These must-see action movies are essential for any fan of the genre, and my picks range from big-screen releases to straight-to-DVD titles. While there are plenty of other choices out there, you can’t go wrong with this lethal cocktail of flicks dedicated to bulging biceps, roundhouse kicks, and plenty of firepower.
1. The Rundown (2003) – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as Beck, a retrieval expert who just wants to retire and open a restaurant. But before he can do so, he’s got to perform one last service for his mobster boss: head to Brazil and bring back Travis Walker (Seann William Scott), a treasure hunter who also happens to be the crime lord’s son. He meets plenty of interesting characters along the way, including the greedy owner of the local mining operation (Christopher Walken), and a bartender with one or two secrets behind her lovely eyes (Rosario Dawson). This modern action classic features lots of humor and quality fight sequences, including a final showdown that never fails to amaze me with its effective use of scoring.
2. Predator (1987) – Arnold Schwarzenegger is Dutch, the leader of an elite military team sent into the dense jungles of South America on a secret mission. But the stakes are higher than he can imagine, as his whole team winds up hunted by a hideous creature from beyond the stars. This John McTiernan classic is filled with testosterone from start to finish, especially when you factor in the muscular performances from actors such as Carl Weathers and Jesse Ventura. If you’re tired of wimpy heroes in cheap polo shirts, be sure to catch this sci-fi/action hybrid featuring hardly anyone wearing a shirt.
3. Hard Target (1993) – John Woo made his American film debut with this action-packed feature about a Cajun merchant seaman (Jean-Claude Van Damme) who tries to help a young woman (Yancy Butler) find her missing father in the seedier parts of New Orleans. It turns out that bored rich guys are paying a pair of slimy Europeans (Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo) for the privilege of hunting human beings, and it’s not long before the “muscles from Brussels” becomes their next target. All the Woo trademarks are here, including slow motion shootouts, doves, and people performing incredible acrobatics while wielding firearms.
4. Silent Rage (1982) – A young psychotic is gunned down by the cops, but a trio of scientists (including Ron Silver) manages to save his life and inadvertently turn him into an unstoppable killing machine. Now he’s killing folks all over town, and it’s up to sheriff Chuck Norris to stop his rampage. Can a miracle of science be stopped by a spin kick from a cowboy boot? Place your bets.
5. Last Action Hero (1993) – Arnold Schwarzenegger pokes fun at the genre that made him famous in this film that had the misfortune to go up against Jurassic Park at the box office. Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) is a young movie nut who winds up in the movies thanks to a magic ticket and must team with his cinematic hero in order to stop the forces of evil. Action tropes are dissected at every turn, and the stellar supporting cast includes Charles Dance, Anthony Quinn, F. Murray Abraham, and Tom Noonan.
6. The Killer (1989) – Before he made movies in the United States, John Woo became an action legend in Hong Kong by helming projects such as this film about a weary assassin (Chow Yun-Fat) who’s forced to team up with a dedicated cop (Danny Lee) to help a blind singer regain her sight. This film had a major impact on the genre due to its use of slow motion and the presence of twin .45 pistols. Plus, Chow Yun-Fat looks positively cool in a white suit.
7. The Raid: Redemption (2011) – You may not associate Indonesia with action films, but you’ll think differently after seeing this bloody flick about an elite squad of cops who enter an apartment building controlled by a drug lord in an effort to neutralize him. Things go wrong almost immediately, and the few survivors (including star Iko Uwais) must engage in a series of life-or-death struggles to complete their mission. The body count is astounding, and there’s no bothersome romantic subplot to get in the way of the brutality.
8. Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006) – Michael Jai White stars as a former heavyweight boxing champion who’s framed for drug possession and thrown in a Russian prison. He’ll only be set free if he agrees to battle prison champion Yuri Boyka (Scott Adkins), a well-rounded fighter who has easily dispatched all his competition. A number of well-choreographed smackdown sessions are bolstered by Adkins, who’s easily the best non-Asian movie fighter currently working.
9. Undisputed III: Redemption (2010) – Yuri Boyka (Scott Adkins) is back, and this time he’s the hero. Despite a serious knee injury, he wins his way into an international prison tournament to crown the greatest fighter in the world. Viewers will get to see a wide array of styles on display, and you can actually follow the action thanks to the steady direction of Isaac Florentine. Adkins also shows off his acting chops, which demonstrates that he’s destined for more than straight-to-DVD titles.
10. Out for Justice (1991) – Steven Seagal prowls the streets of Brooklyn as a vengeful cop in search of the crackhead killer (William Forsythe) who wacked his partner in broad daylight. Seagal wears a wacky beret for much of the film, and it’s great fun to watch him bust heads all over the city while speaking in both English and Italian. Forsythe is a hoot as the baddie, and the fine supporting cast includes Jerry Orbach, Julianna Margulies, and Gina Gershon. Fuggedaboutit!
Some of the acknowledged classics of the genre were left off this list, as I assume that most serious fans of the genre have already seen them. If, however, you’ve missed standouts such as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, than bump the movies on my list down a few spots and see these first.
Unfortunately, must-see action movies are becoming increasingly rare, as studios have decided to replace decent scripts and choreographed fights with shaky camerawork and paper-thin heroes. This constantly proves a major source of irritation for me, but even bad action movies are better than no action movies at all.