The appeal about being an actor in an action movie must be its star-making ability. The list of actors who have become permanent national fixtures via the action movie is short but the sort of money that can be made is enormous enough to take the chance to become an action star. Those who can, like Will Smith and Tom Cruise, can command $25 million a picture and get it. Some stars even do them to maintain their drawing power at the box office; Nicholas Cage alternates Oscar-caliber movies with action-oriented ones to keep his ticket-selling abilities at their best.
Getting into that club, though, is harder than it seems. While Bruce Willis went from a good TV actor to a near-permanent A-List celebrity after the runaway success of Die Hard, plenty of actors have tried to do an action movie and failed, returning to the genres from which they came. Those who succeed, though, gain a shot at immortality and redemption for the rest of their careers. Keanu Reeves, regardless of how many bad movies he makes, can always redeem himself because of the inherent awesomeness of Speed in the same manner that all the bad movies Eddie Murphy saddles himself with for the large paychecks wash away from the majestic heights of Beverly Hills Cop. Making an action movie is easy; doing it well is uncommon. But sometime, somehow, majestic film-making occurs with an emphasis on machine gun fire and explosions with a bare minimum of plot. And in those times comes forth The Best Action Movies of All-Time:
10. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
It was never intended to be anything more than a big budget, Jerry Bruckheimer produced summer blockbuster. But a funny thing happened: one of the best casts of 2003 came aboard in Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush and rising stars Orlando Bloom & Keira Knightley. With a rather generic “rescue on the high seas” plot and spectacular fight sequences, one thing was missing: a superstar to steal the show.
Enter Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow and the rest is history. Depp would earn an Academy Award nomination for a summer blockbuster, something that is unusual considering that Academy Award nominees are generally chosen between theatrical releases in September through December. It’s a case of Bruckheimer and gang getting a great cast that takes a pretty silly movie and just goes all out.
9. The Rock
Michael Bay may be the last director many people will admit to liking, but there are movies that he has done that go beyond the usual mediocrity. The Rock is one of them. Featuring two Academy Award winners (Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery) in the lead, The Rock has a simple premise: Madman () has hijacked Alcatraz and stationed chemical weapons poised to fire across the bay unless he gets his demands met. John Mason (Connery), the only man ever to escape successfully from the island, is tapped to help lead a force inside to stop General Francis X. Hummel (Ed Harris). Accompanied by Dr. Goodspeed (Cage), it’s a battle to save the day and stop the chemical weapons from being fired.
On paper the plot isn’t anything superb, but what brings life to it is the chemistry and abilities of Connery and Cage. While normally many actors would sleepwalk through their roles, they bring a sense of life and all out abandon into what would normally be throwaway, trite roles beneath them. It’s an absolute joy, as they breathe life into what could’ve been a poor movie.
A bus is wired to explode if it goes under 55 miles per hour, set up in great detail by a madman (Dennis Hopper) out to make his fortune and get revenge on the world. It’s up to guy (Reeves) to get on the bus and save the day. From there it’s a fast-paced and explosive funfest as madman and guy try to outwit each other in an ever-dangerous fashion.
In a well-crafted plot, Reeves talks less and does more. Being the star vehicle that also got Sandra Bullock noticed, Speed is a terrifically paced and well-written thrill ride that proves that (when given the right script and character) Keanu can be fun to watch.
7. Rambo: First Blood Part II
First Blood may have provided Sylvester Stallone another iconic character to play, the second film of the franchise (with a fourth to come in 2006) remains as a pinnacle of the excess of 1980s action movies.
Rambo is back in action as he’s sent by Murdock (Charles Napier) to take some pictures of a POW prison camp. Recruited by his old Colonel, Trautman (Richard Crenna), with a promise of a prison sentence eliminated (due to the events of First Blood), Rambo inadvertently discovering prisoners of war from Vietnam. Abandoned by the men who sent him in, Rambo has to fight his way out of ‘Nam through some Communists and native Vietnamese. Trademark M-60 in hand, it’s an explosive jaunt that symbolizes the sort of stuff you could get away in an action moviewith twenty years ago.
6. T2: Judgment Day
The Terminator was never meant to be anything more than a b-movie level action film with science fiction overtones. The premise is relatively simple: in the future, robots have taken over the world. A human resistance has formed, led by a man whose almost as much myth as he is mortal by the name of John Connor. Leading the human against their robotic exterminators, the remnants of humanity have fought back since the machines first struck with nuclear weaponry. Facing defeat, the machines embark on a bold plan: send a machine back through time to kill the mother of John Connor (Linda Hamilton) before John can be conceived. Disguised as a man (Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of two roles as a villain), this Terminator goes back to stop the resistance dead in its tracks by eliminating its leader before he can born. The humans discover this plan, sending back Reese (Michael Biehn) to try and stop the Terminator and thus save humanity. After the film’s success a sequel was spawned. With both the director (James Cameron) and its headlining star (Schwarzenegger) returning, T2: Judgment Day became one of the few sequels to be better than the original (and topping $500 million at the box office worldwide to boot).
This time around, the Terminator (Schwarzenegger) is sent back to protect 13-year-old John Connor (Edward Furlong) from an advanced Terminator (Robert Patrick) who can take the shape of anyone or anything he touches. With his mother in tow, it becomes a fight to protect John while taking on a seemingly unstoppable adversary. While it shares many themes from the first (including the unstoppable villain and other various thematic elements) what made T2 such a great action movie (and continue to make it a great film in general) is that it works on many different levels.
It has great action, for starters. The T-800 (Schwarzenegger) taking on the entire LAPD with a helicopter-sized mini-gun and a handheld grenade launcher from the window of an office building is a moment in action film lore that is hard to top. There are plenty of other great action moments as well, but a lot of the meat has to come with relationships developed between the T-800, John and Sarah. The T-800 becomes the sort of father that John hasn’t had, Sarah becomes much harder and colder, and John has to grow up fast to deal with everything around him. It also has a certain philosophical content to it as well; John Connor can almost be viewed as a sort of savior-figure (like a certain other known savior with the initials “J” and “C”), his conception is almost a contradiction in terms, as well as the time-traveling paradoxes the movie’s finale raises. It’s a movie that can be viewed on many levels and is great on all of them.
5. Lethal Weapon
The ultimate buddy movie, Lethal Weapon was the movie that made both Mel Gibson and Danny Glover into household names. While Gibson would go from being a matinee idol and A-list star to a maverick producer with 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, it’s the Lethal Weapon series that he will be remembered for. And what a way to remembered, as the original still holds up as both a great action movie and a great movie, period.
Gibson stars as Martin Riggs, a cop on the fringe of sanity. Glover is Roger Murtaugh, a cop trying to make it to retirement. Together they take down a drug-smuggling operation and become friends out of the deal. With great chemistry between Glover and Gibson to match a well-written script, Lethal Weapon is the sort of buddy action movie that redefined the genre for years to come.
4. Beverly Hills Cop
Whatever Eddie Murphy has done in the past two decades, nothing he has done will ever compare to the sheer majesty of his greatest hit: Beverly Hills Cop. Murphy stars as Axel Foley, a Detroit police officer who follows the killers of his best friend to California to try and bring them to justice. Shadowed by two L.A Detectives (Judge Reinhold and old guy), Foley has to elude them while on hot pursuit of the killers.
With an incredibly well written script (one which Sylvester Stallone would turn down to do Cobra) Beverly Hills Cop is simultaneously a great action movie and a stomach-aching comedy set to an instantly recognizable theme. From the opening chase sequence to the shootout at the end, Murphy is just marvelous in both the physical nature of the character as well as bringing an amazing comedic presence to the situation. Nothing he would do would ever come close to topping this, not even the two solid sequels that followed the original. Beverly Hills Cop would be the peak of his work and the biggest drawing movie he’s ever been in until the Shrek movies.
When El Mariachi became an underground hit on a seven thousand dollar budget, Robert Rodriguez immediately vaulted into the mainstream and got seven million to continue the saga. And what a sequel to unleash, as he got a top level star (Antonio Banderas) and bigger, better gunfights to use as well as showcasing Selma Hayek for the world to ogle.
Desperado follows where El Mariachi finished, as the Mariachi (Banderas) has become this mythical warrior, killing men by the dozens with a guitar case full of weapons. His target is the head of the cartel that the villain of El Mariachi reported to, Moco (Joaquim del Almeida). Surrounding himself with a small army, as well as having a knife-throwing assassin (Danny Trejo) sent in to find the Mariachi, Desperado is a fast-paced movie that established Rodriguez as the preeminent action director of his generation due its slick sequences and explosive style.
2. Die Hard
Bruce Willis was a television actor looking for a big break into movies when he took a role in a small action movie for release in late 1988. What originally had been envisioned as a sequel to the cult classic Commando became Willis’s big break in Die Hard. Willis stars as John McClane, a New York cop visiting his estranged wife in Los Angeles. At the same time Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his group of terrorists take over the building where McClane’s wife works. In a pyrotechnically charged game of cat and mouse, as McClane becomes Gruber’s “fly in the ointment” as he tries to save the day.
What makes Die Hard so good is its understanding of itself; there is no pretension, no message about some grand topic to be had. McClane has to fight off the terrorists and be the ultimate underdog, relying on his wits and his pistol against overwhelming odds with a group of highly trained, heavily armed foreign thugs. Willis doesn’t fight everyone at once in some sort of clichÃƒÂ©d battle scene; he’s one man fighting against nearly impossible odds and winning with a mixture brains and dumb luck. It’s a great plot with terrific dialogue as well, and is normally considered the greatest action movie of all time until the man who passed on this decided to make the best action movie of all time.
Before Pierce Brosnan was selected as the next James Bond, plenty of names were thrown around to follow in the footsteps of Roger Moore and Sean Connery. And the most surprising was that of the Austrian Oak, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite having the charisma and flair to be Bond, Arnold would’ve been an awkward pick as the next 007 due to his thick accent and bodybuilder physique. He was a long shot at best, but somewhere inside Arnold wanted to prove he could be a secret agent. Gathering the best action director of his time (James Cameron), a stellar supporting cast (Tom Arnold, Eliza Dukshu and Jamie Lee Curtis, amongst others) to go alongside a tight script and amazing action, Arnold would make a movie that would stand the test of time as the greatest action movie of them all: True Lies.
Schwarzenegger stars as Harry Tasker, secret agent and family man. His wife (Curtis) and daughter (Dukshu) think he sells computers alongside his best friend (Arnold), going to boring conferences and sales meetings across the board (and making a good living at it, too). But trouble is brewing at home as wife is having a flirtation with a used car salesman masquerading as a secret agent (Bill Paxton) and daughter is in the midst of a rebellious phase. To top it off, an Islamic terrorist group is using an arts dealer (Tia Carrere) in an effort to facilitate bringing nuclear weapons into the country as part of their jihad against the US. When his family life becomes intertwined with his professional life, it’s up to Harry to save the country and his marriage.
What makes True Lies stand above the rest? It has the best writing of any action movie put to celluloid, as the drama and action sequences are intertwined in such a way where both are engaging. The cast clicks together in such a manner that even without the action it would be a great family drama about marriage and relationships. The family portion of the film is great and holds up outside of the action genre; these are real people with real issues and we feel it. True Lies also has some of the most spectacular stunts and sequences ever put to film. There are so many scenes that are jaw dropping that it’s obscene and yet it climaxes in a final third that has a masterpiece of a chase sequence that has yet to be topped. Just when you think an action sequence in the film is the absolute highest it can reach James Cameron pulls something out of his bag of tricks to up the ante.