The 15 American Action Movies Everybody Should See
They make amazing action movies all around the world, but I'd like to think we've got a special thing going here in the States. At various moments in history, our burly heroes have rode atop the zeitgeist with their bare chests puffed out and a flag over each shoulder, looking to all the world like we invented this stuff. In turn, other countries shipped us their greatest resources -- their Austrian oak, their muscles from Brussels -- for blockbuster assimilation. All we had to do was make their dreams come true. Hollywood delivered on that.
But let's jump a motorcycle off the purple mountain majesties and crash it into a helicopter over the amber waves of grain. By that I mean, we're about to take a look at 15 beyond-qualified greats to emerge from the US. I chose some that are outstanding in their own right but that also represent different aspects of our people, our experiences, and our ideals.
15. Mr. Majestyk (1974)
There are many great Charles Bronson vehicles, but only one written by Elmore Leonard. Not coincidentally, it's also the only one dealing with an ex-Army Ranger's adventures in the watermelon farming industry, and complications thereof.
Bronson's Vince Majestyk is a good man. He chases off a sleazeball who wants to exploit winos as workers, and hires a union leader (Linda Cristal) as a member of his crew. But after being imprisoned for assaulting the first guy, Majestyk finds himself mixed up in an attempt to bust out a mob hitman. We're used to movies where people go to great lengths to gain money, or to get back something that was stolen from them. They need it desperately to survive, or they feel they deserve it -- it's the principle of the matter. Leonard makes the motive spectacular by making it mundane: Majestyk's only goal is to get his crops picked before they go bad. He crosses the law and the mafia over some watermelons.
Other than some of the Mexican migrants in the movie appearing to be played by white actors in makeup, an unfortunate lapse of integrity, Mr. Majestyk is an action movie with a strong attitude toward equality, labor, and making a good, clean living.
14. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
It's probably taboo to put Lethal Weapon 2 on a list that excludes the original, and Richard Donner's follow-up certainly suffers from bouts of sequel formula, which lost the voice of creator Shane Black in rewrites. But this series is one long story about a friendship between Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover), and Lethal Weapon 2 gives us that without introduction. You talk about an intimate moment between friends, how about when Riggs stays by the side of Murtaugh, who is on the toilet with his pants pulled down and can't move without setting off a bomb? The once-suicidal Riggs insists on helping his partner, who made him want to live again. In another touching scene, Riggs bonds with Mrs. Murtaugh (Darlene Love) by opening up about the death of his wife. He's truly become a member of the family. He even brings his laundry over, like a son visiting from college.
Lethal Weapon 2 offers the ultimate interracial buddy cop brotherhood, and first-drafters Black and Warren Murphy gave them the absolute perfect enemy to fight: drug dealers connected to the government of South Africa. When Riggs notices a link between the suspects' nationality and a trunk full of foreign currency they found on a different case, he says "South Africa, right? The home of the Krugerrand."
"Yeah, among other things," Murtaugh says bitterly.
The movie's crazy action -- including a scene where Riggs knocks over a full-sized house on stilts -- is made all the more satisfying by the villains. Riggs is given a far-fetched extra motive to hate them, but apartheid is enough for those of us playing along at home. Considering the current climate, it would be nice to see action movies get back to at least Lethal Weapon 2 levels of racial unity braggadocio in the future.
13. Desperado (1995)
Director Robert Rodriguez has achieved the American Dream. As a young man, he made his debut, El Mariachi, on a $7,000 budget as a scheme to make some bucks from the Mexican straight-to-video market. He wound up with an arthouse hit at home. On the foundation of that unlikely success he built a lengthy relationship with Miramax, an independent studio and FX house in Austin, and El Rey, his own curated cable channel specializing in genre movies and original Latino-targeted programming.
But my favorite movie from him is still his first intentional theatrical release, the El Mariachi sequel, Desperado. Antonio Banderas is at his most macho as a black-clad wanderer with a guitar case full of guns who avenges all drug cartels connected to the death of his love. The film introduced Salma Hayek to American audiences, began Danny Trejo's ascension to B-movie icon, and gave Quentin Tarantino one of his more successful acting roles (he tells a dirty joke, then gets his head blown off).
Rodriguez seems to take inspiration from the atmosphere of spaghetti westerns, the dialogue of Tarantino, and both the gunplay and melodrama of John Woo's The Killer. These elements, bonded with the director's distinctive humor and following the rhythms of a rockin' soundtrack by Los Lobos, become a melting pot of mid-'90s cinematic cool.
12. On Deadly Ground (1994)
As the author of Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal, I'm regularly asked to name the once-ponytailed aikido behemoth's best movie. If I don't want to explain myself I say Out for Justice, the rock solid John Flynn action-drama in which Seagal bulldozes through every low life in New York on his way to the psychopath who executed his partner. But my actual favorite might be Seagal's one directorial work, the simultaneously laughable and admirable On Deadly Ground.
Made at the peak of Seagal's Hollywood success, On Deadly Ground is a $50-million studio thriller with sweeping helicopter shots of Alaskan landscape, a majestic Basil Poledouris score, and unimpeachable supporting cast of Sir Michael Caine, Joan Chen, John C. McGinley, R. Lee Ermey, and Billy Bob Thornton at the start of his career. It also has some of the most entertainingly outlandish incarnations of Seagal-vehicle tropes, like a speech where Caine asks us to "delve down into the deepest bowels of your soul" where "the ultimate fucking nightmare" you imagine "won't come close to this son of a bitch when he gets pissed."
But instead of facing off against villains who, say, hijack a facility for ransom, Seagal's Forrest Taft needs stop these guys from opening an unsafe oil refinery. His employer risks environmental catastrophe rather than allowing oil rights to revert to the local Iñupiat community. I adore the heart-on-its-sleeve sincerity of the film's morality. Though Forrest's environmental plan (imploding the refinery to avoid an inevitable spill) is not real-world-applicable, and his behavior toward his beloved Natives is condescending at times, his intentions are exemplary and unique for the genre. You may have heard that it ends with a mini-An Inconvenient Truth environmental presentation. Even better, an epic bar brawl culminates in a humiliated racist bully (Mike Starr) tearfully admitting "I need time to change," and Forrest agreeing that he does too.
Seagal gambled his career on his convictions, and he lost. He should still hold his head high. We can mock how this self-seriousness comes across in a lowbrow action movie, but deep down we know he was right.
11. Cleopatra Jones (1973)
Though she doesn't get as much pop culture shine as Shaft or Super Fly's Priest, Cleopatra Jones is one of blaxploitation's greats. Regal 6-foot-2-inch model Tamara Dobson plays Cleo, a larger-than-life special agent who introduces herself to audiences by helicoptering into Turkey in a fur-lined cape, receiving a queen's welcome before overseeing the bombing of a poppy field, or as she calls it, "$30 million worth of shit that ain't goin' into some kid's veins." As you'd expect, she comes home and faces the wrath of the local heroin kingpin. Unlike you'd expect, this enemy's name is Mommy and she's hilariously played by Shelley Winters, throwing screaming tantrums and punching her henchmen in the face between lectures about respect.
The script, by The Mack writer-star Max Julien and veteran TV comedy writer Sheldon Keller (The Dick Van Dyke Show), finds plenty of outrageous action tasks for Cleo -- hapkido-ing airport-ambushers on the luggage carousel, machine-gunning hitmen disguised as wheelchair-bound grannies -- but also injects themes of black empowerment and struggle, including drug dealers' exploitation of the community and tensions between white cops and black activists. Most of all it showcases a community working together for change, and a black woman as glamorous and powerful as James Bond, commanding well-deserved respect and awe wherever she goes.
10. Hard Target (1993)
In the '90s, John Woo left Hong Kong for Hollywood. America's gain was cinema's loss -- action's greatest poet never made another A Better Tomorrow or The Killer or Hard Boiled. Only in hindsight can I overlook this artistic tragedy to appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime collision between Woo's style and the flying feet of Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Unemployed Cajun merchant marine Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme) reluctantly takes a missing-persons gig in order to pay off $217 in union dues, and finds himself the prey of soulless millionaires who pay big bucks for the privilege of hunting homeless veterans. This is class warfare taken to its extreme. The decadent rich literally play games with the lives of the destitute, offering only $10,000 as a prize for survival. They risk death for an amount that probably couldn't change their life.
Woo glorifies Chance with worshipful slo-mo, dissolves to close-ups, freeze frames, and cartoonish violence. He's filmed like a god whether he's walking with his hair and clothes blowing in the wind, or standing up on a moving motorcycle, firing two guns at an oncoming car. He opens his trench coat like a gunfighter displaying his piece, but he has no holster -- he's showing the leg he's about to kick with. But Woo's hero is not an outsider, but a working man. He struggles to afford a cup of coffee, and doesn't have a driver's license. His peers are people he knows at homeless shelters, and who line up fighting for jobs on ships or even passing out phone sex flyers.
You can look at Hard Target as an example of a great international director compromised by Hollywood. But you can also see it as a director from Hong Kong and a martial artist from Belgium coming to America to tell tales of blue-collar heroes overcoming their oppressors. Isn't that kinda what this country's supposed to be about?
9. Fast Five (2011)
If you read my take on the 30 greatest action movies of the 21st century, then you know I'm a Furious 6 man. But I want to honor its predecessor Fast Five on this list because of its broad representation of our diverse citizenry. This is a series of eight movies by five directors, and only the first is by a white person. Justin Lin is the only director to helm more than one (parts three through six), and Fast Five is when he first showed us the power of uniting cast members from across the four previous films while adding one more marquee name (Dwayne Johnson).
This is one of the most racially diverse casts of any blockbuster. It also represents many different subcultures with its members who were originally famous in hip-hop, R&B, reggaeton, or professional wrestling, plus an Israeli model who would one day be Wonder Woman. And there's a scene where most of them hang out together talking, drinking, hugging, and making toasts like a family (though it's not the full-on 4th of July-style backyard barbecue of other installments). There's also a motif of honor and respect superseding tribes and laws. Diplomatic Security Service Agent Hobbes can and will become bros with international outlaw Toretto.
Fast Five is both a portrait of who we are as a country and what we should aspire to (just with safer driving and less stealing).
8. Point Break (1991)
Long before she was an acclaimed, Academy Award-winning director, Kathryn Bigelow was a topnotch action maestro. Point Break is every bit as fun as Zero Dark Thirty is grueling, a kinetic tale of FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) going undercover in a gang of thrill-seekers who are also bank robbers. He forms a fragile, brotherly bond with the gang's leader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) that drags him through groundbreaking surfing and skydiving stunts, an A+ foot chase, and (thanks to a script by W. Peter Iliff & Rick King) a whole bunch of funny, macho dialogue.
As great as the action sequences are, they wouldn't be as memorable without this odd yin and yang of personality types. Reeves was known at that time for a sort of comical woodenness, while Swayze oozed passion and sincerity from every glistening muscle and strand of blond hair on his Adonisian body. Despite his villainy, we love Bodhi, because Swayze seems to 100% believe in his sermons about living life in opposition to "that system that kills the human spirit." In the end Bodhi's bright light is extinguished by the world's biggest wave, leaving Utah alone to navigate the uncertain line between the system and the soul.
7. Point Blank (1967)
British director John Boorman's adaptation of Donald Westlake's first "Parker" novel The Hunter might be the toughest, meanest, most two-fisted little art movie you'll ever see. Unreasonably disgusted by the original script's pulpy origins, and inspired by European cinema, Boorman sent stoic, grimacing sonofabitch Lee Marvin on a fractured timeline, punching and shooting his way through sparse settings and stylized compositions. There are long stretches zeroing in on details like the sound of his footsteps as he walks down a hallway at LAX, followed by bursts of raw violence. In one scene he grabs his wife by the face, then kicks down a door and unloads his gun into her bed, all in one motion. In another, he fights two men behind the projection screen at a night club, their screams and a witness' own yelps blending with the James Brown-esque squeals of the singer on stage. It's a reality off-kilter enough that many viewers have theorized he's a ghost or a dream.
Marvin's Walker actually has a little more human emotion than the character in the book, but Boorman retains the irresistible hook of this left-for-dead heister taking on an entire criminal empire in single-minded pursuit of the $93,000 one of their members took from him. The Organization, as they're called in the movie, behave like a white-collar business or bureaucracy, with Walker having to work his way up the chain of command to make his demands. If anyone can chisel their way through this labyrinth to get what they want, it's Walker. But that's a big 'if.'
6. Dirty Harry (1971)
Here's a bone for people that don't share my worldview: Dirty Harry is a politically conservative film, if not artistically. Through its mad sniper villain Scorpio (Andrew Robinson), the movie links the Zodiac Killer to the hippie counterculture -- a total smear. It mocks due process and civil rights as the last resorts of psychopaths. It grouses about bureaucrats defending the rights of criminals, ignoring that what that really means is the rights of suspects. It posits that cops -- at least this one -- are infallible when it comes to judging guilt on the spot. They should be allowed to shoot first and not even ask questions later because come on, chief, any idiot can see what's going on here.
I disagree with it. But it's a great fucking movie.
It helps that we have the omniscience of movies, and know that Inspector Harry Callahan is right about who the bad guys are. It helps even more that he's played by Clint M.F. Eastwood in his cocky early 30s, what would be peak coolness for a normal human who doesn't get cooler every year. Harry is an abrasive asshole, but he's a lovable abrasive asshole who performs some of history's greatest feats of badass shit. Example No. 1: When Scorpio is driving a school bus full of kidnapped children and looks up and sees Harry standing on an overpass like a demon ready to drop out of the sky. Except casual. Example No. 2: When Harry foils a bank robbery while still chewing his lunch. Everybody remembers him asking the guy "Do I feel lucky?," but do they remember that he says it right after swallowing a big piece of hot dog?
The sequels, especially Magnum Force, question Harry's prejudices and concepts of law and order, and bring more nuance to the proceedings. But none can match Dirty Harry director Don Siegel's wry humor and pure craftsmanship.
5. Enter the Dragon (1973)
While Enter the Dragon is a co-production between the US-based studio Warner Brothers and Hong Kong's Golden Harvest, it is, for all intents and purposes, the American Bruce Lee movie. In his most iconic role, Lee plays a Shaolin-trained warrior who infiltrates an evil crime lord's island and fighting tournament on a mission for British intelligence (plus bonus revenge for the death of his sister). The producers must not have realized that Lee's charisma and physical presence would burn itself so deep into the pop consciousness that images of his muscles, slashed face, and nunchucks would adorn T-shirts and posters for decades, so they backed him up with two great supporting players: John Saxon and Jim Kelly. This made for one of the great multi-cultural badass ensembles, and led to Kelly starring in the following year's Black Belt Jones, further strengthening the partnership between blaxploitation and martial arts.
Lee was revolutionary not only for the way he showcased the fighting arts, or for being such an overwhelmingly powerful Asian man in a Hollywood movie, but also for being an Asian-American leading man at all. As such, his explosive success was an inspiration to underdogs and minorities of all stripes. Kelly's character serves a similar role -- 40 years later it's still cathartic to see him overpower two racist cops and drive off in their car.
Hollywood infamously missed the boat on Lee, who was born and educated in the States, but had to go back to Hong Kong to star in movies. Enter the Dragon represents the best intentions of Americans to right such wrongs, albeit too late. Lee died before the film was released, though his influence lives on; just ask any movie martial artist who or what inspired them to start training.
4. First Blood (1982)
Before John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) became pop culture's symbol for macho militarism (even name-dropped by President Reagan), he was the troubled antihero of this excellent action drama, based on the angry anti-war novel by David Morrell. Rambo is a grenade walking around with its pin loose, a highly trained killing machine sent back to real life and unable to find a purpose. His buddies are dead, society rejects him, and now this damn small-town sheriff (Brian Dennehy) insists on treating him like a dirtbag.
The entire conflict hinges on two stubborn veterans of different wars rubbing each other the wrong way and refusing to back down. Incident by incident, their feud escalates from a semi-polite talk, to an arrest, a jailbreak, a helicopter crash, a massive manhunt, a bunch of dead dogs. Stallone gives a scorching, internal performance, the opposite of blabbermouth Rocky Balboa, until, cornered and faced with the man who trained him (Richard Crenna), he dumps out everything he's been holding in all these years. The monologue about the horrors of war is a counterintuitive release for one of the decade's defining action films, and one of Stallone's finest moments as an actor. While it includes a few questionable Vietnam War talking points (like the claim that protesters spit on him when he returned home), First Blood is a powerful plea to take better care -- psychologically and economically -- of our veterans.
3. They Live (1988)
At the end of the Reagan years, when poor John Rambo had been co-opted by warmongers and shipped to Afghanistan to fight commies, somebody had to say something about the cruel effects of "trickle down economics" on the domestic front. That job fell to The Thing and Escape from New York director John Carpenter, whose They Live is a scathing indictment of the era smuggled inside a great action vehicle for WWF's most popular bad guy, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.
Piper plays Nada, a working-class everyman who walks into town with nothing but his tools and his sleeping bag. While staying in a homeless camp he discovers a box of sunglasses that, when worn, reveal the skeletal faces of alien infiltrators. It turns out that the rich authorities of society are invaders in disguise, polluting the earth and hoarding money for the benefit of their race. Others are humans who have willingly sold out in exchange for high-paying jobs.
As Nada observes his surroundings and uncovers the conspiracy, Piper provides legendary one-liners, Carpenter pulls out the visual stops, and eventually all hell breaks loose.
They Live's standout action scene, a five-and-a-half-minute alley fight between Nada and his friend Frank (Keith David), who refuses to try on the sunglasses, is also the most effective part of its political subtext. Piper's world-class wrestling skills are pit against the lengths citizens will go to avoid knowing the truth. In The Matrix terms, Frank would really rather take the blue pill. Ignorance is bliss. But bliss isn't always an option.
Sadly, Carpenter's portrait of the class divide has stayed relevant long past its original Reaganomics context. You wish it felt dated.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of America's great dreamers, arriving at the age of 21, speaking little English, then becoming the world's biggest movie star and a two-term governor of California. To say that he also headlined four bonafide action classics would be a conservative estimate. But of all of them the one that gets my heart pumping most is James Cameron's sequel to the fierce little low-budget sci-fi projectile called The Terminator.
T2 has a roaring engine and a warm heart, grounded by the unlikely family unit of action-movie-Joan-of-Arc Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), dirt-bikin'-squeaky-voiced-rebel-leader-to-be John Connor (Edward Furlong) and world's-deadliest-imaginary-friend the reprogrammed T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger). It's an exhilarating masterwork of high-speed chases, bone-jangling mayhem, and inventive new concepts like the shape-shifting liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick at his reptilian best). The finished product is an interesting contradiction: Cameron invents new equipment to tell stories about why we should fear technology.
I fondly remember when T2 seemed like the biggest spectacle and most advanced special effects ever made, yet it only gets better with age. I still love the semi-trailer truck chasing the motorcycle through the LA River channel, but I'm increasingly moved by the relationship between John and Sarah Connor and even the self-sacrificing Terminator.
1. Die Hard (1988)
Call me old fashioned, but I'm not about to make a list of American action movies that doesn't have Die Hard at number one. John McTiernan's impeccably constructed crowd-pleaser showed us that the funny guy from Moonlighting could be an action god, an everyman-turned-extraordinary-man-when-pushed. It also kicked off the great tradition of the Die-Hard-on-a-blank, some of them (Under Siege, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, Speed) minor classics in their own right. But to this day Die Hard stands head and shoulders above the rest, even as the movie, and the invulnerable '80s action heroes it was responding to, become as old school and out of step as a barefoot New York cop at an L.A. office party.
To me John McClane represents a familiar type of masculine stubbornness, a feeling of duty to step in and get the job done because no one else will be able to. But please don't miss that McClane gains humility through the course of the night, accepting blame for the state of his marriage and respecting Holly's wish to be called by her maiden name.
Who knows, maybe one day we Americans will find ourselves in a situation where our safe space has been commandeered by cruel bullies in expensive suits who have a computer hacker and pretend to be one of us and talk a big game about politics but are really here to steal a bunch of money. If that ever happens, Die Hard will remind us to stand up for what's right, never give up, protect our loved ones, but keep our sense of gallows humor, and refuse to let these assholes get away with it.