Nothing gets the blood pumping like a good, old-fashioned action flick. From incredible set pieces to beautifully-choreographed action to, of course, amazing one-liners, action is a popular film genre for a reason. And now, it’s time to rank the best action movies of all time.
Popular action movies take all shapes and forms. This list has everything from superhero movies to Hong Kong action thrillers and even a couple of Star Wars flicks thrown in for good measure. Any filmmakers who want to direct their own action film should watch these movies because each one offers something great to the genre.
MARVEL ACTION MOVIES
50. Iron Man (2008)
Iron Man is the movie that would change superhero movies (and cinema in general). It launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which every studio tried to emulate. But it’s hard to get as sure footing to launch a massive overarching series of movies than this one. The humor and Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance made this C-list superhero a star, and superhero movies have been trying to replicate the formula ever since. See where it all started by reading the Iron Man screenplay.
GOOD ACTION MOVIES BASED ON MARTIAL ARTS
49. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2005)
The story of Ong-Bak may be simple, but when you have the martial arts skills of Tony Jaa, you don’t need much else. His expert choreography is on full display here as he mows down henchmen with an array of techniques. Jaa would go on to star in American films like Furious 7, but honestly, he needs a lot more work because he’s proving to be the next Jackie Chan.
OSCAR-NOMINATED ACTION MOVIES
Poison is a powerful motif in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
It’s seen as particularly dishonorable because it kills without any finesse or expertise. There’s no honor in being a “poison dragon.” Martial arts is sacred, and the visuals combined with the choreography elevate the fighting to another level.
GREAT ACTION MOVIES TO WATCH FROM THE 90S
47. The Fugitive (1993)
The ultimate “dad” action movie. Harrison Ford is at his grumpy best in this movie that features one of the best bus-train collisions ever put to film. In fact, this movie is one great set piece after another, taking familiar locations and making them iconic.
AWESOME ACTION MOVIES WITH SATIRE
46. Starship Troopers (1997)
A healthy dose of satire is a good way to make sure your movie stands the test of time. Paul Verhoeven incorporated this wonderfully in RoboCop and later in Starship Troopers, which takes aim at the military force used by the United States throughout history. Combined with superb creature features, Starship Troopers is an underrated gem from the 90s that’s earned a cult following in the years since its release.
COOL ACTION MOVIES WITH JAMES BOND
45. Casino Royale (2006)
How do you make an action scene feel significant? Without knowing what you want to accomplish, an action movie’s fight scenes can become repetitive and, worst of all, boring. Casino Royale is a prime example of how you can make chases and fights intriguing by showcasing what makes the characters involved tick through their actions, as the above video essay from Lessons From the Screenplay reveals.
BEST ACTION MOVIES OF THE LAST 10 YEARS
44. Baby Driver (2017)
Every sequence in Baby Driver is so well put together it's insane. From the opening credit sequence of Baby Driver walking through Atlanta while lyrics to the song playing are all around him to the heist gone wrong, it’s a masterclass of precision and execution. The song choices and colors have all been chosen with care to the point where Edgar Wright’s artistry in the craft cannot be ignored.
BEST ACTION MOVIES OF THE DECADE
43. Attack the Block (2011)
Delivering an effective action thriller with aliens is one thing. But Attack the Block, about a gang of inner city kids taking on an alien threat, also manages to be humorous and filled with social commentary. No matter what the scene is trying to accomplish, it does so with flying colors.
MUST WATCH ACTION MOVIES WITH GANGSTERS
42. Face/Off (1997)
Face/Off, a movie where a cop and gangster swap faces, is an intriguing film for any actor to watch. John Travolta and Nic Cage basically have to play each other, and it’s intriguing to see how they interpret one another’s idiosyncrasies. It’s loony '90s mayhem in the best way, and it’s one of those movies that if remade today just wouldn’t have the same level of inspiration.
FAMOUS SUPERHERO ACTION MOVIES
41. Logan (2017)
Logan is the last outing of Hugh Jackman’s play on Wolverine. It’s also R-rated, so the movie’s allowed to be just as visceral as it needs to be. The fight scenes aren’t just CGI bonanzas. They’re bloody and impactful, and it ends with the most poignant image in the entire X-Men franchise.
2 GREAT ACTION MOVIES
40. Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2 (2003, 2004)
Quentin Tarantino considers these to be a single story, so we’re counting both films as one entry. Before filming, Tarantino explicitly set out to join the ranks of great action directors, and he succeeded. It has that B-movie schlock you rarely see in a big-budget theatrical movie, and it’s absolutely wonderful to see.
BEST ACTION MOVIES OF THE LAST 5 YEARS
39. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Avengers: Endgame is a culmination of over 20 films. The whole movie is basically a victory lap with the remaining Avengers as they revisit critical points in the franchise’s history. It all leads up to one of the most epic moments in the last decade of film. See why it’s one of the most famous action movies of all time in our Avengers: Endgame screenplay breakdown and analysis.
90S ACTION MOVIES
38. Point Break (1991)
Point Break and its remake shows that you need more than cool action set pieces to make a great film. The original Point Break piles on plenty of philosophy in addition to the action. The remake recreates great action, but there’s no substance to back it up. Fortunately, the original still holds up and remains one of the top rated action movies to come out of the '90s.
FUNNY ACTION MOVIES
37. Hot Fuzz (2007)
Hot Fuzz is a perfect example of how to do parody. It makes fun of the tropes of the action genre, specifically cop movies, but you can tell Edgar Wright and crew still have a lot of love for these movies. That passion is evident in the fact that this comedy is still an excellent action movie in its own right, carving out its own image in the genre.
TOP 100 ACTION MOVIES
36. Minority Report (2002)
Minority Report first came to Steven Spielberg’s attention over a decade before actual filming. Spielberg wasn’t happy with the version, so it was revised over and over again. It must have been a lot of work, but well worth it considering the final product is a thrilling techno action piece. See where Minority Report ranks among Spielberg’s filmography.
SCI-FI ACTION MOVIES
35. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Edge of Tomorrow shows how far you can go when you don’t get too weighed down with explaining everything. It’s one of the most underrated action movies of the last decade with a Groundhog Day twist. The day resets every time Tom Cruise’s character dies. Once you accept that concept, you’re off to the races, and you can just enjoy some excellent sci-fi action set pieces.
HILARIOUS ACTION MOVIES
34. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Beverly Hills Cop was originally going to be a straight action film with Sylvester Stallone playing Foley. Through some tweaking, it took on a more comedic bent with Eddie Murphy taking on the lead role. What could have been another forgettable cop movie quickly became one of the most classic action movies from the era.
BEST JAMES BOND MOVIES
33. Skyfall (2012)
If Casino Royale rebooted James Bond, then Skyfall took him to new heights. The reason why this movie excels is that it challenges the audience's ideas of what’s possible with a James Bond film. He feels more fleshed out than ever. He’s an actual character instead of a generic womanizing spy, and it leads to the most thrilling climax in any James Bond movie. For a more comprehensive look at the James Bond franchise, see our ranking of every James Bond movie ever.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN-DIRECTED ACTION MOVIES
32. Inception (2010)
Inception is one of those movies where watching the behind the scenes is just as thrilling as watching the movie itself. The hallway fight scene is so technically impressive with everything being done in-camera. But even outside of that, each dream level brings something new to the table and is memorable in its own right. You can go further behind the scenes of this action thrill ride in our Inception special effects blog post.
GOOD ACTION MOVIES THAT WON OSCARS
31. Gladiator (2000)
You don’t really see many sword-and-sandal genre movies these days. And that’s probably because Gladiator in 2000 was so good nothing else was really needed. It took inspiration from classic gladiator movies like Spartacus, and it brings that aesthetic into the 21st century.
GREATEST ACTION MOVIES OF ALL TIME STARRING MATT DAMON
30. The Bourne Identity (2002)
The Bourne franchise popularized shaky cam and fast cuts for a decade of action movies. While those techniques may not always work well, they work for this particular style of movie. The camera operates like the action: fast and direct. Aside from camera techniques, this is a smart, thrilling action film that just gets more rewarding with each rewatch.
SEQUELS TO FAMOUS ACTION MOVIES
Mad Max 2 (1981) draws inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and it just goes to show how universal such archetypes are. You can get wildly differing results from a straightforward cop movie to a wild post-apocalyptic action extravaganza. The practical effects allow the movie to hold up all these decades later.
GOOD ACTION MOVIES STARRING SYLVESTER STALLONE
28. First Blood (1982)
The sequels may have turned into generic shoot-em-ups, but First Blood is surprisingly thoughtful. There’s great action for sure, but it also functions as interesting commentary on the Vietnam War, a common thread among action movies of the 80s.
BEST COMIC BOOK ACTION MOVIES
27. Dredd (2012)
Dredd shows how to do a comic book adaptation well. The original 1995 film Judge Dredd tries to make the comic book movie more appealing to general audiences, deviating from the source material greatly. Dredd understands what people like about this character and this world and deliver a bitingly powerful action film that combines stunning visuals with big, over-the-top action moments.
ACTION PACKED MOVIES FROM INDONESIA
26. The Raid: Redemption (2012)
The fight scenes in The Raid: Redemption are stellar for many reasons. But one major reason why they stand out is due to clarity. You understand where each character is in the location and where they are in each fight. You see each blow and can follow along easily. Every action director should watch this film to see how precisely to frame fights.
BUDDY ACTION MOVIES
25. Lethal Weapon (1987)
Lethal Weapon changed what action movies were like in the 80s and 90s. The buddy cop dynamic. The greater reliance on humor. Many tropes you see in some of the best action movies ever that now seem cliched were invented or reinvented with Lethal Weapon, and everyone just struggled to keep up.
TOP RATED ACTION MOVIES OF THE 70S
24. Enter the Dragon (1973)
Bruce Lee was arguably the greatest martial artist of all time. Enter the Dragon showcases his art at his peak, and it’s all the more sad considering the movie came out one month after his untimely death. As it stands, it’s one of the best martial arts movies of all time and a perfect showcase for a talent lost too soon.
BEST ACTION MOVIES WITH PRACTICAL EFFECTS
23. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
An action movie based on an old TV show may not sound all that appealing. Now it’s become one of the most essential franchises out there thanks to its commitment to practical stunts. The halo jump scene in Fallout only lasts a couple of minutes, but it’s one of the most thrilling things put to film. Learn how to shoot scenes like it in our breakdown of Fallout’s dynamic fight scenes.
COOL ACTION MOVIES FROM HONG KONG
In The Legend of Drunken Master (1994), Jackie Chan plays a master of “drunken boxing” where you drink alcohol to mask any pain and release your inner brawler. It’s hilarious, but surprisingly, it also contains some of the best martial arts sequences you’ll find on film.
ACTION movies YOU ALREADY LOVE
Star Wars is beloved by all for what it represents to so many. The standard hero’s arc is filled with thematic and historical allusions. It can mean anything and be interpreted in a number of ways. That’s why it’s stood the test of time and has influenced a generation of filmmakers. Learn why the film works so well by analyzing the screenplay for A New Hope.
ACTION MOVIES WITH ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER
20. Predator (1987)
Now we’re into the top 20 action movies ever. Predator is a quintessential '80s action movie, which is why it’s intriguing that it started off as a joke. After Rocky IV, a joke went around Hollywood that Rocky would have to fight an alien in the sequel. The screenwriters took that joke literally and wrote Predator. It’s an '80s adrenaline-packed thrill ride that’s filled with one-liners galore.
ANIMATED ACTION MOVIES
The way the animation and action work together in Into the Spider-Verse (2018) , it’s almost like you’re watching a comic book come to life. Colors abound and the movie does something new to a character we’ve seen a lot of lately. It’s the kind of movie that pushes the superhero genre in a new direction and challenges it to do better. See why it’s StudioBinder’s best animated film of all time.
CLASSIC ACTION MOVIES THAT WON BEST PICTURE
18. The French Connection (1971)
You don’t need to look at the last decade of film to find a kinetic action movie that fires on all cylinders. Arguably, the car chase in The French Connection is the greatest car chase scene in film history and laid the groundwork for how every action film needing such a scene would do it going forward.
BADASS ACTION MOVIES WITH JACKIE CHAN
17. Police Story (1985)
The crew on Police Story nicknamed the film Glass Story because actors fell through so many sugar windows during production. The movie is a brilliant showcase on how to do physical comedy well. You’ll find yourself laughing and being impressed simultaneously for the physical feats Jackie Chan is able to accomplish.
MUST WATCH ACTION MOVIES FROM THE 60s
16. The Wild Bunch (1969)
By the end of the 1960s, the western was on its way out. It went out with a bang though with The Wild Bunch, a film that actually ruminates the end of a dying genre. The movie contains themes about the end of the outlaw era, and intentionally or not, the same held true for these movies that gradually faded from the zeitgeist.
AWESOME ACTION MOVIES ABOUT ROBBERIES
15. Heat (1995)
The '90s were a time when postmodernism was starting to take hold of the action genre. Then came along Heat. It’s a straightforward yet effective action thriller that’s noteworthy for featuring the first time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino appeared in the same film together in a movie. Heat proved you don’t need to deconstruct the action film to be memorable. You just need to stick with your convictions and deliver a fully engrossing thrill ride.
ACTION MOVIES WITH GREAT SCREENPLAYS
14. Speed (1994)
The screenplay for Speed is studied in film schools. It’s one of the best scripts action screenwriters can read due to how precise it is with every action beat. Everything is paced wonderfully. Even when a scene isn’t focused on the runaway bus, the momentum never lets up.
BADASS ACTION MOVIES THAT SPAWNED FRANCHISES
13. RoboCop (1987)
Ultraviolence never looked as good as it did in RoboCop. But that violence serves a purpose, namely, to satirize everything from capitalistic corruption to authoritarianism. It’s one of the smartest action sci-fi films to come out, and while some audiences will overlook its subtext, it’s brilliance rewards those willing to study the movie in-depth.
VISUALLY-IMPRESSIVE ACTION MOVIES
12. John Wick (2014)
John Wick shows why more stuntmen should direct action movies. In a landscape of quick cuts and generic action, the filmmakers behind John Wick wisely decided to play out fight scenes in long takes. Each hit is kinetic. But more than all that, it’s a delight to see villains who are genuinely afraid of the hero. They’re not overconfident they can win against the Baba Yaga, so you know the bad guys are giving it everything they can. Learn more about writing fight scenes like in John Wick.
UNDERRATED ACTION MOVIES FROM HONG KONG
11. Hard-Boiled (1992)
Before John Woo went to Hollywood, he made a film that paid homage to films like Bullitt and Dirty Harry. Filming took an intense 123 days, and that included filming the teahouse shootout scene before the script was complete. They found out the building was going to be torn out anyway, so they decided to film a scene before it was gone. Its ingenuity like that that results in an epic cop film that keeps the momentum going all the way until the final act.
TOP 10 ACTION MOVIES OF ALL TIME
10. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
From the opening sequence of Peter Parker trying to deliver a pizza, you know this is going to be a very different superhero movie. Spider-Man is made human with similar struggles to all of us. He can’t hold down a job, can barely pay rent, and is heartbroken that his love is marrying someone else. Oh yeah, and then there’s the train sequence, which is one of the most impressive things you’ll ever find in a superhero movie.
ACTION MOVIES FROM THE WACHOWSKIS
9. The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix takes influence from Japanese animation and old kung fu films to deliver something wholly innovative. Nothing feels halfway in this movie. From the VFX to the philosophy, everything has been thought out so precisely. And it’s still one of the most engrossing, entertaining movies you can watch. The Matrix screenplay is one of the best for learning how to effectively incorporate action into story.
MUST SEE ACTION MOVIES FOR BATMAN FANS
8. The Dark Knight (2008)
The climax of The Dark Knight is one of the most impressive things you’ll find in a superhero movie. There’s no threat that the world, or even Gotham, will be destroyed. It all comes down to two boats and one man’s soul. The sequence of Batman taking down the Joker’s goons is thrilling, but the philosophy at play makes it so much more than just a caped crusader story. See why this superhero movie works so well by analyzing The Dark Knight script.
BEST ACTION SEQUELS
7. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Terminator 2 works so well as a sequel because it takes themes in the first film and advances them. The characters don’t revert to the way they were, as so many sequels are prone to do. Themes of motherhood are carried over, and we get to see a different side of the Terminator, namely one that is willing to protect John Connor. T2 isn't just one of the best action movies, it's also high in the ranks of best James Cameron movies.
BEST ACTION PACKED SEQUELS
6. Aliens (1986)
Aliens is remarkable for how vastly different it turned out to be. It’s a high-octane action sequel to a slow-paced horror film. Any true action doesn’t really begin until about an hour into the movie. And yet the images and dialogue burn into your memory, making for a film that’s both fun to watch and thematically rich.
ACTION MOVIES FROM THE STAR WARS UNIVERSE
At its core, Star Wars is about taking fun characters through space adventures. The Empire Strikes Back takes this formula and really challenges the characters through the action. The structure is impeccable and noteworthy for how off it seems. The big climactic battle between armies doesn’t happen at the climax. It’s at the beginning. The universe isn’t at stake. The characters are. It takes ideas presented in the first film, which was basically the archetypal hero’s journey, and further challenges our protagonists.
ACTION MOVIES THAT INSPIRE
4. Seven Samurai (1956)
Seven Samurai may just be the most influential film of all time. After you watch the film, you realize just how many filmmakers stole shots or implemented specific character archetypes from the film. No character in Seven Samurai is boring with each one having a specific personality and fighting style. After you watch it, you’ll never watch other action films the same again.
ACTION MOVIES THAT CREATED ICONS
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The best action movies list is winding to a close, and there’s still a lot more gas in the tank. The first 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark contains more iconic moments than entire films. We’re first introduced to Indy from behind, seeing just a silhouette going through the jungle. From there, a thrilling escape from a boulder and ride back in a plane with a snake onboard cemented Indiana Jones as one of the predominant heroes of the modern age, who still has some adventures up his sleeve.
GREATEST ACTION MOVIE VILLAINS
2. Die Hard (1988)
These days, there tends to be a trope in action movies that the hero needs to be a “chosen one” or is particularly special for some reason.
Die Hard proves you don’t need any of that. The film follows a regular guy who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He uses his wits and savvy, and as a result, the fights have a real weight to them because you know how vulnerable John McClane is.
THE BEST ACTION MOVIE OF ALL TIME
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Mad Max: Fury Road showed what has been possible in the action genre all along. With a minimal reliance on CGI and themes about survival and feminism, Fury Road is an awe-inspiring effort where as soon as you finish watching it, you want to watch it again. George Miller made not just the best action movie ever made, but one of the finest artistic works that’s ever been created through the medium of film. And even if you’re not working with the same budget, you can still craft a stellar car chase sequence from looking at this film.
How to Write and Shoot Action Scenes
Hopefully this list inspires you to rent some excellent action movies. Once you’ve expanded your horizons, it’s time to get started on your next project. Take some cues from these films, but also make sure to check out our blog detailing how to expertly write and shoot action scenes. With a little help, you’ll be able to create your own kinetic scenes where the punches really land.