The 18 Best Action Movie Actors Ranked
Gone are the days in which a marquee name could draw in a crowd all on its own. Studios now tend to prioritize projects based on their relation to established franchises or source material, and the number of actors who can successfully sell tickets for roles that aren't part of a recurring series or comic book adaptation are remarkably low.
Ironically, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is perhaps the only actor of his generation with a consistent fanbase, but despite his winning personality, Johnson's track record is hit and miss. "The Rundown," "Skyscraper," and the Fast and Furious and Jumanji sagas are certainly fun, but Johnson has yet to appear in an all-time action classic.
Interestingly, some former action icons have turned to the direct-to-video market. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal are doing some of the most interesting work of their careers in films that skip the theatrical market, and new DTV stars like Scott Adkins have inspired a niche fanbase.
However, the glory days of action cinema relied upon memorable stars who could create box office successes that were also critically beloved. Here are the 18 greatest action movie actors of all time, ranked.
Liam Neeson is a fascinating case study in how an established actor can transform into an action star. Neeson drew acclaim early in his career for sensitive, weighty roles in acclaimed films such as "Schindler's List," "Rob Roy," "Kinsey," "Michael Collins," and "Gangs of New York," and only briefly flirted with action cinema with Sam Raimi's supernatural action-horror film "Darkman." However, in 2008 Neeson took a chance on the action thriller "Taken," which became a surprising sensation thanks to Neeson's iconic phone speech and portrayal of an aging hero.
After "Taken," Neeson became a full-on action star. He worked closely with director Jaume Collet-Serra for the action mystery "Unknown," the "Die Hard on a plane" film "Non-Stop," gritty crime thriller "Run All Night," and the action-centric Hitchcockian thriller "The Commuter." He also refined a classic action icon in "The A-Team," fought a wolf in "The Grey," and co-starred in elevated action films like "Widows."
Film fans who characterize Dolph Lundgren as a dull, silly, hulking mass simply don't know his amazing real-life story and the challenges that he overcame. Lundgren was born in Sweden and suffered from significant physical abuse at a young age, but worked through his hardships to become an athlete and receive a degree in chemical engineering at the highly selective KTH Royal Institute of Technology. It was after achieving his life-long dream of moving to the United States that Lundgren met Sylvester Stallone, who cast him in "Rocky IV," and realized that his physical abilities could translate to the big screen.
Lundgren brings a raw strength to his films that makes him compelling as both heroes and villains. He embodied iconic sci-fi and fantasy heroes like Frank Castle in "The Punisher" and "He-Man in "Masters of the Universe," and became a fearsome antagonist who challenged Jean-Claude Van Damme in "Universal Soldier." While the early "Universal Soldier" sequels were very poor in quality, the series became more experimental and darker in John Hyam's more recent installments, "Universal Soldier: Regeneration" and "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning."
Linda Hamilton did something very dramatic with the character of Sarah Connor in the "Terminator" franchise. In 1984's "The Terminator," Sarah is a helpless victim who is stalked by the titular robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and requires the help of Resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to survive. However, in 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," Sarah has trained so that the Terminators will never threaten her or her son John (Edward Furlong) ever again. Even when everyone thinks she's lost her mind, Sarah is prepared once the new villain, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), shows up.
Hamilton finally returned to the character in 2019's legacy sequel "Terminator: Dark Fate." The film's box office failure is very unfortunate, because it took the series in an interesting new direction. Sarah mentors a new generation of female heroes, including the super soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis) and future resistance leader Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). Outside of "The Terminator" series, Hamilton also took on an action role in "Dante's Peak."
Steve McQueen created an antihero screen persona that was distinct in the 1960s, as his rough spirit was noticeably different from that of the more easily likable movie stars of the time. Known as the "King of Cool," he showed a dexterity in his roles that helped redefine many action subgenres. He was the perfect hero for the New Hollywood era.
Few car chase movies are as iconic as "Bullitt," a film in which McQueen himself did much of his own driving. Beyond its incredible chase sequences, the film showed McQueen embodying a combative spirit as the one noble cop on a corrupt force. He also became a believable conman in "The Thomas Crown Affair," pushed himself physically for the realistic prison break movie "Papillion," and contributed to the exciting ensemble of "The Great Escape." He was also a western icon, with memorable roles in "The Magnificent Seven" and "Nevada Smith."
Not many stars can claim they've created an action hero who has thrilled audiences for almost six decades, but Sean Connery did exactly that with James Bond. Bond films are part of cinema history, as each actor who steps into the role brings their own unique spin on the character, while the films themselves reflect the stylistic trends of their respective eras. None of that would be possible without Connery's iconic debut in 1962's "Dr. No," in which his slick portrayal of Ian Fleming's super spy captured the imagination of a generation.
"Dr. No" holds up as an exciting adventure film to this day, but Connery only improved with subsequent installments. "From Russia with Love" features one of the best Bond action sequences ever — specifically, Connery's fight against Robert Shaw on a train — and "Goldfinger" established many of the most important hallmarks of the Bond series with its gadgets, quips, over-the-top villains, and self-aware humor. "Thunderball" showed that Connery could even make underwater action thrilling, and "You Only Live Twice" saw him facing off against one of the best action villains ever, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence).
Outside of Bond, Connery helped mentor generations of future action heroes. He added heartfelt comedy to "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," trained Christopher Lambert in "Highlander," redefined King Arthur with "First Knight," and helped Nicolas Cage break into Alcatraz with "The Rock."
Being believable in an action sequence is a crucial skill for an action star, as audiences are more willing to invest in a character if it looks like the hero is fighting for real. Viewers have never had a hard time believing Jet Li on screen, because the Chinese martial artist became a kung fu champion before he was a teenager. Li brought his athletic abilities to the big screen, and following his acclaimed debut in "Shaolin Temple," he created electrifying action sequences in films like "Hero," "Once Upon a Time in China," "Fist of Legend," "Fearless," and "Tai Chi Master."
Li's skills became so renowned that he had crossover international success, and led many American productions as well. He first appeared alongside Mel Gibson and Danny Glover with a role in "Lethal Weapon 4," proving that he deserved to stand alongside action movie legends. He also joined "The Mummy" and "The Expendables" franchises and injected them with new life.
Of all of Hollywood's most beloved film stars, few promise the same inherent sense of adventure and intensity that John Wayne does. Wayne starred in nearly 200 films, lionizing the rugged American spirit that led to the development of many key subgenres of action movies. Western films often contain action setpieces, but the classic westerns that featured Wayne were distinctly action films. Wayne's memorable debut sequence in 1939's "Stagecoach" didn't only launch the Golden Age of Westerns, but inspired generations of future action heroes, including Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones.
Wayne and John Ford worked closely together to develop western classics like "The Searchers," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," and "Fort Apache," but they also moved outside of the Old West for World War II action spectacles like "The Long Voyage Home" and "They Were Expendable." Wayne had a lot of respect for American military heroes and spotlighted them in war epics such as "The Alamo," "The Longest Day," and "The High and the Mighty." He also brought the same gruffness he'd embodied in Ford's films to movies made with other filmmakers, including classic westerns like "Rio Bravo," "The Shootist," "Rio Lobo," "Hondo," "True Girt," and "Red River."
One of the most influential figures in Hong Kong action cinema, Jackie Chan is one of the rare international stars who successfully transitioned to English-language productions. With over 150 credits to his name, Chan still appears in popular Chinese and American films to this day. Chan's mastery of martial arts is unmatched, and he's loyally worked with the same stunt crew throughout his entire career. Chan learned from the very best, as he got his start in stunt work alongside Bruce Lee in 1972's "Fist of Fury" and 1973's "Enter the Dragon."
1978's "Snake in Eagle's Shadow" proved that not only was Chan a brilliant kung fu fighting force, but also a great leading man. He was charismatic, funny, and exhibited the strains that the laborious fight sequences had on his physical and mental health. 1982's "Dragon Lord" showed that he could push setpieces in more elaborate directions, but it was 1985's "Police Story" that made him a legend. The film's opening car chase is one of the most electrifying action sequences ever created, and Chan developed the role of Sergeant Chan Ka-Kui over its five sequels. He also launched the "Armour of God" and "Drunken Master" franchises.
Chan's bravery was an international sensation, and 1998's "Rush Hour" signified that his American films could be just as successful as those made in Hong Kong. The "Rush Hour" trilogy also proved that he could play comedic roles with self-aware humor, as his banter with Chris Tucker is hilarious amidst the hectic storyline.
Sylvester Stallone has been a consistent presence in action cinema since the '70s, one of the rare actors to have a number one box office hits across six decades. Stallone's signature role is the titular underdog champion of the "Rocky" franchise, but shortly after the 1976 original took home the Academy Award for best picture, he created another instantly iconic screen character with John Rambo, a Vietnam veteran suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
It's fascinating to see how the "Rambo" saga evolved. 1982's "First Blood" is an intimate character study that showed that Stallone was still a serious dramatic actor, but 1985's "Rambo: First Blood Part II" and 1988's "Rambo III" transformed the series into an over-the-top action extravaganza. When he returned to the character with 2007's "Rambo" and 2019's "Rambo: Last Blood," Stallone increased the intensity with even bloodier setpieces.
Stallone can give layered performances that show the complexities of law enforcement officers and his other heroes. "Nighthawks" was a realistic buddy cop thriller that explored the threat of urban terrorism, and "Cop Land" placed him within an old-fashioned noir. Even a film like "Cliffhanger," which features death-defying stunts, featured him wrestling with a tragic backstory. There's a self-seriousness to Stallone's most absurd work, including "Cobra," "Daylight," and "Lock Up," as he delivers even the goofiest one-liners with complete sincerity. However, sillier roles in "Demolition Man," "Tango & Cash," and "Over the Top" show that he's at least a little self-aware.
Bruce Willis is simply a great actor, and has given incredible dramatic performances in "Pulp Fiction," "Unbreakable," and "The Sixth Sense," as well as more comedic turns in films like "Moonrise Kingdom." However, no one would mistake him for anyone other than John McClane. McClane is the ultimate everyman hero in "Die Hard," as he's tasked with overcoming the ultimate unwinnable scenario and forced to use his wits to survive.
"Die Hard" launched countless imitators that took the same basic premise and set it in a new location, but no hero has become quite as iconic as McClane. The sequels allowed Willis to develop McClane even further. "Die Hard 2: Die Harder" delved deeper into his marital issues, "Die Hard with a Vengeance" paired him in a buddy comedy with Samuel L. Jackson, and "Live Free or Die Hard" was exciting even with a PG-13 rating (we'll just ignore "A Good Day to Die Hard" entirely).
Willis has also done great work in sci-fi action films made by visionary directors. Terry Gilliam's madcap time travel adventure "Twelve Monkey," Michael Bay's ludicrous disaster adventure Armageddon," Rian Johnson's gripping time-travel thriller "Looper," and Luc Besson's eccentric space odyssey "The Fifth Element" showed that he could work with complex mythology. Stylized thrillers like "Sin City" and "Lucky Number Slevin" proved that Willis could be a standout within a stacked ensemble. He's also hilarious in action-comedies like "The Last Boy Scout" and the "Red" series.
If action movies require distinctive personalities, few stars are quite as singular as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger isn't only an amazing action star, but has an inspirational real life that makes him someone audiences want to root for. Schwarzenegger grew up in Austria and even served in his native country's military force, but he dreamed of moving to the United States. Schwarzenegger's immigrant story is powerful and has helped him create some of the greatest action films of all time.
Schwarzenegger is best known for his titular role in the Terminator franchise, a character that he's reinvented with each installment. The 1984 original saw him as a steely, fearsome villain, yet James Cameron switched things up for 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." His original target, John Carter, reprograms him to make him a protector, and it's fun to see a young John (Edward Furlong) and his mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) work alongside their former nemesis. Although some of the other "Terminator" sequels are very poor in quality, 2019's "Terminator: Dark Fate" was an underrated soft reboot.
Schwarzenegger's physical strength makes him convincing as a military hero. "Conan the Barbarian" and "Commando" saw him at his most banal and brutal, and in "Predator" he's believable as the only survivor of the monstrous hunter's bloodbath. However, he's also incredibly charismatic, and convincingly plays a charming super spy in "True Lies." Roles in "Last Action Hero," "The Running Man," and "Kindergarten Cop" show that he's self-aware, too.
Clint Eastwood is a cinematic icon, and one of the finest directors of all time. He's also the greatest western actor ever, and while many of his westerns are dramatic or self-reflexive, most of his best fall squarely in the action mold. Eastwood's breakout role came as the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone's action-packed Dollars trilogy, which features some of the most iconic shootouts in screen history. "A Fistful of Dollars," "For A Few Dollars More," and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" pitted his stoic character against eccentric villains in increasingly exciting setpieces, including the iconic ending to the third film.
Westerns like "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "High Plains Drifter," and "Pale Rider" all conclude with amazing action scenes in which Eastwood squares off against hordes of villains. 1991's "Unforgiven" is the rare action-themed film to take home the Academy Award for best picture, and the film's grizzly final brawl is unforgettable.
Eastwood wasn't bound by westerns, and created another one of the greatest action heroes in history with 1971's "Dirty Harry." The untraditional San Francisco Police Department Homicide Division Inspector Harry Callahan went beyond his duty to take down bad guys, and the sequels "Magnum Force," "The Enforcer," "Sudden Impact," and "The Dead Pool" would only get more intense. Eastwood's other memorable action roles include "Escape From Alcatraz," "In the Line of Fire," "True Crime," "Absolute Power," and "The Gauntlet."
Michelle Yeoh is an incredible martial artist who, even now, still does her own stunts on screen; her performance in 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" helped make the film one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made. Ang Lee's sensitive, spiritual epic features incredible stunt work from its ensemble of stars, but the film wouldn't have had its emotional impact if it wasn't for Yeoh's heroic performance as Yu Shu Lien.
But Yeoh's legacy goes beyond one film. She has helped reinvigorate many action franchises with new energy. While many female characters in James Bond films are depicted as meek or helpless, Yeoh's Chinese spy Colonel Wai Lin in "Tomorrow Never Dies" was a compelling hero in her own right, and much tougher than Pierce Brosnan's 007. Her supporting role in Jackie Chan's "Police Story 3: Super Cop" was so beloved that Yeoh headlined the spinoff, "Supercop 2." Recently, she's brought an action-centric vibe to a beloved space opera with her role as Captain Philippa Georgiou on "Star Trek: Discovery."
Kurt Russell's rise to prominence offered an alternative to other '80s action stars. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis had big personalities, but Russell was a different type of hero. He was frequently funny, but also very vulnerable. While most action stars were locked in competition over who could be the toughest and feared showing sensitivity on screen, Russell was able to both make fun of himself and question typical notions of masculinity.
Undoubtedly, Russell's greatest work has come through his collaborations with acclaimed writer-director John Carpenter. Carpenter is a master of genre vehicles, and Russell's versatility allowed him to explore various action subgenres. 1981's post-apocalyptic thriller "Escape From New York" incorporated neo-western elements into a sci-fi premise, and Russell's Snake Plissken feels like a classic gunslinger. Carpenter's "The Thing" trapped Russell in a chilly cabin and tormented him with body horror, while his funniest work comes in 1986's "Big Trouble in Little China" and the character of Jack Burton. Burton is a wacky hooligan who essentially fails in all of his plans, something the other '80s action stars would never do.
Outside of Carpenter, Russell has made many classics. He teamed up with Stallone in "Tango and Cash," revamped a western icon in "Tombstone," and played a Hitchcockian hero in "Breakdown."
Keanu Reeves is one of the most likeable movie stars on the planet, but has a dedication to his action roles that never skimps on the brutality those parts require. Reeves's extensive stunt training also allows him to bring out the vulnerability in his roles, and as a result he's been a relevant action star for over three decades.
Reeves began his career playing wacky comedic characters as well as darker dramatic ones, until he entered the action genre with 1991's "Point Break." FBI Agent Johnny Utah has a great self-seriousness to him that's matched by Patrick Swayze's anti-hero Bodhi, the perfect antagonist for Kathryn Bigelow's self-aware film. He launched another '90s classic with "Speed," one of the definitive "Die Hard" reimaginings; "Speed 2: Cruise Control" suffers from Reeves' absence.
Reeves continued to work in different action subgenres thanks to 1999's "The Matrix." The Wachowski sisters explored complex sci-fi themes such as the notion of reality, consumerism, totalitarianism, and identity, but didn't skimp on great action. Its mix of gunplay, martial arts, and robotic technology was totally unique. Although the sequels, "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions," aren't as well-regarded, Reeves' continuous enthusiasm is a highlight. Although his career declined in the early '00s, Reeves returned to prominence with the "John Wick" franchise, declaring "I'm thinking I'm back!" The brilliant mix of neo-noir elements with fast-paced gunplay created a modern classic, and the sequels have been just as good.
Sigourney Weaver created one of the great action heroes of all-time with Ellen Ripley. 1979's "Alien" is certainly a horror film, but Weaver had to show her action skills in order to become the sole survivor of the Xenomorph's attack on the "Nostromo." In 1986's "Aliens, Ripley became a rip-roaring action hero when she joined a team of Colonial Marians to investigate the creatures on the planet exomoon LV-426. Ripley is tasked with rescuing the young girl Newt, and delivers one of the greatest one-liners in history: "Get away from her, you bitch!"
While 1992's "Alien 3" and 1997's "Alien: Resurrection" were disappointing sequels, Weaver's performance was still respectable. Weaver is self-aware regarding her stardom, and appeared in a parodical role in the sci-fi action comedy classic "Galaxy Quest." She reteamed with "Aliens" director James Cameron for a pivotal role in 2009's "Avatar," which she will return for in the two upcoming sequels planned for release in 2022 and 2024.
Many action stars are known for looking like they're risking their lives on screen. Tom Cruise actually puts his life on the line with his death-defying stunts. Cruise's development as an action star is fascinating. Throughout the late '80s, '90s, and '00s, Cruise worked with many of the greatest filmmakers of all time on prestige projects that showed his great versatility, but now Cruise is now best known as a charismatic action hero.
Cruise was an unlikely choice to take on the role of Ethan Hunt in 1996's "Mission: Impossible," but Brian de Palma's classic shows that he could perform impressive stunts and deliver a compelling dramatic performance. The ending train sequence and aquarium escape are incredible physical feats, but Ethan is still tormented throughout by the loss of his entire team. Each sequel explores a different genre, with setpieces to match. "Mission: Impossible II" is an over-the-top John Woo vehicle, "Mission: Impossible III" is an explosive spy-fi flick, "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" redefined international espionage, and "Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation" feels like a Hitchockian thriller. The latest film in the series, "Mission: Impossible — Fallout," features some of the best stunts of the franchise, including the vertigo-inducing HALO jump and an amazing motorcycle chase in Paris.
Outside of the "Mission: Impossible" series, Cruise has done incredible work in sci-fi action films like "Minority Report," "War of the Worlds," "Oblivion," and "Edge of Tomorrow." He has also appeared in grittier action thrillers, including "Collateral," "Jack Reacher," and "Valkyrie."
There are few actors who have created quite as many iconic characters as Harrison Ford. Ford is clearly more than just an action star, as he's given layered performances in films like "Witness," "The Fugitive," "Presumed Innocent," and "Frantic." However, the first images that pop to mind when thinking about Ford are his action-centric roles, which couldn't be synonymous with anyone else.
What's brilliant about Ford is that each of his characters is very different. If Luke Skywalker was on a hero's journey reminiscent in the original "Star Wars," then Han Solo was the hero that gave the series a cynical, wisecracking edge. Han develops in his maturity throughout the original trilogy. When he starred as Indiana Jones, Ford retained that world-weary humanity, but he wasn't just replicating his past success. It's not just that the films are set in a version of actual history; Indy feels like a real person with real passions, fears, and emotions.
Rick Deckard of the "Blade Runner" duology is a tormented character who only gradually becomes sympathetic. Ford showed that he could reinvent established characters too, and his performance as Jack Ryan in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" is the strongest of any actor that's taken on the role of Tom Clancy's CIA analyst. Ford doesn't just rely on franchises, either. "Air Force One" is an incredible reimagining of the "Die Hard" premise starring an unlikely hero: the president of the United States.
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