The only criterion for this list was that the film had to have minimal cross genre elements. So, I have discounted films like Robocop, Terminator 2 or even Indiana Jones. The other thing is that this is a list that I have created and is based solely on the films I love in date order. If you want to suggest anything else or dispute anything on this list, let me know.
1. Rambo: First Blood (1982) – one of the first true one man army action films but not just action candyfloss. The film provides a perspective on veterans by civilians and their place in society following Vietnam. Stallone’s John Rambo is a damaged soldier looking for connection in the real world. When he is rejected he reverts to his training and takes the war to small town America. The action is raw and brutal but its true impact comes at the end when Rambo breaks down and retells what has seen and been through. This is an action film with a message about ignorance and the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder.
2. Commando (1985) – A proper candyfloss action film and the second one man army film on this list. This film has no deeper meaning but is filled with some great set pieces and one liners. Schwarzenegger is on true muscle bound action hero form. The fact that his daughter has been kidnapped as leverage to assassinate a country‘s leader is completely immaterial. The plot is so thin but it all builds up to an amazing and ludicrous third act. Seriously, Arnie taking on an entire drug cartels army is awesome. The only thing that brings this down is Bennett, Arnie’s nemesis, who seems so out of shape next to Arnie that the final fight is a bit daft.
3. Lethal Weapon (1987) – The buddy cop film was already a staple by the mid-80’s; the sub-genre came to America with 48 hours in 1982. This was followed by a couple of other films in the genre but it wasn’t made really popular until 1987 with Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon. The previous entries had leant a little more towards the comedy and while fun they were throw away. Lethal Weapon took this to the next level by upping the violence and intensity, and wrapping around it the great pairing of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. The chemistry between the two is excellent and what drove this franchise for four films.
4. Die Hard (1989) – Possibly the best loved action film of all time. Die Hard was a game changer, it took the everyman hero of the 70’s and throw him into the over the top action of the 80’s. Based on the book “Nothing lasts forever” by Roderick Thorpe released in 1979. To me this film is almost perfect, Bruce Willis is excellent as John McClane and Alan Rickman is thrilling as Hans Gruber, the slimy international terrorist thief. This film was rightfully a break out for each actor and started the film description cliché “Die Hard in a …” of all the films on this list this is the one I have watched the most.
5. Tango and Cash (1989) – The second buddy cop film on the list. While Lethal Weapon took the genre pretty straight, Stallone and Russell take it full on action cheese. This film is pure dumb fun, the plot is basic and the action is big. Of the two Kurt Russel seems the more at home as the scruffy Gabe Cash while Sly Stallone sometimes feels a little awkward as the well-manicured Ray Tango. However, when that starts to fall away a little by the second act they fall into the roles brilliantly and the fun just keeps on coming. This is not going to win any awards but is perfect Saturday night pizza and beers action mayhem.
6. Hard Target (1993) – John Woo’s first American film and it had Jean-Claude Van Damme in it. Mixing the oriental directional style of Woo with Van Damme’s martial arts was a great idea and is brilliant fun. In a story about People being hunted for sport we get everything we would expect, slow motion, high kicks, dove’s and amazing action set pieces. This was at the height of Van Damme’s 90’s fame and is one of his best films. It also includes the brilliant Lance Hendrickson at his nastiest, as the main villain.
7. True Lies (1994) – Take Bond and make him an American Family man built like an Oak and you get James Cameron’s True Lies. This film demonstrates how far Arnold Schwarzenegger had come as an actor. He is charismatic and plays the roles of dull computer salesman and super spy well and with charm. He is also surrounded by a solid supporting cast from the sexy Jamie Lee-Curtis (I grew up when I saw that dance scene!), the entertaining Tom Arnold and the evil Terrance Malik. The comedy never over takes the action and the third act contains some of the best stunts you will see in any action film of the decade.
8. Goldeneye (1995) – One day I will get to cover James Bond on a couple of episodes but right now I need to admit, Goldeneye is my favourite bond film. This may be due to my age, I was 14 when the film came out, but Peirce Brosnan is my James Bond. I had seen some of the other films before this and was aware of Bond as a film series but had not been pulled into them until Goldeneye. You couldn’t avoid Tine Turner’s excellent intro song and the advertisements. This is one of the few Bond films I have seen in the cinema and I have loved it ever since. Also the game was awesome; let’s just not talk about some of the other Brosnan outings at the moment.
9. Bad Boys (1995) – The first of two Jerry Bruckheimer actioners on this list and the film that made the Fresh Prince a legit star. This film is great for two reasons, the first is the relationship between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, the second is the stylised action. Watching it now I will admit that some of the directorial choices date the film to the decade. This is small a minor complaint however when many of the other choices still stand up so well and the main cast are so good. It should also be noted that this is the feature directorial debut of Michael Bay; regardless of my feelings about his more recent Transformer efforts his style is perfectly suited for this action.
10. Con Air (1997) – I flip-flopped between this and The Rock to put on this list, both Jerry Bruckheimer films. In the end I decided to go with Con Air because it is slightly more fun and has the amazing John Malkovich as the main villain, Cyrus ‘The virus’ Grissom. Nic Cage delivers one of his more subdued performances amid some more flamboyant choices from the bad guys around him. However, it is clear that he is having fun; he is a pretty good action lead. The premise of the film is daft and some of the leaps in logic and credulity push the boundaries at times. However, the film is endlessly quotable and the plane grave yard sequence is so much fun and chock full of great moments.