A quarter of a century ago this week, John McTiernan’s action masterpiece Die Hard was released into theaters, and it’s not an understatement to say that we’re still reeling from the impact. The film turned one Bruce Willis — until then thought of primarily as a comic actor and harmonica player — into a Hollywood action star, a position he’s still convincingly holding down 25 years later. It also unleashed armies of imitators: There was Die Hard on a Ship (a.k.a. Under Siege), Die Hard on a Mountain (a.k.a. Cliffhanger), Die Hard at the Stanley Cup Finals (a.k.a. Sudden Death), and so on, all the way up to this year’s double dose of Die Hard at the White House movies (a.k.a. Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down), not to mention Die Hard Beating a Dead Horse (a.k.a. A Good Day to Die Hard, a.k.a. Die Hard 5). It is, in fact, partly thanks to these imitators (as well as the Willis franchise’s lesser sequels) that we often forget how expertly made the original Die Hard is: It’s as much a perfectly calibrated character piece as it is a kick-ass action flick.
So what has the action landscape looked like since that fateful day in 1988 when we first met John McClane en route to Nakatomi Plaza? For the past few months, I’ve been watching and/or rewatching almost every major action movie made since then in an attempt to come up with the best ones. The good news is that a lot of awesome action movies have been made over the past 25 years. The bad news? Not all of your favorites will be on this list.
First, some ground rules:
- Not every movie with action in it is an action movie. Believe it or not, it is sometimes very hard to determine just what constitutes an action movie. For the purposes of this list, we decided that an action movie not only had to have a lot of action scenes in it (duh), but that it had to be a film that wouldn’t make any sense if you took all the action scenes out of it — that is to say, the action had to be a key way of moving the plot forward. As a result, we filtered out a lot of great films, masterpieces even, that didn’t quite qualify as true action movies: Michael Mann’s Heat, for example, or Tony Scott’s True Romance, or the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.
- Only one film per franchise. This is a cheat, sure, because not all franchises are created equal: There’s only one great Matrix movie, but several great Once Upon a Time in China installments. But still, in an effort to keep this list from becoming overwhelmed by certain films and directors, we decided to limit it to one title per franchise.
- No animation. Because it just wouldn’t be fair to the other movies if we suddenly allowed Pixar and Miyazaki in there.
Anyway, here they are: the 25 greatest action movies made since Die Hard.