The Top 10 Most Influential Action Films

There are thousands of inconsequential action films:  Uninspired, rote, and derivative of everything that has come before.  Who remembers 1992's Freejack starring Emilio Estevez and Mick Jagger?  Or Costner in 2014's 3 Days to a Kill?  These are films that are forgotten almost as quickly as they're released for the simple reason that they are just photocopy templates of much better action films.  And then there are the tentpole pictures, the influential action films, the ones that decades later, everyone still remembers, the films that have earned a place in our cultural collective.  These are the films that inspire all the many other thousands of copycat films:  It's the Top 10 Most Influential Action Films of All Time... 

(For an analysis of how some of the movie stars headlining these top action films compare to one another when comparing box office, per film profits, and critical consensus, click here.)

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Dirty Harry (1971)

Dirty Harry
Dirty Harry.

The Film That Introduced the Rogue Cop!

Before Lethal Weapon, there was Dirty Harry, the film that created the template of the rogue cop.  And there's no better rogue cop than Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, an immediately iconic character that would immediately enter the collective cultural zeitgeist.  And that's one of the tests of the iconic milestone action picture:  A level of social recognition beyond the confines of cinema fans.  Not everyone may have seen a Dirty Harry movie, but everyone knows the name!

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Speed (1994)


The Perpetually Moving Action Picture

The concept for Speed was one of those ingenious action concepts, which was simultaneously simple and brilliant:  A bomb is on a bus and if the bus drops below fifty miles per hour, it will explode.  It was a recipe for a film of perpetual motion, a film, in which, the protagonist would be in constant peril from the first frame, to the last.  And it also spawned a whole new genre in the action film:  "The Perpetual Motion Action Film."  Whether it's Cellular, where Chris Evans can't get off a mobile phone as he's racing through Los Angeles and fighting bad guys, Crank where the protagonist can't let his heart beat drop, or Unstoppable with Denzel Washington where he's racing a train stuck at full speed without a driver - the perpetual motion action picture is a new genre to the action picture, which has only been realized within the last twenty years.  And introducing a new sub-genre to the action film definitely gets you at least a mention on the most important action films list of all time.

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Bullitt (1968)


Introducing the Car Chase!

This 1968 Steve McQueen classic is important because it was the first to add one of the most basic staples of the action film:  The car chase.  It may be hard to believe, but prior to this film, car chases were filmed only with back screen projection behind them.  The idea of actually taking a camera out of the studio, putting it in real cities, and then running cars around them was a novel one - and one that paid off hugely, as the car chase in Bullitt (although a bit dated by modern standards) is still cinematically famous as being "one of the best," although that may simply be code for, "being the first."

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Lethal Weapon (1987)

Lethal Weapon

The Rogue Cop...

Lethal Weapon rates a mention on the list for introducing cinema to the most perfectly realized "rogue cop" of all time.  "The Rogue Cop," of course, being one of the action film staples, but no film has done it better than Lethal Weapon.  The reason why?  Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is a character you can care about because he's emotionally vulnerable:  His wife is dead and he's suicidal.  And being suicidal makes him an effective weapon (nay, a Lethal weapon!) against the bad guys he has to go up against!  The introduction of a suicidal cop was a simple but effective formula for creating one of the great action films of all time, and fully realizing, better than had ever been done before (or since) one of the most important action film hero templates.  (This is also the film to really cement the buddy cop film, one of which, of course, is a rogue cop that does things his own way, the other a by- the-books professional.)

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The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix
The Matrix.

Groundbreaking Story!

The Matrix created what is perhaps the most perfect storyline in all of action film history:  The world as we live in it, is entirely fake, a computer program meant to lull us into a perpetually submissive state.  Consequently, it's entirely fine to kill, main, and destroy things in this world (because it's not real).  Furthermore, those who know how to bend the rules of this world can shoot perfectly, engage in world class martial arts, and perform super hero stunts.  The final product was an action film that was part kung-fu fighting film, part John Woo "shoot-em-up" and part super hero film.  It was an action film that created a storyline which allowed for an environment where the extremes of each action film typology could be realized simultaneously.  And it was all done with never seen before special effects like "bullet time" that changed the way action films and choreography was done.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2
Terminator 2.

Meet Digital Animation.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the first action film to use digital animation to create the T-1000, a liquid Terminator that could out-battle the older flesh and metal model T-800.  With computer generated special effects, suddenly action films could do all sorts of crazy things!  Thanks, Terminator franchise!

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Point Break (1991)

Keanu Reeves Enters the Vernacular.

This action film about super cop Johnny Utah that has to infiltrate a close knit band of surfers that rob banks while wearing the masks of Presidents in order to fund their worldwide surfing lifestyle is perhaps the best "Hollywood" action concept ever conceived.  And still one of the best heist films ever.

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The Road Warrior (1981)

Road Warrior
Road Warrior.

The Loner Anti-Hero!

The loner anti-hero has a long tradition in cinema, mostly in the Western.  From John Wayne in The Searchers to Shane, the mysterious figure from out of town who comes to save the day (before mysteriously leaving again) was perfectly realized in the form of Mel Gibson's Mad Max.  The Road Warrior, although it wasn't initially that popular with U.S. audiences, also introduced the post-apocalyptic environment as a serious playground for adult action movies to play within (while taking the iconic Western anti-hero loner and making him into an action movie staple!)  (For the top five most bleak visions of the Apocalypse - click here!)

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Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard
Die Hard.

Introduces the Concept of "Die Hard In A..."

Ever since 1988, there have likely been thousands of Hollywood pitch meetings that began, "It's Die Hard in a...."  The idea of taking one vulnerable everyman action hero, and having him locked up in some sort of environment with terrorists where no one could easily leave spawned its own genre of action film.  Now there has been Die Hard on a plane (Air Force One), Die Hard on a Navy Ship (Under Siege), Die Hard in the White House (White House Down), and a thousand other variations.  But the first, the first was Die Hard in a skyscraper. 

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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max
Mad Max.

The Best Action Film Ever Made!

It's perhaps a bit too early to anticipate the legacy of a film that has only just reached theaters.  But I'm going to take a gamble and say that the fourth installment of the Mad Max trilogy will - in future years - be seen as one of the high-water marks of action films, one of the films that would inspire numerous knock-offs and be used as a template for "how to do it properly."  Not only are both the characters and story emotionally involving, but the pace is unrelenting, and the stunt work is on a level previously unrealized.  When you believe you've found what might be the best action film ever made, it deserves placement on your list of important action films.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The Most Important Action Film of All Time!

Raiders of the Lost Ark may not be the best action film of all time (see previous entry), but it's definitely the most important action film of all time.  Action films have a long tradition of swashbuckling action heros, but they were usually relegated to children's films in the penny serials of the early 20th century.  Enter, Harrison Ford who, along with Lucas and Spielberg, created one of the most iconic and successful action heroes of all time in Indiana Jones, an every man who could be injured, hurt, and didn't have super hero powers beyond gumption, determination, and the ability to take a beating.  Raiders of the Lost Ark gave rise (along with Jaws) to the summer blockbuster, and the modern action hero, a swashbuckler for adults.  (It also helps to be one of the most entertaining, and best crafted action films ever done.)