Action has been part of cinema ever since the days of The Great Train Robbery more than a century ago. But somewhere along the way filmmakers started realizing that they didn’t necessarily have to couch their car chases, fight scenes, gun battles, and explosions within the confines of another genre. The action didn’t need to be part of a Western or a swashbuckling historical adventure or a sci-fi extravaganza; the action could actually be the point. So by the late 20th century, a whole new genre was booming in Hollywood.
Combining the precision of the best stunt and visual effects work with the emotional resonance of the best dramas and comedy, a truly great action film feels like something that really does have it all, even when the focus is tight and the set pieces are unquestionably over-the-top. There are plenty of masterpieces in the genre, but here are 30 of our absolute favorites (in chronological order).
Note: For the purposes of this list, to try to keep things concise, we chose, for the most part, to focus on films in which “action” is the primary genre associated with the story, which is why you won’t see much in the way of Westerns, superhero films, and other genres among these choices. We also, apart from a few precursors, primarily stuck to films made after 1970, in order to focus on the decades when action cinema as a standalone genre really blossomed.
1. The Wages of Fear (1953)
The Wages of Fear would not necessarily play as an action film in the eyes of a modern audience, but if you watch enough action movies and understand the vocabulary of their pacing, and the ways in which directors build modern action set pieces, then Henri-Georges Clouzot’s thriller about four men transporting extremely volatile nitroglycerine across perilous terrain becomes an invaluable precursor in the construction of action movie grammar. From the way he uses close-ups and editing to build tension in key sequences to the construction of elaborate set pieces built around two trucks and four characters, The Wages of Fear remains a uniquely taut viewing experience, and a tremendous influence on the action genre that developed later.
2. Seven Samurai (1954)
It really is impossible to overstate Akira Kurosawa’s influence on virtually every genre of film in the years since his extraordinary movies began reaching a global audience, and Seven Samurai is perhaps the peak example of that. It’s more of a historical drama than an action film, but as a precursor to action cinema as we now know it, the film proved to be an invaluable road map for future directors. Whether we’re talking about the building of a motley ensemble, the pacing of a duel, or the calm before the literal storm of battle, Kurosawa cast a long shadow that much of the action genre is still standing in with many of his films, but this one in particular.
3. Goldfinger (1964)
It begins with Sean Connery pulling off a wetsuit to reveal an immaculate white tuxedo beneath and ends with a mid-flight fight scene. For those reasons and everything in between, from the laser that threatens to cut Bond in half to the ejector seat in the Aston Martin, Goldfinger stands today as not just the best Bond of the Connery era, but the film that set the standard for what a Bond film—and indeed, just about every other spy film since—should be. It’s not as action-heavy as many of its successors, nor is it quite as packed with set pieces and stunts as the decades of action films that followed it. But if you’ve ever tried to make a man with a gun look cool in your movie, there’s a good chance you were at least partially following Goldfinger‘s lead.
4. Shaft (1971)
Shaft came around at a time when “action” movies weren’t nearly as fast-paced as they are now, but that does nothing to diminish the impact the film still has as a breakthrough moment for Black action heroes. Richard Roundtree remains charisma incarnate in the title role, and while Shaft spends much of the film chasing down leads at a leisurely stroll, director Gordon Parks manages to retain a sense of tension that builds and builds right up until the spectacular closing sequence, which both cemented the character as an icon of Black cinema and cemented the film as a landmark of action filmmaking.
5. Enter the Dragon (1973)
Bruce Lee was already an international star by the time Enter the Dragon was on its way to theaters, but this is the film—released just one month after his sudden death at the age of 32—that forever made Lee a legend. Steeped in classic Hong Kong kung fu movie style with layers of emerging Western action sensibilities creeping in, Lee’s final completed film still plays not just as a showcase for his tremendous talent, but as a testament to his abilities as a visual and physical storyteller. As Lee’s character says early on, “We need emotional content,” and through his body, his voice, and his imagination, the legendary performer absolutely delivered that with Enter the Dragon.
6. The Driver (1978)
The plot of Walter Hill’s The Driver begins in a place that sets it firmly in crime drama territory, as a detective (Bruce Dern) tries to spring a trap on a talented getaway driver (Ryan O’Neal) through a job that’s meant to be a setup. But then Hill starts playing with the very concept of car chases, switching up the motivation each time, until the film crescendos into an unforgettable final sequence in which cars stalk each other through a labyrinthine warehouse, using the sounds of each other’s engines as guideposts within the chase. It’s an inventive, deliciously tense way to stage a confrontation, and cements The Driver as an all-time genre great.
7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The legend goes that Steven Spielberg wanted to make a Bond movie, George Lucas countered with an idea inspired by adventure serials, and the result is cinema’s favorite whip-cracking archaeologist. However it came about, Raiders of the Lost Ark still holds up as an absolute masterpiece of action-adventure cinema, combining Spielberg’s natural visual wit with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan’s timeless storytelling and Lucas’s knack for spectacle. From the legendary boulder opening to the desert chase scenes, there are action sequences in this film that directors 40 years on can only dream of replicating.
8. First Blood (1982)
Though the subsequent Rambo sequels became increasingly bloody exercises in absolute machismo, Ted Kotcheff’s original film remains the best in the series because it is much more fascinated with interior pain than exterior. In what still stands as a remarkably measured performance, Sylvester Stallone gives us a weary searcher wandering through an America who doesn’t seem to want him anymore, and charts the course of John Rambo’s descent back into violence with real vulnerability. That Kotcheff managed to sell the action happening around the journey in a genuinely thrilling way only served to heighten the inner turmoil at its center, and the result was a classic.
9. RoboCop (1987)
As much a satire of Reagan’s America as it is a sci-fi action blowout, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is a film that plays now as a movie that simultaneously picks apart and revels in the violence-obsessed, sensationalized genre cinema of the 1980s. Verhoeven is happy to comment on everything from corporate greed to corrupt policing to the American obsession with violent crime whether it’s in our backyard or not, but he’s also happy to prove over and over again that he can beat other filmmakers at their own action movie game. The result is one of the most layered action films of the 1980s that remains surprisingly potent at the dawn of the 2020s.
10. Die Hard (1988)
A renegade cop, a team of terrorists with a secret motive, a Christmas party gone awry, a skyscraper loaded with explosives, and Reginald VelJohnson. Die Hard really does have everything, and director John McTiernan made sure that all of those elements came together for a film that still works like a Swiss watch, perfectly timed without a millimeter of space wasted. From its instantly quotable screenplay to the Jan de Bont cinematography to Alan Rickman’s incredible film debut, it’s easy to see why the movie became one of the most influential entries in the history of the action genre. For proof, just look at the endless list of ’90s and ’00s action films that can be described as “Die Hard on a [insert random location here].”
11. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
James Cameron has done plenty for the action genre across his entire filmography, but T2 is arguably his grandest achievement—in no small part because he was somehow able to top the low-budget masterpiece that is The Terminator. Working with an all-star cast, a bigger budget, and a lot of technological ambition, Cameron and co-writer William Wisher were able to flip the script on what made the first film work so well, turn the bad guy into a good guy, and deliver a sequel that retained the sci-fi horror feel of the original while topping it in terms of scale, emotional stakes, and wild set pieces.
12. Point Break (1991)
Other filmmakers might have made Point Break work, but they probably wouldn’t have made it work as well as Kathryn Bigelow. She directs the film’s many stunt-centric set pieces—from bank robberies to foot chases to the iconic skydiving scene—with flair and visceral intensity, but it’s the core relationship between Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) that makes the film so memorable. Are the FBI agent and the surfer/bank robber in love with each other, or just in love with dancing around each other? Are they bonded by their mutual attraction to adrenaline in all its forms, or are they destined to be opposites? It’s that tension that carries the film through all of its action bravado, and Bigelow’s understanding of that is what makes the movie.
13. Hard Boiled (1992)
With films like A Better Tomorrow in the 1980s, John Woo set a new standard for action movie gunplay, evolving the Hong Kong genre scene and giving Western filmmakers a new maestro to emulate in the process. With Hard Boiled, his effort to turn his heroic bloodshed lens from criminals to cops, he perfected the gun fu subgenre with an all-out extravaganza of shoot-outs, motorcycle stunts, explosions, and an unforgettable climax in a terror-struck hospital. In a career full of all-timers, this is perhaps the purest expression of Woo’s all-out style.
14. The Fugitive (1993)
Some action films could work with just about any cast in place, and others are hard to imagine without the stars they ended up with. Though it’s based on the earlier TV series of the same name, it’s nearly impossible to imagine The Fugitive now without the dueling personalities of Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones at its center. Andrew Davis’s lean, mean, blisteringly-paced thriller is best remembered now for that iconic dam sequence, but every minute of this film stands as a showcase of star-driven ’90s action power, whether Ford’s hiding in a St. Patrick’s Day parade or Jones is calling for a “hard target search.”
15. Léon: The Professional (1994)
In a decade packed with grand scale action showcases, there’s something both refreshing and instantly compelling about the relatively small-scale clashes in Luc Besson’s intimate masterclass in tension and personal violence. Jean Reno and Natalie Portman are perfect together; Gary Oldman is in top form as the unhinged villain; and Besson’s restrained, often emotional action sequences both cement and threaten the heart that beats at the center of the narrative. Besson can do spectacle, as anyone who’s seen The Fifth Element knows very well, but The Professional is just as ambitious in its own more restrained way.
16. Speed (1994)
Just six years after serving as cinematographer on Die Hard, Jan de Bont moved into the director’s chair for a film that’s been described as “Die Hard on a bus” and turned in another action masterpiece. Speed is one of those action films that makes you wonder as soon as you hear the premise—there’s a bomb on a bus, and if the bus drops below a certain speed it explodes—exactly how the story can possibly sustain itself for a feature-length runtime. The answer? Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock’s incredible chemistry, Dennis Hopper’s indulgent villainy, and a whole lot of amazing bus-based setpieces.
17. Drunken Master II (1994)
In 1978, as his career as an action movie leading was taking off, Jackie Chan delivered the martial arts action comedy Drunken Master, which remains one of his finest films. After spending the ’80s and the early ’90s building an international reputation through action extravaganzas like Police Story and Project A, Chan returned to the same character for his first traditional martial arts starring role in more than a decade, and knocked it right out of the park. Drunken Master II takes all the joy and comedic invention of the original film and adds everything Chan learned about action comedy filmmaking in the ensuing 16 years for a movie experience that’s both joyous and jaw-dropping. Whether he’s fighting while squatted down under a train or setting himself on fire in the incredible final sequence, it’s one of the world’s greatest action stars in absolute top form.
18. The Matrix (1999)
Perhaps the greatest testament to the power of The Matrix is the fact that so much of it should feel dated, but it doesn’t. In the late ’90s, as blockbuster filmmaking moved into a new age of computer-generated wizardry, Lana and Lilly Wachowski created a sci-fi spectacle that combined cyberpunk and bondage aesthetics with wire fu fight choreography and anime-inspired visuals, and somehow it all just … worked. It’s remarkable to look back now and see how well The Matrix holds up, even with the turn-of-the-millennium internet tech intact. More than 20 years on, Bullet Time, Agent Smith, and Trinity and Neo shooting up the place still rules.
19. Battle Royale (2000)
A class of Japanese teenagers, a deserted island full of weapons, and a dystopian government law meant to curb delinquency all combine in Battle Royale, one of the most brutal rides Japanese action cinema has to offer—and one of the most influential. What’s striking in revisiting Kinji Fukasaku’s film now, after two decades of imitators and homages, is noting that while Battle Royale is absolutely action-packed, it’s not necessarily trying to be slick with its fight scenes. In fact, it revels in the amateurish, often clumsy fight scenes that play out between its characters, playing up their fear and doubt and immaturity to deeply unnerving effect. It’s not an action movie that makes you feel cool, but it is an action movie that makes you feel many other things, and that’s why it’s so unforgettable.
20. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Look at just about any frame from Ang Lee’s wuxia masterpiece and it’s easy to see why it won Best Foreign Language Film and earned a Best Picture nomination at the 2001 Academy Awards. It’s arguably still the most stunning visual achievement of Lee’s storied career, both in terms of action staging and pure aesthetic beauty. Look deeper, though, and Crouching Tiger has stood the test of time not just because it looks fantastic, but because it carries tremendous storytelling depth. Thanks to phenomenal performances from Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and more, Lee’s film is an action showcase in which every stroke of the sword is packed with emotional resonance.
21. Bad Boys II (2003)
Though he’s gotten his share of ribbing for his CGI-laden films about robots in disguise, Michael Bay still stands as one of the most important action filmmakers of the past 30 years. When it comes to which film in the Bay canon stands today as the purest distillation of his “Bayhem” style, fans will of course argue, but for our money it doesn’t get better than the wild, stunt-packed fun of Bad Boys II. From the first set piece to the last, it really feels like Bay is having the time of his life—and the one-two punch of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in peak buddy cop form doesn’t hurt either.
22. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)
There are quite a few action films out in the world that are pretty transparently crafted as a showcase for a gifted martial artist who wants to leap and kick across the screen for two hours, and few films have ever worked that format quite as well as Ong-Bak. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew and starring the incredible Tony Jaa, the film is just one jaw-dropping display of physical prowess after another, as Jaa does everything from fighting off crowds of opponents to leaping through the streets like a parkour legend.
23. Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2 (2003-2004)
Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the revenge cinema of Japan, the kung fu epics of Hong Kong, and beyond is, like so much of his work, packed with references to other key pieces of action cinema, but that doesn’t make Kill Bill any less impactful as a work all its own. Uma Thurman turns in an absolutely thunderous performance as The Bride, Tarantino squeezes every last drop out of glee out of his action set pieces, and almost two decades later, the whole bloody affair that is Kill Bill still works as a modern action showcase.
24. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
When director Paul Greengrass stepped in to helm Matt Damon’s Bourne Identity sequels in the 2000s, he perhaps unknowingly launched an action movie style trend that persists to this day. While the first Bourne film was unquestionably action-packed, Greengrass’s entries into the series dialed the visceral nature of Jason Bourne’s adventures up to 11 with a handheld, seat-of-your-pants style that influenced everything from superhero movies to Bond films in the years that followed—and made Damon into one of the most badass-looking men on the big screen in the 21st century. With the second Bourne sequel, the duo reached their collaborative apex, somehow topping the gritty power of The Bourne Supremacy with a film that still stands on its own as an action masterclass.
25. The Raid (2011)
On the surface, The Raid‘s story seems almost puzzlingly simple: A group of cops have to infiltrate a building in Jakarta and take down the crime lord who lives at the top. That’s the entire setup, and yet as Gareth Evans’s film progresses through fight scene after blistering fight scene, the emotional stakes keep rising. Bolstered by an incredible ensemble cast led by Iko Uwais, the film becomes not just the story of a man trying to reach the top of a building, but a man trying to reach a piece of his own soul left behind in the chaos of life.
26. Fast Five (2011)
Anyone who’s paid attention to the Fast & Furious franchise over the course of the 21st century knows that the series as it exists now is a far cry from what it was when it launched as a slick street-racing crime drama way back in 2001. Justin Lin’s Fast Five is arguably the bridge between two eras, transitioning the series from the story of a band of friends and their fast cars to an international caper extravaganza with increasingly wild set piece showcases and guest stars. Because of that in-between nature, Fast Five is also quite possibly the best the series has ever been in terms of pure action filmmaking, hitting the just-right blend of over-the-top spectacle and personal, character-driven story.
27. John Wick (2014)
You’ll see Keanu Reeves on this list quite a bit, and not just because he’s the internet’s boyfriend. The man has managed to carry, or help carry, an action spectacle in just about every phase of his career. But even with that in mind, we couldn’t have possibly predicted just how well John Wick would work. Featuring Keanu in peak brooding vengeance mode, Chad Stahelski’s film combined furious gun fu fighting with neon noir visuals and a killer ensemble to make an action classic that’s already spawned two sequels and counting and been imitated by action and crime filmmakers around the world in the years since its release.
28. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller’s fourth Mad Max film had such a long and fraught road to completion that for a long time fans worried they’d never see it at all, let alone see something that could be comparable to the previous masterpiece that is 1981’s The Road Warrior. In the end, Miller turned in something not just good, but jaw-droppingly spectacular. From the swirling desert vistas to the costume designs of Immortan Joe and his War Boys to the polemen to the motorcycle jumps to the powerful story at its center anchored by Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, Fury Road left viewers everywhere blown through the backs of their theater seats, and arguably no other action film has been able to touch it since.
29. The Villainess (2017)
You might think you know what kind of film you’re in for when director Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess opens with a blistering first-person camera fight scene from the title character’s point-of-view. But the longer you watch this spectacular Korean revenge thriller, the more it surprises you. Anchored by a fearless performance from Kim Ok-vin, the film simultaneously digs deep into the emotional damage done to a woman by years of death and deceit and goes full-tilt with the action, culminating in yet another kinetic final fight that’s as poignant as it is pulse-pounding.
30. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
It might not be true that the Mission: Impossible films get better with each subsequent installment, but what does seem to be true is that the sixth and, to date, most recent installment in the Tom Cruise-led series is perhaps the best achievement in all-out action filmmaking the franchise has seen yet. We can chalk this up to a few things, from the maturation of writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s set piece sensibilities to McQuarrie and Cruise’s apparently harmonious collaboration to Cruise’s own willingness to put his body on the line for every single stunt. However it’s working, it’s working. And when your sixth movie just might be your very best, there’s no reason to stop just yet.