Let me start by saying that this is in no way an end-all be-all list of the best action movies out there. Alas, arranged in no particular order, here are a few of my favorites, and why I think they reign as the bastions of the action film genre.
1. Die Hard (1988)
Really, there is no way to lose with this movie. It’s a western without the gun-slinging tackiness, a holiday movie without the excessive Christmas caroling, and a romantic movie without the eye-roll-inducing dialogue. It’s even got some comedic moments thrown in for good measure. This movie has got it all, and is for sure one of my all-time favorite action films.
The story follows NYPD cop John McClane (a dark-haired, brooding Bruce Willis) as he travels to Los Angeles during the holidays to visit his estranged wife and kids. Little does he to have to fight a group of German terrorists, headed by the ingenious Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, pre-Snape). Thrilling, fun, and exciting, this movie is a classic that defines classic action films.
2. Goldeneye (1995)
The man of action himself, any list about action movies wouldn’t be correct unless it had a little James Bond in it. While many of my friends are firm believers in Sean Connery as the one and only true Bond, I will always have a place in my heart for Pierce Brosnan’s vulnerable, blue-eyed portrayal of one of the most famed action heroes of all time.
I chose this Bond film in particular because, in the words of Roger Ebert, “both Bond and the madman apparently have the Glossary [of film clichés]” and avoid the clichés, giving the audiences a refreshing confrontation scene, and treating the audience with something new and exciting. Sean Bean’s performance of 006 agent Alec Trevelyan, and the tortured relationship 006 and 007 have buried in their past, to me, is the aspect that gives this film an edge that the rest of the preceding, and following Bond films try so hard to achieve. Well played, Bond, well played.
3. The Matrix (1999)
This movie traipses into the genre of sci-fi, action film, thriller, cerebral films as well, pushing boundaries of what viewers can now come to expect from action films in the future. This is one of the best action films because, not only is it full of excitement and cool special effects, it’s also got an interesting premise to go with it. As someone who thoroughly enjoys a good action film (who doesn’t?), I personally think there is nothing more frustrating than a film that treats its audience like they are stupid.
The Matrix, thankfully, does exactly the opposite, challenging its viewers every which way to reexamine their own views and perspectives on what is “real” in the “objective” world. Looking even deeper, The Matrix touches on some interesting thematic ideas about what conformity and governmental control means in society.
4. Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Perhaps one of the most most well-loved action films (and action heroes) of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark pulls in at rank #66 on the AFI’s Top 100 Movies in 100 years of Film list. The swashbuckling, intelligent Han Solo Indiana Jones is one of the most heartthrob-worthy characters of all time.
Complete with exotic backdrops and thrilling action sequences, there’s a reason this film has transcended time. With a 4/4 from Roger Ebert, this film has everything including (but not limited to) guns, machetes, booby traps, explosives, and a hint of the supernatural mixed in for good measure. Taken at face value, it’s an exhilarating adventure movie full of chase sequences, fighting, and classic western heroism. Yet, like all good movies, it contains a second layer; rife with “anti-Nazi symbolism and sly religious satire”, this film proves to not only be entertaining, but sneakily motif-centered as well.
5. The Killer (1989)
I had to stick this movie in here in some manner because something about it has made it stick in my mind. The story is unique, with Chow Yun-Fat as the anti-hero assassin hit man, trying to quit the business so that he can settle down with a family, while an investigator cop tries to pin him for the crimes he’s committed in the past. It’s a story about brotherhood, about romance, but above all, about coming to terms with the fact that you can never escape a dark past.
This film is very unconventional in the sense that the story doesn’t end how you expect it to, and in a way that makes it more powerful than films that end with the protagonist riding off into the sunset with a beautiful woman. The dated nature of the film gives it a quirky vibe (the freeze frames are, in retrospect, hilarious) that shows the filmmaker was not scared to really go the full nine yards and mock conventional western action films. While it’s certainly got a different atmosphere than Hollywood action films, I strongly recommend giving this film a watch.