As the recent release of the John Wick Chapter 3 trailer proves, the action movie is definitely a genre of which fans can't get enough. Over the last 30-plus years, the genre has evolved alongside the technology Hollywood employs to execute it -- to make the product that sells out multiplexes. That keeps you and your friends quoting their best lines long after the credits roll.
Franchises like Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard owned the '80s. Terminator 2 pioneered CG in the early '90s, which helped pave the way for Neo and Morpheus to Bullet Time us through The Matrix. And in the middle of all that, action stars like Harrison Ford carved out the "Thinking Man's" action movie for adults (see: The Fugitive and Ford's Jack Ryan films) while Sylvester Stallone found new ways to flex muscles and drop quips before dropping bad guys in movies like Cliffhanger. Long story slightly less long: The years have given us lots of explosions, car chases, and an embarrassment of gun fights. And while some of these impressed us then... now? Not so much. But here are the action flicks that still hold up today, that prove that a mix of exceptional craft and even better storytelling are timeless.
21 TOTAL RECALL (1990)
The early ‘90s were very kind to “Arnuld,” as the action star kept churning out hit after hit – starting with this R-rated blockbuster that would become a landmark effort for both action movies and sci-fi in general. As Quaid, the most buff blue collar worker we have ever or will ever see, the once and future Terminator takes a trip to Rekall to help him live a life on Mars that’s cheaper than actually going there.
But the cost soon proves more than he can bear, as men with guns and leather jackets chase him to the red planet. There, he finds out he may or may not be a spy and (naturally) helps the planet’s air-deprived citizens achieve victory and more oxygen by way of alien tech. Loosely based on the Philip K. Dick story, director Paul Verhoven’s follow-up to 1987’s RoboCop is a worthy (and bloody) successor that still holds up.
20 LA FEMME NIKITA (1990)
Director Luc Besson has two great movies on his resume, and this is one of ‘em. (We’ll get to the second one in a bit.) His gritty, pulse-pounding Nikita inspired two U.S. TV shows and a Hollywood remake, Point of No Return, starring Bridget Fonda. The latter does not hold up as well as the original, which helped define the tone for a new wave of French action cinema.
As a high-heeled assassin with as much morality as she has bullets, Anne Parillaud owns every scene she is in as the titular character. Almost 30 years later, her take on the vulnerable-but-deadly femme fatale is still an all-timer in the Female Action Hero rankings.
19 POINT BREAK (1991)
A pre-Speed Keanu Reeves dipped a toe in action hero territory with this 90s classic from Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow. Okay, the hair and the clothes have not aged as well as the set pieces that surround them. But Bigelow’s taunt execution and effortless sense of pacing more than makes up for it.
That and the fun of watching the late Patrick Swayze lead a band of bank-robbing surfers that Reeves’ Johnny Utah must stop. The recent remake was a dud, failing to capture the gritty adrenaline rush of the original. I mean, let’s face it – nothing can stop the original’s sky diving sequence.
18 T2 (1991)
James Cameron’s first movie to set a record for most expensive ever made, Terminator 2 changed everything. What early CG Cameron helped pioneer in The Abyss, he refined for this ambitious sequel, which is virtually a remake of the first film in terms of structure. This time, however – you know the story by now: Young John Connor must go on the run with a version of the killer cyborg that tried to take out his mom in Terminator 1.
The boy, his new Terminator, and his jacked Mom struggle to stop the liquid metal T-1000 and they do so by way of some of the most emotionally-charged stakes in a sci-fi action movie ever. Intense action, compelling characters, and resonate themes make this game-changer timeless.
17 HARD BOILED (1992)
The ‘90s were notable for introducing the world to the ballistic brilliance of director John Woo. His slow-mo, stylistic violence and his heroes’ signature use of two guns in a gun fight peaked with this epic Hong Kong crime thriller. Chow Yun-Fat plays Tequila, a clarinet-playing cop hunting down the bad guys responsible for killing his partner.
The movie is a moody drama with “cops and robbers” stakes that both pays homage and subverts the genre with its intensity. 27 years later, we’re still picking our jaws up off the floor after watching that crazy warehouse shootout.
16 UNDER SIEGE (1992)
If there's a better way to dispatch an action movie heavy than via knife to the eye, we don't wanna know about. Steven Seagal's best action movie, Under Siege is also one of the best films to come out of the early '90s "Die-Hard-on-a-insert-confined-location-here" crop of action film entries. Set on a naval battleship, Seagal plays the ship's cook (with Navy SEAL training, because reasons) when the bad guys -- lead by Tommy Lee Jones -- come to steal some missiles.
Certain choices are more dated than others, but the film holds up now thanks to director Andrew Davis' deft and understated handling of the material and Jones' scene-stealing performance. His work here with Davis set the stage for their reunion a year later, in The Fugitive.
15 CLIFFHANGER (1993)
After a series of under-performers at the box office, Stallone needed a hit. He got it with this very R-rated, "Die-Hard-on-a-mountain" guilty pleasure from Die Hard 2 helmer Renny Harlin.
Expert climber Gabe Walker (Stallone) resurfaces after failing to save his friend's lover from a climbing mishap. He's back on the mountain range as John Lithgow's hammy bad guy crashes a U.S. Gov't plane full of cash after a very inventive (and mostly in-camera) mid-air heist goes bad. Soon, Walker is John McClane-ing over mountains, in caves, and under frozen lakes -- all so he can drop a helicopter on Lithgow's baddie. Before Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Cliffhanger was the movie to beat when it came to fights involving choppers on top of and around mountains.
14 DEMOLITION MAN (1993)
Even after 26 years, we still don't know how this guilty pleasure's "Three Seashells" work. Doesn't matter -- we still can't get enough of this satirical sci-fi actioner which has only gotten better with age (don't @ me). This underrated '90s joint pits super cop John Spartan (Stallone) against master criminal Simon Phoenix (the scene-stealing Wesley Snipes) when the two are thawed out from cryo-prison in a futuristic, Utopia-y "San Angeles."
Here, swearing has been outlawed, everyone must "be well" to each other, and Taco Bell is considered fine dining because it survived the Franchise Wars. The film's sense of humor is only surpassed by its impressive production design and climatic showdown between Spartan and Phoenix. If you haven't seen Demolition Man, you're doing life wrong.
13 THE FUGITIVE (1993)
The first -- and only -- movie based on a TV show to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, The Fugitive was the little movie that could in August 1993. It reigned supreme at the box office; audiences couldn't get enough of Harrison Ford's Richard Kimble on the run from Tommy Lee Jones' U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard as Kimble struggles to find the one-armed man who murdered his wife. Plagued with last-minute script rewrites and on-the-fly solutions while shooting, it is amazing this movie turned out to be as perfect as it is -- thanks in large part to Jones' Oscar-winning performance.
Each minute of screentime has exactly the right amount of whatever it needs to succeed, to keep audiences either at the edge of their seats or white-knuckling their arm rests. Nearly three decades after its release, it still does. They don't make movies like this anymore.
12 SPEED (1994)
"Pop quiz, hot shot..."
More than just "Die Hard-on-a-bus," Jan de Bont's sleeper hit from the summer of 1994 is the perfect popcorn entertainment. Thanks to a significant story polish from an uncredited Joss Whedon, Speed delivers nothing but thrills and laughs and two insanely likable performances from hero Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, in a star-making turn. It invests its very clean set-up -- there's a bomb on an LA city bus that will go off if the bus' speed drops below 50 -- with an effortless amount of increasingly-intense set pieces with nothing short of the highest of stakes. If the movie loses gas (no pun intended), it's when (25-year-old-spoiler alert incoming) our heroes safely get off the bus and onto a runaway subway car. But up until that point, Speed is more than worth the price of admission.
11 CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER (1994)
Harrison Ford's second outing as Jack Ryan is, hands-down, his best. With a storyline involving the White House's covert (read: illegal) war against Colombian drug cartel that still carries relevancy today, CIA analyst Ryan finds himself caught in the middle of this conflict -- if the cartels don't kill him, the powers that be in Washington just might.
Ford excels at playing the everyman who can throw a punch, or in this case, fling himself clear from an exploding car. The film's a slow-burn, building up to a mid-point suburban SUV attack that is a nailbiter that more than holds up even now.
10 BAD BOYS (1995)
Michael Bay's first action movie is free of the bloated excess and undisciplined pacing from most of his later output -- we're looking at you, Every. Single. Transformers. Movie. The goal here is to mainline to the audience straight-up action movie thrills and two charismatic AF performances from Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.
The stars play two Miami police officers involved in a case that requires slick cars, lots of slow-motion shots, and explosions to solve. While Independence Day is often credited with making Will Smith, well, Will Smith, Bad Boys put him on the launch pad for leading man status.
9 DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (1995)
The best of the Die Hard sequels, With a Vengeance teams Bruce Willis' permanently hung-over cop John McClane with law-abiding citizen Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson) as they try to stop a thug (Jeremy Irons) from blowing up New York City on his way to stealing a ton of gold from the Federal Reserve. This threequel retrofitted a then-popular spec script, "Simon Says," into a Die Hard movie -- bringing back the original's director, John McTiernan, to help ground the proceedings in some sense of believability.
Gone are the "bad things going down on Christmas" trappings, as McClane and Zeus race through NYC streets during a blistering summer heat wave. The end result is a sure-plotted actioner that marks the last time John McClane appeared in anything resembling a good movie.
8 DESPERADO (1995)
Robert Rodriguez's scrappy El Mariachi earned him a chance to upgrade that film's story to fit a decent-ish Hollywood budget. Casting then-white hot Antonio Banderas as a guitar player with a case full of guns and a vendetta to collect, Rodriguez set out to make his mark on the genre and in studio-filmmaking. The final product is a mixed bag; Desperado has inventive gun fights to spare, but the character development hits the same one or two notes throughout.
That it succeeds at all is a testament to Banderas' charisma, for any scene that lacks enough emotional weight to hold up, he more than makes up for with a look or gesture. And score bonus for this movie introducing us to Salma Hayek -- who would go on to reprise a version of this role in the pseudo-sequel Once Upon a Time In Mexico.
7 MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996)
22 years after Ethan Hunt iconically suspended himself above the NOC-List vault, Tom Cruise reached a franchise-high with Summer 2018's hit, Fallout. That film's exceptional success owes it all to the first film, one of the series' best. That summer, and for years after, it was almost Hollywood Law that every show or movie HAD to parody the aforementioned vault sequence. Like, it was everywhere.
Its longevity is a testament to director Brian De Palma's assured hand bringing co-writer David Koepp's twisty plot to the screen. Also, Tom Cruise's star power. This guy can sell thinking on-screen like no one else, which explains in part why Ethan Hunt has endured as a super spy that's neither Bond nor Bourne. He's just a good try trying to stop the bad ones, working very hard not to kill anyone in order to do it.
6 THE ROCK (1996)
Michael Bay's follow-up to Bad Boys is arguably his best action movie of the '90s -- if not his best movie, period. The Rock... it's like one of Stefon's clubs. It has everything: A long-haired Sean Connery, fireballs, exploding San Francisco trolly cars, and a scary-good Nicolas Cage.
The Oscar-winner's take on FBI specialist Stanley Goodspeed is an engaging mix of "aw, shucks" fish-out-of-water likability and bursts of badassness, like when the least-likely action hero turns his love for music -- especially his affinity for Elton John's "Rocket Man" -- into a prelude to justifiably kill a bad guy with a missile. (Oh, '90s action movies. How we miss you.) The plot is the perfect Elevator Pitch: A veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces (Ed Harris) takes tourists hostage at Alcatraz, and the only way to get in and save them is to employ the services of the only person (Connery) to ever break out of the prison and survive. Connery and Cage's dynamic is one of the most entertaining two-handers the genre has ever produced, which is why fans keep revisiting this movie annually.
5 AIR FORCE ONE (1997)
"Die Hard on the President's plane? Die Hard on the President's plane." This concept is a no-brainer, it's also an audience-pleaser -- one of star Harrison Ford's biggest hits. After Kevin Costner passed on and recommended Ford for the role of President Marshall, audiences were guaranteed an action flick powered by Ford's brand of likable and vulnerable heroics. Gary Oldman chews up nearly all the scenery as one very loud and angry Russian thug hellbent on hijacking Air Force One in an effort to force the U.S. to free his former leader.
Lots of kick-punching ensues, obvi, with the movie giving Ford some of the best fisticuffs of his career -- especially a fight in the bowels of his plane. The action and performances hold up for the most part, but, sadly, that very bad CG-finale involving the crashing plane still does not.
4 BLADE (1998)
Blame this half-human, half-vampire for why we're all living in a Marvel Cinematic Universe. This R-rated comic book adaptation from Marvel helped light the fuse on over two decades of content from the comics company. Wesley Snipes absolutely owns the character, entering his first scene with the titular vampire hunter fully formed. The plot finds Blade trying to stop Deacon "Best Villain Name Ever" Frost from resurrecting the Blood God to do, well, very obvious and evil things to those who aren't explosively allergic to sunlight.
Stephen Norrington's direction indulges in the filmmaker's music video roots to present a gritty, gun-metal blue aesthetic that contrasts shockingly sometimes with the movie's generous helping of bloody spurts. Horror and action are tricky tones to mesh together, but Blade pulls it off in spades. This, and its Guillermo del Toro-directed sequel, are still two of the best Marvel movies ever released.
3 RONIN (1998)
This Robert De Niro-led spy thriller is famous for its gritty, done-for-real car chases. They don't so much pad the story as they do inform it, providing audiences with legit moments of "holy sh**, how did they pull that off?!" -- especially the movie's last big set piece featuring a car chase against traffic through a tunnel.
Based on a script rewritten by David Mamet (who uses a pen name here), Ronin centers on an De Niro's ex-CIA (or is he?) operative who joins a group of individuals with similar skill sets to steal a case. Its contents intentionally mysterious -- as all great movie MacGuffins are -- and the stakes surrounding the acquiring of it are of the "failure is not an option" variety. Given the recent emphasis on gritty espionage on the big screen, thanks to Bourne movies and recent Bond adventures, Ronin has aged well as sort of a precursor to the current climate. And who knew De Niro could pull off being a gun-toting action hero so well?
2 ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)
Pound for pound, dollars-to-donuts, this 1998 hit is arguably Will Smith's most underrated Hollywood effort. It is also one of the most underrated movies on late director Tony Scott's resume. The still-timely plot involving government surveillance on private citizens, including Smith's on-the-run lawyer fighting to stay one step ahead of a conspiracy closing in on him, feels more relevant now than it did 21 years ago.
Scott borrows loosely from similar paranoid thrillers like The Conversation and The Parallax View, delivering a surprisingly restrained (for him) exercise in maximum tension grounded by a very likable and relatable lead performance from Smith. Enemy of the State was the type of movie perfect for rainy day video store rentals or for watching on TNT. If you haven't seen this movie ever, or have been eager to revisit it, seek it out. Come for the Will Smith, stay for cranky Gene Hackman!
1 THE MATRIX (1999)
Warner Bros. had no idea they would have a zeitgeist-making franchise on their hands, let alone a runaway box office hit, when they all but dumped The Matrix into theaters during the spring of 1999. Word-of-mouth quickly spread, sending people into theaters for the third or fourth time to watch Keanu Reeves give birth to his signature character. As Neo, Reeves' low-wattage is an asset, especially as we uncover that his office drone is trapped inside a computer simulation because machines have destroyed and taken over the world.
What ensues is both visual feast (yay, Bullet Time!) and thematically rich, there are as many action scenes as their are textual and subtextual philosophical debates regarding the cost of simulacra and the allure of real-life. As cool as it is to "know Kung Fu" via brain download, or battle Agents inside the gravity-be-damned Matrix, it's even cooler to revisit this landmark film if you haven't watched it in a while. This is one first-time we wish we could get back.