The 33 Best Action Movies of All Time

the 33 best action movies of all time
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

When you compile a list of the greatest action movies ever made, the first question you have to ask is: what's an action movie? An action movie should thrill, consistently, stringing together a combination of speed, stunts, shock-ya twists, and simple acts of heroism. Fights, shootouts, chases, and explosions are part of the DNA, but there's no quota. And size matters; Star WarsThe Avengers, and so many modern summer blockbusters are emphatically epic, deserving of their own classification: "spectacle." The pulsating truck robbery and bank heist sequences from Michael Mann's Heat are both legendary, but they're also a small fraction of the crime saga's three-hour runtime. To whittle down this list, we had to divide "movies with action" from "action movies."

Pickiness left us with plenty of classics and underrated gems to choose from. This was an impossible task. Hovering below the final cut are films like Bad BoysOng-Bak, Midnight RunMad Max: Fury RoadPirates of the Caribbean, The General, Ronin, Run Lola Run, and Spider-Man 2. Which is nuts. So buckle up, blast a Hans Zimmer soundtrack, and dive into the 33 best action movies of all time.

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Fighting Movie/YouTube

33. Haywire (2011)

Who knew Steven Soderbergh had a classic action movie in him? The Sex, Lies, and Videotape director teamed up with MMA fighter Gina Carano for this kinetic spy thriller. While the script has plenty of surprises, it’s the tightly choreographed, music-free fight scenes -- a brawl with Channing Tatum at a diner, a hotel-room rendezvous with Michael Fassbender, and an epic throwdown against Ewan McGregor on a beach -- that make this essential, ass-kicking viewing. -- Dan Jackson

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Akhan Gençeroğlu/YouTube

32. John Wick (2014)

The directorial debut of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, two sharp-eyed stuntmen who took designed fights for The Matrix Reloaded, Troy, The Bourne Legacy, and 300, is a masterwork of gun-fu. A lean premise -- a professional assassin takes revenge against the mob after they kill his dog -- is matched by leaner action. Keanu Reeves rolls, jumps, kicks, punches, and blasts two bullets into a growling thug on perfect cue. It’s a love letter to choreography, sequenced like a Bob Fosse musical number, conducted by action-movie gurus who spent a lifetime preparing for it. -- Matt Patches

blade ii
New Line Cinema

31. Blade II (2002)

It's difficult to picture a movie like Blade II being made in today's Marvel Cinematic Universe. From its vampiric rave aesthetic to the icky effects, Guillermo del Toro's bloodbath of a sequel has only grown more impressive with the passage of time. Wesley Snipes, decked out in his Oakleys and leather trench coat, gives one of his most badass performances as the heroic daywalker, staking vamps and tossing off one-liners with an effortlessly cool demeanor. This is slick, corporate-approved entertainment with gonzo, cult-film soul. -- DJ

Universal Pictures

30. Bloodsport (1988)

Jean-Claude Van Damme made a career out of good-not-great fluff. Universal Soldier is serviceable spectacle, Hard Target is a living cartoon, Lionheart is his half-baked take on On the Waterfront. Bloodsport, which owes everything to the legacy of Bruce Lee, inches out his Die Hard riff Sudden Death for his best effort, thanks to muscles-on-top-of-muscles-on-top-of-muscles fighting and Stan Bush's "Fight to Survive." Magic Mike has nothing on Van Damme's chiseled backside in Bloodsport, which flexes its way through a slow-motion karate-chop gauntlet. In his final face-off, Van Damme, blinded by arena dust, rage-screams his way to victory. The amount of adrenaline bursting out of Bloodsport demands a splash zone. -- MP

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29. Lethal Weapon (1987)

Is Lethal Weapon an action movie? To anyone questioning it, I say: hey, look friend, let's just cut the shit. Mel Gibson may be a hateful trash fire of a human, but, for all 110 minutes of this Shane Black-penned classic, he's untouchable. And Danny Glover? He invented "I'm too old for this shit!" Action movies aren't just about explosions, fist fights, and gun battles. They're about a specific attitude -- and Lethal Weapon is the foul-mouthed, nihilistic personification of that indefinable swagger. -- DJ

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28. Crank (2006)

In The Transporter series, Jason Statham proved that he could knock dudes out with watermelons on his hands. But with Crank (and its equally insane sequel, Crank: High Voltage), he pushed his pissed-off, unhinged persona to the breaking point. His Chev Chelios is a hitman who must keep his adrenaline up -- or he'll die. It's a ludicrous premise ("Speed... with a heart!"), but writer and directors Neveldine/Taylor are such dynamic, imaginative filmmakers that the movie works as both a pulse-pounding thriller and an absurd satire of the genre. -- DJ

assault on precinct 13
Image Entertainment

27. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

John Carpenter's action movies are grimy. From the rugged heroism of Snake Plissken to the extended street fight in They Live, there's nothing slick about his choices. Assault on Precinct 13 is the best example. Taking inspiration from Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, Carpenter re-imagines the Western as a modern-day siege film, putting Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) at the center of a deadly gang war zone in a police station. Aided by one of Carpenter's best synth-heavy scores, the film was notable for its brutality upon its release -- that "ice cream" scene still shocks -- but its portrait of camaraderie in times of crisis has made the film more poignant, and relevant, with each passing year. -- DJ

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26. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

Quentin Tarantino’s homage to '70s martial-arts flicks is the most brazen example of his hyper-stylized acts of violence. Uma Thurman's vengeful Bride moves like a rhythmic gymnast spinning ribbons of blood as she slices and dices her enemies. Tarantino finds room for humor and shocking reveals in his episodic revenge story, which ends with a scalping as a lead-in to the contemplative Vol. 2. Splatter hasn't looked this good since Jackson Pollock. -- Anna Silman

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25. Taken (2009)

Taken was supposed to be forgettable. Half a year went by between its French and US release because executives couldn't decide if director Pierre Morel and producer Luc Besson's geri-action movie even deserved a theatrical release. Eventually, it landed on our shores -- and with high impact. Liam Neeson's grizzled charisma, peerless karate-chopping skills, and one of the most iconic mission statements in recent memory ("I have a very particular set of skills...") turned the daddy-rescue pic into an instant cult classic, providing a career rebirth for the longtime character actor and legions of lesser knockoffs (many starring Neeson himself). -- AS

the dark knight
Warner Bros. Pictures

24. The Dark Knight (2008)

Not all superhero films are action movies, but The Dark Knight, with its Heat-inspired opening robbery, truck-flipping car chase, and Batman-as-NSA-watchdog high-rise fight, certainly qualifies. Critics have rightly dinged Christopher Nolan's incoherent editing and glaring plot holes, but the Inception director is a master of narrative stacking, layering stories to create a sense of frenzied tension. The Dark Knight is a brilliant Jenga tower of suspense. With Heath Ledger's iconic Joker performance at its center, the movie grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. -- DJ

enter the dragon
Warner Bros. Pictures

23. Enter the Dragon (1973)

Fist of Fury (1972) may have given Bruce Lee's groundbreaking fighting skills a better opportunity to flourish, but they're more fun in Enter the Dragon. A James Bond mission masquerading as a tournament slugfest, Dragon is best known for being Hollywood's foray into kung fu, but not known enough for how Robert Clouse (and Lee himself) choreograph fight scenes around the martial artist's indelible charisma. Lee's one-on-one matches are brutal. The addition of John Saxon and Jim Kelly make Dragon a patchwork of '70s vibes and global fighting styles. The grand finale is a glimmer of pure blockbuster heroism. Lee would pass away before the release of the film, only adding to this action classic's mystique. -- MP

con air
Touchstone Pictures

22. Con Air (1997)

Nicolas Cage refers to his signature crazed acting style as "baroque." Con Air flips the expectations. Cage plays the meditative hero. It's the world around him that could implode at any second. And it suits him; with director Simon West doing his best Michael Bay impression and John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, Steve Buscemi, M.C. Gainey, and Danny Trejo keeping the high-altitude chamber piece on its toes, Con Air is free to go batshit nuts in the action department. There are brawls and aerial fights and Vegas-set chase scenes. The explosions come hard and often. It doesn't make a lot of sense. Then the camera drifts back to Cage, bleeding out of after just being shot (no big thing), and his zen state centers the movie. Why didn't he win an Oscar for this again? -- MP

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21. Mission: Impossible (1996)

Tom Cruise's pet property grew into a spy franchise worthy of the Ringling Bros. The actor's Burj Khalifa climb alone puts 2011's Ghost Protocol on the cusp of this list. But Brian De Palma's introduction to IMF superstar Ethan Hunt keeps the action and intrigue at a constant high. A bead of sweat rolling down Hunt's face during a tense stretch of dialogue explodes (with the help of red light/green light gum) into a aquarium tidal wave. The final set piece, a helicopter-vs.-train chase set in France's Channel Tunnel, is De Palma allowing the pot to boil over. And if the infiltration of Langley doesn't have the same pizzazz as jumping between two skyscrapers, watch again; expert staging -- and the repetition of "toast" -- gives the slightest misstep consequence. And great action, like spycraft, is all about what goes wrong. -- MP

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Movieclips Coming Soon/YouTube

20. The Raid: Redemption (2011)

Every few years, there's an action film that's spoken of only in hushed tones. "Have you seen The Raid yet!?" was a frequently asked question amongst action junkies, as the Indonesian martial-arts movie made its way from film festivals to theaters to home video. You could always tell if someone had seen it: they'd start shaking their head in disbelief. With its bone-crunching fight sequences, delirious long takes, and propulsive music, The Raid is less a film and more of a blunt object. Once you get hit with it, you'll want others to feel the pain too. -- DJ

the rock
Buena Vista Pictures

19. The Rock (1996)

Undoubtedly Michael Bay's finest two and a half hours, this militarized prison thriller takes a silly premise -- the only man to ever break out of Alcatraz has to break back in -- and blows it up to absurd blockbuster heights. You want Nicolas Cage firing off rounds as a nebbish chemist gone haywire? How about Sean Connery delivering zingers and looking like a Mötörhead roadie? Ed Harris out-acting everyone like he's getting paid per gallon of spittle? It's all here, along with some of the simplest and most effective action sequences Bay ever put to film. -- DJ

Warner Bros. Pictures

18. Bullitt (1968)

Steve McQueen's neo-noir teeters on the edge of our action-movie definition. Is it a thriller with a rollicking car chase? Swagger, along with San Francisco's rolling streets, cement it on our list. There's as much vigor in Lieutenant Frank Bullitt's investigation of an organized crime conspiracy as there is in the movie's roaring, dust-blowing set piece. A close-quarters confrontation between two hitmen and Bullitt's backup treats gunfire like the pangs of a piano, each one tearing through the moment. The final foot chase through the airport, clear inspiration for Heat and Casino Royale, winds through the crowd, warped by Lalo Schifrin's bouncy score. Bullitt is a movie where everyone is sweating from beginning to end. They're tense, we're tense, and it doesn't give up until the very last beat. -- MP

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17. The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

While Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity is an effective spy thriller, the franchise took its ideal form when Paul Greengrass stepped behind the camera and shook. The Captain Phillips director’s herky-jerky approach is oft imitated, and never quite replicated. Case in point: this scene, where Matt Damon fights an assassin with a magazine, chokes him out with an electrical cord, and then blows up a house by sticking said magazine into a toaster. It’s kinetic. It’s exciting. It’s disorienting. And it all makes sense, showing us a DIY super-spy who can turn any mundane situation into a deadly encounter. Bourne wasn't the James Bond for the post-9/11 world; he was the MacGyver. -- DJ

first blood
Orion Pictures

16. First Blood (1982)

As Cat Stevens would say, the First Blood is the deepest. Other Rambo films might top it in terms of body count, but the first entry in Sylvester Stallone's long-running veteran-as-angel-of-vengeance series is the most emotionally potent, politically savvy, and just plain exciting of the bunch. Facing off against Brian Dennehy’s Sheriff Will Teasle and all the military power Hope, Washington can muster, Rambo is a one-man wrecking crew. He takes down a helicopter with a rock. He blows up a gas station. He gives a tearful final monologue. There’s nothing this dude can’t do. -- DJ 

point break
20th Century Fox

15. Point Break (1991)

Point Break is sublime. With its beautiful ocean photography, pulse-pounding robbery sequences, and delicate male-friendship between Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, the undercover-cop drama rides tone like a veteran surfer ripping up uneven waves. Yes, some parts -- like anything with Gary Busey -- are ridiculous, but director Kathryn Bigelow brings a wryness to the material that keeps the movie from descending into bro-ed out camp. It's no surprise that the Fast and Furious series lifted the film's most essential quality to kick-start a billion-dollar franchise -- everyone wants to spend time with a close-knit family. -- DJ 

20th Century Fox

14. Aliens (1986)

Subtlety isn’t James Cameron’s specialty. Whereas Ridley Scott’s 1979 original reveled in the terror of a shadowy spaceship intruder, Cameron militarized the sci-fi world for a scope-stretching sequel. Aliens pit slimy xenomorphs (and their towering queen) against Ripley and an expendable crew, all clearly marked for vicious consumption. There are bigger weapons, badder attacks, and a brawl fueled by the now-iconic powerloader. In action-movie contenders like Starship Troopers and Edge of Tomorrow, CGI cranked up the velocity of alien attackers. But limitations aid Aliens, forcing Cameron and his puppet masters to mesh Scott’s horror instincts with bombast. The thrill is watching them ace it. -- MP

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13. RoboCop (1987)

Feel for the people tasked with remaking Paul Verhoeven's violent, vicious police story. He didn't just get it right the first time -- Verhoeven was the Clarence Boddicker to his Alex Murphy of a movie, shooting until it was a bloody pulp. RoboCop reaches deranged levels of brutality and gore in its quest to satirize American jurisprudence. ED-209 guns down a room full of executives and we cheer. Murphy is blown to bits and we gasp, until he's reborn with robot parts and takes revenge in equally destructive ways. Verhoeven's shootouts are high caliber, even when they're critical. The beauty of RoboCop: there's a head on its shoulders, even if it's half Hollywood machine. -- MP

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12. The Wild Bunch (1969)

Must action movies amuse? Sam Peckinpah's is an ugly, nihilistic ride through the a transitional time in American history, Old West morality going out like the sunset. Gang leader Pike (William Holden) is set to retire after one last heist. He thrashes around in a world he no longer recognizes. The movie mirrors him, with enraged editing, icy bloodshed, and a murkiness to the usual bad guy/good guy dynamic. But it's exquisitely executed, packing a jaw-dropping train attack and what can only be described as the Lawrence of Arabia of town-square shootouts. The squib budget on The Wild Bunch must have been astronomical. -- MP

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11. Casino Royale (2006)

Instinct told us to name GoldfingerThe Spy Who Loved Me, or even The Living Daylights as a representative of the Bond franchise. But, we had to be real: Daniel Craig’s first outing as 007 is the franchise's action apex, balancing psychological drama -- and a much darker, grittier Bond than some of his dandyish predecessors -- with some of the most visually stunning action sequences to date. The opening, a black-and-white hand-to-hand bathroom fight scene, is just brutal. Bond's high-throttle parkour chase scene atop the cranes and rooftops of Madagascar still provokes gasps, even on the umpteenth viewing. Casino Royale is not for the faint of heart -- that defibrillator scene! -- which is why it's so daring. -- AS

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10. Predator (1987)

There's something otherworldly about Arnold Schwarzenegger. With his enormous physique, unwavering confidence, and off-putting charm, he often seems less than human. So it makes sense that his most worthy opponent came from outer space. In Predator, Schwarzenegger's Dutch leads a six-man team into the fictional country of Val Verde to rescue hostages, and they quickly find themselves facing off against an invisibility cloak-wearing alien with a scary mouth. Director John McTiernan, the great unsung hero of action cinema, films the macho showdown with a clear-eyed, tactile approach that keeps even the more ridiculous elements grounded in mud, sweat, and celebratory cigar smoke. -- DJ

five deadly venoms
Shaw Brothers Studio

9. Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

The Shaw Brothers were the leading purveyors of kung-fu cinema throughout the 1960s and '70s. Their studio’s output, colorful, traditional, and kinetic, inspired everything from American action cinema to '70s breakdance culture. Five Deadly Venoms and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin were their masterpieces. We’re siding with Venoms for its kaleidoscopic, outlandish sensibility. Hired to snuff out the evil masked fighters plaguing his master’s land, a dedicated pupil hits the road with each villain’s weakness in his back pocket. Though lacking the female voices of earlier Shaw Brothers works, and aggressively yanggang, Five Deadly Venoms emphasizes the artistry of a good fight. A hard hit is only as good as the costumes, sets, and performers surrounding it. Venoms has it all, relentless and elegant, with the right amount of cheese. -- MP

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8. The Matrix (1999)

Combining its signature slo-mo, 360-degree “bullet time” sequences with artfully choreographed Hong Kong-style martial-arts scenes, the Wachowskis' pathbreaking sci-fi epic set a new bar for special effects done right. As much of a kinetic and visual triumph as it was a psychological mindfuck -- and that's saying something. -- AS

terminator 2: judgement day
Tristar Pictures/Lionsgate

7. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Like he did with Alien, James Cameron took his own horror franchise -- yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800 is right up there with Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers -- and blew it out for an action sequel. Converting Arnold from bad to good guy is egregious. Let's look past that. T2 is a raging chase movie, laser-focused like Robert Patrick's liquid-metal assassin and an ode to Los Angeles infrastructure. There's a joy to seeing Schwarzenegger play protector to Edward Furlong's wily John Connor, but Linda Hamilton, as the unhinged, guns-blazing Sarah Connor, pushes Terminator 2 into the upper echelon of action-dom. Nothing can contain her, which works out well for us spectators. -- MP

the road warrior
Warner Bros. Pictures

6. The Road Warrior (1981)

As Mad Max: Fury Road tops critics' lists and racks up Oscar nominations, it’s worth remembering where the cylinders first fired. No, not the first Mad Max film, more of a grungy cop drama. We’re talking about The Road Warrior, George Miller’s soft reboot of the 1979 original. With Mel Gibson's taciturn, raw performance, outlandish character designs, and its final pulverizing chase sequence, the movie defined what the phrase “post-apocalyptic” would mean for future generations. In the process, it also set a new bar for pure gasoline-fueled, pedal-to-the-metal insanity -- one that has, arguably, never been topped. -- DJ

20th Century Fox

5. Commando (1985)

Mark Lester’s boiled-down shoot-em-up loses some of its luster in the wake of Second Amendment debates. That’s a testament to Schwarzenegger’s commitment to the superheroic John Matrix, whose one-liners rip as quickly as his bullets. Commando is a war movie with one man on the good-guy team. Matrix smashes through walls, breaks out of planes, twirls down shopping-mall banners (definitely an '80s movie), and fires every known weapon at a band of South American criminals who kidnap his daughter. It’s mayhem, but thoughtful mayhem. Shakespeare would approve of the movie’s classic line: "Let off some steam, Bennett," uttered after Schwarzenegger impales the villain with a steam pipe. Priceless. -- MP

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4. Speed (1994)

You don’t question Speed. There’s no time! An elevator bomb tells us Dennis Hopper’s random-demanding bomber is a showman. When he rigs explosives to a public bus’ speedometer, we know he’s a madman. An array of explosive, practical stunts helps everything else fall into place. Speed is the ultimate A-to-B-to-C action movie, accelerating from beginning to end without losing track of the characters in jeopardy. Keanu Reeves’ Jack thinks before he acts. Sandra Bullock’s Annie rises to the occasion. We root for the melting pot on board the bus to come out on top. A countdown clock, and the best action score ever written, apply pressure. You can’t question Speed-- MP

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Dylan Mowatt/YouTube

3. Hard Boiled (1992)

The crown jewel of director John Woo’s bullet-ridden filmography, Hard Boiled is a jazzy, uncompromising exercise in pure cool. Having already earned his reputation as a major action filmmaker with classics like The Killer and A Better Tomorrow, Woo crafted this story of rogue Hong Kong cop “Tequila” Yuen (Chow Yun-fat) by plucking bits and pieces from all his favorite influences: Le Samouraï, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and the chilly remove of Steve McQueen. He added insane, near-operatic gun battles, including a stunning confrontation in a hospital, pushing his own slow-mo and pigeons aesthetic to new poetic heights. That he left for America after completing this film, battling with producers while enlivening largely forgettable Hollywood movies, only makes the film more achingly beautiful. It’s the perfect long goodbye. -- DJ 

die hard
20th Century Fox

2. Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard is funny but never silly. It's thrilling but not horrifying. It's simple but rarely dumb. In walking that precarious tonal line, director John McTiernan crafted the platonic ideal of what an action movie should be. Bruce Willis, who in 1988 was mostly known as "the guy from Moonlighting," pushed against the roided-out regulars of the era with wisecracks, setting the stage for the in-over-their-heads everymen to come. And, in Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber, the film gave us an erudite movie villain. The film was so influential that in the '90s it became its own genre -- "Die Hard on a [blank]" was the pitch heard across the globe -- and the more recent sequels have sullied the brand as they turn Willis into an invincible superhero. But that hasn't sucked any of the glass-shattering, catchphrase-coining power of the original. Welcome to the party, pal! -- DJ

raiders of the lost ark
Paramount Pictures

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Steven Spielberg shows his work at every step of his action masterpiece. Indiana Jones' first adventure is like a comic book, flipped through at 24 panels a second. Nazis drag our hero along Cairo's dusty streets, strongmen (and a whirling propeller) threaten to squash him to pulp in the fisticuffs of a lifetime, and a megaton boulder chases him through a cobwebbed labyrinth. Not once through it all does Spielberg slip in a throwaway cut or zig when he should zag just to disorient us. Raiders is immaculate, each angle worth printing out and hanging on the wall. And it's all in service to Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, who glow like a pair of golden idols as a warring, bumbling, fearless, made-for-each-other duo. -- MP

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