Film.com Staff August 15, 2012
Whether gunslingers or martial arts masters, globe-trotting adventurers or tuxedoed men of mystery, some of the most enduring icons of modern cinema are the heroes of action movies. They’re tougher and braver than normal people, and they’re infinitely more quotable — “Go ahead, make my day” and the simple but always appropriate “I’ll be back,” for starters.
In honor of the action movie dream team that bulks up “The Expendables 2,” here are our favorite badass movie heroes, counted down by Max Evry, Elisabeth Rappe and Christine Champ.
50. Jack Sparrow, “The Pirates of the Caribbean” Series (2003-2011)
It’s easy for a man to be quick on his feet and ready to aim when he’s sober. It’s a lot harder when he’s soused on the best Caribbean rum. That’s what makes Jack’s accomplishments so admirable. He can swashbuckle, steal, shoot and sail with the best pirates of the Spanish Main, and all while seeing double. Don’t be fooled by his swaying charms, because Jack (Johnny Depp) has a nasty streak that will sell you out for leverage if you’re not looking… but he’ll probably do a deal to get you out of it later on. —Elisabeth Rappe
49. Axel Foley, The “Beverly Hills Cop” Trilogy (1984-1994)
Eddie Murphy had developed his action persona in “48 Hours” and his comedy chops with “Trading Places,” but this Jerry Bruckheimer-produced vehicle gave him an outlet for both. His streetwise Detroit cop Foley is a fish-out-of-water con man who pulls off his murder investigation right under the stuffy noses of the Beverly Hills Police Department. We hope you’re hungry, ’cause he just put a banana in your tailpipe. FACT: In an interview with James Lipton, Murphy admitted that every time he uses a gun in a scene he’s channeling Bruce Lee. —Max Every
48. Bullitt, “Bullitt” (1968)
The quiet cool. That’s what Steve McQueen brought to the action genre, which so many have tried to mimic but no one can capture. His Bullitt is an all-business kind of action hero, slightly rough around the edges but completely believable. Some of that verisimilitude comes from the fact that McQueen was a bigtime gearhead who knew his way around an automobile, which is why this movie’s car chase is still the stuff of legend. —M.E.
47. Captain America, “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) and “The Avengers” (2012)
Steve Rogers is a 90-lb. weakling who, through the miracle of science, transmogrifies into a taller, stronger and more muscular champion of good during World War II. Captain America (Chris Evans) is more than a pretty face, which is important because he has to fight a guy with no face — that is, Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). He’s noble, he’s humble and he’s a gentleman in tights. And he’s a great part of “The Avengers.” What more could you want? —Christine Champ
46. Neo, The “The Matrix” Trilogy (1999-2003)
Neo (Keanu Reeves) might not be the first gravity-defying kung fu hero, but we’ll cut him some slack since he’s also a computer hacker who takes a mysterious pill and journeys down into rabbit hole of The Matrix. He’s sort of a neo-Buddha being chased by creepy AI in the form of Agent Smith; he’s also got a very cool wardrobe and a supremely sexy partner-in-crime in Carrie-Anne Moss’ character Trinity. —C.C.
45. Sing, “Kung Fu Hustle” (2004)
Guys like Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan had brought a lot of overt silent-cinema-inspired comedy to their martial arts movies, but Stephen Chow opted to give this character and the zany movie surrounding him a cartoon feel. If Jackie Chan’s hero is Buster Keaton, than Chow’s has to be Bugs Bunny, with some of the strangest, most surreal fight scenes ever seen, including Sing’s transformation into a “natural-born martial arts genius,” which leaves a gigantic-hand-shaped crater in the earth. —M.E.
44. Martin Riggs, The “Lethal Weapon” Series (1987-1998)
If Wolverine and Harry Callahan were genetically spliced, the result would be Martin Riggs, a wild-eyed cop who is mad, bad and… well, fun. Riggs (Mel Gibson) can withstand torture, make a great pot of chili, show a girl a good time and gather intel before the sun goes down, then spend the night in a killing, berserker rage. Depending on his mood, he’ll shoot, crush, choke or pull down the house of a bad guy, all punctuated by hilarious one-liners. If you doubt he’s tough, all you really have to do is stand back and admire his amazing hairstyle. Only a real man can pull off—and style!—that kind of blow-out. —E.R.
43. Detective Inspector Lee, The “Rush Hour” Trilogy (1998-2007)
Like most rule-breaking cops, Detective Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) works best alone. Unlike most rogue cops, Lee’s lethality isn’t dependent on a gun, because he’s skilled in martial arts, able to turn his body and surroundings into bone-shattering weapons. He can use anything—a rug, a food tray, a stanchion, Chris Tucker—to take out a pack of thugs, but is never so distracted that he can’t save precious Chinese artifacts. Now that’s a cop! —E.R.
42. Luke Skywalker, The Original “Star Wars” Trilogy (1977-1983)
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) may never live some things down (whining, kissing his sister, snubbing Yoda’s advice), but as heroes go, he’s pretty darn cool. He can barely handle a blaster or a lightsaber, but he eagerly throws himself into the Rebellion to save a princess he knows only through hologram. Along the way, he proves to be a fantastic pilot, a great shot, a hell of a swordsman, the future of the Jedi and a hero brave enough to face down his own father. —E.R.
41. Lara Croft, The “Lara Croft” Movies (2001-2003)
Make fun of her tiny shorts and tank top all you want. Lara wears them because she’s tough enough not to mind the cuts and bruises she incurs crawling through tombs and jungles. (What do you expect a girl to wear? It’s hot in Egypt.) More than just a pretty face or ample cleavage, Lara (Angelina Jolie) rejected sipping tea with the Duchess of Cambridge in favor of adventure and archeology. A canny scholar, as comfortable with hieroglyphics as she is with heavy artillery, Lara is the perfect mix of brain and muscle. —E.R.
40. Foxy Brown, “Foxy Brown” (1974)
Shaft changed the face of black masculinity in action cinema, but Pam Grier punched her way out of beauty school and into the hormonal hearts of any 13-year-old boy who saw her kick ass and look good doing it. Her Foxy was “a whole lot of woman,” taking on sinister drug syndicates and having the cojones to literally castrate them. —M.E.
39. William Wallace, “Braveheart” (1995)
Betrayed, beaten, bedraggled… No matter what they do to him or his family, this warrior will not cease fighting for freedom. And in true Mel Gibson fashion, he would like to suggest that these English fancypants soldiers stick their heads between their legs and kiss their you-know-whats. —C.C.
38. Spider-Man, The “Spider-Man” Movies (2002-2012)
Andrew Garfield brought his own spin on the icon, but Tobey Maguire was the first to truly translate Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s 1960’s Marvel Comics creation to believable life onscreen. His organic web shooters and nasty spider bite make a heck of a lot more sense than when Garfield’s Parker invented ‘em, but Maguire’s Peter Parker is still a smart, bright-eyed do-gooder who always gives his all for perpetually kidnapped Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). The third one still stinks, though. —M.E.
37. Hit-Girl, “Kick-Ass” (2010)
Certainly the youngest butt-kicker to grace this list, Mindy Macready, a.k.a. Hit-Girl, was born into the business, so to speak. Her poppa Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) was teaching her to dispatch bad guys since she was in diapers, so by the time she gets to age 11 she’s basically an unstoppable killing machine. Chloë Moretz totally owns this part, which makes even pint-sized killer-in-training Natalie Portman in “The Professional” look like a shrinking violet. —M.E.
36. The Man With No Name, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966)
Yeah, they call him “Blondie” in the movie, but it’s safe to say that’s not on the birth certificate of Clint Eastwood’s original spaghetti Western tough guy. Sergio Leone did a dry run on the character for “Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More,” but truly cashed in with this threequel, which climaxes with the mother of all showdowns. —M.E.
35. Casey Ryback, “Under Siege” (1992)
When terrorists besiege a U.S. battleship, there’s one thing they don’t count on—the cook. That’s right the cook, who’s also an expert in martial arts, explosives and everything else a demoted Navy seal would be. Ryback (Steven Seagal) does it all his way, with deliciously deadpan sarcasm. —C.C.
34. Yu Shu Lien, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)
Ang Lee’s transcendent heroine, played by Michelle Yeoh, is as poetically beautiful in appearance as she is flitting over rooftops in mid-air wuxia battles. She’s an exquisite heroine and a deadly warrior. —C.C.
33. Selene, The “Underworld” Series (2003-2012)
There’s no vamp vampier than Selene (Kate Beckinsale). She’s a bloody fine Death Dealer, an elite vampire warrior whose mission is to wipe out the Lycans. Unfortunately, her bloodless heart begins to beat a little faster when she meets the peace-loving werewolf Michael (Scott Speedman). Which side will she choose? And how many of those leather cat suits doe she have, anyway? —C.C.
32. Han Solo, The Original “Star Wars” Trilogy (1977-1983)
A reluctant and roguish hero, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) sort of gets roped into this whole saving-the-galaxy business, but he’s someone you’d want on your side no matter what. Ladies can’t resist his rugged charm, his wisecracks, or his cuddly Wookiee. —C.C.
31. Aragorn, “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy (2001-2003)
He’s 87 years old, but he doesn’t look a day over 40, despite a long, hard and sad life roaming Middle Earth as a Ranger. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is the best that mankind has to offer—a warrior and a poet who is unfailingly kind and generous to all creatures, be they human, hobbit or horse. If you have his sword (which happens to be one heck of a blade), he’ll go with you to the end, throwing himself at any foul beast that crosses your path. Oh, and he’s loyal to just one woman. Sigh. —E.R.
30. Paul Kersey, “Death Wish” (1974)
Kersey (Charles Bronson) is the man we could all become if pushed. He woke up a pacifist who detested guns, but after a brutal attack on his family, he went to bed as a bloodthirsty vigilante. He’s Batman and Dirty Harry rolled into one, a man who stalks the night begging for thugs and lowlifes to meet the business end of his .32 Colt. He’s simultaneously the guy you want on the streets in case you’re mugged, and the man you want off it in case you bump into him wrong. —E.R.
29. Superman, The “Superman” Movies (1978-2006)
Superman is heroism (and perfection) incarnate, more so because everything in his origin story—destroyed planet, adopted, lonely outsider, godlike superpowers—could have tilted him to antihero or villain. But, no. Superman (Christopher Reeve) has chosen to embrace humanity and protect Earth, determinedly sticking to his farm boy values to remain one of the kindest and gentlest of superheroes. And the only one with a day job… —E.R.
28. Blade, The “Blade” Trilogy (1998-2004)
Wesley Snipes plays a bloodsucker’s worst nightmare—a half-vamp with all of their strengths, none of their weaknesses and serious grudge against fangers. Blade’s got a seriously slick style, from his sunglasses to his sword skills, and he’s not afraid of anyone, not even Dracula. Plus, his BFF is played by Kris Kristofferson. —C.C.
27. Ethan Hunt, The “Mission: Impossible” Series (1996-2011)
Tom Cruise is still riding high on Ethan Hunt, the super spy who’s been saving the world from nuclear missiles, deadly viruses and other dangers for over ten years. No one does those “Impossible” stunts better, even when it comes to scaling Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower, the world’s tallest building. —C.C.
26. Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer, “Predator” (1987)
It’s easy to dismiss Dutch (again, Arnold Schwarzenegger) as just another muscle-bound soldier, all guns and glory, but Dutch didn’t to be a major by relying on his massive biceps. He’s a thinker. Sure, he pumps a lot of bullets into the Predator before realizing he’s going to have to change the game, apply some mud, build some traps and do the deed by hand. Once he does, though, what follows is one of the sweatiest, scrappiest and scariest fights in all of action cinema. Dutch was right: if it bleeds, you can kill it. —E.R.
25. Ah Jong, “The Killer” (1989)
Two .45s. Slow motion. Doves. It’s such a cliché that they parody it in almost every cop comedy from “Hot Fuzz” to “21 Jump Street,” but back in the day John Woo and his star Chow Yun-fat made it seem like the coolest thing ever conceived by man. All this despite the fact that a .45 has “a serious f*ckin’ jammin’ problem,” as Samuel L. Jackson explained in “Jackie Brown.” —M.E.
24. Jack Burton, “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986)
Hitch a ride on the Porkchop Express as our dopey hero with a John Wayne accent gasbags into his CB radio talking the talk. Thing is, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) can also walk the walk, which includes taking on a mystical army of Chinese sorcerers to rescue a girl with green eyes. Kurt Russell is so winning as perhaps the most idiotic action hero of all time that he made John Carpenter’s box-office dud a cult classic for the ages. “Sit tight, hold the fort, keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn… Call the President.” —M.E.
23. Wolverine, The “X-Men” Series (2000-2011)
Hey bub, we know Hugh Jackman is a veritable singing sensation in “Les Misérables,” but if you think he’s a sissy he’s got six razor-sharp Adamantium claws that will persuade you otherwise. Marvel’s Canadian mutant hero has dominated the “X-Men” since he was first brought onto the team, and that dynamic didn’t change for the movies. With a solo film to call his own and another on its way, Wolverine’s onscreen exploits are indestructible. —M.E.
22. John Matrix, “Commando” (1985)
Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a mountain of a man, seemingly hewn out of the massive pine trees he chops for firewood at his secluded cabin. Though his hands are gentle enough to feed a baby deer, eat ice cream and cuddle his precocious daughter, they’re also capable of throwing men off cliffs, shooting Russian ballistic knives into stomachs, spraying a belt-fed machine gun and shouldering a rocket launcher. It’s like he’s made of guns, muscle, sweat and greasepaint. —E.R.
21. Shaft, “Shaft” (1971-2000)
Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? It’s ain’t Betty White, that’s for sure. Richard Roundtree made waves as the first real breakthrough black action hero, and transcended the blaxploitation genre thanks to Issac Hayes’ catchy, Oscar-winning theme song. Incidentally, “Roundtree” would have been an equally studly name to give the main character. Just sayin’. —M.E.
20. Maximus, “Gladiator” (2000)
Maximus (Russell Crowe) just wants to go home and tend his crops, but he’s too darn good at the whole Roman soldier thing. His men don’t follow Rome, they follow him, a fact which doesn’t escape the canny emperor, Marcus Aurelius. He sticks Maximus with the task of reviving Roman democracy, a noble idea that goes terribly wrong and lands our hero in the arena. Luckily, Maximus is a man who just needs a sword, and he’ll whip up a revolution before taking a permanent furlough. —E.R.
19. RoboCop, The “RoboCop” Trilogy (1987-1993)
Is he man or machine? Well, sort of both! RoboCop (Peter Weller) was once a mere mortal known as Office Alex Murphy until he sustained a life-threatening injury. Luckily, it’s the future and so the powers that be made him into RoboCop, the ultimate Detroit lawman. He’s a crime-fighting hunk of mighty metal that still has heart and a sense of humor—despite, or maybe thanks to his, well, robotic, delivery. —C.C.
18. Mad Max Rockatansky, The “Mad Max” Trilogy (1979-1985)
Max (Mel Gibson) started off as a nice fellow who was just trying to keep his family together as society crumbled around them. Apocalyptic landscapes have a way of wiping out wives and children, though, leaving a man with only motorcycle leathers, a Ford Interceptor and a sawed-off shotgun alone on the road to revenge. Despite his ruthless, snarling, survivalist exterior, Max has still got a soft spot for helpless things, and the scars and limp to prove it. —E.R.
17. Alice, The “Resident Evil” Series (2002-2012)
Alice (Milla Jovovich) is the Energizer Bunny of 21st century action. She just keeps going and going, tirelessly pumping bullets into zombies and Umbrella Corporation minions alike. Ever evolving, she’s adept at martial arts, packed with superpowers and a natural leader whose charm extends even to her own clones. She’s also possessed of an amazing wardrobe. We have no idea where Alice is going (or, frankly, where she’s coming from) but we can’t wait to see what else they throw at her. —E.R.
16. Lisbeth Salander, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2009)
Salander is the mohawked and body modded heroine of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium Trilogy; she’s a hacker who enjoys sticking it to the misogynists and bullies of the world, and she gives a mean revenge tattoo. Noomi Rapace of Prometheus fame blew the doors off “Dragon Tattoo” and its two follow-ups, and Rooney Mara took over as the bony badass in David Fincher’s 2011 remake. So far Lisbeth’s English-language future is hazy, but you can check out “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” in Swedish for your Salander fix. —C.C.
15. John Rambo, The “Rambo” Series (1985-1988)
Sylvester Stallone wasn’t content with one iconic character to be endlessly sequelized. He had to one-up Rocky Balboa by taking his disturbed and perpetually misunderstood war vet character from “First Blood” and drop him into the jungle to rescue POWs and singlehandedly win the Vietnam War for America. Sly set the bar high for ‘roided-out men to carry out missions wearing little more than a bandanna and patriotism. —M.E.
14. Sanjuro Kuwabatake, “Yojimbo” (1961)
Toshiro Mifune is perhaps the biggest action hero ever committed to celluloid. Among his sixteen collaborations with master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, “Yojimbo” is their chanbara masterpiece. Sanjuro pits two rival gangs against each other through careful subterfuge, but when it comes time to finally take out the trash, this ronin delivers, one deadly slice at a time. Mifune’s wordless expressions, posture and body language radiated more detailed character history than a 5-minute monologue, and paved the way for other wandering, laconic heroes like Mad Max and The Man With No Name. —M.E.
13. The Bride, “Kill Bill: Vol. 1″ (2003) and “Kill Bill: Vol. 2″ (2004)
If you’re buff and armed, it’s not hard to be tough. But try being shot in the head on your wedding day while you’re pregnant, then slipping into a coma, only to wake up during a sexual assault. Who besides The Bride (Uma Thurman) could crawl back from that and exact serious samurai-sword revenge on double-crossing assassin colleagues? —C.C.
12. Snake Plissken, “Escape From New York” (1981)
Not every man can be a hero. Sometimes, a guy just has to look out for himself, especially if he’s only got one eye to do it. That’s Snake. (We heard he was dead, but…) He has no starry-eyed sense of duty and no desire to save the world. Snake (Kurt Russell) doesn’t spend time moping about whether he’s strong or courageous enough. He just acts, scrapes the mess off his boots, and moves on. —E.R.
11. Lee, “Enter the Dragon” (1973)
Bruce Lee brought kung fu to the U.S. with this, the first American-financed movie in the expansive genre. As a Shaolin-trained martial artist, his Lee is not only well-versed in the ways of hit-chop-pow-kick-boom, he’s also got a rich, gooey spiritual center that enables him to beat every bad guy that comes at him. He takes them all down during a martial arts competition on an island controlled by a drug lord, as all such islands are. —M.E.
10. Iron Man, The “Iron Man” Series (2008-2010) and “The Avengers” (2012)
What’s better than a high-tech superhero who rockets through the atmosphere and shoots missiles from his hands? One who’s also a billionaire, bad-boy genius who excels at wickedly irreverent repartee. This ladykiller played by Robert Downey, Jr. also appears in 2012’s ensemble actioner “The Avengers” and has a third solo movie slated to open May 2013. —C.C.
9. Sarah Connor, “The Terminator” Series (1991-2003)
The patron saint of mama bears, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) could have done a lot of things differently. She could have ignored the sexy time traveler, used protection while sleeping with him, or even decided to give baby John up for adoption. Instead, she willingly embraced the role of Mother to Humanity’s Savior, transforming herself into a lean and mean guerilla fighter, determined to teach John the ways of warfare. It’s too bad she didn’t stop to bake him cookies once in awhile, but she takes knives and bullets for him, and that’s much cooler. —E.R.
8. Batman, “The Dark Knight” Trilogy (2008-2012)
Forget about Bruce Wayne. He died that fateful night at the opera, right beside his parents. There is only Batman, the angry, grieving shadow played by Christian Bale who will always save Gotham from its worst elements and impulses, and who will never bend or crack his personal code of defense. (No guns. No killing. No exceptions.) He’s a character that’s moved beyond origin stories, powers and special skills, and right into the realm of symbolic. We don’t need to know who Batman is—just that he’s out there, fighting on our side. —E.R.
7. Terminator, “The Terminator” Series (1984-2003)
Good or bad, Terminators never quit, and this franchise might not, either. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a bad Terminator in the first film and a good Terminator in the second, and there are also other kinds of Terminators like the T-100 that can turn itself into liquid and the scary T-800 models that’s just an endoskeleton and… yeah. You get the idea. It’s possible the only thing that could stop these unstoppable cyborgs is a bad box office. —C.C.
6. Harry Callahan, “Dirty Harry” (1971)
As cold and unforgiving as his legendary .44 Magnum, Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is the quintessential rogue cop, whose sarcastic quips and Ray-Bans inspired 40 years of imitators. He’ll do whatever it takes to protect the innocent and punish the guilty, even if it means putting his foot (very firmly) down on a suspect. But don’t let the steel jaw fool you. This is a cop who agonizes over every lost case, becoming that much meaner the next time around. —E.R.
5. Indiana Jones, “Indiana Jones” Series (1981-2008)
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, both at the height of their creative powers, decided to craft the ultimate Saturday matinee hero for today’s, well, 1980’s audiences. Globetrotting, grave-robbing college professor Dr. Jones (Harrison Ford) had brains as well as a bullwhip, combined with little patience as demonstrated in the famous “shooting the swordsman” gag. Not to quote the advertising or whatever, but if adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones. —M.E.
4. John McClane, “Die Hard” Series (1988-2007)
The ’80s had their fair share of gun-toting hero cops, but what makes McClane stand out from the crowd is he’s not some unkillable hyper-buff pituitary lunkhead. He’s just a regular dude who smokes too much, gets winded and cries when pulling shards of glass out of his bare feet. Bruce Willis makes taking out terrorists without getting his ass shot off look like hard work, proving he who has the most wisecracks has the last laugh. Yippy-ki-yay, motherf**ker. —M.E.
3. Jason Bourne, The Bourne Trilogy (2002-2007)
Matt Damon’s sensitive take on Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac CIA hit man was a post-Bond creation made in the shadow of 9/11. The realistic approach to the spy genre even eventually influenced Daniel Craig’s more serious take on Bond, making him the first “post-Bourne” 007. Damon’s character became a more relentless, hard-charging robot in the sequels, but the original makes you feel for a guy rediscovering his own sense of self after being trained as a government murder machine. Oh, and car chases? He’s got that covered. —Max Evry
2. Ellen Ripley, “Alien” (1979)
Ellen (Sigourney Weaver) is one hardcore space jockey who goes toe to, uh, hideous claw-thing with the icky H. R. Giger-designed Xenomorphs. When she’s not blowing away hideous creatures that want to impregnate her with their disgusting, chest-bursting spawn, she’s chilling with her cat Jones. That’s just how she rolls. —C.C.
1. James Bond (1962-2012)
However you prefer your Bond—stirred with a Sean Connery brogue, chased with a dash of Roger Moore, served by Pierce Brosnan or shaken by a pair of bulging Daniel Craig biceps—you can’t help but admit that no action hero looks better in a well-tailored suit with a martini in his hand. —C.C.
Also check out: The 25 Action Movie Stars at Screencrush.com
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