Top Ten: Action Heroes


With Underworld: Awakening and Haywire opening wide and Miss Bala in limited release this past week, it appears to be a heyday for women in action films. Since earlier decades when Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, and heroines from Hong Kong were the most take-charge women available, the action film has expanded its range. Modern high-octane genre films aren’t limited to just Hollywood, China, and Japan anymore; Thailand and France, to name only a couple of countries, have pumped out thrilling movies recently. At the center of the action maelstrom is typically an action hero(ine), amalgam of a star performer and countless stunt people and choreographers, and the subject of this week’s Top Ten Tuesday. Let us know your favorites characters who kick ass.

1. Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li, Jackie Chan) in Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and Drunken Master 2
A Chinese martial artist and folk hero, Wong Fei-hung has appeared as the protagonist of well over 100 films since the 1940s. Kwan Tak-hing played him in over 70 of these, but the great modern versions are Jackie Chan in the Drunken Master films and Jet Li and Vincent Zhao in the Once Upon a Time in China series. Jackie Chan, as befitting his wry, good-natured persona, portrays a younger Wong with these characteristics, developing a unique version of drunken boxing in the first film and using it against British smugglers in the sequel. Jet Li and Vincent Zhao instead perform in a much more nationalist and political vein set in the late Qing Dynasty. Like Robin Hood or Davy Crockett, Wong represents a national character deployed for a wide range of ends and acted on screen by some of the toughest, most heroic martial arts actors of all time.

2. James Bond (Sean Connery) in Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), etc.
Although he needs no introduction, Sean Connery’s incarnation of 007 remains the most all-around heroic of the many James Bonds over the years. The postwar embodiment of cinematic masculinity, Bond is both romantic and ruthless, adept at all forms of fighting and skill needed to defend Her Majesty’s government. An action hero is only as good as his villains, and Bond cultivated a certain type of worthy adversary before they descended into parody over the years: an overconfident but fiendish mastermind with deadly henchmen and a scheme for world domination. Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Blofeld are the classic cases, but perhaps my favorite remains Robert Shaw as Red Grant in From Russia with Love, who proved as smooth and calm as Bond himself and tested the British agent’s physicality to its limit.

3. Mad Max (Mel Gibson) in Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
From the brutish outback of the first film to the high-octane demolition derby of the sequel to the near-camp of Thunderdome, Mel Gibson’s Mad Max Rockatansky battled on many fronts and with heroism even when suckered into it. Righteous anger fuels his destruction in the first film, as his man of the law is pushed to the breaking point by murderous bikers. Survival becomes his pursuit in the sequels, even as he ages considerably and finds shreds of lost humanity defending others. Physically imposing and skillful with weapons, cars, or fists, Mad Max is an Australian icon, a warrior of the desert who is nonetheless human and takes gradual damage as the films go on, injuring a knee and an eye that are still evident in the sequels.

4. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Aliens (1986)
Although she ably survives her first encounter with the titular creature in the first Alien and became a powerful clone hybrid in Alien Resurrection, Ripley’s transition from a victim in the first film to a badass, heroic mother figure in Aliens is my choice. The second movie takes the form of a war film, replacing the single demonic monster with a horde of them and pitting them against armed but unprepared marines. Ripley, the sole survivor with a firsthand account of the aliens’ nature, knows what they’re up against and eventually finds herself face-to-feminine-face with the Alien Queen. Having rescued the only survivor of an attacked colony, a young girl named Newt, Ripley’s instinctual mode kicks in and leads her to wield a machine gun and don the now-iconic powered exoskeleton suit to do battle with her alien counterpart.

5. “Sanjuro” (Toshiro Mifune) in Yojimbo (1960) and Sanjuro (1962)
In a pair of Akira Kurosawa classics, Toshiro Mifune portrayed the taciturn, wandering ronin dubbing himself “Sanjuro” (“thirtysomething”), a one-man wrecking crew ready to take on all comers for whatever cause struck his fancy. In his first outing, Yojimbo, he wanders into a town torn apart by rival gangs and proceeds to destroy them both from the inside; in Sanjuro he stumbles upon a team of samurai struggling against a corrupt superintendent. In both films, he begins as a wily but self-involved warrior and gradually decides to take up arms for reasons greater than himself. Kurosawa and Mifune bring dollops of black humor to the character, slumping his shoulders and otherwise completely revising what a samurai is supposed to be. A whirlwind in battle, Sanjuro is typically still and purposeful otherwise, never betraying the rush of activity always running through his brain.

6. Nausicaä (Sumi Shimamoto) in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Although perhaps not as elementally powerful as her fellow environmentalist woman-warrior San in Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä nonetheless cuts an impressive figure in her flight gear on her maneuverable jet glider. Her skills derive from her regal bearing as well as from her empathy for the natural world, a post-apocalyptic mixture of toxic rainforest, barren desert, and her kingdom’s “Valley of the Wind.” By communicating with the world’s large, sentient insect creatures, she becomes the ideal mediator between them and the seemingly threatened humans who fail to realize their place in the interconnected order of things. Nausicaä is a stalwart role model, a shining balance of strength and compassion that influenced female heroines from the studio that arrived in its wake, Ghibli.

7. Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) in Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
The ultimate parody of the stereotypical meathead action hero, Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton proves heroic despite himself in John Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek ode to Chinese martial arts and mysticism Big Trouble in Little China. Usually more concerned with his truck than the well-being of his friends, Jack is prone to spouting corny one-liners and blustering his way through incidents where he doesn’t belong. To be fair, Dennis Dun’s “sidekick” Wang Chi is the true action hero of the film, taking out enemies with high-flying assaults while Jack is liable to be unconscious through his own doing; but Jack makes my list for his good-natured heroism and iconic cocky attitude.

8. “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) in The French Connection (1971) and French Connection II (1975)
Jimmy Doyle is nobody’s idea of a perfect hero: he’s an obnoxious NYPD narcotics officer hot on the trail of French drug smugglers. Hackman won an Oscar for his dedicated performance in the first film, a compelling blend of procedural and action best known for its frenzied car chase beneath an elevated train; this action sequence would cement Doyle as one of the great car chase action heroes, alongside Steve McQueen in Bullitt. The sequel takes Doyle to even more harrowing places, moving him to France to follow his quarry who captures him and forces him into heroin addiction. The sequence of cold turkey withdrawal he must undergo is as nerve-wracking in its way as the car chase in the first film, and Doyle finally comes full circle heroically in the end, blue-collar cop tracking down his upper-class villain.

9. Nikita (Anne Parillaud) in La Femme Nikita (1990)
Junkie-turned-assassin Nikita lives a fascinating transformation story, trained by French intelligence to be a sleeper agent. Her entire nature is overhauled by her spymasters; Jeanne Moreau makes a neat appearance teaching her beauty and cosmetic tips in a very Pymaglion scene. This rehabilitation has unintended consequences for her since in addition to becoming a more trained and efficient killer, her humanity begins to shine through when she enters the world again. Anne Parillaud deftly balances her feral early scenes and this burgeoning awareness of what life can be, showing both halves of her new existence: dealing out death and rediscovering femininity.

10. “Buckaroo” Banzai (Peter Weller) in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984)
Arguably the finest neurosurgeon-physicist-race car driver-rock star to ever grace the silver screen, Buckaroo leads a rock band/superhero squad to battle the Red Lectroids released from the 8th dimension. Director W.D. Richter and writer Earl MacRauch crafted this cult classic and perfectly cast the deadpan Peter Weller as Buckaroo Banzai, renaissance comic book hero. Lacking the muscularity of a Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Banzai instead combines skill and intellect to embody the film’s splashy, campy world while still providing old-school thrills with cars, lasers, and guitars.

Adam Kuntavanish

Top Ten Guru, Host of Top Ten Tuesdays. Cinema transcends boundaries of time and space and thought and emotion; at its best it communicates the experience of being truly alive. I've been transfixed by the material ghosts of the movies since an early age, and I can't seem to shake them. Since reading and writing and talking about films are the next best things to watching them, criticism became a natural fit. Whether new or old, foreign or domestic, mainstream or cult, all movies are grist for my mill. Be forewarned, I'm an inveterate list-maker, so look out for rankings, topics, and opinions of all kinds. The AFI's got nothing on me.
  • Christopher Misch

    It’s interesting that you decided to leave out some obvious fan favourites, including Jason Bourne and John Mcclane. And I’m guessing Indiana Jones is more adventure? Nice to see no sign of John Rambo anywhere!

  • Tony Liccardello

    Arnold wouldn’t be happy with this list. 

  • Christopher Misch

    It’s quite hard to choose between all of Arnold’s action characters? Who’d be your selection?

  • Anonymous

    If I were to be perverse, I might actually choose his role in LAST ACTION HERO as an Honorable Mention. Or maybe Dutch in PREDATOR. Although TERMINATOR’s still the best movie he’s been in so far.

  • Anonymous

    Bourne and Indy were on the shortlist for a while, but yeah, I purposely left up some biggies that I liked to make way for some lesser-known choices. I’m like that.

  • Baron Ronan Doyle

    Whoa, are we not a Rambo fan? There’ll have to be harsh words here, I happen to be wearing a Rambo tshirt as I write this. One of two I own!

  • Danny Bowes

    Wang Chi is the action hero in Big Trouble In Little China. Jack Burton is the sidekick.