Todd McCarthy: 21 Great Action Films to Cure Indoor Blues

7:00 AM 4/1/2020

by Todd McCarthy

The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic offers his picks for couch-bound viewers craving vicarious thrills — from a silent classic about a railroad pursuit to martial arts extravaganzas, franchise favorites, recent Bond films and beyond.

'Seven Samurai,' 'The Matrix'
'Seven Samurai,' 'The Matrix'
Photofest

When the Lumiere brothers terrified viewers with one of their earliest films, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, which showed a train rolling into a station in the south of France in January, 1895, the shock was triggered by a new medium that could viscerally convey something no other expressive form could — action! Suddenly, the movement of human beings, animals, vehicles and the forces of nature could be witnessed, and their beautiful as well as destructive potential captured and dramatized in a lifelike way.

Filmmakers realized this from the beginning and have spent the past 125 years exploring the infinite ways cinema can express motion — that of the visible subject as well as of the camera itself, and how they can most strikingly interact with one another. There’s a pre-eminent reason why the new form was called "motion pictures."

Action films have always been with us and always will be. The degrees of realism have reliably increased over the decades to the point where special effects can make anything look real, and the boundaries of sensation keep expanding in ways that challenge filmmakers to deliver something new. “Action” in the broadest sense indeed is more prevalent and popular than ever. Decades ago, it was exciting enough to root for good guys chasing bad guys on horseback, to witness credible-looking car chases and gun battles, to behold medieval sword fights and not dissimilar lightsaber combat, or to watch superhero matchups that look as real as an old Friday night prizefight.

Great action cinema both thrusts you into the thick of things and transports you somewhere else. It sweeps you up, plunks you into great and grand events, forces you to go mano a mano with evil or imperils you with terrifying situations you’d never choose to be part of but relish witnessing second-hand. At its best, action cinema gives you a charge, an adrenaline rush you rarely get from real life unless you’re a very gifted athlete or performer. The popularity of other genres can ebb and flow, but action movies that completely grab hold of your senses for a little while never get old.

This is especially true these days, as many of us (though certainly lucky to not be ill and privileged to not have to leave home for work) are left feeling restless, bored or thrill-starved during the quarantine. In the spirit of vicarious excitement, I’ve chosen 21 superior examples of the genre, and while the earlier titles can’t hope to compete with the more recent ones in terms of their audacity and technical sophistication, the bottom line is consistent: The action yanks you entirely into a situation in which physical risk plays a major role.

Dozens of other films could qualify here, but the following stick in the mind a bit more prominently. (And credit for a big assist goes to my son, Nick, whose knowledge of Asian martial arts and action cinema well surpasses my own and led me to hitherto unknown treasures.)

  • 'The General'

    1925

    'The General'
    'The General'
    United Artists/Photofest

    Inspired by a true Civil War incident, this Buster Keaton classic is an ultimate railroad pursuit yarn that keeps topping itself for thrills and laughs. The stunts were all real, some perilous, with no margin for error or retakes.

  • 'The Sea Hawk'

    1940

    'The Sea Hawk'
    'The Sea Hawk'
    Warner Bros. Pictures/Photofest

    Errol Flynn and director Michael Curtiz were the greatest of swashbucklers at their peak when they fashioned sea battles and sword fights that remain breathlessly dazzling and unsurpassed 80 years later.

  • 'Seven Samurai'

    1954

    'Seven Samurai'
    'Seven Samurai'
    Toho/Cowboy/Photofest

    Akira Kurosawa’s masterwork was amazing when it was made and remains so now, an immediate classic and game-changer that reset the bar almost unreachably high in the realm of realistic action and combat cinema. Curiously, it is set at exactly the same time as The Sea Hawk, the 1580s.

  • 'The Killer'

    1989

    'The Killer'
    'The Killer'
    Circle Films/Photofest

    Not since Seven Samurai had an Asian film proven so influential internationally as John Woo’s groundbreaking blend of fun and over-the-top violence (dubbed "gun fu") blatantly influenced by Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy comic strip. As a result, Woo became one of the first Asian directors to make big Hollywood films.

  • 'Die Hard'

    1988

    'Die Hard'
    'Die Hard'
    Photofest

    There’s got to be room on this list for at least one commonplace tough-guy cop without super-human fighting skills who depends simply upon his wits and guts to come out on top in a tight spot. And that would have to be Bruce Willis’ John McClane as he outwits Alan Rickman’s baddie in a Century City high-rise in John McTiernan’s beloved franchise starter.

  • 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day'

    1991

    'Terminator 2: Judgment Day'
    'Terminator 2: Judgment Day'
    Everett Collection

    Arnold Schwarzenegger and director James Cameron had a good test-run with the original Terminator, but the action and testosterone went on overload the second time around with a combo of heavy artillery, bad-ass attitude and sardonic quips that became part of the vernacular.

  • 'Iron Monkey'

    1993

    'Iron Monkey
    'Iron Monkey
    Miramax/Photofest

    A Looney Tunes logic calls the shots in Yuen Woo-ping’s highly elaborate Donnie Yen wuxia epic that festoons a Robin Hood-like tale with great choreography of wild action embracing twisted swords and extensive gravity defiance.

  • 'Drunken Master II'

    1994

    'Drunken Master II'
    'Drunken Master II'
    Miramax/Courtesy of Everett Collection

    The drunker he gets, the better he fights, and Jackie Chan was never drunker than in this astonishing display of kung fu virtuosity (directed by Lau Kar-leung and Chan) that concludes with a climactic 20-minute fight sequence that many rate as the all-time greatest martial arts sequence.

  • 'Starship Troopers'

    1997

    'Starship Troopers'
    'Starship Troopers'
    Courtesy of Photofest

    Taste-makers didn’t get the deep subversiveness of Paul Verhoeven’s caustic take on American jingoism, so steeped was the film in gung-ho, let’s-kick-alien-ass action. A great political movie wrapped in a raunchy, ultra-violent R-rated sci-fi package.

  • 'The Matrix'

    1999

    'The Matrix'
    'The Matrix'
    Courtesy of Photofest

    There are a few game-changers that alter the course of movies in the sci-fi/fantasy/action categories, and the Wachowskis’ film is one of them. Keanu Reeves’ "chosen one" Neo does battle in a twisty, often slo-mo, mind-and-matter realm that represented a conceptual and tech breakthrough here and in two sequels.

  • 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'

    2000

    'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'
    'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'
    Photofest

    Asian martial arts went mainstream-legit in this big-scaled, 18th century epic from Ang Lee with an all-star cast that became the highest-grossing foreign-language film ever in the U.S. For the majority that had never seen such gravity-resistant warriors before, the violent and graceful moves were a revelation. 

  • 'Hero'

    2002

    'Hero'
    'Hero'
    Miramax Films/Photofest

    Ornate, expensive, gorgeous and festooned with fabulously elaborate fights and wire work, Zhang Yimou’s film is an all-star art house martial arts extravaganza about a nameless assassin’s attempt to kill the emperor. Exquisite is the word.

  • 'District 13'

    2004

    'District 13'
    'District 13'
    Magnolia Pictures/Photofest

    No one is going to make great claims for the artistry of this Luc Besson production directed by Pierre Morel, but it was a ground-breaker for essentially introducing to movies the specialized martial art parkour, which is highly cinematic with its constant, fast vaulting, running and elusive forward movements.

  • 'Tom-Yum-Goong'

    2005

    Weinstein Company/Photofest

    A seriously cut and altered version of Prachya Pinkaew’s film was released as The Protector in the U.S., but the original Thai version starring Tony Jaa is highlighted by astounding, seemingly single-take fight scenes that leave one gaping at the martial arts boxing style called muay thai.

  • '13 Assassins'

    2010

    Magnet Releasing/Photofest

    Proudly brandishing his debt to Kurosawa, Takashi Miike displays tremendous panache in the plotting and staging of the climactic 45-minute sword battle, one that ranks with the greatest and is thick with dramatic and character detail.

  • 'Skyfall'

    2012

    'Skyfall'
    'Skyfall'

    As with From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and this film’s immediate predecessor, Casino Royale, this Bond from Sam Mendes serves up outlandishly good action that’s also, in context, plausible enough to swallow. The physical stuff is exhilarating and as bracing as a stiff Scotch.

  • 'The Raid: Redemption' and 'The Raid: 2'

    2011, 2014

    Sony Pictures Classics/Photofest

    Directed by Welshman Gareth Evans and fluent in the Indonesian martial art pencak silat, these two features muscled their way into the pantheon of great virtual wall-to-wall action movies, helped by insanely inventive and almost constant violence in a dingy high-rise building overflowing with gangsters.

  • 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

    2015

    'Mad Max: Fury Road'
    'Mad Max: Fury Road'
    Photofest

    George Miller’s long-awaited fourth installment of his immortal series paid off with a matchless rush of speed, ferocity, adrenaline, imagination, detailed creativity and sheer virtuoso filmmaking. The film basically consists of one long chase that very nicely echoes the first film on this list, The General, albeit on steroids.

  • 'Mission: Impossible — Fallout'

    2018

    'Mission: Impossible — Fallout'
    'Mission: Impossible — Fallout'
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

    From a hard-core action p.o.v., Christopher McQuarrie’s second entry in the franchise is hard to top: The sky-dive into Paris, madly motorcycling around the Arc de Triomphe against traffic, chasing across London rooftops, the vertiginous helicopter-in-the-mountains climax — all are astounding and realistic.

  • 'John Wick: Chapter 3'

    2019

    'John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum'
    'John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum'
    Niko Tavernise

    Lovers of elaborate hand-to-hand combat died and went to heaven with this third and final Wick feature (directed by Chad Stahelski), in which Keanu Reeves and the filmmakers went into overdrive with outlandish weapons and deliriously conceived fight scenes.