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The 50 Best Action Movies

James Bond, John McClane, Bruce Wayne. If there’s one thing Hollywood does right it’s the action movie.


Last updated July 11.

While many of our lives resemble dramas, or comedies, our society has thankfully evolved to a point where many of us avoid daily physical danger. Yet, strangely enough, the human animal craves danger. We get a thrill from adrenaline. To fill the void in our safe, vanilla lives, we turn to action. Is it wrong that sometimes, after a long day at the office, there’s nothing more we want to do than watch someone get stabbed, shot or blown up from the comfort of our living rooms (or barely escape any or all of the above)? Not with action movies as good as the ones below.

Now, without further ado, grab some popcorn, sit back, and dim the lights. The show’s about to start.

Methodology: like our books piece, the selections for our Definitive Men’s Movie Collection represent our favorites, “considered in the light of how much they changed our lives, and might change yours.” If it makes you feel any better that your favorite flick didn’t make the cut, consider that one of our auditors, in a moment of weakness, tried to get Nick Cage’s Ghostrider on the docket. Taste is subjective, so take this for what it’s worth.

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13 Assassins
A group of assassins must venture out on a suicide mission to kill a truly evil Japanese lord. The movie is full of courage, humanity, great fight scenes and quite possibly one of the worst villains in cinematic history. Sharp blades, pony tails, action sandals and a lot of yelling round out one of the best period foreign action flicks in quite a while.
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Die Hard
Professor Snape ruins an L.A. Christmas party by taking a host of hostages, one of whom is the beloved wife of NYPD Detective John McClane (a receding, not-yet-bald Bruce Willis). McClane proceeds to resolve the situation with a handful of witty phrases and a healthy dose of gunpowder.
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Enter the Dragon
Bruce Lee enters the lair of a drug dealer via the villain’s kung-fu competition. Some of the best fight scenes ever made showcase Lee’s remarkable skill, as well as latissimus dorsi big enough to hang glide. In a particularly awesome fight scene, Henchman O’Hara is the recipient of the angriest foot stomps in cinematic history.
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The Proposition
An outlaw in the stark but cinematically beautiful Australian Outback must find and kill his murderous older brother before the military kills his younger brother. Not sure anyone took a shower in this one, ever.
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Colonel Matrix — arguably Arnold’s best character name ever — gets on the war path (surprise!) when his daughter (Alyssa Milano) is kidnapped by an exiled Latin American dictator. Watch for the opening credits. Watch for the glam rock closing. Watch for the gun store robbery montage and have patience, because it all gets used with glee.
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A former U.S. intelligence agent tries to track down a mysterious package that is wanted by both the Irish and the Russians. Some of the best chase scenes ever filmed include a vintage Merc turbo-diesel and a rocket propelled grenade.
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The Dark Knight
The second installment of Nolan’s spectacular Dark Knight trilogy. We find Batman (and the Joker) at their best (and worst), when the Joker has taken the city hostage under his seemingly mindless crime spree. Bruce Wayne’s alter ego rises to the occasion. Alfred remains as dryly witty as ever.
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True Lies
Super-spy by day, boring husband by night Harry Tasker (Ahnahld!) has to stop a cadre of terrorists after he and his wife (played by the lovely Jamie Lee Curtis) get nabbed. He kills a lot of people, “but they were all bad”.
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The Rock
Nicolas Cage is a meek chemist. Sean Connery is awesome. Together, they must break into Alcatraz Prison, the base for a rogue general who threatens San Francisco with nerve gas.
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The Dirty Dozen
A rag-tag group of convicted murderers has to be brought into line to carry out a mass assassination of Nazi officers in WWII.
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Ocean’s 11
The seminal ensemble movie. Clooney, Pitt, Damon, et al. (read: everybody who’s ever been cool in Hollywood) get together to rob a Vegas casino.
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Ong-Bak – The Thai Warrior
When a sacred Buddha statue is stolen, it’s up to a young Thai warrior to track it down. This is the movie that made every male between the ages of 18 and 30 dream of spending an extended period of time at a Southeast Asian Muay Thai training camp (reality check: you train by kicking trees).
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Top Gun
Cruise. Kilmer. Jets. Bomber Jackets. Volleyball.
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Casino Royale
Perhaps it’s the killer opening scene. Perhaps it’s Daniel Craig’s baby blues. For whatever reason, this is the best modern Bond by far.
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The Eiger Sanction
An art professor tries avenge the death of his old friend…because he’s actually a retired assassin. Before he talked to chairs, Clint Eastwood did all his own mountaineering stunts.
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Anything is possible with plastic surgery. Cage plays Travolta. Travolta plays Cage. Prisons on oil platforms. Doves flying in slow motion. Pistols with endless clips. An epic gun fight set to the soundtrack of What a Wonderful World. Jon Woo proves he’s still crazy…like a fox.
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A revenge story. With gladiators. And Joaquin Phoenix’s sneer. This is one we keep coming back to whenever we need our adrenaline fix.
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Bad Boys
Michael Bay gave up a portion of his salary for the movie’s final explosion scene, but that was only the surface of a movie riddled with problems: on-the-fly script writing (Bay famously called the script, “a piece of shit”) and truncated timelines. But out of chaos comes magic — and proof of young Michael Bay’s moviemaking formula. What once was a movie destined for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz (remake?) eventually laughed, exploded and paraded enough leggy femmes (so easy to forget Téa Leoni) to make its way into modern action movie history. Watcha gonna do? Watch it.
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Gone in Sixty Seconds
A remake, sure, but a classic guy-comes-out-of-retirement-to-avenge-and-save-his-brother-by-doing-something-morally-suspect-and-entertainingly-fraught-with-danger-sex-and-ultra-cool-cars story. Also, Eleanor.
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Bullitt has McQueen at his coolest, bar none. The car chase is simply icing on an incredible cake.
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Raiders of the Lost Ark
Lesson one: Never bring a saber to a gun fight, especially if Harrison Ford is under the weather that day.
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Kill Bill, Vol. 1
Tarantino makes some of the best revenge films out there, and this is one of the best. Like the others, it’s littered with exquisite dialogue.
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Point Break
Endless Summer with guns, Lori Petty and a skydiving chase scene. Before Keanu Reeves was The One, he was a surfer bro.
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Val Kilmer’s finest work. Even Bill Paxton is tolerable…almost.
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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
The chemistry between Redford and Newman is beautiful. Butch and Sundance is the measuring stick for any and all buddy movies that will follow, ever.
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Shogun Assassin
Known in cult circles as Lone Wolf and Cub, Shogun Assassin is a revenge masterpiece. If you’ve ever listened to the Genius GZA album Liquid Swords you will recognize the haunting narration and dialogue immediately. It also makes a cameo in Kill Bill Vol. 2.
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12 O’Clock High
This is one of the best movies on leading men, and the Navy uses it as a case study for the same. The various leadership styles featured in the film cover a range and give ample fodder for considering the pros and cons of each style.
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We leave our synopsis simply to the words of Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper): “Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?” The rest is just tolerating Keanu Reeves and falling for Sandra Bullock. Oh, and that preposterous scene of the bus jumping a bridge.
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Where Eagles Dare
I’m going on a mission and I’m going to bring… this 1968 movie about a daring raid on a Nazi castle in which an American general is being held hostage. We like it because it combines elements of the archetypal war, thriller, and action movies.
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The Transporter
Jason Statham playing something other than a fast-talking, hit-hitting killer? Never. In the latest expression of his signature role, he plays Frank Martin, an ex-Special Forces operator who now makes a living by moving packages from one place to another in a suped-up BMW. Business is good…until one of his packages moves.
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Under Siege
Before there was SEAL team six, there was Casey Ryback, a retired SEAL turned galley cook who become the last line of defense against a group of terrorists set on hijacking the USS Missouri and its payload of Tomahawk missiles. It’s easily Seagal’s best film, both in earnings and in critical acclaim, winning two Academy Award nominations.
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At the core of Braveheart’s excellence is a heroic story of love for country and woman (in that order) wrapped in gut-wrenching violence (quite literally). It’s history meets Hollywood, despite the fact that prima nocta has never been used in British history. One can almost forgive Gibson’s modern-day catastrophes when re-watching Braveheart — don’t forget that the man not only acted his way into action movie history, but directed and produced his way to a handful of Academy Awards including Best Director and Picture. Dig deep for that Scottish burr and let the quotes fly. FREEDOM!
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The Fugitive
Imagine: you’re a well-respected surgeon in Chicago. Then your wife is murdered. You’re convicted and sentenced to death row. But, on the way to prison, your transport crashes and you escape. Now, while trying to stay a step ahead of a nationwide manhunt, you must avenge your wife’s death and clear your name. This is the plot of The Fugitive. Famous dam jump scene included.
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The Bourne Ultimatum
Arguably the best of the Bourne series, Ultimatum is the final part of the epic trilogy that saw Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, a trained killer trying to figure out where he came from while avoiding the murderous folks at the CIA. Note: for those keeping score at home, nefarious CIA is beating good CIA 2-1 on this list.
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The Last of the Mohicans
Daniel Day-Lewis — a free spirit raised as a Mohican Indian — finds himself entwined in the French and Indian War and in love with a British officer’s daughter.
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Jet Li makes you feel completely inferior as he plays a minor official that manages to protect the life of the powerful ruler Qin by assassinating three powerful political enemies.
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Hard Boiled
In classic style, John Woo directs a film that pairs a no-nonsense cop and an undercover agent who try to bust a Hong Kong smuggling ring.
Amazon DVD

Rambo: First Blood
‘Nam. Stallone. Rural Washington.
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The Raid: Redemption
You’ve never heard of this one? Allow us to introduce you. Set in Jakarta, this movie tells the story of an elite SWAT team sent to take down a notorious drug lord…only to find themselves stranded on the sixth floor of his safe house.
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“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
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The Warriors
The leader of the most powerful gang in New York calls a midnight summit. As he makes his speech he’s murdered. Blame falls on The Warriors, who must travel through a surreal, futuristic New York to their home turf on Coney Island.
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The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
Blondie (the Good), Angel Eyes (the Bad) and Tuco (the Ugly) race to find a lost treasure. In the process, Blondie (Clint Eastwood) smokes a lot of cigars.
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Man on Fire
Denzel Washington is a down-and-out ex-CIA operative (*ex* CIA, scoreboard remains 2-1) hired to protect adorable Dakota Fanning in kidnapper-heaven Mexico City. Initially, he’s not so hot on the assignment, but, after growing attached to the girl, he goes on a fantastic rampage when she’s kidnapped.
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Blackhawk Down
Based on a true story, this Ridley Scott film tells the story of the army rangers dropped into Mogadishu to capture the two top lieutenants of a Somali warlord. Unfortunately, several hundred gunmen have other plans, leading to an intense, protracted gun battle.
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Mortal Kombat: The Movie
We think we’ve been pretty good about staying away from some of the more ridiculous action movies — Crank, 300, etc. — so allow us this one. Despite anything resembling plot or character development, this game-inspired movie has become a cult classic, inspiring the Halloween costumes of many a young nerd.
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Mission: Impossible III
Tom Cruise, aka Ethan Hunt, sets out on an even impossiblier mission than ever before. In objectively the best of the Mission: Impossible series, Cruise is in rare form, and few performances top that of the villainous Philip Seymour Hoffman.
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The Bond movie. Sean Connery’s take on the secret agent, who, while investigating a dubious gold smuggling operation, uncovers a much more sinister (and economically realistic!) plot.
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Das Boot
Contrary to our Beatles-inspired preconceptions, it turns out that submarines are not very pleasant places to be. Das Boot illustrates this nicely. It’s the story of a German U-Boat crew in 1942 that cruises around the Atlantic trying to avoid crippling depression and crippling-er Allied depth charges.
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Lethal Weapon
Before we hated Mel Gibson, he played Martin Riggs, a suicidal L.A. cop who teams up with Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) to take down a drug-smuggling operation. The original buddy-cop movie? Maybe not, but certainly one of the best.
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A Bridge Too Far
Every famous male actor from the ’60s gets together to play a squad of American, British and Polish soldiers attempting to parachute behind Nazi lines and capture a bunch of bridges.
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