Action and adventure movies and TV shows have evolved considerably since the 1980s thanks to movie-going audiences who are becoming more and more jaded, looking for wilder stunts and bigger explosions. Special effects like slow motion and CGI have helped amp up the action, but the heroes at the center of the action genre have changed very little, showing only a bit more fighting prowess or using only slightly more cunning skills to defeat their enemies.
However, every good action hero generally has a few of the same traits, like quick wits, strong muscles, fast feet and a great sense of humor. This list of 15 badass male action heroes only has characters from the last four decades, but all of them beat the bad guy with style.
15. Jack Ryan
The year was 1992, when the Irish Republican Army was an active terrorist threat and Harrison Ford was Hollywood’s go-to male action hero who could also act. Ford played Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst who happened to be in the right place a the right time to thwart an attempted attack on a member of the royal family. While he was playing tourist outside Buckingham Palace, Ryan displayed quick thinking and bravery when he knocked out a would-be assailant, took his gun and put down three other attackers.
Sean Miller (Sean Bean), who escaped, vowed revenge on Ryan and his family. That’s when Ryan’s action hero status was cemented. Miller and his crew arrived during a dinner party at Ryan’s posh seaside home. Ryan went into stealth mode, quietly taking out one terrorist at a time, until he found himself fighting, and killing, Miller on a boat at sea. While Ryan wasn’t an expert in hand-to-hand combat, he got the job done. His cleverness and courage made him a great action hero.
14. Magnum, P.I.
The quintessential ’80s TV show was “Magnum, P.I.,” and it made Tom Selleck, as well as his mustache, pop culture icons. He played Magnum, a Vietnam vet who worked security for the wealthy and reclusive author Robin Masters in Hawaii. He enjoyed the perks of living on a Hawaiian estate, including the use of Masters’ Ferrari. He spent most episodes trying to soak up the sun with bikini-clad woman, but trouble always found him.
Magnum took on his P.I. cases when he needed to fill his mini-fridge with beer, and those cases usually led to at least one barroom brawl or shoot out, where his Special Ops training was put to good use. Magnum was a badass male action hero because, like most good heroes, he was reluctant to be drawn into any fight, especially when he knew he was likely to win. That’s not to say he loved challenging fights either, though, because he clearly preferred to enjoy the fruits of his labor more than actually performing any labor.
13. Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes has been played by many actors over the years, but the badass male action hero version of Sherlock Holmes was played by Robert Downey, Jr. In 2009, Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” completely upended the usually stodgy style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Instead of portraying Sherlock, and his partner Dr. John Watson, as chewing on mysteries while enjoying a glass of port and a good cigar in their sitting room, Ritchie put them in the middle of fisticuffs, shoot-outs and chase scenes.
Holmes became a formidable boxer, using not only his physical fitness but also his mental acuity to execute strategic hits that took down his opponent. We saw him employ the same tactic again and again, correctly predicting his enemies’ moves, while orchestrating his own maneuvers to defeat them. Although RDJ has the cut figure of a great male action hero, it’s Sherlock’s mental prowess that made him a formidable savior.
12. James Bond
James Bond is another character from a book series who has been represented many times in movies. Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the master spy, however, was the version that brought fans who had given up on the franchise back to the theaters. Each actor before Craig had his own take on James Bond, but Craig brought an inner darkness and an innate gravitas to the role that made Bond a more three-dimensional spy than his previous incarnations.
Craig’s Bond used the same high-tech weapons and drove the same fabulous cars that his predecessors did. But instead of Bond’s usual wink and smile kind of action, Craig’s was more brutal, deadlier and often smarter. In “Casino Royale,” instead of trying to follow the same route as a fugitive, who clearly was a fan of parkour, Bond used his brain, and occasionally his brawn, to forge his own path that intersected or paralleled his target’s. It’s this combination of brains and brawn that make James Bond a badass male action hero.
11. The Terminator
1984’s “The Terminator” was the action/sci-fi movie that spawned an innovative franchise of films filled with elements of science fiction, action and humor. The Terminator, himself, spoke the immortal quote that, three decades later, is listed at #37 of AFI’s Top 100 Movie Quotes of All Time: “I’ll be back.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator was a badass action hero for a few different reasons. First, he’s the Terminator! Almost nothing on earth could stop him from fulfilling his mission of killing Sarah Connor. Second, he was the bad guy we loved to hate. Sure, he was out to kill the hero and heroine of “The Terminator,” but audiences secretly rooted for him because he was so cool. (Not to mention, seriously sculpted! Schwarzenegger in a nude shot, only 9 years after winning Mr. Olympia for the 6th time? Beautiful badass.) So cool, in fact, that the Terminator came back in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” as a good guy, effectively taking all that hardcore badassery from the first movie and using it to protect a young John Connor, and earning even more of our admiration.
10. Indiana Jones
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” was the adventure movie that proved Harrison Ford’s brand of action hero wasn’t exclusive to playing Han Solo. Indiana Jones was the embodiment of how all history nerds see themselves. He could research a topic into nothingness, then fly a plane, ride a horse, tramp through the jungle and outsmart ancient booby traps to nab his prize. Whenever Indiana Jones was faced with a perilous situation, he generally assessed his surroundings and found a way to use something handy to defeat his opponent.
Of course, bringing a pistol to a sword fight was always a good idea, but that just goes to show he’s got common sense to go with Ph.D. in archaeology. So yeah, Indy was very intelligent. He constantly stayed one step ahead of the Nazis by thinking through a puzzle rather than running off half-cocked, like when he correctly calculated the height of the staff in the Tanis map room, thus revealing the location of the Ark. His combination of smarts, strength and slickness makes him one of the more badass male action heros.
9. Oliver Queen
Just because a male action hero lives on the small screen doesn’t mean he’s any less badass. Such is the case with Oliver Queen, a.k.a. Green Arrow on CW’s hit show, “Arrow.” Oliver Queen could best several of the men listed above because he is an expert in so many different fighting skills. He’s obviously skilled with a bow and arrow, but he’s also a master of various martial arts, boxing, knives and swords.
His incredibly high tolerance for pain, developed over five years of off-and-on-torture, also gives him an edge, because it allows him to go all in during a fight without worrying about injury or consequences. Plus, he’s willing to put everything on the line thanks to a not-so-subtle death wish. While other heroes take inspiration from hope, or their loved ones, Oliver is effective at fighting because he usually feels like he has nothing to lose (even though he has an ever-expanding team of friends and loved ones). Five years of fighting for your life will do that to you.
Rambo was a different kind of hero. John J. Rambo was a Special Forces soldier who was captured during the Vietnam war. His visit to a close-minded small town sent him into a nightmare of his own memories from his time in the P.O.W. camp. Rambo was the anti-hero, the guy who found himself on the wrong side of the law, up against a group of cops gone bad.
Rambo was a badass male action hero for two reasons. First, he knew his way around hand-to-hand combat. He managed to punch, elbow, kick and push his way out of a fully staffed police station. But back in 1982, “First Blood” didn’t have any big set pieces or fancy fight choreography or slow-motion sequences, so the action is brutal and realistic. Second, he used his experience in Vietnam to set some truly painful traps in the forest. Several policemen found themselves impaled on knives or stakes. Their screams became the bait that led their comrades straight to Rambo and his giant knife. He was such a popular action hero that Sylvester Stallone took the novel adaptation and gave it three movie sequels.
7. Daryl Dixon
Daryl Dixon didn’t start life as a hero on “The Walking Dead.” His upbringing was pretty rough, but once the Walkers started multiplying, Daryl found his purpose and stepped up as a protector. He wouldn’t call himself a hero, but he has saved so many people so many times that it would be hard not to. And when it comes the tracking, Daryl is the man for the job.
What defines Daryl as an action hero is his attitude. He isn’t looking for a reward and he rarely shows remorse. For instance, not many heroes are required to kill their own brother, even if he was a bully in life and a Walker in death. Daryl just gets the job done, sometimes with a crossbow, sometimes with a rocket launcher, like when he set that lake on fire. While Daryl is a badass in many ways, he doesn’t brag about it. Daryl is a cool action hero because he’s almost the walking epitome of “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Just swap out the stick for a crossbow.
“Pitch Black” introduced glow-eyed Riddick to sci-fi movie-loving audiences. His pedigree didn’t seem like it would endear him to fans, being a mass murderer and all, but he not only earned the trust of the rest of his crew, but also of audiences, enough to make two sequels, with another Riddick movie still in development at the time of this writing.
Riddick was a badass action hero because, like a few others on this list, he technically wasn’t a hero. He was just trying to survive on a planet full of bloodthirsty creatures after the space transport he was on crashes. Thanks to his brutal ways, he’s the only one among the stranded passengers who has the skills to survive when the planet goes dark and the creatures come out to feed. He’s strong, with quick reflexes and a cunning mind that helps him use his environment to stay alive. He becomes a hero when the other passengers realize he can save them, even though he’s an escaped criminal. They rely on him, and he doesn’t let them down, surprising all parties involved.
5. Mad Max
Decades before Tom Hardy went all Hannibal Lecter and got strapped to the grill of a homemade tank, Mel Gibson was dishing out violence in an apocalyptic Australia. “Mad Max,” which was released in 1979, seems almost quaint today, even compared to its sequels, which added more stunts and bigger special effects. The “Mad Max” sequels became more and more about living in a dystopia and less about Max’s personal mission.
What was that mission? In the first film, Max’s wife and child were killed in a painful and horrific way, so he became a one-man justice team. Max was a policeman, and he tracked members of the criminal motorcycle gang who were responsible by using his training and his handy police scanner. Instead of wearing his usual uniform, however, he donned motorcycle leathers and multiple weapons. Unlike the modern day “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the bad guys were scared of Max which led to a lot of dusty car chase scenes. But Max was focused on getting revenge, which he did, killing one bad biker after another.
4. Jason Bourne
When it comes to a male action hero who’s smart and stays cool under pressure, Jason Bourne tops the list. His training as a covert spy is so ingrained it takes over on an instinctual level, like when he’s trapped in an apartment in Paris or driving recklessly through the tunnels of Moscow. He was trained to operate alone, so his survival skills are top notch.
He can find shelter anywhere, even when a lock or passcode stands between him and a shower of bullets. He can decipher codes, hotwire cars, hack into computer systems and bluff his way through the most nail-biting situations. He also speaks a good dozen languages or so. Meanwhile, when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, he’s almost never defeated. Even when he’s bloody and sore, he continues to pound on his opponent. He can make strategic plans and set traps on the fly, all the while staying off the grid and evading capture. Really, there’s very little Jason Bourne can’t do.
3. John McClane
For some movie fans, John McClane is the ultimate male action hero. Bruce Willis successfully jumped from the small screen, where he starred in “Moonlighting,” to the big screen in “Die Hard.” “Jumped” is the operative word. In the first instalment of the “Die Hard” series, McClane found himself jumping down the elevator shaft, down stairs and off the building. In each movie, McClane finds new ways of taking down his enemy, like lighting a trail of fuel on fire that finds its way to a plane’s engine, or driving a car off a ramp and straight into a helicopter.
But McClane’s sarcastic sense of humor is what makes him such a great action hero, more-so than his physical stunts. Not only did John McClane take down an entire skycraper full of bad guys in “Die Hard,” but he also coined one of the most quoted and paraphrased one-liners of all time: “Yippee ki-yay…” Well, you know the rest.
2. Frank Martin
Tough guy Jason Statham plays Frank Martin in “The Transporter” and its sequels. Martin is a mercenary driver, willing to deliver anything to anyone, no questions asked. As one can imagine, when a driver is carrying goods that are expensive, and most likely illegal, he has to be able to fend off would-be thieves and attackers. Martin usually carries a variety of guns, putting his excellent marksmanship to use.
Martin finds numerous and incredible ways of eluding pursuers. He has stripped off clothing to tie up his assailants, he used a light fixture to tangle up a pair of axes in order to disarm his opponents, and he even launched a car at a crane, flipping it at just the right time so the bomb strapped to its underside ripped off just before it exploded. Statham’s charm and wit are evident in his portrayal, making Martin an appealing thug. His strength, ingenuity and incredible fighting skills make him a badass action hero.
The action hero that tops this list is such a badass that he even broke all the rules of his world’s reality, thanks to the incredible vision of the Wachowskis, who co-directed “The Matrix.” When “The Matrix” premiered in 1999, it forever changed hand-to-hand fight sequences in big action films, from simple punch-outs to choreographed dances more akin to a music video than an action movie.
Neo doesn’t start out as an action hero. Once he is trained and fitted with cool shades and a wicked duster, he becomes one of the most badass action heroes ever. In one phenomenal scene, Neo bends backward limbo-style and avoids dozens bullets. However, it isn’t until he finally believes in his own power that he starts to use the Matrix to his advantage. He stops bullets and wipes them away as if he were brushing aside a curtain. When he breathes, the world expands and contracts again with him. This time, when the creepy Agent Smith comes at him, he fights him one-handed, moving so quickly that he’s a blur. He literally bends reality, or what passes for reality, to defeat his enemy. You don’t get much more badass than that.
Did we forget your favorite badass male action hero? Tell us who else should be on this list in the comments below!
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