They were a part of our childhood and we still love them today. Yes, we are talking about action movie stars. In fact, we are talking about the best action stars of all time who left a huge impact on the action movie genre with their larger-than-life personas.
Who doesn’t like a good action movie, right? There are many reasons why this movie genre is the most popular among others, and these action stars are the main ones. Join us as we honor the legends of action cinema and perhaps discover some new favorites along the way.
The shorter these lists are, the harder they are to make. Creating a list of the 16 best action stars of all time was not an easy task. Many good ones needed to be left out, but that doesn’t mean that they are not great action movie stars. It just means that this list is short, and the competition is intense. As we expand the list in the future, new legends will be added.
When you think of the best Hollywood action movies ever, these guys are in it. They are action movie legends for fans all around the world, and our favorite fearless heroes who are kicking bad guys’ asses.
So, get ready for a thrilling ride as we make our pick for the 16 best action stars of all time (in alphabetical order):
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Bruce Lee
- Bruce Willis
- Clint Eastwood
- Chuck Norris
- Jackie Chan
- Jason Statham
- Jean-Claude Van Damme
- Jet Li
- Kurt Russell
- Mel Gibson
- Nicolas Cage
- Steven Seagal
- Sylvester Stallone
- Tom Cruise
- Wesley Snipes
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Born: 1947 (75) in Austria
Breakthrough Movie: Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Best Movies: Commando (1985), Predator (1987), Total Recall (1990), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), True Lies (1994)
Latest Good Movie: Terminator Genisys (2015)
Highest Grossing Movie: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) – $520 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) – 8.5
Arnold Schwarzenegger has starred in over 35 films, the majority of which were action movies. The glory decade for Schwarzenegger was the 1980s, during which he made most of his popular movies. He reached the peak of his career in the early 1990s with Terminator 2 in 1991 and True Lies in 1994.
After a decade-long pause in his movie career (2003-2012), he appeared in The Expendables franchise and Escape Plan with Stallone, as well as continuing his own Terminator franchise. Throughout his career, Schwarzenegger’s one-liners have become iconic. He is one of the highest-grossing actors ever, and many consider him to be the greatest action star of all time.
2. Bruce Lee
Born: 1940 in USA Died: 1973 (32) in Hong Kong
Breakthrough Movie: The Big Boss (1971)
Best Movies: The Big Boss (1971), The Way of the Dragon (1972), Enter the Dragon (1973)
Latest Good Movie: Enter the Dragon (1973)
Highest Grossing Movie: Enter the Dragon (1973) – $90 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Enter the Dragon (1973) – 7.7
With only four completed feature films in a lead role, Bruce Lee has become the greatest icon of martial arts cinema. Those movies are: The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), The Way of the Dragon (1972), and Enter the Dragon (1973). The fifth unfinished movie is titled Game of Death and it was released five years after his death, in 1978.
If he hadn’t made these movies in the early 70s, the martial arts movie genre probably would not have come to North American cinema and influenced the audience the way it did in the last fifty years. We can only imagine if he had been there during the 80s, how much more he would have contributed to the action movie genre.
3. Bruce Willis
Born: 1955 (67) in Germany
Breakthrough Movie: Die Hard (1988)
Best Movies: Die Hard (1988), Pulp Fiction (1994), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), The Fifth Element (1997)
Latest Good Movie: Looper (2012)
Highest Grossing Movie: The Sixth Sense (1999) – $670 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Pulp Fiction (1994) – 8.9
Bruce Willis has made over 70 movies. He has appeared in more than 30 movies in just the last decade, which is more than he made in any other decade before. Sure, it’s more quantity over quality in this last decade, but still, it’s Bruce Willis. The fact that he continuously made action movies in the last 40 years is something we must appreciate.
The golden decade for Bruce was the 90s. That is when he made his best and most popular movies. Besides the ones we mentioned above, there are also movies like Die Hard 2, The Last Boy Scout, Striking Distance, 12 Monkeys, etc. Of course, there are some good ones later on too: The Whole Nine Yards (2000), Unbreakable (2000), Sin City (2005), RED (2010), and Looper (2012). Willis is certainly one of the biggest action stars ever.
RELATED: Best Bruce Willis Movies of All Time
4. Clint Eastwood
Born: 1930 (92) in the United States
Breakthrough Movie: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Best Movies: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Dirty Harry (1971), Unforgiven (1992), Gran Torino (2008)
Latest Good Movie: The Mule (2018)
Highest Grossing Movie: Gran Torino (2008) – $270 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) – 8.8
Clint Eastwood is a living legend when it comes to making movies and being an action star. He has been doing this for the last 60 years, which is truly unbelievable. He began with a bang, starring in The Dollar Trilogy in the 1960s. In the 1970s, he continued with the Dirty Harry movie series. There is literally no decade in which he did not have at least a few excellent movies.
He made Gran Torino in 2008 at the age of 76, which is considered one of his best movies. In 2018, he starred in The Mule, and his latest movie, titled Cry Macho, was released in 2021 at the age of 91.
5. Chuck Norris
Born: 1940 (82) in the United States
Breakthrough Movie: Breaker! Breaker! (1977)
Best Movies: Lone Wolf McQuade (1983), Missing in Action (1984), Code of Silence (1985), Invasion U.S.A. (1985), The Delta Force (1986)
Latest Good Movie: The Expendables 2 (2012)
Highest Grossing Movie: A Force of One (1979) – $23 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Lone Wolf McQuade (1983) – 6.4
Before his movie career, Chuck Norris was a well-known karate champion. His first big movie appearance was in Bruce Lee’s famous movie, The Way of the Dragon. Afterwards, it was suggested to him to continue with the movie path, and he did. He made a few movies during the 1970s, but the 1980s is the decade in which most of his popular movies were made.
During the 1990s, he made several movies too, but the Walker, Texas Ranger action series was the most popular during this decade. In The Expendables 2, he appeared as a military operative, and he was 72 at the time. Only Chuck Norris can do that.
RELATED: Best Chuck Norris Movies of All Time
6. Jackie Chan
Born: 1954 (68) in Hong Kong
Breakthrough Movie: Drunken Master (1978)
Best Movies: Police Story (1985), Armour of God (1986), The Legend of Drunken Master (1994), Rush Hour (1998)
Latest Good Movie: The Foreigner (2017)
Highest Grossing Movie: The Karate Kid (2010) – $359 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Police Story (1985) – 7.6
Jackie Chan has made countless action films throughout his career. He is probably the only one on the list who makes you want to watch all the credits after the movie ends, just to see his incredible stunts. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 80s, 90s, 2000s, or 2010s; he never stops with the action. He has been kicking butt for 40 years straight.
There cannot be a list of the best action stars of all time without Jackie Chan on it, no matter how short the list is. It is simply not possible. He doesn’t even bother with other genres; it’s all about the action with Jackie. The unique combination of acrobatics and comic elements is something that only Jackie Chan can give us. The man makes us say “wow” and makes us smile, and he has been doing this for decades.
RELATED: Best Jackie Chan Movies of All Time
7. Jason Statham
Born: 1967 (55) in the United Kingdom
Breakthrough Movie: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Best Movies: Snatch (2000), The Transporter (2002), Crank (2006), The Bank Job (2008)
Latest Good Movie: Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)
Highest Grossing Movie: Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019) – $760 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Snatch (2000) – 8.3
Jason Statham is the newest action star on this list, but his place here is well-deserved. Just remember when you saw Transporter for the first time. Those fight scenes were truly something else. Between 2000 and 2020, he made around 40 movies. Among those, you may or may not find a few bad apples. It’s as if this guy doesn’t make a bad action movie.
Not only has he achieved the status as one of the best action stars of all time, he is also the number one action star of the 2000s decade and the last 20 years altogether. Statham is pure non-stop action. During the 80s and 90s, we had several top action stars, but if we had to name one action star who succeeded them all after 2000, it would definitely be Jason Statham.
8. Jean-Claude Van Damme
Born: 1960 (62) in Belgium
Breakthrough Movie: Bloodsport (1988)
Best Movies: Bloodsport (1988), Kickboxer (1989), Universal Soldier (1992), Maximum Risk (1996), Legionnaire (1998), In Hell (2003)
Latest Good Movie: The Bouncer (2018)
Highest Grossing Movie: Timecop (1994) – $102 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): JCVD (2008) – 7.1
It is impossible to be an action movie fan and not love Jean-Claude Van Damme and his movies. Bloodsport, Kickboxer, and Universal Soldier are a part of childhood for many of us. After making those in the late 80s, he continued to make many awesome action movies throughout the 90s. You can say that the 90s were his golden years. If we are talking about the last 20 years, there are several movies worth mentioning.
From the 2000s decade, In Hell from 2003 is a must-watch, as well as movies Until Death (2007) and JCVD (2008). In the last decade, we need to mention 6 Bullets (2012), The Bouncer (2018), and of course his appearance in The Expendables 2 (2012) where he nailed the role of a villain. Jean-Claude Van Damme is really one of a kind action star. If this was the list of the 4 best action stars of all time, he would still be on it.
9. Jet Li
Born: 1963 (59) in China
Breakthrough Movie: Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)
Best Movies: Romeo Must Die (2000), Kiss of the Dragon (2001), The One (2001), Cradle 2 the Grave (2003), Unleashed (2005)
Latest Good Movie: Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011)
Highest Grossing Movie: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) – $403 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Hero (2002) – 7.9
Before he made his American film debut in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) and blew us all away with his supporting role as a villain, Jet Li had already been famous in China and made some great movies like Once Upon a Time in China and Fist of Legend.
In the early 2000s, he made some of his best movies. If you were to pick just the movies made between 2000 and 2006 from his entire career, it would be enough for him to be on this list, but there is much more in his filmography than that.
RELATED: Best Jet Li Movies of All Time
10. Kurt Russell
Born: 1951 (71) in the United States
Breakthrough Movie: Escape from New York (1981)
Best Movies: Escape from New York (1981), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Tango & Cash (1989), Tombstone (1993), Escape from L.A. (1996)
Latest Good Movie: The Hateful Eight (2015)
Highest Grossing Movie: Stargate (1994) – $403 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): The Thing (1982) – 8.1
Kurt Russell appeared in several movies in the 1970s, but it was the 1980s and 1990s that marked him as an action star. His action movies are really fantastic, from Escape from New York (1981) and Tango & Cash (1989) all the way to Stargate (1994) and Soldier (1998). This list of top action movie stars wouldn’t be complete without Kurt Russell on it.
In the last 20 years, as he has grown older, he has turned more towards thrillers and other genres, but his place as an action star was already cemented. We should also mention movies such as Bone Tomahawk (2015), The Hateful Eight (2015) as well as his appearances in the popular franchises Fast & Furious (The Fate of the Furious and Fast & Furious 9) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2).
RELATED: Best Kurt Russell Movies of All Time
11. Mel Gibson
Born: 1956 (67) in the United States
Breakthrough Movie: Mad Max (1979)
Best Movies: The Road Warrior (1981), Lethal Weapon (1987), Maverick (1994), Braveheart (1995), Payback (1999)
Latest Good Movie: Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
Highest Grossing Movie: Signs (2002) – $408 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Braveheart (1995) – 8.3
Nobody plays a tough guy with a temper as well as Mel Gibson. The 1980s and 1990s were the golden years of Gibson’s career. If he had only made the Mad Max series, Lethal Weapon series, and Braveheart (1995), it would have been enough, but he made many more outstanding movies during his career.
During the 2000s, when he was less active, he made movies such as The Patriot, We Were Soldiers, Edge of Darkness and directed Apocalypto. From the last decade, notable mentions include Get the Gringo (2012), The Expendables 3 (2014) where he played the villain, Blood Father from 2016, and Dragged Across Concrete from 2018. He is one of the few actors who can play a tough guy no matter what age he is. Undoubtedly, he is one of the best action stars of all time.
RELATED: Best Mel Gibson Movies of All Time
12. Nicolas Cage
Born: 1964 (59) in the United States
Breakthrough Movie: Raising Arizona (1987)
Best Movies: Red Rock West (1993), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), The Rock (1996), Con Air (1997), Lord of War (2005)
Latest Good Movie: Running with the Devil (2019)
Highest Grossing Movie: National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) – $457 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Lord of War (2005) – 7.6 (next to Adaptation.)
It’s hard to find an actor who has made as many movies as Nicolas Cage has. He has starred in around 100 movies in the last 35-40 years. Sure, not all of them are great movies, but the ones that are have made him one of the biggest action stars of all time and one of the biggest movie stars overall.
Compared to some others on this list, Cage has done it all. There is no genre that he hasn’t tried – action, crime, war, comedy, thriller – you name it, Nic has done it. From each genre, there are at least a few great movies to pick from. Also, let’s not forget, Nicolas Cage is the only one on the list above who has won an Oscar for Best Actor.
When we’re talking about action movies, the golden years for Cage were the late 90s and early 2000s. Let’s just name a few great ones: The Rock (1996), Con Air (1997), Face/Off (1997), Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), National Treasure (2004), and more.
RELATED: Best Nicolas Cage Movies of All Time
13. Steven Seagal
Born: 1952 (70) in the United States
Breakthrough Movie: Above the Law (1988)
Best Movies: Above the Law (1988), Hard to Kill (1990), Marked for Death (1990), Out for Justice (1991), Under Siege (1992)
Latest Good Movie: Driven to Kill (2009)
Highest Grossing Movie: Under Siege (1992) – $157 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Under Siege (1992) – 6.5
Like some of the other action movie stars, Steven Seagal made his best movies early in his career. The early 90s were his golden years. These movies that he made during that period are so good that they cemented his place as one of the greatest action movie stars. They really made an impact at the time and his Aikido moves were something new and not seen before.
Throughout the 2000s, Seagal continued with some good action movies that are definitely worth watching: Exit Wounds (2001), Into the Sun (2005), The Keeper (2009), A Dangerous Man (2009), and Driven to Kill (2009). And for those who want to check something more recent from Seagal, check out Attrition from 2018. He is 68 years old in it.
14. Sylvester Stallone
Born: 1946 (76) in the United States
Breakthrough Movie: Rocky (1976)
Best Movies: Rocky (1976), First Blood (1982), Tango & Cash (1989), Demolition Man (1993), The Specialist (1994)
Latest Good Movie: Samaritan (2022)
Highest Grossing Movie: The Expendables 2 (2012) – $315 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Rocky (1976) – 8.1
For many, Sylvester Stallone is considered the best action star of all time. He continues to prove this, even now in his seventies. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Stallone made some of the best action movies ever. No matter who the other three are on the Mount Rushmore of action movie stars, Stallone is undoubtedly the first one there.
In the last decade, he started the Expendables series, gathering many of the top action stars, and the franchise has become a huge commercial success. Nobody has ever gathered this many action movie stars in one place, and that is another thing to thank him for. In 2022, the movie Samaritan was released in which Stallone plays a superhero at the age of 75.
15. Tom Cruise
Born: 1962 (60) in the United States
Breakthrough Movie: Top Gun (1986)
Best Movies: Mission: Impossible (1996), The Last Samurai (2003), Collateral (2004), Jack Reacher (2012), Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Latest Good Movie: Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
Highest Grossing Movie: Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) – $791 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – 7.9
The older Tom Cruise gets, the better action films he makes. He didn’t make many action movies during the 80s and 90s, but when he started making them, it was clear that he is a natural in the action genre. He has made some of his best action movies in his fifties.
During the last decade, he has made such titles as Jack Reacher (2012), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), Oblivion (2013), Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016), Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), and Top Gun: Maverick (2022). Most of the dangerous stunts in his action movies, Tom Cruise performs by himself. The man doesn’t slow down as he ages; he speeds up.
RELATED: Best Tom Cruise Movies of All Time
16. Wesley Snipes
Born: 1962 (60) in the United States
Breakthrough Movie: Passenger 57 (1992)
Best Movies: Passenger 57 (1992), Rising Sun (1993), Drop Zone (1994), Money Train (1995), Blade (1998), Blade II (2002), Blade: Trinity (2004) Blade trilogy
Latest Good Movie: The Expendables 3 (2014)
Highest Grossing Movie: Blade II (2002) – $155 million
Highest Rated Movie (IMDb): Blade (1998) – 7.1
Wesley Snipes had his breakthrough in the action movie universe with Passenger 57 from 1992. Of course, his biggest success was the Blade trilogy (1998-2004). Throughout the 90s, he made such movies as Demolition Man (1993) with Stallone, Rising Sun (1993) with Sean Connery, Drop Zone (1994), Money Train (1995) and Murder at 1600 (1997).
Besides two Blade movies, his other prominent action roles during the 2000s decade include Undisputed (2002), Brooklyn’s Finest (2009) as well as being part of the ensemble cast in The Expendables 3 (2014). Without Wesley Snipes, this list would certainly be incomplete.
There you go. That was our list of top Hollywood action heroes. It’s interesting how most of these action stars have a popular movie series/franchise in their filmography:
- Arnold Schwarzenegger – Terminator
- Bruce Willis – Die Hard
- Clint Eastwood – Dollar Trilogy
- Chuck Norris – Missing in Action
- Jackie Chan – Police Story, Rush Hour
- Jason Statham – Transporter
- Jean Claude Van Damme – Universal Soldier
- Jet Li – Once Upon a Time in China
- Kurt Russell – Snake Plissken Duology
- Mel Gibson – Lethal Weapon, Mad Max
- Nicolas Cage – National Treasure
- Steven Seagal – Under Siege Duology
- Sylvester Stallone – Rocky, Rambo, The Expendables
- Tom Cruise – Mission: Impossible
- Wesley Snipes – Blade