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Top Ten Most Revolutionary Action Movies of All Time

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10. The General (1927)

Buster Keaton’s “The General” may seem like an odd choice, but it IS in fact, an action movie, far more than it is a comedy or slapstick. It’s an incredibly suspenseful action thriller, and one of Keaton’s best films.

9. Seven Samurai (1954)

Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” raised the bar for action epics, creating a standard that would hardly be dented until Sergio Leone’s Westerns of the late 60’s.

8. Die Hard

“Die Hard” is the quintessential American action movie: a single tough guy against a legion of dangerous bad guys. “Die Hard” rises above the crop by making the tough guy so human and real, as played by Bruce Willis, and by making the bad guy so clever and resourceful, and well-played by Alan Rickman. It’s sharp, solid action filmmaking at its best.

7. Hard-Boiled

Chow Yun-Fat stars in John Woo’s “Hard-Boiled”, which features more violence and a higher body count in its opening ten or fifteen minutes than most American action movies do in their full running time–and still manages to up the ante throughout, until its mind-blowing hospital shootout finale. It is absolutely the most beautifully-crafted gunplay film ever made.

6. Come Drink With Me

Cheng Pei-Pei in King Hu’s “Come Drink With Me” stands as an icon of 1960’s Hong Kong warrior women. She’s tough and cool and the movie itself is a beautiful adaptation of many of the concepts of Chinese martial arts novels and legends into rich, vibrant color. Setting a new standard for quality in martial arts and action films, “Come Drink With Me” changed Hong Kong moviemaking forever, and that influence would be felt for decades to come around the world.

5. Drunken Master

Yuen Wo-Ping directed Jackie Chan in “Drunken Master”, his second big success, which solidified his reputation as the successor for Bruce Lee and as one of Asia and the world’s biggest stars. It’s a perfect showcase for Jackie’s slapstick comedy martial arts style, influenced by Buster Keaton as much as by the Peking Opera training he had as a child.

4. Project A Part II

Jackie directed “Project A Part II”, his most sophisticated and well-crafted action picture yet, which again raised the standards of what could be done in Hong Kong moviemaking. By the time of “Project A Part II”, Jackie had moved from pure comedy martial arts to lush and beautiful period pieces featuring a manic combination of stunts and action. It’s one of his best movies and a landmark in action cinema.

3. Once Upon A Time in China

Tsui Hark’s “Once Upon A Time in China” is a more serious successor to the lush period style of “Project A Part II”. Jet Li plays traditional Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung with gravitas and focus, without losing sight of the comedic elements of the story. The action direction, by the master Yuen Wo-Ping, features some of the most spectacular aerial fight scenes that had ever been done, and the movie’s production values and musical score underline it all to create a truly epic action film of national pride and heroism.

2. Enter the 36th Chamber

“Enter the 36th Chamber”, directed by Liu Chia-Liang and starring his adopted brother Gordon Liu, is one of the most sparse and focused kung fu films ever made. The bulk of the story features the main character training at the Shaolin temple, showing the hardships he endures, and the rigors of the martial arts life he chooses when his family and town are brutalized by the Manchurian oppressors. It is the prototype for dozens (possibly hundreds) of copycat films and it stands as one of the all-time classics of the genre.

1. Fist of Fury

If you’re doing a list of action movies, Bruce Lee is gonna be at the top. Opinions vary as to which is the best of his few films, but “Fist of Fury” combines the high production values and cinematography of early Golden Harvest studios with a compelling story of Chinese nationalism (this time against Japanese oppressors in Shanghai during the 1930’s). It’s the most intense and tragic of Bruce’s films, the one where everything works together to create a beautiful, sublime vision of physical poetry.

Honorable mentions:

James Cameron’s “Aliens”. It was on the list until I realized I hadn’t name-checked John Woo. I couldn’t really list “Aliens” AND “Die Hard”, since they both cover similar territory as the best American action movies. But “Aliens” has such a great, catchy script and fun performances I just think of it as one of the most perfectly-made movies ever.

“The Matrix”. Again it was hard to leave off, but there’s only so much space on the list and I wanted to include movies from past and present AND from around the world.

Peter Jackon’s “King Kong”. I really do think it will stand up there with the best of them, as it features absolutely the most intense action sequences put on film in years–but since it’s only been out a few days it might be a bit premature to list it with the Top Ten “Of All Time”.

Chang Cheh’s body of work, especially “Five Venoms”. A kung fu classic, but I just didn’t have room on the list.

Liu Chia-Liang’s “Mad Monkey Kung Fu”. It’s my favorite movie ever, but with such limited space, “Enter the 36th Chamber” was a more representative film, and far more revolutionary.

Jeff Coleman

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About Jeff Coleman

  • No Shogun Assassin? No Sholay? May the Fist of Fury strike your criticism!:)

  • Jeff, you are sepnding to much time in the Asian section. You left off Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” for starters.

  • I’m not familiar with Sholay, but those are all great picks, “The Wild Bunch” especially. I should have put it on the honorable mention for my list.


  • Dave Nalle

    Why doesn’t the title have the word ‘asian’ in it?

    Because the list is seriously flawed if it isn’t just about asian cinema.

    Where is Straw Dogs? How about Bullitt? Of for that matter, where’s Thief of Baghdad, Captain Blood and Robin Hood.

    Sorry, the list is seriously flawed.


  • What about The French Connection? What about the Westerns of John Ford and Raoul Walsh? What about the thrillers and film noir classics of the 1940s? Very, very erratic last.

  • Salton Seas

    Here are my top ten:
    1. M
    2. The Plague Dogs
    3. Rolling Thunder
    4. Get Carter ( original version)
    5. Death To Smoochy ( Asian Version)
    6. Milo and Otis ( action packed working with animals)
    7. Taboo 1 – ?? ( Porn is always thrilling, well usually, ok ok not always)
    8. The Don Johnson “Lookin’ for a Heartbreak” “music” sessions
    9. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
    10. Yojimbo

  • Jeff,

    I think Die Hard should be numero uno here. Yes there were action films before that, but it is just the definitive one for the last 17 years. If you watch lots of these things (and it seems you do) so many films try (mostly in vain) to deliver what that film did. Part of it is Bruce and it is Rickman and lots of credit to John McTiernan who really handles it all so well.

  • gonzo marx

    gotta mention the Zatoichi films from 60-68 out of Japan…IMO these films are the birth of the modern “anti-hero” not to mention rollicking good fun centered around a blind yakuza wtih his “lightning sword”

    glad to see “5 Deadly Venoms” get a mention..great flick with more plot than you usually see

    Gordon Liu getting a mention for the 36th chamber is good…but the “master Killer” series with the same Actor and crew are much better “action flicks”

    both Bullitt and Dirty Harry are far more Important to the genre than the simpering pap of “Die Hard”

    and i agree with an earlier Commentor …no Errol Flynn? for shame

    on and on

    but the Post is a good read, and a fun topic


  • Bullit has a definitive car chase (all films tried to have car chases like that one afterwards) and Dirty Harry has the iconic hero (to whom John McClane certainly owes homage).

    I totally disagree that Die Hard is “simpering pap” as described above. It spawned many copy cats (all inferior) and it made the anti-heroic cop a standard character as well.

  • gonzo marx

    well Victor..as i said, i think that Zatoichi was the first of the “anti-hero”s in film…

    and it was the Dirty Harry films that made the concept a standard long before Bruce Willis was even in “Moonlighting” much less in films

    just my own opinion

    your mileage may vary


  • Thanks again for the comments, everyone. It’s definitely a personal subject and there are a lot of great suggestions here.

    By the way, the Gordon Liu in the “36th Chamber” IS the “Master Killer” series. At least in the bootleg English dub that I originally saw, the movie was called “Master Killer” and it also gave Gordon Liu that nickname. Either way it’s a definitive kung fu picture for sure.


  • “Lethal Weapon” the movie shouldn’t be blamed for all the bad movies it spawned.

    If you’re going to name silent films, how about “Wings” the first movie to use flying stunts.

    Die Hard was enjoyable, but how is Willis anti-heroic?

  • Matrix indeed should have been included for it’s innovative blending of genres that WORKED. It, like T2 and Aliens, is a movie that raised the bar on action so high that what was considred a good action movie is now direct to DVD crap. These movies are like the internet. You wonder how you lived wihtout it before you got it =)

    Great list by the way. Nice work. I was happy to see Die Hard up there. It took a near-dead genre and gave it an adrenaline injection straight to the heart.

    But my all-time favorite action movie (That isn’t a sci-fi movie) is True Lies (The american version) it just doesn’t get any better than that one IMHO. The Fun Factor is way to high on this puppy. Long Live James Cameron.

  • Bliffle

    I liked “Bullit”. The action has a gritty familiar feel, and I recognize the SF sites, altho there are some continuity howlers in the cutting.

    Are we talking ‘action’ or ‘menace’? “2001” has some nice scenes of real slow action menace. Reminds me of when I worked as a deckhand on the river, the tows were so big and slow you could see an accident coming a half hour before it happened. “The big Blue Marble” has a scene like that where a cop chases a bad guy through a kennel, slowly climbing over one fence after another to go 3 feet each time.

  • Bliffie–This particular list is specific to action, but I think you’re right about “2001”.

    One of the things I love about 2001 is that the HAL part of the film works almost just like a slasher movie, where instead of Michael Myers or Jason, the killer is the computer.

    JELIEL–I definitely think Cameron is a master of action but I didn’t care for “True Lies” myself.


  • El Bicho, in my way of thinking, “anti-heroic” means a flawed hero. John McClane is not John Wayne (he has faults; he loses sometimes; he’s not infallible; he disagrees with his captain on how to do the job, etc.) That’s my idea of it; he’s not the invincible Superman or the guy in the old western. McClane even chides Gruber about being Roy Rogers, but the difference is McClane wouldn’t ever wear a white hat.

    Gonzo, I really appreciate this genre and I think Clint and Steve McQueen really came along and added something new to the old game. I just like Willis and that movie, and I respect what you’re saying.

  • Ethan Edwards from “The Searchers” is flawed. So is Harry Callahan and Popeye Doyle and most every hero in film from the late ’60s onward except maybe Superman.

    While “Die Hard” was successful and copied numerous times, that doesn’t translate into “revolutionary”. It didn’t change cinema or the way people looked at it as far as I remember. “Bonnie & Clyde” is more revolutionary than “Die Hard.”

  • Baronius

    “Die Hard” never impressed me.

    Bruce Willis played a generic cop with a failed marriage, still in love with his wife like every cinema cop. The smaller characters were better written, but got little screen time.

    What the movie did originally, many of the follow-ups did better. “Under Seige” was a better action movie, and while the plot was identical, the twists caught my interest more. I loved the fight scene at the end.

    While “Die Hard” was original in some ways, it was also derivative of “Lethal Weapon”. For example, the use of Christmas music and imagery to play up the despair of the lead character, and to accent the violence. Also the last scene was the same in both movies: hero defeats villian, villian taken away by cops, villian breaks free, black sidekick cop kills villian.

  • I’ll probably be stoned to death for mentioning these, but what about:

    – SPEED (the original, obviously)

    – The Hunt For Red October (perhaps not really in the “action” genre?)

    – Air Force One

    – Clear And Present Danger

    – Face/Off

  • Or “Rocky II” ???

  • Let me throw out even more overlooked films which are more influential than those in the article:

    The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3
    Night Hawks
    First Blood
    Red Dawn
    Little Caesar
    The Incident
    Assault on Precinct 13

    Maybe the whole approach to this post is misconceived – action films needs to be defined. Is is martial arts only? Does it include cop films? Does it include horror or suspence? War movies? Historical movies?


  • Yeah, “Red Dawn” is pretty much a classic…

  • RJ #19 and #22

    All those titles are solid action movie worth of mention. Speed was wacked out fun. Face/Off was a ballet but with a shitload of violence.

  • Holy crap. I should redouble my spellcheking when Im so tired

  • I agree that Die Hard should be on the list not just because of the action — which is exciting — but because of the strong storytelling and writing and performances. It’s a total package film, which is why it’s still fresh (as opposed to 10,000 other stale attempts) when it catches your eye of an evening on TNT.

    Aliens is more of a horror-sci fi film in my book.

    There is a heavy Asian influence here but a list like this can only be immensely subjective.

    Personally, I’d put Enter the Dragon near the top, but perhaps that’s too cliche nowadays?

  • My criteria for calling a movie an “action” film is that the conflict is primarily defined by violence, the resolution of the conflict mainly involves the hero or heroes defeating the villains in violent conflict. It’s not exclusive to martial arts, but martial arts films are the purest example of what I’m defining as “action”.

    I’m not familiar with “Targets”, “The Incident”, or “Night Hawks”. I’ve seen “Red Dawn” but don’t recall a thing about it . What was influential about it?


  • Red Dawn was with Patrick Swaze, right? I remember quite a bit about it, though I wouldn’t call it influential. It’s definitely one of those strangely watchable flicks as it’s fairly ambitious (i.e. the invasion of the U.S. by a combo of commie nations).

    I’ll also never forget the scene where they drink the deer blood.

  • Dave Nalle

    Targets is a Peter Bogdonavich film about a stalker who wants to assassinate a former movie star to impress a girl. It’s the first and one of the best of this sort of stalker film.

    The Incident is a relatively little known film about two teenagers on a crime spree in New York City which is really riveting. Predecessor of slew of similar movies.

    Night Hawks is a Sylvester Stallone film which was the first of the cops vs. terrorists genre which led to Die Hard.

    Red Dawn was unique. I’m not sure what influence it had, but it was certainly the first and possibly the last high school sudents vs. soviet invasion film.


  • It’s interesting that the “action icons” are getting nary a mention here: Chuck Norris, Sly Stallone (save in passing), Arnold, Van Damme, etc. It makes sense, of course, because of the aforementioned films are terrible. A film such as Total Recall is pretty good, but that falls more under the inventive sci fi umbrella rather than its action elements. Come to think of it, the action in Running Man is rather fun.

  • I think Stallone’s First Blood was quite good and overlooked by many. It made a statement about a Vet who came home after doing his duty (and then some) and being disparaged by authority (namely a creep cop who didn’t like the way Rambo looked).

    I also think Stallone’s Nighthawks was a fantastic film. Good chemistry between him and Billy Dee, and Rutger Hauer plays a villain (that would be inspiration for Rickman’s Hans Gruber). That last scene in the kitchen was worth the price of admission. I saw it in a packed theater in Manhattan and everyone cheered when Sly took care of business.

  • Bliffle

    Action films just don’t interest me as much as when I was younger.

  • Good picks, Victor. Those two were both on my list earlier as well.

    Stallone isn’t a great actor, but he’s picked some good films to be in, and unlike the formulaic films of people like Van Damme, his early films are pretty innovative.


  • Stallone was quite good among a stellar cast in Copland, a surprisingly effective film.

  • Bliffle

    gonzo: “well Victor..as i said, i think that Zatoichi was the first of the “anti-hero”s in film…”

    Oh my. Anti-hero as protagonist is as old as film itself. In fact it’s as old as literature. As old as history. Take a look at that cheerful scoundrel Ullyses: that draft-dodging, philandering, untrustworthy, self-centered egoist. And we cheer him on every step of his misguided way!

    Pretty good action, too!

  • gonzo marx

    good Point, Bliffle

    perhaps i should have expanded and expounded on my statement…

    true enough that in Literary History there are many examples of the anti-hero…Odysseus among them(as opposed to the classic Hero personified as Herakles)

    what i was so unseuccessful in getting across was the gap in Film between the film noir/Sam Spade type anti hero’s of the 30’s…and the more classic hero’s of the 40-50’s in American films

    it was the emergence of the Archetype again in asian films (such as Zatoichi)that appears to have prompted the rise of it’s popularity in American films…from the Sergio Leone films ( which were self acknowledged rip offs from much of Kurosawa’s work, among others)…to Peter Fonda’s use of “Captain America and Billy” in Easy Rider….Dirty Harry, and more

    my Apologies for not being so clear, and from digressing and hijacking the original Thread topic


  • Bliffle

    Kurasawa had some excellent action scenes: “Seven Samurai” has a classic sword fighting scene. Mifune regularly played an anti-hero, even in his first Kurasawa : “Drunken Angel” which I just screened (via netflix) a few days ago. If you haven’t seen “Drunken Angel” you should. Not much for action scenes, but it’s worth it for the youthful beauty of Mifune alone: broad shoulders, delineated musculature, slim waist, narrow hips and the face, when he lowers his eyes, of classic japanese art (OMG, is the Gay Agenda getting to me? Am I turning *gasp* GAY?).

  • gonzo marx

    Bliffle, if yer a fan of Toshiro Mifune..might i suggest “Samurai” parts 1,2&3

    it’s the Story of Miyamoto Musashi, in what i think may be one of the first actual Trilogys of film

    and as for the Original Topic of Revolutionary Action films…no one has mentioned Mad Max/Road Warrior? quintessential to the genre, brining not only Mel Gibson…but the whole post-apocalyptic theme into the mix

    such a rich Topic, eh?