Keanu Reeves breathed new life into his career as John Wick. But before Wick carved a path of vengeance across New York City, there were other films that gained renown for their brutal, blistering action sequences. Here are the five best modern action film franchises to date, outside of John Wick, which is in its third installment.
The criteria for this list are as follows: Each film franchise had to start no later than the 1990s (modern), and they must have had at least one outstanding action sequence per film in their franchise.
Ever since 1996, the Mission: Impossible films have delivered both in terms of quality and action. Much credit is due to Tom Cruise, who not only stars as IMF agent Ethan Hunt and serves as executive producer on the films, but is also willing to do his own stunts. And what stunts they are. From hanging on the side of an airplane to scaling the Burj Khalifa, aka the tallest building in the world, Cruise manages to outdo himself in each film.
In the latest installment, Fallout, Hunt and CIA agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) perform a Halo jump to infiltrate a party in Paris. The scene took 106 jumps, and Cruise performed it with a broken ankle to boot.
He also has the opportunity to work with a murderer’s row of actors and directors, most notably frequent co-collaborator Christopher McQuarrie who helmed Rogue Nation and Fallout and is returning for the next two installments.
The Fast and the Furious
If you told me that a bunch of movies about a group of car thieves would end up as one of the highest grossing film franchises of all time, I would have laughed in your face. Yet The Fast and the Furious films continue to be the crown jewel of Universal Studios’ film slate. Part of this is due to the soft reboot the films underwent in 2009 with the fifth film, simply titled Fast Five.
In that fifth installment, which moved the series from petty thievery to globe-trotting heist films, they also introduced Dwayne Johnson as lawman Luke Hobbs. Fast Five‘s crowning achievement is when the heroes chain a bank vault to their cars and race through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. This sequence took two weeks to film and featured mostly practical effects-and a LOT of real cars being wrecked.
The other factor is the immensely diverse cast; with actors like Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, and Michelle Rodriguez, there is a level of diversity in these films that other franchises have yet to accomplish. Johnson and Jason Statham (who plays the villainous Deckard Shaw) are set to star in the series’ first spinoff, Hobbs and Shaw.
Action films helped spark the career of many an actor in the eighties, chief among them Sylvester Stallone. With prolific screenwriter David Callaham, who is currently penning Wonder Woman 1984 and Shang-Chi, Stallone created The Expendables, a series about a group of elite mercenaries who undergo nearly impossible missions.
Stallone (who also stars as the Expendables’ leader Barney Ross) is joined by other prolific action stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jet Li, and Dolph Lundgren; the prospect of seeing all these legends in the same room is the main selling point of the series, and the banter between them is amazing. Unlike another franchise I mentioned earlier, The Expendables is far more brutal in its action sequences, and swelling to the brim with testosterone.
The second film features a scene where the team goes to rescue Trench Hauser (Schwarzenegger). In it Li’s character Yin Yang battles enemy soldiers using nothing more than his skills and fists. It’s an impressive display of Li’s martial arts skills.
With The Raid and its 2014 sequel, director Gareth Evans delivered a cult classic in the world of action films. The Raid focuses on rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais) who joins a 20 man squad for a raid on the apartment complex where crime lord Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy) conducts his business. Both Raid films are notable for their use of the Indonesian martial art known as Pencak Silat-a form that uses every part of the body in combat.
Uwais and Yayan Ruhain handled the fight choreography in both films and display the utmost mastery of Penchak Silat. Ruhain also cameos in John Wick: Chapter 3 and gives Wick a run for his money. In the first film, the squad infiltrates a drug room and Uwais’ skills are put on full display. He lifts men up by the throat and slams them into tables. He delivers crippling strikes with his hands, feet and even elbows. He even demonstrates some elegant-and extremely lethal-knife work.
The legendary master of the martial art known as Wing Chun, Ip Man gained fame for teaching several students who went on to become master fighters themselves-chief among them, Bruce Lee. Naturally, this led to a series of four films based on his life, all four starring Donnie Yen. The fourth film opens later this year. It is important to note that this franchise also offered up a spin-off film earlier this year with Master Z: Ip Man Legacy. Already renowned for his skill as a fight choreographer, Yen’s performance as Ip Man helped popularize the art of Wing Chun, with multiple schools opening all over Asia.
The first film features a sequence where Ip Man faces off against ten Japanese karetekas; Yen effortlessly holds off all of his opponents, deflecting their blows and dealing punishing, rapid-fire strikes of his own. It’s a sight to behold.
The action film has grown and evolved over the years, allowing many filmmakers and actors to put their own stamp on the genre. Hopefully, these films will continue to inspire more daring, pulse-pounding exploits.
Collier “CJ” Jennings is a freelance reporter and film critic living in Seattle. He uses his love of comics and film/TV to craft reviews and essays on genre projects. He is also a host on Into the Spider-Cast.