Human beings are both rational and emotional creatures—and nowhere is that more obvious than when we use and watch film, a wondrous blend of genres steeped in art and science, to depict fist-fights, shootouts, and explosions. Action movies scratch the itch that sent the Romans to the Colosseum in droves. And though we’ve moved away from death-battles between slaves for entertainment, our more refined tastes haven’t quashed the impact of our primal instincts on culture.
There’s something succinct about action movies. At the heart of every worthwhile film is conflict. Artsier sorts may depict that internally, romantically, or philosophically with loads of long shots focused on brooding, pining, or conversation. But action directors boil it down to its essence: This side wants this thing, and the other side wants this other thing, and so, to settle it, they’re going to fight.
This showdown can occur anywhere: the Nakatomi corporation’s skyscraper, a post-apocalyptic desert, a jungle, a dojo, outer space, an artificially intelligent simulation, the Scottish Highlands, or Ancient Greece. Yet it remains understandable to any person (occasionally aided by subtitles), because the desire to vanquish foes has been hardboiled into us by evolution. And now, since most of us don’t spend our time preparing for or sprinting onto fields of battle, the next best thing is living vicariously through our onscreen action heroes.
Batman, Rambo, John McClane, and others have endured as modern equivalents of Paul Bunyan and John Henry. They act as we wish we could in easier-to-digest alternate universes. Because in real life, the lines between heroes and villains, and victories and defeats, are often blurry. But in action movies, the good guy punches the bad guy and saves the day. So whether you’re seeking to settle down your animalistic inclinations or to escape the moral ambiguity of modern life, the best action movies are just ‘bout that action, boss. Here's our list for the best ones out there.