The greatest action movies ever made: #7-1

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7. The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight bursts through the limitations of its genre, with director Christopher Nolan crafting a dark and operatic crime movie that became a classic upon impact in 2008. The film assimilates scenes and plot points from some of the best Batman comics, overlaid with Nolan’s own sombre aesthetic, to create dozens of memorable sequences – the film grips viewers from its very first shot of a Gotham bank and never lets go for two-and-a-half hours. Heath Ledger’s electrifying performance as the Joker ensures that each scene crackles with tension and unpredictability, but there is not a weak link in the cast, from Gary Oldman’s soulful Commissioner Gordon to Christian Bale’s gravel-voiced Batman. Warner Bros is set to plunder the Bat-verse again with Batman Versus Superman and Suicide Squad, although both have a long shadow indeed to step out from.

6. The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix was a game-changer for action cinema, sitting on the fault line that divides the muscles-bulging, guns-blazing star vehicles of the 80s and 90s, and FX-driven superhero boom of the 00s and 10s. As if Plato had envisioned his Cave with extra bullet time and a brooding Keanu Reeves, The Matrix centres around Neo, a chosen one who exits in a reality that turns out to be mere computer simulation, and with the help of Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus enters ‘the desert of the real’, where human beings are held in tanks and used as an energy source for sentient machines. Neo learns to use the Matrix architecture against the machines, achieving impossible acrobatic feats and performing some of the most jaw-dropping stunts ever committed to screen. The Wachowski siblings’ film suffers a little in its second half when it begins to engage less with intriguing ideas and rely more on successive physics-defying fight scenes. However, as Neo soars into the sky and the credits roll, there is a sense that nothing in the genre will ever be the same again.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Had this list been prepared a matter of weeks ago, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior would probably have taken this spot. As it stands, belated third sequel Fury Road defies all expectations to take podium position as the best film in an already-formidable franchise, even considering each entry in light of the technological limitations of their time. George Miller’s world is harsh, deformed yet beautiful, his most fully-realised post-apocalyptic universe yet, as the characters travel through thundering sandstorms and marshy wetlands, fighting once again over resources including oil, water and now human beings. The Mad Max aesthetic has been emulated countless times in movies, TV shows and video games, but Miller sweeps aside any concerns that his wasteland would now seem passé – there’s a level of carnage here that makes Fast and Furious look like the Hazard Perception test, and Miller keeps the intensity ramped up with incredibly designed cars and contraptions, from vehicles with hedgehog spikes to a truck complete with a shredding guitarist strapped to the bumper. Fury Road is essentially one long, visceral car chase, yet its triumph also lies in the subtle character development that takes place amidst the explosions. Tom Hardy plays the most tortured Max yet, beyond the brink of insanity from the first moments of the film as he flees from both a literal prison and the ghosts of his past. However, he arguably plays second fiddle to Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a tough-as-nails heroine who by the end has set a strong case for her place in the pantheon of great action heroines. ‘What a lovely day’ indeed.

4. Aliens (1986)

James Cameron takes the universe established by Ridley Scott in the slow-burning original and fashions a whole different beast of a movie – we go from a single Xenomorph stalking a ship’s crew to a base swarming with aliens, as returning survivor Ellen Ripley joins forces with a team of Colonial Marines in an attempt to contain the planet. Does this cheapen the terror of the alien? Perhaps, but the film compensates with some stunning sequences, including a final stand in a maze of ventilation ducts against the enemy horde, and the showdown between Ripley, strapped to a power loader, and the elaborately-designed alien queen. Themes hinted at in the original are elaborated and enriched, such as the corporate interests of the Weyland-Yutani corporation in capturing a live Xenomorph, and the emotional toll on Ripley of spending so long in space – near the beginning of the film she finds out that her daughter died during her long hypersleep, and if Ripley herself seems harder and less vulnerable this time round, Cameron compensates by focusing on her protective relationship with stowaway orphan Newt. The Alien films after this are all flawed to varying extents, but Aliens remains a masterclass in sequel-making.

3. Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard is the seminal action film. If you look up the word ‘action’ in the dictionary, a picture of John McClane’s face should appear. When an office Christmas party is invaded by terrorists, McClane finds himself trapped in a labyrinth of violence, vulnerable in his bare-footed, tank-topped state, but also the only person capable of ensuring that everyone in the building can be saved. With a charming yet badass central hero, state-of-the-art stunt action and visual effects, and Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber proving to be one of the greatest villains in cinema history, this film becomes a high-octane and unstoppable thriller which goes from zero to sixty right from the start, and maintains that level of tension and excitement until the very end.

2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas set out to pay loving homage to 1930s B-movie serials, and ended up with an action adventure classic for all time. Oft-imitated but never bettered, Spielberg presents some of the most legendary set-pieces ever filmed, captivating audiences with the opening boulder chase, and maintaining the sense of wonder and excitement as Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Marion Crane (Karen Allen) fight Nazis and sword-wielding Arabs through an abundance of exotic locations. In a CGI-free era, every action scene is all the more impressive owing to the practical effects and stunts employed to deliver the onscreen mayhem, all set to the tune of John Williams’ iconic ‘Raiders March’. In Dr Jones, Ford made archaeology instantly the most desirable profession on the planet, and created a new archetype for the intrepid (except when it comes to snakes) adventurer in cinema.

1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

There are several truly great Arnold Schwarzenneger action movies that didn’t quite make this list, including bloody Philip K. Dick adaptation Total Recall, and John McTiernan’s intense jungle thriller Predator. However, there can only be one claimant to the title, of the greatest Terminator movie, the greatest Schwarzenegger movie, and the greatest action movie of all time. Nearly a quarter century since its release, T2‘s special effects look better than most modern blockbusters (including its own sequels), as the screen fills with unstoppable machines including Arnie’s now protective Terminator and Robert Patrick’s relentless T-1000. We open with a world consumed by fire, portending to the coming Judgement Day that must be prevented at all costs, and strap ourselves in for nearly three hours of non-stop breakneck action, from the hospital shootout in which director James Cameron reintroduces us to a scarred Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), to the truck chase on an LA freeway, to the famous gattling gun sequence on top of the Cyberdyne laboratory. Underpinning the still-unmatched fight scenes is a surprisingly emotional performance from Schwarzenegger as he learns what it means to be human (a perennial theme underpinning most good science fiction), and a thoughtful examination of our ability to shape our own destinies: ‘there is no fate but what we make’.

Featured illustration: Imo Rolfe

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