When John Woo’s 1989 breakthrough The Killer started slipping into repertory houses and cult video stores, it was the beginning of a revolution, like an adrenalized marriage between the cool of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï and the operatic bloodletting of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. But The Killer turned out to be a mere throat-clearing for Woo’s follow-up, Hard Boiled, which kicks off with a shootout in a teahouse filled with birdcages (bullets and feathers go flying) and builds to 40mins of pyrotechnics at a hospital that swings unforgettably through the nursery.
Exploring the dualities that frequently pop up in his work, Woo teams his favorite star, Chow Yun-Fat, with another emerging Hong Kong legend, Tony Leung, as a police detective and an undercover agent who’s deep (perhaps too deep) in triad business. Their relationship raises the stakes of a gangland battle royale that Woo stages with elegant, slow-motion panache, a style that Hollywood would imitate shamelessly in the ’90s and beyond, but rarely come close to replicating. Scott Tobias
The Five Deadly Venoms
After dozens upon dozens of the martial arts bonanzas cranked out by Hong Kong mega-studio Shaw Brothers (or their rivals at Golden Harvest) have fought to the death for my personal top-slot honors, only Chang Cheh’s opera of body blows and flying spin kicks will stand tall. Rightly endorsed by kung fu connoisseur and de facto Wu-Tang head honcho The RZA as the greatest of all time, Cheh’s canon classic breaks away from the pack on merit of its singularly brilliant gimmick, which convenes a gang of specialists with colorful signature styles against our vengeful hero. The wriggling Caterpillar, the precision-striking Snake, the pincer-footed Scorpion, the gravity-defying Lizard, and the indestructibly squat Toad supply the genre with a handful of immortal set pieces, each explicitly predicated on the same creativity required to pull off a great fight sequence. Our man Yang thinks along the same inventive lines as Cheh, searching for weak points instead of hiding them, constantly innovating a way to top his last feat of ass-annihilating prowess. Charles Bramesco
Once Upon A Time in Mexico
There are plenty of better action movie directors than Robert Rodriguez. Hell, in 2003 Rodriguez’s good friend Quentin Tarantino released Kill Bill Vol 1, which is almost definitely a better action movie than Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which came out almost exactly a month earlier. But Once Upon a Time in Mexico is also my choice for favorite action movie, in the sense that – unlike Kill Bill, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or any of number of other movies that could easily compete for the title – I probably like it more than anyone else does.
Rodriguez’s finale to the makeshift trilogy that began with his El Mariachi and continued with Desperado sends the gun-and-guitar-toting Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) on a convoluted adventure, crossing paths with a nutty CIA operative (Johnny Depp) and a drug lord with face-altering surgery (Willem Dafoe), among others. More than ever, Rodriguez expresses character through his set pieces, whether hurtling the Mariachi and his wife (Salma Hayek) out of a hotel window as an act of doomed romanticism, or showing a CIA man’s desperation (and rat-like survival instincts) through a blind shoot-out. Throughout, the outlandishness ties the trilogy together thematically. Early on, when one character narrates a characteristically over-the-top action scene, he mentions the “embellishments” that come with such stories, underlining how Rodriguez keeps heightening the Mariachi’s story as the movies progress. In other words, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is an action movie about the escalating ridiculousness of action movies – and the value of that constant ante-upping. Jesse Hassenger
As a child fascinated by, of all things, the American Revolution, the 2004 film National Treasure seemed like a dream – a movie in which old documents are a literal secret puzzle, solved by a man whose knowledge of basic American history trivia allows him to outsmart the FBI. Nicolas Cage’s punchline-as-mission-statement – “I’m going to steal the Declaration of Independence” – really hit as an 11-year-old; it has continued to hit, in a sillier way, as a meme and during each of the 15-ish times I’ve watched it.
There are many good reasons to dismiss National Treasure: its deeply unearned patriotism, its belief in a secret treasure-guarding cabal that has aged poorly in the QAnon era, its nonsensical plot. A very incomplete list of ridiculous elements: when they actually steal the Declaration of Independence; the fact that using lemon juice and a hair dryer on it doesn’t ruin it; Diane Kruger’s patchy American accent; the massive ancient treasure trove buried stories beneath downtown Manhattan that no one in the history of subway construction ever discovered. I simply have to take the generous view: National Treasure’s sincere delivery of the truly and utterly ludicrous is never not fun to watch. Adrian Horton
There are at least two reasons why The Matrix must be in the running for greatest action movie of all time: it set a new standard for the genre by redefining how action movies looked and felt, and it helped moviegoers around the world articulate why modern life felt so false, finding fans everywhere from the Christian church to the queer community. Incredibly, it did this via a slightly crazy, Baudrillian thesis that real life was in fact a simulation created by machines that had enslaved humanity, offering a powerful revamping of the hero’s journey myth via a hacker-turned-messiah named Neo. But wait, there’s even more: the cherry on top is that this visionary movie was made by two transgender women (still closeted at the time) who conceived it as an allegory for what it feels like to be trans in a cis-dominated world. More than just an action movie, it was actually a subversive piece of queer art that is still relevant and necessary nearly 25 years after it was first released. Veronica Esposito
The Fifth Element
Action has never been my favorite film genre: there’s something fundamentally off, I find, about the participation in frantic onscreen activity while you are sitting completely still in a chair. Plus the sense that, as CGI has become ever more ubiquitous, that you are witnessing some risk-free, super-artificial maelstrom that represents no jeopardy whatsoever. That’s why, for me, the best action films are the most absurd and surreal, like Luc Besson’s space fable about love from the mid-90s. You get Bruce Willis in his mid-career pomp, but also mad Gaultier costuming, Milla Jovovich squawking a made-up language and a Stargate-style alien-pyramids subplot. Always worth a watch. Andrew Pulver
Call it an embarrassing sign of my age or a bleak comment on the sorry state of the industry or perhaps most likely a combination of the two but I find the majority of contemporary action sequences maddeningly hard to follow. The size of the spectacle might be increasing by the month (and the Marvel phase) but my involvement is steadily reducing, disinterest bred by confusion. I often have a blackout reaction to massive, poorly stitched together setpieces, usually in the last act, where too much is happening and too little care for coherence and choreography is employed. My brain chooses nothing over everything.
But back in 2012, an unlikely action thriller (made in Indonesia by Welsh director Gareth Evans), was crafted with such careful precision that I found it impossible to turn away, let alone blackout. The barebones video game setup (a squad of commandos must make it through a high-rise building filled with low-level henchmen in order to take down the local crime lord) was so generic that even another film that year – Dredd – boasted an almost identical plot. But the across the board A-game craftsmanship meant that the journey was like nothing we’d ever really seen, an immersive seat-edge series of thrillingly performed and edited fight scenes, the kind of hyper-competent action that makes you instinctively move your body along with every punch, kick and stab. It’s all deceptively simple but contains far more complexity than the majority of action films since. Benjamin Lee
Alan Rickman’s wicked cool villain Hans Gruber speaks our language when leaning over a scale model of a bridge, purring about its “exactness” and “attention to every conceivable detail”. He could very well be describing Die Hard, a thrilling show of craftsmanship where every small bit of info pays out dividends.
The first thing we learn about Bruce Willis’ off-duty NYPD cop John McClane is his anxiety about flying. That’s what gets him to try a socks-off relaxation therapy, which is interrupted by hostage takers and leaves him scurrying for the rest of the movie barefoot, going a few rounds with broken glass. Two hours after that initial introduction, McClane is flying off a skyscraper — damn the anxiety — now with bloodied feet.
Die Hard became a blueprint for the modern action movie because its architecture is so perfect. But the irritable and vulnerable hero scaling its “40 stories of sheer adventure” (as the poster puts it) remains uncommon. There simply aren’t that many movies led by a cop who chooses to patiently hang back and run his mouth, instead of running in guns blazing. Radheyan Simonpillai
The Spook Who Sat by the Door
Based on the incendiary 1969 book by former foreign-service officer Sam Greenlee, Ivan Dixon’s deliciously subversive 1973 blowback fantasy of using white people’s own discrimination and misguidedness against them still shimmers with controlled rage – and unfortunate persistent relevance.
It’s the fictional story of the first Black CIA officer (Lawrence Cook), a token affirmative-action hire in the late 1960s, who takes his spy training back to the streets of Chicago to spark a countrywide revolution, emphasizing community and education as the keys to overthrowing white supremacy. Stacked with characters who refuse to comply with black Hollywood stereotypes of the era, the film also features a funky Herbie Hancock score that drops out during an extended sequence putting viewers in the middle of a riot following a police shooting of a Black man. Nearly 50 years after its release, it remains a sign of its febrile moment and “one of the most terrifying movies ever made”, according to one critic at the time; no surprise that the FBI allegedly quietly pulled it from theaters after its release. Lisa Wong Macabasco
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
The first Terminator is a leaner, meaner thing, which is why plenty of action buffs prefer it. But sometimes bigger is better, and more is more. In administering a shot of steroids to every element of his gritty sci-fi classic (the budget, the narrative, Linda Hamilton’s arms), James Cameron emerged with the platonic ideal of the summer blockbuster, delivering the goods more consistently and sensationally than nearly any Hollywood tentpole released before or since.
There’s a “can you top this?” quality to T2 that’s just irresistible. What makes the movie a pinnacle of popcorn spectacle, beyond Arnold Schwarzenegger’s demigod star power as the most literal of killing machines, is the blend of practical and state-of-the-art digital effects used to bring its setpieces to life. Most big-budget action movies would kill for just one burst of pure rollercoaster excitement on the level of what Cameron keeps offering, minute by minute, in T2. He gets all the possible bang from his astronomically inflated buck. AA Dowd
I spend entirely too much time asking entirely too many questions about Deja Vu: How did the ATF get budget for a time machine after 9/11? Why wasn’t Special Agent Carlin (Denzel Washington) taken off investigating the murder of Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton) when he was clearly in love with this dead woman? What happened to Jim Caviezel’s career? I appreciate that any attempts to ground this aughties classic in reality might come off as pedantic. But that doesn’t stop me from firing it up on HBO Max and suspending disbelief anew. So what if Deja Vu is a by-the-numbers, Save the Cat action flick. The damned thing just works. It’s paced by Tony Scott’s whipsawing direction, elevated by loaded performances from Washington, Caviezel, Val Kilmer and the delightfully manic Adam Goldberg. And it has all the concussive energy you’d expect from a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced flick. (That poor, poor ferry boat … ) Overthink it. Don’t overthink it. Either way, Deja Vu is a romp worth reliving time and again. Andrew Lawrence