Kill Bill (2003, 2004)
Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill is an epic tale of revenge, centered on a hero of near-superhuman abilities and unrelenting focus...but with enough vulnerabilities and human motivation to make audiences root for her. The Bride (Uma Thurman) goes on a quest to locate and murder every member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad that left her for dead years earlier—and find the baby she was pregnant with at the time of the attack.
The trail ultimately leads to the gang's leader, and her baby's father, Bill (David Carradine), of course, but along the way, the Bride must subdue each of her enemies in insane, insanely choreographed fight sequences, any number of which would be the centerpiece of a semi-decent action movie. But Kill Bill is loaded with them, from the suburban battle with Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) to the acrobatic battle with O-Ren Ishii's (Lucy Liu) Crazy 88 in Japan, to the "five finger death punch" that subdues Bill.
John Wick (2014)
Ultra-violent revenge movies generally don't have plots hinging on an adorable puppy, but that's part of what makes John Wick so delightfully different. After the death of his wife, assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) tries to fill the void in his life by adopting a cute dog named Daisy and riding around in his classic Ford Mustang. (A good action movie almost always has a sick car.) After he refuses to sell it to a Russian gangster, the spurned buyer and his cronies follow Wick home, knock him out, steal the car, and—horrific spoiler alert—kill the dog.
Exacting his revenge pulls Wick back into the seedy underbelly of organized crime, as well as numerous, atmospheric gun battles and fistfights across nightclubs, churches, safe houses, docks, and more. This is exactly the kind of action movie that's perfect for watching with friends, rewinding and replaying favorite moments because they're just too good to be believed.
"Swords and sandals" movies hadn't been popular for decades when director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe brought them back in a big way with 2000's Gladiator. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Crowe for his performance as Roman general-turned-slave Maximus Decimus Meridius. Against a classical Roman backdrop, audiences root for Maximus's quest to avenge the misdeeds of the evil emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), win his freedom, and survive the brutal gladiator arena— and Scott stages some of the most thrilling action sequences ever put to film. There's hand-to-hand combat with and without weapons, gladiator mismatches, re-enactments of old military campaigns, and even a climactic fight between Maximus and Commodus. People get stabbed. People get beaten to a pulp. People get beheaded. Ancient Rome was not a nice time to be alive.
Jurassic Park (1993)
The original Jurassic Park was a revelation in 1993, popularizing a sub-genre known as the "techno-thriller." Pioneered by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, these fables inevitably involve technology run amok to the shock and horror of the humans that created it. But of course, that's all a lot of fun to watch, especially when the technology is dinosaurs trying to kill people in a rainstorm, dinosaurs spitting venom in a bad guy's face, dinosaurs chasing kids, and dinosaurs ripping each other to ribbons. Add in a majestic, unforgettable score by John Williams and enthusiastic direction by Steven Spielberg, and you've got a modern masterpiece of popcorn cinema.
Baby Driver (2017)
Edgar Wright is best known for directing Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, movies that are predominantly comedies but laced with plenty of innovative action. With Baby Driver, he makes the leap to full-blown action, and the result is as frenetic and assured as Baby's driving.
Ansel Elgort plays the title character, a young but very skilled driver recruited to handle the getaway car for a heist squad. The unreal stunts in Baby Driver make the movie deliriously fun, and the filmmaker's extensive movie knowledge and vocabulary inform his self-assured direction with a mishmash of homages and techniques gleaned from other films, making for a thoroughly satisfying assault on the senses. The end result is pretty much everything audiences could want out of an action film.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Sometimes the problem with comic book movies is that they take themselves so darn seriously, forgetting the whole point of their source material—they're supposed to be ridiculously fun, and also a little ridiculous. Guardians of the Galaxy embraced its DNA to deliver one of the most purely enjoyable comic book-based movies of all time. It's as much a comedy as it is an outer-space action ride, with Chris Pratt perfectly cast as the funny and fearless Peter Quill (or "Star-Lord," as no one will call him). Add in a space prison, a telepathic arrow, '70s rock classics, a foul-mouthed raccoon, a talking tree, and one epic space battle and hand-to-hand bout after another, and the end result is a joyous blast.
Wonder Woman (2017)
Not only is it a great action movie, Wonder Woman just might be the perfect blockbuster. It's mind-blowing that this is director Patty Jenkins' first go at an action flick, because she perfectly balances so many tough elements. Wonder Woman is an origin story, a World War II movie, a romance, and it even has a twist ending and comic moments. This is to say nothing of Gal Gadot's revelatory performance as Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman, who so thoroughly and powerfully embodies heroism that you don't know whether to cry, cheer, or catch your breath when it's all over.
Rogue One (2016)
It would be both sacrilegious and inaccurate to say that Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie. It's not even part of the main storyline—it's a side story about a scrappy crew that comes together to take advantage of a fatal flaw in the Death Star by swiping the plans out of enemy hands. Therein lies the reason why Rogue One made this list—it's less a space opera or sci-fi movie like its Star Wars predecessors, and more a heist movie that just happens to be set in the Star Wars universe. As the team comes together, plans the crime, and pulls it off (although not without severe consequences) the action is as unrelenting as it is eye-popping.
Hugh Jackman's Wolverine was always the best part about every X-Men movie, and while he's had his own standalone films featuring everyone's favorite clawed Canadian, Logan shreds them all. It completely reinvented what a superhero movie can be, as Jackman applied his dramatic chops to create a nuanced characterization of a superhero nearing the end of his life and his mission. And somehow, young actress Dafoe Keen steals almost every scene as Laura, Wolverine's daughter and diminutive clone. Logan and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) evade the bad guys and shuttle Laura to safety in a road movie more fast-paced, unpredictable, and casually violent than Smokey and the Bandit.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
It doesn't seem like a cross between Groundhog Day and Independence Day would work, but director Doug Liman crafted Edge of Tomorrow into one of the most innovative action-adventure movies in years. In this smart and chaotic sci-fi/military adventure, seemingly indestructible aliens called Mimics terrorize Earth until they have to square off against Maj. William Craig (Tom Cruise). They kill him too—except not really, because Craig gets caught in a time loop and keeps returning to the moment just before his death, fighting and dying—and becoming a better fighter—each time. Edge of Tomorrow is a video game-inspired action movie with a moral: If at first you don't succeed (at killing aliens), try, try again (to kill the aliens).
District 13 (2004)
In the early 2000s, parkour, the sport-meets-art of ignoring the laws of physics so as to walk up walls and jump from one structure to another, was a minor fad in the United States. In Europe, the practice is a way of life. The craze gave the world at least one great parkour-themed movie: District 13, also known as Banlieue 13 or B13. That's the name of the extremely poverty-ridden and overcrowded Paris suburb where the film takes place. Set in the far-off, futuristic 2010s, the government keeps B13 in check by surrounding it with high walls topped with razor wire. Gangs control the lawless prison colony and make their living running drugs. A man named Leïto (David Belle, a creator of parkour) tries to fight the gangs, which he does with his wits as well as his gravity-defying parkour skills, executed without wires or CGI.
Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)
This low-budget martial arts adventure from Thailand more than makes up for its simple plot and straightforward presentation by the sheer force of its unbelievable star, Tony Jaa. In rural Thailand, a village is distraught after thugs from Bangkok steal the head of the town's cherished Buddha statue. Jaa plays Ting, the brave local who ventures into the city to retrieve the head, with only his Muay Thai fighting skills to protect himself. Fortunately, Jaa is one of the most agile and adept martial artists in the world, which he proves during some brutal underground fights. Despite an endless parade of more experienced and ruthlessly violent thugs coming after him both in and out of the ring, Ting triumphs.
Rumble in the Bronx (1995)
After a deluge of comedy-laced action films made him a massive star around the world for decades, English-speaking audiences were finally and formally introduced to the singular cinema of Jackie Chan with Rumble in the Bronx, and it was quite representative of Chan's talents. The plot is about good guys vs. bad guys, and it involves illegal diamond deals, but there's also a romance, Chan's self-deprecating humor, and, of course, stunts that look impossible (particularly some motorcycle acrobatics) but aren't because Jackie Chan never fakes the stunts that almost kill him.
Casino Royale (2006)
By 2002's Die Another Day, the final film in which Pierce Brosnan played super-spy 007, the James Bond franchise had descended into a checklist of the familiar: tuxedos, gadgets, shaken-not-stirred martinis, and a pretty actress in the thankless role of "Completely Interchangeable Bond Girl." It was time for a modern twist on the formula, and Casino Royale knocked it out of the park. Daniel Craig took over as a younger James Bond, and the movie took cues from other forward-thinking action films of the new millennium—it's gritty, intense, and completely lacking the usual James Bond smirkiness to deliver the best entry in the series since Sean Connery was creating action movie tropes back in the '60s.
Ip Man (2008)
Action movies are usually over-the-top, absurdly fun cinematic roller coasters, but every now and then, one of them is actually a true story. Ip Man is the loosely biographical story of Ip Man, a Wing Chun grandmaster who famously trained the all-time greatest martial arts film star, Bruce Lee. In Ip Man, Ip Man is the best martial artist and fighting trainer in the Chinese city of Foshan. His low-key life and appreciation of martial arts for their own sake are tested after the Japanese invasion of 1937. He competes for bags of rice in fighting competitions against Japanese troops, and he seeks revenge when his friend Lin disappears for good after a bout. At the heart of the movie, however, are the high-stakes battles between Chinese and Japanese fighters, all under the backdrop of war.
The 1995 version of Judge Dredd was merely an action vehicle for Sylvester Stallone in the waning years of his tenure as an action star. As such, it was an endlessly violent shoot-'em-up that lacked the humor, irony, and satire of John Wagner's source comics. Hollywood got it right with this remake (for once). In this exceptionally violent but winking action extravaganza, Karl Urban plays the most fearsome of the judge-jury-executioners that stalk around the futuristic, radiation-soaked wasteland that is Mega City, formerly the northeastern United States. Dredd kills his way through his days as he tries to eradicate Slo-Mo, a drug that, amusingly, makes people experience life in slow-motion. (And that's about the only thing that's slow in Dredd.)
Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
What if they made a movie that played like a hilarious, live-action cartoon, but also there was just nonstop kicking, punching, and intricately choreographed fight scenes? Well, then that would be an irresistible movie called Kung Fu Hustle. Chinese superstar Stephen Chow directs, co-writes, and stars in this dazzling and dizzying action epic set in China in the 1940s. Chow plays a guy named Sing, who is desperate to join the scary, cool Axe Gang, and willing to do criminal stuff like fight and steal. Things get interesting when he attempts a heist of an apartment complex where a remarkable number of the residents are quite adept in aerial kung fu. Fortunately, for the audience at least, Sing's group is equally skilled at axe-based fighting and other martial arts.
First Blood (1982)
Who would have thought that Sylvester Stallone could make a tragic, thought-provoking movie about the dangers of violence and how war destroys a man? Of course, the Rambo sequels that followed completely missed the point of that first movie, which is a psychologically and physically realistic action movie about a man a decade removed from the Vietnam War still fighting it. After a mental break in Washington, it's up to John Rambo's old commanding officer (Richard Crenna) to save the on-the-run ex-soldier from himself and authorities.
The Purge: Election Year (2016)
The Purge movies have gotten a surprising amount of mileage out of an implausible premise: In the near future, crime has been almost completely eliminated in the U.S. thanks to occasional "purges"—set periods of time in which violence is permissible, thus allowing people to get all their bad impulses out of their systems. The third film in the series, The Purge: Election Year, imagines the political and electoral implications for a country that "purges." Elizabeth Mitchell plays Senator Charlie Roan (sole survivor of a "Purge Night" family massacre) running for president on a promise to end purges. Of course, she has to survive even more thuggish behavior and coordinated attacks by her political opposition in her attempt to find safety, and then she has to win the election on top of that.
The Equalizer (2014)
The Equalizer is technically a remake—it's a big-screen adaptation of a vaguely remembered action TV series from the '80s. But it's such an elegantly-made, fast-paced flick that it's hard to fathom that it began life as a cheesy CBS show. The spry and charismatic Denzel Washington replaces Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, an ex-government spook trying to balance out the horrible things he did by now helping people who really need his unique set of skills. This time, it's McCall against some truly frightening Russian mobsters.
This completes the list.
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