films) and ironically, is the most intelligent of the bunch even though he’s the most physically menacing.  However, what sets this group of baddies apart from the other films is that each individual “minion” is designed to have his own identity.  Comparatively, they become more then just cannon fodder against the usual action fare, which amplifies their menace.  Between hero and villain, the post-apocalyptic environment provides an interesting angle – limited resources. It would be easy to characterize Road Warrior as a series of car chases, but in a world were guns and ammunition are very sparse, the vehicles themselves become the weapons.  Rocket darts, crossbows, and bladed boomerangs are the extent of the weaponry so hand-to-hand combat is mostly improvised and vicious.  Opponents are dealt with by any means necessary, which again, adds to the tension.  Practically every death in the film is horrific or just plain ol’ nasty.  Generally, film action is well choreographed, almost beautiful to look at.  Not in Road Warrior.  Like all battle, it is chaotic and sloppy, but the film almost takes this to the max (hee hee!) – most of the time, nothing goes right for both sides.  When Max needs his shotgun to fire true, it misfires.  During the climatic chase, the baddies make a tactical error that leads to a series of collisions that take many of their number out.  A Molotov cocktail sets its owner on fire.  Even Humungus, in his blood lust, makes a terrible boo-boo.  And this is just a few incidents of backfire.  In fact, most of the time, the action is about the miscalculations of its participants then the end result of lighting quick decision making.  AND this is the real reason why Road Warrior is such a great action movie.  Not only did it utilize all the usual action elements, it modified them, and invented a whole new bunch of takes along the way.

The future that Road Warrior portrays is actually not far off from reality.  The end result of a world that has consumed itself in order to feed its industrial machine is prophetic in light of what we see in today’s age.  For a “cult” film, its influence on the pop culture of today is just as real and prevalent as it was when it had no equal.  The term “road warrior” is part of everyday vernacular and it invented the modern post-apocalyptic genre.  Of the 3 movies in the series, all done by Director George Miller, it is Road Warrior that is the heavy weight champion of action of films.







Posted in Todd Man Out Tagged with: