20 Action Films That Are Equal Parts Kick-Ass & Beautiful

Terminator-2-judgement-dayPhoto: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures.
As you walk out of X-Men: Day of Future Past with your goose bumps still bumping and your saliva still salivating, we won't hold it against you if you're looking for ways to keep that adrenaline rush going. So, in honour of our mutant friends and the string of action movies set to invade multiplexes from now through September, we've compiled a definitive list of the 20 action movies you simply need to see.
Because you're in straight-up superhero mode, we made the conscious decision to give you something else to chew on, purposely excluding men and women in tights and capes. Instead, we're giving you a healthy dose of robots, cops, spies, and other do-gooders (and badders) who've kicked some serious cinematic tail.
Action movies are a dime a dozen because let's face it: They make boffo bucks at the box office. But, the following films have separated themselves from the pack. Here, the 20 action movies that have elevated the genre.
Cops 'N' Robbers, Heat (1995)
Purists might veer towards calling Michael Mann’s stylish masterpiece a crime drama, but the robbery scenes are so breathlessly shot and conceived that your heart will still be racing long after the final credits roll. And, while no buildings go bang, watching Al Pacino’s weary cop go toe-to-toe with Robert De Niro’s suave crook is more explosive than all the dynamite in Hollywood.
Cops 'N' Robbers, The French Connection (1971)
When people talk about the seventies as the Golden Age of American cinema, they’re talking about movies like William Friedkin’s frenetic police thriller, starring Gene Hackman as a New York Cop trying to take down the drug ring responsible for a heroin epidemic that’s eating the city alive. Friedkin’s fluid documentary-style filmmaking paved the way for the kind of hyper-realism that feels run-of-the mill today. And, that car chase. Oh, that car chase.
Cops 'N' Robbers, Point Break (1991)
Kathryn Bigelow may best be known for her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, but she emerged from the art scene with an adrenaline-filled narrative about Keanu Reeves getting a little too close to the dangerous Patrick Swayze. Bigelow was always obsessed with a smart take on the visceral, and this film put her on the map.
Cops 'N' Robbers, Lethal Weapon (1987)
If you ever see two odd couple cops chasing down baddies in a cruiser and wisecracking along the way, thank Richard Donner’s buddy-cop classic. Mel Gibson is the hot-headed Riggs, Danny Glover is the even-keeled Murtaugh, and together they’re the live wire of '80s masculinity and bravado that helped revolutionise actions pics forever.
Spy Games, Casino Royale (2006)
In this James Bond reboot, Daniel Craig didn’t just change our perception of the iconic British spy -- he beat it into a bloody pulp. Behind the gadgets and underneath the immaculately-fitting tuxedo lay a man who was as vulnerable as he was arrogant; as uncertain as he was cocksure. In other words, he was human. Unfortunately for the bad guys, he was a human who seriously knew how to kick in some teeth.
Spy Game, Mission Impossible (1996)
Of all of Tom Cruise’s mega blockbusters, this sleek adaptation of the TV series may be his biggest in terms of pure, unadulterated wow. Director Brian DePalma took the title quite seriously by feeding audiences sequence after sequence of how-did-they-do-that stunts and gonzo special effects. Your brain may not be required for this one, but popcorn definitely is.
Spy Game, The Bourne Identity (2002)
Picking from all the Bourne movies is like asking a mother to pick her favourite child. It’s just not fair. However, if forced, we have to go with the one that started it all. Our introduction to super-spy Jason Bourne is fierce, relentless, and edge-of-your-seat thrilling, thanks to director Doug Liman’s innovative hand-held action sequences, which bring you so close to the hand-to-hand fight scenes, you'll leave the movie seeing stars.
Spy Game, Munich (2005)
It might feel trivial to call Steven Spielberg’s brutal examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict an action movie. But, it’s also impossible to ignore a director at the height of his powers, as evidenced by the masterfully shot and conceived assassination scenes carried out by Eric Bana and his team of revenge-hungry Mossad agents. It’s the anti-Spielberg film: grizzly, ruthless, and unsentimental. Oh, and it’s also brilliant.
Action Auteurs, Face Off (1997)
The gist: John Travolta and Nicolas Cage play foes on opposite sides of the law who switch faces and duke it out with the heaviest artillery you ever did see. But, don’t let that preposterous setup fool you. Visionary director Jon Woo infuses the carnage with a poetry and verve that help elevate what could have been a complete disaster into one of the most seminal action films of the '90s.
Action Auteurs, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Say what you will about James Cameron, but the notoriously self-indulgent director could make ten Avatars (and rumor is, he will) and he’d still have a special place in our hearts. Why? Because he’s the man behind this dystopian nightmare, which features groundbreaking special effects, a truly terrifying baddie, and some of the most indelible catchphrases in movie history. Arnold did come back, just like he promised. And, so did we. Over and over again.
Action Auteur, Bladerunner (1982)
Ridley Scott's acclaimed masterpiece may be a neo-noir first and an action film second, but that won't stop us from gushing over Harrison Ford's turn as a retired cop hunting down killer androids in dystopian Los Angeles. If you prefer style over substance, it really doesn't matter here: This one is dripping with both.
Action Auteur, Pain & Gain (2013)
If you have to ask why everything in this movie is super-saturated in a charmingly nauseating Miami color palette, you clearly don't understand the effect The Rock has on his environment. Let us explain: He makes this already surprisingly self-aware Michael Bay diamond-in-the-rough that much better with his ridiculousness. Pain and Gain is a parody, a high-octane action movie, and a nuanced commentary on machismo rolled into one. Bring on the Muscle Milk.
Die Hard In A _____, Speed (1994)
Ah, yes. Die Hard On A Bus. This film did several things: Introduced us to the action chops of Keanu Reeves (which then led to The Matrix) and demonstrated how charming Sandra Bullock could be. In fact, this movie was so enjoyable and entertaining that both Bullock and Reeves were typecast in these roles for almost the next decade. And who can forget the lines, "I've heard that relationships based on intense situations never work." "Okay, we'll have to base it on sex then." Killer. Just killer.
Die Hard In A _____, Air Force One (1997)
We'll never know why it took so long for someone to cast Harrison Ford as the President, but thank goodness they did. In Wolfgang Petersen's high octane thriller, Ford's Commander in Chief is pushed to the limit when his titular plane is hijacked by a gang of Russian terrorists led by a never-better Gary Oldman. We'll let you guess who wins this one.
Die Hard In A _____, The Rock (1996)
This is Michael Bay's second appearance on the list, so clearly the director must be doing something right. Here he taps Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery to break into Alcatraz, which has been overrun by criminals — again. If blistering explosions and an endless stream of one-liners is your thing, then you must be a Bay fan. Here, the director is at the top of his game.
Die Hard In A _____, Die Hard (1988)
It’s Christmas time in L.A., and gruff New York City cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) must rescue a building full of hostages from the criminally insane Hans Gruber and his group of terrorist pals. With its epic gun battles, sleek set pieces, and shrewd one-liners, John McTiernan’s high-tech thriller became the definitive '80s actioner and turned Willis into one of Hollywood’s most sought-after leading men. Yippy Ki Yay, indeed.
Art House Action, The Professional (1994)
This wasn't just the debut of Natalie Portman; The Professional gave Gary Oldman room to flex his acting chops in a way he hadn't since Sid & Nancy. Jean Reno, who may be the most bad-assed Frenchman to ever grace a film, plays a lone assassin who is suddenly stuck with a revenge-hungry Portman. Oddly touching, beautifully filmed, and incredibly acted. Never forget: "This is for...MATHILDE."
Art House Action, Mad Max (1979)
Though Mad Max 2 and Beyond The Thunderdome are more firmly cemented in pop cultural history, the original took the old trope of a road movie and placed it in the grainy, unpolished backdrop of the Australian outback. The story doesn't have the fantastical elements of its successors, but shows a day in the life of one man trying to survive hell on earth.
Art House Action, Run Lola Run (1998)
With an explosive soundtrack and a punk ethos, Run Lola Run isn't your typical action movie fare...except the titular Lola never stops moving. She has 15 minutes to save her beloved boyfriend from certain doom, and the film presents three real-time, heart-racing scenarios. Like Sliding Doors...except, you know, good.
Art House Action, Deliverance (1972)
Some might argue that director John Boorman's nightmarish vision of America's backwoods isn't an action movie at all. We beg to differ. Instead of a steady stream of jabs, the action here occurs in sudden gut-punches, making it all the more jarring. From the thunderous river-rafting sequences to the shockingly violent conclusion, we'd argue that this elegiac study on postwar masculinity is in fact one of the most riveting action films ever made.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series