The best action movies of all time

Best action movies: Bruce Willis in Die Hard

What are the best action movies you can watch right now? Across multiple streaming services, there’s plenty to choose from, from blockbusters to B-movies. Maybe you want hard-hitting fist-fights, or high-octane stunts, or a little escapist fantasy for your family movie night. In order to save you from spending half your viewing time trying to pick something, we’ve listed the top choices on a range of platforms, allowing you to sit back, relax, and enjoy the explosions.

We’ve got beloved staples, modern sequels, quasi-reboots, alien invasions, super-soldiers, and even a festive treat, though there’s not much decking of the halls to be found here. The set-pieces are elaborate, the romances fleeting, and the heroes ruggedly handsome.

Some may baulk at what we’ve excluded, but hard choices had to be made while writing this list. These are the best of the best, the cream of the crop, the absolute elite in action cinema. Well, some are just personal favourites we think you’re very likely to enjoy. But that’s enough rambling, here’s our list:

What are the best action movies ever?

  • The Night Comes For Us
  • The Mummy
  • Furious 7
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • Starship Troopers
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Raid
  • Predator
  • Seven Samurai
  • Die Hard
  • John Wick
  • Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Best action movies: The Night Comes For Us on Netflix

The Night Comes For Us (2018)

If the names Iko Uwais or Timo Tjahjanto don’t mean anything to you now, they will after you watch this. Uwais has made waves in Hollywood over the last decade since starring in Gareth Edwards’ The Raid in 2011, and its 2014 sequel, while The Night Comes For Us marks Indonesian director Tjahjanto’s first feature to get wide distribution.

A sordid tale of gang violence in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, The Night Comes For Us is absolutely hard as nails. Every fight is a martial arts battle to the death, featuring makeshift weapons, and absolutely no regard for anyone’s opponents. You can tell Tjahjanto has a background in horror movies when a small army of goons invades an apartment building like a horde of zombies, forcing the heroes therein to struggle for their lives using little more than their fists.

Joe Talsim, Sub-Zero in the latest Mortal Kombat movie, stars opposite Uwais, and the climactic showdown between the two is like an ab workout in itself. As gruelling as it is compelling, and available anywhere you can access Netflix.

Best action movies: Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in The Mummy

The Mummy (1999)

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz face off against one of the Universal Monsters. If that doesn’t sound appealing, we are very different people. After they accidentally reawaken the mummy Imhotep using the book of the dead, Weisz’s Evelyn is captured, and Fraser’s Rick O’Connell leads the charge to save her. Much hijinks, scarabs, and talk of Egyptian curses ensue.

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Made in 1999, The Mummy is very plainly of that era. Everything’s just a little bit louder than it needs to be, sequences oscillate rapidly between tense and slapstick, and the computer-generated imagery looks like it was ripped from a videogame demo reel. The cast all know exactly the kind of movie they’re in, though it’s Fraser’s turn as the heroic lead that still lingers after the credits roll.

Best action movies: Furious 7 from Universal

Furious 7 (2017)

Really, any of the Fast and Furious instalments from Fast 5 onward would be comfortable here, but Furious 7 is the one we’re going with. The mid-movie jump between Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Towers in a $3.4 million Lykan HyperSport alone justifies this positioning, a scene so over-the-top nobody except Vin Diesel seems to believe it’s even happening.

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Come for the quasi-loop-the-loops and sudden drops, stay for the overture of familial companionship. Co-lead actor Paul Walker passed away towards the end of filming, making this the last sequel to feature the core cast. The Fast series has always been corny, but this time, when Diesel and Walker go their separate ways, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s ‘See You Again’ playing overhead, it’s hard not to feel a bump in the throat.

Best action movies: Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2016)

Dipping into the Marvel Cinematic Universe can require a week’s worth of homework to understand anything. Some of the movies need mercifully little context, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of those. Joe and Anthony Russo’s introduction to the franchise is just a rock-solid thriller, about a principled soldier who decides to blow up a corrupt system rather than serve it.

Steve Rogers, the titular Captain, played by Chris Evans, has some reservations about SHIELD’s methods of surveillance. Turns out, his gut is right, and SHIELD turns out to be infested by Hydra, a fascist organisation. When Rogers challenges this, he ends up on the run, accompanied by Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannsson) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). On top of that, an old friend of Rogers appears to be working for the other side.

A sequel that relies more on what’s happening on-screen than some complicated history to keep you enthralled, and all the better for it.

Best action movies: Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven

Starship Troopers (1997)

Yes, thanks to Disney’s acquisition of Fox, Starship Troopers, the incredibly violent send-up of fascist ideals directed by Paul Verhoeven is on the same platform as The Lion King, Toy Story, and whatever Mickey Mouse is up to. Soldiers with big guns try, and mostly fail, to make a dent in ever bigger insects. Neon-coloured blood, severed limbs, and state propaganda abound.

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A poignant satire on the military-industrial complex running even more amok than usual, and an audacious and nihilistic flick about trying to blow up giant bugs. The presentation is undeniably Verhoeven, from the straight-faced advertisements and vignettes to all the blocky, grey technology, and a young Neil Patrick Harris proves he had charisma from the jump. Some of the acting otherwise isn’t outstanding, but when there’s this many six-legged creatures to worry about, you’ll hardly notice.

Best action movies: Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

After twenty years making family films, George Miller finally got back in the driver’s seat for another Mad Max. Needless to say, it was worth the wait. Mad Max: Fury Road is a miracle of filmmaking. A circus of fire and metal, souped-up cars driven by members of a death cult, in the desert of post-apocalyptic Australia. One guy’s job is to just play riffs over a gigantic set of speakers, shooting flames from his guitar while shredding.

This go around, Tom Hardy is Max, taking over from Mel Gibson, and he’s helping Charlize Theron’s Furiosa to escape Immortan Joe, a tyrannical leader who monopolised the water supply. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere else to run, and instead, they take the fight to Joe by driving back the way they came. Pedal to the metal from moment go, you can rewatch this a thousand times and still notice something new.

Best action movies: Joe Taslim in The Raid

The Raid (2011)

The second appearance by Iko Uwais, and the film that helped him break into Hollywood. He’s back in Jakarta, Indonesia, this time directed by Gareth Edwards, of Godzilla fame. Like Fury Road, The Raid has a simple premise: a police squad has to fight its way through an apartment building to reach the crime lord at the top, and like Fury Road, it’s all in the execution.

It’s hard to overstate the pace at which The Raid handles itself. Fights are quick and meticulous, everyone looking for the fastest, easiest way to put their opponent down for good. Uwais and his co-stars put in a workout that would make even Jackie Chan sweat, moving from encounter to encounter with a lethal quickness. Close-ups of pained faces, and extended beatdowns, mean we aren’t spared any of the aches and pains, either.

Best action movies: the predator in Predator

Predator (1987)

Something from Arnold had to be included, and what better than John McTiernan’s 1987 jungle chiller? Schwarzenegger leads a battalion as Major Alan ‘Dutch’ Schaefer on a rescue mission to a Central American rainforest, but they’re not the only visitors. Slowly, they’re whittled down by whatever’s out there, leaving only Dutch to face this thing.

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Like many great sci-fi movies, Predator starts as one thing – a straight-laced piece of military action – before becoming something else entirely. Armed to the teeth, Dutch’s men treat death as an afterthought to their objective, but when the tables turn, they all receive grisly executions from the movie’s titular alien. Great one-liners abound, from “Dillon, you son of a bitch!”, to Jesse Ventura’s “I ain’t got time to bleed”, and the cries of “Do it!” at the end. Arnie’s providing all the encouragement you need, really.

Best action movies: Seven Samurai, directed by Akira Kurosawa

Seven Samurai (1954)

Few actor-director partnerships have produced more great films than Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, and Seven Samurai is among the best for either party. Literally, genre-defining, in that it helped mould how American studios would approach these sort of movies for years to come, Kurosawa’s fourteenth feature film has stood the test of time, and then some.

Told across two parts, seven masterless samurai come together to help protect a village under attack in 16th century Japan. The battles and showdowns are largely why it’s here, sometimes kinetic and energising, other times tense and methodical, and always spectacular. In typical Kurosawa fashion, these are contrasted by quiet moments of human drama that heighten the surrounding bloodshed. Alongside Mifune are other Kurosawa regulars Takeshi Shimura and Daisuke Kato, making this a fine starting position for further research into Japanese film history.

It was directly remade as The Magnificent Seven in 1960, and has been heavily copied ever since, in everything from Star Wars to A Bug’s Life. Most of the other entries on this list owe a debt to what was accomplished here.

Best action movies: Bruce Willis in Die Hard

Die Hard (1988)

The best Christmas film? We’re not so sure, but one of the best action movies? Without a doubt. Following on from putting Schwarzenegger through the wringer in Predator, the next year John McTiernan decided it was time Bruce Willis got similar treatment.

On one end is Willis’ John McClane, a hard-nosed New York detective visiting Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles to see his estranged wife, on the other is Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, a German criminal who plans to steal several hundred million dollars in bearer bonds from the same building. Gruber’s plan accounted for everything except McClane, and what follows is a bloody game of cat-and-mouse to determine who’ll walk away at the end.

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Where later Die Hard sequels view McClane akin to the Terminator, what makes the first essential is McTiernan’s focus on John’s pain. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, and just about every scene is a reminder of that in one way or another, whether it’s a close call from under a table, or walking on glass barefoot. Truly, the reprieve of the closing credits is earned.

Best action movies: Keanu Reeves in John Wick

John Wick (2014)

If there’s a lesson to be learned from John Wick, it’s that you should never cross the Boogeyman, and that goes double for hurting his dog. Co-directed by stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, based on a script from Derek Kolstad, you can tell this was made by people who have an intimate understanding of what makes for thrilling onscreen conflict. Before retiring, Wick was the greatest gun money could hire, and the way he dismantles rival hit-people on his way to redemption proves his talents over and over.

It helps that Wick is played by the ever-affable Keanu Reeves, who, at 50, handles the rough-and-tumble gunplay like he’s just off the back of The Matrix, yet carries the weariness of someone who’s very aware of time’s unyielding march. The supporting cast includes Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, and Willem Dafoe, meaning that while Reeves is the main attraction, there’s no vacuum in scenes he’s not involved.

In a career chock full of pop culture staples, John Wick sits among the greatest in Reeves’ repertoire, and of the 2010s in general. A satisfying, lean, muscular thrill-ride whose sequels mean you could give yourself a double-or-triple-bill if there’s enough time in the evening.

Best action movies: Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is famous for his running. We have it on good authority he’s contractually obliged to do a marathon a movie. Well, that’s a lie, but it sure seems that way, and Ghost Protocol’s sprint against a sandstorm in Dubai is monumental.

Extreme afternoon jogs aside, the fourth Cruise-led Mission: Impossible is a prime example of why every one of these flicks is worth seeing in a theatre. We’re in Russia for a stretch first, so Ethan can be busted out of prison, then it’s away to Dubai for some thrilling espionage, before a climax in Mumbai involving lots of falling cars. How’s that for cardio?

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Anthony McGlynn

Staff writer

Updated: Jul 28, 2021


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