20 Great Action Movie Heroes: Defending the Indefensible (Part Two)

action movies heroes Action Jackson Well here it is, part two of my list of the greatest actors and actresses ever to lend their talents to the action movie genre, following on from the list I wrote two weeks ago. Once again, I’ve attempted to provide an interesting and diverse cross-section of individuals. There are a range of actresses and actors delivering popular performances in current action films that I have not included. Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Milla Jovovich, Vin Diesel, Will Smith and Angelina Jolie are good examples. Unfortunately, these performers are not a part of the nostalgic experience that defines my appreciation of the genre. And as ironic as my appreciation may be, I find most contemporary action films to be far colder and more sterile than the ones I grew up with (it’s quite possible that this is simply my own personal nostalgic melancholy setting in).

So without further ado, here are twenty more great action movie heroes.

 21. Harrison Ford

Once again, let’s get one of the obvious picks out of the way. Indiana Jones, Han Solo, that fellow from the movies about the CIA guy that stops bad things happening to America. Harrison Ford is an action man. 

22. Steven Seagal

Steven Seagal’s unique brand of sociopathic Zen might not appeal to everyone… or to many people at all. As a general rule I’m not a huge fan either, but there are a few moments in his career when Seagal has transcended “bad” to achieve a higher state of catastrophic that comes full circle and turns into something akin to good. The most fascinating example is the above featured Out for Justice (1991), in which Seagal’s unconvincing and homicidal cop takes on William Forsythe’s deeply deranged bad guy in a morally reprehensible race to the bottom of the barrel. Somewhere in the middle lies the local mafia, who seem so meek by comparison that the viewer ends up feeling strangely sympathetic as they are mangled, mauled and mutilated by both sides. Absolute gold. Under Siege (1992) gets a mention for unusual levels of filmmaking competency, as does On Deadly Ground (1994) for the famous scene in which Seagal pulverizes a man in order to teach him about the evils of violence. 

23. Jeanette Goldstein

Goldstein might not have made a huge number of entries into the genre, but her roles as the unforgettable Private Vasquez in Aliens (1986) and the vampire Diamondback in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) are enough to earn her a place here.

24. Sonny Chiba

They don’t talk about Sonny (or Shinichi) too often nowadays, but for a couple of decades he was one of the more significant Japanese martial arts in cinema. Many might know of him indirectly via the mention of his career in the Tony Scott directed (and Tarantino penned) True Romance (1993), or his small role as Hattori Hanzo in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Either way, it is the surprisingly innovative martial arts classic The Streetfighter (1974) that you should check out first.

25. Yul Brynner

They don’t make heads like Brynner’s anymore. And it’s a shame, his unique appearance and huge array of impressive performances made him a Hollywood icon. But it’s for movies like The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Westworld (1973) that he’s on this list. The latter is one of the many films I consumed compulsively as a child, entirely without understanding that Brynner was in many ways playing with his own star image. The story, for those not in the know, concerns a futuristic theme park in which people can safely spend their time in simulated historical environments, surrounded by humanoid robots. But, inevitably, something goes wrong and the baddest bot of them all, a gunslinger from the Old West (Brynner), starts hunting the protagonists.

26. Dolph Lundgren

How is it that a chemical engineer and two-time European martial arts champion could end up electing to pursue a career doing the one thing that they simply weren’t designed to do – act? Who knows, but despite all his limitations in this particular field, Lundgren has managed to make it work for him. From Rocky IV (1985) to Universal Soldier (1992), to The Expendables (2010), he’s tapped into that special brand of poorly-made but well-marketed action cinema.

27. Danny Glover

Most recognised for his performances in the Lethal Weapon series, I see Glover’s greatest contribution to the action film as being his performance in the underappreciated Predator 2. Lacking the absolute perfection of its predecessor, this film makes up for minor weaknesses with its portrayal of a sweltering L.A. hell, ruled by cartels before it becomes the hunting ground of an alien predator. Glover is perfect as the ultimate workaholic super-cop, pushed to the limits by the ultimate bad guy. However, it’s necessary to call out a potentially racist undercurrent to this one, with aesthetic correlations being drawn between the film’s Jamaican gangs and the alien itself.

28. Tomisaburô Wakayama

Wakayama’s role in the six ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ movies (and the corresponding American reedit, Shogun Assassin) marks him as one of the all time greats. Adapted from the manga comic book series of the same name, these films are marked by outstanding martial-arts choreography, ridiculously excessive violence, and a wry undercurrent of humour that never lets up. Genius.

29. Nancy Allen

A fine actress in her own right, Nancy Allen’s best early contributions were probably in the Brian De Palma films, Carrie (1976) and Blow Out (1981). But it is for the Robocop trilogy (although the second film isn’t up to the standards of the Verhoeven original, and the third film is an abomination) that she will always be known. A tough cop who never reveals a moment of weakness, there are very few performers who could stand next to Peter Weller’s cyborg hero and come out looking this good.

30. Lee Marvin

Hard, ethically hazy killers of men – Lee Marvin was the ultimate tough guy. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Untouchables (1961-1962), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Point Blank (1967), The Big Red One (1980), The Delta Force (1986). Irrefutable.

31. Jim Brown

Jim Brown, a former American Football player, could have earned a place on this list just for his role in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Ice Station Zebra (1968). That’s not necessary however, thanks to his presence in Blaxploitation classics like Black Gunn (1972) and Slaughter (1972), and the lesser Arnie classic, The Running Man (1987).

32. Patrick Swayze

Swayze always stood at the edge of action cinema’s borders of credibility, making the appreciation of his work a confusing mix of irony and genuine respect. Films like Red Dawn (1984), Steel Dawn (1987) and Point Break (1991) are all evidence enough of this fine line, but I’d suggest that his masterwork is Road House (1989), the subject of the first post ever written for CURNBLOG. I think I’ll just go ahead and quote myself:

“I would contend that Roadhouse is not a malicious mess that occasionally crosses into so-bad-it’s-good territory, but a rather clever and self-aware piece of action cinema content to revel in, and celebrate, the conventions of the western and the action film while also winking affectionately at the audience.”

33. Kurt Russell

There was a time when Kurt Russell was the ultimate tongue-in-cheek action hero. His heavy-handed comic-book portrayal of Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981) is one for the ages, his straight-laced role in The Thing (1982) is perfect, and his loveable truck driver in Big Trouble in Little China (1986) is entertaining, despite the film’s problematic regressive oriental stereotypes.Tango & Cash (1989), Backdraft (1991), Stargate (1994), Escape from L.A. (1996), and Breakdown (1997) were also well received, if minor, contributions to the action genre. But Soldier (1998) and 3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) left Russell generically shipwrecked. Cut to 2007, and Russell proves he’s still got it in Deathproof (2007), providing an exceptional performance in a film that couldn’t quite sustain its own weight.

34. Jackie Chan

I’ve never been able to fully embrace the phenomenon that is Jackie Chan, it’s all a little too benign for my tastes, but I can recognise the genius and I do have a few personal favourites. For me, Chan is all about Police Story (1985), Rumble in the Bronx (1995), and – solely because it is set in my hometown – Mr. Nice Guy (1997).

35. Carl Weathers

Best known as the long-running nemesis/friend of Rocky Balboa, and the treacherous desk-jockey in Predator (1987), Carl Weathers has contributed plenty to the genre. But it is for his role in Action Jackson (1988) that I’ll always remember him best: “Some say he didn’t even have a mother. That some researchers at NASA created him to be the first man to walk on the moon without a space suit.”

36. Michael Dudikoff

There are movies I think of when I think of my childhood. And in the farthest recesses of my memory, I recall a period when my most prized possession was a worn out copy of American Ninja (1985) and American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987), taped off television with the ads cut out. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen these films, and I have no doubt they are appalling – but once upon a time, Michael Dudikoff was my hero.

37. Michelle Yeoh

Malaysian born Michelle Yeoh is a truly international action star, straddling the line between Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema. She has delivered significant performances in films like Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Sunshine (2007), and the Supercop movies, but it’s probably her work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) that made her an action hero icon.

38. Keanu Reeves

I have a strange relationship with the work of Keanu Reeves. Thinking without the context of a specific film, there seems to be nothing particularly engaging about the man whatsoever. Admittedly, he has delivered adequate performances for the likes of Van Sant, Brannagh, Linklater and Coppola but they are hardly brilliant.  Yet, this is a man who has been a stoic centrepiece of some of the most iconic actions films of all time: Point Break (1991), Speed (1994), and (if you like that sort of thing) the Matrix trilogy. There you go…

39. Danny Trejo

Danny Trejo has been around the block more than you might think – he turns 70 next month. But it wasn’t until after he turned 50 that he made his presence felt with significant roles in Michael Mann’s near-perfect Heat (1995) and Robert Rodriguez’s enjoyable low-budget action schlockfest, Desperado (1995). From there, a slew of roles in subsequent Rodriguez films like From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Once Upon A Time in Mexico (2003), and Planet Terror (2007) ensured that he became recognised as “that scary guy in those movies”. Roles in big-budget disposable works like Anaconda (1997), Con Air (1997) and the television show Sons of Anarchy (2011-2012) certainly helped too. But it is only recently, as Rodriguez has dived headfirst into the ocean of irony without a compass, that Trejo has become the star of the show with Machete (2010) and Machete Kills (2013).

40. Fred Williamson

Like Jim Brown, Fred Williamson moved over from the world of American Football to acting. Kicking an early goal with an appearance in Robert Altman’s Mash (1970), he then, like Brown, went on to appear in Blaxploitation classics like Black Cesar (1973) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973). But his real contribution came when he realised that the sun was setting on American Blaxploitation cinema production, and moved to Italy to set up his own production company, Po’ Boy Productions, dedicated to exploiting the demand created by this gap in the market. It’s from here that Williamson starred in, produced and directed a range of bargain-basement “classics” like Mean Johnny Barrows (1976) and Death Journey (1976). Po’ Boy continues to this day.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

13 thoughts on “20 Great Action Movie Heroes: Defending the Indefensible (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: Scurte #221 | Assassin CG

  2. Very comprehensive, James. Despite their obvious place in the genre, I can’t watch Seagal or Lundgren. I’m booting them and subbing in Douglas Fairbanks and Tura Satana, a handsome couple if ever there was one.

  3. Where’s Leslie Nielson?

    Just kidding.

    But yes on Jackie Chan. I wasn’t really a fan, either, but you have to respect someone who turns martial arts into film art. Takes a lot of discipline, I’d imagine.

  4. Hi, James. Good list. I’m not sure what limits you put on making your selection, if these were all childhood favourites, or whether this was an all-time best-of line-up. And I know defining an “action film,” like defining any genre, is tricky (do Westerns count? War movies? Film noir?).

    In any event, here are some names I would have included:

    Sean Connery: would get in just for his Bond films, but even without them he’d still have a filmography that spans decades and just about every conceivable brand of action film. He wasn’t always the action star, but even as he got older he was still there as an eminence grise. Titles like Zardoz, The Man Who Would Be King, Outland, Highlander, The Rock, The Untouchables, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October,The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and even a stint as Robin Hood in Robin and Marian.

    Noomi Rapace: female action stars are harder to come up with, but Rapace already has solid credits in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, the lead in Prometheus, and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

    Humphrey Bogart: maybe not a name that first comes to mind, but a solid action career going from gangster to private detective to leading roles in action classics like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen.

    Klaus Kinski: I don’t know if a full filmography exists for Kinski, but if you dig around you’ll find he was in a lot of B action films over the years. And in at least a couple of his art house films with Herzog, Aguirre and Cobra Verde, he could be described as an action star.

    Charlton Heston: do historical/biblibical epics count as action films? If so, starring in Ben-Hur or El Cid count. He was also a leading man in a lot of war movies and westerns. I’d include him just for his SF vehicles though: Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, and Soylent Green.

    Russell Crowe: he’s played good and bad cops, gunslingers, a gladiator, Captain Jack Aubrey and Noah, and even Robin Hood. Not a personal favourite, but he’s covered a lot of ground.

    Errol Flynn: another Australian actor who played Robin Hood. Also Captain Thorpe in The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, and roles in a bunch of period and contemporary war films. He pretty much was the standard of an action star back in the day.

    Michael Caine: might not seem an obvious choice, but especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s he starred in a variety of action roles, including Zulu, The Italian Job, The Man Who Would be King, Get Carter, and The Ipcress File.

    Honourable mentions: Rutger Hauer, Chow Yun-fat, Roy Scheider.

  5. A really comprehensive selection here James. Despite the presence of many stalwarts, there were some I had almost forgotten about, and a couple I have never heard of too. You seem to have hit on a personal favourite genre, and I can imagine you as a youngster, lapping up that action!
    Regards from England, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. My relationship with the genre is a complicated one – many times I’ve gone back to a childhood favourite and been disappointed or disturbed. But for me, this was certainly the pathway to my passion for film.

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