We’ve set ourselves the task of avoiding Marvel and Star Wars entirely in our mega-list of the best action flicks on Disney+. There’s just too many vital standalone movies to highlight here!
Scroll to see every bus-racing, terrorist-besting, Pandora-saving, French-connecting action movie that deserves to be seen on Disney’s streaming service. There’s plenty of old faves you might not have got around to, plus hits of recent years to revisit.
Director Danny Boyle is one of the best at capturing adrenaline on camera: using nerve-shredding music moments, edgy digital footage, and disorienting editing to make 28 Days Later a totally fresh entry to the zombie canon. Cillian Murphy slowly turns into a bloodthirsty creature himself, resorting to hideous violence to protect his fellow survivors.
We love it when a plan comes together, and the plan to resurrect TV’s vengeful team of disgraced Special Forces operatives worked nicely. You don’t need to be familiar with the 80s action show to appreciate this standalone revamp, and the casting is top notch. Liam Neeson is the brains Hannibal, Bradley Cooper is the face…Face, Sharlto Copley is the unhinged wild card “Howling Mad” Murdock, and wrestler Rampage Jackson brings the muscle as B.A. Baracus.
I’ve written before about how much I adore Rosa Salazar’s motion-capture, anime-eyed lead role in this movie. The cyberpunk dystopia, set in the year 2563, wouldn’t work without such a committed performance, bringing the tale of floating elitist cities and bone-crushing motorball tournaments to ugly life. It’s grotesque, sentimental, and a total trip.
Forget the history-making box office and upcoming sequels for a second, and try to view Avatar as the next step in James Cameron’s action evolution. It’s highly impressive that the battle scenes and soaring flight sequences manage to still have weight and impact, considering how much green screen and blue nonsense are whizzing around in the background at all times. We’re watching the future of physical, action-based storytelling and it looks great.
80s Orientalism and machismo in all its sweaty, muscular glory. This John Carpenter joint throws everything at the wall and we love what sticks, with mythical baddies and Kim Cattrall as a green-eyed princess in a tower. Kurt Russell flexes his mullet as the action-movie guy who thinks he’s the main character, but only really comes through in one epic knife fight at the very end of the film.
The first Ahnold flick on this list and certainly not the last. Made back when R-rated movies were blitzing the box office every weekend, this very predictable action blockbuster has Schwarzennegger rescuing his daughter Alyssa Milano from bitter mercenary pals from his army times. He’s got a ridiculous name (John Matrix) and some ridiculous lines to spout just after killing baddies (“Let off some steam, Bennett”, he tells one foe after impaling him on a hot pipe).
I have had it with these motherf**king convicts on this motherf**king plane!! Nic Cage’s stringy mullet leads an all-star cast, with Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Dave Chappelle, Danny Trejo, and John Malkovich as sinister crooks taking over a prison transport plane. The cutesy ballad “How Do I Live” feels totally out of place here but who cares when everything else is so meme-abley entertaining (“why couldn’t you put the bunny back in the box?”).
Thief, warrior, gladiator, king. We would also add “movie star” to that trajectory, with Arnold Schwarzennegger phonetically learning a few iconic action lines to kickstart his megastar career in this 1982 fantasy. He delivers those violent words well enough (“crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women”) but his body does all the talking, wielding huge swords to finally behead the awesome Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones).
This 80s hit makes action-filmmaking look easy: just come up with a novel location, set it at Christmas for no particular reason, and give us one of the most like-able everyman heroes and most intimidating villains ever. Simple! Die Hard continues to satisfy with every rewatch, putting Bruce Willis through so many painful obstacles that you feel his ultimate triumph in your gut.
Here’s one of the neatest action thrillers of the 90s, made by an 80s supergroup of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Top Gun director Tony Scott. Will Smith and Gene Hackman have great chemistry as a Hitchcockian wrong man and a powerful NSA communications expert (could be his same character from The Conversation??). But there’s also some wild supporting appearances, with everyone from Jack Black to Regina King.
God bless John Woo for his creative control of this bonkers, high-concept action thriller. Nic Cage and John Travolta swap faces, meaning each gets to play both a maniacal terrorist and a grieving government agent willing to do anything to avenge his kid’s death. Of course doves break free to litter the air around the climactic gunfight.
This list’s only non-fiction action movie. The Oscar-winning climbing documentary gives us both a dogged action hero in the biologically fearless Alex Honnold, and a play-by-play of the guy’s momentous sporting achievement. You’ll come away simultaneously feeling like you know everything about free solo climbing, and also that you will absolutely never attempt it in your lifetime.
It’s wild that a grim, cynical film like this could win Best Picture once upon a time. Gene Hackman is merciless as the unpleasant detective “Popeye” Doyle, doing whatever it takes to hunt down a French heroin smuggler. William Friedkin nails the claustrophobic, doomed feeling of a city on the brink, and the subway stair shootout still hits hard.
Pixar’s superhero romp makes the most of its action scenes by really showcasing each member of the gifted Parr family’s abilities. The stretchy mum gets a hilarious infiltration scene between closing doors: speedy kid Dash runs on water to evade capture: and super-strong dad Bob has to battle a huge robot, as well as the weight of his own mid-life crisis. A great introduction to the powers of action choreo and storytelling for kids.
Ridley Scott goes on an epic crusade in this historical battle drama. As with many of the director’s films, the cinematic cut is not considered the best version of Kingdom of Heaven, so seek the director’s cut if you can. Orlando Bloom stars as a Jerusalem noble facing the slaughter and glory of the Battle of Hattin.
Hugh Jackman’s last turn (probably) as The X-Men’s wild card Wolverine. Both he and Patrick Stewart’s doddering Professor X are haunted by memories of better days—the only mutant that seems to have been born in more than 20 years is the vicious young Laura (Dafne Keen), now being hunted by the evil lab Transigen. A funereal superhero movie from James Mangold.
An ensemble cast of retro stars, a high-concept set-up, and complex themes of faith and survival: The Poseidon Adventure is the gem of the 70s disaster movie subgenre. When a luxury cruise-liner flips upside down on New Years Eve, Gene Hackman’s pragmatic priest leads a small band of survivors to the bottom/top of the ship, facing fire, rising waters, and tests of faith along the way.
With only one female character and a tonne of muscular bloodshed, Predator is one of the 80s’ most macho sci-fi flicks. Again, it stars Ahnold as an elite paramilitary operative, doling out powerful handshakes and lines like “get to dah choppah!”, all while being hunted down by Stan Winston’s drooling practical effects creation.
Elegiac and icky in equal measure, Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe has some cracking action moments in it, where you’re not quite sure whether you’re rooting for the very dumb human crew or the mythic critters picking them off. I’ll never forget seeing Charlize Theron running away from a towering space donut, before it tips over and smooshes her into the alien soil.
Rod Serling’s original Planet of the Apes kept its shocking, apocalyptic surprise until the end, leaving it to this modern prequel series to explain just how humanity could become dominated by intelligent chimps. These apes, led by Andy Serkis in a career-best motion capture performance, bring real primal atmosphere to the San Francisco-set tale that ends on a prophetic pandemic note.
Speaking of San Francisco, the city’s under threat by nerve gas unleashed on prison island Alcatraz in this goofy, thrilling Michael Bay hit. Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery make a great, hammy team as they try to take down Ed Harris’ embittered team of rogue Marines. Connery has microfilm proving JFK’s real assassin, and Cage’s name is Dr Stanley Goodspeed: action dumbness bliss.
Zooming via jetpack from the 30s to the early 90s, Joe Johnston’s retrofuturist adventure has sweeping style and a wonderful climactic setpiece. It all goes down on a Nazi airship, with Timothy Dalton as the evil Sinclair, Jennifer Connelly as an enchanting damsel in distress, and Terry O’Quinn as Hollywood innovator Howard Hughes. Still undersung as a Disney standalone action flick, we think.
No action hit of the 90s made as much use of a ticking time-bomb set-up as Jan de Bont’s Speed, introducing us to Sandy Bullock and making a clean-cut Keanu even more of a star. Dennis Hopper is the sneering madman watching his bus plan go boom, and the ever-escalating thrills play out with nerve-shredding precision.
Liam Neeson has a very particular set of skills, namely revitalising his career in mid-life to only play gritty avenger dads. When his daughter is kidnapped whilst on a European vacation, retired CIA agent Brian hops on a flight and cracks skulls together to get the answers he needs. Luc Besson and Pierre Morel know just how to shoot a violent urban odyssey, and Neeson gives some neat John McClane energy.
The ultimate “dudes rock” Western. Kurt Russell, a career-best Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, and Bill Paxton sport wild mustaches as the gun-slinging heroes of the OK Corral showdown, in a time where justice and freedom were still up in the air for any bold enough cowboys to nab ‘em. The gunfights and horseback galloping are epic, but so are the well-scripted exchanges between these burly men.