If you find yourself looking for a bit of an adrenaline rush on a Friday night but want an activity that will keep you safe without any marks on your permanent record, it’s time for an action film. Watching Hollywood’s best take and throw way more punches than humanly possible and follow up their fight scene with a car chase that would result in hundreds of unnecessary deaths (it’s a movie, don’t think about it) is a much safer way to live vicariously through film and dream of being a secret agent. These films are why you invested in the big screen TV with the high-definition sound system.
The action genre isn’t always one taken seriously by critics, but we have nothing but respect for the choreographers, stunt people, and crews who work tirelessly to create breathtaking sequences that deserve a place in movie-making history.
From classic battles in the jungle for human survival to intricate martial art fights to death-defying stunts that test the limits of special effects, we’ve rounded up a list of the best action films for movie night. Get your heart pumping (safely).
1. The Bourne Ultimatum
It’s tough to pick a favorite out of the first three Bourne films (we don’t need to speak of the fourth and fifth), but one thing we can say with certainty is that if things go sideways, we want Jason Bourne/David Webb/whatever he wants to call himself on our side. The Bourne Identity gave us death by pen and The Bourne Supremacy showed redemption by apology, but it was in The Bourne Ultimatum that viewers got to see the CIA assassin at his best. Will we ever look at train station signs the same again? (Insert Julia Stiles’ sly smile.) Probably not.
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
There’s no shortage of incredible martial arts films that could be on the list (Police Story, Prodigal Son, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, The Way of the Dragon and Ong Bak, just to name a few), but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was one of the biggest crossovers to North American audiences. The brilliant Ang Lee, who can literally direct any genre, is at his best in this epic story of the Qing Dynasty. Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi beautifully execute their stunning fight choreography while flying through trees, fighting on rooftops, and battling on horses.
3. Atomic Blonde
For moviegoers who want an MI6 agent without all the fancy gadgets, there’s Atomic Blonde. Set in Berlin in 1989, Charlize Theron is an agent (possibly a double one?) who can handle the KGB with more style than a spy in a black tux. The fight sequences in the action flick are nothing short of impeccable and seeing Theron’s characters actually sustain injuries makes the film even more realistic. Well, as realistic as an action flick can get.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
Lovely day for an action film, isn’t it? Reiterating our previous argument that Charlize Theron is one of the best action stars of all time, the South African actor starred alongside Tom Hardy and Nicholas Hoult in George Miller’s cinematic 2015 masterpiece. The intensity of the film and the non-stop fight scenes make it one of the top action films ever, while eight Oscar nominations helped made Mad Max: Fury Road one of the few action films to break through to critics. Plus, it will give you allllll the nightmares, so it’s fun for horror fans too!
5. The Matrix
The Wachowskis entrance into the world of the Matrix was set in the future, a fitting placement since the 1999 film was far ahead of its time. Between intricate and beautifully choreographed fight scenes and special effects that effectively changed films forever, The Matrix remains cemented as a turning point in movie making, with a new sophistication in action scenes that were largely unseen by North American audiences. We all took the red pill. The second and third films were unfortunately rushed to theatres and didn’t capture the same magic as the original, but we have big hopes for the highly anticipated fourth installment.
6. John Wick
Our second doubleheader on the list following Charlize Theron is Keanu Reeves, who kept himself ready for the upcoming fourth Matrix film by starring in the John Wick trilogy. Unlike The Matrix films, the John Wick saga continues to up the action ante with each film, pushing the boundaries of action films and consistently delivering electrifying sequences. It shouldn’t have to be said, but don’t ever kill a retired hitman’s dog. John Wick is back and you should definitely be scared.
7. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
You can’t really go wrong with any of the Mission: Impossible films (fine, the second wasn’t great, but it’s still watchable), but if you want the best of the best, it’s 2018’s Fallout. Do you like your action movies with death-defying stunts? Watch Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) literally hang from a helicopter. Like your action films to follow more traditional sequences? How about Henry Cavill having a fistfight that could leave viewers with a slight concussion. Car chases, motorcycle chases, scaling mountains, oh, and the moment the audience sees Cruise jump between buildings and actually break his ankle. This is why it’s better to watch action movies as opposed to starring in them.
We can’t have a list of the best action films without including one of the greatest action stars of all time — Arnold. The man who only needs one name, mostly because his last name makes our spellcheck go nuts, the action hero starred in the 1987 film as Dutch, a soldier sent to Guatemala to rescue politicians. Surprise, surprise, anything involving politics is not what it seems (the Governator excluded, of course). Unlike other must-see action films starring Schwarzenegger (we did it!), this time around Arnold is defeating the machines instead of being one. Intense and high energy until the final climax, Predator continues to be a must-watch for all action fans.
9. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2
Since Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 and 2004 films act as one large story, we counted them as a single entry on our list. So, double the action. Uma Thurman is, in a word, the ‘coolest’ as The Bride, an assassin who is left for dead by her crew when she discovers she’s pregnant and tries to leave behind the world of death and violence. Thurman then spends two films exacting her revenge in a variety of creative and legitimately terrifying ways, while also having flashbacks to her training (could we punch our way out of a casket if buried alive?). Unlike most of Tarantino’s films, which focus on more senseless violence and way too much of it directed towards women, Kill Bill has a purpose and a heroine with plenty of worthy opponents. RIP to the great Lucy Liu’s scalp.
Sam Mendes’ 1917 may seem like an odd choice for best action films, but hear us out. The epic war story was brilliantly filmed to make it appear as if the movie was shot in only two takes. There are massive explosions, choreographed fight scenes, epic battle montages and clearly defined heroes. The stunning historical drama was nominated for 10 Oscars and took home three, including Best Visual Effects because — like we said — it’s an incredible action film.