I love #actionmovies. It's no secret. My childhood was all about James Bond films on a Saturday night, and as the '90s became the '00s I made it my mission (impossible!) to become a devotee of the genre — and when there's some element of adventure woven into those movies, I'm pretty much instantly sold.
With that in mind, Movie Pilot presents 25 of the best action-adventure movies of the past thirty years, beginning, appropriately, with Aliens, and continuing alphabetically. I didn't try to rank these movies by quality, because honestly, who am I to judge? I'm merely a pupil of the school of the action flick. Read through the list, use it as inspiration when you want a stone-cold classic to watch this winter, and add any classic action movies I missed in the comments below.
1. 'Aliens' (1986)
Were the '80s a better time for the blockbuster? I don't know, but the 2010s have yet to produce a sci-fi thriller anywhere close to James Cameron's Aliens, in which the horror elements of the first film in the franchise are replaced by a heightened sense of psychological tension and malevolence — you truly believe Ripley (a superb performance by Sigourney Weaver) could die out there in space. Aliens is hands-down one of the best films of its decade.
- iMDB score: 8.4
2. 'Argo' (2012)
If tense political relations between the US and Iran in '79 don't necessarily sound like the basis of a thrilling action movie, Ben Affleck plays fast and loose with real-life history in his Best Picture-winning Argo to turn Tony Mendez's rescue of six US hostages in Tehran into a relentlessly exciting, emotional action movie.
So gripping is Argo that even a prior knowledge of how the hostage crisis ended won't spoil the suspense Affleck creates from behind the camera. The whole cast is strong, but Alan Arkin steals every scene as Lester Siegel, the movie producer who elaborately constructs a fake (and terrible) science fiction movie in order to get Mendez in, and out, of Iran. "Ah, go fuck yaself!" indeed.
- iMDB score: 7.7
3. 'Battle Royale' (2000)
It's not exactly a secret that Korean cinema can be deliciously sick (Oldboy, anyone?), but Battle Royale goes to wild extremes in its genre-blending indulgence of blood, gore and depravity by dropping a boat load of school kids on an island and commanding them to murder each other. Only the winner will keep his life. It's an especially brilliant film to watch if you hate children.
James Gunn's new movie The Belko Experiment has essentially the exact same premise, except with white people.
- iMDB score: 7.7
4. 'Casino Royale' (2006)
Choosing just the one Bond movie for this list felt like a pretty impossible challenge, but it's Daniel Craig's debut turn as the world's suavest superspy which not only delivers a truck load of seriously memorable action sequences (ancient buildings sinking into the waters of Venice, a nail biting crane-top chase), but mines ever greater tension from less obvious scenarios — a game of poker, a gruesome torture session.
On those terms Casino Royale is a great Bond movie, but it's the delicately-played romance between 007 and agent Vesper Lynd (a stunningly good Eva Green) which thrills and devastates, ultimately elevating the film into something bigger than the franchise it lives in. Witness their first meeting on board a train to Montenegro above for proof of their sizzling chemistry. Arguably since surpassed by Skyfall, Casino nonetheless remains the near-masterpiece it was back in '06 a decade on.
- iMDB score: 8
5. 'Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes' (2014)
Better than the first movie in the Planet of the Apes trilogy in every single way, Dawn is a properly smart blockbuster which immediately ups the stakes with a 10-year time jump. In the future, San Francisco is a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which a band of survivors lead by Gary Oldman must liaise with Caesar's rebel apes, now living in a forest camp and able to speak basic English, in order to access a disused dam.
Oldman, Jason Clarke and Keri Russell are all great, but what makes these films special is the way the apes themselves are given distinctive personalities and mannerisms. As a result, it's the hardened, rageful Caesar (Andy Serkis, naturally) who elicits the most sympathy as he and his family attempt a peaceful co-existence with a species who just can't seem to stop creating conflict.
War For The Planet Of The Apes hits theaters in July 2017, and the epic trailer promises one of next year's best blockbusters.
- iMDB score: 7.6
6. 'Die Hard' (1988)
A Christmas movie for people who hate Christmas, Die Hard single-handedly turned Bruce Willis into Hollywood's most bankable action star, but it's Alan Rickman's sneering German villain Hans Gruber who's on top scene-stealing form, doing his best Snape impression long before Snape was a thing. Four sequels followed, but none recreated the lone-hero magic of Die Hard.
- iMDB score: 8.2
7. 'Guardians Of The Galaxy' (2014)
Just as Die Hard made Bruce Willis an icon, without Guardians Of The Galaxy the whole world probably wouldn't know Chris Pratt's name. Take that as you will.
In introducing the Guardians to the big screen, Marvel wisely scrapped the traditional and relentlessly boring "origin story" in favor of a straight-up action-adventure movie in space, and the result is an energetic, charming, frequently very funny piece of cinema which makes great use of its excellent ensemble cast. Pratt has chemistry with Zoe Saldana, but the real star here is Marvel's best-written character ever — a monosyllabic humanoid tree.
We. Are. Groot.
- iMDB score: 8.1
8. 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Jurassic World may have done a stellar job of resurrecting a franchise many had presumed dead (even if its primary pleasure was observing the brain-meltingly dumb manner in which every character behaved), but in the action-adventure stakes it couldn't top Jurassic Park for sheer thrills.
For countless kids of my generation, Spielberg's monster movie is perhaps the movie of our childhoods, the moment at which cinema's incredible potential revealed itself, and it holds up brilliantly well two decades. Not only are the groundbreaking visuals from an era before CGI became the norm still charmingly passable, but the charisma of its cast, lead by Goldblum, Dern, Neill and Attenborough is timeless. The Jurassic universe may be in rude health, but there'll never be another quite like Jurassic Park.
- iMDB score: 8.1
9/10. 'Kill Bill Vol. 1' (2003), 'Vol. 2' (2004)
Pulp Fiction may be Tarantino's masterpiece, but there are moments at which Kill Bill feels like his most beautifully deranged work, everything from the soundtrack (where Nancy Sinatra meets The RZA) to the bold color palette combining to produce an all-out assault on the senses.
The first film is arguably better, if only for the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves where Uma Thurman's merciless, unnamed Bride takes on, and slays, the Crazy 88 before turning her attentions to Lucy Liu's mafia queen O-Ren Ishii. The old nemeses' final, snow-drenched duel in the Japanese garden is a mouth-wateringly pulpy homage to classic samurai cinema. The more Spaghetti Western-themed Vol. 2 is brilliant in its own right, though, not least when the Bride invades the trailer of the one-eyed Elle Driver. Needless to say, much blood is spilled.
- iMDB score: 8.1 (Vol. 1), 8 (Vol. 2)
11. 'King Kong' (2005)
The Lord Of The Rings mastermind Peter Jackson moved on to another fantasy classic when he rebooted the 1933 King Kong as an epic action-adventure movie in 2005, his talent for CGI even further improved since Rings. The result is a movie which wows with every single frame, supported by a highly charming performance from Naomi Watts as an actress whose movie shoot intrudes on Kong's (Andy Serkis again) personal stomping ground. Somehow, she and the gorilla generate some serious chemistry, leading to a highly emotive climax atop the Empire State Building.
Check out our Movie Pilot original showing King Kong on the big screen through the ages above. You'll see more of the legendary gorilla when Kong: Skull Island swings into theaters March 10, 2017 — check out the brilliant trailer here.
- iMDB score: 7.2
12. 'Kingsman: The Secret Service' (2014)
As the James Bond movies become increasingly more serious, trading in their camp in-jokes for critical acclaim, Matthew Vaughn shimmied into the gap vacated by 007 to direct Kingsman: The Secret Service. The genius of Kingsman is that it's both a parody of and a love letter to the spy genre, clearly made by a man heavily inspired by the Roger Moore adventures of the '70s.
Colin Firth makes an excellent M equivalent as Galahad, a desk agent who's not averse to kicking ass when the moment requires it, Taron Egerton is charming as the chav-turned-gentleman Eggsy, and Samuel L. Jackson has his most fun in years as the requisite megalomaniacal villain Richmond Valentine, who's kind of a sassier, lispier Blofeld. The upcoming sequel The Golden Circle adds Julianne Moore, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges and Channing Tatum to the already established cast — it's going to be a banger.
- iMDB score: 7.7
13. 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' (2001)
An action-adventure movie in the truest sense, Tomb Raider was and remains divisive — and while the game may have deserved a big screen adaptation with more fluid action and fight scene choreography (or a script not full of holes), it's still a winner visually and one of the very few decent video game movies in existence. Plus, you know, Angie in tiny shorts.
A reboot with Alicia Vikander arrives in 2018. Cross your fingers.
- iMDB score: 5.7
14-16. 'The Lord Of The Rings' (2001-03)
It might not be strictly action, but movies don't come any more adventure-driven than Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, an epic in every sense of the word.
Tolkien's high fantasy world is transplanted from the page to the big screen in phenomenal style by Jackson, the unparalleled master of CGI, with a cast of actors who effortlessly inhabit Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf and every other person drawn into the quest to destroy the ruinous, all-powerful One Ring. There is no weak link in this trilogy — each of the three movies is a stone-cold classic — and there's never a bad weekend for a Rings marathon.
- iMDB score: 8.8
17. 'Mad Max: Fury Road' (2015)
Not many directors can claim they've made two of the best action-adventure movies of all time, but George Miller topped his own, triumphant Mad Max 2 with Fury Road, the rare action movie which doesn't assume its audience is full of morons.
Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are superb as Max and the one-armed feminist champion Furiosa, but it's Miller's preference and talent for practical effects over CGI wherever possible (check out our original video above for a taster of how it was made) that elevates Fury Road into a truly immersive experience which demands to be seen on the largest screen possible. Watch it at your rich friend's place.
- iMDB score: 8.1
18. 'The Matrix' (1999)
Every year Hollywood turns out at least a couple of great blockbusters, but it's not often that one comes along and completely changes the game. The Matrix did exactly that, both in its twisty, complex depiction of a miserable dystopian future (it essentially predicted the VR technology which is now on the cusp of impacting our everyday lives in a huge way) and with its iconic slo-mo "bullet time" visuals.
It goes without saying that The Matrix is an absolute dream to look at, and the superb ensemble cast of Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving all fashion some of late 20th century sci-fi's most memorable characters. It's just a shame the Wachowskis never came close to replicating the mind-bending brilliance of this film with either its less ambitious sequels or their later works.
- iMDB score: 8.7
19/20. 'Mission: Impossible' (1996), 'Rogue Nation' (2015)
Tom Cruise might be this century's greatest action cinema icon, the Bruce Willis for this generation and the last, and that's almost entirely thanks to the Mission: Impossible series. Because each of the M:I movies has a distinct identity, choosing the best is tough, and ultimately I reckon both the original and last year's Rogue Nation do the best job of marrying breathless action sequences with the tongue-in-cheek humor needed to offset their general absurdity.
To be honest, though, every instalment in the franchise has plenty to recommend it (who can forget Ethan outrageously scaling the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol?), and even when Cruise decides he's done (not yet — there's a sixth on the way in 2018) it's easy to imagine Ethan Hunt being seamlessly replaced and the franchise marching on Bond-style.
- iMDB scores: 7.1 (M:I), 7.4 (Rogue Nation)
21. 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' (1981)
An arrogant archeologist goes in search of the biblical Ark of the Covenant on a mission that faces him off against a bunch of power-hungry Nazis in Egypt — that's a great concept even before you add Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford into the equation.
Three sequels followed Raiders of The Lost Ark, all good (well, maybe not Kingdom of The Crystal Skull), but the first film remains the pinnacle of the series and evidence that, in the early '80s, Ford was pretty much the most charismatic actor in Hollywood. The action sequences throughout Raiders are so exquisitely well executed that it's now widely considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Good work.
- iMDB score: 8.5
22. 'Sicario' (2015)
Between his Jake Gyllenhaal thrillers Prisoners and Enemy and this year's stunning sci-fi/human drama Arrival, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is on a massive roll, but it's his drug cartel flick Sicario which delivers hard on the action front.
Emily Blunt is brilliant as Kate Macer, an FBI agent appointed to join a CIA taskforce to infiltrate a notorious cartel across the Mexican border. The film's big twist is shocking and by the end the tension (aided by a pulsating soundtrack from Jóhann Jóhannsson) is pretty much unbearable.
- iMDB score: 7.6
23. 'Skyfall' (2012)
There are 25 movies on this list, all so good that I had to leave out a bunch of legit classics, but Skyfall is my favorite. Not just a superb James Bond movie, but also a subversion of several of the series' most classic tropes. Where Bond is usually void of emotion, here he's literally transported back to his childhood and forced to confront his demons.
From the breathless pre-credits action sequence, a train-top thriller in which a shot is fired and the wrong man plummets to his death, the pace never lets up, director Sam Mendes building tension by threatening the existence of MI6 and exposing Daniel Craig's Bond as a physically weakened, emotionally broken shadow of the man he once was.
Javier Bardem is at turns hilarious and terrifying as Silva, a bitter enemy who toys with the world via a keyboard from his remote island lair (naturally), and Naomie Harris's Moneypenny gets to demonstrate her newfound agency in the field, but it's the relationship between 007 and M which ultimately powers Skyfall toward a bittersweet, visually-dazzling final act in the wilds of Scotland.
- iMDB score: 7.8
24. 'True Grit' (2010)
The rare remake that's better than the classic movie it reimagines, the Coen Brothers' True Grit is a Western for people who don't particularly like Westerns and a smart action movie for those who don't think shootouts and intelligent dialogue should be mutually exclusive.
At the heart of the story is Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl seeking vengeance against the man who murdered her father. Hailee Steinfeld is utterly fantastic in her first big-screen role, her chemistry with both Matt Damon and a gruff, hard-drinking Jeff Bridges palpable. Although arguably less genre-bending than many of their best movies, True Grit is so good at what it does that it easily ranks as one of the best action movies and one of the best Westerns of the current decade.
- iMDB score: 7.7
25. 'X-Men: First Class' (2011)
Matthew Vaughn took the reigns for First Class, a sort-of prequel/reboot of the X-Men series, and delivered a spectacular '60s-set action-adventure romp in which CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) joins forces with Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, the perfect younger incarnation of Patrick Stewart's Professor X) to prevent the Hellfire Club's charmingly sociopathic leader Sebastian Shaw from corrupting the world's mutants for his own devilish purposes.
The real-life politics of the Cuban missile crisis are effortlessly interwoven with a sexy '60s aesthetic and some of the series' best action set pieces, not least the climax in which a Soviet submarine fleet tests our mutant heroes to their absolute limits. More than a great reboot, First Class is probably the best X-Men movie to date.
- iMDB score: 7.8
Which of these films delivers hardest on action-adventure movie thrills, and which classics would you add to the list?