30 Greatest Action Films
Action Movies: 'Lights… Camera… Action!'
According to the Oxford English Dictionary filmmakers have been urging their performers to… you know… 'do something' at least since 1914.
Not every director says it. Some delegate. Others prefer a simple 'Okay,' or 'Go', or 'When you're ready'. There's a story that the great B-movie director Sam Fuller liked to pull out a pistol and fire it into the air to kick-start the actors. Distracting, perhaps, but I guess it would clear up any worries about motivation.
Fuller knew something about action. 'Film is like a battleground,' he said. (He knew about battlegrounds too: his war movie The Big Red One was based on his own experience of D-Day and beyond.) 'Film is like a battleground: It's love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotion.'
The idea that action might be a genre in its own right may be relatively recent, but you can see how easily love, hate, violence and death sink in its pocket. This is cinema's natural element - or so it feels - combining thrills and spills, the suspense of the cliffhanger with the exultation of spectacle… a pure rush. And the more money Hollywood is prepared to throw at these films, the bigger the wow factor for the rest of us.
Hyperbolic and catastrophic, the action movie puts modern man on a high-tech rollercoaster ride he survives through a mixture of ingenuity, physical prowess, and determination.
In that sense, you can trace the action hero's lineage back to silent slapstick star like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, who performed their own stunts in equally perilous circumstances at the peak of the Machine Age.
Even so, it can be a tricky film-type to define, not least because it often overlaps with other genres. It's obvious, I think, that The Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action film. But is The Empire Strikes Back? That's sci-fi, surely? But then again, Mad Max II is an action film, and sci-fi, and a road movie too. You could make a case that The Magnificent Seven is an action film - it's certainly action-packed. But what about The Wild Bunch? Yes, Sam Peckinpah was a great action director, but he was a lot more besides.
It's easier to define action stars. Of course: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Burt Reynolds, Steve McQueen… and Clint Eastwood, I guess. Keanu Reeves probably deserves to make the cut for Speed and The Matrix movies. Nic Cage seems to want to.
Older guys: John Wayne, Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster come to mind. Douglas Fairbanks before them. These are athletes and acrobats first, actors second. (I don't mean that to sound disrespectful: Lancaster matured into a terrific screen actor, but his physical grace and bearing were always key.)
And women? Not really, though you could point to isolated roles: Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, pre-eminently. Uma Thurman's abused bride. Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft. Anne Parillaud as Nikita. There are others, but I can't think of any actress who's made a career out of it - or would want to, probably.
Brits? James Bond is the only one, and a law unto himself. As a rule, we view physical assertion as an extension of bad manners, to be avoided at all costs. It's a small island; we don't want Rambo living next door. (See Hot Fuzz for an illustration of how inherently ridiculous the idea is, or Outlaw for that matter.)
As for this list of great action movies, it's certainly not definitive (we limited ourselves to one film per series, for example, and decided to leave 007 to the side), but in the spirit of John McClane, we've tried to be flexible, pragmatic, and resourceful - and when that hasn't worked, just plain bull-headed: Yippee-ki-yay… !
30 Greatest Action Films
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