The 26 Best Adventure Movies to Get on Your Radar

adventure movies
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If you and your significant other are on very different ends of the movie-watching spectrum, I have good news for you. Stellar action and adventure elements can turn an okay movie into something special. Even better, these elements can be found in all sorts of movie genres, from spy thriller to space epic to historical drama—which means that you might be able to find something on this list you really enjoy, even if superheroes and sci-fi aren't your thing. When a good action hero elevates the plot, as is the case for a lot of these films, things get more progressive than you might expect. 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 spoilers here, but if you'd rather not know anything, go watch first).

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'Black Panther'

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 killer story. T'Challa becomes King of Wakanda after his father's death and swiftly realizes just how messy ruling can be. With a very 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. Sadly, but also fortunately, it's 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 absolutely radiates through the screen.

'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 know I'm in the minority favoring this over Empire Strikes Back). But no one's ever going to compare to the original Carrie Fisher performance for me. I wish I could have seen it when it originally came out in theaters, but watching this as a kid after all that hype was still satisfying. This is the movie that defined action sci-fi for decades. And it gave me my first empowered female heroine to adore.

'Jackie Brown'

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 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. Don't let the laidback pace fool you: This film's just as exciting as any action film on this list.

'The Terminator'

Lots of people like the second film better, and I get it. Linda Hamilton as Sarah Conner as total asskicker is pretty cool to watch (those arm muscles give me tremendous envy). 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.

'Enemy of the State'

Listen, some of the depictions of technology has not aged well in this film. 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 basically wonder the whole time—but it's also a sly, smart buddy movie in its second half.

'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 tightly paced 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 single 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.

'Aliens'

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 feminine badass, both mother and murderer in the same scene. It's thrilling.

'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 absolute panic of fighting from a vessel over vast stretches of water. If you're claustrophobic or overly squeamish, this probably isn't for you, but otherwise it's two hours very well spent.

'Die Hard'

Ah, my favorite movie of all time (I wrote a blog post about it!). 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 not aged well, 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 utterly 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!

'Speed'

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 absolutely watchable (and hot) 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.

'Apollo 13'

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.

'Casino Royale'

This movie surprised James Bond fans and critics so much at the time that it totally 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 totally watchable even if you've never watched a single Bond film.

'Hot Fuzz'

Before Star Trek got wise to how cool Simon Pegg could be, Hot Fuzz revealed this seemingly dorky actor/producer as a total badass. It starts off as a parody of the buddy cop action comedy—and then it turns into a really successful, suspenseful, surprising buddy cop action comedy. Watching that evolution in a single film is incredible.

'Mission Impossible: 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 here (pun kind of 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.

'The Avengers'

Not everyone's a comic book or superhero movie fan, and that's totally fine (surprising no one, I totally am). 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, right this second. It has everything! Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer dueling each other to see which one is hotter (they both totally win). Alicia Vikander going toe-to-toe with them both, in the most gorgeous outfits. A number of fun and recognizable cameos, including...David Beckham?? Top to bottom, this movie's frothy light action that's endlessly rewatchable.

'John Wick'

Content warning: animal cruelty. Keanu Reeves finally ditches his stoner vibe completely and instead channels a stone-cold assassin who's the 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.

'Spy'

I'm pretty sure this is what the rebooted Ghostbusters was trying to be. Melissa McCarthy is spectacular—it's the picture-perfect 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.

'Wonder Woman'

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. Fingers crossed the sequel channels that same strength.

'Inglourious Basterds'

Technically, Kill Bill is probably more of a classic Tarantino action film than Inglourious Basterds, but this film features not one but two strong female characters. Diane Kruger and Mélanie Laurent are both riveting, and help ground the movie in what could have totally been a schlocky sausage-fest. The film's controversial and debated for its themes and revisionist history, but the "dueling plans to assassinate Hitler" make for an absolutely riveting plot.

'Atomic Blonde'

This wasn't a perfect movie, but not since Angelina Jolie has there been anyone as good as Charlize Theron at really selling you on brutal fight scenes. She really goes hard, getting as many punches as she gives. Her character's also unabashedly sexually fluid, and the movie doesn't judge or criticize her for it. Theron's apparently found a home as villain Cipher in the Fast and Furious franchise, but this character is more nuanced and raw. I'm calling it now: Theron's the new Weaver.

'Spider-Man: Homecoming'

I'll be honest. I had to be dragged to this movie, because I really didn't love where the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films ended up, and the Andrew Garfield reboots never interested me. But once I settled in, 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.

'Thor: Ragnarok'

Chris Hemsworth is so funny in this (in addition to being utterly gorgeous). 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, from Cate Blanchett to absolute icon Jeff Goldblum (also hot). I will watch this movie 50 more times before I die.


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