Big thanks to Ed Friel, Sean C.W. Korsgaard, Duvien Ho, Jason Pluscec and Alex Hush for their contributions.
Actor: Russell Crowe
Maximus Decimus Meridius is a respected general in the army of Imperial Rome. The dying emperor Marcus Aurelius wants him to become Protector of Rome, a de facto emperor until it transitions back to being a Republic. This does not go down well with the emperor’s corrupt son, Commodus, who murders his father and usurps the throne. Viewing Maximus justifiably as a threat, he orders him and his family to be killed. However, Maximus escapes, and rushes back to his family in Spain, but finds them crucified in front of the family home. In his grief and despair, he eventually is captured by slave traders and is forced into becoming a gladiator. Fate leads him back to Rome, where he faces combat in front of the new emperor.
Sir Ridley Scott directs this film with his usual visual panache, but it is the storytelling that is so compelling here. Russell Crowe gives one of the finest performances of his career as the gladiator who must avenge his family’s honour. Crowe is so great at roles that require toughness and emotional sensitivity at the same time. You are shouting “Maximus, Maximus!” along with the crowds right from the get-go. Maximus is a fearless fighter, but during the daunting gladiatorial contests in Rome’s legendary Colosseum, he also demonstrates how he became a high ranking general. His leadership skills shine through as he marshals the other gladiators into a single column to confront and destroy the opposition. Crowe also successfully shows Maximus’ fearfulness as he schemes with the emperor’s sister, Lucilla (beautifully played by Connie Nielsen) to unseat Commodus from his stolen throne.
The interplay between Maximus and Commodus in this wonderful picture is something I love watching repeatedly. Commodus is creepy and weird, yet you feel an element of compassion for this unloved misfit. Joaquin Phoenix was amazing in the role. But the movie belongs to Maximus, and to Russell Crowe, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his memorable and moving portrayal of the general who became a slave, who then confronted an emperor.
Author: Ed Friel
19. Casey Ryback
Movies: Under Siege & Under Siege 2: Dark Territory
Actor: Steven Seagal
Picking a favourite Steven Seagal character was a tough one; yes, he plays exactly the same role in every movie but Hard to Kill, Above the Law, Marked for Death and Out for Justice are all quality action movies so it was hard to pick which character was his most iconic.
Then I put it down to simple maths: Under Siege was Seagal’s biggest theatrical release and even got a sequel, therefore he’s his most iconic. It was released at the time when the Die Hard clone was the most popular of the action genres.
According to Wikipedia, Ryback was a little different from the usual Seagal characters; he is a Chief Petty Officer and former Navy SEAL operator turned chef but he just so happens to have top training in martial arts, explosives, special-weapons and tactics. Ryback is a master of unarmed combat, highly skilled with firearms, knives and other forms of combat… he also cooks.
We never really get to see how good of a cook he actually is but I’d wager even if the food was crap, you’d tell him it was fantastic just so he wouldn’t bitch-slap you to death.
Ryback was a decorated leader of SEAL Team Four until losing security clearance and demoted to chef aboard the USS Missouri. He struck his Commanding Officer after his SEAL team was killed because of poor intelligence.
At the end of the first film his former position was given back to him in a ceremony following his bravery.
Seagal would return to the character in the hilarious sequel; I don’t think it was meant to be a comedy but it sure is awesome. We find out that Ryback is “The best there is” (naturally) and that he was an instructor at Fort Bragg. All this in-between baking pies.
There has been talk over the years of a third Under Siege movie and that it would possibly be based on a true story but sadly it never came to fruition and at this late stage it’s doubtful Ryback will be baking again any time soon.
Author: Eoin Friel
18. Frank Dux
Actor: Jean-Claude Van Damme
“You told me to use any technique that worked. Never to limit myself to one style. To keep an open mind!”
The appeal of Bloodsport and Frank Dux is twofold. The purported true story of a covert military operator who fights in secret no holds barred tournaments seemed tailor made for the big screen. Especially an 80’s, Cannon Films produced flick starring a then unknown Jean-Claude Van Damme.
While many of Dux’s military and martial arts claims have been debunked, the tale of an underground competition to find the world’s supreme warrior and fighting champion has entertained and influenced a generation. From video game Street Fighter to Mixed Martial Arts giant the UFC, Bloodsport’s world warrior, style vs style inspiration lives on nearly 30 years later.
In J.C.V.D.’s breakthrough and signature role, the Muscles From Brussels combined his background in karate, weight training and ballet to create a powerful yet graceful onscreen presence that more than made up for his lack of acting experience. As A.W.O.L. Air Force Captain Frank Dux, Van Damme puts his career and life on the line in order to fight in the Kumite, a full contact event held every five years.
With high kicks and the ability to do the splits at his disposal, Dux battles the best in karate, sumo and muy thai to try and be the best he can be while honoring his mentor and avenging fallen friends.
Whether enduring nearly inhuman physical training, doing the splits between two chairs, fighting blindly in the final match, running the streets of Hong Kong in a Mustard suit or telling another man “I love you my friend”; Jean-Claude Van Damme shows us how an action hero can be kick ass, yet sensitive.
Author: Duvien Ho
17. Alex Murphy AKA RoboCop
Actor: Peter Weller
Robocop – In the far off dystopian year of 2014, in a bankrupt and crime-ridden Detroit, newly transferred police officer Alex Murphy gets cornered, tortured and brutally murdered. For most men, this would be the end – for Murphy though, it marked the beginning of his one man war against crime as the walking, talking war machine known as Robocop.
Turned into the ultimate cyborg crimefigher by Omni Consumer Products, Robocop is covered from head-to-toe in armor making him nigh indestructible, and armed with a fearsome arsenal of weapons from his mighty Auto-9 hand cannon to the Cobra Assault Cannon, Robocop proves more than capable to bring law and order to the streets of Detroit almost by himself, at least until he runs into the machinations of his cooperate overlords at Omni Consumer Products.
Yet what ultimately sets Robocop apart as an action hero and as a franchise, is that the core of the character is his humanity. The Robocop films follow Alex Murphy as he fights for the soul of Detroit, as well as his own, and his greatest victories come not on the battlefield, but as he claims back what little shreds of his humanity he can. Though he faces an onslaught of villains, both man and machine, more often than not, it’s his human ingenuity, or even something as small as the ability to climb stairs, that saves the day. All the armor and weapons aside, Robocop is effective because of the man Alex Murphy is, and watching Murphy remind us all that he’s more than a machine may be Robocop’s greatest victory.
Robocop, the future face of law enforcement, with the body of a machine, the head of a man, and the heart of a hero.
Author: Sean C.W. Korsgaard
16. Bryan Mills
Movies: Taken Trilogy
Actor: Liam Neeson
Bryan Mills – Few bonds are as powerful as those of a parent and child, and hell hath no fury like a parent trying to keep their child safe from harm. Even with that in mind, Bryan Mills comes across as a force of nature that will stop at nothing to save his daughter, even before he’s cracked his first skull. It takes a special kind of badass to make your blood run cold with just a phone call, yet the now immortalized words of Bryan Mills carries that power, even before he spills an ocean of blood when the thug on the other end of the line fails to listen.
A CIA-agent estranged from his ex-wife and daughter for having spent more time on the job than with them, now retired, he struggles to make up for lost time and reconnect. When his daughter Kim is kidnapped by sex traffickers in Paris though, Bryan wastes no time putting his very particular set of skills to good use, with the Albanian Mafia getting a lethal dose of Schindler’s fist as he cuts a bloody swath across Paris to get her back.
It wasn’t just word play when I called Mills a force of nature either, as from the beginning, it is clear that there is no mortal force on Earth that will stand in the way of him saving his daughter. Whether it be gunning his way through a few of the gangs brothels and safe houses, or interrogating a gangster by electrocution, Mills attains a level of brutality that would give most action heroes pause. Despite this, Mills keeps his cool, and has a coy intellect and methodical approach, such as taking note of various verbal tics, that makes this less of a roaring rampage of revenge and more of a cat-and-mouse game where the predator has lost all patience with its prey. Mills is in total control of the situation from start to finish, and its glorious to behold.
Bryan Mills, stopping at nothing to keep his family safe, even if he has to make widows of half of Albania to do it.
Author: Sean CW Korsgaard
15. Paul Kersey
Movies: The Death Wish Series
Actor: Charles Bronson
As much as we all love The Punisher, there is one man who really is THE vigilante; played by the late, great Charles Bronson.
Paul Kersey is The Vigilante in the Death Wish series. Although the series does descend a little into parody with the last few movies, it started off as a brutal, realistic depiction of a man pushed too far. Kersey is a happily married, family man with a great career as an architect. All of that changes when his wife and daughter are brutalized by a group of thugs.
His wife is murdered and his daughter is raped, becoming catatonic. Kersey is devastated and waits for the police to bring the men to justice; nothing is done and Kersey is forced to take justice into his own hands. He is given a gun as a gift from a client from work and decides to dispense his own brand of justice. He begins to prowl the streets at night shooting any muggers, thugs or anyone else who has it coming.
After his first kill he isn’t exactly celebrating, he vomits and is filled with remorse; this isn’t a man who enjoys what he does, he does it because he feels he has to.
The most interesting thing about the character of Kersey is that he starts off as a gun hating liberal who is a believer in the justice system and the police. When they fail him and crime visits his home, his definition of justice rapidly changes. He essentially becomes what he hates the most and really is no better than the criminals he’s hunting, but that’s the point of the story. How far would you go to get justice when the system fails you?
In Death Wish 2, the story is arguably even more brutal with his housekeeper brutally raped and murdered. I find this one really hard to watch as it doesn’t shy away from showing the shocking violence. Kersey’s daughter is once again raped but ends up getting killed as she tries to escape.
Death Wish 3 is really more of an all out action movie and may arguably be my favourite of the series; simply from an action standpoint, Kersey becomes a one man army and the final 20 minutes are filled with explodey goodness.
Death Wish 4 & 5 are more standard action flicks abut are still a lot of fun. The message from the first few movies is completely gone but there’s still entertainment to be had.
Paul Kersey is played to perfection by Charles Bronson, making him a likable, family man pushed too far by a city overrun by crime and corruption. I rank him up there with Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry as one of the best movie characters of the 70s.
There is an interesting book about the making of the Death Wish series called Bronson’s Loose!: The Making of the Death Wish Films. It gives a great behind the scenes look at the making of the movies and an insight into the character of Kersey. You can pick it up on Amazon and it’s essential for any fan of the Death Wish series.
Author: Eoin Friel
14. Max Rockatansky
Movies: Mad Max Trilogy
Actor: Mel Gibson
In the roar of an engine, he lost everything, and became a shell of a man. A burnt-out, desolate man; a man haunted by the demons of his past. A man who wandered out into the wasteland.
When one thinks of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre of action films, there is only one name that comes to mind: Mad Max. It’s the only film series that entertains us with fast paced hardcore action while simultaneously delivering a powerful message.
When Mad Max first exploded on the screen 35 years ago, no one would have guessed that the character would survive this long. He is the personification of the “anti-hero”; a loner without a mission, a rōnin of the desolate future. Mad Max has become a household name that triggers memories of bone crunching, car smashing action that never lets up.
The Road Warrior is considered to be one of the finest examples of an action film that still holds up today. Mad Max is an action hero that everyone can get behind and for that reason he is definitely one of the best of all time!
Author: Jason Pluscec
13. Lieutenant Marion ‘Cobra’ Cobretti
Actor: Sylvester Stallone
Although not a massive box office success Cobra will always be one of Sylvester Stallone’s best movies.
Cobretti or Cobra as he is known is a cop who plays by his own rules and was essentially the Dirty Harry of the 80’s. As Sly never takes himself too seriously, the running joke throughout the movie is the fact that his first name is Marion; not exactly the most badass name but that’s why it works.
The film has a sense of humour and Stallone has never been cooler than in this movie. It’s very much of the 80’s with a lot of the movie coming across more as a dance video but it’s got a classic villain in the form of the Night Slasher, played with creepy relish by Brian Thompson.
The opening scene has Cobra foiling a supermarket hostage situation and he doesn’t even break a sweat. He even has a nice drink of Coors to demonstrate how cool he is.
I like how after Cobretti takes out the nutjob in the supermarket, he is questioned by the press on his use (or overuse) of force. He simply responds with “I used everything I had!”
Like every great 80’s actioner Cobra also has the obligatory shouty policeman and in this case it’s Detective Monte who is fed up with Cobra playing by his own rules.
Oh Monte, can’t you just accept that playing by his own rules ALWAYS gets results?
To this day it bothers me that we never saw a sequel but as it is, Marion Cobretti is a legend.
Author: Eoin Friel
12. Snake Plissken
Movie: Escape from New York & LA
A true anti-hero if there ever was one. Snake Plissken had a gruff voice, a pissed off demeanor and a whole lot of cool. He is a former Special Forces operator/war hero in World War III, turned criminal, after what he felt was a betrayal by the US government.
He doesn’t say a lot but when he does he means it. He doesn’t hold much dear in his life except for a code of honour. Snake was arrested in 1997 after breaking into the U.S. Federal Reserve in Denver, Colorado.
He was sentenced to life in New York maximum security prison, the entire island of Manhattan, surrounded by an impenetrable wall and left in a state of anarchy. At this time, Air Force One was hijacked and crashed into Manhattan, and the President was captured by the Duke of New York, the self-proclaimed leader.
Plissken was offered a full pardon for every criminal action he committed in the United States if he would go in and rescue the President. Many people thought he would be taller.
Author: Alex Hush
11. Sarah Connor
Movies: Terminator 1 & 2
Actor: Linda Hamilton
If there’s one thing Terminator 3 and Salvation lacked, it was Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor; I know she appeared on a tape recording in Salvation but that doesn’t count. Her portrayal as Sarah Connor became one of the best female movie characters of all time.
Connor starts off as a lowly waitress who has a pretty uninteresting life; this all changes one night when she is being followed by a man and decides to go to a nightclub called Tech Noir. There she meets a cyborg from the future (as you do) that tries to kill her. She’s rescued by a man called Kyle Reese who insists that he has been sent back from the future to protect her. He tells her that her son John will be the saviour of mankind against the machines.
*Interesting side note: John Connor is the saviour of mankind and his initials JC are the same as ANOTHER saviour: Jesus Christ. The Bible, keeping action alive for 2000 years!*
Needless to say, Sarah initially thinks Reese is a few cans short of a six-pack until the machine known as the Terminator starts to chase them again; it takes several gunshots to the chest which would kill a normal man and keeps on coming. She slowly starts to become convinced that just maybe Reese isn’t crazy. After Reese sacrifices himself trying to destroy the machine, Sarah is forced to terminate it herself changing from meek waitress into ass-kicker.
This change is incredibly apparent in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Linda Hamilton should have won an Oscar for her portrayal of Connor as this is a very different lady. Gone is the friendly waitress from 1984, say hello to the warrior woman of 1991. Connor is now a gun-toting, ass-kicking action hero. She knows what’s coming and will stop at nothing to protect her son.
She essentially becomes a Terminator herself by nearly killing Miles Dyson, the man responsible for the future war. She’s angry and bitter that nobody has believed her stories about the machine’s rampage in 1984, taking her frustration out on Dyson for what he might do.
When two new Terminators are sent back (this time Arnie is the nice one and Robert Patrick in the T-1000), Connor will at first refuse to trust the face that tried to kill her all those years ago. As the story progresses, the Terminator saves her life many times and by the end she has developed a rapport with the cyborg.
The way her character develops throughout the two movies is fantastic and James Cameron doesn’t get enough credit for it. Watching T1 & 2 on the same day is a great way to experience character development in an action movie done 100% right.
Her words at the end: “The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too”.