Once more we find ourselves at the end of June, embedded in cinema’s silly season: big, loud, fast and stupid all competing for our attention in the biggest, loudest, fastest and most stupid ways they can. But enough about Jurassic World. We’re here to celebrate the best of brawn, those masters of muscle able to go 12 rounds with the toughest competitors.
Can we even call action a genre in itself? The 1980s tell us we can, but many of the films below defy such reductive characterisation. It’s really a fool’s errand trying to single out a mere 10 choice cuts, and some of the filmmakers we’ve included could fill a list of their own. So feel free to aim your bazooka at what we’ve chosen on Facebook and Twitter, but for what it’s worth, here’s what we’ve locked and loaded…
The General (1926)
Directors Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman
While there’s an elegant simplicity to the construction of the first film on our list, it’s the casual touch applied to the complexities of its execution that continues to drop jaws nearly 90 years after its release. As deserving of a place on a similar list celebrating cinema’s greatest comedies, The General’s organic, self-propelled kineticism makes it every bit the action picture, and Buster Keaton the proto-one-man-army action hero. It may be a silent movie, but Keaton’s deadpan glances into camera prove the genre’s original kiss-off lines. Then, of course, there’s the action itself; not least the director-star’s astonishing stunt work, bounding between train carriages with peerless grace and precision. In an age of CG-mandated apathy towards the colourful emptiness of bubblegum-balloon spectacle, the sheer physics of Keaton’s set-pieces serve to remind us of the true meaning of awe.
The Wages of Fear (1953)
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot
According to Wikipedia, in April 2002 Swedish freediver Stig Severinsen voluntarily held his breath for 40 minutes and 10 seconds. While it sounds like an impressive feat – especially if we ignore the fact that said record was attained underwater, in a tank full of sharks – one has to wonder if the Guinness family adjudicators were aware of the sizeable audiences who’d held their breath through the final 90 minutes of The Wages of Fear. Perhaps involuntary breath-holding falls into a different category.
A brief introduction sets up the characters and the mission for one of cinema’s great thrill-rides: a Hawksian rabble tasked with transporting truckloads of nitroglycerin across hostile South American terrain. The women here may get short shrift, and the men fare little better, but Clouzot’s cynical lack of empathy does little to temper the palm-dampening effect of the relentless, nail-biting tension.
Seven Samurai (1954)
Director Akira Kurosawa
Credit: Toho Co., Ltd
Doing for the butt-gobbling man-nappy what Die Hard would do for the dirty vest, Akira Kurosawa’s breathtaking action epic remains the apotheosis of modern action filmmaking, all the more startling when viewed afresh and held up against current genre tendencies. The cost of violence weighs heavy on Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s humanist credentials foregrounded in the complexities of the shifting relationships between the rag-tag warriors and the villagers they’ve sworn to protect, and those within the group itself.
The film’s sense of pacing across the best part of three and half hours is peerless, as characters and ideological positions are established and reconfigured ahead of a series of gut-wrenching set-pieces that climax indelibly in a torrential downpour. Yet the post-battle epilogue as the villagers rejoice undercuts any hard-won catharsis with a chilling final shot – the blades of the fallen samurai atop their burial mounds – two disparate groups brought together in violence, separated in victory.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Director Steven Spielberg
One of the great set-piece architects in popular cinema this side of Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg – aptly for a movie centred around a quest for a religious artefact – constructs his own icon with seemingly effortless playfulness. From Raiders of the Lost Ark’s opening boulder-roll sequence to his silhouetted entrance into Marion’s bar, Indiana Jones is custom-built to enter the heroic pantheon. That such self-awareness never feels cynical is testament to Spielberg’s just-so grasp of tone, and Harrison Ford’s modest disregard for the conventions of movie heroism.
Inspired by the Saturday morning serials, Raiders – like the rest of the series – effectively plays out as an extended chase, executed with all the visual and comic élan of Chuck Jones. For all its barnstorming staging and boy’s-own-adventure larks, it’s refreshing that Indy’s greatest foil comes in three dimensions: not Belloq and his cartoon-Nazi chums, but the hard-drinking, wise-cracking, upstagingly brilliant Karen Allen.
Director James Cameron
A master of storytelling, pacing and escalation if ever there was one, giving James Cameron just a single spot on this list was a tough call. The Terminator, T2, Avatar – hell, even most of True Lies – all deserve a right of reply, but it’s his 1986 (whisper it, superior) sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) that takes it. A matriarchal masterpiece of God-bothering structural engineering, there’s really little that Aliens doesn’t get right; from its slow-burn exemplification of character and world-building through to its jab-jab-hook-pause-uppercut series of sustained climaxes, Cameron delivers a masterclass in action direction.
Blurring gender roles even further than he had in The Terminator – turning Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from final girl to action icon in the process – it would take Hollywood (via Australia, see the last film on our list) another 30 years to catch up. Judged on spectacle alone, for all the headway the industry makes in the extended gaps between his films, history tells us he only needs to finish the next one to leave them choking on his dust.
Die Hard (1988)
Director John McTiernan
The quintessential 80s action flick, which established the rules for all the pretenders that would follow swiftly in its wake (not least its own autocannibalism via four weak sequels): reluctant, wise-cracking everyman-as-hero – the antithesis of its steroided antecedents; charismatic villain (would any ever be as charismatic as Alan Rickman here?); ineffective authorities. It’s hard to think of what would eventually become a pop-cultural behemoth as the risk it was at the time; Bruce Willis was a TV star (thanks to Moonlighting) but unproven box office property, and this was Alan Rickman’s first film.
While Die Hard’s stars deserve their share of the plaudits, kudos needs to be saved for the striking compositions of John McTiernan – who, with Predator, almost secured a second spot on this list – and the masterful construction (not to mention wit) of screenwriter Steven E. de Souza. The greatest action film of all time? We’ll let you be the judge of that. But as Christmas movies go, it sure beats the hell out of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Hard Boiled (1992)
Director John Woo
From the barely submerged homoerotic undertones of The Killer and fraternal codes of Bullet in the Head, to the body-swap bombast of Face/Off, questions of masculinity, morality and identity litter the bloodstained battlegrounds of Hong Kong hyper-stylist, John Woo. His last film before decamping to the States to diminishing returns (Face/Off excepted), Hard Boiled sees the filmmaker blend a comedy of domestic anxiety with his most heightened expression of symphonic squib-popping.
Chow Yun-Fat is Tequila, a cop as slick chewing on a toothpick as he is a clarinet, chasing up a personal vendetta through an unparalleled series of balletically choreographed set-pieces. Whether sliding down a bannister, twin guns blazing, or abseiling into a warehouse raid, machine gun in hand, Chow maintains the cool centre of Woo’s camera-dance. A 30-minute-plus, hospital-set finale sends the body count into the stratosphere, and stands as one of the most formidably sustained action set-pieces in cinema.
The Legend of the Drunken Master (1994)
Director Lau Kar-Leung
We could make a list entirely from some of the kung fu greats (in fact we did, here), but it’s impossible not to include something from one of the genre’s masters here too. For the sheer speed and scale of its fight scenes alone, of the 130 acting credits to be found on Jackie Chan’s IMDb page, his 1994 follow-up to one of his breakthrough roles takes some beating. Directed by (and co-starring) Lau Kar-leung, it’s easy to assume that The Legend of the Drunken Master had reached its peak after the astonishing bamboo-splitting tea room fight – with Chan taking on an army of 200 axe-wielding thugs – but the series of one-on-one battles that mark the finale, including a sensational showdown against Ken Lo, see the pint-sized star at the very top of his game.
The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
Director Paul Greengrass
A homegrown hero of modern action filmmaking, Paul Greengrass’ reputation as one of the genre’s most visceral proponents was cemented with this second entry in the ongoing Bourne franchise. Bringing a real-world tactility and hurtling immediacy to familiar tropes, with its wrong man, macguffin and chase-movie structure, The Bourne Supremacy plays out like a blisteringly modern update of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Numerous fight scenes are imbued with a savage close-quarter intensity (knife vs rolled-up magazine a highlight), as Greengrass demonstrates a propulsive grasp of escalating momentum. An opening chase that sees amnesiac government agent Jason Bourne’s cover blown sets the pace, but it’s the magnificent, Moscow-set demolition derby of the finale that seals its place on our list.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director George Miller
It’s usually sensible to get a little distance on a picture before making a bid for canonisation. With the prints of George Miller’s fourth entry in his series of Mad Max films barely dry (or whatever the DCP-appropriate equivalent is), one could argue it’s a little soon to rank it as one of the greatest action movies of all time. One could, if one hadn’t seen it.
Bringing us full-circle back to the first film on our list – given the structural, there-and-back-again similarities it shares with The General – Fury Road is simply a tour de force of filmmaking. Breathtakingly complex in its shot-by-shot construction, refreshingly economic in its narrative delivery system (there’s not an inch of fat on it) and fiercely progressive in its assignment of cooperative gender roles, Miller throws shade and shame on his contemporaries with consummate flair. It’s taken him 15 years to get this film to screen, but it’s been worth the wait; with his peers seemingly stuck in the last century, this one feels like it’s from the next.