The Top 10 Theatrical Action Stars of the ‘00s to Today!
So after much voting with The Action Elite’s followers as well as much sarcasm and bullshiting around, it was time to add up the votes and reach a final verdict on who was easily the best of the best stars for the Action genre. I tried my best to virtually please all of the crowds wether they be looking for a well-ranked martial artist or beloved actor who happened to be in many genre offerings. Let us begin the countdown!
10. DOLPH LUNGDREN
I had to choose an old-timer who was still making great efforts to remain relevant. Most of Planet Hollywood took a while to make comebacks but were inconsistent for most of this era. Steven Seagal didn’t care anymore and Jean-Claude Van Damme was either doing too many cameos or still not getting his ego under control to where it affected his overall quality of his film work.
You might be thinking “WTF?” as Dolph’s offerings have primarily appeared on TV or been DTV but you’re only half right as most of his films still got released in Indonesia, Belgium, South Korea and United Arab Emirates. These offerings included: Hidden Agenda, Detention, Direct Action, The Russian Specialist, Missionary Man, Icarus: The Killing Machine, One in the Chamber, The Package, Battle of the Damned, Skin Trade, Don’t Kill It and Dead Trigger. In addition to that, Dolph also showed rather solid restraint at directing, writing and even appeared on various sitcom and action TV shows (sometimes even in recurring roles) and showed that he was able to acknowledge his low-brow works of art while also demonstrating a surprising sense of humor.
While he was a little underused in installments of Stallone’s franchises like Creed 2 and The Expendables, he still easily held his own scene-stealing persona and still wasn’t afraid to take any risks as nothing scares Dolph after all.
9. LIAM NEESON
Neeson was no stranger to action and war epics especially being in big-scale and mainstream films like Excalibur, The Mission, Next of Kin, Darkman, Crossing the Line/The Big Man, Rob Roy and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Regardless, he was still primarily known for his great roles in drama films like Husbands and Wives, Schindler’s List and Before & After as opposed to the next Action dude.
So after reasonable historical/war era flicks like K-19, Gangs of N.Y., Kingdom of Heaven and Seraphim Falls and a surprising scene-stealing villainous role in Batman Begins, he reignited his tough-guy image as well as the revenge drama with the surprise hit that was Taken and its inevitable sequels.
The rest was history as he then got offers to play many anti-hero and hard-boiled roles that would have otherwise gone to Charles Bronson, Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson back in the day. These included action/mystery/crime thrillers like The Grey, Non-Stop, Run All Night, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Battle for Incheon and The Commuter. Sure, he was the only real thing keeping The A-Team film together and was in a bunch of voice-over, supporting epic film and cameo roles. But you’re def going to remember his hardcore new image that he molded into many viewer’s minds and screens versus the other crud, and therefore he’s surely merits being somewhere on this list.
8. and 7. DWAYNE “THE ROCK” JOHNSON / JASON STATHAM
These guys were going to make the list since they are obviously instantly recognizable stars of the genre. However, they both had plenty of like-it-or-hate-it installments and overblown franchises to wade through before truly hitting their marks and evolving as action stars and as performers in general. Both performers kept being compared to Vin Diesel but they were definitely far more likable for various reasons.
Johnson might have asked to stop being called The Rock but to some that’s all we will ever be able to call him. He had 50/50 success but he rose above doing silly stuff like The Scorpion King or G.I. Joe in exchange for doing sci-fi disaster, buddy comedies, crime dramas and gritty one-man-army films like The Rundown, Walking Tall, DOOM, Gridiron Gang, The Other Guys, Faster, Snitch, Pain & Gain, Central Intelligence, Rampage and Hobbs & Shaw.
San Andreas, Hercules and Skyscraper had their moments but mostly outstayed their welcome and were too much for their own good. Despite a few lesser comedy movie and TV appearances, I would argue that he is still a welcome presence once he stopped trying too hard to be the next big thing and started showing what was a mash-up of his wrestling persona and his own charismatic self.
On the other hand, Statham was mostly doing gangster roles but slowly showed he had the authority figure and streetwise comedic chops in films like Ghosts of Mars, The One, The Italian Job, Chaos and War before maintaining his own in franchises like The Transporter and Expendables. He finally showed his true dramatic range and chops by the time he unleashed Killer Elite, Safe, Parker, Homefront and The Mechanic films on us. Boy, were those epic!
Showing a mix of the manic comedy in Spy and Hobbs & Shaw definitely help his case but he too has evolved, even somewhat faster than The Rock did. He just needed better material before he really got going. Either way I can’t have Hobbs or Shaw without the other so both these badasses are getting listed together much like Laurel and Hardy or Riggs and Murtaugh.
6. KEANU REEVES
The ‘90s had ended but Keanu still was picking oddball roles and since that’s sorta his style, he eventually picked a few gems. He might never be that deep of an actor but often your film is better off just letting him do his usual quirks. The Watcher was a contractually obligated serial killer actioner with some easy thrills but he honestly did really well as the fascinating yet morbid villain. The Matrix sequels were like-it-or-hate-it but he still showed fascinating high kicks and natural might as Neo Anderson. You can knock those films all you want but he was The One and still had some rather note-worthy fights including Part 2’s chateau sword duel and Part 3’s final Agent Smith fight.
He may not have been the John Constantine portrayal that any of us truly wanted but in all fairness, it’s not like he wrote it, he only did what that version of that adaptation demanded and that was being a stern, adaptive demon slaying exorcist. He made brutal waves in the Training Day type film, Street Kings, where he played easily his best cop role since Speed as the one, the only grey-moralistic Tom Ludlow, who struggled to play by the rules of the law and find out which dirty cops wanted to frame him for petty gory murders.
47 Ronin wasn’t anywhere near as epic as it could’ve been but was an undemanding swordplay that he had no trouble doing more of. He directed and starred as the head antagonist in Man of Tai Chi, which had a Hong Kong supporting cast and brought back awesome memories of Best of the Best.
The Day the Earth Stood Still and Siberia had detractors but he definitely held his own in either and the Johnny Mnenonic-esque Replicas was far from the disaster that all the critics made it to be. Now, currently back in the game with the inevitable unstoppable John Wick franchise, Reeves is definitely not holding back anymore and, while sometimes uneven, is bound to keep finding some reasonable hits each decade.
5. GERARD BUTLER
After some supporting roles in the likes of Shooters and Reign of Fire, Butler showed that he was game for swordplay-savvy dramas like Beowulf & Grendel and 300. I could personally do without RocknRolla, Gamer and The Bounty Hunter as those were just plain mediocre but he wasn’t bad in them per say. He actually was quite brilliant in Shattered, Law Abiding Citizen, Coriolanus and Machine Gun Preacher.
While he appears to get any role that otherwise would’ve gone to Statham or any other Scot/Brit actor, he still has plenty of the appropriate charm, macho energy and foulmouthed one-liners that are perfect attributes for any action leading man. Geostorm was hardly the disaster it was made to be and allowed him to shout sci-fi exposition while fighting evil scientists on-board a space station. Hunter Killer was an acceptable submarine genre flick for him and Den of Thieves deserves the sequel it is getting because he did add some appropriate presence as another vice cop in over his head. He can keep playing Secret Service Agent Banning in more Olympus Has Fallen sequels all day and be just fine because who could’ve honestly brought the thunder to that fun role?
Like some of the others here, he may have had some obstacles but he is overall a welcome star in any Action film and can clearly hold his own.
4. KARL URBAN
It’s about time I got a cool New Zealander on this list! Urban appears to have also been another cool talent that no casting agent knew how to fully utilize at first. That’s their loss as by the time he got to play the deadly title role in Dredd, it was clear that everyone was missing out on the awesome energy he could bring to all these heroic and villainous roles.
He didn’t get as much to do in the Star Trek redux films, Riddick franchise or even Thor: Ragnarok but what you did see make the final cut were a few stand-offs and appropriate characterizations. He stole the show no problem in Bourne Supremacy, RED and Acts of Vengeance while also having worthwhile lead heroic roles in DOOM and Bent. If you watch the extended cuts of the Lord of the Ring sequels, he effortlessly brings a key heroic swordsman to memorable awareness, which is great as this was otherwise a minor character in the books. He got to show off more knife and sword slashing in the otherwise generic Pathfinder as well.
He’s been back and forth between the cinema and television but your movie is better off with him in a primary role than without it as he has the muscle and natural everyday well-realized. The fact that you see his face photoshopped on many fan-made film posters only better proves my point.
3. FRANK GRILLO
We have countless A-listers trying out the Action star routine but it’s hard to find someone who really stands out or truly convinces. We’ve got Tom Cruise and Christian Bale overexerting themselves; Markie Mark, Anthony Mackie, Josh Brolin, Chris Evans, Ray Stevenson, Matt Damon, Chris Pine, Idris Elba, Ethan Hawke and Thomas Jane all doing genre installments but either never consistently or hit-and-miss.
Enter Frank Grillo, who always delivers even if the movie itself doesn’t. I’m sure many sensed a rising star in him when they saw his TV shows appearances on The Shield, Prison Break and The Kill Point. Following a cool blink-and-miss action scene in Minority Report and minor Horror films, he demonstrated acting range and the appropriate physical attributes in Pride and Glory, Edge of Darkness, Warrior, The Grey and End of Watch.
After showing off more heroic, anti-hero and villainous roles in Collision, Homefront, Capt. America 2, Wolf Warrior 2, Wheelman, Beyond Skyline, Point Blank, Reprisal, or The Purge franchise there’s little he can do wrong. He relentless in nailing down any role he takes on, even if it’s a non-action drama, he just has the look and believability of whatever you say he is. Maybe it’s because he has a early Tom Berenger type essence, maybe it’s the Bronson type brutality or that he has more charm than whatever Hollywood pretty-boy claims to have. Either way, chucks love him, guys want to be him and I can’t blame either party as whenever I Google the adjective “cool action star,” a picture of him emerges.
2. DENZEL WASHINGTON
It was about time I got a bigger A-list name on here but once again anyone who entered the Action arena either never stayed long emough (i.e. George Clooney, Angelina Jolie) or wasn’t that convincing (i.e. Jamie Foxx, Channing Tatum, Paul Walker, Leo DiCaprio). I mentioned Tom Cruise earlier but he has been doing the spy movie genre to death and often gets saddled with lame scripts, crap CGI or overblown excess of various sorts. Now, that I fired off shots at all these elite people (I’ll with with their fans’ hate-mail later!), let me get on with listing the many ways that this particular awesome A-lister is worthy of inclusion on here.
Mr. Washington is one of the few people who I struggle to find anyone talk smack talk about on the interwebs. Maybe it’s because many feel like he’s one of the few who deserve the countless awards he’s gained over the years. Maybe it’s because hems a generally likable persona who’s shown various range. Maybe it’s because he can honestly do no wrong at this stage of his career.
Denzel started off the ‘00s with the memorable villain Det. Harris in Training Day, the struggling anti-hero title role in John Q and made the one-man-army revenge genre popular (4 years before Neeson’s Taken) with a critically detested yet rather huge audience favorite as bodyguard John Creasy in the epic Man on Fire. Denzel even got martial arts training from Bruce Lee’s buddy Dan Inosanto for The Book of Eli, and is supposedly playing the title role in yet another rendition of MacBeth!
Even if you find some of his latest offerings not exactly noteworthy, his very presence is never one worth negating. Rounding out action-crime, everyday tough guy roles in Deja Vu, Inside Man, American Gangster, Unstoppable, Safe House, 2 Guns and yet another cool version of The Magnificent Seven. He can easily wipe the floor with Neeson, Cruise and even Keanu Reeves’ franchise characters with both installments of his version of Robert McCall in the vicious yet satisfying Equalizer films. Denzel defines perfect acting so what better way than to do in Action yarns? You just can’t go wrong with the best of both worlds.
1. DONNIE YEN
Alright, here we are and after careful elimination, I think I found the perfect candidate that most everyone can agree on. Jackie Chan didn’t have anywhere near the hit films or successes he had in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and I would clearly be blinded by nostalgia as opposed to quantity/quality if I put him on here for this era just because The Foreigner was surprisingly awesome after a row of forgettable entries. Jet Li was clearly disinterested in his various American productions and was mainly part of ensemble casts. Tony Jaa was rather uneven or in cameo roles following his Ong-Bak franchise. There were a few cool indie martial artists but they didn’t have enough films or presence to qualify for an entire decade. Who was worthy of having the torch be passed on?
None other than Donnie Yen of course! His abilities, no-nonsense persona and resume were mostly dynamite from the get-go. He’s been pretty cool in both Hong Kong and American productions. You can instantly rewatch the Ip Man trilogy no problem. SPL: Kill Zone, Flash Point, Special I.D., Kung Fu Jungle and Big Brother are all organized and notable stuntfests. He steals the show easily in Highlander: Endgame, Blade II, Shanghai Knights, Star Wars: Rogue One and xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. Hero, An Empress and the Warriors, 14 Blades and The Lost Bladesman are beyond worthy historical epics.
He’s had a few overrated or laughable entries like The Iceman and Monkey King franchises but overall that’s extremely few and far between that he’s ever let his fanbase down. You want a pure martial artist as Number One on the list and you got it!
Hope you were entertained by this list and good day, sir! These are the only worthy Action candidates after all.