Whether it’s our basest human tendencies toward competition and argumentation, an obsessive quirk of some hobbyists, or a simple marketing ploy, fans love ranking things and pitting them against each other. ‘Best Of’ lists are extremely popular, and feed into the awful, divisive impulses of people, so what better genre to rank than the one solely focused on people fighting each other — action?
Ranking lists can shine a light on titles that more people should see, bringing exposure to a variety of films while also validating the opinions of others and celebrating the truly worthy. Now, it’s tricky to list the best action films ever made, because few films solely exist within one single genre, most of all action. While there are obviously many films that debatably could be ranked, the following are the most essential and greatest of all time.
Updated on September 16th, 2023 by Soniya Hinduja: If you’re an action die-hard or are just looking to catch up on the best action films of all time, you’ll be happy to know that we’ve updated this article with additional content.
35 Enter the Dragon (1973)
Bruce Lee is basically synonymous with martial arts and kung fu, and in Enter The Dragon, the legend delivered a phenomenal performance. Lee starred as a Shaolin monk and kung fu master who is sent undercover by a British Intelligence agent to investigate Han’s annual martial arts expo and competition on a secret island.
What follows is a series of blistering fight scenes showcasing Lee’s lightning-fast speed, his physical grace, and the iconic punishing kicks as he faced his opponents. Both the choreography of the action scenes and the stunt work by Lee remain unrivaled to this day. Moreover, the climactic showdown between Lee and Han, with its use of unexpected props, ranks as one of the greatest one-on-one fights in movie history.
34 The Matrix (1999)
Immediately upon its release, The Matrix became an instant science fiction classic that redefined the genre as well as pioneered a spectacular franchise. The reason? Its groundbreaking visual style, game-changing action, and mind-bending concepts. Keanu Reeves takes his role as Neo, a hacker who realizes that what we perceive as reality actually isn’t.
It is a simulated world known as the ‘Matrix,’ created by sentient machines to conquer the human race. With the help of a rebel group. Neo must choose to leave the Matrix and enter the real world. The Matrix had some stunning action scenes – from the iconic lobby shootout to the final kung fu battle – and they set a new high water mark for the stylish, CGI-enhanced dance of fists and kicks. But the true weight and punch behind the visuals lies in its philosophical questions about the nature of reality.
33 Black Panther (2018)
As far as the vast database of Marvel goes, Ryan Coogler’s action-packed superhero epic deserves high praise for several reasons. Featuring an almost entirely African-American cast led by Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther followed T’Challa, the king of the fictional nation Wakanda, who also takes on the secret identity of the titular superhero.
When a long-hidden enemy rises, T’Challa’s leadership and personal beliefs are put to the test as his nation is endangered. Being relentlessly inventive and thrilling in its action, the movie never misses a beat in flaunting the incredible Wakandan technology and features the fleet-flooded Black Panther himself performing aerial acrobatics in dazzling fashion. But what truly makes the 2018 film so special is the way it explores themes of colonialism, race, duty, and sacrifice with sheer complexity and nuance.
32 The Bourne Identity (2002)
A pitch-perfect espionage thriller that launched one of the all-time great action franchises, The Bourne Identity introduced fans to Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. He was an amnesiac forced to discover his own identity while being hunted by dangerous assassins. The plot is fast-paced, with an exhilarating cat-and-mouse chase dominating the story as Bourne trots around the globe.
The use of locations is truly praiseworthy but the main reason the film stands out is its innovative use of shaky camerawork, tight framing, and cropped editing during the action. These techniques made the viewer feel just as perplexed as the fights themselves. Breathing new life into Robert Ludlum’s 1980 novel, the movie redefined the spy genre for the 21st century with its jaw-dropping mix of intrigue, practical stunts, and a heart-pounding finale.
31 Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
Tom Cruise’s M:I series is undoubtedly the gold standard for adrenaline-fueled, large-scale action entertainment. Perhaps the best movie in the entire franchise, Mission: Impossible – Fallout brings Cruise back as Ethan Hunt, who must now race against time to prevent a global disaster. Another action blockbuster that takes fans around the world and thrusts them into an avalanche of breathless set pieces, Hunt and his team are looking for a way to destroy the three plutonium cores robbed by terrorists.
Stunts like the gravity-defying bike chase in Paris, the brutal hand-to-hand prison fight, and the iconic helicopter dogfight left even the audience out of breath. Cruise, even in his mid-50s performs all these spectacular stunts by himself, proving just how committed he is to the art. After having invested in the beloved characters for six installments, the visuals and the pacing land with even more punch.
30 Police Story (1985)
Before Jackie Chan became a household name in the world of martial arts movies, his earliest films cemented him as a modern-day Buster Keaton. The best example of this is Police Story, directed by Jackie Chan himself in 1985. When a detective succeeds in the messy arrest of a drug lord, the subsequent protection of a police secretary will push just about everyone into the crosshairs of nefarious gangsters.
Featuring several of Jackie Chan’s most famous moments, Police Story is an amazing showcase of his physicality and large-scale action sequences. It also features his most infamous stunt, wherein Jackie slides several stories down a pole through broken glass and heated light bulbs. After the stunt’s completion, he walked away with severe burns and multiple shattered bones. But, despite almost dying several times throughout the film’s production, Police Story remains both a fan favorite and a personal favorite of Jackie Chan himself in his vast filmography.
29 El Mariachi (1992)
Robert Rodriguez’s feature film debut, El Mariachi, was made with about $7,000 in the early 1990s. Carlos Gallardo plays a traveling musician simply doing what he does best to get by. But when an assassin carrying a similar-looking guitar case starts to wreak havoc, a story of mistaken identity will see our mariachi fighting for his life in a widespread manhunt.
The first entry of the aptly named “Mexico Trilogy,” El Mariachi overcomes its low budget with slick cinematography, welcomed humor, and plenty of creative filming techniques. While Gallardo would be replaced by Antonio Banderas in Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, we can’t help but root for him as bullet casings and dulcet guitar tones rain down in equal measure. It’s an incredibly charming debut that, frankly, still looks amazing despite its minuscule budget.
28 Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Live. Die. Repeat. Based on an original story created by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow may come off as a typical Tom Cruise action flick on the surface. But underneath the typecasting is something a little more profound. In a future where Europe is occupied by an alien threat, a lone public affairs officer is forced to participate in the conflict. After seemingly dying in action, he reawakens the morning prior with a full recollection of the events leading to his demise.
A time-loop action film, Edge of Tomorrow is a surprising outing from Cruise and Emily Blunt that twists a typical sci-fi action film into something far more brilliant. Combine that with practical exo-suits, unique alien designs, and an exploration of time travel effects on warfare, and fans get a brilliant standalone film that left them begging for an Edge of Tomorrow sequel.
27 Hot Fuzz (2007)
The middle entry of the Cornetto trilogy, Hot Fuzz sees the familiar duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost team up once more in both a love letter to and parody of action films. A former London constable is reassigned to a quiet, down-to-earth village named Sandford. Paired with an oafish partner, things couldn’t be more peaceful and serene. But, after a grisly incident sparks a fire in our constable, the town’s answers may be a cover for something far more nefarious.
Hot Fuzz combines Edgar Wright’s frantically comedic style with a thorough appreciation of what came before. It takes the established stereotypes associated with the genre and takes them to the nth degree with a boisterous grandeur. It also happens to be incredibly funny, which is also a plus. Frequently cited as the best of the Cornetto trilogy, Hot Fuzz is practically required viewing for anyone who’s a fan of action flicks.
26 Hardcore Henry (2015)
Hardcore Henry answers the age-old question: could a first-person video game work as a movie? Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, but those prone to motion sickness may want to avert their eyes. A film deliberately light on plot, Hardcore Henry sees our titular hero revived as a cyborg after an accident leaves him mute and amnesiac. After being attacked by a mysterious organization, Henry and a friendly stranger named Jimmy must fight their way through modern-day Russia in order to rescue the woman who revived him.
Hardcore Henry is a ninety-minute sensory overdose seen through the eyes of our violent protagonist, with not much else going for it. However, they squeeze just about every bit of action they can out of this unique gimmick, with Parkour, graphic violence, gunfights, and some physical comedy filling up its brisk runtime.
25 Ip Man (2008)
Does Ip Man embellish the real life of its eponymous Wing Chun master? Yes, absolutely. But that’s not to say that this 2008 Donnie Yen action flick isn’t worth seeing. Ip Man sees Yen playing one of the most famous practitioners of Wing Chun both before and during the Japanese occupation of China, tasked with surviving the harsh living conditions while passing his knowledge on to others.
If that isn’t already a particularly intriguing concept, fans may like to know that Ip Man also mentored the late, great Bruce Lee later in the 1950s. Utilizing its historical context for a bit more emotional weight, Ip Man is a surprisingly dramatic action film that also doesn’t skimp on the ludicrous fight scenes. With not a single moment wasted due to its stellar pacing, it’s also a complete breeze to watch and re-watch again and again.
24 Crank (2006)
Crank, as well as Crank 2: High Voltage, are some of the most hilariously over-the-top action films of the mid-to-late 2000s. The first film in this frenetic duology sees Jason Statham play an assassin named Chev Chelios, who finds himself in a particularly sticky situation. In a similar vein to Speed, Chev is in a race against time to cure a poison currently running through his veins. How can he buy himself more time? Simple: all he has to do is keep his heart rate up with a constant stream of adrenaline.
Crank is a film that appropriately never lets up. There’s simply no time for breathing room, as Chev bounces between gang fights, reckless driving, illicit drug use, and more in his search for a cure. Combined with Statham’s comedic timing, both Crank films are an uproariously good time if you have an afternoon to kill.
23 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Arguably the most well-known and critically lauded wuxia film internationally, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sees Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat co-star in a brilliant action film directed by Ang Lee. After an ancient sword called the Green Destiny is stolen during a delivery to a prominent governor, a pair of warriors find themselves battling their internal desires and external foes on their journey to reclaim their prized possession.
Notable for its focus on female characters after the release of Mulan, along with taking place in an imagination-tinged recreation of Qing dynasty China, this brilliant martial arts film has just about every actor actively participating in their own stunts. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was also a breakout film for Michelle Yeoh in the West, introducing her to the US more than twenty years before Everything Everywhere All at Once.
22 Aliens (1986)
Topping Ridley Scott’s act after the first Alien was tricky. It’s great that James Cameron likes challenges because he left his mark in the franchise with this fantastic (and more action-oriented) sequel to the 1978 space horror thriller. The Xenomorphs are back in Aliens, and this time it’s a whole nest of them. Aliens is a pulse-pounding action film that elevates the lore of the property and makes it a household name.
Sigourney Weaver returns as Ellen Ripley in a story set 57 years after her last battle with the Xenomorph in the Nostromo. She must join a team of armed Marines to face the horde of deadly creatures and try to rescue a group of colonizers. This movie has intense suspense, thrilling shootouts, and one-on-one fights against the powerful Alien Queen. It’s the perfect blend of horror, sci-fi, and near-constant adrenaline-fueled action that viewers won’t dare to miss.
21 RoboCop (1987)
The ’80s feel synonymous with the age of the action star, and while everyone was fawning at everything made by Stallone or Arnold, along came a sleek guy named Peter Weller who delivered his second-best performance (first goes to Naked Lunch, of course) in the first RoboCop. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, RoboCop is a powerfully satirical and classic action film blending multiple dystopian elements with thrilling shootout and fight sequences.
The story is set in a crime-ridden Detroit in a not-so-distant future and follows Weller’s Alex Murphy. He’s a police officer who Clarence Boddicker and his gang brutally murdered. OCP manages to resurrect him as a powerful cyborg programmed for law enforcement. As RoboCop, Murphy fights numerous dangerous criminals and corruption on every level of the corporate ladder. This action piece is so well-paced that it explores Murphy’s inner conflicts while striving to reclaim his lost humanity. The amazing script contains social commentary, explosive action sequences, and memorable quips, and is ridiculous fun.
20 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a direct sequel to the first film, set 12 years after its events. The story begins with Sarah Connor locked up in a mental health facility while John Connor lives with a foster family. The groundbreaking sequel raised the bar for visual effects and storytelling in cinema for years to come, and like Aliens (and more recently, Avatar: The Way of Water) proved that Cameron could outdo himself and raise the action in franchise sequels.
Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as the Terminator, but this time he’s on the side of good after being reprogrammed by the future John Connor to protect himself in the past from the T-1000, a new Terminator model created using liquid metal. Edward Furlong debuted as young Connor, and Linda Hamilton returned as Sarah. This wild sequel was the most expensive film ever made for its day and changed the game for Hollywood blockbusters with its heart-pounding action sequences and jaw-dropping visual effects.
19 Taken (2008)
In 2008, everyone already knew Liam Neeson was a fantastic actor, but no one could foresee how much of an excellent action star he would become. At 56 years old, Neeson took on the role of retired CIA agent Bryan Mills and made everyone drop their jaws with the fast-paced and intense first entry of Taken. The film, directed by Pierre Morel, is one of the most intense thrillers ever made, one that opened the doors for aging movie stars to energize their careers as action movie stars.
In the film, Mills is an overprotective, divorced father of a 17-year-old. After being convinced by his former wife to grant permission to their daughter to travel, he finds out her daughter has been kidnapped after landing in Paris. Mills takes matters into his own hands and goes on a relentless mission using his unique set of skills and a no-nonsense attitude to track down the ruthless human traffickers and kill each one of them.
18 The Raid (2011)
Some of the best action films are small-scale situations depicting the harsh realities experienced by authority figures in other regions of the world. Gareth Evans’ The Raid stars Indonesian martial arts superstar Iko Uwais as rookie cop Rama. The movie takes place in a single location: a building used by a gang to protect hunted criminals, and every single floor is packed with people more than willing to kill the SWAT team to avoid being captured.
Rama must bear witness as each crew member is taken out while he fights his way out of the building, trying to capture the crime lord taking refuge there. The Raid takes hold of viewers’ senses and won’t let them go, as Rama uses everything in his hands to deal with the unending wave of criminals going after him. This movie has intense shootouts, incredibly choreographed fights, and brutal violence. It’s a visual feast that’ll keep fans at the edge of their set until the very end.
17 Kill Bill (2003)
2003’s Kill Bill remains Quentin Tarantino’s flagship action title, and it was somewhat of a standalone flick in a genre that was experiencing a general air of malaise in the noughties. The feet-fetishizing, Asian cinema-inspired, enigmatic Jackie Brown director has always been a devout bastion of rebel-rousing dialogue and comic-strip style violence. Kill Bill was representative of what the auteur could deliver when he departed from his archetypal field of the crime-drama.
The film, based on 1973’s Japanese action-thriller, Lady Snowblood, follows the story of The Bride (Uma Thurman). Following a lethal attack from her boss Bill, she is left comatose. After waking from her period of prolonged insensibility, The Bride has one thing on her mind: vengeance. Going on a samurai-sword-wielding, retribution-motivated killing spree, the fearless samurai in her unmistakable yellow, all-in-one tracksuit tracks down her nemesis. The movie contains, arguably, one of the defining action sequences of the decade as she takes on the Crazy 88.
16 Bullitt (1968)
Steve McQueen was the true action-movie godfather, the first real action star who seemingly embodied his characters off-screen as well as in front of the camera. Bullitt was a watershed moment for the genre, and it set the blueprint for the future of the action movie with its enthralling car chases and breathtaking set pieces.
Peter Yates’ 1968 film, adapted from author Robert L. Fish’s novel, Mute Witness, tells the story of police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, a laconic, unreadable man who is tasked with protecting Johnny (Pat Renella), a man whose testimony could secure the conviction of an infamous mob boss.