Action Movies are audience pleasers, which is why the stars are so damn popular: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bruce Willis. Sylvester Stallone. Mel Gibson. Chuck Norris. Jason Statham. And so many more. All stars who built their career on giving the audience what they wanted: thrills, chills, and a smidgen of sexiness.
Over on Twitter, some gent had the gall to rank the greatest Action Movie stars of all time thusly:
1. Sylvester Stallone
2. Tom Hardy
3. Bruce Willis
4. Wesley Snipes
5. Arnold Schwarzenegger
6. Steven Seagal
7. Charles Bronson
8. Jet Li
9. Chuck Norris
10. Jean-Claude Van Damme
This is TOTALLY WRONG. First off, “Top Ten” lists are for men without the testicular fortitude to bear down and make hard choices. Top Five lists force you to focus on what’s really important.
1-3 (Tie): Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis
4: Mel Gibson
5: Kurt Russell
This is so obvious to me, I wonder why there’s any confusion. Let’s take it from the top.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is synonymous with Action Movies, and has had a legendary career. Conan, Terminator, Predator: even if it were only these three, his place in cinema history would be assured. He seems like the obvious choice for #1, but there’s a catch.
Bruce Willis has done many Action Movies, and his very first—Die Hard—redefined the genre. Every other Action Movie since has been in imitation of, or in reaction to, the story about a solitary cop stopping the Nakatomi Plaza heist. Even if the rest of his career hasn’t been nearly as stellar, he deserves the top spot solely for redefining what an Action Movie could be, and was expected to be.
Sylvester Stallone was the primary rival to Arnold back in the day. The “Rocky” and “Rambo” series were both landmark works (though they didn’t become Action Movies until the sequels), and he also managed to crank out a number of other Action Movie masterpieces, including the frequently-derided Demolition Man. On the face of it, he seems like an easy second to Schwarzenegger, were it not for his late career surge.
Arnold hasn’t done much on the Action Movie front since becoming the Governor of California (except for The Last Stand, which was a much better movie than it’s usually given credit for), whereas Stallone has been cranking out great movie after great movie. Rocky Balboa, John Rambo, the three “Expendables” movies, and Creed: he’s proven that not only is he still a legit action star, he has severely under-appreciated acting chops (which I knew as far back as Cop Land). Just on the strength of those, Stallone deserves first place.
There is simply no way to distinguish between those three, so they tie for the top spot.
#4: Mel Gibson is a LEGEND, starring in (at the very least) the “Mad Max” movies, the “Lethal Weapon” series, and Braveheart, plus directing Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Hacksaw Ridge. He could easily tie with the other three, except that his Action Movie output dropped to nothing after 2000. He’s delivered great performance after great performance (even in movies that would otherwise have been schlock, like Conspiracy Theory), but they’re dramatic or thriller roles, not Action Movies. All in all, Mel comes in just behind The Trio.
#5: Kurt Russell: Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, Tango & Cash (another under-appreciated gem), Tombstone, Stargate, Executive Decision, Soldier, Death Proof, two “Fast & the Furious” movies, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Not all of those are strictly speaking Action Movies, but even so, I rest my case. Kurt Russell is a great actor, and a great Action Movie star.
Let’s close with the one obvious omission: Clint Eastwood. He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest talents ever seen in Hollywood, both as an actor and director. And his Action Movies (what few there were) were top notch. He is definitely a great actor, but when it comes to Action Movies, he just hasn’t made nearly enough of them to score him above these five.
This is THE definitive list of the Five Greatest Action Movie Stars of All Time, and I’ll defend it against all comers. There are a number of other greats (Jackie Chan springs to mind, as does Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin), but none who can top these gents.