Forty-Five Favorite Pure Action Mov- BOOOOOOM!
Inspired somewhat by this list from Den of Geek, I’ve been ruminating the specific sub-genre of “Pure Action”. Action cinema comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, most often these days in the form of science fiction. Now, I’m as big of a sci-fi nut as the next nerd, but there’s something to be said for the roots of action movies: stunt-laden, high octane movies featuring shoot-outs, fist-fights, car chases, and really, really, really unreasonable amounts of explosions.
So, what is a “pure” action film?
- Minimal Obvious Computer Enhancement. It’s rare to impossible to find a film made in the last fifteen years that hasn’t benefited some what from computer compositing or imaging, but I think my meaning is clear here.
- A Minimum of Three Action Scenes. Any good thriller has at least one scene of pace and suspense, so a relentless onslaught of activity has to be a qualifier for “action”.
- A Modern Setting, Relative to Time of Production. This excludes sword-and-sandal epics, Westerns, and samurai movies. So, no Buster Keaton’s The General, no Seven Samurai, no Stagecoach.
- No Overtly Supernatural, Science Fiction, or Fantasy Elements. In addition, excluded are some of the big guns: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, King Kong, The Matrix. This is getting trickier.
- No Sports Movies or War Movies. A pure action movie has to rest on chaos, and in addition to the fact that most war movies are also period pieces, there’s just a difference between organized combat and consequential combat.
So, with the rules set, here are 45 of my favorite pure action movies. Now, this list was compiled as much to find my own weak spots as it was to reminisce about all those pretty explosions.
You’ll find a dire lack of the following sub-genres, many of which are the ancestor of the modern action movie, all born in the 70’s:
I’ve not seen an awful many exploitation or grindhouse movies like Shaft, Walking Tall, or Death Wish. The same goes for the martial arts sub-genre, which shows off some of the most fantastic stunts in action cinema history. (Example: Rumble in the Bronx, Supercop). I’m also light on 70’s car movies like Two Lane Blacktop and The Driver, although there are a few glaring entries in there. This might be a good time to mention to any of my fellow Film Nerds that I’d love to record a series on any of these sub-genres to help pad my viewing resume a bit. (Ahem, after the premiere of The Nocturnal Third, of course.)
Some other big weaknesses are the early filmography of Tony Scott and the Jack Ryan series, both of which contain movies I saw numerous times in my youth, but come up hazy in my memory.
Let me know what I left out, what I should see, and where I’m just plain wrong!
So, without further ado, and in chronological order:
North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
The granddaddy of them all. Combining a fantastic score, relentless pace, and tropes that would leak their way into every action movie you’ve ever seen, this descendant of Hitchcock’s original Thirty Nine Steps has everything. I’ve been meaning to pick up that much-lauded blu ray. Not my favorite Hitchcock movie, but I can’t deny its importance.
Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964)
I purposely left out numerous Bond films, but this is one that absolutely had to be included. Goldfinger took what we saw in North by Northwest and the early Bond films and turned up the testosterone, peril, and fantasy.
Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965)
Again, a textbook example of the escapist thrills of the middle years of Connery’s Bond.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969)
…And here we go, as the Bond franchise changes things all around for at least the second time in its franchise history. Utilizing a frenetic, New Wave editing style, Peter Hunt gives George Lazenby’s sole Bond film a choppy style reminiscent of Arthur Penn or, dare I say, Godard himself. Hate shakey cam? Blame Lazenby’s 007 film. I, for one, love this movie, and find it to be among the most entertaining and exciting Bonds.
Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971)
Spielberg’s entry into the carsploitation sub-genre is teetering on being more of a thriller than an action movie, but its exciting chase sequences and scenes of destruction make it apt.
The Spy Who Loved Me (Lewis Gilbert, 1977)
Probably the best example of the “classy” Roger Moore 007 movies, this features one of the series’ more recognizable stunts (Union Jack parachute) and cars (Lotus Esprit). This entry is kind of a catch-all for the 70’s Bond films that were being influenced by the quickly evolving action genre.
First Blood (Ted Ketchoff, 1982)
You won’t see any other Rambo films on my list, not because they don’t follow the rules, but because I don’t like them. This first film is wholly original, suspenseful, and moody, while the others are indulgent in a charmless way. They could have used more of the wit put on display in…
Commando (Mark Lester, 1985)
Truly, a bad movie. And yet this, basically a Saturday morning cartoon version of the 80’s action extravaganza, manages to excite and entertain.
A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo, 1987)
This is where everything seemed to change. John Woo injects an overwrought air Shakespearean melodrama into a genre steeped in machismo and bristle. An amazing, incredibly violent closing sequence takes this sequel to action heights only hinted at in the original film.
The Living Daylights (John Glenn, 1987)
A wonderful, classy holdover from the more breathable 70’s Bond films, Timothy Dalton’s debut features a handful of really fun chase sequences, as well as one of the great Bond stunts: two guys fighting on a giant net, dangling out of an airplane’s cargo hatch.
Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)
The perfect “pure” action movie. An exquisite balance of dire stakes, menace, wit, and intensity, no one’s been able to top McTiernan’s original.
The Killer (John Woo, 1989)
John Woo’s action bromance is a bit much for me. While I prefer A Better Tomorrow II and his upcoming ‘92 opus, The Killer still has its fair share of awesomeness.
Lethal Weapon 2 (Richard Donner, 1989)
The first Lethal Weapon hasn’t stuck in my memory, so it gets left out here. Regardless, I think it’s widely accepted that its sequel is more action-packed and intense. It really is the showcase of the whole series.
Hard Boiled (John Woo, 1992)
Probably John Woo’s masterpiece. Things start to get a little dodgy with some of the most outrageous action scenes you’ll ever seen… in my estimation, the root of today’s Looney Tunes action movies. Regardless, Woo manages to keep things under control in what I consider to be his best movie, its climax featuring an audacious and amazing long take.
The Fugitive (Andrew Davis, 1993)
Deceptively simple, this might be the textbook 90’s action movie, alongside Speed. It’s got all the essentials: an everyman hero, lots of momentum, and well-constructed scenes of clearly communicated suspense.
The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994)
Quite possibly a cheat, as Luc Besson’s film really does hold much of its action for the end sequence. However, it must be included to acknowledge the hard work the French have been doing to keep the action genre alive since the early 90’s. I could argue against the quality of the European pure action output, but at least they’re trying. The U.S. has all but abandoned the genre.
True Lies (James Cameron, 1994)
The ultimate Arnold Schwarzenegger experience. James Cameron pulls out all the stops and publicly confronts his frustrations with the James Bond character, resulting in a fun, hopeful, and bombastic action classic.
Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)
Sometimes things just line up perfectly some times. On paper, in the year 2011, the combination of Bullock, Reeves, de Bont, and writer Graham Yost should not compute. And yet, here we have a relentless action movie that probably should have been the basis of Die Hard 2. Fantastic stunts and set peices, a compelling gimmick, and believable characters make Speed worth re-visiting.
Desperado (Robert Rodriguez, 1995)
This is most likely Rodriguez’ best film, a stylish cross between the spaghetti western and Hong Kong actioners.
Die Hard With a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995)
They just don’t make them like this anymore. From the get-go, McTiernan’s return to the Die Hard franchise is fast, funny, and controlled. Willis and Jackson have fantastic chemistry, and the gimmick is perfectly woven into John McClane’s curse. Turn this on and watch the time fly by.
GoldenEye (Martin Campbell, 1995)
Setting up a precedent that was almost impossible to follow, Campbell and Brosnan re-invented James Bond perfectly for the 90’s. Aside from laughable femme fatale and a dated score, this is one of the greats in the series. There are too many fantastic sequences to list, but my favorite might be the utterly destructive tank chase.
The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996)
This bombastic free-for-all could best be described as a “greatest hits” album for action scenes. If you can imagine the action movie trope, it’s in this film, Michael Bay’s best. Still the arguable king of the Bruckheimer catalog, the slickness and clarity and melodrama of this thing just carries you along. It doesn’t hurt to have funny, legitimate performances from Connery and Cage.
Eraser (Chuck Russell, 1996)
Probably Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last good, fully rounded action movie, this almost gets disqualified for its sci-fi weaponry and CG effects, but it gets a pass for grit. Freakishly re-watchable, Eraser has several highlights, one of which being Schwarzenegger managing to survive a fall from an AIRPLANE.
Mission: Impossible (Brian DePalma, 1996)
At times absurd and posturing, but predominantly taught and moody, this is probably the movie on this list I’ve seen the most number of times. Brian DePalma, apparently the only human on earth with the ability to properly adapt a television show for the screen, crafts the consummate “high tech” action thriller of the 90’s. The Langley sequence had a lot to do with my burgeoning interest in filmmaking (aside from the rat of DOOM), and the film’s bombastic finale is the stuff summer is made of.
Con Air (Simon West, 1997)
This might rival The Rock as Bruckheimer’s apex. This hilarious and freakishly destructive thing is just too much fun to take your eyes off of. I remember eagerly anticipating this during the Summer of 1997, as Trisha Yearwood sang us all to the box office window to slap down our hard-earned money. The key to this film is conviction, and every performer seems to have been bitten by the bug. They’re all on the same page, and that page just exploded.
Face/Off (John Woo, 1997)
Who could have ever predicted that Nicholas Cage would have come as close as he did to being an action icon? Alas, this is his last passable action movie, and it does not age well. Despite having some incredible thrills, the film has all the sap and kitsch of Con Air, and none of the wit. Not only does Cage go completely off the rails as Sean Archer, but Travolta is kind of embarrassing as both his characters. Great gimmick, though, and again- fantastic action of the sort we really never get anymore.
Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997)
This underrated Bond film suffers from a ridiculous villain performance, but contains some of the Brosnan era’s best stunts and action scenes. Not only that, but the film is allowed to get a bit personal, introducing a secretly -and obviously- pregnant Teri Hatcher as a flame from Bond’s past. That little subplot takes the movie to surprising levels of cold-hearted awesomeness.
Ronin (John Frankenheimer, 1998)
I desperately need to re-watch this cold, car-chase ridden thriller from the late nineties. I almost forgot to include it, but I remember enough to know it should be on here.
Lethal Weapon 4 (Richard Donner, 1998)
The (hopefully) final entry in the Lethal Weapon series is, in my opinion, sort of underrated. Featuring several mind-blowing action sequences and a fairly strong turn from villain Jet Li (in an early American appearance), the movie also gets the family dynamic right, which was a miss in the lackluster third movie.
The Way of the Gun (Christopher McQuarrie, 2000)
Fiendishly underrated, the first and only feature by Valkyrie and Usual Suspects screenwriter McQuarrie is a real gem. Featuring an ugly, awkward, and thrilling shoot-out, as well as several other gritty, yet clear sequences, the movie knows what it is and works hard for its stripes.
The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002)
It took a lot of convincing for me to be on board with Matt Damon’s action debut, but the proof is in the pudding. A fantastic car chase, an amazing sniper sequence, and a handful of raucous fight scenes earn this movie a lot of respect.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Robert Rodriguez, 2003)
Cheap, fast, and kind of shoddy, this is the rare Rodriguez “flick” that actually works. A big cast, a busy storyline, and plenty of slick action distracts the viewer enough from some absurd and sloppy sore spots.
The Rundown (Peter Berg, 2003)
Colorful, silly, and loud, this underrated action comedy came and went without much fanfare, but it deserves a second look. The Rock has yet to really become the action star he seemed destined to become after this movie, but there’s still time.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
Its modernity (right?) makes it the catch-all for all the kung-fu movies that are sorely missing from this list. Indulgent and self-centered he may be, but you cannot deny that Tarantino knows how to stage a fantastic action set piece, with clear stakes and motivations.
The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2004)
One of the best examples of our current action movie landscape, this change of tone for the Bourne series is in a league all its own. Cold, brooding, and, well- shaky, Greengrass’ action debut (as well as its sequel) make a strong case for a shooting style that isn’t very well supported by any other movie.
Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)
Another potential cheat, as it really saves its two extended action sequences until its climax. You’ll notice that Mann’s Heat is missing from this list. Perhaps it should have been included, but this film has a much higher action-to-dialogue ratio. Regardless, this is Mann’s most underrated film, a slick and straight-forward thriller with an amazingly chaotic night club shootout.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Doug Liman, 2005)
I’m actually having a hard time recalling a lot of this action comedy, but I do remember quite an awesome car shoot-out towards the end, and a pretty intense fight scene in there somewhere. Say what you will about the movie’s bizarre ending and severely annoying gossip fodder, Liman can bring the goods when he really wants to.
Mission: Impossible III (JJ Abrams, 2006)
Slick, fast, and twisty, this underrated entry in an underrated franchise redeemed the whole shebang after a shampoo commercial-inspired misstep from John Woo in 2000. Although the film still smacks of a Tom Cruise vanity project, the plot gives a major ending moment to a secondary character, and members of the IMF team have their share of time in the limelight, as well. Overall, a fantastic and dynamic action movie from J.J. Abrams.
Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)
Quite possibly the best pure action movie of the decade, Campbell’s return to the series trades a hectic pace for nicely revealed tension, paid off by bombastic action. From a wise and restrained use of the already-tired parkour trend (lifted from the fun sci-fi actioner District B13) to a sickeningly tense progression of chase sequences during the middle of the movie, Campbell keeps things classy with long stretches of character development, tone, and plot, before tying everything up in a solid action finale.
Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)
I’m definitely cheating to get Death Proof in here, as it really only has one big action set-piece. However, that set-piece is so amazing, and lengthy, that it had to be included. While a handful of the film’s performances and line deliveries do fall flat, the film is a very entertaining slow-burn, with a payoff that makes the rest all the more worthwhile.
Live Free or Die Hard (Len Wiseman, 2007)
A divisive choice, for sure. Despite its odd tone, unclear physics, and heavy reliance and composites, Wiseman kind of shut my mouth with some fantastically staged action scenes. The Hollywood Saloon might describe this as more of a bad pilot for the Die Hard TV show than a movie fitting of its canon, but I think it does have some very tense, cinematic sequences.
The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007)
The final Bourne chapter is one of the best modern action movies, and – to be honest – one of the biggest perpetrators of the trend that has gone a long way in killing the genre. Despite its herky-jerky camera work, the movie’s action scenes are pleasantly easy to follow and, above all else, involving.
JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008)
Kind of a stretch, as this really much more of a drama than an action film, but its action scenes are fantastic, and clearly staged. Plus, it gets points for ruminating on one of the genre’s fallen soldiers.
Transporter 3 (Olivier Megaton, 2008)
I did not make up that director’s name. The fact that a Transporter film is on the list might be a sign of our times, but I’ll admit that this movie stands out from its glossy series because of a wonderfully natural gimmick. The first two entries in the series are not bad, but Transporter 3 I find underrated and more accessible. This is representative of the newest sub-genre of action movies: the Looney Tunes action movie, combining slapstick comedy, audacious CG stunts, and sophomoric shock to keep male adolescents entertained. To be honest, I’m not a fan of movies like Crank, Shoot-Em-Up, and the rest, but I won’t discount the whole movement just yet. Statham’s output seems to be worthy of some attention.
Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011)
Now, I didn’t see The Expendables, so maybe I missed out, but it seems like this strange specimen is the modern-day torchbearer of “pure action” Featuring three fantastic action sequences that are clear, imaginative, and fun (and one hard-to-follow fight scene between Rock and Diesel), I was shocked at how much I enjoyed the fifth entry into the “Fast and/or Furious” franchise. Big kudos to director Justin Lin, who clearly has an appreciation for “pure” action.
So, what’s next? It seems studios aren’t much interested in practical stunts and real explosions, but who knows? Maybe there’s hope, not just from foreign and indie filmmakers, who are armed with ever-cheaper equipment. Looking forward, it seems Steven Soderburgh has a little action movie he’s been working on. Brad Bird, who staged some fantastic sequences in The Incredibles, will most likely perpetuate the Mission:Impossible series’ straight-forward action. If nothing else, this list has proven to me that I’ve got plenty of movies left to watch, so hopefully my adrenaline will never have to drop to a healthy level of human operation.
Like I mentioned, hit me up with stuff I missed, stuff I should see, or stuff I messed up.