Fast car chases, explosions, slow-motion shoot-outs, bone-crushing fighting and everything else in between all make great action films. Those attributes are sometimes matched to other important factors from great acting to an engrossing story. However, action films offering mindless spectacle can make up for a lot.
Some films offer great moment-to-moment action while others have much to appreciate during the downtime. One thing is for sure, the best action films keep viewers at the edge of their seats at all times.
Whether we're talking about the innovative sci-fi martial arts of The Matrix, ludicrous car pursuits of Fast and Furious or District 13's parkour influence there's a little something for everybody. Looking around the world, we present some of the best action movies over the past several decades.
Enter The Dragon
Considered one of the greatest martial arts films of all time, Enter The Dragon was released a month after Bruce Lee’s untimely death. A testament to Lee’s on-screen charisma and on-screen physical abilities, the film’s fight scenes are still standard setting. The final brawl between Mr. Lee and Han involving a hall of mirrors is still visceral. Such a pioneering martial arts film was done for cheap under its million dollar budget and managed to inspire a knew action subgenre of martial arts films.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Twenty years past Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Mad Max: Fury Road proves director George Miller could keep the action exciting and visually arousing without needing overblown visual effects. Essentially a two-hour car chase through a vast dystopian desert, the momentum never lets up. Most importantly, the car chases scenes are equally visceral and drop-dead gorgeous. Having Tim Hardy take up the mantel of Max Rockatansky from Mel Gibson alongside newly introduced characters like Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa( also set to receive her own prequel) means the long wait time between sequels was well worth the wait.
The role that turned Chadwick Boseman into an international icon, Black Panther works as one of the best films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Director Ryan Coogler keeps the pace fast between the dimly lit opening fight sequence, a car chase through Korea and the final set-piece within the fictional African country of Wakanda. Micheal B. Jordan's portrayal of Killmonger makes him one of the most sympathetic supervillain within the MCU to due to a central plot that tackles race in a way unheard of in superhero films.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Turning traditional wuxia cinema into high art, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proves that no other country does high flying martial arts like China. Based on the Chinese novel by Wang Dulu, the story of a stolen sword lends itself some beautiful imagery and jaw-dropping fight choreography. Besides utilizing veteran Hong-Kong cinema actors like Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became a breakout moment for Zhang Ziyi.
Inspired by everything from Japanese anime and other forms of Asian cinema to cyberpunk, the Wachowski sisters set a new standard for modern action films that’s rarely matched. The story of a hacker turned savior Neo (Keanu Reeves) saving humanity from a simulated reality was praised for blending a cerebral story with action set pieces that still hold up today. Though The Matrix inspired two sequels and upcoming fourth entry, the 1999 original nabbed four Academy Awards including one for Best Visual Effects.
Welsh director Gareth Evans and lead star Iko Uwais brought Indonesian action films to the mainstream through The Raid. The 2011 film about an elite squad taking on a crazed drug lord in a high-rise Jakarta slum is a very simple premise. Elevating the film to greatness is the reliance on various Indonesian martial arts styles and the extreme violence that perfectly hits over-the-top levels. The Raid works because the action literally never lets up during its 101-minute runtime.
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One major action series wasn’t enough for Keanu Reeves. John Wick utilized its lower million dollar budget to make the action thriller become a major bankable franchise already nearing its fourth entry. After Russian gangsters break into the former hitman’s house, beats him nearly to death, kills his dog (gifted by his deceased wife) and steals his car, it’s all about revenge for the film’s hero. What happens next is a gun-fu extravaganza that's exhilarating from beginning to end. Makes sense as to why many consider the series to be a reinvention moment for Reeves.
Besouro (The Assailant)
Only The Strong set a very low bar for action films focusing on the Afro-Brizilian martial art capoeira and having Mark Dacascos lead hasn’t aged well. 2009 Brazillian action film Besouro (or The Assailant in stateside) took an honest and historical approach to the unique fighting style by focusing on the legend of Besouro Mangangá. The racial themes and romance side story are serviceable, but having famed fight-choreographer Huan-Chiu Ku handle brawls set-pieces makes the film incredible.
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In a less sexist world, Cynthia Rothrock could have reached the star level of other American bred action stars like Stallon, Van Dam, Seagal, Schwarzenegger. There isn’t a better example of why she was better than her male counterparts than starring alongside Hong-Kong cinema legend Michelle Yeoh in Yes, Madam. Both Rothrock and Yeoh deliver some of the most acrobatic fight sequences of the 80s. Consider Yes, Madam one of the greatest female-led buddy cop films in existence.
Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior
The film that made Tony Jaa one of the better breakout action stars of the last century, Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior also turned the action genre toward Thailand. On a cultural and story level, the rural town vs. big city element works to tell how far lead character Ting will go to recover a missing statue head. Jaa’s physicality in various chases and fight scenes just seems unreal without special effects or stuntmen. Between Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior and The Protector, it's no secret why Jaa became the new modern action star standard.
Before French director Pierre Morel became known for kicking off the Taken series of films, he helmed the parkour-inspired action of District 13. Having the creator of the freerunning discipline, David Belle, as main character Leït was an inspired choice as well. The kinetic action with the use of parkour makes District 13 a unique work. Just stay far away from the horrible stateside reimagining Brick Mansions also starring Belle.
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The best car chases offer technical driving finesse and sheer spectacle. Nearly 50 years after it’s release, Bullitt features one of the best paced car chases in cinema history. A pair of hitmen turn a cat and mouse game with Steve McQueen’s titular hero into an intense race around San Francisco. The ten-minute chase that also added fuel to the “Mustang vs. Charger” argument, featured slick enough editing for Bullitt to win an Academy Award for Best Editing.
Though the brilliant car chases around France are highlights for John Frankenheimer’s tightly directed Ronin, the shootouts deserve much praise too. The set pieces are wrapped around a captivating thriller following international specialists led by Sam (Robert De Niro) to secure a mysterious briefcase. An early shootout in the film is pretty tense before the bullets start to fly. However, the chase through Paris that bookends the latter half of the film is fast and beautiful.
The original 1998 Blade starring Wesley Snipes kick-started Marvel’s hyper-successful run of movie adaptations of various comic book series. By the time the sequel hit theaters around four years later, director Guillermo Del Toro built some hard-hitting set pieces and awesome creature effects with Snipes’ physicality. Upping the narrative stakes by having the titular hero team up with vampires to face off against a new breed of genetically modified vampires leads to an explosive finale.
The Fast and Furious series began as heist films rooted in underground street racing culture before evolving into sequels spanning the globe, offering spin-offs and an upcoming film that’ll even have the cast hitting space. For Furious 7, the series matched a pretty great story with its nonstop action. Between a wild chase through Adu Dubi skyscrapers to the final moments including a Helicopter in Los Angeles, the concepts get crazier and crazier. Thankfully, the film serves as a grand send-off to series lead Paul Walker who died in a car accident half-way through filming.
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