“I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate; it’s the sand of the coliseum. He’ll bring them death—and they will love him for it.”
With a few notable exceptions, epic films set in ancient Rome were hard to come by, and good ones even more so. This is surprising—the setting is perfect for an epic film with amazing fight sequences, political intrigue, rich story and lore, and strong characters. In the year 2000, before Lord of the Rings reignited our passion for epics, Gladiator filled that gap with an amazing film. Directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) and starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, and Connie Nielsen, this is a film that brings the expansive and powerful Roman Empire to life like never before. I won’t say it’s a perfect film—it has its flaws. It’s stuck in a weird spot between a political drama and an action movie, and there are a few scenes that place dramatic flair above realism. But Gladiator is just so entertaining that it more than makes up for its flaws.
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“Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe, very important.”
I’ll be honest: I initially didn’t want to include The Karate Kid on this list. Directed by John G. Avildsen (Rocky) and starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, and Elisabeth Shue, it follows the underdog formula popularized by Rocky, but brings it into the 80s with the now-familiar stereotypes: the everyman teenage boy, the evil bully, the sweet girlfriend, the parent who just doesn’t get it. On paper, it looks very cliche and much like the sea of other 80s teen movies. I didn’t want to like it. But on a recent viewing, I realized that The Karate Kid has actually aged very well. The dialogue, while cheesy at times, has moments of clarity and humanity to keep the movie grounded. The villains are surprisingly well-written in the end (especially with some of the deleted scenes). Daniel is just such a likable character that it’s very hard not to like him. Even the martial arts aspects are very down-to-earth and not overdone (with a few notable exceptions from sensei Miyagi). If you can look past a bit of 80s camp and stereotyping, this is a real gem of a movie that still holds up well today.
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“My mommy always said there were no monsters—no real ones—but there are.”
It’s rare that a sequel surpasses the original. Terminator 2 and The Dark Knight come to mind. I’m actually pretty new to the Alien franchise, but, after watching the second installment, I believe Aliens fits that bill too. Alien was a brilliant movie, but the sequel Aliens was phenomenal. Directed by James Cameron (Terminator 2, Avatar) and starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, and Paul Reiser, this is an action-packed sci-fi thriller that maintains the depth and suspense of the original but brings the energy up to the highest frenetic levels.
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“Come with me if you want to live.”
“Best action movie of all time” is a hotly-debated title, but it would be hard to argue that Terminator 2: Judgment Day is not in the top three. Directed by James Cameron (Aliens, Avatar) and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, this follow-up to the competent 1984 original was an ambitious endeavor. When it was made, it was the most expensive film in history, with a budget over ten times its predecessor. And it paid off in a big way. It made back double its enormous production budget and held the world record for highest opening-weekend gross of an R-rated film until 2003. This was the first sequel to receive and Academy Award when the previous installment had not even gotten a nomination, and it’s one of the most iconic and memorable action movies ever made.
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“Let’s just say that we won’t be short of Chunky Monkey for the next month!”
We’ve had cop movies, and we’ve had funny cop movies, but I can’t think of another quirky British parody of a cop movie, let alone one that’s so hilarious as this one. Hot Fuzz, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is at once familiar territory, parodying famous cop movies, and also delightfully different, set in a small British town in the country. The combination makes for one of the best parodies I’ve ever seen, and it’s a very good comedy in its own right as well. The Wright-Pegg team matured a lot since Shaun of the Dead, and the brilliance and execution of this movie mark a point when both truly hit their stride.
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“Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.”
If you’re looking for the best classic-era action film, this is it. North by Northwest, directed by master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo) and starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, may not be Hitchcock’s most thought-provoking film, but it’s certainly among his most entertaining. The action and suspense are top-notch—definitely not overdone like action movies today. Cary Grant delivers his trademark vintage-cool charm, and the script is full of iconic lines that make modern action flicks look painfully uncultured. This movie holds up very well today, even in the modern landscape of slow-motion quick-cut action sequences, and is universally loved by viewers—it’s one of the few movies to achieve a 100% rating on movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.
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“You can walk out of here or be carried out, but have no illusions. We are in charge. So, decide now, each of you. And please remember: we have left nothing to chance.”
Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan (Predator, The Hunt for Red October) and starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, and Bonnie Bedelia, is the quintessential action movie. I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan of the action genre, which is known for its contrived plots, shallow characters, and excessive fan service. Die Hard stands out for being a bit different. The imperfect and realistic character of John McClane keeps this movie tethered to reality much more than other action movies of that time, or since. That grounding is a big reason why the movie has stood the test of time and remains great even to this day.
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