There’s something glorious about action films that defies a certain cinematic logic. Are the best action films always great films? Definitely not. Sometimes we like to revel in the ridiculousness of these films and that’s all a part of the fun. Other times, action movies are just amazing on almost every level (Terminator 2, The Matrix). But sometimes we just want a movie that delivers all the action plus a heaping dose of plot holes, overacting and cheesy dialogue. It can be nice to grab your favorite snack, get the HD television going with the lights off, and just indulge while growing a few extra chest hairs from absorbing all that testosterone pumping through the room.
While compiling this list, there were so many left off that couldn’t quite make the cut, but we’d like to acknowledge a few of them anyway. Sorry, wrestling fans, but Dwayne Johnson narrowly missed out. Perhaps surprisingly, we couldn’t justify giving a spot to Steven Seagal, either. Although we love Will Smith, he didn’t make it, nor did other modern actors like Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon, Christian Bale or Liam Neeson. That said, here is a list of outstanding action actors guaranteed to put the act in action.
15. Keanu Reeves
It wouldn’t be a fun list if we didn’t add a few (or more than a few!) controversial entries. Yes, we know all the jokes about Keanu’s acting skills. We know he lacks emotion and doesn’t seem to be able to intonate much when he speaks. But remember our introduction? Sometimes a little bad acting actually enhances our enjoyment of action films. We can’t imagine watching Speed with anyone else in the lead role. And for all of the problems with the second and third installments of The Matrix trilogy, the first film is excellent and you know it blew the mind of the 1990’s version of you. In fact, if you’re anything like us, you probably still wonder if we exist on some subordinate level of reality somehow removed from the top layer. Honestly, we would put Reeves on this list just for The Matrix. But he’s still making good action films. John Wick was surprisingly pretty decent. And remember Sweet November? Wait, that’s a different kind of action…
14. Nicolas Cage
Oh dear. Perhaps we’ve made a mistake early on in this list by putting Nicolas Cage right after Keanu Reeves. Neither of these actors is particularly renowned for his acting skills. Well, actually they both are, but just not in a positive manner. Did we just lose some credibility? Understandably, and that’s what the comment section is for if you need to unleash some nerd rage at our choices. But we stand by them! Nicolas Cage has made some great action movies. In fact, Con Air is still one of our favorite action films. Sure, it benefited from Steve Buscemi and his creepy tea party, but that film still holds up to intense scrutiny all these years later. And while the pretentious film buff in you might like to reject all things Cage, you have to admit that deep down, somewhere inside that blackened, shriveled, snarky heart, you’ve found some enjoyment in his films over the years. Perhaps you enjoyed the pseudo-Dan Brown National Treasure films. Remember Gone in 60 Seconds? The original Fast and the Furious, in some ways? It was fun. Face/Off was kind of enjoyable, if you ignore the horror that comes from blending John Travolta and Nicolas Cage into one being. See? He’s done some decent stuff. Except for The Wicker Man. That was just awful.
13. Mel Gibson
Sure, he’s fallen off the popularity ladder in recent years. We understand completely and would like to exclude him based on certain issues that we’re all aware of. But this list isn’t about the greatest guys in Hollywood; it’s about the best action stars, and Mel Gibson has a strong filmography. Braveheart was great and taught us what prima nocta was, even though we didn’t really want to know. It also taught us how to get shot in the ass with an arrow. We also enjoyed Signs, even if Shyamalan films tend to have their issues. That one was good though, with the slowly building suspense and quiet escalation of events. Plus Joaquin Phoenix is always great. The Patriot is a pretty solid historical action film. But the crown of his action career has to be Lethal Weapon. You know you loved that one. Admit it. We won’t think you’re anti-semitic.
12. Angelina Jolie Pitt
Yeah, it feels a bit weird to write that last name, even after all this time, but apparently it’s official! And would you like at that: we finally have a female on our list! We thought about putting Milla Jovovich on our list, but she didn’t quite make it, so we’re happy the prettier half of Brangelina did. Like Cage, she was in Gone in 60 Seconds and had hearts revving more than the engines. And while video games don’t often translate into very watchable movies, the Tomb Raider series maintained a pretty high level of entertainment throughout. Mr. & Mrs. Smith certainly had its problems, but if you want some nonsensical action with an attractive cast, this film delivers. Wanted and Salt are also pretty decent if you’re in the market for some mindless entertainment. For us, Jolie doesn’t have that one iconic action film on her resume that most of our entries do, but she’s built quite a career out of action movies and we imagine her role as Lara Croft made quite an impression on most of you in your younger days.
11. Harrison Ford
This is probably the first entry on our list that no one can refute. Seriously, if you make a list of top action stars and don’t put Harrison Ford on it, well, we wouldn’t do anything. But we wouldn’t agree with you. We might even write a strongly worded comment. Of course, we’d still be polite about it and everything. We aren’t heathens! Nonetheless, Harrison Ford has two roles that alone would put him on our list: Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Even if he never acted in another decent action film (but he did: Air Force One, The Fugitive, and so on), he would be one our list. Han Solo and Indiana Jones are two of the best action characters to ever grace the silver screen. You can’t take that away from him, even if the fourth and fifth Indiana Jones films are pretty terrible. But beyond those roles, he also stars in Blade Runner, which is arguably one of the best science fiction films of all time. Oh, and he’s also in Apocalypse Now. You may have heard of that little film as well…
10. Jackie Chan
We went back and forth about adding Jackie Chan to our list. One the one hand, it seems like one of these lists can’t exist without him on it. On the other, are any of his films that great? Shanghai Knights is pretty funny, but while it has action, it’s really more of a comedy. The same should be said for the entire Rush Hour series. Sometimes we wonder if people get him confused with Bruce Lee (to which we shout, Racist!). But he deserves a spot on our list for creating a unique blend of action and drama that makes watching his films a completely enjoyable (if not particularly cerebral) experience. But if you’re not quite convinced, he does have some great action films, like Rumble in the Bronx and Drunken Master. Those are excellent kung fu movies and you can’t make an action film list without including one of the corniest yet exhilarating genres in film.
9. Clint Eastwood
While we got our kung fu in, we also need to recognize Westerns. American film wouldn’t be what it is today without Western films. While they seem to have fallen out of popularity in recent decades, they make up the bulk of early American film, along with comedy and war movies. Clint Eastwood is arguably the father of the genre (along with John Wayne, of course!). Unforgiven is still one of our favorite films in any genre, while The Good, The Bad and the Ugly has become so iconic that it’s even over-referenced today. The Outlaw Josey Wales is a great film and who didn’t like Dirty Harry? Clint is such a great action star that he can even make a great action movie when he doesn’t provide any of the action! Million Dollar Baby is one of the better boxing movies without anyone in it named Rocky, and Clint was already too old to take a punch without risking a broken hip.
8. Chuck Norris
You knew this entry was coming at some point, which is amazing considering the fact that it’s very likely you’ve never watched any of his movies. Seriously, we bet about a quarter of the people reading this article really only know him from the Chuck Norris jokes. You know the ones. “Death once had a near-Chuck experience” and so on. If you have seen his films, you probably enjoyed the more recent The Expendables 2, but he had some excellent action roles earlier in his career. Our favorite film he acted in is probably The Way of the Dragon, where he plays the villain and is involved in a climactic showdown with Bruce Lee. And who can forget his role in Invasion U.S.A. where he wears just the right amount of denim to equally intimidate and arouse his enemies? Combined with his excellent taste in haircuts, his fashion sense screams 80s action star before the films even begin shooting.
7. Sean Connery
Is Sean Connery the best James Bond of all time? That’s debatable, but we know he’s definitely better than Pierce Brosnan. Goldfinger is one of our favorite Bond flicks and Dr. No is one of the better movies in that series. Alright, we admit that he’s playing a British intelligence agent even though he has a Scottish accent. That can be a bit difficult to overlook, but his delivery is so mesmerizing that he could read us the dictionary and we’d still be engaged. Heck, maybe we’d even write this article a bit better and not have to use the word “heck.” His time as James Bond is enough for us, but he’s done a lot of other great action films. He was in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and while it may not enjoy as much critical acclaim, we still enjoy The Rock much more with all of its Alcatraz-located violence. And The Untouchables is a great Al Capone movie that’s often overlooked and probably even necessary in order to get Bond hiss shaken Martinis. Wait, Bond takes place in England. Well, whatever. Just pretend that joke landed and move along.
6. Bruce Willis
Sure, he may look an awful lot like Droopy the dog (Google it if you don’t know what that is! And can we also take a moment to marvel at how the word “Google” has become a verb? We need that kind of brand recognition), but Bruce Willis stars in what is probably the greatest action film of all time: Die Hard. While the villain stole the show a bit from Willis, which is no surprise since Hans Gruber is one of the best villains in cinematic history, Die Hard is still the quintessential action film all these years later and it cemented Willis as one of the greatest action stars of all time. Yeah, he was in Armageddon and that film is about as corny as movies get, but The Fifth Element reaches such low levels it actually swings around to being good again. We can watch that movie over and over, with the occasional viewing of Die Hard to cleanse the pallet.
5. Tom Cruise
When his action doesn’t involve jumping on Oprah’s couch, it can actually be entertaining in a way that doesn’t induce (much) cringing from embarrassment. The Last Samurai is pretty ridiculous, although possibly worth a watch to see Tom Cruise with a big beard, but Top Gun is an often-imitated and quoted film. You’ve probably said this before without even knowing where it came from: “I feel the need…the need for speed.” And you probably weren’t even piloting a fighter plane. You were probably driving your children around in your minivan while going 5k over the speed limit. Or driving your girlfriend around in your parent’s Volvo. Minority Report wasn’t a bad film, either, and the first Mission: Impossible movie was pretty great, even if just thinking about it puts the theme song in our head like a bad Backstreet Boys song, not that we’re implying there is such a thing as a good one, nor do we have any on our smartphones loaded up for the trip home from work (in our minivan) or anything.
4. Jean-Claude Van Damme
Now we’re getting into the territory where our final 4 entries are all obvious. Think about it for a moment and you’ll probably guess them all, although maybe not in the same order we’ve chosen them. Van Damme’s name is synonymous with action film. Bloodsport is easily as exciting as its name implies, while Kickboxer delivers just as much boxing and kicking as you’d expect. And who can forget Timecop? That movie is gloriously cheesy and entertaining. It also delivers all the time and cop action you’d expect. His movie titles certainly hit the nail on the head – not that we mind. The only problem we really have with him, though, is that he strikes the same pose on almost every film cover/poster, with his right arm flexed and forward. Now we’re suspicious about his left arm. What’s wrong with it? Less muscular? Embarrassing tattoo of a heart with the word mother in it? Who knows.
3. Bruce Lee
Sadly, Bruce Lee only made it to the age of 32 before he passed in what is a curious death with more than a few conspiracy theories circulating around it, but in those years he managed to give us some of the best action films the world has ever seen. Enter The Dragon is arguably the best martial arts film, period. Really, any of his movies with the word “dragon” in the title are great, like The Way of the Dragon. Bruce Lee is definitely a physical specimen unlike anyone else on this list. Our first and second entries may be big and bulky, but we wouldn’t bet against Bruce Lee in a fight against either of them. In Enter the Dragon, he broke another actor’s arm just by kicking someone into him. That’s a second degree kick and it was still powerful enough to do some serious damage.
2. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Little known fact: long before he became known for his foray into politics, the Governator was actually an action film star. Seriously. Much like way back at the beginning of our list, Arnold is not the greatest example of strong acting skills, but it really doesn’t matter! His films are the kind you put on when you want a film with tons of action, fighting, explosions and corny one liners that will entertain you for the formulaic 90 minutes or so. Think about some of his major hits: Predator, Conan the Barbarian, Total Recall and Commando. Each of those is an action classic in its own right and we haven’t even gotten to his best: The Terminator series. T2 was definitely the better of the two films, but both are excellent and you can still hear people boldly declaring “I’ll be back!” in painful accents whenever they leave a room.
1. Sylvester Stallone
It’s usually tough to pick the number one entry on any list, but this one was actually surprisingly easier than most. We grew up watching the Rocky films and can probably recite a play-by-play with full dialogue of almost any scene from every movie in the series, except that lame 2006 one that we don’t like to speak about. But this is another one of those cases, like with Harrison Ford, where the actor has two ridiculously iconic roles, because while Rocky was certainly his biggest hit, Stallone also stars as one of our other favorite action stars: Rambo. Stallone is deadly with his fists or a knife. It really doesn’t matter, because he looks badass either way. Again, like so many entries on this list, his acting his pretty horrible and sometimes we aren’t entirely sure what he’s saying, but it doesn’t kill our enjoyment at all. We don’t watch action films for the sparkling dialogue and witty banter.