By Katherine J Igoe published
If you and your significant other are on different ends of the movie-watching spectrum, I have good news. Stellar action and adventure elements can turn a good movie into something really special. Even better, these elements can be found in all sorts of movie genres, from spy thriller to space epic to historical drama to gritty crime story—which means that you might be able to find something on this list you both enjoy, even if superheroes and sci-fi aren't your thing. Full disclosure: There are definitely a few Marvel/DC films on here, but each film can be enjoyed on its own merits, without an encyclopedic knowledge of comics, sci-fi, or anything else.
These are just a few of the best adventure films in the last 60 years, but each has a cool, distinctive approach to action within plot that makes it entertaining in its own right. Some of these are classics; some may surprise you. Some of them may be outside your wheelhouse entirely. But they're all entertaining, and in many cases offer you the surprise ending you didn't know you needed (I tried to avoid big ending spoilers, but if you'd rather not know anything, go watch first). Maybe this'll be your new fave genre!
Largely considered one of the best Marvel films, if not the best—it got the first-ever Best Picture Oscar nom for a superhero movie—Black Panther also has a top-notch action story. T'Challa becomes King of Wakanda after his father's death and swiftly realizes just how messy ruling can be. With a worthy foe eyeing the throne (Michael B. Jordan) and the best supporting cast around (Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker, just to name a few), it's an acting and action masterpiece. It's also an everlasting testament to the late Chadwick Boseman, who quietly filmed the Marvel movie in between treatment for colon cancer. You'd never know it—his powerful presence radiates through the screen.
'Riders of Justice'
Mads Mikkelsen's character is a military man who lost his wife in an "accident" that may, in fact, be murder. His quest for vengeance is ignited, and he's unstoppable. Mikkelsen has always chosen interesting, counterintuitive projects, but this one is a perfect match for him. It makes use of a lot of the "running around and fighting" skills he honed as a villain in Dr. Strange but adds a ton of emotional heft. Yes, it's a foreign language film, but don't let that deter you. It's heart-pounding in the best way.
Spike Lee takes on the heist movie, and the results are outstanding. There's smart commentary about race, justice, and class, as is typical of Lee films, but it's paired with a story that doesn't let up. We already know the WHOdunnit from the very beginning, but the why and how (as Clive Owens explains to us with a smile) are for us to find out. If you've never watched, I promise you won't guess the end ahead of time.
'The Old Guard'
Charlize Theron is Andy, the head of a bunch of immortal warriors who try to preserve their anonymity while enacting justice from the shadows. A new member joins their team, and it upends the fragile balance they've worked so hard to preserve. There's a lot of ass-kicking here, naturally (the movie's based on a killer comic series), but it's also a smart look at what would actually happen to a person who lives for hundreds and hundreds of years. The film was so good that there's a sequel in the works.
'Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope'
By now, there are a ton of Star Wars movies I could put on this list (and I'm in the minority favoring this over Empire Strikes Back). But nothing's ever going to compare to the original Carrie Fisher performance for me. Watching this as a kid even after all the hype was still satisfying. This is the movie that defined action sci-fi for decades. And it gave me my first empowered female heroine.
Quentin Tarantino's ode to blaxploitation is also, surprisingly, his most nuanced and thoughtful film. Jackie is played by blaxploitation legend Pam Grier, for whom this film offered a second career jumpstart. She's a flight attendant in trouble with the law—with a master plan to make a half million dollars. A slew of law enforcement agents and criminals try to stop her.
A lot of Christopher Nolan movies could go on this list, since they lean heavily on adventure combined with twisty, complex plot devices. The film that maybe does this the best is Inception, which hinges on thieves (led by Leonardo DiCaprio) sneaking into someone's mind during sleep, planting an idea, and sneaking out without getting caught. It's even more complicated than that, but somehow it works. Plus, that ending.
Lots of people like the second film better, and I get it. Linda Hamilton as Sarah Conner as asskicker is pretty cool to watch (those arm muscles!). But this, for me, is the film that was just having fun playing with the very "simple" idea of an unkillable robot and the man sent back in time to save the mother of the man who would lead the resistance against Skynet—an artificial intelligence created to safeguard the world that turns upon its creators. (It's more fun than it sounds.) Very few films live up to this storytelling standard.
'Birds of Prey'
Margot Robbie—playing a devastated Harley Quinn after breaking up with the Joker—and a gang of misfit women have to go up against crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, really enjoying himself). This movie basically takes the best character from the original Suicide Squad and then dials the stylized violence up to 11. Add in all the other members of her squad and some quippy dialogue and the end result is just plain fun.
'Enemy of the State'
Some of the depictions of technology have not aged well in this. But suspend your disbelief for a moment and focus on the performances: Will Smith as Robert Clayton Dean, who accidentally picks up classified information and has his entire life hacked and tracked. Gene Hackman as Brill, the crotchety and mysterious tech guy helping Dean try to survive. In terms of pure action, it can't be beat—How are they going to get out of this?? you wonder the whole time—but it's also a sly, smart buddy movie in its second half.
'Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow'
This film suffered from some marketing issues, and it didn't get a fair chance at the box office. Fans discovered it once it came out on streaming, and the film is now considered a Tom Cruise classic. Basically: Cruise is a soldier who gets sprayed in the face with some alien goo during battle, then promptly dies. And then he wakes up the day before and gets to relive the same day, dying over and over until he figures out how to stop it. Take Groundhog Day, add in aliens, and you have this film.
'North by Northwest'
One of Alfred Hitchcock's later films helped pave the way for action movies to come. It's got a Mad Men-era feel, complete with Cold War espionage and a case of mistaken identity, and the film features some of the most iconic scenes ever (including a nail-biting plane chase in a cornfield). It's the Casablanca of action films.
'Mad Max: Fury Road'
If you know anything about the making of this film, you'll know it took years and was plagued with problems on and off set. And yet. Somehow a fraught production led to one of the best action films of the 21st century, thanks to longtime director George Miller. It never lets up for one second, from its vision of a sandy, spiky wasteland to the very simple "catch me if you can" premise. A truck filled with a cult leader's wives has escaped, and he'll stop at nothing to get them back. Max (Tom Hardy) gets stuck reluctantly helping the driver (Charlize Theron). The chase is on.
Like Terminator and Star Wars, this is just as much sci-fi as it is an action film. But it takes the premise of the first movie (an alien chest-burster turns into a gross demon-bug out in deep space) and goes to eleven. More characters. More weapons. More aliens. More of Sigourney Weaver 100 percent killing it as a badass, both mother and murderer in the same scene.
'Master and Commander'
Gladiator might seem like the more intuitive pick here, in terms of classic Russell Crowe action flicks. But Master and Commander is the more riveting, tightly paced film. The whole story pretty much takes place entirely on a British naval ship, but its hyper-focus serves the story well. We see the charged tension between the crew members, the claustrophobia that builds from being in a confined space together, and the panic of fighting from a vessel over vast stretches of water. If you're claustrophobic or squeamish, this probably isn't for you, but otherwise it's two hours well spent.
Ah, my favorite movie of all time. These days, this film is a massive throwback to the '80s and a tribute to the glories of Alan Rickman (R.I.P., one of the best actors of any generation). But, at its core, it's a perfectly paced action extravaganza that never lags, never loses its way, and is always fun despite the ever-increasing body count. And Bonnie Bedelia is the best.
'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'
It's tough to pick between the first and third Indiana Jones films (the second...has aged particularly badly, and the fourth is so terrible we should never speak of it again). But this one has the added benefit of scenery-chewing Sean Connery, and Harrison Ford's "action hero-turned aggrieved and irritated son" routine is delightful to watch. Plus, the story's got a great climax. "He chose...poorly."
'The Hunt for Red October'
The first Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan book to be adapted into a feature film is a sharp look at Cold War politics (and is, depressingly, still resonant today). Sean Connery's "Russian" (Scottish) accent is rubbish, but who cares—the submarine cat and mouse chase story is as cool as it gets. Granted, there are basically zero female characters, but on the flip side: A young, handsome Courtney B. Vance!
If you only know Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock from their modern movie roles, go watch Speed and realize why America fell in love with them in the first place. Reeves hasn't shed his Bill and Ted stoner vibe completely, but he's still watchable as the renegade cop. Sandra Bullock is the perfect, cheerful foil. Add a basic plot—a bus can't go below 50 miles per hour or it'll explode, killing all its passengers—and you've got a ridiculous, delightful movie.
This is equal parts drama and adventure, but the simple ticking clock nature of the story—astronauts stuck in space with a rapidly failing ship—means that the story moves along with the speed of a bullet. The most fun part is that you KNOW the ending to the movie, and you still hold your breath all the way to the very end. Young, adorable Tom Hanks is just one of the incredible actors here.
This movie surprised James Bond fans and critics so much at the time that it reinvigorated the franchise. It also featured a stronger, more empowered female counterpart (Eva Green), even though the film does feature a good bit of traditional playboy activity. With a riveting high-stake poker game in the middle, this one is still watchable even if you've never watched a single Bond film.
Before Star Trek got wise to how cool Simon Pegg could be, Hot Fuzz revealed this seemingly dorky actor/producer as a badass. It starts off as a parody of the buddy cop action comedy—and then it turns into a successful, suspenseful, surprising buddy cop action comedy.
'Mission Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol'
Lots of people will probably disagree with me here, but I think this is the best Mission Impossible movie. The series really found its footing (pun intended), and it features one of the coolest heroines in Paula Patton. The lavish international locales are matched by the jaw-dropping stunts. Even if you've never seen the movie, you've seen Tom Cruise hanging off the side of of that tall, tall building. The whole film is just that cool.
Not everyone's a comic book or superhero movie fan, and that's totally fine. Even if you're not, there are a few films that will still appeal as straight-up action films that don't require an encyclopedic knowledge of each cinematic universe. Such is the case with the first Avengers. What's great here is that it dives into the mechanics of a dysfunctional team trying to get their act together—it's the opposite of what you'd expect from this kind of movie, in other words.
'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'
If you have not watched this movie, pick up your remote and rent it. In particular, watch for a badass Alicia Vikander going toe-to-toe with fellow spies like Henry Cavill in the most gorgeous outfits. There are also a number of fun and recognizable cameos, including...David Beckham?? This movie's frothy light action that's endlessly rewatchable.
Content warning: animal cruelty. Keanu Reeves finally ditches his stoner vibe completely and instead channels an assassin who's the literal best at his job. The movie moves from action set-piece to action set-piece without overcomplicating the plot, and the result is a visual feast. One of the more underrated aspects of the film is its humor: One of Wick's opponents basically has a panic attack about how many men Wick killed "with a freaking pencil." Bonus: Adrianne Palicki being just as tough as the boys.
I'm pretty sure this is what the rebooted Ghostbusters was trying to be. Melissa McCarthy is spectacular—it's the quintessential role for her, and the film leads us through her transformation from frumpy to fabulous without ever making her stupid or fat. Jude Law, Allison Janney, Rose Byrne, and 50 Cent(!) are all having a blast with the whip-smart script. But the real star is Jason Statham in his first fully comedic role. Just...trust me on this one.
Our first great female-led action film from the modern superhero era didn't disappoint in any way. Come for Gal Gadot as the fish out of water secret savior of World War I, stay for the surprisingly tender love story between her and Chris Pine. They should start showing this movie and Captain Marvel to kids as mandatory viewing.
I'll be honest. I didn't want to see this movie, because I didn't love where the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films ended up and the Andrew Garfield reboots never interested me. But this movie is a total blast. It's not bogged down with backstory, and it lets Peter Parker (Tom Holland, adorable) just have fun being a kid, with insane super-powers and homework to finish. And Zendaya is an absolute joy to watch.
Chris Hemsworth is so funny in this. Fun fact: This film, helmed by the hilarious Taika Waititi, is what convinced Hemsworth to remain in the Marvel universe as Thor. There's not a single unfunny moment. EVERYBODY knows what kind of film they're in, including icons Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum. I will watch this movie 500 more times before I die.
Katherine’s a Boston-based contributing editor at Marie Claire online who covers celebrity, fashion, entertainment, and lifestyle—from “The Bachelor” to Everlane to Meghan Markle. She also edits the Couples + Money series, so she’s always looking for volunteers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Igoe: “I go to the store,” not “Her huge ego".
This Therapy Dog Liked Kate Middleton Way More Than Prince William
No hard feelings!
By Iris Goldsztajn
'Never Have I Ever' Season 3: Everything We Know
There's plenty more in store for Devi next season.
By Neha Prakash
Ankle Boots to Buy Now and Wear Forever
Practical, durable, and stylish to boot.
By Sara Holzman
'Never Have I Ever' Season 3: Everything We Know
There's plenty more in store for Devi next season.
By Neha Prakash
The 32 Best Reality Shows of All Time
We were rooting for you! We were all rooting for you!
By Amanda Mitchell
'Bridgerton' Season 2: Everything We Know
The viscount and his new love interest will hit your queue in March.
By Andrea Park
'Euphoria' Season 2: Everything We Know So Far
New episodes will drop weekly until the end of February.
By Neha Prakash
The 51 Best Love Songs of All Time
The best, most romantic love songs ever written, spanning every genre.
By Gabrielle Ulubay
2022 Book Releases to Get Excited About
Expect highly-anticipated titles from Emma Straub, Akwaeke Emezi, Rebecca Serle, and more!
By Rachel Epstein
'The Fastest Way to Fall' Resonated With Readers Looking to Embrace Their Bodies
"The slow burn pining, tension, and steam had me blushing."
By Marie Claire
The 75 Best Romantic Comedies of All Time
Where does your fave fall on the list?
By The Editors