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The 25 Greatest Action Films Ever!

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Directed by Brad Bird (2004)

Some may say that Pixar's sixth feature film is for kids. In truth, it's the best James Bond movie in decades — so what if it didn't actually have 007 in it? A villain plotting world domination from his volcanic island lair? Check. A hero whose romantic entanglements complicate his quest to defeat said villain? Done. Flying, running, jumping, exploding, throwing, shooting, icing, stretching, invisibling...If that ain't an action movie, then what is?

BRAD BIRD: ''The best action heroes are more often than not the ones who show a little fear. He's not gonna die, but it's gonna hurt.''

Directed by Richard Donner (1987)

Mel Gibson is crazy. That might as well have been the tagline for this buddy-cop flick, which starred Gibson as a suicidal cop good at making people dead and Danny Glover as the unlucky family man who gets to be his partner. Together, they go after a similarly crazy Gary Busey (whose gleaming choppers may or may not be the lethal weapon of the title). Richard Donner, working from Shane Black's taut, quippy script, keeps the proceedings moving at a muscular pace. This is the film that took Gibson and polished him into an American movie star.

Directed by Lau Ka Leung (1994)

You know how masterful editing is essential in the making of a great action film? Well, Jackie Chan is the exception to that rule. What you want out of a Jackie Chan movie is for the director to put the camera on a tripod, grab some coffee, and just let the Hong Kong phenom work. Toss martial arts, slapstick, stunts, and Jackie's willingness to risk ridiculous bodily harm just to entertain you (look at the outtakes to see just how close he comes to a full-body cast) in a blender, sprinkle with a dash of Chinese legend about a guy who fights better when he's drunk, and you've got a kung fu classic.

Directed by John McTiernan (1987)

Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been as manly as he was in this alien-hunting testosterone-fest. Hell, has a manlier film ever been made? Exhibits A, B, and C: Predator kick-starts with Carl Weathers and Arnold, greased biceps flexed, locking fists in some protein handshake. Jesse ''the Gubernatorial Body'' Ventura actually says ''I ain't got time to bleed'' after getting shot. And Arnold finally takes on the Predator by stripping to the waist, covering himself with mud, and building a bow out of tree branches and twine. Plus, Bill Duke shaves — in the middle of the jungle — with no shaving cream. No shaving cream! Manly.

CARL WEATHERS: ''Predator was just unbridled testosterone — never having to worry about makeup or wardrobe because you're just a bunch of sweaty guys in the jungle with fatigues on.''

Directed by Sam Raimi (2004)

The first film set the stage — and the third just kinda sat there, twiddling its black-goo-covered thumbs, waiting for a script that made sense to come along — but the second Spidey flick had all the jump, jive, and whale-on-the-bad-guys you could ask for from comic-book-based entertainment. Sam Raimi's crowning achievement was the elevated subway chase, in which the web-slinger (Tobey Maguire) duked it out with Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) in, on, and around an out-of-control train. Emotional substance combined with playful kineticism...dressed in blue-and-red tights.

20. KILL BILL — VOL. 1
Directed by Quentin Tarantino (2003)

Ever get the feeling that with a Tarantino movie, you're watching a mash-up of whatever he likes at the moment, be it heist movies, blaxploitation, or the back of Ving Rhames' head? With this revenge opus, it's clear he had a thing for chicks kicking butt. And, woman alive, Uma Thurman dug into the role of the Bride, an assassin left for dead on her wedding day, fresh out of a coma and paving the road to vengeance with the blood of those who wronged her. If you thought QT was all talk-talk-talk-bang, watch what he does in the House of Blue Leaves — Uma slices through wave after wave of masked thugs. And none of them says a word.

VIVICA A. FOX: ''The choreography was just so beautiful. And it wasn't a lot of tricks or anything like that. Our fight scene was really a brawl.''

Directed by Guy Hamilton (1964)

This Bond adventure would be higher on the list if parts of it hadn't aged as badly as they have — i.e., that whole giant-mirror Aston Martin crash, which is kind of laughable. Plus, Sean Connery in a powder blue terry-cloth onesie. But it remains on the list for the litany of things it did right...and first (gadget-laden cars, gold-painted women, etc.). Not only was Bond the first real action franchise, it all but invented the idea of being bigger and better each time out. There's no denying that 007, lying on a slab of gold with a laser beam threatening to cauterize his twig and berries, is one of cinema's most indelible images.

Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley (1938)

Let's be clear about something: Errol Flynn is the king, nay, the pope of derring-do. And he was never as good as in this, the definitive steal-from-the-inordinately-wealthy-and-give-to-the-financially-disenfranchised adventure. With him at the center — buckling swashes, dueling dastardly dandies, and stealing kisses from Olivia de Havilland's Maid Marian — Robin Hood bounced with a joy, with a spirit that's almost entirely absent from movies made today, movies with budgets large enough to buy Sherwood Forest.

Directed by Paul Greengrass (2004)

Where Bond thrillers are smooth like vodka, the Bourne films like to play rough. And docudramarian Paul Greengrass (United 93) was the perfect choice to fill in the blind spots of amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon); his handheld style expertly paints the world of a man whose life is jagged around the edges. Bonus: Now you know it's possible to beat the snot out of a man using a magazine.

DAN BRADLEY (STUNT COORDINATOR): ''I said, 'I think it would be great if Bourne drops 25 feet to the boat.' Matt is not terribly comfortable with heights. But he's like, 'Bourne doesn't have a whole lot of dialogue, so I should do something for my money.'''

Directed by Ang Lee (2000)

Amazingly, this movie actually is all things to all people...provided those people dig unconsummated romance, subtitles, and some of the most graceful martial arts ever filmed. What makes that mélange work is the fact that Ang Lee treats every facet of his story just as seriously — which is why the audience doesn't blink an eye when Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi share a painfully awkward surrogate father/daughter duel atop swaying bamboo fronds. No wonder Crouching Tiger was the first foreign-language film to cross $100 million in U.S. theaters.

ANG LEE: ''I think it's a misconception to equate martial-arts films with martial arts. It's really, in spirit, a musical. Instead of singing and dancing when you feel something, you kick ass.''

Directed by Robert Clouse (1973)

Were it not for Bruce Lee — paving the way while swinging a pair of nunchakus and screaming that weird, catlike scream — Hollywood would've evolved along a different path, one that didn't have wire-fu, Jet Li, or people getting kicked repeatedly in the face. Enter the Dragon may not be complex (tough dudes land on a madman-operated island and beat each other up for sport), but the set pieces are still to die for: the climactic courtyard rumble, Bruce's decimation of the broken-glass-wielding lummox, the hall of mirrors...I've still got the poster (but my wife won't let me put it up).

Directed by Paul Verhoeven (1987)

The Modern Prometheus. That's how Mary Shelley described Frankenstein's monster, and the term's just as applicable to Paul Verhoeven's cyborg peacekeeper. Brutally murdered on the job, a police officer (Peter Weller) is brought back from the dead to become the perfect corporate cop. Oozing with both pathos and satire (those fake commercials for artificial hearts and nuclear-war board games are still prescient 20 years later), Paul Verhoeven's most accomplished film also beats with an action junkie's heart. The face-off between Robo and the panzer-guard-bot ED 209 is one for the ages.

PAUL VERHOEVEN: ''RoboCop is ahead of its time. I don't think you could improve it by doing it digitally. I was always disappointed by the follow-ups.''

Directed by Sam Peckinpah (1969)

If there's an Action-Movie Arms Race, then The Wild Bunch is the film responsible for the biggest escalation. Before this revisionist oater, about a band of thieves (led by the hewn-from-a-particularly-hard-kind-of-stone William Holden) who set out on One Last Job before retirement, onscreen violence was just violent. The Wild Bunch opened the door to brutality and wedged it there, leaving room for directors from Francis Ford Coppola to Paul Verhoeven to the Wachowski boys to see just how many pulpy bullet wounds is too many.

Directed by Irvin Kershner (1980)

Maybe you're thinking it doesn't feel like an action movie, what with Luke's kinda boring Jedi training on the swamp planet, Han and Leia's chaste romance, Chewie rocking the third-wheeliness, and Lando pimping it up on Cloud City. But the best of George Lucas' sci-fi sextology still found time to blow our minds. Not only did it get us to believe in a little green puppet, it boasted blistering sequences, like the imperial attack on Hoth, the Millennium Falcon dodging through the asteroid field, and the most hand-optional father-son reunion since the Hook family's last Christmas party.

Directed by Jan De Bont (1994)

We're gonna go ahead and pretend that the last third of Jan De Bont's stellar directorial debut doesn't exist. (Remember the bit on the runaway subway? See, you've been pretending the same thing for years.) This is a movie about a cop on a bus that'll blow if it goes less than 50 mph. Writer Graham Yost's Gordian knot of a screenplay keeps the pressure on as Keanu Reeves (who has never been better) tries to keep hope — and passengers — alive. It's the best of the Die Hard on a... films, and that's saying something.

JAN DE BONT: ''To me, the best action movies are always like, What would you do if you were in the same situation? Would you have the guts to take that step? How would it feel? I try to bring the audience just to the level that they might decide to take it.''

Directed by James Cameron (1991)

There's a saying that goes '' What good is having an envelope if you can't push it?'' And just because I made that up doesn't make it any less true. James Cameron returned to the series that made Arnold a star and, rather than rest it all on the Austrian Oak's shoulders, the director offered us a villain (Robert Patrick) for the ages: the implacable molten-metal T-1000, which represents the first — and last — time CG morphing was cool.

ROBERT PATRICK: ''We developed that clean, concise T-1000 run during the boot-camp-like training. I literally felt as if I could run through a cement wall. I could take on anybody.''

Directed by John Woo (1992)

Any time you see someone in a movie firing two handguns at the same time, you can thank John Woo. The Hong Kong filmmaker almost single-handedly rescued action cinema from Hollywood-in-the-'80s bloat by digging into his love of male bonding, Western heroics, doves, and the heightened reality of classic musicals. (Yes, musicals. Shut up.) Hard-Boiled, a quicksilver tale of undercover cops and shifting allegiances, is Woo's explosive masterpiece. (It's better than The Killer. Really. Again, shut up.) Happiness is a warm pair of guns...especially when Chow Yun-Fat is holding them.

Directed by Steven Spielberg (1998)

From the chaotic, visceral opening salvo, in which our citizen heroes storm Omaha Beach, to the final, sad triumph on a meaningless bridge, after having saved Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg's ode to those who fell in WWII — and those who didn't — echoes with resonance. The action, captured by Spielberg's longtime cinematographic wizard Janusz Kaminski, is so full-on it desensitizes us as we watch it, otherwise we couldn't watch it. The flawed, noble men on screen (Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, et al.) pull us back from the brink. They rescue us.

Directed by Ridley Scott (2000)

No, I'm not gonna say it. Instead, we'll talk about how easily this Best Picture Oscar winner could've been just a fair-to-middling sword-and-sandals flick — if not for Russell Crowe. The action still might've been first-rate, given Ridley Scott's hands on the reins, but the reason audiences cared about what happened to poor Maximus — father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, sentenced to a fighting death on the Colosseum floor — was Crowe's steely, soulful performance. Without him as the rock in the center, we would not have been so entertained. (Dammit. I am so weak.)

DAVID FRANZONI (WRITER): ''I pitched Gladiator a couple of places, and everybody thought I was demented — that it was the worst idea for a motion picture ever.''

Directed by Akira Kurosawa (1954)

You could probably trace the Building a Team of Assorted Badasses plot back to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but as far as movies go, Akira Kurosawa's razor-sharp black-and-white gem is the standard-bearer. Working, as he so often would, with the magnetic Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa conjured an intimate epic about a band of masterless samurai hired to defend a poor farming village from greedy bandits. The lengths to which they go to prove to themselves that they're fit to die for a cause is heartbreaking. And the manner in which they prove it is eye-opening.

Directed by the Wachowski brothers (1999)

There had been movies featuring virtual reality or hackers or kung fu or weirdo philosophy or groundbreaking F/X. But those things had never been assimilated into the same film until The Matrix, a Big Idea flick about a programmer (Keanu Reeves) who might just be the humanity-saving Chosen Dude.

CARRIE-ANNE MOSS: ''The Matrix just raised the bar in such a major way. There hadn't been anything you wanted to line up for in a long time. I think The Matrix really inspired movies again, and I think actors started to really want to do their own stunts instead of having doubles.''

Directed by George Miller (1982)

Who needs a tribute to this postapocalyptic Mel Gibson sequel, when the opening narration does it so well? ''The gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice. And in this maelstrom of decay, ordinary men were battered and smashed. Men like Max.... In the roar of an engine, he lost everything. And became a shell of a man...a man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again.''

GEORGE MILLER: ''Our biggest problem was the cold. We'd cover Mel in blankets and have him around the fire, and he'd be shaking. But the moment you'd say 'Action,' he'd stop shaking and do his lines. Then the moment you'd say 'Cut,' he'd start shivering again.''

Directed by Steven Spielberg (1981)

A man should be judged by what he does. So it's fitting that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas' whip-cracking hero Indiana Jones doesn't do much talking, and that this movie doesn't waste much time on dialogue (even though said dialogue is screwball-smart, coming from Lawrence Kasdan). Some of the greatest action scenes ever filmed are strung together like pearls: running from that boulder, fighting the big bald Nazi, wondering ''Snakes...why'd it have to be snakes?'' The posters called Raiders '' The Return of the Great Adventure.'' Truth in advertising if I ever saw it.

Directed by James Cameron (1986)

In all of action herodom, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley is unique. She's a woman, which makes her part of an elite club. And writer-director James Cameron miraculously found a way to treat her gender as both a nonissue and the core of her character. Ripley isn't a vixen like Lara Croft or Charlie's Angels. Yet Weaver wasn't forced to turn Ripley into a man, either. (Remember Linda Hamilton in T2?) Aliens — a relentless Swiss watch of a war film — is a movie about women, about the matriarchs of two tribes fighting to protect their young.

SIGOURNEY WEAVER: ''I certainly don't think Ripley was the first woman who held it together during a crisis. But it edged things further in that direction. Ripley was like a samurai, a warrior. I'm so glad I got to wear actual clothes instead of a tiny little suit or something. And I'm glad I didn't feel I had to be glamorous. You were a person. You didn't have to be a sex symbol.''

Directed by John McTiernan (1988)

He's just a guy. That's the amazing thing about Bruce Willis' John McClane, an NYC cop in L.A. to reconcile with his corporate-ladder-climbing wife, who gets trapped in a skyscraper with money-hungry ''terrorists.'' He's not thick with muscles, he's often afraid, and he forgot his shoes. But all of those things — combined with Willis' street-smart insouciance and McTiernan's high-tension camerawork — help make Die Hard the Greatest Action Movie of All Time. We know it, you know it, and Bruce knows it, which is why he spoke with EW's Chris Nashawaty to look back at being the right man in the wrong place at the right time.


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Anonymous said...
September 17, 2008 at 1:00 AM  

Anything with Gary Busey or Dennis Hopper is going to be a good film. I see you picked one with Busey. I have Busey as a voice on my GPS as a download I got from Navtones.com. They do real celebrity voices you can put right on your GPS. It's funny stuff.

buy 32gb compact flash said...
January 27, 2010 at 12:13 PM  

This attempt to resuscitate the Die Hard franchise, after the passage of 12 years and the remainder of Mr. Willis' hairline, is surprisingly effective.

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