From Indiana Jones to John McClane to John Wick, action heroes have always fascinated cinemagoers. The actors behind these heroes test the physical limits of their bodies to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. From Tom Cruise’s insistence on performing his own stunts to Keanu Reeves’ dedication to training, the greatest action stars always find a way to make the outlandish seem plausible. This is a list of the best of the best to ever kick butt and take names!
Jackie Chan Mixes Action With Laughs
Jackie Chan made waves in the United States with the sleeper hit Rumble in the Bronx in 1995. A few years later he broke out big with the action-comedy Rush Hour, a massive hit that spawned two sequels.
Chan continued to leave his mark with action comedies, often pairing up with other up-and-coming stars like Own Wilson (Shanghai Noon) and Jennifer Love Hewitt (The Tuxedo). In more recent years, Chan has taken more movie roles in his native China, but the impact that he has left on American cinema is undeniable.
Bruce Willis Was The Everyman
A seemingly odd choice to take the lead role of John McClane in Die Hard, Bruce Willis proved he could throw punches with the best of them. For many, his toned-down physique made him more relatable as an everyman, which contrasted with the beefed-up image of action stars at the time.
Die Hard, amazingly, still has sequels being made today, but Willis is no one-trick pony. Other action credits include The Fifth Element, Sin City, Armageddon, and The Last Boy Scout.
Tom Cruise Does His Own Stunts
Ever since he established himself as an action star in Top Gun, Tom Cruise has starred in hit after hit after hit. Talking about hits, did you know he famously does most of, if not all of, his own stunts?
Several of his films, most recently Mission Impossible: Fallout, have had to halt production so his injuries could heal. Now nearing 60 years old, it’s easy to wonder if there will ever be a time Cruise stops putting his career before his body.
Sean Connery Is Immortalized As James Bond
Sean Connery might not have the same lengthy action resume as other stars on this list, but his iconic role originating James Bond earns him a spot. Even with Daniel Craig’s now legendary take on the role, many still argue that Connery is the greatest Bond ever.
The James Bond franchise isn’t the only thing on Connery’s resume, though. Thanks to The Highlander, The Untouchables, and Indiana Jones, he had a bit of an action resurgence in the ’80s as an older, more grizzled star.
Vin Diesel Is A Modern Action Icon
Vin Diesel seemingly came out of nowhere in 2001 as anti-hero Dominic Toretto in The Fast and the Furious. The role came one year after he became the breakout star of Pitch Black, a minor hit that established the character of Riddick.
In 2002, Diesel cemented his reputation as an action star with XXX. Today, all three franchises are still going strong with Diesel in the lead roles. A ninth Fast and Furious movie is on the way in 2021, XXX: Return of Xander Cage came out in 2017, and a fourth Riddick movie, Furya, is currently in production.
Milla Jovovich Fights The Supernatural
Model turned action star Milla Jovovich has built her career on kicking the butts of the undead. After making her action debut in The Fifth Element, she quickly established herself as a force to be reckoned with by fighting zombies in the Resident Evil franchise.
Since the first Resident Evil film was released in 2002, the franchise has earned more than one billion dollars in worldwide grosses. In 2006, Jovovich turned herself into a vampire with the slick action film Ultraviolet. Most recently she turned into the villain in the reboot of the Hellboy franchise.
Clint Eastwood Belongs On The Mount Rushmore Of Action Stars
Legendary actor Clint Eastwood would easily be one of the faces on the Mount Rushmore of action stars if there was one. Originally breaking out as a western star in A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Eastwood eventually transitioned to more modern fare.
In 1971, Eastwood starred as Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry. The movie was such a hit that four sequels followed. Later in his career, Eastwood stepped behind the camera and began directing.
Keanu Reeves Is Smarter Than He Looks
Thanks to his role as Ted in the Bill and Ted franchise, it’s easy to mistake Keanu Reeves as just another pretty face. That perception began to change in 1991 when he made his action debut as Johnny Utah in Point Break.
Three years after Point Break came out, Reeves established himself as a legitimate action star in Speed. Since then he has led multiple franchises including The Matrix and John Wick, both of which are currently in production on their fourth films.
Harrison Ford Is As Tough As They Come
Few actors have been a part of as many profitable action franchises as Harrison Ford. Breaking out as Han Solo in the Star Wars saga, Ford quickly stepped into the driver’s seat as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Los Ark.
In the ’90s he continued running the show as Jack Ryan in several films. As the century turned he returned to the familiar roles of Solo and Jones as franchise nostalgia became the trend in Hollywood.
Mel Gibson Made Being Crazy Cool
A complete unknown when he made his debut as Max Rockatansky in Mad Max, Mel Gibson became an instant action star. He then solidified his standing playing the crazy sidekick to Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon.
Both franchises had multiple sequels, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy Gibson. In 1995 he stepped behind the camera to direct Braveheart, a historic epic that would go on to win him several Academy Awards.
Arnold Schwarzenegger Will Always Be Back
Still one of the biggest action stars in the world today, Arnold Schwarzenegger got his first big role in The Terminator as the T-800. The bad guy was so popular that when T2: Judgement Day came out, he became the good guy.
Arnold would go on to dominate the ’80s and ’90s with classics like Predator and True Lies. Recently, he’s had action resurgence, starring in several films with a more old-school, down and dirty feel — a sharp contrast to the superhero films dominating the market.
Sylvester Stallone Never Stopped Fighting
Stepping into the limelight as Rocky Balboa in 1975, Sylvester Stallone quickly transitioned from Oscar nominee to action legend. First Blood was released in 1982, jump-starting one of the most prolific runs of hit action films ever.
The movies that followed First Blood were countless, but we’ll try to name a few — Cobra, Tango and Cash, Demolition Man, Judge Dredd, and Daylight. In 2010, Stallone got the old school back together, writing and starring in The Expendables, a film that saw him team up with the action stars of yesteryear to take down a modern threat.
Jason Statham Has Gotten More Popular With Age
Jason Statham took the road less traveled to action stardom. He started off with small roles in Guy Ritchie films like Snatch before finally landing a franchise of his own with The Transporter. While The Transporter films were minor hits, they were enough to establish Statham as a box-office draw.
Statham then started on taking more supporting roles, even becoming the villain for Fast 7. His take on Deckard Shaw was so popular, the character was turned into a good guy and given a spinoff movie with Dwayne Johnson.
Sigourney Weaver Fought Multiple Aliens
Not many actresses get a chance to headline their own action franchises. We’ve already discussed Milla Jovovich, but we wouldn’t be doing this list justice if we didn’t include Sigourney Weaver — the original action heroine.
Weaver first fought an alien in Alien, a moody sci-fi horror film directed by Ridley Scott. James Cameron took over directing duties for Aliens and transformed the franchise into action, turning Ripley (Weaver) into an alien-fighting machine. Weaver was so convincing as an action heroine she was even nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars.
Will Smith Proved He Was More Than Just Funny
Known best in the early ’90s for hip hop and the television show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it wouldn’t take long for Will Smith to step into the action arena. In 1995, he was the co-headliner of Bad Boys, a franchise so popular a third movie came out in 2020.
Smith followed the first Bad Boys with Independence Day, Men in Black, I Am Legend, and I, Robot, proving just how charismatic he was.
Kurt Russell Is Still Going Strong
Kurt Russell may not be a leading action star anymore, but he’s still finding ways to take down bad guys. In 2015, he joined The Fast and the Furious franchise as Mr. Nobody, a shadow operative waging a secret war.
Before going fast, Russell was leading his own action films, including Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. In the ’90s he further tested his action chops in Soldier and Stargate.
Chuck Norris Is Timeless
Chuck Norris was so popular as an action star that he literally turned into a viral joke on the internet. Making his name in movies like The Octagon, Missing in Action, and Code of Silence, Norris didn’t really become an action icon until he starred in Walker, Texas Ranger on CBS.
The ridiculous show turned Norris into a Texas ranger who knows martial arts and uses his skills to help take out the bad guys. Late in his career, Norris joined Sylvester Stallone as a member of The Expendables franchise.
Liam Neeson Has A Very Specific Set Of Skills
In the ’80s and ’90s, Liam Neeson played around with the idea of becoming an action star, but nothing ever materialized. Then George Lucas cast him in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and everything changed.
Before long, Neeson was the go star for action films, starting in 2008 with Taken. Taken 2 and 3 followed, as well as Non-Stop, A Walk Among the Tombstones, The Grey, The A-Team, and Uknown. Neeson may have been more than 50-years-old when he finally broke out his fists, but we’re glad he did.
Steve McQueen Was The King Of Cool
Few action stars were bigger in the ’60s and ’70s than Steve McQueen. If there was a movie with an iconic car chase, you can bet he was in it. Even today, the best of McQueen’s action movies still blow us away.
Some career highlights for McQueen include The Magnificent Seven, The Towering Inferno, The Great Escape, and Bullitt. In 1967, he was even nominated for an Oscar for his role in the action-drama The Sand Pebbles.
Bruce Lee Brought Kung Fu To America
Without the success of Bruce Lee in the United States, we likely never would have seen the likes of Jet Li or Jackie Chan. Lee was a brilliant actor and fighter, finding acclaim for several action roles.
Lee’s two biggest movies were Enter the Dragon and Fists of Fury, both released in the early ’70s. Tragically, Lee passed away in 1973, making his film career short. Today, Lee’s legend lives on and his influence in Hollywood has only grown stronger.