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These Are the 36 Best Action Movies Ever Made

Everett, Getty Images; Everett

There will always be action movies as long there are movies. Why? Because no young boy or girl grows up pretending that they are a damsel-in-distress or a sidekick. They want to run, punch, draw swords and run towards danger. They are the future choreographers, directors, and performers, who bring their imaginations to life.

And to the incredulity of your father (who insists no movie will ever top First Blood) the action genre hasn’t slipped on it’s roundhouse kick. In fact, we’re now witnessing another golden age in ass-kicking cinema. While there are obvious developments in VFX technology, which have allowed for larger set pieces and more realistic thrills, much of what makes a great acton film a great action film hasn’t changed: painstaking choreography, fearless stunt performers/actors, and clear cinematography (and not that Taken fence jumping bullshit.)

The only thing that’s changed are the names and faces. Newer arrivals, such as Gareth Evans and Chad Stahelski have replaced legend action directors like Ang Lee and John Woo, Robert Clouse and Zhang Yimou. Stars like Bruce Lee, JeanClaude Van Damme, Arnold, and others have moved on to Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais and Charlize Thron.

In fact, fights are becoming more brutal and meticulously choreographed. In a Hollywood that is too saturated with slapstick and post-production punches, international directors and actors are finally receiving more attention (and direction).

Here’s hoping for more John Wicks, more Raids, and more Atomic Blondes in the future. Here are the 36 greatest action movies ever made.

John Rambo would grow more cartoonish in sequels, but in the original, he was a scared veteran trying survive in the real world.

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2

The Raid 2 Redemption (2014)

The Raid was less chaotic but Gareth Evans also directed the sequel. This one introduced an intricate crime-drama plot and was even more intense. Didn’t matter: Redemption is brilliantly violent, a ballet of broken bones, perfect punches and crazy car chases.

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This film was the breakthrough moment for Tony Jaa, a Muy Thai martial artist. It also marked the beginning of one the most iconic action franchises. There’s not a lot of fakery in Jaa’s fight scenes. Real men are being punched.

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4

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

The second film is more dialogue-heavy, but the first half is essentially nonstop action … and it’s a good thing the Crazy 88 fight is in black and white, because it’d almost be too bloody to watch otherwise.

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5

The Bourne Ultimatum (2006)

What should have been Jason Bourne’s final adventure is a thrilling, satisfying conclusion to this kinetic trilogy. The way we view the globe-trotting spy thriller has been forever reshaped by Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass, director. James Bond is still playing catch up.

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6

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

You can’t go wrong with any in this series – though it has only gotten better as the years have gone along – but the introduction of Rebecca Ferguson to this series just amped up the emotional stakes.

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Keanu Reeves’ first of two masterful franchises on this list, John Wick gave us a mournful 21st-century assassin who won’t let his grief get in the way of shooting every bad guy in the head at point-blank range.

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8

Enter the Dragon (1973).

Although Bruce Lee was well-known before the film, this movie is what launched him into the stratosphere. The film is flawless from beginning to finish and unrelenting. The best part about it is that there isn’t a gun to be found in the whole film.

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Tony Jaa gave us Muy Thai and Muy Thai, while Ip Man gave Us Wing Chun (Donnie Yen) While Yen had been in many other great action films previously (check out Kill Zone — S.P.L.), its the Ip Man films that will define his legacy, the character forever his—the semi-biographical person of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s trainer. Though the films can feel a bit jingoistic at times (they’re basically Hong Kong’s Rambo), the fight scenes are femur-breaking legendary.

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10

House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Zhang Yimou’s magnum opus, Daggers is maybe more love story than a martial arts film—and so the most action-packed love story of all time—but “love story” is no cinematic pejorative. The film boasts the most vivid and vibrant cinematography among all films on this list. Action is a visual genre. No film is more appealing to the eyes.

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John Woo’s Hollywood career wasn’t as sparkling or consistent as fans would have hoped, but this late-‘80s peak remains a glorious salute to melodramatic plotting and poetic shootouts. Chow Yun-fat made for a fierce, soulful assassin — and, never forget, The Killer is where Woo began his obsession with dove-filled action scenes, which have been parodied everywhere from 21 Jump Street to Scary Movie 2.

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Oh, don’t dare not think of this as an action movie. The existential dread of Ridley Scott’s original is replaced by James Cameron’s trademark intensity, and even though this has aliens and spaceship, this is as concentrated a dose of thriller mania as you will find. You’re gripping your chair just thinking about it, aren’t you?

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13

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

George Miller had been contemplating a Mad Max sequel for many years. It was clear that he spent years coming up with every possible chase sequence. Four years later, this movie is still thrilling and almost crazy.

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14

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Because of Ang Lee’s prestige and the glamorous international cast, there is sometimes a sense that this film is bland, good-for-you Important Filmmaking. Watch it again. This movie is iconic because it’s fun and an euphoric ride.

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15

Terminator 2 – Judgment Day (1991).

T2 was James Cameron’s second installment, which featured a gritty thriller. (That’s the kind of thing that happens when you have a much bigger budget.) Harnessing the power of then-new CG technology, this sequel threw down a challenge at the start of the ‘90s that other blockbuster filmmakers struggled to answer.

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Men in Black It is the perfect combination of gun-firing, boot-chasing and so much more. Hollywood still tries to extract every ounce of life-force from the original 1997 film. Can we forget about the classics?

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Yes, the car chases are as amazing as you’ve heard, but what’s striking today is how well this holds up as a cop procedural. Steve McQueen, an extraordinary movie star, was always better than he ever was.

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18

The French Connection (1971).

Popeye Doyle is the perfect action star for the ‘70s: grizzled, cranky, morally compromised, not the least bit likable, but absolutely tenacious about getting the bad guy, even if it’s for reasons he can’t even necessarily comprehend. Gene Hackman was at his absolute peak at this time.

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Hollywood remade Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece as The Magnificent Seven. It couldn’t compare: Not only is Seven Samurai an epic of scope and scale, it’s one of the most emotionally nuanced of action movies, featuring a slew of characters you come to care deeply about.

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Michael Mann’s epic is the culmination of everything he’d been working toward his entire career; the years since still feel like his own response to it. Everyone remembers the diner scene. But the bank heist sequence is still a magical trick.

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The Wachowskis dreamed up an incredible sci-fi dystopia and then cast Keanu Reeves to play an everyman who discovers he’s the chosen one who must free humanity from the tyranny of machines. The Matrix should not have worked, but from bullet-time technology to the film’s trench-coat aesthetic, it became an epoch of pre-millennium action filmmaking.

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John McClane simply wants to reunite with his estranged wife. The poor man must fight a group of terrorists led by an endearing and fiendishly charming Alan Rickman. Die Hard made Bruce Willis America’s most likeable action hero. Yes, it is Christmas.

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We can’t have a best action list and not include a James Bond film. While classicists may want to go into the archive, we think the rebranding of the franchise (the grittier, stockier Daniel Craig Bond)—while maybe a bit too sad and not always as fun — still has some of the best action of the franchise. The opening chase scene features one of the best freerunning scenes put to cinema (okay, maybe District B13 takes that) and includes legendary freerunner Sébastian Focuan. That’s enough for us.

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We’d be remiss not to include some South Korean cinema on this list. Recent action movies such as The Man from Nowhere, I Saw the Devil and the South Korean-American joint Snowpiercer give life to the tropes of the action genre. But Oldboy is a hammer-smashing Oedipus complex classic all its own—and one that’s influenced action cinema ever since (the hammer from Drive, the hallway fight from Netflix’s Daredevil, the list goes on).

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Spike Lee’s cat and mouse crime thriller is just about as unique a take on the heist genre as you can get—an impressive feat given how glutted the genre still is. Watching it now might feel predictable, but that’s only because you’ve seen this story imitated so many times since. Maybe not Lee’s best-known film (though it remains quite popular), but it’s one of the best of the genre.

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26

The Dark Knight (2008)

Not just the best superhero movie, The Dark Knight might also be the most quotable: “Why so serious?” “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Plus, a fleet of memorable action sequences and the greatest villain performance ever. The MCU still hasn’t come close to matching this.

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27

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a throwback at old action serials. It’s cheeky, but it’s also utterly electrifying. The movie is flawlessly constructed and takes very little time to breathe. And in Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford gave ‘80s kids their signature hero—even if he’s not so fond of snakes.

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28

Boyka: Undisputed (2016)

Scott Adkins, like Jaa and Yen may not be well-known in Hollywood. But like those other legends, he’s been kicking ass for decades. Boyka is perhaps his most well-known role. Hell, it’s a lot better.

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29

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Marvel has defined modern day popcorn action—and not always for the better. It pays off when it works. Endgame has been the most successful of all.

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Indian cinema! It is one of the most important industries in the globe! Honestly, there are a lot to choose from here and we haven’t watched nearly enough to make this pick. So we’re just going with a recent one, which was just absolutely bananas.

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We haven’t touched the genre of action comedy yet, and we figure we should shoutout Edgar Wright first. It’s safe to say Hot Fuzz, along with many of his other films, are already modern classics.

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Let’s add another English comedic action director to the mix: Guy Richie. We could have picked many of his movies here, but we’re going with Snatch.

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33

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

Like The Raid’s Gareth Evans, director Matthew Vaughn has helped breathe new life into action cinematography. Kingsman was unlike anything we’d ever seen at the time, and that church fight remains one of the best gunfight scenes ever put to film.

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Let’s give Zack Synder some love. He never fails to entertain and 300 is one of his most recognizable visual achievements.

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35

The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers (2002)

Fantasy action. It involves sword fighting, horse charges, flying creatures and wizards. We may not always think about it as “action,” but it shares many of the same battle-heavy ingredients. The second installment of Peter Jackson’s epic still holds up as one of the best battle movies ever made.

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36

Everything at once (2022)

EEAAO is a cinematic masterpiece that defies convention. It is a movie about martial arts. The journey might be inter-dimensional, but the DNA of the movie is conventional hand-to-hand action—and the fighting is spectacular.

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Will Leitch
Will Leitch is a National Correspondent for the MLB and a contributing editor at New York Magazine.

Josh St. Clair
Joshua St Clair is an editor assistant at Men’s Health Magazine. 

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Jacky

The author of what'snew2day.com is dedicated to keeping you up-to-date on the latest news and information.

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