There is no shortage of action films full of well-choreographed fistfights and high-speed chases, but the best action movies of all time take the genre in such unique and surprising directions. Among the thousands of movies in the genre, there are a few standouts that deserve the critical acclaim and recognition they’ve gotten over the years. The best in the genre pair a good story with skillfully choreographed action sequences, and they have inspired some of the best filmmakers working today. But as the genre is perpetually evolving, it’s hard to find the truly revolutionary and timeless films in a sea of thousands of action movies.
Every year, a new action movie pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in the genre, such as 2023’s John Wick: Chapter 4, and Everything Everywhere All at Once the year before. With the genre always moving forward, whether it’s new combat styles or the advancement of digital effects, “action movies” has become an exceptionally broad term, as everything from superhero flicks to martial arts movies fit under the umbrella. However, these action movies represent the most influential of them all, and they’re the best action movies of all time.
24 Bad Boys (1995)
Director Michael Bay isn’t exactly known for his well-choreographed and expertly crafted action sequences. Instead, the filmmaker is loved for his bombastic and explosive action scenes. Sometimes, simply pointing a camera at tons of explosions going off is exciting enough and a big, dumb popcorn flick is sometimes more satisfying than tightly crafted fight scenes. Bad Boys is the best example of this and one of the best Michael Bay movies, and the banter and genuine camaraderie between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence turn it into one of the greatest action movies of all time, even if it isn’t all that deep.
23 Léon: The Professional (1994)
Directed by Luc Besson, Léon: The Professional revolves around the story of professional hitman, Léon (Jean Reno), and a 12-year-old, Mathilda (Natalie Portman). Léon takes Mathilda in after her family is murdered and she learns from Léon’s own murderous ways. The fast-paced shoot ’em-up scenes in the movie was only made better by Portman’s performance as the vulnerable Mathilda and Reno’s portrayal of the loveable Léon. The movie expertly mixed stealth with heavy-handed action scenes, and it spiritually inspired many stealth-action games such as the Hitman series.
22 Gladiator (2000)
Often considered one of the best gladiator films ever made, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator brought the love for these movies to a wider audience. Full of murder, revenge, and great performances by the likes of Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix, the film combines realistic action with the historical period. Director Scott worked with cinematographer John Mathieson to perfect the film’s action sequences, which incorporated a unique manipulation of frame rates that produced a stop-motion effect. This made every battle sequence and even the gladiator training scenes both grittier and more natural, making it one of the greatest action movies ever.
21 Seven Samurai (1954)
Helmed by the legendary director, Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai is often touted as the best among Japan’s samurai films. The film highlights the events in a poor village, where farmers are attacked by a group of bandits. They seek the help of seven wandering samurai who risk their lives to defend the villagers. The exciting action scenes in the film were groundbreaking for their time. Kurosawa used multiple cameras to capture the fights, which was uncommon in the 1950s when a shot-by-shot technique was the typical approach. Improvisations by talented actors like Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura also made the fights appear more realistic and dangerous.
20 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
It has been well-documented how exhausting and relentless Mad Max: Fury Road’s troubled production was, but it all paid off in the end. Mad Max: Fury Road is essentially a road trip from hell, as it sees the titular character team up with Imperator Furiosa, who is attempting to save Immortan Joe’s wives. Almost everything in the movie is practical with only the coloring of the scene digitally enhanced. All the huge trucks and vehicles in motion that the War Boys jump between made for one of the biggest action spectacles of the 2010s. Few other action movie depicts an apocalyptic future better than the 2015 film, and Fury Road ensured the Mad Max franchise still had an audience in the modern era.
19 Atomic Blonde (2017)
Following the phenomenal success of John Wick in 2014, every following action movie had to feature gun-fu. Atomic Blonde was directed by John Wick co-director David Leitch, and while it’s one of the dozens of John Wick derivative movies, it’s by far the best one and just as good as the Keanu Reeves starring action flick. The 2017 movie sees Charlize Theron just as committed to the extremely long and intense action sequences, and Atomic Blonde is even more ambitious with its much longer takes. The movie has a five-minute one-shot sequence, which alone is enough to consider Atomic Blonde one of the greatest action movies of all time.
18 Harakiri (1962)
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Harakiri, the 1962 action drama directed by Masaki Kobayashi, depicts the story of a samurai who asks to commit seppuku, a form of suicide once considered honorable among the Japanese. Kobayashi questions this practice by weaving a tale of corruption, hypocrisy, and poverty into a poignant film that captures the struggles of the protagonist. Harakiri’s slow pace and thoughtful dialogue add depth to its more intense and violent scenes. It deals with heavier themes of false honor and entrenched power, which are punctuated by its brutal portrayals of seppuku and merciless samurais who are quick to hurt those they deem unworthy.
17 Blade (1998)
Considering that Blade is one of the earliest Marvel movies, it was a brave risk for the studio to make it R-rated, and it led to one of the goriest action movies of all time. The very opening sequence, which is an underground vampire rave that results in Blade trudging through two feet of blood, perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the blood. The aesthetic and copious amount of fake blood had never been exhibited in a movie like this, and the 1998 movie expertly blended action with the horror genre in a way that had never been done before — and few movies have been able to match since.
16 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story suffers from the worst tropes found in prequels, but the movie gets a lot right, and it surprisingly became the best Star Wars movie of all the Disney Star Wars releases. If anything, the 2016 movie is the most Star Wars-esq than any other, as the whole final hour of the film is a giant space battle on a scale that the franchise had never previously reached, making it one of the greatest action movies of all time. Above all else, the movie shows how much of a threat Darth Vader is for the first time ever, in that terrifying final hallway scene. While every Star Wars movie is a solid action move in its own way, Rogue One by far fits the bill of what makes a great action movie great in the first place, with the sci-fi setting playing second-fiddle to its high-octane narrative.
15 Asuran (2019)
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2019’s Asuran tells the hard-hitting story of a teenager from an underprivileged caste who makes the grave mistake of killing an upper-caste landlord. Chaos ensues as his father attempts to save his son from the caste clash that follows, and things only get worse as the bodies pile up. Asuran unapologetically comments on the prevailing caste system in India through its controversial story. The action movie has one perfectly-choreographed scene after another, which is punctuated by its more intimate tear-jerking moments. But the harrowing story paints a morbid light on the action sequences, showing how brutal and unfun the reality is, something that few other action flicks can pull off.
14 Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)
Everything Everywhere All at Once is an important action movie for so many reasons. The 2022 release has a diverse cast and brings action icon Michelle Yeoh back into the spotlight, and it’s one of the few action movies that genuinely has heart and a meaningful story. The multiverse movie is so immersive, full of color, and focuses on practical effects. Whether it’s with sausage fingers, sex toys, or raccoons, the action sequences are more inventive than any other movie in the 21st Century. Everything Everywhere All at Once totally redefined the action genre, which is such a feat considering that the film had a budget of just $25 million.
13 Point Break (1991)
1991’s extreme sports action movie is very of its time, whether it’s the dialogue, the music, or the editing, but Point Break still holds up today. The action movie follows undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah as he tries to infiltrate a group of bank robbers-slash-surfers. Not only is it full of iconic one-liners and has one of the best romances in action movie history, but it showcases director Kathryn Bigelow’s unique action style. Bigelow popularized handheld action filmmaking, especially with the epic on-foot chase scene in the 1991 movie. Point Break featured death-defying stunts way before Tom Cruise was doing it in the Mission: Impossible franchise too.
12 Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Any number of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies could be considered among the greatest action movies of all time, whether it’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, which crosses over three different movie series, or Iron Man, which was something of a grounded war movie. However, Avengers: Endgame was the epic conclusion to over 20 movies and perfectly wrapped up The Infinity Saga. From an action standpoint, the movie featured impossible-to-imagine live-action sequences pulled right out of the comic book panels. From Captain America catching Mjolnir to Spider-Man holding onto the Infinity Gauntlet while swinging off alien ships, Avengers: Endgame is the greatest superhero spectacle of all time.
11 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
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On the face of it, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an ambitious Wuxia martial arts movie, but it’s far deeper than that. The film ties themes of love, honor, and freedom into a delicate story about a young woman who has been training to become a fierce warrior. Director Ang Lee expertly made the action mirror the movie’s themes, as the martial arts and acrobatics are somehow graceful and are a language all of their own. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon not only excels in terms of action, but it’s a historical epic with detailed costumes accurate to the period and setting, and every shot is breathtaking.
10 John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)
John Wick didn’t invent gun-fu, but it popularized the action style in Hollywood. The Reeves-led action franchise only got better with each consecutive release, culminating in John Wick: Chapter 4, an almost three-hour epic that doesn’t slow down. Where John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’s final act was operating on a level that the series had never reached before, that’s the level that John Wick: Chapter 4 starts at. From John drifting around the Champs-Élysées to storming an empty house with Dragon Breath bullets in the five-minute top-down scene to the battle on the 222 steps, director Chad Stahelski somehow pulled off the most ambitious action scenes ever shot.
9 Aliens (1986)
While Alien is one of the greatest horror movies of all time, in what is one of the most successful genre switch-ups ever, Aliens is one of the greatest action movies of all time. The original movie was set on a ship where the characters were isolated and had little to protect themselves from the Xenomorph, and every minute was a claustrophobic survival horror. Aliens, on the other hand, still has that looming threat and claustrophobic tension, but it’s an all-out human vs. aliens, action flick. The 1986 movie straight-up throws Ripley and company into a battle royale with a whole host of aliens, increasing the stakes and the bloodshed.
8 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
Tom Cruise is seemingly in competition with himself when it comes to death-defying stunts. No other movie franchise features an actor so dedicated to putting himself in danger for the audience’s entertainment. The plot is secondary to the practical stunts that are pulled off in the franchise, but in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the franchise perfectly balances both. The 2015 movie sees Cruise hanging off the side of a plane as it takes off and holding his breath underwater for seven minutes. Of all the dangerous Mission: Impossible stunts, these were the most hair-raising and felt like something was actually at stake in terms of the narrative.
7 Strange Days (1995)
Being another Kathryn Bigelow-directed movie, Strange Days features her typically reliable action directing, but it’s even more impressive. That handheld shooting and fast-paced on-foot sequences have been lifted from low-stakes action movies and dropped into a Blade Runner-like sci-fi setting, making it way more thrilling than ever before. Sci-fi action movies set in a dystopian future were extremely popular in the 1980s and 1990s, and Strange Days is by far one of the most underlooked. The film has an interesting concept where characters can excess people’s memories, which already has implications, but it also tackles issues that Bigelow has always found herself exploring, such as racism and police brutality.
6 Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
Quentin Tarantino has always indulged in extremely violent action sequences, but Kill Bill Vol. 1 was the first time he ventured into comedy violence and almost cartoonish amounts of blood. Not only is The Bride one of the coolest action heroes in cinema history, but the movie has one incredible action sequence after another, making it one of the best action movies ever. From the battle with the Crazy 88 to the final boss level that is O-Ren Ishii, Tarantino brought samurai movies into the modern day and made one of the freshest-feeling samurai films ever even decades after release, along with rejuvenating the genre in an unprecedentedly stylish way.
5 Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan’s Inception explores the possibilities of the human subconscious. Following the professional mind infiltrator, Dom Cobb, audiences are treated to a wild ride into the protagonist’s own subconscious. The gunfights and high-speed chases in the film are made even better by the time element, as the group must find a way to implant an idea into the target’s subconscious before running out of time and without getting killed. The most impressive and influential scene is the rotating hallway, where a 100-foot corridor was spun around, making Arthur’s gunfight and race against time even more thrilling.