I thought we’d put together a list of the all-time greatest action movie heroes; no superpowers, just good old-fashioned ass kicking skills. 7 Days. 70 Action Heroes.
Arnie, Sly, JCVD, Scott Adkins, Bruce and more all show up on the most comprehensive list we’ve ever compiled. I’m sure we’ll have forgotten somebody but hey, you can’t win ’em all!
Today we start with numbers 70-61 and authors featured are Stef Loisios, Lee Golden, Helen Gynell, Chad Law, Stephen Ball, Adam Martin, Alex Hush and myself.
Thanks to all our contributors for making this possible.
70. Korben Dallas
Movie: The Fifth Element
Actor: Bruce Willis
Korben Dallas never wanted to be the man who must save the world. He had his own problems and a train wreck for a personal life. Hell, he only cared for his cab license points, until the day that the circumstances forced him to rise up and be the hero. He did it and he did it with style. Making wisecracking quips with every chance he got, while blasting bad guys.
If John McClane and Joe Hallenbeck had a relative in the future, then it must be Korben Dallas.A hero for the future, coming straight from a classic hero family line.
Author: Stef Loisios
69. Liu Jian
Movie: Kiss of the Dragon
Actor: Jet Li
For a lot of American moviegoers like me, the 1998 blockbuster, Lethal Weapon 4 was our introduction to martial arts action superstar, Jet Li. His career would ultimately become a highlight for many a fan with DVD distributors releasing his films internationally online with HD renditions of classics from distributors like Dimension, Dragon Dynasty and Hong Kong Legends as Li’s crossover would soon catapult him in stardom through some of his most memorable performances, including none other than the 2001 Chris Nahon-directed action classic, Kiss Of The Dragon.
The film sees Li in the role Liu, a Chinese intelligence agent assigned to France to assist Inspector Richard (Tcheky Karyo) and his unit of police stationed at a hotel waiting to apprehend a crime boss named Mr. Big ahead of a drug deal set to take place. However, the second Liu walks in, the red flags are already setting off and before he knows it, Richard reveals himself as Big’s contact, killing him in cold blood whilst failing to take out Liu before he escapes with his life. Liu is now on the run with a corrupt high-ranking French cop and his men on his tail and almost no one to turn to for help until he meets Jessica, a prostitute with whom Liu eventually finds much more in common than he initially thought. The two make a reluctant deal for her help clear his name in exchange for getting her daughter back from under his far-reaching grip. The clock is ticking though, and with three lives now at stake, the ball is in Liu’s court to use his deadly skillset to set the wrong things right.
Li wrote the story for this movie and as it turns out, he was also perfect for the lead role, presenting just the kind of leading man starpower required for a film of this caliber; on top his action star credentials. Kiss of the Dragon became more of a character thriller than anything else, revealing layers to Liu’s personality that we could relate to, especially in his scenes with Bridget Fonda who plays Jessica, who is essentially the heart and soul of this film. The two have an awkward chemistry when they first meet, but the bond grows only closer as the film moves forward and it all pays off, right down to the climatic fight finale in Richard’s police station.
Of course, we could also ramble to no end about just how amazing the action is, with Corey Yuen at the helm. Having worked with each other before, it’s pleasing to see these two collaborate so well in designing the fights, and it’s not just all about our protagonist doing contemporary kung fu super heroics and punching and kicking. Sure, we see some spectacle, but it’s not ham-fisted and cheaply written in. There’s a method to Liu’s masterful style of combat rooted in Chinese medicine and physiology that makes him a certified killing machine, which makes it all the more delightful to watch Liu do what he does considering the odds, in addition to Richard’s cruelty, cowering and hubris.
Kiss Of The Dragon a truly, artfully delivered and thrilling story of good and evil, centered on one man’s stoic journey of love, honor, redemption and self-discovery through sacrifice. The level of danger exhibited here almost perfectly sculpts the nature of Li’s character and humanity, giving us a reason to care about our hero’s mission and why he fights in the first place, and exemplifies just why it is folks like screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen are good at what they do on paper.
Come to think of it (though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel this way before) I would go so far as to suggest that Kiss Of The Dragon is my absolute favorite Jet Li film of all time next to Unleashed. Everything from the story and character development, to the poetic fight finale between Li and fight duo Cyril Raffaelli and Dider Azoulay, the music and performances from Fonda and Karyo and the recapitulating track by Massive Attack toward the end credits, are all qualifiers on this behalf. Point in fact, it’s films like Kiss Of The Dragon that make me want to go to the movies and enjoy some of the most pleasing moments on the big screen – moments that makes you cheer and cry with tears of joy, moments that can either anger you or make you laugh, essentially bringing you along for the journey, which seldom happens at the movies.
This is what good writing and directing does, as well as good acting, and in that respect, Jet Li completely owned this character. Suffice it to say, I would have loved a sequel to this film just to see where a character like Liu Jian could go from there. Even at the end, we still don’t know anything about his background as much as it is all a mystery while the film focuses on where it needed to be from A to Z, and I wasn’t bothered at all with this after enjoying such a fantastic film. Granted however, and if Li’s current health weren’t an issue, if Besson and Kamen or another screenwriter were to revisit this character for a continuation of Liu Jian’s story in some capacity, I would not argue.
Author: Lee Golden
68. Prisoner KSC2-303
Actor: Sakaguchi Tak
My college experience wasn’t a lot of fun, though I did have some good memories. I was a member of a cult genre club that followed sci-fi, games and anime, and it was through my membership there about fifteen years ago that one of ours bought a VHS tape of a little-known Japanese flick called Versus, directed by Kitamura Ryuhei. I saw a snippet of it in passing but it never quite caught onto me until I came upon a point in my life where I needed an outlet to deal with personal hardship and heartbreak.
So, cult Asian movies on DVD became my thing and so did my patronage of franchises like Tokyo Shock and online stores such as HKFlix.com and YesAsia.com. It’s also how I ended up buying multiple copies of Versus in various versions between Region 1 and Region 2-coded single and double-disc units. Why? Well, even for thinly-budgeted zombie action slashers with performances that often dove into delightful improv amid all the gonzo plot development and gory imagery, It is just THAT good, and would ultimately embody the epicenter of my appreciation for chambara-style Japanese action for my generation, in addition to actor and lead star, Sakaguchi Tak.
The film doesn’t bear any names to reference its characters, including Sakaguchi whose role goes by none other than Prisoner KSC2-303. A sequel to late 90’s zombie slasher, Down To Hell, Versus takes off with our prisoner and his inmate buddy escaping through the woods while still in shackles as they set off to a rendezvous point where they meet up with a ragtag squad of Yakuza led by an eccentric knife wielding lieutenant, and it isn’t long before tensions increase and no one likes each other. Things eventually get worse when a mysterious young woman (Misaka Chieko) being held captive is pulled from the backseat, and our hero is instantly displeased with the situation. Soon enough, someone gets a bullet to the head resulting in a Mexican standoff with all guns drawn, and it is only seconds later that the same dead body suddenly awakens.
The Yakuza focus their fire on the undead body at hand while our hero and the girl escape back into the woods, ensuing a manhunt for both which takes the fight into haunted forest where our characters are confronted by an army of undead rising from the dirt below. Of course, at the center of it all is our hero prisoner whose chemistry with the girl is nothing short of stiff while she continues to care for him, knowing almost full well what lies ahead in a story that jumps back and forth between two different periods, setting up an explosive finale of big guns, bigger bullets, and an epic sword duel between two warriors where only one can emerge as the victor.
While Sakaguchi wasn’t a very good actor at this time despite having done a few stints in film, his performance served its purpose, lending an air of unwritten charm and humor to his leather-jacketed tough guy exterior, and Misaka’s role certainly helps. The overall theme we get from his character is, to simply put, a tough guy with a really vague past and a potential darkside. He doesn’t believe in hitting women, but will knock a chick unconscious for her safety before he fights anyone, and he’s the last person you would expect to be sentimental which brings just a little more humor to his character development. With this in mind, it’s not until much later in the second act before going into the third that we begin to care about him more, fully engaged in hero mode with a missing eye, locked and loaded as he confronts actor Sakaki Hideo who plays “The Man”.
Sakaguchi carries himself quite well through all of the action in most of the shots he is seen with choreography by longtime collaborator and friend Shimomura Yuji, taking on numerous elements that comprise a lot of what we have come to know in action stardom. Even Kitamura himself has often lent the design of Sakaguchi’s to the credit of a few known Hollywood movie characters, namely the Terminator and Kurt Russell’s memorable role as renegade savior Snake Plissken in the Escape movies; Point in fact, if you own a double-disc set of this film containing some behind-the-scenes featurettes, you will see segment on set where Sakaguchi demonstrates several gun poses modeled off of classic action movie actors and director like Mel Gibson and Chow Yun-Fat. It’s a pretty funny moment and very indicative of just how much fun this cast and crew had on the set of this film.
Versus is a definitive look into the mind of a director who once was told that there was no money for the kind of movie he wanted to make. It was also the start of an exciting an new era of Japanese action going into the new millennium, and Kitamura’s career has grown ever since, with productions having gotten bigger and bigger with a roster of actors between Japan, the U.S., and several parts of Asia. That said, Sakaguchi shares quite a chunk of this legacy, having acquainted himself so well with the film festival scene in a role that has since spawned a cameo appearance in a short film Kitamura directed a few years thereafter, and the hopes of bringing the character back for a Versus sequel. Unfortunately though, with all the talk of Sakaguchi’s retirement after he finishes with Shimomura’s latest directorial gig, Re:Birth, any chance of a Versus 2 doesn’t seem likely to happen, which is depressing.
Versus may not be an action packed blockbuster that takes itself seriously, but it offers plenty of reasons to care about the characters, to laugh often and be entertained. And with this, Kitamura and Sakaguchi have made a great pairing in bringing us a classic, with a slate of colorful and unique characters and a brilliantly vague approach that never really makes it clear just which side it is you should root for until the very end.
I sincerely hope that Kitamura follows this up somehow, even if it means recasting the role or introducing new ones to this universe. Versus is a true benchmark of cult fandom for Japan and fans all around, with a lead actor whose signature performance leaves a huge mark in history that further validates what makes Japanese action cinema so awesome.
Author: Lee Golden
Actor: Jenette Goldstein
Too seldom are women with real muscles used in Action Movies. Women are relegated to victims or decoration. “Private Vasquez” from Aliens was a welcome change. Vasquez was a no-bullshit soldier–She talked the talk and walked the walk: “I only need to know one thing . . . where they are!”
She was cocky, and brave as hell. No double standards here. She was the first ‘man’ in, and the one who knew they should keep some bullets. We had no doubts about her abilities.
HUDSON: “Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”
VASQUEZ: “No, have you?”
BAD ASS. When can we see more like her?!
THIS is what women want to see in Action Movies.
Kudos to Jenette Goldstein for making the role so convincing.
Author: Helen Gynell
66. Axel Foley
Movie: Beverly Hills Cop Trilogy
Actor: Eddie Murphy
Detective Axel Foley is arguably Eddie Murphy’s most iconic role but it wasn’t always so. Originally Sylvester Stallone was going to be cast and although that would have been awesome, Eddie Murphy ended up being the perfect choice.
He made Axel an extension of himself and his wise-cracking attitude was a breath of fresh air.
Axel Foley. Just the name itself brings to mind images of sunny California scenery, dark and grimy Detroit nights and guns, guns, guns. As a member of the Detroit P.D., Axel always seemed to find himself in Southern California on some case-or-other, always with his trademark laugh, big grin and uncanny ability to wind up in a gunfight.
Make no mistake; while Axel is always adept with his fists or his quips, it was always at his best when shooting at multiple bad guys in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise. This motor-mouthed, smooth-talking, quick-witted detective was always in the middle of the action and despite his propensity to clown around, it was his action scenes, be it being involved in a crazy shootout at villain Victor Maitland’s palatial estate, taking down Maxwell Dent and Karla Fry at Dent’s oil field, or launching a missile at a Wonder World kiosk, that makes Axel Foley, an action icon.
Authors: Stephen Ball & Eoin Friel
Actor: Guy Pearce
Picking up where Snake Plissken left off, Lockout introduced us to Marion Snow. (Director James Mather told me the name Marion was inspired by Marion Mitchell Morrison aka John Wayne).
Snow is an ex-government agent who was convicted of a crime he did not commit and then given the chance to earn his freedom by rescuing the President’s daughter from a maximum security prison in space.
While in the prison, he began a search to find his imprisoned friend Mace, in an attempt to clear his name. He is a total throwback anti-hero.
A good man put in a bad situation that retains a sense of humor throughout the entire film. He also smokes – something that has not been popular since 2079.
Smart, tough as nails, handsome and heroic, Snow may very well be THE epitome of the action hero.
Author: Alex Hush
64. Johnny Utah
Movie: Point Break
Actor: Keanu Reeves
Well, for starters, Johnny Utah is an “FBI agent!” Something Keanu Reeves as the actor who plays Johnny Utah famously proclaims at one point during the movie. But there’s more to Utah than that of course. He’s human, an all-American of sorts, and “takes the skin off chicken” yet loves doughnuts. He played football for the Ohio State Buckeyes (so he’s a Midwesterner like myself) and planned on a career in football but due to a knee injury missed his window to the NFL. Luckily for us, this led Johnny to become an FBI agent and thus leads him to sunny California where he quickly goes undercover as a surfer to try to catch a group of bank robbers posing as ex-presidents that are believed to be surfers. Yes, you read that right.
It’s the type of thing that could sound ridiculous when reading or in any pitch meeting but instead, for my money, created one of the greatest testosterone driven action movies of all time (and naturally was directed by a woman – the great Kathryn Bigelow of ZERO DARK THIRTY fame). POINT BREAK has everything… football, skydiving, bank robberies, surfing, hand to hand, gunfights, you name it. It’s an embarrassment of riches. And that’s all thanks to Johnny. He’ll do anything to get his man. Even lie to his girlfriend about his parents being killed like hers were to try and get close to the robbers/surfers. But he doesn’t do it lightly.
He feels bad about it in the end and it comes back to haunt him. That’s because he’s human. His football knee injury even comes back to haunt him at one point when trying to chase the elusive bank robber Bodhi. He’s tempted by Bodhi, the other robbers and their way of life. Who wouldn’t be? Johnny is human. And that’s what makes him great. I remember seeing POINT BREAK at the theatre as a kid and, at that time, there was no one less likely it felt to become an action star than Keanu Reeves. Most, at that time, knew him from BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE of all things.
Well, with PB, SPEED, THE MATRIX, The MAN OF THAI CHI and the recent JOHN WICK, Keanu of course proved me and everyone wrong. He’s an action hall of famer now. Johnny Utah was the start of that and a classic in its own right. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that without POINT BREAK and Johnny there would be no FAST AND FURIOUS franchise. I knew everything that was going to happen when watching the first FAST basically just because I am and always have been such a POINT BREAK fan. I like to think there’s a little bit of Johnny and POINT BREAK in every action script I write so… on behalf of Universal and the rest of the FAST team, Johnny Utah…thank you.
Author: Chad Law
63. John Mason
Movie: The Rock
Actor: Sean Connery
Played by Sean Connery in Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), former SAS Captain/MI6 agent Mason is a different breed of action hero.
If James Bond was incarcerated and has his involvement denied by his government, he’d be John Patrick Mason.
Supposedly responsible for hiding provocative evidence and being the only person to escape Alcatraz alive, he is called in to help the United States in trying to take back Alcatraz from rogue U.S. Marines with VX gas. Due to his knowledge of the tunnels underneath the island prison, he accompanies an FBI chemical weapons specialist and a U.S. S.E.A.L. team only to be the last line of offense.
Being incarcerated, it has not dulled Mason’s skills when it comes to combat. Able to kill with most firearms and his bare hands against seasoned Marines.
Also, his driving skills are a mix of reckless and precision in one exciting car chase scene. Not only are his combat skills are great, but he is intelligent referencing classic literature and being a smart Alek.
John Mason isn’t talked much about these days; he may be elderly but he hasn’t lost his edge or spirit.
Author: Adam Martin
Apart from John Rambo, Rocky Balboa and Marion Cobretti, Sylvester Stallone has many other cool heroes under his filmography action legend belt.
One of those is John Spartan. At first he seems like the typical archetype tough as nails supercop, who doesn’t play by the rules and will stop at nothing to catch the bad guys.
But he comes with a twist…
John Spartan is an analog clock set in a digital age. He is a Hard “R” rated hero in a future PG world ruled by fanatic PC pansies.
Think about it for a while and how this film essentially predicted the future; the PG-13 and Politically Correct craze that plagues many of today’s action movies.
If Marion Cobretti was the cure for the disease known as crime, then John Spartan is a cure for crime and this PG/PC craze. He is always there to show how things should get done, so it’s up to a maniac to catch one.
If that doesn’t make him an all-time classic hero character, then I don’t know what will.
Author: Stef Loisios
Without question, the martial arts action genre has produced some of the most memorable idols and screen fighting personas of all time, with various regions sporting their own celebrities who have grown to accumulate immense star power for their respective eras. Some are shorter than others, but even a single standalone film can be a milestone achievement worth noting as a potential starter. Actor and stuntman Johnny Tri Nguyen is a prime example of this, with under a decade of acting stuntwork between Vietnam and America before landing huge success at home in Charlie Nguyen’s 2006 period drama, Dòng Máu Anh Hùng (a.k.a. The Rebel).
In the film, Nguyen plays Le Van Cuong, an agent for the French secret police in French-occupied Vietnam in 1922, who falls for the daughter of a rebel leader whilst coming to terms with his own conflictions and identifying where his allegiances truly lie. The film came out at a time when Thai action star Tony Jaa was rising significantly following the release of his 2003 breakout hit, Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior before the two would ultimately clash fists and feet in the 2005 action adventure down under, Tom Yum Goong (a.k.a. The Protector), and considering Nguyen’s own screen fighting prowess and potential, Dòng Máu Anh Hùng certainly could not have come at a better time, especially for a role for which he was so well suited and the stellar cast he shared the stage with.
Nguyen also helped write the film in addition to designing the film’s dynamic fight choreography, ultimately achieving for the Vietnamese martial arts style, Vovinam, what actors like Jaa or even Jeff Speakman accomplished for their respective styles in their film. In essence, you could even say he captured the overall spirit of the of the film through Vovinam, aside from its entertainment value, which also deems Nguyen as someone whose regional recognition as a film star was really deserving of a much larger audience, in my opinion.
All in all, not only does Dòng Máu Anh Hùng grants Nguyen his shining moment as an action hero, but it does so with the kind of captivating drama and chemistry that so makes Nguyen and actress Veronica Ngo one of the most awesome on-screen couples ever to kick ass together, even reuniting a few years later in the 2009 cop thriller, Clash. I love Nguyen’s work and what he contributes to the genre, and I absolutely hate the fact that he’s only co-starred in one Bollywood action film since his most recent collaboration with Charlie’s 2013 movie, Bụi Đời Chợ Lớn. And no, I’m STILL not going to see it online, because that’s not the way Charlie or Johnny would have wanted us to see it. I don’t like the fact that it was censored, but leaking it didn’t do me any favors, and I pity anyone who actually watched it in that condition, regardless of your opinion of its watchabilty without the finishing touches.
Johnny Tri Nguyen is a genuine talent that needs to be nurtured and respected by his fans, and his role in Dòng Máu Anh Hùng certainly puts him high on my list of favorite roles. He’s a good actor, a damn good martial artist and a terrific film professional, and I really hope he and Charlie find better prospects outside the restrictions of Vietnamese censors to help bring more magic to screen.
P.S.: If you haven’t seen Dòng Máu Anh Hùng, OR Clash for that matter, just know that that rock you’re living under isn’t doing you any justice.
Author: Lee Golden
Stay tuned tomorrow for numbers 60-51.