The greatest performances in action movie history

The action genre is much more than just guns, blood, and explosions. It's a genre with a long, storied history that stretches back to 1903, when audiences sat on the edge of their seats for The Great Train Robbery. Since then, moviegoers have been treated to cinematic jewels from Bullitt and The French Connection to Die Hard and John Wick — and with so many amazing films, the genre is naturally filled with some truly fantastic performances.

The action genre isn't known for netting actors a lot of major awards, but it actually boasts a long history of allowing talented stars to sink their teeth into some incredibly meaty (and muscly) roles, letting them explore serious ideas like courage, trauma, and grief. Plus, looking cool while mowing down bad guys is way harder than it sounds. From early classics to modern-day masterpieces, these are the greatest performances in action movie history.

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982)

Despite his checkered filmography, Sylvester Stallone is a fantastic actor. Roger Ebert compared him to a young Marlon Brando, he earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in Creed, and he's blown critics away in movies like Rocky and Copland. And while things get silly in the Rambo sequels, Stallone is at the top of his game in First Blood, playing a Vietnam veteran with a gentle face, a hard body, and a scarred mind.

The 1982 version of John Rambo is far different than the action star stereotype he'd later become. Stallone plays him like a child, a soft-spoken man who struggles to make eye contact. This Rambo is tired. He's been through hell and can't find any peace. So when an overbearing sheriff (Brian Dennehy) tries to run him out of town, Stallone's face is filled with hopelessness and bitter disappointment…until the downtrodden vet morphs into a knife-wielding killing machine. When he's hunting the cops in the Oregon woods, all the gentleness is gone. There's just a cold, quiet rage as he tells the sheriff, "I'll give you a war you won't believe."

The key to Stallone's performance is the eyes. At times, he plays Rambo like a trapped animal, pupils wide, groaning like a terrified dog. Other times, his eyes narrow with steely determination. He didn't start this war, but he's going to finish it. Stallone barely speaks throughout the film, but he conveys so much with a look: pain, horror, animalistic rage. And all those pent-up emotions come exploding to the surface in the film's final moments. Surrounded by armed men and memories of Vietnam, Stallone tosses aside his "he-man" persona and turns into a shivering, sobbing wreck, giving us the rawest and gutsiest moment of the man's career.

Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon (1987)

Despite the controversy surrounding his career, there's no denying Mel Gibson's acting abilities. The man is especially skilled at blending craziness, machismo, and comic timing. For proof, look no further than Lethal Weapon, possibly the best buddy cop movie ever made. Directed by Richard Donner and written by Shane Black, this 1987 action hit finds Gibson playing Martin Riggs, an out-of-control detective with a death wish. From the moment he staggers onscreen — drinking, smoking, and completely naked — we know he's a wild man.

When Riggs confronts a gang of coke dealers in a Christmas tree lot, Gibson's face contorts with homicidal rage, he laughs like a lunatic, and launches into a Three Stooges routine before screaming for a bad guy to kill him. It's intense stuff. Riggs is the polar opposite of Max Rockatansky, and Gibson has the crazy dial turned all the way up. But between the shouting and shooting, Gibson makes Riggs a fully fleshed-out human being, giving us a hero who spends his night contemplating suicide. As his nostrils flare and tears roll down his cheeks, we totally believe Gibson is wrestling with whether to end it all. Nobody cries like Mel Gibson.

But when he's on the job, Riggs is arrogant, swaggering with confidence in every situation, even as his eyes are bugging out of his head. Gibson is having the time of his life here, ecstatic in every action scene and moving like a psycho Bruce Lee, dropping crooks with brutally graceful jiu-jitsu moves and capoeira kicks. With his perfect mix of emotion and insanity, Gibson creates a character we're rooting for the whole way, even though we'd never want to be his partner.

Natalie Portman as Mathilda Lando in Leon: The Professional (1994)

You often find amazing child performances in dramas or horror films, but Natalie Portman did action movies proud when she played the precocious Mathilda Lando in Luc Besson's Leon: The Professional. The 11-year-old snagged the part with a brilliant audition and, starring alongside Jean Reno and Gary Oldman, stunned critics and audiences with a performance that walked an incredible (and sometimes uncomfortable) line between an adult attitude and childlike innocence.

Portman is so confident as Mathilda that it's almost impossible to believe this was her very first film. She's absolutely secure lying behind a sniper rifle, picking an unsuspecting target in the park below. When she falls back on a bed and tells the simple-minded assassin Leon (Reno) that she loves him, it's straightforward, matter-of-fact, and free from childhood whimsy. She's so in control, her onscreen presence so mature, that it makes the scenes where she breaks down genuinely shocking.

Perhaps Portman's most famous moment from the film comes when she's walking down an apartment hallway, sees that her family has been murdered, and goes to Leon's door for help. She stands outside, quaking in fear, worried the killers will come for her next. It's downright disturbing to see this little girl fear for her life. And Portman pulls on the heartstrings in her final scene with Leon when she tells her father-savior goodbye (yeah, this is a very weird movie). She's not even a teenager yet, and you can see the seeds of greatness here. One Oscar and multiple movies later, Portman is still going strong.

Geena Davis as Samantha Caine/Charly Baltimore in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

The year 1996 was pretty significant for the action genre. Audiences were treated to big blockbusters like Independence Day, Mission: Impossible, The Rock, and Twister. Lost in the shuffle was The Long Kiss Goodnight, an underrated gem penned by Shane Black and starring Geena Davis as a woman with two wildly different personalities. On one hand, you've got Samantha Caine, the world's sweetest housewife with a great big blank where her memories should be. And then there's Charly Baltimore, a sexy assassin buried deep inside Samantha's consciousness, an Incredible Hulk ready to take control from Bruce Banner.

Thanks to a plot involving secret identities and amnesia, Davis gets to have a whole lot of fun playing what are basically two separate characters. Samantha is wide-eyed with earnestness, a happy homemaker who begins remembering incredibly weird talents after a car wreck. She accidentally discovers she has impressive knife skills, and when she's given a sniper rifle, she automatically puts it back together, no thinking involved, resulting in a look of total confusion on her face.

And then there's Charly, a stone cold killer, and when Davis goes dark, her entire persona changes. Samantha's insecurities disappear, and Davis becomes way more assured, dominating everything and everyone in her path. But the real brilliance of Davis' performance comes when she blends Jekyll and Hyde together, mixing Samantha's compassion with Charly's confidence. Honestly, Davis deserves more praise for her work, and if you want to see her acting abilities at their peak, then this quirky little thriller is must-watch material.

Uma Thurman as Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill (2003, 2004)

Make a list of the greatest action heroes of all time, and Beatrix Kiddo definitely makes the cut. She's skilled with a katana, thirsty for revenge, and played to absolute perfection by Uma Thurman. It's impossible to picture anyone else in the role. That's partly because Quentin Tarantino created the character with Thurman in mind, but it's also because Thurman is an amazing actress who explores every emotion known to man over the course of two gory films.

What's really great about Kill Bill is that Thurman does completely different things in Volume One and Volume Two. The first chapter follows "The Bride" as she wakes up from a coma and starts her quest for vengeance, cutting down any fool who gets in her way. It's a passionate performance, driven by anger and determination, and her physical prowess is unmatched. Thurman plays the Bride with steely rage, and as she fights her way through the House of Blue Leaves, we watch as she smirks, gasps, grimaces, and finally fights back tears as she takes on various opponents in cinema's greatest sword fight.

Volume Two, on the other hand, lets Thurman explore the humanity of Beatrix Kiddo. As she trains under a kung fu master, we get to see her desperation, her humility, and burning desire to succeed. She was so untouchable in the first film, and now she's afraid and emotional. It all builds until the showdown with Bill (David Carradine), where Kiddo discovers her long-lost daughter is still alive. This revelation allows Thurman to explore Kiddo's femininity and all the complex emotions that come with motherhood. All in all, it's a series that starts with a bloodsoaked bride seeking for revenge and ends with her crying on a bathroom floor, and thanks to Thurman's classic performance, it's all graceful, brutal, and beautiful.

Denzel Washington as John Creasy in Man on Fire (2004)

Denzel Washington owns every single film he's in, even if he's not the main character. But the movie star stands especially tall in Man on Fire, an underrated thriller from Tony Scott. Washington plays John Creasy, an ex-CIA agent who's drowning his past with alcohol. But Creasy gets a second chance at life when he's hired to protect Pita (Dakota Fanning), the child of a wealthy businessman in Mexico City. As Creasy grows closer to the neglected girl, his iron exterior and suicidal thoughts slip away, and the guilt in his eyes give way to fatherly love.

Of course, that affection evolves into murderous rage when Pita falls victim to a gang of kidnappers. Using everything from an RPG to a suppository bomb, Creasy goes on a bloody revenge mission. And as Creasy paints his masterpiece of death, Washington strides through every scene with cool confidence, rocking a suit while riddling bad guys with bullets. He's so matter-of-fact about his quest. Killing is easy for him, just like driving a car. It's automatic, and Washington makes firing a bullet look simple as breathing.

But it wouldn't work without his tender relationship with Pita. In the first half of the film, you can see Creasy trying to keep his emotions in check, but every so often when talking to Pita, a smile slips out. Washington plays Creasy as a reserved man who's uncomfortable with emotions, but we can feel his love for this child in every gesture, including the way he walks alongside a swimming pool as Pita competes in a swim meet. Really, the key to Washington's performance is how he moves, from his concerned strides to his march of death and his final, weary struggle toward salvation.

Tom Cruise as Vincent in Collateral (2004)

Directed by Michael Mann, Collateral finds Tom Cruise as Vincent, a cool dude with silver hair and a shark-like smile. In traditional Tom Cruise fashion, Vincent is charismatic, but in a brilliant twist, this gritty thriller finds the A-lister playing a villain — a contract killer who views his victims as nothing more than names to be checked off a list. When it comes to squeezing a trigger, the man has no problems. One moment, he's talking about Miles Davis; the next, he's pulling off the Mozambique Drill. And Vincent plans on killing quite a few people across Los Angeles, with an unlucky taxi cab driver named Max (Jamie Foxx) as his chauffeur.

Cruise plays Vincent like a Luciferian devil, pushing and prodding Max from the back of the cab. No offense to original pick Russell Crowe, but Cruise was perfect casting as Foxx's frenemy, a rival and confidant with a sick sense of humor. There's something off about this guy, and Cruise conveys that psychopathic sensibility when Foxx asks him why he just murdered somebody he didn't even know. "What did he do to you?" Foxx asks. "What?" Cruise asks back, genuinely confused. He just doesn't get it. What's one more dead guy in a world full of murders?

On top of all that, Cruise is smooth here. Whether he's drawing his pistol or charming information out of people, this assassin is just so slick and suave. And Cruise plays him as an utter professional, cool, clipped, sarcastic, and utterly confident in his abilities. He's just doing his job, a guy who can be your best friend one moment and then morph into your worst enemy the next. Cruise is always a phenomenal actor, but Collateral gives him a chance to show the dark side beneath that Hollywood grin.

Liam Neeson as John Ottway in The Grey (2011)

The Grey isn't just a movie about killer canines. It's a movie about the will to survive, the existence of God, and man's place in the universe. Yeah, some wolves rip a bunch of dudes to shreds, but this wintry thriller is equal parts action flick and nihilistic sermon. For a movie like that to work, you need an actor who can straddle the line between macho and emotional honesty…somebody like Liam Neeson.

While Neeson has delivered solid performances in genre flicks like Taken and A Walk Among the Tombstones, he's doing something primal and powerful in The Grey. Under the direction of Joe Carnahan, Neeson plays John Ottway, a weary man with sadness etched into his face. When he's not slamming shots at the bar, he's considering suicide. But he finds a new will to live after crashing in the Alaskan wilderness and running across a pack of hungry wolves.

Neeson's performance here is Oscar-worthy. At times — like when writing his suicide letter — he looks lost and hopeless. When talking about his old-school, poetry-loving father, his voice is mournful. When he's pleading with a silent God for salvation, that same voice is filled with desperate rage. And when a coworker is bleeding to death, Neeson's whispers are incredibly comforting. At the same time, he's 100 percent believable as he leads a group of terrified men in battle against angry wolves. Thanks to Neeson, John Ottway is both heartbreaking and badass, making The Grey one of the most thoughtful survival films of all time.

Benicio del Toro as Alejandro Gillick in Sicario (2015)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Sicario is a movie filled with awesome performances, from Josh Brolin's slimy antagonist to Emily Blunt's in-over-her-head FBI agent. But if you had to pick one Sicario star to stand apart from the rest, it's Benicio del Toro as Alejandro Gillick, a man with murderous hounddog eyes.

A lawyer-turned-assassin, Alejandro is as dangerous and cold-blooded as a rattlesnake. Every move he makes could turn into a killing blow, and del Toro's physical performance is chilling. Just the way he carries a water jug is unsettling. In one torture sequence, he sticks his groin right into a drug dealer's face, a movie so sexually aggressive that it actually makes you feel sick for this cartel member. And when he gives Jon Bernthal the ultimate wet willie, the way del Toro nonchalantly wets his finger, with absolutely no hesitation, is enough to make you nauseous.

His final confrontation with Blunt's character is especially upsetting. He gently touches her arm and wipes away her tears with his thumbs, but there's absolutely zero comfort here. Every time he touches her skin, it just makes you squirm. Every move seems so casual, but in reality, it's all perfectly calculated for maximum effect. Of course, his cold killer attitude eventually gives way to pure hatred when he confronts the big bad drug dealer near the end of the film. While he never shouts or screams, del Toro conveys so much with his eyes and tone of voice that you can feel every ounce of his hatred hitting you square in the chest, like one bullet after another.

Jamie Foxx as Bats in Baby Driver (2017)

Jamie Foxx might be one of the most underrated, unappreciated actors working in Hollywood today. Sure, he's had some flops, but you can't accuse him of phoning in his performances — and when he's good, he's golden. He's an out-his-league everyman in Collateral, a slave filled with righteous rage in Django Unchained, and his performance as the charismatic Ray Charles won him an Oscar. Then you compare those performances to his turn as Bats in Baby Driver, and you can see why Foxx deserves to make this list.

Every time he steps in front of the camera, Foxx steals the spotlight away from his co-stars (a cast that includes Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, and Paul Williams). You know this guy is off the chain from the word go. Foxx plays a man you've got to tiptoe around. One wrong word, and you'll end up dead in an alley somewhere. He's a psycho bully just oozing with contempt for everyone around him. He's constantly trying to intimidate our hero (Ansel Elgort), and he pushes and pushes because he's not afraid to punch if you push back.

Foxx told Jimmy Kimmel that he based Bats on friends that are real-life gangsters, and that he tried to create a character who's "the guy that wrecks the party." Every sentence Bats utters feels like a threat, and while he was such a kind person in Collateral, Foxx is super scary here. It's clear he loves playing the bad guy, and whenever Foxx slides onto the screen, you just know something serious is about to go down. To paraphrase the man himself, this is some Oscar stuff right here.