John Wick: Chapter 2 came out yesterday. I haven’t seen it yet but I already know it’s awesome because John Wick was so good. They could literally just CGI different actors into the first one and I’d be coming out of the theater thinking I’ve never seen anything like it. Obviously, to prepare for the release I’ve been re-watching the first one frequently, and it’s got me thinking of where John ranks among the all time action movie characters. So, I put together a top ten. I lost sleep for weeks over this. These flip-flopped so many times it’s not even funny. I wouldn’t be surprised if leaving some people out cost me my life.
This is based on a number of different factors: body count, best lines, best hair, signature moves, and general badass-ness and coolness. There are no limitations on actors having multiple entries. I also value quality over quantity. I won’t punish a character for appearing in a million movies (as you’ll soon see), but if a one-off character has a transcendent performance he gets priority over one who put in five average ones. Villains are eligible. I know I called this Best Action Movie characters, but this is bigger than genre. It’s a mindset. So characters from all genres of movies who show the requisite qualities are eligible, but not many do. Kill counts from AOBG and moviebodycounts.
Before we begin, I need to give out some Honorable Mentions because I want everyone to understand how difficult it was to make this list: Hans Gruber, Diehard (doesn’t get his hands dirty enough), Han Solo, Star Wars (one of my favorite characters ever, but too PG for this list), Indiana Jones (Ditto), Chad and Alex Wagner, Double Impact (I’ll be honest, I’m not the biggest Van Damme guy, but I knew he was far too important to ignore. Not enough to crack the top 10, though), Ip Man (there’s so many great martial arts characters out there that check every box on the badass check sheet. But, most have the personality of a paperclip. Ip Man was an exception), Creasy, Man on Fire/ Robert McCall, The Equalizer (I wish Denzel would do more action movies. They all deliver), Harry Callahan, Dirty Harry series/ Man with No Name, Dollars Trilogy (shout out to one of the original action heroes Clint Eastwood), Leonidas, 300 (good body count and one-liners, but loses points for dying as the protagonist), Maximus, Gladiator (see- Leonidas), Jack Reacher (second best character to come out in the last few years. But he’s going up against some legends), Ethan Hunt, Mission Impossible franchise (the Tim Hudson of action stars- always good, never great), Machete (another tough cut. But those were some weird movies), Mason Storm, Hard to Kill (how do I leave him off the list? This top 10 better be stacked), Beck, The Rundown/ Chris Vaughn, Walking Tall (early Rock movies were so good), Stanley Goodspeed/ John Patrick Mason, The Rock (one of the best TNT movies ever), RoboCop (always felt like there was something missing with those movies), Neo, Matrix Trilogy (would have been better with a little more personality from Keanu (not a problem for another character)), Frank Martin, The Transporter (Jason Statham might be the most underrated action star ever), Dalton, Roadhouse (one of the all time cheesiest movies ever, but it’s high points are unreal), Steven Hiller, Independence Day (there was a time when Will Smith owned Summer more than anyone ever owned any season. Then he got married), Neville Flynn, Snakes on a Plane (easily one of the top ten lines of all time), President Marshall, Air Force One (get out of my top ten!), Riggs and Murtaugh, Lethal Weapon series (all time action duo), Batman (this is a character countdown, not an actor one. So the Batman character loses points for George Clooney), Dom Toretto/ Brian O’Connor/ Hobbs, Fast and Furious franchise (might be my favorite movie franchise ever. So many great lines, so many great moments, so much great action. But as action characters, they lack the singular badass-ness as the top 10), Tango & Cash (greatest one-off action duo and one of the most underrated movies ever), Cameron Poe/ Cyrus the Virus, Con Air (for my money, the second best action villain ever. Manipulative, arrogant, conniving, great lines, and personally killed a lot of people. Poe nearly makes the top 10 on the strength of his hair alone), Tommy Oliver, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Movie (held back by the fact that it was a kid’s movie. Could easily have run up a big time body count), Marion Cobretti, Cobra/ Judge Dredd/ Gabe Walker, Cliffhanger/ John Spartan, Demolition Man (the great Stallone roles that didn’t make the cut), Dutch, Predator/ Jack Slater, Last Action Hero/ Terminator/ Douglas Quaid/Houser, Total Recall/ Ben Richards, Running Man (respect the GOAT), James Bond (before Daniel Craig they were all kind of pussies).
Now, finally, to the top ten:
10. Castor Troy, Face/Off
Perhaps the most electrifying two-man acting performance to ever grace the silver screen. Nic Cage turning it up to 100 is always reason to watch, but then when John Travolta tries to imitate Nic Cage turning it all the way up it becomes something more. It becomes the purest form of performance art that Louis Le Prince dreamed of when his camera recorded the first moving images. Castor himself checks all the boxes you would expect from an all time action villain. The great lines. The dastardly plan (his body count would be in the millions had his plan succeeded). A great crew. You know John Travolta’s hair always comes to play. Easily the most iconic late-90’s film villain, no matter the genre.
Best Line: I’m Castor Troy!
Signature Move: Overacting
9. Snake Plissken, Escape from New York/ Escape from L.A.
Any time the first video result that pops up in Google is (character) Badass, you know you’ve got something special. The first example I can think of of the Government turning to the best criminal when their own guys can’t get the job done, Snake serves as the template for every pretty much every criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold anti-hero that came after him. Bonus points for using multiple weapons for kills, making an underhand three-quarter court shot in Escape from L.A., and huge, huge bonus points for having by far the best hair on the list.
Best Line: Call me Snake
Signature Move: Pointing his gun skyward while turning his head towards the camera with a scowl/smirk on his face while smoking a cigarette.
8. The Bride, Kill Bill
The only woman on the list gets in mostly on the strength of her elite body count. Depending on where you look, you get anywhere from 62-76. Let’s go with 70. That’s crazy high for a non-Stallone/Arnold character (but not the highest. We’ll get to him later). She has some of the most beautifully choreographed fight scenes and gets bonus points for some sweet katana kills, a very underused weapon these days. Her personality is decent for a pretty standard revenge flick, and she’s about as cool as a married woman can be.
Best Line: As I said before, I’ve allowed you to keep your wicked life for two reasons. And the second reason is so you can tell him in person everything that happened here tonight. I want him to witness the extent of my mercy by witnessing your deformed body. I want you to tell him all the information you just told me. I want him to know what I know. I want him to know I want him to know. And I want them all to know they’ll all soon be as dead as O-Ren.
Signature Move: Somehow not getting killed when surrounded by about 50 people with swords
7. Jason Bourne, Bourne Series
Even though I biased towards Matt Damon, Jason Bourne is an easy pick for the list. Even in a series that prides itself on gritty realism, he’s still superhumanly badass. Probably the smartest character on the list, he outwits the blackest of black ops forces four movies in a row. Has a surprisingly low kill count, but if you add in all the random henchmen he knocks out, he’s right up there. He’s top three most creative and innovative action hero ever, and can teach MacGyver a thing or two about using one’s surroundings.
Best Line: I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab or the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?
Kills: 43 (21 in Jason Bourne)
Signature Move: Breaking your humerus
6. Bryan Mills, Taken Series
This is where my objectivity becomes impressive, because Bryan Mills might be my second favorite action character ever, but I’m willing to admit he’s only number 6 on the list. Spent three movies killing countless guys that look like Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic of the Nuggets with his bare hands and the butt of his gun. The ultimate example of what happens when grizzled badass-ness meets dad-strength. Every line he delivers has the perfect mix of steely malice and fatherly concern. Near superhuman spacial awareness and never loses his cool under any circumstances. In a rare twist, his killing sprees end with him saving someone, rather than for pure revenge.
Best Line: I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you. (What else?)
Signature Move: Throat chop
5. John Rambo, Rambo Series
Culturally, the second most important character on this list. His name now synonymous with gung-ho, reckless, take-no-prisoners violence, what started as a critical look at a soldier’s life after combat turned into the most graphic and gratuitously violent franchise this side of Friday the 13th. And personally, I’m more than okay with that. The most prolific murder ever, when you see his final kill count keep in mind that he killed one (1) person in First Blood. The originator of the One Man Army genre and the ultimate backwoods badass, Rambo’s impact can be felt in pretty much every facet of American culture. So why isn’t he higher? Well, this countdown takes every facet of a character into account. After First Blood, Rambo doesn’t show a whole lot of personality. He’s like a cardboard cutout of a man who can magically operate a mini-gun. It took me about an hour to come up with his best line, and it wasn’t because there were so many to parse through. Nonetheless, both Rambo and Stallone are legends. Points for consistently good hair.
Best Line: When you’re pushed, killing is as easy as breathing
Kills: 442 (!!)
Signature Move: Killing with giant knife/M60/bow
4. Aragorn, Lord of the Rings trilogy
When determining the best action characters, it’s important not to judge someone by the purity of their genre, but by the content of their character. The Lord of the Rings movies aren’t necessarily what you think of when it comes to action movies, but all three have more traditional action that First Blood did. And Aragorn brings all the qualities you need: ultimate badass warrior, uses swords, skilled tracker and survivalist, decent hair when it’s not wet and greasy. What he lacks in witty one-liners he makes up for in stirring speeches. Might not matter too much in the lone-wolf world of action movies, but he’s the best leader in movie history. Not many kings make the list, so that has to count for something.
Best Line: We will not abandon Merry and Pippin to torment and death. Not while we have strength left. Leave all that can be spared behind. We travel light. Let’s hunt some Orc.
Kills: Depends on where you look. Somewhere between 60-108
Signature Move: Beheading
3. John Wick, John Wick
It took all the willpower I had not to put the Boogeyman number one. He might have made the list if he never killed anyone based on the way the Russians talk about him in the first half hour of the movie. Twenty years from now, we’ll be talking about John Wick the same way we talk about Rambo and the true number one on the list. He’s an instant legend. A maestro with a pistol, he dishes out headshots with reckless abandon. His abilities border on superhuman, and no injury slows him for more than five minutes. Highest single movie kill count of anyone not played by Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Keanu Reeves’ trademark wooden deadpan was made for action movies. The reason John Wick is rewarded for his excellent stoicism but Rambo is punished is that Rambo in First Blood was a real person, then devolved into a silent killing machine. Good hair and is always well dressed.
Best Line: People keep asking if I’m back and I haven’t really had an answer. But now, yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back.
Kills: 80 (Haven’t seen 2 yet)
Signature Move: Headshot
2. John Matrix, Commando
Absolute peak Schwarzenegger. His best role, bar none. The Picasso of one-liners, he takes sentences that come off as horribly cheesy, insufferable puns when uttered by lesser men and molds them into pure poetry. John Matrix takes that skill to the absolute extreme, delivering verbal gold after every kill. And he kills a lot of people. The platonic ideal of the 80s action hero: gigantic physical specimen spews pithy lines as he mercilessly revenge-kills everyone in his wake while also squashing a South American military coup. Now that John Wick 2 is out, Matrix stands as the best one-movie action character ever, and the best character from the first era of action movies.
Signature Move: Impaling with a steam pipe
1. John McClane, Die Hard Series
In the world of action movies, there’s two eras: Before Die Hard and After Die Hard. John McClane stands as arguably the most influential film character of all time. Almost every action movie to come out after Die Hard borrowed something from it. Hero singlehandedly takes out bad guys who are holding someone/somewhere hostage. Wisecracking smart-ass takes down foreigner. Badass on vacation is dragged back into the fray. How many times have you seen any of those scenarios if you really think about it? A million? Not that I’m complaining. McClane has everything: badass cop who plays by his own rules, rough exterior with a soft side, creative use of space and weapons, clever lines, and a superhuman ability to never die. In every Die Hard movie, he should die at least three times, but he doesn’t (has anyone looked into whether Unbreakable is the secret prequel to Die Hard?). He even has hair, which still seems weird to me. Bruce Willis is the most natural bald guy ever. Gains points for still standing out every movie despite always having great characters around him.
Signature Move: Dying hard