Action movies are the bread and butter of Hollywood. They have just enough adrenaline-pumping action that people will pay to watch them whether they are funny or dark, grounded in reality or full of supernatural elements, great or just plain awful.
In this day and age where everything is digitized, it can be difficult to remember what action films were like before CGI, bullet time, or the overused phenomenon of the shaky cam. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t great action films. It just means they had to rely on acting, cinematography, stunt work, and solid scripts instead of shiny pixelated graphics. Here are ten amazing action movies that don’t have any CGI in them.
10 Dirty Harry (1971)
To start strong, let’s begin with one of the greatest roles of Clint Eastwood’s impressive career, Dirty Harry. This neo-noir movie is about a cop who doesn’t play by the rules and carries a .44 magnum around the streets of LA while in pursuit of a killer.
While movies glorifying police brutality do not age well, this is still a masterpiece of cinema and has incredibly tense action beats. The famous “are you feeling lucky” scene is still being quoted more than forty years after the movie’s release, while the titular character who deals out abuse with his oversized hand cannon is an American icon.
9 Seven Samurai (1954)
One of the greatest movies ever made, Seven Samurai has more than earned its way into the Criterion Collection. Directed by the cinematic genius Akira Kurosawa and starring his long-time collaborators Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune, this action film follows a band of samurai who protect a peasant village from bandits during Japan’s Sengoku Era (often translated as the Warring States Period).
Every single fight in this movie is breathtaking; audiences feel the pain and struggle as characters bleed out. There is a savage desperation from these characters who fight for their very survival. To prepare for his role as a roguish ronin, Mifune studies the movements of lions to mimic their wild loping movements. The only black and white entry on this list, this is possibly the greatest samurai movie ever made.
8 James Bond: The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)
What list of action movies would be complete without including at least one Bond film? After all, the secret agent James Bond is that perfect mixture of a hard-brawling rough-and-tumble cold warrior with the suave martini-sipping debonair gentleman.
Of course, like many older films, some of Bond’s movies really do not age well. While The Man With The Golden Gun is not without its faults, it is a film with twists, humor, and the cool but offbeat villain Francisco Scaramanga (played by Christopher Lee). The martial arts scenes in this movie are some of the best close-quarters fighting in the Bond franchise.
7 Enter the Dragon (1973)
No martial artist movie star is more renowned than the legendary Bruce Lee. There is good reason for this. The founder of the Jeet Kune Do School of kung fu, Lee was trained in the Wing Chun School by another martial arts legend, Ip Man. Known for doing his own stunts, Lee was a wonder to behold, his quick fluid movements striking with lightning speed and a master’s precision.
Enter the Dragon was the last film Lee completed before his death, which is no doubt one reason for the success of the movie, but it still is fun to watch decades later.
6 First Blood (1982)
The character of John Rambo is widely known nowadays as a grizzled war vet played by Sylvester Stallone who hunts his enemies with ammo belts hanging from his muscular body. The character made his film debut in First Blood.
While some of the films on this list have not aged well, this movie actually gets better with the passage of time. In First Blood, Rambo is a homeless Vietnam War veteran who is horribly mistreated by a small-town sheriff, causing him to relive flashbacks of the torture he suffered as a prisoner of war. When Rambo fights back, he accidentally kills a man and so is hunted down as the sheriff calls for reinforcements. This film has only grown more relevant with time.
5 Superman: The Movie (1978)
Superheroes are everywhere nowadays but that’s a fairly new phenomenon. For a long time, superhero films were known for being notoriously bad. Before that, they were just rarities, almost unseen among the various productions Hollywood released every year. One of the first mainstream superhero films was Superman: The Movie.
Starring Christopher Reeve as the titular hero from Krypton, the movie captured both the strength and virtue of the main character while also managing to contrast his superhero life with his secret identity. While the action may not be exhilarating by today’s standards, this is still the best live-action superman to date.
4 Batman (1989)
If Superman is the symbol of shining hope in the world of DC Comics, Batman is the brooding Dark Knight who stalks crime from the shadows. Audiences know this nowadays, but in the 1980s, most people thought of Batman as the goofy hero from the campy 60s TV show. That’s what made Tim Burton’s Batman movie so amazing: for the first time, Batman’s on-screen appearance was as dark as his comics counterpart.
There is a fun mix of goofy Silver Age comic fun and gritty 80s urban brooding in the tone of this film. That said, while Burton has been known to dismiss comics as an art form, he got the tone right decades ahead of his peers.
3 Akira (1988)
Around the time that Western animation studios were busy making the next flop in the Dark Age of Disney, Japan had already started making intense animated films for adults. Akira was one of several cyberpunk dystopian classics to emerge around the same time, but it is by far the best.
From the warring motorcycle gangs of disenfranchised youths to the military state crushing civil rights, to the Aum-like cults that have arisen in the post-nuclear age, this is one of the smartest action films to ever deconstruct social or philosophical issues. The opening motorcycle fight is just one of many scenes that never fails to induce chills in its audience.
2 The Warriors (1979)
The plot of The Warriors begins with the most powerful gang in New York, the Gramercy Riffs, trying to unify all the gangs of the city. When the leader of the Riffs, Cyrus, is murdered, a much smaller gang called the Warriors is falsely blamed. Their leader is killed and the group has to fight its way across the whole city to get back to its home on Coney Island.
As violent gang members, the main characters are not good, but they are still sympathetic. Interestingly, this work is based on the classic book Anabasis from the ancient Greek general Xenophon, making it a timeless tale.
1 Die Hard (1988)
In recent years, several movies worked to reinvent the action genre. The Matrix brought wire teams and bullet time to the forefront. The Bourne Identity introduced the shaky cam. John Wick offered precise intense stunts in long clean shots that focused on the actors. But before any of these, there was Die Hard.
This movie understands how to use its core to emphasize emotional beats and knows how to build tension between the protagonist and the villain. It also is one of the first films to limit how many bullets a character had at their disposal. If that isn’t enough of an endorsement, Die Hard remains the greatest Christmas story ever told.
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