The best action movie actors have a magnetic combination of physical ability, “coolness,” and charisma to spare. Hollywood’s obsession with muscle-bound action stars may have lessened since the gun-toting days of the ’80s and ’90s but compelling, talented central figures remain a staple of action cinema the world over. Join us in counting down the 20 all-time best action stars from around the world.
Best action movie actors
Ranking these action movie actors
This list is compiled based on the quality of the actor’s action filmography, their star magnetism, and their level of raw talent/ability in fight scenes and shootouts. This means certain big names in the action world might not make the cut if their fighting ability is questionable, like Steven Seagal, or if their persona far outweighs the actual quality of their films, like Chuck Norris.
For more action-packed goodness, be sure to look through our list of the 100 best action movies ever made.
Best action movie actors
20. Ziyi Zhang
In a market over-stuffed with male talent, Ziyi Zhang managed to carve out a niche for herself as one of the best performers of modern Wuxia. Her breakout in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon announced to the world that she had the goods. In movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, she proved that her talents weren't just a fluke.
WHAT IS WUXIA?
Wuxia (pronounced woo-sha) is a genre of Chinese storytelling found in film, literature, and opera. Wuxia translates directly as “martial heroes” or “martial chivalry” and focuses on stories of warriors in ancient China. In film, Wuxia is often associated with stunning vistas, supernatural elements, and/or fight scenes with extensive wire-work allowing feats of athleticism otherwise impossible within the bounds of physics.
Famous action movie actors
19. Kurt Russell
Whether he’s slinging guns in the old west or effortlessly navigating the numerous challenges thrown at him by John Carpenter in their many collaborations, Kurt Russell has shown remarkable range time and time again within the action film arena.
Action film actors
18. Shin’ichi Chiba
At his peak, Shin’ichi Chiba, better known as Sonny Chiba, was dubbed ‘Japan’s Bruce Lee.’ He became an action superstar at a time when action-hero stardom was still a relatively new concept. He brought an international spotlight to Japanese Karate and was pivotal in building up the martial arts industry of Japan. And don't forget his action-less but still powerful turn as Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill.
Best action stars
17. Andy Lau
Andy Lau has stronger acting chops than many of his action-star contemporaries and can hold his own against dramatic actor. He is equally adept at martial arts films as he is at gunplay, and equally capable of playing heroes as he is villains.
Best action actors
16. Yun-Fat Chow
No one can dive through the air shooting a gun better than Yun-Fat Chow. The man is effortlessly cool and his collaborations with director John Woo provided many of the finest shoot ‘em up flicks ever made. Western audiences perhaps saw him first in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but he's been making stellar films before and since then.
Action star actors
15. Wu Jing
The name Wu Jing, also known as Jacky Wu, may not ring any bells, but he is a bonafide superstar in his home country of China. After starring and co-starring in a number of badass martial arts films throughout the '90s and 2000s, he then turned his eye toward directing.
In 2017, he directed and starred in Wolf Warrior 2 which went on to become China’s #1 highest-grossing film of all time, raking in more than 5.6 billion CYN at the Chinese box office.
80s action movie actors
14. Sylvester Stallone
At one point, the American action film audience had the pleasure of experiencing the escalating screen feud of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in real-time. Were you Team Stallone or Team Arnie?
While the Governator may have had the bigger muscles, Stallone often showed stronger dramatic chops given the right role. Look no further than his ending monologue in First Blood for proof of his acting range in the iconic Rambo role. And let's not forget his iconic status began with his star turn in the Rocky movies.
Black action movie actors
13. Michael Jai White
Michael Jai White deserves so much more love and attention than he gets. His physique and fighting ability put him at the top of the class. Even though he does land the occasional role in a mainstream film, much of his best action work goes under the radar in smaller, straight-to-DVD films.
He had his shot in the lead role of Spawn, but it failed to give him any traction. You might also recognize him as Gambol in The Dark Knight. Hollywood is severely lacking when it comes to black action movie actors and more mainstream Michael Jai White movies would fix that in a heartbeat.
12. Scott Adkins
Similar to Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins is one of the best modern martial-arts action stars but does not get nearly enough credit for all of his impressive work. He consistently delivers thrilling fight scenes in both small and large films.
His impressive physicality and through-the-roof fight ability are recognized throughout the martial-arts community. Adkins has plenty of starring roles but is also often cast as the ‘white guy baddie’ in foreign martial-arts films. Because of his world-class fight-scene prowess, Adkins has been in some of the best martial arts fight scenes ever.
11. Sammo Hung
Sammo Hung, AKA Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, is a veteran action star and fight choreographer who emerged from the same Peking Opera School that produced the likes of Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and others. Sammo Hung boasts a unique body type amongst other action stars, able to keep up with anyone and everyone despite his larger size.
Action movie actors
10. Michelle Yeoh
In the male-dominated field of martial arts films, Michelle Yeoh managed to make a name for herself and hold her own against the best male fighters the industry could throw at her. Whether she’s headlining her own vehicles or starring opposite the likes of Jackie Chan, Yun-Fat Chow, or Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh’s performances are always thrilling sights to behold. And, like her co-star Jackie Chan, she does a lot of her own stunts, solidifying her as a force to be reckoned with.
Famous action movie actors
9. Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise’s commitment to performing his own death-defying stunts sets him apart from many of his Hollywood contemporaries. When he’s not being Academy-Award nominated for dramatic performances, he’s kicking ass in such diverse roles as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible franchise, or a chilling hitman in Michael Mann’s Collateral.
Best action movie actors
8. Tony Jaa
Tony Jaa exploded onto the scene with remarkable stunts and feats of athleticism that had audiences calling him ‘the next Jackie Chan.’ Scenes like the one above from The Protector would be impressive without also being one of cinema's stunning long takes. He was quickly launched to international stardom from his native Thailand and now stars alongside martial artists from around the world in both hero and villain roles.
7. Jet Li
Not content with action star status in the Hong Kong film scene, Jet Li made the leap to French and American productions and became a household name around the world.
He had quite a run in Hollywood films in the late '90s and early '00s with gems like Romeo Must Die, The One, and Unleashed. His speed and precision in fight scenes are a sight to behold.
Favorite action movie actor
6. Donnie Yen
Donnie Yen got his action movie actor start in the early 1980s and he continues to headline multiple action star vehicles every year. Though best known these days for the excellent and hugely successful Ip Man franchise and a mainstream breakout role in Rogue One, Yen has a huge back catalog of Grade-A martial arts films worth seeking out.
90s action stars
5. Keanu Reeves
One of the biggest '90s action stars, Keanu Reeves continues to pump out exciting action films to this day. The John Wick series has become the gold standard of modern American action. Keanu Reeves’ physicality in both fight scenes and complex shootouts remains incredibly impressive, even at his age.
But Keanu Reeves was leaving a lasting impression in the action actor world long before he ever stepped into The Continental. Have you ever wondered how to write badass action scenes in a screenplay? Here's a quick guide on how to write fight scenes like John Wick.
4. Iko Uwais
If there were a best up-and-comer action-star award, Iko Uwais would win it handily. After starring in The Raid 1 and 2, Iko’s career is poised for martial-arts super-stardom. His talent and ability has been made clear and it is extremely exciting to see all of the places his career goes.
Action movie stars
3. Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee, despite tragically passing at the young age of 33, cemented his place as a cinematic icon. Bruce Lee changed the face of action films as we know them today. Lee created his own martial-arts style, Jeet Kune Do, which is still studied to this day.
From The Big Boss to Game of Death, unfinished at the time of his death, Bruce Lee left behind a game-changing legacy of work. Lee is uncontested as one of the best action movie actors of all time.
Favorite action movie actor
2. Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan is the world’s most lovable action actor. Instrumental in the evolution of the Hong Kong film scene and innovative in every sense of the word, Jackie Chan’s impact on the world of action cannot be over-stressed. His creative use of props, infusion of humor, and commitment to death-defying stunts put him in a league of his own.
Hollywood action actors list
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger
The term “Action Hero” is synonymous with no one more so than Arnold Schwarzenegger. From Mr. Universe, to action star, to worldwide box-office sensation, to Governor of California, and back to action star, nobody has had a career quite like the Austrian strongman.
Thanks to starring roles in some of James Cameron's best movies, Arnie absolutely dominated the action films of the '80s and '90s.
In terms of raw action performance, the Governator would be behind Jackie Chan (and many others on this list), but for being the dictionary-definition of “Action Star” and the perfect physical embodiment of the action-hero ideals, Schwarzenegger takes the top spot.
Ranking the Best Martial Arts Fights
We've ranked the action movie stars that elevate action cinema to impossible heights. While the action stars are a major elements in any action scene, there's also choreography, stunts, special effects, and stunts that make up the total package. If you enjoyed this ranking of the all-time best action stars, then be sure to check out our ranking of the best martial-arts fight scenes ever put to screen.