Explosions, one-liners, and unbelievable stunts are all a few characteristics found in the best action movies, and help turn great buddy cop movies, high-octane thrill-rides, and the martial arts films into all-time greats. But, what are the best action movies and where can you find them streaming, available for online rentals and purchases, and on physical media like DVD, Blu-ray, and the increasingly popular 4K UHD Blu-ray format?
Funny you should ask, as you can currently watch a couple dozen of the cinema’s most explosive action flicks in more ways than Arnold Schwarzenegger can look badass on a motorcycle, Keanu Reeves can reinvent himself, and Michael Bay can continue to pull off his signature 360-degree camera trick. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s break down the best action movies of all time and how to watch them.
After being recruited by a mysterious league of assassins, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) learns he is in possession of an incredible, and incredibly lethal, set of skills passed down by his father, a legendary gunman who was recently murdered under rather peculiar circumstances in Wanted.
Upon being sent out on a mission that has her make her way across Europe, a young assassin named Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) finds herself being hunted by the ruthless Marissa (Cate Blanchett), who will stop at nothing to find and capture the teenager.
Sent off on a mission to the heart of the jungle to rescue a group of politicians, an elite squad of soldiers finds themselves standing face-to-face with a hidden killer from another world. When the group begins to be picked off one by one, Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is left alone with the alien predator and attempts to turn the tables before it’s too late.
Seven Samurai (1954)
One of the best samurai movies, Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic Seven Samurai follows a small group of ronin who take an oath to protect a small village from the looming threat of violence by a large clan of bandits who have set their sights on the townsfolk. Despite their lack of experience or skills behind the sword, the hearty band of heroes push forward to protect the innocent from a cruel death.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Set several years after the episode in Hope, Washington, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is given the opportunity to clear his name and start a new life, but only if he travels to Vietnam and free a group of American POWs. But when the mission turns personal and the Vietnamese and Russian combatants kill the only person he cares about, Rambo snaps and sets out for revenge.
Under Siege (1992)
Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal) is a decorated former Navy SEAL working as a chef on the USS Missouri as it sets off on one final mission before being decommissioned at Pearl Harbor. But Ryback is able to put his skills to good use when a group of terrorists led by William Stranix (Tommy Lee Jones) hijacks the ship and threatens to use its nuclear payload in Under Siege.
Smokin' Aces (2006)
Just before Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) can testify against crime lord Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin), he orders a hit on the Las Vegas magician, resulting in several highly-trained and over-the-top killers to descend upon his Lake Tahoe hideout in Smokin’ Aces.
Die Hard (1988)
In 1988, director John McTiernan took a ‘70s action thriller novel, renamed it Die Hard, cast Bruce Willis as NYPD detective John McClane, and gave the world perhaps the most badass yet polarizing Christmas movie of all time. And, remember, it’s not Christmas until Hans Gruber gets thrown off Nakatomi Plaza.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
James Cameron essentially redefined the summer blockbuster with Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, forever changing how we picture big-budget action movies in the process. The sequel to 1984’s The Terminator, this sci-fi action epic sees Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 take on the role of the good guy to go up against Robert Patrick's T-1000 to save Edward Furlong’s John Connor, in a spectacle of the Terminator movies which still holds up 30 years later.
John Wick (2014)
Keanu Reeves has managed to remain on top for 30-plus years now, and one of the reasons for his latest reign as the champion of action movies is the John Wick franchise. Directed by Chad Stahelski, the 2014 first chapter saw the retired titular assassin as he is drawn back into the criminal underbelly of New York City, after previously leaving that world behind for a new shot at life. If only they wouldn’t have killed his dog…
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller’s Mad Max franchise seemed like it was dead and gone before the series’ fourth installment, Mad Max: Fury Road, completely destroyed the competition at the box office in the summer of 2015. Starring Tom Hardy as the titular hero and Charlize Theron as the fearless Imperator Furiosa, this tour de force takes audiences on a journey through the heart of the wasteland in search of a better and less-violent life.
Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)
The 2014 sci-fi adventure Edge of Tomorrow follows Lt. Col. Bill Cage (Tom Cruise) as he finds himself living the same day over and over again, dying violently in a battle against an invading alien force, until he uses the time loop in his favor. Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton co-star in Doug Liman’s insanely fun and action-packed thrill ride.
Hard Boiled (1992)
John Woo’s 1992 Hong Kong action epic Hard Boiled centers on Tequila Yuen (Chow Yun-fat), a renegade cop who goes to extraordinary lengths in order to bring down the gang of gun smugglers who violently murdered his partner. With excessive violence, a gripping story, and that classic John Woo flash, there are plenty of reasons Hard Boiled is considered one of the best of all time.
Con Air (1997)
The late 1990s brought us an action movie in which classically trained actor John Malkovich got the opportunity to play the vicious serial killer in Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, in Simon West’s movie about a group of prisoners who take over a prison transport plane. Even though Con Air is a very silly movie with several questionable moments, it remains one of the best thanks to Nicolas Cage and his portrayal of Cameron Poe, a convict who just wants to get home to meet his daughter.
The Raid (2012)
There are few movies that compare to The Raid, Gareth Evans’ 2012 bone-shattering action flick centering on an elite police force working their way to the top of an apartment tower in order to apprehend a notorious crime lord. With floor after floor of armed guards and deadly fighters, this tower of terror never lets off the gas the entire runtime.
Escape From New York (1981)
John Carpenter’s 1981 dystopian thriller Escape From New York is not only one of the best Kurt Russell Movies but it’s also one of the best action movies of all time. When Snake Plissken (Russell) is sent into a heavy fortified New York City (which has been transformed into a prison colony) to save the President of the United States, he has to survive the mean streets of the Big Apple if he wants to rescue to the Commander in Chief and get back in time to avoid a premature death.
The Rock (1996)
Nicolas Cage plays Stanley Goodspeed, an FBI chemical warfare expert who, along with Sean Connery’s John Patrick Mason (totally not James Bond), leads a counterstrike to prevent a group of disgruntled American soldiers from launching a chemical weapon on Alcatraz Island in Michael Bay’s The Rock.
Bad Boys II (2003)
Although some would argue Bad Boys II isn’t better than the original, the 2003 buddy cop movie with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence returning as Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett, respectively, is still a hell of a lot of fun. This time, however, the Miami detectives find themselves in over their head when their investigation into the world of the drug ecstasy comes a little too close to home.
Keanu Reeves was already a big name in the action world by the time he was cast as Jack Traven in Jan de Bont’s 1994 action thriller Speed, but the movie, and its logic-defying bus jump, helped take him to the next level. Everything from the concept (the bus will explode if its speed drops below 50 mph) and the chemistry shared by Reeves and Sandra Bullock works far better than it should.
At one point in his career, Liam Neeson was receiving Oscar nominations and critical acclaim for movies like Schindler’s List, but in 2008 he tried on a different hat when he took on the lead role in Taken. With his gravelly voice, iconic speech (you know the one), and tireless effort to find his kidnapped daughter, Neeson became an all-out action star and started the next chapter of his career.
The Matrix (1999)
Every now and again a movie like The Matrix comes along and completely changes what we know as the action genre. Released in March 1999, the Wachowskis took the genre and flipped it on its head, creating a genre-defying spectacle that’s actually about more than a group of humans who break out of a machine-controlled simulation and search for truth and freedom in a dystopian world.
John Woo’s 1997 action thriller Face/Off follows John Travolta’s FBI agent, Sean Archer, as he goes deep undercover to bring down a terrorist organization by switching faces with group’s leader, Castor Troy, played by Nicolas Cage. Things become more complicated, however, when Troy awakens from a coma and undergoes the same surgery.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
When three of humanity’s holy sites become targeted for destruction by a mysterious terrorist organization, it is up to Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the IMF team to locate three plutonium cores and prevent them from being used as weapons. Like previous installments in the franchise, Mission: Impossible — Fallout features insane stunts and even more mind-boggling twists and turns.
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Air Force One (1997)
At the center of the crossroad of political dramas and action flicks is Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One, which centers on the hijacking of the world’s most famous aircraft, with the President of the United States (Harrison Ford), the First Family, and White House staff being held hostage by a terrorist group in hopes of freeing a political prisoner. This movie has everything from iconic one-liners, traitors, and an entire subplot dedicated to the 25th Amendment.
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
The conclusion (not really, but it was at the time) to the Jason Bourne story, 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum didn’t hold anything back as Matt Damon’s former CIA assassin finally gets to the bottom of his previous life while also trying to survive an endless wave of elite killers sent to wipe him out before he can uncover the truth.
Arguably one of the best James Bond movies in recent memory (and of all time) Sam Mendes 2012 epic Skyfall showed the world a side of 007 (Daniel Craig) that we had never gotten to see before. When ghosts of M’s (Judi Dench) past come back to do more than haunt the MI6 leader, only the world’s most famous spy can save her, and the world, from the monster who has been let out of his cage.
The Mummy (1999)
Say what you will about The Mummy, but the 1999 action comedy starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz is a ton of fun. With elements of horror, suspense, action, romance, and comedy, the story follows a group of explorers who inadvertently awaken a vengeful and heartbroken mummy in ancient Egypt. Mr. Fraser wants another entry in the franchise, and we can't help but agree.
Point Break (1991)
Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, the 1991 action movie about an FBI agent (Keanu Reeves) going undercover to bring down a group of bank-robbing surfers with a charismatic leader (Patrick Swayze), remains one of the most iconic films of its era. The bank-robbing scenes, car chases, police raids, skydiving without a parachute, all the surfing, and the inclusion of Gary Busey, are just a few reasons why.
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Extraction follows a mercenary (Chris Hemsworth) who is hired to track down the kidnapped son of an international crime lord. This seems like a difficult task in itself, but things quickly get out of hand, resulting in even more danger and perilous situations in one of the best Netflix movies of 2020.
Despite the first movie in the Alien franchise being a moody and terrifying sci-fi horror story, its 1986 sequel, Aliens, took a completely different path and it paid off handsomely. James Cameron’s iconic action flick, which saw the return of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, as well as the debut of a few of cinema’s most quotable soldiers, remains one of the most fun and unique sequels while also keeping some of the horror elements of its predecessor.
Fast Five (2011)
Directed by Justin Lin , Fast Five completely changed the trajectory of the Fast and Furious franchise in 2011 with an action-packed story revolving around Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) as they put together a new team to pull off one of the most remarkable heists in cinematic history. Oh, and the movie sees the debut of Dwayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
Over the past decade or so, Charlize Theron has become one of the leading action stars of her time. That case was made even stronger in 2017 with the arrival of Atomic Blonde, a fun and brutal action thriller centering on an elite spy (Theron) who isn’t afraid to put her life in danger or get her hands a little dirty in order to pull off a job. This eye-catching and action-packed lesson in brutality is a must-watch.
These are just a couple dozen of the best movies on Amazon, Max, Netflix, and other streaming platforms that fall in the action genre. And who knows, maybe we’ll see some of the 2023 new movie releases show up on this list in the future.
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Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.