Best Action Movie Actors of All Time - Featured

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

Ziyi Zhang vs Michelle Yeoh

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. 

WUXIA DEFINITION

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.

Best action actors

Conclusion

Ziyi Zhang’s elegant athleticism is matched by her natural acting ability which far surpasses many of her contemporaries.

Action Highlights

Famous action movie actors

19. Kurt Russell

It’s all in the reflexes

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.

Best action actors

Conclusion

Kurt Russell’s endless charisma allows him to play the coolest man alive, Snake Plissken, just as easily as he can play the goofy action-hero antithesis in Jack Burton.

Action Highlights

Action film actors

18. Shin’ichi Chiba

How Sonny Chiba uses a home gym

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

Action movie actors

Conclusion

Many of Sonny Chiba’s extremely bloody martial arts films found their homes within Grindhouse theaters in the United States and eventually brought him international stardom.

Action Highlights

  • The Executioner
  • Hiroshima Death Match
  • The Street Fighter
  • Samurai Reincarnation

Best action stars

17. Andy Lau

Johnny To’s underrated Fulltime Killer

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 movie actors

Conclusion

A great entry point to Andy Lau’s work is through Infernal Affairs which was later adapted and remade as one of Martin Scorsese’s best movies, The Departed.

Action Highlights

  • Fulltime Killer
  • Infernal Affairs
  • House of Flying Daggers

Best action actors

16. Yun-Fat Chow

This is how you open an action film!

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.

Best action stars

Conclusion

If you consider yourself an action film fan and haven’t seen The Killer or Hard Boiled, then you should rectify that immediately.

Action Highlights

  • A Better Tomorrow
  • The Killer
  • Hard Boiled
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Action star actors

15. Wu Jing

Wu Jing fights American actor Frank Grillo

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.

Action movie actors

Conclusion

Jing Wu is an extreme talent in the modern martial arts field. If you’ve already seen his directorial efforts, check out his supporting roles in films like SPL and its sequel.

Action Highlights

  • SPL
  • Shaolin
  • Wolf Warrior
  • Kill Zone 2  

80s action movie actors

14. Sylvester Stallone

Stallone’s finest acting moment?

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.

Hollywood action actors list

Conclusion

If you’re in the mood for a goofy action flick, take a gander at Over the Top, the trucker arm-wrestling movie you never knew you wanted.

Action Highlights

Black action movie actors

13. Michael Jai White

Michael Jai White in his best role

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.

90s action stars

Conclusion

Michael Jai White is an underappreciated talent. The #1 highlight of his filmography is without a doubt the absolutely hilarious Black Dynamite.

Action Highlights

  • Undisputed 2
  • Black Dynamite
  • Blood and Bone
  • Skin Trade

Action stars

12. Scott Adkins

Super impressive one-take fight scene

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.

Action film actors

Conclusion

Scott Adkins has at one point or another faced off against many of the other action stars on this list. Jacky Chan, Donnie Yen, Wu Jing, Michael Jai White, Tony Jaa, and Iko Uwais have all squared off against Scott Adkins on screen.

Action Highlights

  • Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear
  • Accident Man
  • Avengement
  • Ip Man 4

Action actors

11. Sammo Hung

Sammo Hung vs Donnie Yen

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.

Best action movie actors

Conclusion

Sammo Hung was known colloquially as ‘Big Brother’ within the Chinese film industry. That is until the title was transferred to Jackie Chan, at which point Sammo Hung adopted the title of ‘Biggest Brother.’

Action Highlights

  • Project A
  • Wheels on Meals
  • Dragons Forever
  • Ip Man 2

Action movie actors

10. Michelle Yeoh

Jumping a motorcycle onto a speeding train

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.

Action film actors

Conclusion

Check out Yes, Madam to see Michelle Yeoh kick ass alongside the American queen of action-film rentals Cynthia Rothrock, who would have taken the number 21 spot if this list were a touch longer.

Action Highlights

  • Yes, Madam
  • Supercop
  • Wing Chun
  • Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Famous action movie actors

9. Tom Cruise

Do NOT take Tom Cruise’s briefcase

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.

Curious how dynamic fight scenes are filmed? Check out our breakdown of the incredible bathroom fight from Mission Impossible: Fallout to learn how they did it.

Best actor in an action movie

Conclusion

Tom Cruise continues to turn out exciting action films even into his late 50s. The most recent Mission: Impossible film, Fallout, just might be the best yet.

Action Highlights

  • Mission: Impossible
  • Collateral
  • Edge of Tomorrow

Best action movie actors

8. Tony Jaa

One of the most impressive long takes ever

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. 

Action actors

Conclusion

One can make a strong case for Tony Jaa being the pinnacle of human performance. Look no further than 2003’s Ong Bak to this incredible physical specimen in action.

Action Highlights

  • Ong Bak
  • Kill Zone 2
  • The Protector
  • Triple Threat

Action stars

7. Jet Li

Jet Li takes down an entire dojo single-handed

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.

Action movie actors

Conclusion

Check out some of Jet Li’s Chinese productions if you are already a fan of his English-language work.

Action Highlights

  • Martial Arts of Shaolin
  • Fist of Legend
  • Hero
  • Fearless

Favorite action movie actor

6. Donnie Yen

10 vs 1 is no contest for Ip Man

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.

Best action actors of all time

Conclusion

Donnie Yen is a multi-skilled fight performer, master of multiple martial arts styles, and a talented actor with charism to spare. He was one of the first traditional martial artists to begin infusing MMA techniques into his fight scenes which gives them a distinct flair.

Action Highlights

  • Iron Monkey
  • Hero
  • Flash Point
  • Ip Man

90s action stars

5. Keanu Reeves

Beware all who enter the Red Circle

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.

Best actor in an action movie

Conclusion

Just one of the action movie star highlights from Reeves’ filmography would be enough to crown him a bona fide action star. Luckily for us, he remains committed to headlining exciting action projects.

Action Highlights

Action stars

4. Iko Uwais

One of the dozens of excellent fight scenes in The Raid

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 star actors

Conclusion

After exploding onto the scene in some of the best action films in recent memory, Iko Uwais has been hard at work building up a formidable resume of both American and Indonesian films.

Action Highlights

Action movie stars

3. Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee vs Chuck Norris

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.

Famous action movie actors

Conclusion

Following Bruce Lee’s passing, a questionable sub-genre of action films emerged known as Bruceploitation in which wannabe action movie actors would pretend to be Bruce Lee, even going as far as to legally change their names to something close to the icon’s such Bruce Li or Bruce Lei.

Action Highlights

  • The Big Boss
  • Fist of Fury
  • Way of the Dragon
  • Enter the Dragon 

Favorite action movie actor

2. Jackie Chan

“What does it mean when there’s a picture of a skull?”

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.

Best action actors of all time

Conclusion

If you only know Jackie Chan from his U.S. productions, then do yourself a favor and seek out his older Hong Kong films, you won’t be disappointed.

Action Highlights

  • Project A
  • Police Story
  • Legend of the Drunken Master
  • First Strike

Hollywood action actors list

1. Arnold Schwarzenegger

When the antagonist of the 1st film becomes the protagonist of the 2nd

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. 

80s action movie actors

Conclusion

Though his acting is sometimes criticized, an objective study of his filmography shows a great deal of range in both performance and character types. Not many actors can star in both comedic kids’ films and sword & sandal epics like Conan the Barbarian.

Action Highlights

UP NEXT

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.

Up Next: Best Martial Arts Fights →
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