The 21 best action movies of all time

Check out our complete list of the best action movies ever made, including classics from a range of genres and great new movies too

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What are the best action movies you can watch right now? Across the internet, there are plenty of movies to choose from. Maybe you want hard-hitting fist-fights, high-octane stunts, or a little escapist fantasy for your family movie night.

In order to save you from spending half your viewing time on streaming services 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, quasi-reboots, alien movies, super-soldiers, and even a Christmas movie treat. The set pieces are elaborate, the romance movie elements 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 21 best action movies, the cream of the crop, the absolute elite in thrill-ride cinema. Well, some are just personal favourites we think you’re very likely to enjoy. But that’s enough rambling; let’s get down to business.

Nic Cage in Face/Off

21. Face/Off (1997)

As subtle as a punch to the back of the head, Face/Off is John Woo’s deliberately overblown masterpiece. While the premise has all the delicacy of a reversing dump truck, its uninhibited (and surprisingly violent) action scenes deliver enough thrills to keep even the most jaded adrenaline junkie enthralled. If that’s not enough, you’ve also got  John Travolta and Nicolas Cage pretending to be each other. What’s not to love?

Daniel Craig led the first of his James Bond movies in action movie Casino Royale

20. Casino Royale (2006)

James Bond movies are essentially a synonym for action, and Casino Royale might be the most action-packed of the lot. Daniel Craig’s debut as 007 hits very hard indeed, from the incredible parkour chase in the opening act through to that sensational Aston Martin flip, which set a Guinness World Record for the most barrel rolls in a car.

But the real success of the movie is in dragging the Bond franchise down to earth after the invisible cars and sci-fi flourishes of Die Another Day. It’s grounded, brutal, and laid the table for arguably the best James Bond actor ever to start his reign.

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19. The Matrix (1999)

Before we get into questions of genre: yes, The Matrix is an action movie. It may very well have a science fiction movie premise, but it’s an action movie at its heart.

If you need convincing, take the scene where Neo and Trinity attempt their rescue of Morpheus. It’s an extended (and visually ground-breaking) set-piece filled with martial arts action, gun action, and slo-mo action. Every kind of action is welcome here, in a movie brimming with style and substance.

best action movies: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, and Rebecca Ferguson inMission Impossible Fallout

18. Mission Impossible — Fallout (2018)

The Mission Impossible franchise is ageing like fine wine, and its movies continue to get better. Fallout has Tom Cruise fighting on a helicopter, dealing with a lost love, and delivering on high-octane thrills.

Fan or no, Fallout is up there at the peaks of these spy movies, and was an instant classic with its fun twists, impeccably shot set pieces, and high stakes. Wall-to-wall action with just enough character stuff to juice it up into another next-level realm. Rebecca Ferguson is also in it, hello?

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17. Battle Royale (2000)

When you start discussing modern-day action movie classics, the Japanese 2000s movie Battle Royale needs to be in the conversation. Battle Royale is the last film to come from director Kinji Fukasaku and is an unapologetic adaptation of Koushun Takami’s controversial novel of the same name, which centres around a deadly game that a group of junior-high-school students are forced to play.

In this movie, violence against adolescents is front and centre. Battle Royale’s plot revolves around a bunch of teens who must fight to the death or be killed by the Japanese totalitarian government’s wishes. The plot is straightforward, making this flick seem simple from the outset. But as tension rises and classmates betray and turn against one another, your heart rate is guaranteed to accelerate.

Along with influencing the likes of Quentin Tarantino, the Netflix series Squid Game, and other ‘teen killing films’ such as The Hunger Games – Battle Royale has gone down in history as one of the best action movies and one of the most impactful flicks on pop culture too.

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

16. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

After twenty years making family movies, 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.

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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 the moment go. You can rewatch this a thousand times and still notice something new.

Best action movies: The Night Comes For Us on Netflix

15. 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

14. 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 video game demo reel. The cast all know exactly the kind of monster 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

13. 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

12. 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 Marvel movies need a 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.

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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 Steve’s appears to be working for the other side. Winter soldier is 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.

The best action movies of all time: The cast of Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers

11. 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 are this many six-legged creatures to worry about, you’ll hardly notice.

The best action movies of all time: Oldboy

10. Oldboy (2003)

This Korean movie basically invented the corridor fight (you’re welcome, superhero movies), and it features one of the most jaw-dropping plot twists of all time. Oldboy is a taut, tense, action-packed thriller with some of the slickest fight choreography you’re likely to see.

Best action movies: Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock as Jack and Annie in Speed

9. Speed (1994)

When it comes to a solid concept for an action flick, Speed cannot be beaten. There’s a bomb on a bus full of passengers, and if the bus goes below 50mph, the bomb goes off. Stellar stuff right there. And with action King Keanu Reeves in the driver’s seat, flanked by the comedy movie Queen Sandra Bullock, it only seems fair to give the high-octane thrill-inducing Speed its day in the sun.

Perhaps the underrated beauty of Speed is how the bus is nowhere to be found in the film’s opening. Instead, we open up on a rocket-speed-paced elevator sequence, which sets the bar for the intensely relentless ride that the rest of the film only builds upon.

Best action movies: The Raid

8. 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.

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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

7. Predator (1987)

Something from Arnie 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 exercises in sci-fi, the first Predator movie 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.

The best action movies of all time: Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai

6. 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

5. Die Hard (1988)

The best Christmas movie? 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.

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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.

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

4. 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.

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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

3. 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?

Best action movies: Jackie Chan in Police Story

2. Police Story (1985)

The film that began Jackie Chan’s ascent through the echelons of Hollywood, and kickstarted his fascination with death-defying stunts. An otherwise formulaic thriller, with detective Chan Ka-Kui (Chan) framed for murder in his efforts to take down a Hong Kong crime boss, becomes exhilarating with a myriad of increasingly ridiculous sequences.

Chan shows he’s the kind of leading man that can truly do it all, directing himself through intense fight scenes, over-the-top chases, and genuine character beats. We’ve long known him to be as funny as he is quick-footed and daring; this is him realising that potential in real-time.

Best action movies: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Nobody has understood the power Schwarzenegger brings to the silver screen quite like James Cameron in the first two Terminator movies. The Terminator turned the bulked-up star into an unstoppable killing machine, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day flips that back on its head by having him face the impending threat of special effects.

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The former bodybuilder shows no intimidation when faced with Robert Patrick’s liquid metal assassin, armed with a shotgun and motorbike. It’d be full throttle if not for Linda Hamilton’s weariness as Sarah Connor, the woman tormented by these machines. Her humanity brings pathos to the machines, and heart to this sci-fi classic.

That’s our list of the best action movies – have a look at the best zombie movies if you’d like more wild filmmaking. We also have a guide breaking down the best new movies 2023 has to offer.