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ILLUSTRATIONS BY KAGAN MCLEOD

Let’s get real for a moment, before we get as far from reality as possible: It is looking increasingly unlikely that Canadians are going to be able to enjoy a proper summer movie season this year like our friends to the south. But just because we might not get movie theatres (or full-capacity theatres that deliver the buzz of a sold-out Friday night audience) doesn’t mean that we must also deprive ourselves of all those warm, fuzzy, explosion-y summer-movie thrills.

To help you get through the Summer of 2021, here are the 21 Best Action Movies Ever Made* – and how you can watch each of them right now.

(*Disclaimer: This list is highly subjective! You’ll likely question my judgement! Let’s rumble.)

Watch a replay of our Facebook Live event with Globe and Mail film critic Barry Hertz and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Warren P. Sonoda discussing which action movies made the cut, which didn’t and which one came out on top in our Twitter bracket.


What the experts say

Canadian directors and producers share their their all-time favourite scenes and one-liners from action movie classics by Spielberg and Cameron, a zero-budget flick from Uganda, an Oscar-winning western and more. The Globe and Mail

The list


21. Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2015 & 2017, India)

Directed by S.S. Rajamouli; starring Prabhas, Rana Daggubati and Anushka Shetty

Last month, a TikTok video made the rounds comparing Hollywood action with India’s efforts. Short version: If you’ve been limiting your explosions-and-car-crash viewing to North American work, you’re missing out on the most sublime, ridiculously delightful action cinema ever made. There are so many places for newbies to start – the Dhoom films, the Baaghi franchise, Siddharth Anand’s War – but my first stop would be S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahulbali twin blockbusters, which I’m using as a “tie” for 21st place because they’re best thought of as one long movie.

Following a poor boy who grows into a strapping warrior (Bollywood super-star Prabhas), the Baahulbali films feature jaw-dropping, super-silly action delivered with the straightest of faces. If you can watch the clip below, in which a battalion of soldiers find a supremely inventive way to invade a fortress, without letting loose a big, glorious grin, then I just cannot help you.

Standout scene from Baahubali 2: The Conclusion: Soldiers use palm trees to launch themselves over the enemy's gates.

  • Plausibility scale: 100 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “In battle, you are your best weapon.” — Baahubali (Prabhas)
  • Body count: Impossible to tally
  • Watch it now: Streaming on Netflix; available to rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, YouTube, Google Play
  • Like this? Watch: Magadheera, Rajamouli’s third-best action extravaganza


20. Bullitt (1968, USA)

Directed by Peter Yates; starring Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn and Jacqueline Bisset

It is hard to understate just how large an impact Bullitt has had on Hollywood moviemaking. Have you ever been impressed with a car chase? With a leading man’s effortless magnetism? With a score that moves you as much as the on-screen action?

It all starts with Bullitt, director Peter Yates’s lean, mean thriller about a San Francisco cop’s quest for justice that was made with the express purpose of underlining just how cool Steve McQueen was.

Standout scene from Bullitt: Steve McQueen in the mother of all car chases.

  • Plausibility scale: 10 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “Look, you work your side of the street, and I’ll work mine.” –Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen)
  • Body count: 6
  • Watch it now: Available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, Cineplex Store, Google Play, YouTube, Amazon Video
  • Like this? Watch: The Driver


19. Casino Royale (2006, U.K.)

Directed by Martin Campbell; starring Daniel Craig, Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green

Remember when Ian Fleming devotees were incensed that the new 007 would be … blond? All hair-colour concerns were forgotten once fans caught Daniel Craig’s first outing, which shouldn’t work as well as it does. For starters, director Martin Campbell wasn’t some fresh face aiming to shake a stirred franchise: he’d already made 1995′s fine-enough Goldeneye. I guess Campbell was holding back, as Casino Royale is a juggernaut.

The punches land hard, Mads Mikkelsen’s villain is wonderful, and the kills are brutal. From the parkour chase through a Madagascar construction site (I’ll never stop laughing when Bond crushes his way through some drywall instead of merely running around it) to a property-insurance nightmare showdown in Venice, Casino Royale imagines a world where Bond is more a lethal machine, less a catch-phrase-spouting caricature.

Standout scene from Casino Royale: James Bond holds a parkour party and everyone's invited.

  • Plausibility scale: 35 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “I’m sorry, that last hand nearly killed me.” –James Bond (Craig)
  • Body count: 25
  • Watch it now: Streaming on Crave; available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play
  • Like this? Watch: Skyfall, the second-best of Craig’s run, forgiving its third-act Home Alone vibes


18. The Wild Bunch (1969, USA)

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Edmond O’Brien

A western that despises everything that the “western” label represents, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch had the guts to interrogate its audience. You want to see rough men engaging in rough deeds? You really want your fill of on-screen carnage? Here, watch this film about a group of outlaws trying to pull off one last score and prepare for a grim, bloody, fatalistic thriller that will make you feel both alive and sick.

With a cruel sensibility and a body count high even by today’s standards, Peckinpah’s film set a new standard for action at the same time that it argues there’s something deeply wrong with us for liking the genre in the first place.

Standout scene from The Wild Bunch: Shots for everyone!

  • Plausibility scale: 79 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “If they move, kill ‘em.” – Pike Bishop (Holden)
  • Body count: 145
  • Watch it now: Streaming on Hoopla; available for rent/purchase on Google Play, Cineplex Store, YouTube
  • Like this? Watch: The Dirty Dozen


17. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018, USA)

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie; starring Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill and Rebecca Ferguson

Tom Cruise is not mortal. During the production of M:I - Fallout, the sixth and best of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt adventures, the star should’ve died a dozen times. He leaps from tall buildings, rides a motorcycle against traffic and performs a high-altitude, low-opening 200-miles-per-hour free-fall jump from a plane 25,000 feet in the air. For real. (That last feat took 106 takes.)

If Fallout was just a succession of Cruise giving Death the middle finger, it’d be enough. But the star’s reunion with his M:I - Rogue Nation director Christopher McQuarrie is also a spy thriller par excellence, comfortable with street-level fights (that washroom brawl!) and high-concept set-pieces (that prisoner extraction!). Cruise emerged from Fallout, by the way, with only a broken ankle. I imagine by the time that he’s done filming M:I 7, he’ll have wrestled COVID-19 itself to the ground.

Standout scene from Mission: Impossible - Fallout: A jailbreak on wheels.

  • Plausibility scale: 94.5 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “‘I don’t understand what I’m involved in?’ ‘I don’t understand what I’m involved in??’ What … am I involved in?” – Ethan Hunt (Cruise), trying to decipher the film’s quadruple-cross plot
  • Body count: 29
  • Watch it now: Available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Video
  • Like this? Watch: Mission: Impossible III, the second-best in the series thanks to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s blasé-cruel villain


16. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978, Hong Kong)

Directed by Lau Kar-leung; starring Gordon Liu

Revenge is a dish best served cold. But in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, it’s served with white-hot fury. Lau Kar-leung’s legendary kung-fu epic, one of the hundreds produced by the Shaw Brothers, establishes the template for any film in which a young hero suffers an injustice, trains to rise above his station, and then enacts brutal vengeance. (So: all of them.)

Gordon Liu is magnetic as a Shaolin disciple making his way through 36 tests of strength, while the film’s final battle is one for the ages.

Standout scene from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin: Kung fu fighting at its best.

  • Plausibility scale: 15 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “I should have learned kung-fu instead of ethics.” – San Te (Liu)
  • Body count: Dozen, or so
  • Watch it now: Streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video; available for rent/purchase on YouTube, Google Play
  • Like this? Watch: The Five Deadly Venoms


15. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003, USA)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu and Gordon Liu

The movie-est movie to ever be movie-d, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a direct portal inside Quentin Tarantino’s grindhouse-addled brain. To list all of the director’s many homages to crass rape-revenge flicks, gnarly spaghetti westerns, somber samurai epics, contemporary yakuza gross-outs and adult-only anime chaos would be an exercise in footnote mania.

Let’s just say that Tarantino nails exactly the right tone between referencing and ripping-off, creating a funky, endlessly fun genre Voltron of a movie. As Uma Thurman’s The Bride (or is it Beatrix?) rampages through a cartoon world in which swords are allowed on commercial airliners and blood doesn’t obey the laws of gravity, you will laugh, you will cry, you will vomit.

Standout scene from Kill Bill Vol. 1: One Bride vs. the Crazy 88s.

  • Plausibility scale: 100 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “Leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now!” – The Bride (Thurman) after turning the Crazy 88s into bloody stumps
  • Body count: 62
  • Watch it now: Streaming on Netflix and Crave with Starz; available to rent/own on Apple TV/iTunes, Cineplex Store, Google Play, YouTube
  • Like this? Watch: Battle Royale, which features Kill Bill’s Chiaki Kuriyama


14. The Dark Knight (2008, USA)

Directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Gary Oldman

In the summer of 2008, two superhero movies premiered, each altering the future of blockbuster filmmaking. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man sparked the biggest franchise in history, 23 hits and counting. But Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight changed the way that we thought superhero movies could work, move and infect the zeitgeist.

There is a reason why I can happily watch The Dark Knight’s Michael Mann-y bank heist over and over. Just as there is a reason why I still hold my breath during the SWAT scene in which the Joker fires a bazooka from the back of a moving truck like it’s no big deal. And why Warner Bros. has tried twice (three times, if you count Zack Snyder’s Justice League) to replicate the electricity of Heath Ledger’s Clown Prince of Crime and not even come close. Meanwhile, does anyone remember the name of Iron Man’s villain?

Standout scene from The Dark Knight: When clowns rob a bank, it's no laughing matter.

  • Plausibility scale: 45 per cent ridiculous; we’re only a few steps away from real-life Jokers torching fire trucks
  • Quotable quip: “Why so serious?” – The Joker (Ledger), coining a catchphrase that will haunt dorm-room posters and novelty T-shirts for decades
  • Body count: 23
  • Watch it now: Streaming on Netflix; available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Video, YouTube
  • Like this? Watch: Inception


13. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, USA)

Directed by James Cameron; starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Edward Furlong and Linda Hamilton

After four sequels, a TV series and enough timeline-continuity hiccups to drive a theoretical physicist stark raving mad, it is easy to forget just how much Terminator 2 absolutely owns.

While James Cameron’s first Terminator film remains a propulsive kill-fest, his sequel pole-vaulted over expectations, delivering a sci-fi spectacle that was as terrifying as it was ingenious. Schwarzenegger, now flipped into the hero role, has never been better and the state-of-the-art computer effects still impress today. Immensely rewatchable, it’s little wonder that Terminator’s rights-holders have been trying to recapture the magic ever since.

Standout scene from Terminator 2: Judgment Day: Two androids and one child take a road trip.

  • Plausibility scale: 92 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “Come with me if you want to live.” – T-800 (Schwarzenegger)
  • Body count: 47
  • Watch it now: Available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, Cineplex Store, Amazon Video
  • Like this? Watch: Aliens, Cameron’s other all-time action masterpiece which I was this close to listing here


12. RoboCop (1987, USA)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven; starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen and Ronny Cox

At the toxic height of Reaganomics, audiences headed to RoboCop expecting a straight-ahead shoot-’em-up like Commando or Rambo: First Blood Part II. Instead, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven delivered a deliberately disgusting epic that subverted American action-cinema tropes at the same time that it refined them. You want scenery-chewing bad guys? Verhoeven gives you scum who reduce cops to pieces of meat and C-suite slime who think nothing of throwing subordinates to the robotic dogs. You want a man of steel? Here’s a perversion of science who shoots rapists in the crotch.

Even if you’ve seen RoboCop before, it deserves a contemporary rewatch to realize just how far Verhoeven pushed genre limits. RoboCop is not only one of the best films of the 1980s, it is the best film about the ’80s.

Standout scene from RoboCop: 'Don't touch me, man!'

  • Plausibility scale: 20 per cent ridiculous, considering RoboCop’s Detroit looks an awful lot like today’s Detroit
  • Quotable quip: “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” – RoboCop (Weller)
  • Body count: 28
  • Watch it now: Available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, Cineplex Store, Google Play
  • Like this? Watch: Total Recall, Verhoeven’s other ’80s masterpiece


11. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017, USA)

Directed by Chad Stahelski; starring Keanu Reeves, Ruby Rose and Lance Reddick

When the first John Wick film debuted in 2014, it felt like a perfectly serviceable B-movie blast and one that saved Keanu Reeves’s career from a VOD point of no return. But Chapter 2 is stocked with a different arsenal altogether.

Not only does it double the already ludicrous body count of the original, it also matures into a bold, visually mesmerizing treatise on high-low action aesthetics. Reeves’s suave assassin shoots, stabs and strangles his way to victory, but always through the most artfully arranged kill-shots in recent memory. Director and veteran stunt-man Chad Stahelski throws a wild mix of jiu-jitsu, judo and gun-fu at his audience to create an indelible series of eye-popping images.

Standout scene from John Wick: Chapter 2: John Wick has a solo exhibition at the Museum of Murderous Arts.

  • Plausibility scale: 99 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “You wanted me back … I’m back!” – John Wick (Reeves)
  • Body count: 141
  • Watch it now: Streaming on Netflix and Crave; available to rent/buy on Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Video
  • Like this? Watch: Atomic Blonde, directed by David Leitch, co-director of the first John Wick


10. Fast Five (2011, USA)
Directed by Justin Lin; starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Dwayne Johnson

Few big-screen franchises survive into their fifth instalment – and fewer still take that opportunity to reinvent themselves. But Fast Five is one unusual beast of a remodel. After director Justin Lin took over the Fast brand with the third film, Tokyo Drift, a once-disposable street-racing series swerved into blockbuster territory. Lin has helmed five separate F&F entries (including F9, coming this summer maybe), but Fast Five is his gift to the world: a bonkers masterpiece of destruction.

Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto and his “faahhhmily” are on the run in Rio and this time Dwayne Johnson’s baby oil-coated lawman is on their tail. Johnson’s throw-down with Diesel in the middle of the film is a beautiful ballet of homoerotic fisticuffs, while the climax – in which our heroes drag a gigantic safe through downtown Rio – is pure popcorn lunacy.

Standout scene from Fast Five: A bank vault goes for a drive.

  • Plausibility scale: 95.5 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “You know I like my dessert first.” – Luke Hobbs (Johnson), after being asked whether he wanted the good news or bad news
  • Body count: 59
  • Watch it now: Streaming on Crave; available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play, YouTube
  • Like this? Watch: Furious 7, the second-best in the series thanks to its parachuting cars


9. The Matrix (1999, USA)

Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski; starring Keanu Reeves, Carrie Anne-Moss and Laurence Fishburne

If we are, as Elon Musk has posited, living in a computer simulation, then kudos to the A.I. that introduced The Matrix into our simulacrum of reality. With its wire-fu fights, anything-is-possible set-pieces and that magical “bullet time” effect, the Wachowskis’ sci-fi thriller rewired the cinematic expectations of an entire generation. Its narrative and philosophical underpinnings may not be revolutionary – Dark City mined similar territory at the multiplex just a year before – but its CGI tricks were mind-blowingly innovative. There is a reason the film has been co-opted by any number of social movements: it resonates like a smack to the face. It wakes you the hell up.

Standout scene from The Matrix: Let's all go to the lobby!

  • Plausibility scale: incalculably ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “There is no spoon.” – Neo (Reeves), giving Uri Geller a run for his money
  • Body count: 27
  • Watch it now: Streaming on Netflix and Crave; available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Video
  • Like this? Watch: Speed Racer, the Wachowskis’ much-derided but actually pretty-fun anime adaptation


8. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, USA)

Directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen and John Rhys-Davies

Here are three scandalous statements: Raiders of the Ark is the best film that Steven Spielberg has ever made. It is also the best film that Harrison Ford has ever made. And it is the best film that John Rhys-Davies has ever made. (Maybe that last contention isn’t so controversial, until you realize Rhys-Davies also appeared in all three Lord of the Rings movies.) But I’m going to bat for all the above, given that everything in Raiders works just right: Spielberg’s gigantic, silly set-pieces, the rakish appeal of Ford, the fist-pumping defeat of supernatural-worshipping Nazis. It all clicks to create a delightful matinee romp of unparalleled quality.

Standout scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark: 'Adios, amigo!'

  • Plausibility scale: 78 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” – Indiana Jones (Ford) helping an entire generation generate ophidiophobia
  • Body count: 60
  • Watch it now: Streaming on Netflix; available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play, Cineplex Store, Amazon Video
  • Like this? Watch: The Fugitive, Ford’s second-best action movie (yes, I know there are three more Indiana Jones and five Star Wars films to choose from)


7. The Raid 2: Berandal (2014, Indonesia)

Directed by Gareth Evans; starring Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra and Tio Pakusadewo

If you haven’t been paying attention to Indonesia’s action-cinema boom over the past decade, then you’re in for a head-crushing treat. By combining the techniques of the martial art pencak silat and with a propensity for shocking gore, films such as Headshot and The Night Comes for Us deliver brutal blasts of stomach-churning action. Gareth Evans’s tremendous The Raid 2: Berandal stands out from even this intimidating pack.

A sequel to Evans’s own 2011 thriller The Raid – which featured actor/silat master Iko Uwais fighting his way up a high-rise full of criminals – Berandal is a gigantic leap forward in narrative and stylistic ambition. Telling an epic Godfather-like tale of warring gangsters in a blood-soaked Jakarta, Evans and Uwais deliver an orgiastic explosion of excellently choreographed violence that feels painfully real.

Standout scene from The Raid 2: Berandal: The raid goes on the road.

  • Plausibility scale: 25 per cent ridiculous; you really believe these guys are killing each other
  • Quotable quip: “Bring back the ball.” – Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman), before using that ball for some very sinister, non-sport purposes
  • Body count: 180, conservatively
  • Watch it now: Available for rent/purchase on Google Play, YouTube, Cineplex Store
  • Like this? Watch: The Night Comes for Us


6. The Rock (1996, USA)

Directed by Michael Bay; starring Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris

Is Michael Bay the Devil? In 1998, this seemed like a fair question for Entertainment Weekly to pose, given that the director was in some critics’ eyes destroying the foundations of coherent filmmaking. While Bay is guilty of many cinematic sins (hello, Transformers), he’s also the kind of Satan who makes being bad look so very good.

Take The Rock, which smooshes Bay’s best and worst instincts into an extraordinary piece of punch-drunk action pop. You’ve got Sean Connery playing an elderly James Bond (basically), Nicolas Cage going jittery before it was self-satirizing, Ed Harris as a villain with genuinely understandable motives, a murderer’s row of character actors playing murderers (David Morse! John C. McGinley! Tony Todd!), and the streets of San Francisco being torn to shreds. Even the Criterion Collection folks think that The Rock is unbreakable. Amen to this Beelzebub.

Standout scene from The Rock: Cage, Connery, cars, carnage.

  • Plausibility scale: 89 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “Your ‘best’? Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and [unprintable in a family newspaper, sorry] the prom queen.” – Mason (Connery) telling Cage’s FBI agent to man up
  • Body count: 23
  • Watch it now: Streaming on Disney+ add-on Star; available for rent/purchase on Google Play, YouTube, Amazon Video
  • Like this? Watch: Bad Boys II, thanks to Bay’s breathtakingly obscene 15-minute chase scene


5. Die Hard (1988, USA)

Directed by John McTiernan; starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman and Bonnie Bedelia

If Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone didn’t turn down offers to star in Die Hard, we wouldn’t be talking about John McTiernan’s movie right now. But because those muscle-man commandos walked away and because the comparatively average-Joe-y Bruce Willis signed on instead, Die Hard stands as one of the most compelling, charming action movies ever made. Thanks to Willis’s everyman appeal, the film’s stakes seem real(ish) and relatable(ish). We could imagine that, yeah, if we had to face off against a collection of German mercenaries in a Los Angeles skyscraper, we might lose our shoes, too.

And, yes: Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

Standout scene from Die Hard: Yep, definitely a Christmas movie.


4. Seven Samurai (1954, Japan)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa; starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Keiko Tsushima

There are influential movies and then there is Seven Samurai. Likely the most remade/reworked/referenced film in cinema history, Akira Kurosawa’s “assemble the team” epic has so engrained itself into the fabric of the popular imagination that you know the film’s narrative beats and style even if you have never seen a single second of footage.

Following a group of master-less samurai hired by a village to defend themselves from bandits, Kurosawa’s masterpiece is genuinely timeless: its story, characters and most crucially its action feel as fresh today as they did 67 years ago. It only takes one viewing to realize just where Sergio Leone, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, the Wachowskis and so many other action auteurs got their best ideas.

Standout scene from Seven Samurai: 'This is preposterous. There's no contest.'

  • Plausibility scale: 4 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “Danger always strikes when everything seems fine.” – Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura)
  • Body count: 65
  • Watch it now: Streaming on The Criterion Channel; available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play, YouTube
  • Like this? Watch: Yobjimbo, Kurosawa’s other all-timer starring Toshiro Mifune


3. Police Story (1985, Hong Kong)

Directed by Jackie Chan and Chi-Hwa Chen; starring Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung

Most North American audiences were introduced to Jackie Chan through 1995′s Rumble in the Bronx, which is a solid primer on the goofy charm and physical prowess of the one-man stunt machine. But to truly grasp what Chan was capable of and how his daredevil attitude changed the course of action cinema in Hong Kong and the world, you have to go back a decade earlier to Police Story.

The first and best entry in the mega-series (now at eight barely connected films), Police Story stars Chan as a cop who takes down a drug empire with nothing but his limbs. A witty, lightning-fast thrill-ride that showcases both Chan’s unparalleled acrobatic skills and his fondness for slapstick, Police Story is intensely focused on making you smile, gasp and cackle with laughter.

Standout scene from Police Story: Let's go to the mall!

  • Plausibility scale: 63 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “Yaaaahhhhhhh!” – Ka-Kui (Chan) as he scales down a multi-storey pole decorated by hundreds of decorative lights
  • Body count: 1 or 2? Lots and lots and lots of injured bad guys, though
  • Watch it now: Streaming on The Criterion Channel; available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes
  • Like this? Watch: Project A, Chan’s rough-and-tumble adventure made two years before Police Story


2. Hard Boiled (1992, Hong Kong)

Directed by John Woo; starring Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung and Anthony Wong

There are a half-dozen John Woo movies that could occupy this spot. The Killer. A Better Tomorrow. Bullet in the Head. Hard Target. Face/Off. Even 2017′s Manhunt, an exuberant return to form that remains criminally underseen (it’s on Netflix, people!). But Hard Boiled is peak Woo: action as opera, bombast as poetry.

The Hong Kong thriller announces its audacity from the start: Chow Yun-Fat’s cop named Tequila (yes!) is giving chase to two hoods. Bullets tear up a teahouse, bystanders go down. And then Chow nonchalantly dangles a toothpick between his teeth, slides down a bannister, targets his prey, and ensures they’re dead before he glides off. It is a moment of sub-zero cool that perfectly encapsulates Hard Boiled’s action-is-everything M.O.

Standout scene from Hard Boiled: Visiting hours at the hospital are over, murdering hours have begun.

  • Plausibility scale: 93 per cent ridiculous
  • Quotable quip: “You saved the day there, you little piss-pot. Thanks a lot.” – Tequila (Yun-Fat) after a baby pees on his leg whilst in the midst of a shoot-out
  • Body count: 320 (that’s not a typo)
  • Watch it now: Available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, YouTube, Google Play
  • Like this? Watch: Face/Off, Woo’s best American film


1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia)

Directed by George Miller; starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult

Director Steven Soderbergh and Mad Max superfan puts it best: “I don’t understand how they’re still not shooting that film and I don’t understand how hundreds of people aren’t dead.” Me neither. Because while George Miller’s fourth entry in his apocalyptic franchise didn’t kill anyone (so far as I know) it is definitely the vision of a psychopathic madman.

Two hours of fiery wall-to-wall vehicular carnage, Fury Road is as pure a shot of adrenaline as the cinematic medium allows. And nearly everything on-screen – from the monstrous War Rig to the fire-spewing guitar player known as The Doof – is real-deal CGI-free mayhem. While Miller is preparing a follow-up – which may take as long as the 30-year gap between this film and 1985′s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome – I can’t imagine that he will ever top the awe-inspiring action of Fury Road. Without killing someone, that is.

Standout scene from Max Max: Fury Road: The road gets extra-furious.

  • Quotable quip: “Uh-uh. That’s bait.” – Max (Tom Hardy), in a famously dialogue-light performance
  • Plausibility scale: 110 per cent ridiculous
  • Body count: 112
  • Watch it now: Available for rent/purchase on Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play, YouTube
  • Like this? Watch: The Road Warrior, the second-best in the series

Where is [insert my favourite action movie]???

Sorry, Oldboy didn't make the list. Please put your hammers away.

I’m sorry, but there were a lot of movies to consider for the arbitrary number of entries to which I limited myself! If you’re wondering where is this movie or that, here are brief answers regarding the most obvious M.I.A. candidates:

  • Heat: More a prestige-minded thriller (with one very big gun battle) than an action movie.
  • Predator, True Lies, Death Proof: These could, and maybe should, be listed above. But I already had one John McTiernan film with Die Hard, another Cameron with T2 (which also partially explains the Aliens exclusion noted above), and Tarantino covered, too.
  • The Bourne Supremacy/The Bourne Ultimatum: I admire what Paul Greengrass did with his shaky-cam action cinema, but it still makes me nauseous.
  • Oldboy: A psychological thriller with one excellent action-movie sequence that makes you think twice about the power of a good hammer.
  • Speed: It was close, but I maxed out my Keanu Reeves quota.
  • Point Break: See above. Also, not so much an action movie as a crime thriller with some gnarly waves, brah.
  • Ronin: Unofficially, it’s pick No. 22.
  • The Lord of the Rings/Star Wars: These are fantasy-slash-sci-fi films, not action movies.
  • Platoon/Saving Private Ryan/Black Hawk Down/Dunkirk/The Outpost/etc.: If we want to talk war movies, then it’s a whole other list, people.
  • Baby Driver: Get the heck outta here, baby.

Meh movies with marvelous action

The Way of the Dragon

This is a controversial opinion, but Bruce Lee’s 1972 film is not that great an action movie. Until, that is, the final stretch, when Lee and future meme Chuck Norris face off in a wordless battle of brawn. Lee, who directed, wrote, and produced The Way of the Dragon, kicks Norris’s butt. But there are moments when it appears that even the Hollywood icon might allow himself to be defeated.


Extraction

Most of 2020′s Extraction feels self-generated from a whack of Netflix search keywords: “mercenary,” “drug lord,” “Chris Hemsworth,” “Chris Hemsworth shirtless,” etc. But the algorithmic film is worth enduring for its 11-minute “one-shot” action sequence: a magnificent stretch involving a car chase, an apartment building rampage, rooftop jumps, a knife-fight and then another car chase.


Kingsman: The Secret Service

Ooh boy, Matthew Vaughn’s nihilistic adventure is a whole lot of problematic fun. But I can’t call it a particularly good movie. Except for That Scene. You know, the one where Colin Firth’s gentleman spy massacres a church full of maniacs set to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel Cinematic Universe acolytes have probably stopped reading this list by now, but I will go to bat for the greatest moment in Avengers cinema: Cap’s elevator battle with Hydra henchmen. As Chris Evans goes toe-to-toe-to-toe-to-toe-etc. with way too many muscle-heads, directors Joe and Anthony Russo deviate from the MCU’s by-the-numbers set-piece playbook to tremendous effect.


Canada’s secret action-movie maestro

What’s the best Canadian action movie ever made? Better question: Name a single Canadian action movie. For obvious reasons – budgets, but also sensibility – Canada doesn’t really produce action movies. We might produce action-movie directors (James Cameron, Denis Villeneuve) but no matter how hard we might try to claim their works as our own, Avatar and Dune are not homegrown productions.

But consider this modest theory: Our greatest Canadian action director is actually … David Cronenberg. The man knows how to film knife fights (Eastern Promises), gang warfare (A History of Violence) and gun play, albeit with bones, teeth and gizzards standing in for semi-automatics (eXistenZ). He can destroy the human body alongside the best of ‘em (Scanners, Videodrome) and knows a thing or two about staging vehicular carnage, too (Crash). Think of him as our very own Michael Bay. But, you know, also not at all.

David Cronenberg: Canada's action man.

Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

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