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The Best Action Movie Of Every Decade

The action genre is cinema at its purest. It's energy and movement and adrenaline, everything that movies were made for. You really can't do a car chase or a gunfight justice with a novel, but big explosions and the silver screen were destined for each other. In fact, one of the earliest narrative films ever made, The Great Train Robbery, was an action movie. It seems that ever since people developed the capability to make motion pictures, they've gravitated toward making action.

So naturally, the genre is full of amazing films featuring incredible sword fights and martial arts matches. But with all these movies, how do you decide which ones are the best? Well, by focusing on each decade, certain classics just fight their way to the top. For example, in the 1920s, there was Buster Keaton's The General, a comedy that featured some of the most mind-boggling stunts ever performed on film. But what about after that? Which action movies stand out from the 1930s to the 2010s? Which pistol-packing heroes and sword-wielding warriors have stood the test of time? From swashbuckling do-gooders to dystopian anti-heroes, these are the best action movies of every decade.

The 1930s had an archer in tights

Action movies as we know them today didn't really come into existence until the 1980s. But that doesn't mean the 1930s was a dull decade. Instead, audiences got their thrills watching Westerns and old-style adventure films. For example, Stagecoach featured impressive stunt work that still stands up today, and King Kong pitted men against dinosaurs (and a giant gorilla, of course). But 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood was the most exciting of the bunch, with archery contests, duels to the death, and a guy swinging around like a medieval Tarzan.

This swashbuckler starred the Tom Cruise of his day, Errol Flynn, as the titular green-clad bandit. True to Robin Hood lore, this merry movie finds our hero robbing from the rich to give to the poor. He rights wrongs, outsmarts Prince John (Claude Rains), and woos the fair Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland). The movie was shot in Technicolor, and the reds and greens all pop with an intensity that 1930s audiences weren't used to seeing. And Flynn actually did a lot of his own stunts, although expert archer Howard Hill was brought in to film the tricky bow and arrow scenes. (The studio paid stuntmen $150 apiece to wear protective gear under their costumes and let Hill shoot them with actual arrows.)

Best of all, the film climaxes with one of the most exciting sword fights in Hollywood history, when Robin squares off with his archenemy, Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone). The battle is complete with witty banter, the actors are doing their own fencing, and there's an amazing moment when the actors go offscreen, and we watch as their giant shadows riposte and parry. Joyous, exhilarating, and a whole lot of fun, The Adventures of Robin Hood is old Hollywood at its best.

The 1940s had greed, gold, and stinking badges

The 1940s was a decade of Westerns, swashbuckler, and World War II films, with stars like John Wayne, Tyrone Power, and Errol Flynn performing all sorts of derring-do on the silver screen. But while The Mark of Zorro and Red River are both standout films of the '40s, the movie that's truly stood the test of time is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The film was written and directed by John Huston and starred Humphrey Bogart, a duo who made some classic tough guy films like The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo. But while those are both brilliant film noirs, it's Sierra Madre that finds a trio of grizzled men heading into the Mexican mountains, looking for riches and finding a whole lot of trouble.

Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, a drifter who teams up with a wily prospector (Walter Huston) in hopes of finding gold. Along with fellow hobo Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), the group heads into the jungle, where they go up against bandits who don't care about no stinking badges. But the real danger here is greed, and once the trio uncover gold, Dobbs transforms into a homicidal monster. It's one of Bogart's best performances, and the film picked up numerous Oscars — including awards for both Walter and John Huston (who were father and son). A movie coated with dirt, sweat, and gunpowder, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a gripping thriller about what happens to men when they head into the wilderness and come face-to-face with their darkest selves.

In the 1950s, they had seven noble samurai

Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai is basically the foundation of modern-day action movies. This Japanese epic tells the tale of seven ronin — masterless samurai — who are hired to defend a poor village from 40 murderous bandits. The farmers can only offer the samurai a bit of rice for their troubles, but these noble warriors take their paltry pay and put their lives on the line for the villagers, resulting in some of the most exciting battle sequences ever put to film. The final showdown in the rain is an absolutely breathtaking scene, with horses galloping through the mud, men screaming as they charge into combat, archers and gunmen firing in all directions, and desperate men swinging katanas so hard they shatter on impact.

The movie was such a hit that it inspired countless films, from The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen to A Bug's Life and Rogue One. On top of that, film critic Roger Ebert theorized this is the film that established two major action tropes. First, Seven Samurai might be the first film where an action hero has to assemble a team for a dangerous mission. Secondly, when we meet the lead samurai (played by Takashi Shimura), he's rescuing a kidnapped child. It isn't directly connected to the main plot, but it lets us know how badass our hero is going to be — a trope that's been used in everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Lethal Weapon. Really, you can find Seven Samurai's DNA in almost every action movie, but in addition to its impact, it's a brilliant character study with staggering sword fights, making it one of the most exciting action films ever made.

In the 1960s, they had a dozen deadly prisoners

One of the quintessential "men on a mission" movies, The Dirty Dozen stars two of the greatest action stars to ever beat up a bad guy: Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. On top of that, you've got names like acclaimed actor Donald Sutherland, indie filmmaker John Cassavetes, and football legend Jim Brown. Together, these guys make up a ragtag bunch of soldiers on one of cinema's most exciting suicide missions.

This World War II film finds Marvin playing Major John Reisman, a man who hates the military and all the pompous officers sending men off to die. He's also none too pleased that he's been picked to train 12 Army convicts — some of whom are on death row — to blow up a German chateau full of high-ranking Nazi officers. It's pretty much a guarantee that everyone is going to die, but the truly challenging part will be getting these murderers, rapists, and rebels to work as a team.  

With its emphasis on anti-heroes and extreme violence (by 1967 standards), The Dirty Dozen was incredibly controversial for its time, but it's gone on to influence films like Inglourious BasterdsSuicide Squad, Guardians of the Galaxy, and even The Avengers. And when the Dozen finally infiltrate the chateau, it's non-stop action as they're assaulted by snipers and attacked by armored vehicles. It all culminates with a mad dash, a lot of grenades, and a gigantic fireball. It's gritty, thrilling, and incredibly funny to boot, and totally deserves a dozen or so rewatches.

In the 1970s, they had the craziest car chase of all time

The 1970s was an era of slow burn action films, movies that took their time before exploding into greatness. For proof, look no further than The French Connection, a police procedural based on real-life events. Directed by William Friedkin of The Exorcist fame, this 1971 thriller follows Detective "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) as he tries to bust a major heroin ring. Popeye is the anti-hero's anti-hero. He's racist and violent, beats witnesses and breaks rules, and he never stops chasing his prey, no matter what.

For most of the film, we watch Doyle stalk the drug dealers, but the sleuthing and surveillance is punctuated with brilliant bursts of action, like the legendary car chase where Popeye is hurtling down the street, pursuing an elevated train and the bad guy inside. Friedkin didn't get a permit to film this scene, and stuntman Bill Hickman actually drove down a crowded street at almost 100 mph. Sure, most of the crazier moments during the chase were staged, but lives were really on the line — including Friedkin's, who was in the backseat filming the whole thing.

It's that kind of realism that makes The French Connection so memorable. It's gritty and dark, and thanks to the use of handheld cameras, it feels almost like a documentary. Hackman won an Oscar for his performance as Popeye, a role that catapulted him to stardom. The movie picked up four additional Oscars, the American Film Institute ranked it as the 93rd best American movie ever made, and it's influenced the likes of Breaking Bad. As Edgar Wright of Baby Driver put it, The French Connection is "one of the greatest classics of all time."

The 1980s had a wisecracking cop

The action genre as we know it really got started in the 1980s. It's a decade rich with explosions, fist fights, and muscular dudes with machine guns. But if we had to pick one film to tower above them all, it's got to be Die Hard. This 1988 hit follows wisecracking New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) as he battles German terrorists in an L.A. skyscraper. Wearing a sleeveless shirt and no shoes, McClane drops one-liners, jumps off the roof, and takes on the bad guys one by one, all while trying to save his wife and his marriage.

Casting Bruce Willis was a kind of a revolutionary move. Most action stars in the '80s were brawny Arnold Schwarzenegger types, but Willis was a lot smaller than the typical heroes of the time period. On top of that, John McClane feels like an actual human being. This guy is afraid of flying. He gasps, grunts, and moans about the mess he's in. And when the bullets start flying, he gets hurt bad, like when he runs barefoot over glass. Die Hard opened the doors for heroes who were less ripped and more relatable, and the movie's simple blueprint of a good guy stuck in one location inspired countless films like Under Siege, Speed, and White House Down.

The movie has also influenced filmmakers from The Raid's Gareth Evans to 10 Cloverfield Lane's Dan Trachtenberg. Perhaps most importantly, this is the film that gave us the king of all action movie villains: Hans Gruber. Played to perfection by Alan Rickman, Gruber is a sophisticated yet cold-blooded killer who just loves being a bad guy. And sure, we can debate if Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not, but everybody can agree that Die Hard is the ultimate action movie of the '80s.

The 1990s had Keanu and kung fu

With films like Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, and The Blair Witch Project, 1999 was a banner year for cinema. It was also the year that audiences took the red pill and found themselves in a world of Keanu Reeves and kung fu. Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, The Matrix was a pop culture sensation that influenced everything from conspiracy theories to meme culture to the action genre itself. It blended philosophy with fight scenes, introduced moviegoers (and filmmakers) to "bullet time," and gave us iconic lines that we're still quoting today.

Set in a dystopian future, the plot follows a computer hacker named Neo (Reeves) who discovers his world is a computer simulation. After joining a bunch of freedom fighters led by the mysterious Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Neo quickly learns a whole lot of martial arts and goes mano-a-mano with a group of monotone yet murderous Agents. With Woo-Ping Yuen as fight choreographer, Reeves and the rest of the cast trained in martial arts for six months, bringing an incredible realism to these sci-fi fights. As a result, The Matrix's martial arts scenes — especially that subway battle between Neo and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) — set a new bar for American movies.

And then, of course, there's the lobby gunfight, which became an instant classic of cinema shootouts. It's Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) versus an entire SWAT team, and it's a practical effects extravaganza. Everything from the exploding columns to Neo's crazy cartwheel (with the help of some wires) are all real. Plus, the film has one of the all-time great opening scenes, with Trinity's leather-clad kick. And when you realize that this film is possibly responsible for Reeves' path to the John Wick trilogy, there's no debating that The Matrix is the best action movie of the '90s.

The 2000s had one bad bride

Filmed as one movie but split into two parts, Kill Bill is a bloody homage to cinematic action, with Uma Thurman playing Beatrix Kiddo (aka "the Bride"), a katana-wielding killer looking to even the score with the infamous Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Her roaring rampage of revenge throws her into some of the most exciting fight scenes ever staged, like the brutal showdown with Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and the opening battle with Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox). But the pinnacle of 2000s action is the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves, where the Bride takes on a Japanese schoolgirl with a mace and an entire army of masked swordsmen before dueling a yakuza boss (Lucy Liu) in a snow-covered garden.

Director Quentin Tarantino pulls out every trick in his book to create his two-part epic, from fractured timelines to black-and-white sequences. There's an entire scene done in the style of anime, and almost every moment is an homage to action films of old, like Enter the Dragon, Lady Snowblood, and Death Rides a Horse. On top of that, Uma Thurman says the film has actually empowered women who are "feeling oppressed or struggling" by giving them "some survival energy" to get through tough times. So whether you're looking for female empowerment or how to learn the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, Kill Bill has it all.

The 2010s had a mad and furious car chase

In 1979, director George Miller introduced audiences to Max Rockatansky, a road warrior in a world gone mad. Nearly 40 years later, Miller returned to that world of fire and blood with the best film in his action-packed series — Mad Max: Fury Road.

Starring Tom Hardy in the titular role, this 2015 film follows Max as he's roped into helping a group of sex slaves escape the clutches of dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). The movie is basically one big car chase, with a giant War Rig, porcupine cars, and psycho killers swaying back and forth on giant poles. Miller created an incredibly imaginative world, where a monstrous musician plays a flame-spitting guitar and powdered War Boys huff spray paint before going on suicide missions, in hopes of winding up in Valhalla.

Almost everything you see onscreen is practical, with some scenes involving 150 stunt people and 75 vehicles. The CGI trickery is kept to a bare minimum, and the jumps, crashes, and death-defying moves are all real. And the movie was shot almost entirely on location in the Namib Desert, giving the movie a feel of heat, dust, and desperation. But the adrenaline-soaked action and impressive stunts wouldn't matter if we didn't care about the characters, and even though the dialogue is minimal, Miller does an amazing job of making these people feel real and relatable. 

There's Max, the anti-hero who slowly but surely makes the right choice. There are Joe's brides, all of them distinct people with their own personalities. And then, of course, there's Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). One of the greatest female heroes in action history, Furiosa is blasting bad guys one moment and crying in the desert the next, all before inspiring hope in her comrades and leading a revolution. She's ferocious, feminine, and fully developed as a badass character, even with just a handful of lines. And with such incredible stunt choreography and cinematography, we'd be mad if we didn't say Fury Road was the best action film of the 2010s.