It’s spring, so it’s almost time for those summer blockbusters to hit the big screen. Being that I haven’t done one of these Top Ten lists in a while, I figured I’d take aim and fire off my top ten favorite action films. These are films I’ve carefully thought about, and while they are in a numbered order for the purposes of this list – I think these movies fluctuate up and down, though they mostly all stay in the top ten.
Let’s get to it.
10. THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT (1996)
PLOT: Suburban mom, Samantha Caine (Geena Davis), lives in Honesdale, Pennsylvania with her daughter Caitlin (Yvonne Zima) doing the mom thing and dealing with amnesia. When Samantha receives a bump on the head, she suddenly remembers small snippets of a previous career as a deadly secret agent. Now, her old colleagues from the Chapter are out to kill her. Enlisting the help of a detective named Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson), Samantha must use her returning skillset to survive, as she becomes deadlier and more resourceful with each passing minute.
WHY I LOVE IT: The Long Kiss Goodnight is one of those movies that everyone forgets about. Coming on the tail-end of Geena Davis’ great career run, this film is one of the best action films out there in my opinion. From the gun play (there’s a cool scene where Geena Davis shoots ice with a machine gun below her to break it apart before she hits), to the dialogue (Samuel L. Jackson makes a cheeky Driving Miss Daisy reference), to the unforgettable water wheel scene – this film has all the hallmarks of a great action film. Bonus points for being ahead of its time and starring a female lead with a black male partner. This is in the last spot on my list because while it is a great action film, it just doesn’t pack quite the same amount of punch as some of the others do in the higher spots.
09. GORGEOUS (1999)
PLOT: A Taiwanese woman named Bu (Qi Shu) is ruminating on a marriage proposal when she discovers a message in a bottle. Intrigued, Bu travels to Hong Kong to meet the author of the message, a man named Albert (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), who she thinks might be more compatible with her based on the message. Unfortunately, Bu is disappointed to find out that Albert is a gay cosmetologist. Albert lets Bu stay after the misunderstanding (the note was for his ex-boyfriend) and she tags along with him for a photoshoot where she is introduced to a millionaire businessman named C.N. Chan (Jackie Chan). The two have immediate chemistry, but when they start to become close – a rival of Chan’s named L.W. Lo (Emil Chau) sends an American fighter named Alan (Bradley James Allan) to kidnap Bu. Chan must defeat Alan in order to win her back.
WHY I LOVE IT: Now, hear me out. While Gorgeous is a very quirky film and not only has a very contrived plot and crazy characters, at its core Gorgeous has great action sequences and a light-hearted tone that many modern action films lack. This movie has some of the best fight scenes in Jackie Chan’s long film history, as well as some of the most inventive (there is a scene where he uses baseball bats and you just have to see it to believe it). Combining both a love story and an action story – this film beats out The Long Kiss Goodnight for me only just barely due to the beauty of the fight choreography and the intensity of the action itself. It falls flat compared to other more complex films on this list, though. This movie isn’t for everyone, but I feel it deserves this spot on my top ten list with no question, even if basically #9 and #10 could be interchanged.
08. PREDATORS (2010)
PLOT: Seven humans awaken to find themselves free falling from the sky into what seems to be a jungle or large forest, and successfully pull their parachutes, landing relatively safely. Royce (Adrien Brody), an American soldier; Isabelle (Alice Braga), an Israeli soldier; Edwin (Topher Grace), a doctor; Stans (Walter Goggins), a knife-wielding death-row convict; Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a Yakuza gangster; and Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), the Chechnyan soldier, all must find a way to survive their new circumstances as they begin to be hunted down by the deadly alien species known as Predators.
WHY I LOVE IT: If there’s one thing I love in a good action film, it’s lots of cool characters. Action films are essentially the cinematic equivalent to fighting games, if you want to use a video game analogy. And one thing that Predators has going for it above the previous two entries on this list is the variety of cool and different characters. This movie really got me back into writing, and most of that is due to the characterization – which is pretty rare for characters in action films aside from the protagonist and antagonist. Since the antagonists of this film are basically aliens, it leaves room for character development instead. Adrien Brody is almost laughable in his role as a toughened military leader, but as the effects of his acting kick in, he’s a lot more believable. One of the most memorable action sequences is when Hanzo faces off against one of the Predators in hand-to-hand combat. Still, most of the other characters have appropriate battles based on their abilities, and it’s very cool to watch.
07. DIE HARD (1988)
PLOT: John McClane (Bruce Willis) is an officer with the NYPD and goes on a vacation to visit his wife Holly (Bonny Bedelia) in Los Angeles for a Christmas party where she works at the Nakatomi Corporation. When the party is interrupted by a gang of thieves led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), and the partygoers are all taken hostage, somehow – John McClane is missed by the thugs and then must find a way to get his wife and all of the other innocent bystanders to safety.
WHY I LOVE IT: When you’re talking about action films, you can’t get much more pure than Die Hard. On a lot of people’s lists, Die Hard would be in the top spot, for sure. And I honestly don’t disagree with them, but my own top ten list is filled to the brim with movies I think basically all stand on the same leg. It definitely beats out the films in spots #8, #9, and #10 for that reason – but because it IS just a straightforward action film, I think that maybe takes away some of the adventure and excitement found in other hybrid genres of later titles on this list. But who can forget the scene where John McClane walks across broken glass? Who can forget McClane also uttering “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker“? Pretty much nobody, that’s who.
06. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991)
PLOT: A cyborg called the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and her son, John (Edward Furlong) from a more-advanced Terminator called the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). If the Terminator fails in his mission and T-1000 kills young John, he won’t be able to lead the human resistance against the machines when he gets older, and humanity will be doomed.
WHY I LOVE IT: The first Terminator was great, but Terminator 2 took everything in the first film and made it even better. Its bleak tone, great action scenes, and character development push this movie into the top tier of my top ten list. Arnold Schwarzenegger is wholly believable as the badass cyborg, while Linda Hamilton kicks ass as Sarah Connor – the ultimate soccer mom. Some of the CGI doesn’t hold up too well today, which is why it falls behind some of the other films on this list – but the solid action and characters push it above the other spots on this list for sure. Memorable scenes: When Schwarzenegger beats up a bunch of bikers and takes a bike and some clothes. Also, when the T-1000 faces off against the original Terminator in the mall before the big car chase.
05. THE WARRIORS (1979)
PLOT: Cyrus (Roger Hill) is the leader of the biggest and most notorious gang in New York City – the Gramercy Riffs. In a bid to take control back from the cops, he organizes a meeting and then calls on the other gangs to unite. When he is killed on the spot, a gang calling themselves The Warriors are framed and must fight their way back to their turf on Coney Island. Swan (Michael Beck), Ajax (James Remar), Cleon (Dorsey Wright), Snow (Brian Tyler), Cochise (David Harris), Cowboy (Tom McKitterick), Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez), and Vermin (Terry Michos) must dodge cops and rival gangs as they battle for survival.
WHY I LOVE IT: The Warriors is a classic, and one of the more modern approaches to action films during the 1970’s and 1980’s. From the vast array of different characters and gangs, to the innovative action scenes, this movie definitely tops out the earlier entries on this list. However, due to its relative lack of character development and perhaps outdated mechanics, it seems to lack a little something when compared to later entries in this list. Still, it’s a good choice for #5…can you dig it? And who can forget the Warriors running from the Baseball Furies? What about the battle in the bathroom with the Punks? Two great scenes in a movie full of foot chases and fist fights.
04. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)
PLOT: Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is a cocky truck driver, filling the CB radio chatter with boasting and tales of the road. When he makes his way to Chinatown in San Francisco on one of his runs, he meets up with his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun). After the two engage in some gambling, Jack tags along with Wang to pick up Wang’s Chinese fiance, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) from the airport. However, when Miao Yin is kidnapped by a Chinese street gang, the All-American trucker finds himself dragged into a centuries-old mystical battle in Chinatown with a sorcerer named Lo Pan (James Hong).
WHY I LOVE IT: Big Trouble in Little China is a gem of a film. On the one hand, Jack Burton is supposed to be the typical male action hero. On the other, he’s pretty incompetent and must often be bailed out by his friend and martial artist, Wang Chi. This ingenuity in storytelling conventions being flipped is part of what made this fim jump to #4 above all the previous entries. On top of that, and despite technically having some horror elements, there is a lightheartedness to this movie that action movies typically need to avoid feeling stale or boring. Who can forget when Jack, in the middle of a fight, shoots his machine gun into the ceiling only to have a chunk of the roof fall on his head and cause him to miss the entire fight? And who can forget the Three Storms? And what about the horrifying moment that Lo Pan appears in front of Jack’s truck? The perfect blend of parody and horror/action, and a great choice for the #4 spot.
03. INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
PLOT: An adventurer and archaeologist named Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is hired by the United States government to find and retrieve the fabled Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis can get ahold of it. In his way are booby traps, Nazi troops, and a determined enemy named Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman).
WHY I LOVE IT: Indiana Jones is a classic franchise, and the first film is still the best of them all. What makes Indy rise above all the others for the #3 spot are the humor, the action, the danger, and that certain something that most action films are lacking – the adventure. Raiders of the Lost Ark is the epitome of action adventure, and while I believe it has no problem besting other films on this list, its relative lack of character development and its simple “good VS bad” mentality makes it fall just short of spots #1 and #2 on this list for me. Remember when Indy ran from the giant boulder? How about when Indy had to fight all those men in Cairo, Egypt? Classic scenes that have dominated pop culture ever since.
02. KILL BILL: VOL. 1 (2003)
PLOT: An unnamed protagonist, only known as “The Bride” (Uma Thurman) has survived an assassination by the notorious Deadly Viper Assassination Squad – led by Bill (David Carradine). Now, she seeks revenge, vowing to track down and kill the five members of the Squad herself.
WHY I LOVE IT: Who can resist a revenge tale, especially one involving a female protagonist? Add to that Quentin Tarantino’s flair for poetic violence, as well as Uma Thurman’s hard-as-nails portrayal of The Bride – and you have what is one of my top three favorite action films of all time. Because of the iconic characters, the stylized action, the great dialogue, and the inventive storytelling – this film soars above others on this list. It falls just short of the first film, however, because Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is only one half of a complete tale. Still, who can forget the animated O-Ren Ishii origin tale? Who can forget Uma strapping on the yellow jumper with black stripes like Bruce Lee did in Game of Death and cutting through hordes of sword-wielding henchmen? This is one of the most innovative revenge tales to come out in a few decades, and will likely remain on my top ten unti someone else comes along and does it better.
01. THE MATRIX (1999)
PLOT: Thomas A. Anderson (Keanu Reeves) goes by the hacker alias of “Neo” at night, and works his normal job as a computer programmer during the day. When his activities attract the attention of police, Thomas is contacted by the enigmatic Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) who tells him that all is not what it may seem. With the help of Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), Neo is awakened into the real world by Morpheus and his crew aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, only to find out he’s been living inside of a computer simulation and that machines have taken over the world.
WHY I LOVE IT: Guns. Martial Arts. Leather outfits. Slow-motion sequences and “Bullet Time”. Killer soundtrack. Really, the question should be – what’s NOT to like about The Matrix? The reason it beat all other films on this list for me is that (even though there are sequels) it can stand on its own as a film. Very strong characters, story, and especially the action sequences make this my definite number one action film. The addition of the science fiction elements really help, I think, to propel this above straightforward action fare like Die Hard. The Matrix is a time-tested product that still holds up to scrutiny today, twenty years later. From the scene where Neo battles Morpheus in the simulation program, to the moment where Neo battles Agent Smith in the subway – there is not a single scene that hasn’t been emulated by at least one other contemporary film to come after it.
Well, there you have my Top Ten Favorite Action Films. If you have any favorites yourself, or even if you agree with my list – don’t be shy about leaving a comment. And please check out my other Top Ten lists, which can be found under the Top Ten tag in the Categories section.