The Five Greatest Action Movie Stars of All Time!

Monday , 13, November 2017 14 Comments

Action Stars

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.

Here’s mine:

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.


Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.

14 Comments
  • Mike says:

    I humbly submit the name of Gerard Butler. In addition to his “— Has Fallen” franchise, there’s “300” and “The Bounty Hunter.”

  • Verdier says:

    Respect for mentioning Kurt Russell. Snake Plissken is epic, and The Thing is…well, The Thing.

  • JD Cowan says:

    Tom Hardy? What the heck.

    Your list is more accurate though it’s missing Norris. Say what you want, but his Cannon stuff is off the charts.

    • jic says:

      As far as I can tell, his only ‘action hero’ role was as Mad Max, and even there I’ve heard he was basically a supporting character.

      • Andy says:

        The “supporting character” status is a bit overblown but Hardy is a Serious Actor, not an action hero. The real star of Fury Road is really George Miller’s great action filmmaking and the stunts.

  • Nathan says:

    For the top ten, Jet Li but no Chow Yun Fat?

    Strong list for five.

  • Paul says:

    Jasyn, I can find no flaw in your top place tie.

  • Andy says:

    I agree that The Last Stand is underrated. Maybe not top-tier Arnold (e.g., Terminator, Predator), but it’s comfortably in with his second rank movies.

    I like your top 5. I certainly have my favorites (Van Damme is underrated, IMO, although more of a B-level guy), but if you watch any action movie with those guys, chances are good that you will have a great time.

  • Roxberry says:

    Harrison Ford needs to be on that list.

  • TWS says:

    No Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Lee Marvin or James Remar?

    • Jack Amok says:

      Technically, I think they predated “Action Movies.”

      In their prime, “Action Movies” were just called “movies.” Stuff without action was called “comedy.”

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Got to agree with you, especially about the placement of Kurt Russell in the top 5.

    He doesn’t get the respect for his action flicks that he deserves.

  • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

    Not mentioning Chuck Norris is, dare I say… criminal!

  • Vlad James says:

    Charles Bronson is easily number one all-time. I like everyone on your list of the top five, but none of them hold a candle to the great Bronson.

    Also, I really think you have to split this list into Western versus Asian actors.

    Donnie Yen, Chow Yun Fat, Tony Jaa, Jet Li, and others are great, but the nature of Asian action movies and what they require is markedly different than Western ones.

    Jean Reno is also an actor I would put above, say, freaking Wesley Snipes (affirmative action inclusion?!).

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