The 32 greatest action movie characters

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Bullets, bombs, and bravery - such as the things that define heroism in action cinema. But which of them actually deserve recognition as the greatest of all time?

Whether they’re heroes or villains, the characters who appear in action movies are easily some of the most iconic in popular culture. Even if they aren’t the most complex characters ever written, to be an influential action movie character means pushing the absolute limits of what it means to be a reasonable human being in the name of a greater cause. 

As action movies continue to beckon audiences to movie theaters, it’s high time to collect and name some of the greatest action movie characters of all time. A toast to the men and women whose knuckles are bloodied and eyes are bruised. This is a salute to the greatest of them all.

32. James Dalton

Road House

(Image credit: United Artists)

When the music is hot and the women are hotter, you’ll find James Dalton keeping his cool. In Rod Herrington’s 1989 action classic, Patrick Swayze stars as a monk-like bouncer hired to clean up the sleazy Double Deuce bar only to meet a ruthless businessman standing in his way. Conceptually and spiritually, James Dalton is an old school Western hero - he’s sharp, stern, principled, and carries well-traveled swagger like no one else in this podunk corner of Missouri. Swayze might have been a heartthrob in Dirty Dancing, but in Road House, he’s truly a man of action.

31. Shang Tsung 

Mortal Kombat

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

Although Shang Tsung originates from the Mortal Kombat video games, actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa made the sinister sorcerer his own in the cult classic 1995 movie adaptation. Decked out in black leather before The Matrix was even a thing, Tagawa’s portrayal of Shang Tsung - an ancient mystic with the power to physically transform into other people - lives up to the word “iconic,” with his searing looks into the camera and stone cold delivery of lines like “Your soul is mine.” While Asian villains in Hollywood were historically emasculated by “yellow peril” archetypes, Tagawa makes Shang Tsung feel like a real, imposing menace, and also the coolest bad guy you’ve ever seen.

30. Ilsa Faust

Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

It is, pardon the word, impossible to imagine anyone upstaging Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible movies. But starting with the 2015 sequel Rogue Nation, in comes the breathtaking and enigmatic Rebecca Ferguson, and the series has never been the same since. As recurring anti-hero MI6 agent Ilsa Faust, Ferguson’s character possesses some ineffable power and sway over Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. Call it love, call it infatuation, call it whatever you want. Ethan’s world was forever changed when Ilsa Faust entered the picture, and that’s saying something.

29. Hellboy


(Image credit: Sony Pictures Releasing)

You would never expect the son of hell’s demons to love candy, TV, and beer. But Ron Perlman’s Hellboy has more personality than he does horns. Originating from Mike Mignola’s gothic comic book series and appearing in Guillermo del Toro’s celebrated cinematic adaptations, Hellboy is a secret federal agent who investigates dangerous supernatural cases. But when he’s off the clock, the man just likes to kick back - a Babe Ruth bar in his hand, a dumbbell in the other, and cartoons and game shows taking up his attention. He might be a demon, but he’s more human than the stiff suits giving him orders. 

28. Frank Dux


(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Dubious claims from the real-life Frank Dux aside, Jean Claude Van Damme’s protagonist from the 1988 beefcake classic Bloodsport deserves a place in the canon of all-time action movie greats. A U.S. Marine and master of ninjutsu, Frank Dux participates in the dangerous underground martial arts tournament “Kumite.” After shedding much blood, sweat, and blinding tears, Frank finally comes out on top. Frank Dux is arguably JCVD’s best cinematic role of his career, with the “Muscles from Brussels” looking unstoppable with split-legged crotch punches. 

27. Batman (Christian Bale)

Batman Begins

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

When the Caped Crusader needed to be reinvented from the ground up, it took the combined efforts of director Christopher Nolan and actor Christian Bale. In Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, affluent playboy Bruce Wayne joins the secretive League of Shadows to learn their ways before returning to Gotham City and becoming the vengeful superhero Batman. Beyond the seismic creative and aesthetic influence of 2005’s Batman Begins, Bale’s portrayal of the DC superhero was simultaneously contemporary and timeless, forever changing how movie superheroes were depicted on screen for decades to come.

26. Luke Hobbs

Fast Five

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

It’s rare for an action movie character to make any meaningful impact in the fifth installment. But Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is just built different. In 2011’s Fast Five, the crossover WWE and Hollywood star plays the lethal Luke Hobbs, a government agent tasked with hunting rogue criminals Dom Toretto and Brian O’Connor. Though an antagonist in Fast Five, Luke returns in subsequent sequels as an uneasy ally. (He also starred in his own standalone feature, Hobbs & Shaw, co-starring Jason Statham.) Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel were infamously at each other’s throats behind the scenes, which makes their characters’ on-screen boiling tensions feel all the more real.

25. Wong Fei-hung 

Drunken Master

(Image credit: Sony Pictures)

It is not simply the role that made Jackie Chan famous, but the role that has defined his whole career. As Wong Fei-hung, the Hong Kong icon dazzles as real-life martial artist, physician, and Chinese folk hero in 1978’s Drunken Master and 1994’s Legend of the Drunken Master. The novelty and comic potential of Drunken Fist kung fu (which is as real as any martial arts style can be) is basically the perfect vehicle for Chan to flex his extremely concentrated muscles as both a comedy and action star. Just watch Chan flip over guys while imbibing clear liquors by the bottle, and you’ll almost feel foolish enough to try it yourself the next time a night out with the boys gets too rowdy.

24. Deadpool


(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

They call him the “Merc with the Mouth,” and it’s not hard to see why. Emerging from the brain of comics artist Rob Liefeld and later tweaked by Fabian Nicieza, Deadpool is the lethal jester of the Marvel Universe, boldly unafraid to rub his gross thumb in the Avengers’ noses. Played by Ryan Reynolds - first playing the role in a maligned 2009 X-Men spinoff before starring in his own R-rated series - Deadpool is a foul-mouthed superhero who doesn’t mind getting his spandex wet (with blood, natch, but who knows what else). Though he’s crass and crude, Deadpool does in fact have a heart, with his undying love for his true love Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) being his primary motivator in all of his movies. Only Deadpool can get away with a slowed-down cover of A-ha’s “Take on Me” underscoring a truly deep moment, and it actually doesn’t feel like a joke.

23. “Dirty” Harry Callahan 

Dirty Harry

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Do you feel lucky, punk? You better hope so. While Clint Eastwood has dominated the screen playing many all kinds of different hardboiled folks with guns, his anti-heroic cop “Dirty” Harry Callahan of the San Francisco P.D. is perhaps his greatest single character work to date. Armed with his trusty .44 Magnum and a smoldering stare that can cook weaker men to a crisp, Eastwood asserts his Hollywood stardom and pop culture immortality through the many Dirty Harry movies, starting with (what else) Dirty Harry in 1971. Bad guys beware, because there’s an even badder man not far behind you.

22. Captain Jack Sparrow

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

He might be the worst pirate you’ve ever heard of, but you have heard of him. While he’s technically not the main character of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean film series, Captain Jack Sparrow is undeniably its biggest mascot, starring in additional sequels even after the primary story of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann ran its course. Played by Johnny Depp - who approached the role like a sun-drunk rock star - Captain Jack Sparrow is simply unlike any buccaneer pirate from your childhood imagination. Even with all the rum in his system, Captain Jack is always sharp enough to know how to get out of trouble. You just can’t guarantee he won’t run into trouble again.

21. Rita Vrataski

Edge of Tomorrow

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Before Edge of Tomorrow, Emily Blunt was mostly known for appearing in supporting roles in grounded dramedies like The Devil Wears Prada, Dan in Real Life, and Sunshine Cleaning. But in 2014, Blunt flexed her muscles as an action heroine in Doug Liman’s sci-fi spectacle Edge of Tomorrow, and it’s been hard to see her as anything else since. As Rita Vrataski, Blunt exudes confidence and unmatched capability in mankind’s desperate war for survival against an alien threat. It’s no wonder why Tom Cruise is desperate to get on her good side and help him break the time loop he’s stuck in. We would all do the same.

20. Lee

Enter the Dragon

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

The legendary Bruce Lee had only one Hollywood movie role, and that was his leading man part in the 1973 classic Enter the Dragon. As “Lee,” Bruce Lee plays a zen-like Shaolin monk and freelance agent for British intelligence who is recruited into a mission to stop an international criminal mastermind at his island fortress. Although the man is practically indistinguishable from his own character, the paper-thin characterization works to Lee’s advantage. After all, when you’re Bruce Lee, you don’t need to be anyone else.

19. John Wick

John Wick: Chapter 4

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

He is the Continental’s most treasured guest, and you truly don’t want to mess with his dog. Starting in 2014, Keanu Reeves revitalized his movie stardom playing the unstoppable John Wick, a former assassin thrust back into a life of violence after careless mobsters kill his dog. A man of precious few words, Reeves lets his fists do all the talking as his John Wick racks up a body count that would make serial killers quake with fear. John Wick is always dressed to kill, and you’ll never see him as anything less.

18. Nick Fury

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Once upon a time, this man had an idea: To assemble the Avengers and change the movie landscape forever. Played by the always-cool Samuel L. Jackson, Col. Nick Fury has seen everything imaginable in the vast Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the Earthbound link connecting each one of Marvel’s superheroes but still keeping a level head about humanity’s survival. While Fury hasn’t starred in his own movie (the miniseries Secret Invasion aside), his recurring presence in everything from Iron Man to The Avengers to The Marvels and beyond means Fury has more than earned his place in the canon of cinema’s greatest butt-kickers.

17. Captain America

Avengers: Endgame

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Can a shared universe of superheroes have a conscience? With Chris Evans as Captain America, they do. First created by comic artists Jack Kirby and Joe Simon during World War II, Captain America finally got the proper big-screen treatment with 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, with Chris Evans in the title role. Throughout the rest of his appearances in the MCU, Evans’ Steve Rogers reveals himself as a man tortured by his time displacement, someone learning that adapting to modernity doesn’t have to mean sacrificing principles. Though new heroes have taken up the mantle, the Marvel Universe will always have Steve Rogers as its north star.

16. Trinity

The Matrix

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

She’s more than just the love interest for the “Chosen One.” With Trinity, Carrie-Ann Moss plays one of the most transgressive action heroines of all time in the Wachowskis’ revolutionary sci-fi franchise The Matrix. After introducing herself with a jaw-dropping jump kick that exists to tell audiences they’re not in Kansas anymore, Trinity goes on to become a critical component of the Matrix saga. She not only helps Neo become the savior of mankind he’s meant to be, but exists as the reason why Neo wants to fight in the first place. 

15. Ellen Ripley


(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

If only the crew of the Nostromo listened to her, maybe nothing would have gone wrong. From her first appearance in Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien, Sigourney Weaver captivates as Ellen Ripley, a warrant officer who ends up its only survivor after a dangerous parasite matures into an acid-spitting monster. Weaver’s return as Ellen in subsequent Alien sequels have rightfully given her recognition as one of the greatest action movie heroines of all time, renowned for her bravery and grit more over any superficial feature or shallow characterization.

14. Sarah Connor

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

(Image credit: TriStar Pictures)

Going from college student and waitress to gun-toting savior of mankind makes for one heck of a character arc, but Sarah Connor is more than up to the task. Played by Linda Hamilton, the steely and resolute mother to mankind’s savior is, herself, a darling of cinematic heroism. Originating as the target of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s time-traveling T-800 in The Terminator, Sarah Connor beefs up in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and returns even more hardcore decades later in Terminator: Dark Fate. (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke also played a different Sarah Connor in the standalone Terminator Genisys.) No matter what actress wears her boots, you can be certain that Sarah Connor is always the most prepared person in the room.

13. Luke Skywalker

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

(Image credit: Lucasfilm)

When audiences first meet Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars, he’s just a farm boy dreaming of a more adventurous life. Soon, Luke gets what he desires most when he’s thrust into the center of galactic conflict and discovers his Jedi heritage - and a little later, the real identity of his father. What makes Luke Skywalker a hero isn’t that he stands alone against an evil army with a lightsaber, but that even when his enemies are at their most vulnerable, he still shows compassion and resists giving in to the dark side. While that temptation never really goes away, Luke is more than capable of always choosing the better path. May we all know to do the same.

12. Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

(Image credit: Lucasfilm)

He’s like no college professor you’ve ever had. A professor of archaeology by day and an enemy of Nazis by night, Harrison Ford’s handsome explorer Indiana Jones is a fully realized throwback to the swashbucklers of George Lucas’ childhood. Though “Indy” is more than ready to jump across moving trucks or run away from rolling booby troops, he still has his reservations about every call to adventure. (Not to mention a fear of snakes.) And that’s what makes him so great: When you see fear in Indy’s eyes, you know what he’s getting into is real trouble. Whether Indiana Jones’ appeal is because of Harrison Ford or vice versa, all that really matters is that Indiana Jones is one of those characters who just feels like he’s been here all along.

11. Superman (Christopher Reeve)

Superman: The Movie

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Christopher Reeve was far from the first person to wear the red cape of Superman. But with Richard Donner’s refreshing yet reverent take on the DC Comics icon, he became the standard bearer for decades to come, paving the way for the likes of Michael Keaton as Batman and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. Adept at playing both a gee-shucks Clark Kent and a handsome Man of Steel, Reeve wrote the superhero movie playbook in ink, instructing everyone else how to play authentically romantic superheroes without radiating embarrassment over form-fitting spandex. He was simply one of the greatest to ever do it, and he’s arguably the reason why Superman is still the Man of Tomorrow.

10. Inspector Tequila

Hard Boiled

(Image credit: Golden Princess Film)

One part tequila, one part ginger ale, and SLAM! That’s how you make a tequila slammer. And it’s how the ultra-cool Inspector Tequila enters John Woo’s 1992 heroic bloodshed classic Hard Boiled. A tough cop hellbent on nailing a Triad boss before realizing he’s wading into a complicated undercover scheme, Chow Yun-fat shines in a role that is basically Hong Kong’s answer to John McClane. Best remembered for his stylish dual-wielding of pistols, Tequila takes the spotlight in some of the greatest shootouts ever staged in movie history. 

9. Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer 


(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

“If it bleeds, we can kill it.” It’s lines such as those that made Arnold Schwarzenegger one of the greatest action stars of all time. But Schwarzenegger is in exceptionally fine form in the 1987 classic Predator. In the role of Major Alan Schaefer, aka “Dutch,” Schwarzenegger leads an elite squad of butt-kickers through the jungles of South America until they come face to face with a Predator alien. Later on, when Dutch stands alone, that’s when he’s firing on all cylinders as truly one of the toughest dudes ever captured on camera. If it were any other actor playing Dutch, it would be hard to imagine them not running to “da choppa.” But because it’s Schwarzenegger, we believe otherwise.

8. James Bond (Daniel Craig)

Casino Royale

(Image credit: MGM)

Many men before Daniel Craig had their license to kill. But starting with Casino Royale in 2006, Daniel Craig became one of the best to ever really do it. While his short blonde hair, blue eyes, and five-foot-ten frame was in defiance to Bond’s usual description of “tall, dark, and handsome,” Craig’s intensity and haunted masculinity showed that even James Bond can feel pain somewhere deep within. Even if Craig’s movies weren’t singularly great, like Casino Royale and Skyfall, Craig would still be remembered as one of the coolest, most stylish Bonds of all.

7. Furiosa

Mad Max: Fury Road

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The name in the title Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t hers. But Charlize Theron, caked under oil and grease and patinated by despair, is supernova in her role as Furiosa, who first appears in George Miller’s 2010s rip-roaring summer classic. A fierce liberator of the concubines living under an oppressive warlord, it’s Furiosa who figuratively and literally drives the movie forward. For Furiosa, she learns the best way to save people isn’t to run away to some imagined dream land, but to change the world you live in to become the world you know it should be. 

6. Snake Plissken

Escape From New York

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Stern, cold, cynical, but always ready with a witty comeback, Snake Plissken is one of the coolest action heroes ever conceived and one of Kurt Rusell’s best roles of his career. Created by John Carpenter and Nick Castle (the latter of who wore the mask of Michael Myers in the original Halloween), Snake is a decorated war hero turned criminal tasked with infiltrating two maximum security prisons - both formerly the cities of New York and Los Angeles - in exchange for pardons. Though he “works” for the government, his eye patch and service in World War III implies Snake’s cynicism towards authority, which makes him an icon of men who prefer to value their individual honor over national patriotism.

5. Sanjuro


(Image credit: Toho)

With so many different samurai roles under Toshiro Mifune’s belt, it’s hard to pick which of them are his most definitive. But all signs point to his title role of Yojimbo - from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 picture - being singularly representative of both Mifune and Kurosawa’s talents. Mifune slices up some chaos in his portrayal as a masterless samurai and expert swordsman who strolls into a small town divided by rival crime lords; each one of them are desperate to hire the ronin’s services for themselves. Yojimbo and its 1962 sequel, Sanjuro, were both influential over Sergio Leone, who teamed up with Clint Eastwood with their own unofficial remake: A Fistful of Dollars, released in 1964. The Man with No Name is iconic in his own right, but even he owes a debt to Kuwabatake Sanjuro.

4. The Bride

Kill Bill

(Image credit: Miramax)

As collaborators, Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman created pure dynamite with their Kill Bill duology that introduced Thurman in one of her single greatest roles ever: “The Bride.” A beautiful woman driven mad over the ruination of her wedding day, The Bride is admirably resilient and resourceful who overcomes insurmountable odds to satisfy her thirst for revenge. (Just watch her punch her way out of her own grave.) Dressed to kill in an iconic outfit lifted from Bruce Lee, “The Bride” is simply one of the deadliest action movie heroines of all time.

3. Ethan Hunt

Mission: Impossible

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

He’s climbed skyscrapers, fallen from helicopters, and held for dear life off of airplanes. What isn’t Ethan Hunt going to do next? With each new sequel in the Mission: Impossible series, Tom Cruise - as the determined IMF agent Ethan Hunt - pushes the limits of what’s physically possible for any reasonable human person to pull off on camera. Although Ethan doesn’t have much of a personal story to tell anymore beyond his involvement with Ilsa Faust, he is still the one character through which Tom Cruise strives to raise the bar for popcorn entertainment. We should be grateful he does while he still can, because there will come a day when he can no longer accept the mission.

2. John Rambo

First Blood

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

Emerging from the 1972 novel First Blood before leading an action movie franchise with questionable video game cameos, John Rambo - as played by Sylvester Stallone - is a haunted Vietnam vet who sadly brings the terrors of what he’s endured back home. After First Blood, Rambo bizarrely becomes a mascot of violence, one recognized as an asset to be dispatched to godforsaken corners of the world. Ostensibly an anti-war figure whose message is perverted by commercialism, John Rambo still has a real story to tell. Maybe one day that story can be told authentically, without the ghastly glorification of the monster he’s become.

1. John McClane

Die Hard

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Seasons’ greetings from Nakatomi Plaza! From John McTiernan’s Die Hard (and the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp) comes Bruce Willis as NYPD officer John McClane, whose visit to Los Angeles goes up in smoke during a terrorist heist. While McClane has as many one-liners as he does bullets, what makes him so iconic in the canon of action movies is what makes him truly human. He’s flawed, petty, and jealous over his ex-wife’s new life without him. But it’s his determination to live and see another Christmas that makes McClane one of the most unstoppable action heroes ever.

Eric Francisco

Eric Francisco is a freelance entertainment journalist and graduate of Rutgers University. If a movie or TV show has superheroes, spaceships, kung fu, or John Cena, he's your guy to make sense of it. A former senior writer at Inverse, his byline has also appeared at Vulture, The Daily Beast, Observer, and The Mary Sue. You can find him screaming at Devils hockey games or dodging enemy fire in Call of Duty: Warzone.