“I wouldn’t be making movies and television today if it wasn’t for Raiders of the Lost Ark”

(Pictured: Neil Marshall as an extra in Game of Thrones episode ‘The Watchers on the Wall’, which he directed in addition to the ‘Blackwater’ episode)

Award-winning director of Dog Soldiers, The Descent and Game of Thrones and guest speaker at the NFTS Horror Day, Neil Marshall ably takes up the baton of our top ten movie list and ups the ante with a suitably high-velocity selection of action movies. From high adrenalin car chases to edge of your seat stunts, this list literally has it all!

Neil: First of all, I’d preface this by saying these are ten of my personal favourite action movies. It’s far from me to claim these are the best action movies ever made. I haven’t seen all of the action movies ever made! Few of these are recent. None of them are Marvel or Comic Book movies. It’s all a question of taste really. I haven’t included any Asian movies in the list because, quite frankly, it’s impossible to choose one or two that would be representative when the standard overall is so continually jaw-dropping. Jackie Chan alone has made more than ten action masterpieces in his sleep!

So here goes…

10. The Bourne Identity

Choosing one movie from such a great franchise isn’t easy, and although Paul Greengrass has firmly put his stamp on the adventures of Jason Bourne, it was this first movie, directed by Doug Liman, that set the bar so high in the first place.  I knew I was watching something fresh and dynamic when Bourne checked the road map before the car chase, or snatched the floor plan from the wall while escaping the US embassy. Until then, action heroes seemed to automatically know their way around places they’d never been. Bourne was different. He felt authentic and seemed genuinely lost, and he used his wits as much as his brawn.  That said, when cornered, his brawn also had a refreshing intensity to it - great choreography combined with fast paced cutting - but never so fast you lost track of the action. Of course Greengrass then picked up the mantle, made (at least) two awesome sequels, completed the trilogy and propelled Jason Bourne into popular culture.

9. Aliens

Few films have left me in a state resembling shell shock, literally trembling from the adrenaline rush and intensity. Saving Private Ryan was one of those, but Aliens was the first.  James Cameron’s genius was in making a sequel that continued the story set up in Alien, and followed its lone survivor Ellen Ripley, but dropped her and the entire movie, like an incendiary bomb, into an entirely new genre - sci-fi war.  We’d had soldiers fighting aliens on earth before - War Of The Worlds, Invaders From Mars etc - but we’d never seen drop ships plummeting into combat with a xenomorphic hive before.  This changed everything.  But despite all the incredible storytelling and design work involved in the movie, for me it was the sound that left the biggest impression.  From the moment Jones hissed and Ripley shattered that glass on the floor I knew my ears were in for a beating, and the rest of the movie rocked my world. 

8. Predator

For better or worse, they just don’t make movies this macho any more, and they probably never will. You can see the testosterone dripping from every frame of Predator.  When I first saw the trailer, the notion of Alien meets Platoon was an irresistible combination, and the movie delivered on every level. Beginning with Jesse Ventura wielding his Mini-gun ‘Ole Painless’ and ending with Arnie caked in mud, wielding a spear and howling into the night like some primal savage, Predator has it all, and has rightfully earned a special place in the hearts of all men who grew up during the 80’s. Sadly, none of the sequels and spin-offs have managed to live up to the undiluted awesomeness of the original - though Predator 2 definitely has its moments.

7. First Blood

The original, and by far the best, of the Rambo movies. Before the character of John J Rambo became an icon of action cinema and US foreign policy alike, Ted Kotcheff’s gritty action thriller First Blood actually had something to say, and Sylvester Stallone delivered a genuinely sympathetic performance as the psychologically shattered Vietnam veteran gone rogue in a backwater mountain town.  Kudos too to Brian Dennehy for his smart performance as Sheriff Will Teasle who gets on the wrong side of Rambo and triggers events into action.  Shot on location in the town of Hope, British Columbia, the mist covered mountains lend the movie an incredibly haunting atmosphere and give Rambo a new jungle to practice his deadly craft and run rings around the unprepared law enforcement officers who are way out of their depth.  It’s always worth remembering, given the wanton carnage he would unleash in later movies, that Rambo is only responsible for the death of one character in this movie, and even that’s debatable.  

6. Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Again, choosing one movie from such a successful franchise is not easy. The first Mission Impossible movie was slick and exciting, as was MI3 and most recently Rogue Nation. All fantastic action thrillers. But Brad Bird’s MI4: Ghost Protocol takes the prize here and mostly because of one scene - the Burj Khalifa. There’s nothing quite like seeing a movie star do his (or her) own stunts, but Tom Cruise takes that concept seemingly to a new level every time. The new level in this case being the 120th floor of the tallest building in the world and hanging off the side of it. Seen in Imax, as I first saw it, the scene will have you gripping the arms of your chair for dear life. It’s not a fast action sequence, but it is a physical and psychological action sequence. The rest of the movie, and the entire franchise, contains other great action moments, but this is the standout…. so far.

5. Assault On Precinct 13

Ever since I saw Zulu for the first time I’ve had an affinity for siege movies, and John Carpenter’s second feature, Assault is a classic of the genre.  Essentially a remake of Howard Hawks equally awesome Rio Bravo but relocated to South Central LA in the 70’s, Carpenter riffs heavily on the Hawksian tradition of having a richly drawn group of characters trapped together in close quarters - in this case an unlikely mix of cops and criminals, united in their defence of the station by a heavily armed urban gang.  Aside from the escalating action, there’s great quality of banter among the group. Napoleon Wilson has since been overshadowed by Carpenter’s later creation - Snake Plissken - but he’s still one of cinemas greatest anti-heroes with some wry punchlines to back him up - “I have my moments”

4. The Professionals

Before Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch heralded the death knell of the Western as America’s premier cinematic art form, Richard Brook’s made this ripping yarn of grizzled men on a daring mission in the last days of the Old West.  It’s a more romantic take on the period, with a real sense of adventure, lacking the blood and guts of the later movie, but what it does have is some great action and cracking dialogue delivered with conviction by Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster. It’s that sense of conviction, from the actors and their characters, that gives the movie its title. I’d put it up there with Where Eagles Dare as one of the greatest men-on-a-mission movies of all time. Clearly Tarantino is a big fan too since the line “Let’s go to work” is taken directly from this movie. 

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

Who could have guessed that nearly 30 years after the last instalment of the Mad Max saga, original director George Miller would return to the franchise, aged 70, and literally blow the doors off the action genre, once again setting the bar he had raised so high back in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  The beauty of Fury Road is its simplicity. It’s one big relentless chase, all the way there and all the way back again, featuring some of the most incredible vehicular carnage every committed to film.  It’s also not really a movie about Max. He’s almost a supporting character to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. But again, that’s part of its brilliance.  Miller spent 10 years planning this movie through many false starts, but all that heartache and effort paid off in droves. No Fast and Furious movie could ever compare.

2. Die Hard

Text book. That pretty much sums up John McTiernan’s genre defining classic. It is a text book example of great action movie making - from Steven E. DeSouza’s smart, witty and perfectly structured script through to McTiernan’s kinetic direction, Jan DeBont’s cinematography, Michael Kamen’s score and Bruce Willis’s career high performance.  But what’s a hero without a great villain? When talking about Die Hard you cannot underestimate the importance of Alan Rickman’s exquisitely drawn portrayal of Hans Gruber in the success of the movie. No raving psychotic, Gruber is a measured man with an audacious plan, and if it wasn’t for “the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench", he might well have gotten away with it.  It’s testament to Rickman’s performance that you almost want him to.

1. Raiders Of The Lost Ark

You know how I said at the start that it was far from me to claim these as the greatest action movies ever made?  Well, I lied.  Raiders, quite simply is, and probably always will be in my humble opinion, THE GREATEST ACTION MOVIE EVER MADE.   I’ve written about Raiders many times before so I’m not sure what I can add here. I wouldn’t be making movies and television today if it wasn’t for Raiders. It is my ultimate inspiration and aspiration, perfect despite its flaws, of which there are very few. The brainchild of several of cinema’s greatest storytellers - George Lucas, Phil Kaufman, Lawrence Kasdan and Steven Spielberg, Raiders was clearly made with love, and every frame is imbued with that passion and spirit of adventure. Indiana Jones was given life by Harrison Ford’s pitch perfect performance, and soul by John Williams rousing score.  Once it starts, it grabs you and never lets go. Story, character and action in perfect synchronicity.   I've lost count of how many times I must have seen it now, but I never get tired of watching it and I never will.