Alrighty then, let’s take a look at the 10 greatest action heroes of all time!
Movie: The Raid Series
Actor Iko Uwais
From delivery man to cult film star, Iko Uwais’ career has been one of the much larger bright spots of the past decade or so for martial arts action cinema. Fans have poured in droves to see him at work since breaking out in the 2009 film, Merantau, which also solidly contributed much to the resurgence of the Indonesian action film industry in the last ten years. For this, we were eventually granted with a delightful re-approach by action auteur Gareth Evans for a script that found its way to a rewritten draft for a character that would ultimately emerge as one of the most electrifying protagonists in action movie history, Rama in the 2011 contained crime epic, Seruban Maut, a.k.a. The Raid, and by all means, the recognition and value here stand for much more than just entertainment appeal.
In the film, Rama is a rookie member of a tactical unit unwittingly caught at the center of a conspiracy that would ultimately put themselves in danger, outnumbered and cut off from any and all outside help as they fight their way through bullets, blades and fire in a Jakarta crime boss’s 30-story tenement building. From this, the story of the saga progresses onward with the immediate involvement of Rama as he looks to reconnect with his estranged brother, Andi, played by Donny Alamsyah, and The Raid soon evolves from a crime story to an intrinsic, two-movie character thriller that focuses on family, loyalty and one man’s search for ultimate justice beyond the law. Moreover, the two films most notably convey Rama through the underlying central theme of his life as a family man: a practising Muslim, which undoubtedly sets the stage for conflict and inner-turmoil for a man whose career has been nothing short of a rip-roaring trial-by-fire, with no choice but to adhere to his natural, most violent instincts in order to live.
By no means is Rama a violent man, although knows where he stands in the career he’s chosen. Between both films, the last thing he expected was to have to endure another mission that could endanger him, his wife and son and other good cops, as well as further diminish his chances at a normal life. And so with every last breath and every injury he suffers, he kicks, punches, chops, slashes, bashes and mutilates his way through the odds with methodical fervor and will, and the faith he stands by in the hopes that he will live to tell the tale.
Rama’s fortitude as a one man army doesn’t come without a price. He’s not superhuman and he knows he could die at any moment, but his faith plays a huge role in his character development aside from his formidable fighting skills, which is also beneficial in an age where bigoted, racist minds in the real world like to try and dominate the conversation on Muslims and violent extremism. Mind you, Rama probably isn’t the only heroic character among those that share his faith in other films, but there’s an undeniable connotation here that serves him well, further lit in part by the etymology his name bares in the roots of Hinduism.
Without a doubt, Evans himself has formulated an invaluable action hero that cinephiles can truly root for. He fights for his fellow man, he fights for justice, and like any action hero, he fights for love. And for all this, I don’t mind waiting another two or three years to see how it the trilogy finally unfolds.
Author: Lee Golden
9. Dutch Schaefer
Actor: Arnold Schwarzenegger
No list of great action heroes can ever be considered legitimate without the mention of Major Dutch Schaefer. Played by arguably the greatest action movie star of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dutch could be considered one of the greatest action heroes of all time.
I mean the dude lifts up a truck, kills tons of guys with guns and knives, and commands a group of macho special force ops guys. That’s right; he’s the alpha male of a group of alpha males. And if that’s not enough he not only uses his muscles, but also his brains and kills the galaxy’s ultimate hunter with a bunch of traps he puts together out of trees and ropes (eat your heart out Kevin McCallister).
Did I mention before that he kills the hunter, who was a giant alien that shoots lasers, has giant metal claws and can turn invisible? Dutch fights him mano-a-mano with his bare freakin’ hands! Combine all that testosterone fuelled awesomeness with some of the most memorable lines in movie history like “Get to the choppa!”, “Knock knock”, “Stick around” and the iconic and insanely badass “If it bleeds we can kill it!” you get one hell of an action movie hero.
Author: Mark White
8. “Dirty” Harry Callahan
Movies: The Dirty Harry Series
Actor: Clint Eastwood
There are few people cooler than Clint Eastwood in his prime and Dirty Harry remains one of the greatest cop movies of all time. He does all the things the PC brigade were so shocked at but the rest of us cheer for; shoot first and ask questions later. This caused a lot of controversy at the time which of course only made the film even more interesting.
Harry was the template of the action hero and here’s why:
He was always doing things his way, the loner cop who is constantly getting shouted at by the police chief/mayor/etc, but after everything he is always right. How many movies since have had a shouting police chief?
He is more focused than any other cop on the force. Because he doesn’t do things by the book, he gets the job done. He always gets his man!
He has the best one-liners of all time: “When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.”
And who can forget arguably the most quoted line in action movie history?
“I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
The role of Harry was originally written for John Wayne, but after reading the script he said the violence was unjustified and glorified. Frank Sinatra also passed on the role and although he would have been decent, he wouldn’t have matched Eastwood who OWNS the role and made it his own.
The fact it had 4 sequels (Magnum Force, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact & The Dead Pool) proves how popular the character is and even now over 40 years later Dirty Harry stands the test of time. The violence is very real and shocking; the villain in the first movie Scorpio played by Andy Robinson is scarily psychotic and sticks in your head long after watching the film.
So if you haven’t watched the Dirty Harry movies yet, you’d best get on that straight away. Go ahead, make my day…
Author: Eoin Friel
7. Ellen Ripley
Movies: The Alien Series
Actor: Sigourney Weaver
It’s a shame that there aren’t that many iconic female action characters but aside from Sarah Connor from The Terminator, no one comes close to the awesomeness of Ellen Ripley. Played to perfection by Sigourney Weaver, Ripley is the ultimate tough girl but also a maternal figure. In the first Alien movie, she and her crewmates are terrorized by a creature with a thirst for human flesh. It’s just a killing machine without a conscience. What is so great about the first Alien is that you are convinced that the hero will actually be Tom Skerritt for the first half. When he dies half way through the movie, you’re like “What?” and then the real protagonist is revealed.
The slow burn tension becomes unbearable and you really worry if Ripley will survive this ordeal. She eventually blows the alien out of an airlock into the depths of space and lives happily ever after… or not as the case may be…
Alas for poor Ripley this is only the beginning of her nightmare. When she wakes up from hyper sleep many years later, she agrees (for some reason) to go with a group of marines to rescue some Colonists. What ensues is a bloodbath where several of the marines are killed by not only one alien… but hundreds.
Ripley befriends a young girl called Newt who has survived for weeks after her family has been killed by these frankly awful creatures. Ripley essentially becomes her new mommy and will literally walk into Hell to rescue her at the end.
She faces off against the Alien Queen which is a monster unlike any we’d seen before; we also get to hear her say THAT line “Get Away From her you BITCH!” which has now become utterly iconic.
Aliens is actually my favourite of the series as it has more action than the others, but the first is just as good for different reasons.
The same cannot be said for part 3 which I actually dislike more than Part 4. Ripley has her head shaved and ends up on a prison planet and the film is really just unpleasant from beginning to end with some of the worst visual effects of the series.
Of course, the biggest shock was that Ripley actually dies at the end of this movie which to this day has scarred me for life. There have been drawings and stories released of the third movie’s original story which involved taking place on a planet made of wood which sounded far more interesting.
So Ripley dies, but what’s this? Ripley has been cloned 200 years later and has come back as a half human, half alien hybrid! It’s pretty silly but at least it does have some awesome gore and I do actually have a lot of fun with the movie.
Ripley’s personality is quite different from the other movies and rather than just wanting to wipe the aliens out, she feels like one of them and the film then goes extremely bizarre as we bear witness to the Newborn. Ripley decides it’s quite unattractive though and she blows him out of an airlock for good measure too. You go girl!
So that in a nutshell is the life of Ellen Ripley, one of the greatest action heroines who lived and died… only to live again fighting aliens.
Is her story over? Well not according to Neill Blomkamp, who has recently released artwork for a new potential Alien film featuring Ripley and Hicks. I have no idea how they could make it work but I REALLY hope they try…
Author: Eoin Friel
6. Mr. Lee
Movie: Enter the Dragon
Actor: Bruce Lee
Arguably the most important action star of all time, Bruce Lee paved the way with Enter the Dragon and took martial arts into the mainstream, especially with Western audiences.
His character known only as Mr. Lee is essentially a kung fu version of James Bond and is asked to spy on a reclusive crimelord called Mr. Han.
He takes part in a deadly tournament featuring the best fighters in the world where he meets new allies Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly); together they all work together to kick some ass and take down the vicious Han.
Lee never once loses his cool and takes on some classic opponents including Bolo Yeung and Bob Wall.
The climactic fight scene has become legendary as it features Lee facing off against Han in a hall of mirrors. It must have been a nightmare to film as we never do see a cameraman, which must have taken an age to set up.
Lee not only beats people up with style but also speaks great wisdom: “A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously.
A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.”
“Never take your eyes off your opponent… even when you’re bowing!”
Words to live by; there’s a reason that Bruce Lee is still talked about to this day and Enter the Dragon remains a classic of the genre.
Author: Eoin Friel
5. The Terminator
Movie: The Terminator Series
Actor: Arnold Schwarzenegger
Ok, so in the first movie he isn’t a hero but there’s no doubt he’s iconic and it’s arguably the first role you think of when you hear the name Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It’s certainly the role that made him a household name and made him THE biggest action star of the 80’s.
Although I prefer Terminator 2, the first movie is arguably the better film as it didn’t play it safe. Arnie wasn’t the good guy; he was a cyborg killer sent back from the future to kill a waitress named Sarah Connor. One day she would give birth to John Connor, the one man who would lead the humans to victory in the battle against the machines.
Arnold’s square-jawed looks were perfect for the role of the T-800 Cyborg; emotionless killing machines that “can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead”. It’s such a terrifying concept that this (almost) invincible machine could hunt you for the rest of your days and you will never be safe.
The way Arnold portrays the Terminator is monosyllabic and as Cameron himself said “Somehow, even his accent worked…It had a strange synthesized quality, like they hadn’t gotten the voice thing quite worked out”.
He also only had approximately 16 lines in the entire first film, which we’ve put together below:
“Nice night for a walk.
Nothing clean, right.
Your clothes, give them to me.
The 12 gauge auto-loader.
The 45 long slide with laser sighting.
Phase plasma rifle in 40-watt range.
The Uzi 9mm.
I’m a friend of Sarah Connor. I was told that she’s here.
Can I see her please? Where is she?
I’ll be back.
Fuck you, asshole.
Give me your address there.
He doesn’t need to say much to be a terrifying monster. Even after the machine has had its synthetic flesh burned off and the metallic endoskeleton is revealed, that is arguably when the Terminator is at its scariest. An inhuman robot with red glowing eyes and emotionless face just keeps coming, until it is eventually terminated by our heroine Sarah.
In Terminator 2 the role is reversed and Arnold’s T-800 has been reprogrammed to be the good guy to protect (the now teenage) John Connor from the more powerful T-1000 played to perfection by Robert Patrick. Arnold still plays the Terminator well with the robotic mannerisms, however it is played with a little more humour as the machine learns why we humans cry and smile.
Initially terrified at seeing the Terminator again, Sarah Connor eventually realizes that this T-800 will be a better father figure to John than any of her human boyfriends. “The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him, and it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die, to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.”
Once again the Terminator will never stop, however this time he will never stop to protect John from harm, rather than try to kill him. The role is reversed perfectly and although Arnold is still playing the machine, you begin to empathize with him and you’ll maybe even shed a tear at the end. “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do.”
In one of the greatest heel-face turns in all of fiction, starting in Terminator 2, several T-800 models have been reprogrammed to protect John Connor and humanity, rather than destroy them. Already programmed to learn and adapt to its surroundings, with access to full databases on combat and weaponry, the T-800 is as lethal as you’d expect something called a Terminator to be. In terms of weapons, the T-800 typically favors big guns ranging from shotguns to full miniguns, and can aim with such precision marksmanship as to be as capable of leaving no casualties as it is at piling body counts.
Arnold would return in the ill-advised Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines which really was more of a parody of the first two films and really lacked the feeling of genuine threat and desperation of them. It only really comes into itself in the last 20 minutes and the war against the machines finally begins. It’s a very sombre finale and it does work well, but overall it all feels utterly unnecessary.
The franchise would continue with Terminator Salvation which was a watered down PG-13 movie and didn’t star Arnold. It was met with derision from most fans and critics and was a failure at the box office. I actually thought the film was pretty decent with some good set-pieces but like Part 3, it lacked the feeling of desperation of the first two films and just felt like a futuristic action movie with characters you don’t really care about.
This summer Arnold returns to the role in Terminator: Genisys and whether that’s a good idea or not remains to be seen.
Author: Eoin Friel & Sean CW Korsgaard
4. Indiana Jones
Movies: The Indiana Jones Movies
Actor: Harrison Ford
Indiana Jones – I’m not even going to be coy with the introductions, you and I both know you started humming the theme song as soon as you read his name.
Inspired by the heroes of adventure serials of the 20s and 30s, the action heroes of their own day, Indiana Jones is one of the greatest heroes, action hero or otherwise, ever to grace the silver screen. Clad in the now iconic combination of khakis, leather jacket and a fedora, and usually armed with nothing but his trusty bullwhip and his even trustier wits, no obstacle can keep archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones from his destination, whether it be booby trapped temples or the entirety of Nazi Berlin.
Despite his roguish reputation, his chasing down of mystical artefacts and enemies ranging from Thuggee cultists to Nazi Gestapo agents, a large part of the charm of Indiana Jones is his everyman appeal, in that he’s a relatively normal person who finds himself caught in the middle of these schemes and plots, and gets to live the quintessential action hero fantasy – beat the bad guys, save the world, get the girl, and have an adventure while doing it.
Author: Sean CW Korsgaard
3. James Bond
Movies: The James Bond Franchise
Actors: Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, George Lazenby and Daniel Craig
Action heroes don’t get more iconic than Bond, James Bond. The British superspy is literally indestructible. Each actor who has portrayed him has brought something different to the party. Roger Moore brought suave English sophistication, laced with some dry wit. Live and Let Die and The Spy Who Loved Me are personal favourites. George Lazenby showed a knowing Australian swagger – and starred in what I think was one of the best James Bond stories: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Timothy Dalton was Serious Bond. He was an authentic spy, who felt every injury and displayed genuine emotion. Licence to Kill remains for me one of the most underrated Bond flicks.
Pierce Brosnan was all Irish charm, but by God do not mess with him – a total badass who created body count wherever he went. Goldeneye was his best, although that speed boat scene in The World is Not Enough was one of the finest action sequences in the entire series.
Daniel Craig is Depressed Bond. He is very much a mirror of our times: hard-bitten and cynical. You can’t argue with the box office, though: Skyfall grossed a staggering $1.1 billion in 2012, a year when Britain was very much in the world spotlight with the London Olympics and Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. Craig is a fantastic actor, one of the best to play Bond. But it’s okay to lighten up a little for the next one, in my opinion.
And finally, there is Connery, Sean Connery. There is no one to match his portrayal of the great spy. Utterly ruthless, but displaying a rugged Scottish charm that softens his harsher edges. There are so many great moments, but who can forget that brilliant scene in Dr. No? Professor Dent attempts to kill Bond, but his gun has no bullets left.
James Bond’s response exemplifies the supreme cool bad-assery that keeps us all coming back for more, now and in the future:
“That’s a Smith & Wesson. And you’ve had your six.”
BANG. You’re dead.
Author: Ed Friel
2. John McClane
Movies: The Die Hard Series
Actor: Bruce Willis
On Christmas Eve 1988, John McClane visited his estranged wife at her workplace at the Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles. What he wasn’t expecting was that “exceptional thief” Hans Gruber also planned on visiting the same Plaza. His agenda? To steal $640 million in bearer bonds and take the employees, including Holly, hostage, posing as terrorists to draw attention away from the theft.
Foolish Hans underestimates the baddassery of one John McClane who single handedly kicks the ass of all of Hans’ buddies, climaxing in Gruber taking flying lessons… without wings.
So what is it about McClane that makes him such an icon of action cinema? It’s quite simple: He’s human. He’s the everyman that we all can relate to; he’s got family problems, he smokes, he drinks and he’s even afraid of flying.
While the 80’s gave us classic characters like Rambo; they were invincible heroes, kinda like what we have today with superheroes. McClane bleeds, he cries and he feels like a real person. If you believe a person can and will get hurt, then you can empathize; so when McClane’s feet are bleeding, we damn well feel it with him.
Even in the direst of situations McClane has a one-liner or put-down for the bad guys who just never stand a chance against this everyday badass.
John McClane changed the action genre and paved the way for the 90’s era of action heroes, who were vulnerable and believable; a new era of action movies had arrived. Soon we’d get Die Hard on a boat (Under Siege), Die Hard on a Mountain (Cliffhanger) and many, many more.
Die Hard also spawned 4 sequels and admittedly in the sequels he does become more superhuman as the stunts become more outlandish, but that’s part of the charm. McClane’s banter with Zeus in Die Hard with a Vengeance is some of the best writing in action history, proving that Die Hard only really works when it’s done by John McTiernan.
As we’ve discussed a billion times before; in the fourth movie, McClane is slightly less interesting and more jaded. He’s lost that spark; he isn’t hung-over, he isn’t smoking and the dialogue just wasn’t as sharp. Sure some of the action scenes were fun, but it just didn’t feel like Die Hard.
I know people say they like to see that McClane has changed but that’s not the McClane audiences fell in love with and I just wasn’t as interested. This was Bruce Willis on autopilot which he’d been on for the past 10 years; sadly Part 5 was pretty terrible all round and there are still rumours of a part 6. If it does happen, someone give Bruce a kick up the ass and tell him to start trying again.
It’s actually because of Part 5 that McClane is at number 2 rather than numero uno; that honour belongs to…
Author: Eoin Friel
1. John Rambo
Movies: The Rambo Series
Actor: Sylvester Stallone
Rambo had to be number 1; why? Because his name is synonymous with “Action”. When you think of action, you think of Rambo. Notice in other movies when someone starts building up a body count someone says something like “Who do you think you are, Rambo?” It doesn’t get more iconic!
John Rambo was created by David Morell in the 1972 novel First Blood; Morrell said that in choosing the name Rambo he was inspired by “the sound of force” in the name of Rambo apples, which he encountered in Pennsylvania.
In late 1969, John Rambo was deployed to Vietnam where he was captured by North Vietnamese forces near the Chinese-Vietnamese border. He was held at a POW camp, where he and other American POWs were repeatedly tortured.
Rambo escaped captivity in May 1972, but upon his return to the United States, Rambo discovered that many American civilians hated the returning soldiers from Vietnam.
He, along with other returning soldiers, was subject to humiliation by anti-war protesters who spat at them and hurled insults when they came home. His experiences in Vietnam and back home resulted in an extreme case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
His training would be put to good use when he would visit a small town run by Sheriff Teasle who thinks Rambo is a drifter there to cause trouble. A battle of wits ensues and things rapidly spiral out of control, turning a small town into a war zone.
In the novel, the story ends in a very different fashion from the movie. A rather unlikable, smart ass Rambo is hunted by Sheriff Teasle after killing several local residents of a small town. Teasle and Rambo shoot each other and they both die… so no franchise there then.
That was similar to the original ending to the Sylvester Stallone starring movie First Blood, where he gets his friend Colonel Trautman to put him out of his misery. After various test screenings, audiences wanted Rambo to live and it just worked so much better.
In the movie, Rambo is a much more sympathetic character than in the novel, played to perfection by Sylvester Stallone.
What makes him an icon? Rambo was the ultimate One Man Army; at least he was in the sequels. In the first movie he’s just an ex-green beret who is pushed too far by a small town Sheriff.
This is a formula that would be used in countless 80’s action movies like Commando, where one man has to face impossible odds but eventually succeeds by blowing a lot of shit up. The fact that we got a sequel in 2008 that still made the character relevant for modern audiences shows how iconic he is and like John McClane, as soon as you say his name everyone knows who it is.
A lot of people misinterpret the Rambo movies as “God Bless America” style propaganda where it’s America the Superpower kicking ass.
This is of course bollocks, as anyone with half a brain knows the story is about how America mistreated its Vietnam Veterans. Being spat on at the airport after returning from war isn’t exactly saying “God Bless America” to me. Rambo himself says in the second movie “What do I want? I want our country to love us, the way we love it!”
Rambo would return for 3 sequels; First Blood: Part 2, Rambo III and Rambo. Part 2 is arguably my favourite of the series as I love the whole one man army scenario and Jerry Goldsmith’s bombastic score is the stuff of legend, especially the track “Escape from Torture”. Although lighter in tone than the first movie, it still deals with Rambo’s isolation from America and focuses on him rescuing POWs in Vietnam. He is not only trying to rescue these fellow vets but also trying to conquer his own demons.
In the third movie, which is quite underrated, the tone is once again lighter than the first movie but it still has enough action to be a worthy addition to the franchise.
Unfortunately, by the time the animated TV Series came out “Rambo and the Forces of Freedom”, the character had now become a joke and really was all about America kicking ass, completely missing the point of the original character.
The book was written at a time when America was still recovering from the Vietnam War and the story really brought the plight of the vets to the fore.
The most recent sequel, 2008’s Rambo returns the character to his roots; he comes full circle and realizes that he was a born killing machine. It’s what he knows and when he’s pushed… killing’s as easy as breathing.
It showed the harsh realities of life in Burma and didn’t skimp on brutality; it didn’t glorify the violence but really showed the awfulness of war. After the climatic gun battle in Burma, Rambo eventually returns back home as we see him walking down the driveway marked “R. Rambo”. He is home but with word of a Part V about to go into production, it sounds like Rambo may return to kick some ass for Last Blood.
Author: Eoin Friel
I hope you enjoyed this epic list; I think we might do the all time best action movie villains soon so stay tuned for that…