Before I even go through the formalities of building suspense and counting backwards from 10 through 1, I need to immediately say that Die Hard is my favourite movie, so that will be numero uno here. Numbers 2 through 10 weren’t so cut and dry though, and took a meandering conversation between me and TOG before I was happy with what follows.
Once again these are MY personal favourite action flicks, I have deliberately allowed a blurring of genre lines to include sci-fi, fantasy and horror elements, as long as the thing that drives the movie is the action.
I won’t dwell too much on 10 through 6, suffice to say they are all really good films in their own right and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of them to anyone who is even vaguely interested in the genre and is of an age to handle the content, not that any of the following are especially or graphically over the top violent.
Honourable mentions: In my preliminary list but ultimately missed the cut:
The Jet Li Trilogy
Unleashed (Danny the Dog): (Review Here) A 40 minute mind numbingly boring “finding yourself” sequence ruled this one out. Incredible fight scenes at either end of the film though.
Fist of Legend: (Review Here.) A reimagining of the Bruce Lee classic Fist of Fury, this has some fights and physical feats that boggle the mind.
Kiss of the Dragon: (Review Here.) Sooooooo unlucky to miss out, the last one cut.
Leon (The Professional): (Review Here.) Brilliant film, stands well next to almost anything that follows from 4 – 10. Ruled out as I decided it was more a drama than a straight action flick.
Three Kings: (Review Here) Great movie made by another skitzo director (they tend to make good stuff). Just missed.
The Incredibles: (Discussed Here.) Despite being an animated movie definitely a balls-out action flick. Just missed.
Hardboiled: (Review Here) John Woo’s best effort, includes one of the great cinematic gun battles.
#1 Die Hard
I find it near impossible to believe that the guy that directed this made the remake of “Rollerball“, which is without doubt one of the suckiest films in recent history.
But that’s irrelevant when you are discussing Die Hard.
Simply my favourite movie. Maybe because it came out in 1988 (I would have seen it in 89 I guess on video for the first time), which would have made me 14 or 15 when I saw it. I was a fan of Moonlighting at the time (and was familiar with Bruce Willis as a result), but I didn’t really understand the witty dialogue or as much of the innuendo as I perhaps pretended I did.
I just knew that Bruce Willis was cool.
In saying that, I don’t think that was why I loved Die Hard so much from the first time I saw it, (didn’t hurt though).
Die Hard is the perfect formula movie, so much so that subsequent films since 88 have frequently been described as “Die Hard on a boat”, “Die Hard on a plane” or “Die Hard on an island”. None have lived up to the original.
The story is brilliant in its simplicity, at base level Die Hard is about a guy who visits his wife at work, only to find that the building is overrun with bad guys, and that he is the only guy who knows what is going on and is in a position to do something.
The film builds slowly for a while so we get to meet some of the characters, only once the shit hits the fan it is 100mph from then on until the credits roll.
The bit part actors are cool, the dialogue 99% non-cheesy (aside from Theo the bad guys tech-expert) and for the most part the events and the character’s actions are believable, given the circumstances.
But it is the lead actors that elevate the movie from an 8 to a 10, John McClane has been name-checked in so many rap songs that I have lost count, name another white guy who could make that claim! Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber chews through every scene he appears in, when he is calm we are waiting for him to snap, and when he finally does lose it (which is 100% necessary in an action film), you rub your hands together in anticipation.
Bonnie Bedelia as McClane’s wife Holly is perfectly suited here, and it wasn’t until she started mugging a little in the second that they rightly got rid of her from the series, and Reginald VelJohnson parlayed his role as McClane’s outside contact Al into a crappy sitcom lead as the Dad from Family Matters. I guess not everyone uses their gift wisely.
Oh, and being an action movie… How does exploding helicopters, a floor of a building having its windows shattered simultaneously, running gunbattles and the hero hanging off the side of a building by a firehose sound for starters?
I want to include so many things that make Die Hard the greatest, the music is fitting, the putdowns and throwaway oneliners still quotable and the action frantic, but really the one main reason for the success and longevity of this film is this:
Bruce Willis played McClane as a vulnerable, non-superhero guy. McClane gets the shit kicked out of him in this film but he knows that unless he has another crack the bad guys win and his wife will die, so he keeps dragging himself into situations that he knows should kill him, each one bringing him closer to both victory and death.
Prior to this action stars were the Stallones, the Schwarzeneggers, and the wannabe Stallones and Schwarzeneggers. Big indestructible “I ain’t got time to bleed” guys with amazing arsenals, elite training, muscles on their muscles, and a ready made, albeit clumsily delivered quip in the chamber after blowing away each level boss, I mean bad guy.
Willis made McClane seem real enough that you always thought “geez he’s screwed now”, even though the mechanics of a movie let you know in advance he’ll win.
That’s why Die Hard remains the most watched film in my collection, and why it is hands down the #1 action film of all time.
#2 & #3 Tie
Terminator 2 – Judgement Day/ Aliens
Both of these films are directed by “Avatar man of the minute” James Cameron, so I’m sure he won’t mind which I think is #2 or #3.
To decide between the two I actually asked myself which I would rather watch if I had to put a DVD in the tray and sit through it tonight. Now I haven’t watched either of these films for at least 12 months and my thought process went like this…
“Cool, Aliens, Paxton having a meltdown, Bishop saves the day, Burke selling them all out, Ripley in top gear! Aliens is the two spot.”
“No hang on, the truck / motorcycle chase, the “Wolfie’s fine” (with the arm-sword through the milk / throat), the guy “growing” out of the lino floor, the gun catching in the bars. Arnie in peak form and a buff Linda Hamilton could definitely kick Ripley’s arse! T2 is number 2.”
“But don’t forget the “Get away from her you BITCH!” scene, the Aliens coming through the roof, the awesome Alien effect as it emerges from the water to grab Newt, the fact that Newt was a little kid in an action movie that I didn’t want to personally strangle.”
“Yeah! How about the Robert Patrick T1000 chasing the car through the underground carpark, the “Have you seen this boy?”, the “don’t kill anyone” directive leading to the gas canister showdown in and outside of Cyberdine systems, the awesome finale in the factory including the frozen T1000, and subsequent melt and reformation????”
Phew. You see where I am going with this, I can’t split ‘em.
Both unbelievably entertaining, both groundbreaking in very sense (T2 may have the edge here with the T1000 effects), both wall to wall well thought out action that actually propelled the story.
I don’t care if Jim Cameron is a prick to work for and with, I don’t care how far overbudget he goes or how many careers he ends with his rants and demands, all I know is that with these two movies alone he has justified everything. (And I haven’t even worried about mentioning Terminator, The Abyss and the underrated True Lies yet.)
Hollywood should write Cameron a blank cheque, give him all the staff that he asks for and let him go nuts for the next ten years and see what happens.
Given previous efforts you know it’ll be good.
(I’ve just worked myself up into a rabid frenzy for Avatar.)
#4 Drunken Master 2
When I think of pure action I think of Jackie Chan. No-one else makes films where the plot is so irrelevant to the film, yet still manages to be so damn entertaining regardless.
And Drunken Master 2 is unquestionably Jackie’s finest work.
Using the oft-used “someone is stealing China’s national treasures” angle DM2 sees Jackie as the son of a famed and respected Kung Fu teacher, albeit one who gives his Dad fits with his antics.
As always Jackie finds various reasons to justify setting up fight scenes where he might best exhibit his peerless skills and imaginative choreography, DM2 has many of his best:
- The beneath the train sequence.
- The “I must get my Mum’s purse back!” fight Vs 4 guys.
- The fight in the teahouse Vs the Ax-Gang,
and last but definitely not least…
- The Final Showdown in the factory.
Each of these carefully staged fights is an eye-bulging event in its own right, but for me the Ax Gang fight for some reason stands out as Jackie takes on 30+ guys hell bent on rubbing him out, and makes it look like he is actually fighting them all without the “Now you punch while he waits, now your turn, now hold on I’ll get to you” approach.
DM2 has some jokes that perhaps don’t translate all that well, some trademark Jackie mugging for the camera and is actually notable for the absence of his death defying stunts, aside from his rolling into a flaming pile of embers in the finale that is (you couldn’t stop Jackie from trying to kill himself in this era).
Don’t let any of that dissuade you, this is undoubtedly the finest Martial Arts film ever made.
I had Blade 2 here initially, but dropped it a couple spots after re-evaluating it in light of the one main flaw, (the slightly muddy pacing between the action).
Predator has no such flaw and is the second John McTiernan directed film on the list after Die Hard (and the last. I assure you, Rollerball wasn’t in the running).
Once again McTiernan manages to find the right guy for the role, Willis was perfect as the everyman type trying to save his wife against all odds, but he likely wouldn’t fare so well against a 7 foot tall super-being with weapons out the ying-yang and a predilection for skinning his victims and ripping their skull and spinal columns from their bodies.
The Governor of California had done action before, he had been The Terminator only 4 years prior. But playing a robot who acts human was only a prelude to Commando and Raw Deal where he played a human who acted like a robot.
In Predator Arnie played a ‘roided up cigar-chomping leader (named Dutch) of a team of elite special forces troops, the guys they call on when no-one else will get it done.
In this case the job is to investigate the disappearance of a similarly crack fighting unit from the depths of the South American jungle, only once they find the guy responsible they decide that maybe they aren’t necessarily the most “elite” fighting force in this particular jungle.
The difference in Predator is that the soldiers look and act like a tight group of soldiers, some are best buds, some don’t get along and some aren’t as extroverted or jokey as others, but they all look like they can fight. Which makes it more interesting as the initially unseen enemy starts picking them off and hunting them one by one.
As the ranks of Dutch’s unit thin, it becomes more obvious that it will ultimately be Predator Vs Terminator for all the bikkies, and in fact the final showdown actually accounts for about the final 30 minutes of the film in a series of brief encounters and montages that set up what everyone is waiting for, the final stoush.
And it is worth the wait, Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime had few natural enemies, being 6 foot 6ish and built like a Sports League trophy does that, so that being the case inventing an extra-terrestrial being of even greater size and with similar physical gifts obviously seemed plausible.
Nowadays Arnie is the butt of so many jokes due to his current occupation that he has perhaps tarnished his cinematic legacy, but the fact is that in the era where Hollywood consistently made great action movies, Arnie was “it”, he has 4 films on this list and I could have justified True Lies and Terminator into here somewhere as well.
#6 The Last Boy Scout
This might seem an odd choice and I know it doesn’t come up in too many “all-time” lists. It is perhaps viewed as a throwaway or disposable film, yet each time I made a cut to the short list I found this climbing higher and higher in the remaining titles.
Ultimately I had to think about if this was to make the cut, and I thought about all the good and bad bits that make it was it is.
Great bad guys. Good chemistry between Wayans and Willis. Funny as shit start to finish. Great chase scenes. Great pacing from start to finish. Leather pants.
Halle Berry as a stripper.
Awkwardly annoying daughter character. The fact that they seemed to try to cram everything into the film, which let some slightly dodgy bits in (the jig / the Polish translation of “Bomb”).
Halle Berry as a stripper that doesn’t strip.
The final criteria that made my decision for me, and the most important thing for any action film?…..
Good Bad-Guys: We have more than a few here, from the various henchmen to the corrupt Senator to the dodgy NFL team owner to the psycho hired killer, even down to Hallenbeck’s supposed best friend who is diddling his wife while he is out of town, each of them gets exactly what’s coming to ‘em.
In the end this nearly crept into the top 5 purely on entertainment value. While it is hardly light and breezy, (it actually had an R rating and some of the violence is pretty graphic: how about punching a guy’s nose into his brain?), it is never less than funny, the action is constant and Wayans and Willis genuinely seem to be enjoying themselves.
#7 Raiders of the Lost Ark
See Full Raiders of the Lost Ark review here.
Without doubt the most harmless film on this list, Indy films are pure escapist entertainment.
I reviewed this and the next film on the list in recent months so there probably isn’t much to add, but I might mention that this film is now over 25 years old, it has been blatantly ripped several times since and still stands alone as the best action/adventure film.
While Harrison proved with Indy 4 that they can’t even copy themselves anymore at least they can still claim that they did it right the first time.
The Indy character is one that would translate well James Bond style to a reimagining with another actor in the role, as Indiana Jones deserves a better send of than the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Just please God don’t let it be Shia Lebouf-Head.
#8 Blade 2
See Full Blade 2 Review here.
I have no hesitation at recommending Blade 2 to anyone who enjoys action movies, superhero movies, or sci-fi films, it effectively blurs the line of all of those categories in one 120 minute package, whilst unveiling the brilliance of Guillermo Del Toro to the US audience.
Blade 2 takes an OK character and premise from the original and takes it far further than anyone else would imagine possible. I remember seeing Blade and thinking well the blood rave part was cool but the rest only so-so, I still looked forward to the sequel once I saw it was coming but had no idea just how awesome it would be.
The underground sewer tunnels scene, the vampire nightclub, the showdown in the vampire’s base are all hyper-stylised and incredibly cool. If there’s one thing Guillermo does well it is his visuals, so who better to bring a comic book to screen?
As mentioned earlier if there is a flaw it is in the pacing, as there seem to be lulls in the action before another set piece explodes somewhere else, often with no justification and minimal plot advancement. Perhaps culling 10 minutes screen time would have tightened things up and moved this sucker up the board?
In any case this is still my #1 comic book adaptation thus far and a sure fire crowd pleaser.
Especially when the Reaper’s jaws retract for the kill the first time you see it. I still remember my audible gasp when I first saw it.
#9 Total Recall
Not to diss Red Heat, but this was the last sure-fire “Must get in” flick on the list. I remember coming to the city when I was around 16 to go to the dentist or something, after my Mum decided to go shopping so I had a couple hours to kill and decided to go to the movies. For whatever reason they let 15 year old me into the R rated matinee session.
I had seen R rated flicks before, but never in a cinema, and this blew me away.
From the first attack on Quaid by his alleged “workmates” through the eye-popping finale on Mars this is a non-stop visceral headfuck.
When the director Paul Verhoeven goes astray the results can be unintentional high comedy, see Showgirls, but it can’t be denied that he occasionally gets it right, and this is mos def the case here.
Arnie is perfect as Quaid, almost everyone else is slightly miscast but it just doesn’t seem to matter, with Arnie in the lead role holding down the film the bit guys are largely interchangeable and irrelevant except to push the story along until Kuarto arrives and the inevitable shoot ‘em up ending arrives.
It is the cartoony visual style that should detract from this film but somehow pushes it into slightly surreal territory, so much so that you innately realise that this is not to be taken seriously so you can let yourself go and just enjoy the ride.
#10 Red Heat
So it boiled down to this, John Woo’s finest effort Hard Boiled and Kiss of the Dragon for the 10 spot.
I love all three, but Red Heat got the nod because of consistency. KOTD is Jet Li’s most entertaining film (narrowly ahead of a couple others), and Hardboiled is an adrenaline rush with one of the best (and longest) shootouts in movie history once they get to the hospital.
Ultimately they both just missed out as Red Heat is just too cool and in my mind too underrated (this’ll no doubt boost awareness and DVD sales through the roof!)
The buddy cop flick wasn’t anything new in the 80s and sure ain’t new now, but Red Heat at least made sure that the mismatched leads angle was done right, and with Schwarzenegger and Belushi they had a duo that seemed to have both a reason to hate each other and reasons to ultimately like each other, unlike so many other forced pairings where you just know there is either no way that these two would ever hang out in real life.
Red Heat is amusing from start to finish, it neatly justifies Arnie’s presence in the US and why Belushi needs to partner up with him, each of them have solid reasons for wanting their own personal justice to be served, and the bad guy Viktor is both menacing and imminently hateable.
For some reason this got a little forgotten over the years, I think mainly because Schwarzenegger already had some of the more iconic roles over the era this was seen as a lesser work somehow.
While Red Heat isn’t in the league of say T2 or Predator, and doesn’t have the plot hooks that either of those movies have it is an incredibly solid action movie in it’s own right, and one that holds up to repeated viewings.
In fact this was only released on DVD a couple years back and wasn’t even given the standard “Deluxe Edition” double dip treatment, it was basically “oh here’s this” and nothing more, which is a crime when you consider that there are teenagers out there today hungry for something visceral and exciting that are actually being starved of good movies.
I love a good action movie and am always on the lookout for something new and interesting, and the only “action films” that I have reviewed since starting this site (released this year) are Whiteout, Surrogates, Terminator: Salvation and 12 Rounds, and none of those could hold a candle to this.
Summary – So that’s another Top 10 list out of the way, oddly enough the most recent film in the list is already 7 years old, and most are over a decade older than that!
Will the next 15 years bring as many quality action flicks to the screen? I hope so but I doubt it, I think the golden era of the Big Dumb Action Film has passed us by.