50. The Great Escape
One of the best of the big World War II epics, The Great Escape boasts an iconic cast – Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attentborough, James Coburn, etc. – as allied POWs attempting to escape from a German prison camp … because that’s what patriots do. The actual escape takes up about half the film, the other half following the fortunes of the men who get away – and those who don’t.
There’s something for everyone in this movie. The relationships between the men are entertaining (particularly the barbs exchanged between the Americans and the Brits), and there are some awesome action sequences – McQueen jumping the barb wire among the most iconic. The cast is simply superb too, but no one – not even McQueen – tries to take over the show. As World War II movies go, there are few to compare.
49. Saving Private Ryan
There a lot of feathers in Saving Private Ryan’s battle-worn helmet, but perhaps one of the most resilient is Tom Hanks’ and Steven Spielberg’s continuing partnership – after Band of Brothers and The Pacific, the pair are set to do a third TV mini-series about World War II. However, the duo’s first cinematic tour of duty was for 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, which has gone down in history as one of cinema’s greats.
In order to retrieve the titular wayward paratrooper – played by Matt Damon – Tom Hanks’ captain Millar must lead his soldiers on a gruelling off-the-record mission across the European Theatre. Starting on the shores of Normandy, their perilous undertaking is one jam-packed with action and heartfelt drama.
The opening battle sequence is as much an assault on Omaha Beach as it is on your senses. Favouring practical effects over CGI, Spielberg not only creates a mesmerising and visceral viewing experience but he also cements the scene’s reputation as one of the best action sequences devoted to celluloid.
Saving Private Ryan isn’t just a great action movie; it’s a war drama that portrays the terrors and triumphs of battle in an unprecedented manner.
48. True Romance
Nowadays, studios would walk across hot coals to have a film written and produced by Quentin Tarantino and composed by Hans Zimmer. Hell, they may even juggle those molten rocks too for a casting list that included Christian Slater, Gary Oldman, Val Kilmer, Dennis Hooper, Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Walken. Well, for the late, great Tony Scott, this mouth-watering list of ingredients became a reality for his gutsy, genre-hopping True Romance in 1993.
It charts the violent escapades of Slater’s Clarence Worley who winds up in deep with the sharks after falling in love with a hooker, which doesn’t sit too well with her menacing pimp Drexl – played in a remarkable out-of-character fashion by Gary Oldman. As the film progresses, things go from bad to worse to just downright unlucky for the love struck pair, who inadvertently steal Vincenzo Coccotti’s cocaine-laden suitcase thereby setting the murderous gangster on their tail.
For all the violence and blood-drenched action – after all, this is from the mind of Tarantino – True Romance holds some truly memorable performances. The Sicilian scene with Hopper and Walken is worth the price of admission alone and for a film released two decades ago, it still holds up to this day thanks to the passion and flair of Scott’s direction.
47. Dirty Harry
Oh Dirty Harry, how could one make a “Top 100 Action Film” list and not include you? While some may say that the first film is not the strongest in the series (it spawned four sequels), it is perhaps the most important one. In 2013 the National Film Registry for the Library of Congress selected it for preservation for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”
Of course, most of the film’s importance comes from the titular character himself, Dirty Harry. In what is arguably one of Eastwood’s best roles, the actor gives us an iconic character, one whose influence is still felt today in films that feature unorthodox/loose canon cops. Before Dirty Harry, cops were always straight laced and proper, Eastwood’s character broke the mould and gave the public something that they had been clamouring for for a long time.
Furthermore, the film is also very well made, from a technical standpoint, and features a fantastic script, which gave us some very memorable quotes.
“Being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow you head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself a question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”
46. Big Trouble In Little China
One of the worst traps that an action film can fall into is taking itself too seriously and abandoning everything for the sake of relentless angst and poorly-planned drama. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China does not fall into this trap.
Kurt Russell, Carpenter’s greatest creative partner, plays trucker Jack Burton as a man who thinks he is John Wayne in Rio Bravo. In reality, he is a good-hearted goofball who is remarkably good at improvising solutions to difficult situations, but he is otherwise hilariously out of his depth. Why? Well, who expects to go pick up his best friend’s fiance at the airport only for her to get kidnapped by a vicious street gang? Who work for the Chinese mafia. Who work for three evil sorcerers. Who work for Lo Pan, a dark sorcerer who must marry a girl with green eyes to reclaim his long-sealed magical power and rule the world from beyond the grave.
Jack and Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) set out to rescue Wang’s fiance Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) and wind up battling an ancient evil from the earliest days of China’s history. An ancient, remarkably cranky evil.
Big Trouble in Little China was one of the first Hollywood films to seriously integrate techniques from Hong Kong filmmaking, including fight choreography by James Lew (who would later work on Escape from L.A. and Inception) and wire work. The result is a variety of cleverly-choreographed fight scenes that balance humor with genuinely exciting action, from Jack and Wang’s shock and disbelief at the arrival of the Three Storms to Wang’s graceful attack on Lo Pan’s goons while Jack tries to retrieve a knife that he threw out of reach in anticipation to the final battle between good and evil, which is best left unspoiled.
It is funny and thrilling in equal amounts, and Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton is one of the most delightfully endearing, quotable action heroes in cinema history.
Paul Vehoeven’s 1987 hit may be fueled by warnings of big business running the world, but what it’s remembered for is the exhilarating blend of sci-fi and crime-thriller, providing an odd yet perfect recipe for another great 80s action flick.
The half-human, half-robot Robocop ends up being more superhero than supercop, and after ridding Detroit of crime in mere weeks, he sets out for revenge, getting it in the most violent ways possible. Kurtwood Smith’s villain is as hateable as they come, with no redeeming qualities to provide any empathy for him, making it all the more satisfying when he is destroyed along with all the other scumbags he worked with.
Peter Weller is excellent as the titular hero too, giving us one of his most iconic performances and surely the one that he will always be remembered for.
It’s a classic for several reasons and though it may be a sci-fi story down at its core, RoboCop is really a kick-ass action film with some hard hitting violence that earns it a spot on this list.
44. The Professional
Gritty, violent, and relentless, this action classic from writer/director Luc Besson nevertheless can cause a heartache ~ and it won’t be from the two million rounds fired. Starring the superb Jean Reno and Gary Oldman with Natalie Portman in her debut role, it tells the tale of a “cleaner” who shelters a young girl from the murderous intent of a corrupt law enforcement agent and at her request teaches her his trade that she may avenge her family.
Taut, psychologically intense and emotionally grueling, The Professional packs an unusual share of interesting trivia as well, such as the fact that many scenes required multiple takes due to Portman’s involuntary beaming from excitement; or that creepfest-menacing Oldman unexpectedly moved so aggressively and intimately into one character’s space that the actor’s discomfort is genuine. Oldman fans will also get a kick out the serendipitous (and counter-point!) connection to Oldman’s other film of that year (won’t spoil it here, of course).
Not for the delicate sensibility, but powerful and required for any self-respecting action repertoire.
43. Seven Samurai
Akira Kurosawa’s quintessential samurai epic Seven Samurai is not only a great and influential action film, but it’s a great film of any type. Remade as the lesser (but still awesome) The Magnificent Seven, Seven Samurai follows the escapades of seven masterless samurai brought together to rescue a small town from bandits. The cast is made up of Kurosawa mainstays, with his favorite leading man Toshiro Mifune slightly in the background as a clownish swordsman and Ikiru star Takashi Shimura leading the pack.
Westerns, contemporary samurai flicks, and even The Expendables look to Seven Samurai as their model. It’s a movie about violence, innocence, and the price that men of the sword have to pay for doing the right thing. It’s beautiful and transcendental as only Kurosawa can make it and it’s one of the most thoughtful action films on our list.
Back in the day, Mel Gibson was kind of like Liam Neeson is now. He’s very nice and peaceful until you kill his wife, burn his farm and shoot his dog, at which point he’s obviously going to take horrible vengeance on you and everyone you hold dear, up to and including your entire country.
If Mad Max began Gibson’s career in vengeful badassery, Braveheart solidified it. The not-historically-accurate tale follows William Wallace, a peaceful 13th Century Scottish farmer who crosses some vicious English types, loses his wife to a nasty English commander and proceeds to wreak havoc on everything and everyone English.
While Braveheart will not stand up to the historically-accurate test, it still holds a place as one of the better Hollywood epics. Wallace’s final speech is iconic, as is his dying proclamation of FREEDOM! The film is unfortunately held hostage by history – the Scots lost the war, after all – but still manages to be triumphant and very satisfying. So remember: don’t mess with Mel Gibson.
41. Once Upon A Time In Mexico
Making one of his many appearances on our action list, Robert Rodriguez struck gold yet again with his mariachi masterpiece Once Upon A Time In Mexico. A sequel to the Antonio Banderas flick Desperado, which only happened because of Rodriguez’s indie hit El Mariachi, Once Upon A Time In Mexico raises the previous stakes thanks to explosive action, all-star casting additions, and plenty more of Rodriguez’s signature South-of-the-border style.
Robert Rodriguez is always able to keep his films feeling fresh and vibrant, which is highlighted by Johnny Depp’s character Agent Sands. With a knack for killing chefs, Sands loses his eyesight when caught by the baddies, and enlists the help of a local boy to tell him where to shoot. There’s also some face swapping, more destructive guitar cases, more guitar shredding, and of course – Danny Trejo.
If you like your action with some spicy salsa and a nice warm Corona, it doesn’t get much better than Once Upon A Time In Mexico.
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