Moviegoers can’t seem to get enough of the action flick. Good or bad, it’s usually two hours when viewers can escape reality. Plenty of actors have made a living taking on action roles, so we figured we would look at 40 of the best action movie stars ever. We didn’t include the folks at Marvel and DC because this is not about putting on a superhero costume to get the job done.
Though not the quintessential action star, the versatile Banderas has flexed his muscle in some memorable high-impact roles, most notably as a revenge-seeking mariachi in 1995’s Desperado. He also stood out in Assassins, The Mask of Zorro, and as part of The Expendables franchise. Hey, why not include his voice as the swashbuckling cat Puss in Boots?
Bronson was a tough guy personified, whether playing a cop. cowboy, or soldier. Bronson, a U.S. Army veteran, thrived mostly in supporting roles until the Death Wish films began in the mid-1970s when he was in his 50s. Bronson’s work as vigilante Paul Kersey in those films turned him into a new generation of action-film fans.
Cage won an Oscar for his role as a down-on-his-luck alcoholic in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas, but he’s also done well in the action genre. Mainstream hits like The Rock, Face/Off, and Con Air made Cage a bona fide action star and showed a bit of his creepy side on-screen. Though the 2000s weren’t nearly as successful for Cage, he showed up well in the adventure thriller National Treasure in 2004.
The pride of Hong Kong has done a nice job of mixing his martial skills with some solid comedic timing, thus becoming one of the biggest action stars ever. It took some time for the former stuntman to enjoy mainstream success, but he ran with it when he did. Rumble in the Bronx (1995), the Rush Hour films, and even his voice work in Kung Fu Panda are some highlights of Chan’s lengthy resume.
As one of the better actors to take on the role of James Bond, Craig certainly gets a spot on this list. However, he had some quality action roles under his belt before taking over Bond from Pierce Brosnan in 2005, such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Munich. He also should be noted for his high-impact work in Defiance (2008), Cowboys & Aliens, and even the 2017 heist comedy Logan Lucky.
Versatility is what makes Crowe one of the greatest actors of this generation. That includes his ability to take on action roles, none more so than in Gladiator (2000), for which Crowe won the Best Actor Oscar. He went for it again with such films as Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, 3:10 to Yuma, and Robin Hood. Though, some would argue his off-screen life might be even more action-packed.
It’s only fitting that we talk action stars after Cruise reprised his role of Maverick in Top Gun: Maverick — the part that solidified him as one of the biggest names in Hollywood with 1986’s Top Gun. While Days of Thunder followed suit, Cruise’s stock as an action staple rose even higher when he became the leading man as Mission: Impossible was brought to the big screen in 1996. His other notable action roles include Vanilla Sky, Minority Report, Collateral, the hilarious Tropic Thunder, Jack Reacher, and American Made.
The first — and arguably still the best — actor to portray the legendary James Bond character, Connery is an icon in every sense of the word, and perhaps solely for his Bond films. But there is much more to his action film resume. There’s his Oscar-winning role as Jimmy Malone in The Untouchables (1987), and before that, The Man Who Would Be King and Highlander.
As with any major motion picture star, especially leading male actors, eventually, they find their way into action thrillers. The superstars tend to get a franchise, and that’s the case with Damon and the Bourne family of movies. His Jason Bourne roles proved Damon could succeed in action pictures. He’s also come through in similar types of films like Contagion and Elysium, though the latter was not all that successful.
Diesel became an international star with his role as Dominic Toretto in The Fast and the Furious (2001), and he has not looked back. He’s the undisputed face of that particular franchise as well as that of the Pitch Black series of films (which includes The Chronicles of Riddick) and the XXX franchise.
Eastwood might have a spot on the Mount Rushmore of action stars. Whether it’s his work in such Spaghetti Westerns as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) to the Dirty Harry series beginning in the 1970s and the ’80s classic Heartbreak Ridge, Eastwood is at home with a gun in his hand and cigar in his mouth. One of the great American actors and directors ever, Eastwood is still as cool as they come.
Perhaps one of Hong Kong’s most beloved actors, Chow seems capable of doing it all. That includes some stellar action work with prominent director John Woo and such mainstream hits as The Replacement Killers (1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007).
Ford is near the top of the list when it comes to the most popular action stars ever. Come on, the guy is part of arguably the two biggest movie franchises of all time in Star Wars and Indiana Jones, as two of the coolest characters in film history. Not to mention, he was stellar in Blade Runner, The Fugitive, and Air Force One. Of course, he also starred as Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.
Say what one wants about Gibson’s off-screen persona, the man has made some fine action movies. Gibson became a star thanks to the Mad Max series and Lethal Weapon movies but was elevated to a Hollywood giant with Braveheart. Gibson has never been afraid to take chances with films, both as an actor or director.
Star of the 1970s blaxploitation films such as Foxy Brown, Grier’s characters don’t take any lip from anybody. Playing tough female roles, Grier, who made a resurgence in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 hit thriller Jackie Brown , has been an influence on many young female Black actresses who laud her strength and empowerment.
Admittedly, Hamilton is on this list solely for her role as Sarah Connor in the Terminator films. But her portrayal as the futuristic cyborg slayer in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is among the best female action roles of all time. We’ll give her some credit for Dante’s Peak even before she became a real star with the underrated John Carpenter-written Black Moon Rising from 1986.
Inspired by the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li, Jaa might not be a household name with casual American moviegoers, but he’s blossomed into a martial arts/action star internationally. He made his mainstream screen debut in the Furious 7 (2015) and may not be flying — or rather, fighting — under the Hollywood radar for too long.
Arguably the current king of action cinema, Johnson might not be relinquishing that crown for a while. If not at the theater to watch a Johnson flick, you’ll probably still see a preview of one of his upcoming films pop up before the feature. From his breakthrough as The Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns (2001) to 2019’s Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw and Jumanji: The Next Level, and even 2021’s Red Notice, The Rock is not going anywhere.
There is not a role Jolie is incapable of playing, and that includes action pictures. Her first true spin within the genre came as the titular character in 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. She followed with Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Wanted, and Salt to round out the last decade. Like Pam Grier, Jolie has left an indelible mark with her roles in these films from a female empowerment standpoint and is capable of tackling any project she takes on.
Once dubbed by VH1 as the “reigning queen of kick-butt,” Jovovich might be at her best when doing just that on screen. Her breakthrough role came alongside Bruce Willis in the science-fiction action thriller The Fifth Element (1997). She shined in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and became a true star in the Resident Evil film franchise.
The king of martial arts action films, Lee opened the door for guys like Jackie Chan to walk through. The films of the genre that have followed still don’t seem to compare to the brilliant, seemingly effortless work Lee put forth in 1970s martial arts classics such as Enter The Dragon and Fist of Fury. Despite a short film career, Lee’s influence on martial arts films and the actors who followed can’t be understated.
Li might not have the star power as Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, but he could hold his own on the martial arts/action film scene. Though Li shined in War (2007) with Jason Statham, The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) with Chan, and alongside the all-star cast of The Expendables movies, we still think his best role might be that of Han Sing in 2000’s Romeo Must Die.
Lundgren’s breakthrough came as Ivan Drago, Rocky Balboa’s international nemesis in 1985’s Rocky IV. That was the start of a stellar action career for the chiseled Swede, who went on to star as He-Man in Masters of the Universe. Solid efforts in Red Scorpion and Universal Soldier followed. After many direct-to-video efforts, Lundgren became part of The Expendables family (like many others on this list).
One of the biggest stars of the 1960s and ’70s, McQueen was a cool customer — the kind of actor moviegoers wanted to be like. His action roles were in films that were more along the lines of dramatic thrillers, though disasters, car chases, and shootouts were part of the plot lines. McQueen’s work in The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and The Towering Inferno (1974) still holds up well today.
Neeson has starred as a wide range of characters during an extremely successful career, and his action roles should be celebrated. Early on, his most notable parts were in The Dead Pool (1988) and Darkman (1990), a turn in the Star Wars prequels, and perhaps his most ruthless role in the Taken (2008) films. Neeson wasn’t that bad as Hannibal Smith in The A-Team (2010) movie, either.
Maybe the title of this list should be “Chuck Norris and everyone else.” While those jokes regarding how tough Norris is are funny, it’s a tribute to a guy who literally made a living starring in action films — then, of course, those Total Gym commercials. In the mood for some good old-fashioned, feel-good senseless Hollywood violence? Check out The Octagon, Forced Vengeance, Missing in Action, Code of Silence, and The Delta Force. Then take cover.
For as much as critics pan the schlock Reeves has starred in, film audiences have never been able to stay away from him. His action film career really started as Johnny Utah in 1991’s Point Break. He became a box-office superstar with Speed (1994) opposite Sandra Bullock, followed by The Matrix films, and more recently, the whole John Wick phenomenon.
Russell’s days as a leading action star might be in the past, but he’s still among the most respected in the business. In his hard-guy, early work as the great Snake Plissken, action cult classics like Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. still hold up well today. One of the most versatile actors of all time, Russell even succeeded win the action comedy Big Trouble in Little China and has popped up in the Fast and the Furious franchise.
Arnold probably tops that list if we were ranking the greatest action stars of all time. From world-famous body builder to action hero staple to politician, Schwarzenegger has always been larger than life. Whether as part of the Conan and Terminator franchises or in Commando, Predator, or Total Recall — he even poked fun at himself in Last Action Hero — Arnold truly is the lord of the action movie world.
Following in the footsteps of Chuck Norris and other modern-day martial arts entertainers, Seagal was an action-film mainstay during the late 1980s and into the ’90s. Complete with his jet-black ponytail and tan frame, Seagal cleaned house on screen and at the box office with hits like Above the Law (1988), Marked for Death, Out for Justice, Under Siege, and Executive Decision.
As big as a universal entertainer as Smith became in the early 1990s, it was only a matter of time before the Fresh Prince started making action movies. It started with the buddy comedy Bad Boys (1995) followed by blockbusters Independence Day and Men in Black. By this time, Smith was a worldwide superstar and continued to take on science-fiction action roles that fans still flock to see today.
Snipes’ early film work was consumed by comedic roles, but that changed with the neo-gangster hit New Jack City (1991) when we got a glimpse of him flexing some muscle. He then became an action flick staple thanks to Passenger 57, Boiling Point, Demolition Man, and U.S. Marshals, and then he really hit it big with 1998’s Blade — and the series of films that followed.
Some might think it’s a neck-and-neck race between Stallone and Schwarzenegger for the best action star in movie history. Fair enough. While the Rocky movies might not be considered action flicks, the first two in the franchise opened the door for Stallone to become a superstar and, ultimately, an action film staple. Nighthawks followed, and his continuing role as John Rambo took Sly’s career to even greater heights. Popcorn action works like Cobra, Tango & Cash, Demolition Man, and Judge Dredd only added to the fun.
At this moment, if we’re going to talk about the current “big three” of action-adventure films, Statham would round out a group that includes Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson. Statham’s early roles in films like The Italian Job (2003) paved the way for him to make real money as an A-list action star in such franchises as The Expendables and the Fast and Furious — the latter in which we can see him team up with Johnson in the spinoff Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.
The late, great Swayze was stellar at mixing drama and action. Though he’s probably best known for sappy films like Dirty Dancing and Ghost, where he displayed minimal physical angst, Swayze starred in arguably three of the most popular guilty pleasure action films of the 1980s and ’90s: Red Dawn, Road House, and Point Break.
Jean-Claude Van Damme
We first got a real eye on the “Muscles from Brussels” in the surprise 1988 hit Bloodsport (arguably, still his best film), and the rest is action hero history. From the late 1980s to the 1990s, Van Damme and Steve Seagal were staples of Hollywood action films. Cyborg, Kickboxer, Double Impact, Universal Soldier, and, of course, Timecop are just a few of his highlights.
Wahlberg follows along the lines of Will Smith. He’s a big enough box office draw that his fans — and moviegoers in general — will come to see him in just about anything. Wahlberg also does enough of them that, while he’s missed on more than a few action roles, he fared well in hits like Three Kings, Planet of the Apes, and Contraband. The point is that if Wahlberg keeps making action films, people will continue to watch.
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Whether in westerns or war films, the “Duke” usually delivered. From his breakthrough role in the western Stagecoach (1939) to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Longest Day (1962) to True Grit (1969), Wayne was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars from the late 1930s and into the ’70s. He’s still the epitome of cool when it comes to leading men in Hollywood action films.
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Often considered the first true sci-fi heroine, Weaver earned critical acclaim as Ripley in 1979’s Alien. She became an even bigger action star with the following films in the series, including the sequel Aliens, which earned her an Oscar nomination. Though Weaver’s career delved into more dramatic roles and several comedy spins, she’s again shown her action and sci-fi chops somewhat in Galaxy Quest and Avatar.
He’s part of the all-time “big three” with Arnold and Sly. But let’s not just celebrate Willis’ hard-guy, be-quirky-in-the-face-of-death attitude only for the Die Hard franchise. Armageddon was blockbuster cheese at its best, and Willis might have delivered some of his best one-liners in the underrated 1991 classic The Last Boy Scout. Plus, his vignette in Pulp Fiction provided the most action and entertainment within the film.
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