This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Looking back over the genre, action films have always been pretty long, regularly clocking in at over two hours. Perhaps because of all the slo-mo? But while the sweet spot for action classics seems to be the 100-110 minute mark, there are those that have cut the genre right down to basics, and succeeded all the more for it.
Below is my pick of 25 great action films 90 minutes or under. Even more so than other genres, action crosses many other films – picking a pure ‘action’ flick is all but impossible. So below I’ve chosen films that retain action sequences as their main narrative device, and keep the action at the heart of the movie, rather than as a extra.
District B13 – 86 minutes
(Directed by Pierre Morel, 2004)
Most widely known as the Luc Besson produced parkour action film thanks to the presence of parkour founder David Belle as one of the leads, as well as the outstanding stunt sequences which were completed with neither wires nor CG, District 13 is a French action film about a Parisian ghetto that has been walled off from the rest of the city after authorities. After a nuclear bomb is stolen and ends up inside, an undercover cop is sent in to deactivate it before it destroys the whole district. District 13 not only excels with this Escape from New York vibe, but the action sequences are truly thrilling and unique, even a decade on.
Run Lola Run – 80 minutes
(Directed by Tom Tykwer, 1998)
I feel like this is the film most often mentioned in the comments in relation to ‘I can’t believe you didn’t include it!’ Well, for those who love this film as much as I do, here it is. Run Lola Run is a a German action-thriller with a subversive twist from genius director Tom Tykwer.
Lola (played by the Bourne films’ Franke Potente) receives a phonemail from her boyfriend Mani. She has 20 minutes to get 100,000 marks or he’ll be killed by the crime boss he owes the money to. What follows is three different stories of Lola attempting to get the money to Mani in time, each one playing out in different ways, essentially in real time, with split second decisions leading to different futures for not only Lola and Manni, but periphery characters we meet along the way. Car crashes, bank robberies, last minute life saving deals, the action stakes are first class, but so is the ingenuity.
Crank – 88 minutes
(Directed by Neveldine/Taylor, 2006)
Well of course the Statham had to appear in this list somewhere didn’t he? I’m very pleased to say that it’s with Crank, my answer to that perennial Den of Geek question, ‘what is your favourite Jason Statham film?’. Equally hilarious and exciting, Crank is everything a great action film should be. High concept, filled with plenty of jaw on the floor moments, an iconic leading character, inventive set pieces, and a breathless run time. It rightly caused a huge stir upon release and should be on your yearly watch list.
Commando – 90 minutes
(Directed by Mark L. Lester, 1985)
What’s the the most Arnie movie ever made? Ladies and gentlemen, I present Commando. You want the most brutal, yet hilarious kills available? I give you the moment where Arnie decides to stop off at a garden shed, and proceeds to use a garden fork, circular saw, and wood axe to destroy his enemies. You want a classic one-liner after a murder? I give you, ‘Let off some steam, Bennett’ after impaling said Bennett on a length of steam pipe he’s hurled an incredible distance. Or even better yet, ‘Remember when I said I’d kill you last? “Yeah, you did say that!” I LIED!’ Thank you Commando. Even with the extended wood chopping beginning.
See also: Revisiting Commando at 30
Duel – theatrical cut 89 minutes
(Directed by Steven Spielberg, 1971)
The first film to demonstrate that Steven Spielberg was far more than a news story (he had made headlines after being the youngest director ever signed to a major studio). After helming episodes of Columbo, he was given a budget and a script from acclaimed writer Richard Matheson, based on his own short story. The set-up is simple: while driving on a highway in California, travelling businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is repeatedly goaded and attacked by a menacing truck. A faceless adversary, the truck is implacable and unstoppable. Spielberg wrings every ounce of tension and horror from the situation, making even simple stop at a diner into a scene of nail-biting tension, which further increases the impact of the action scenes when the truck does attack.
Slow West – 84 minutes
(Directed by John Macean, 2015)
The clue is definitely in the title of this UK brilliant action-western film from last year. Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young man from Scotland, has travelled to the nascent United States to search for a girl he loved at home. He employs a bounty hunter named Silas (Michael Fassbender) to protect him from the dangers of the Wild West. It’s all about the slow burn until the stupendous, thrilling, and surprising final shoot-out which after the relative quiet of the proceeding film, feels like someone shouting at you loudly and repeatedly, but in a good way. It’s a harsh depiction of both our hero, and his world, and all the better for it.
See also: John Maclean interview
Pathfinder – 86 minutes
(Directed by Nils Gaup, 1987)
A Norwegian Oscar nominated action-adventure movie, Pathfinder is a true delight. Set around AD 1000 in an area of Norway called Finnmark, which is in the extreme north-east and borders Finland and Russia, a young Sami called Aigin returns from hunting to find his village massacred by the Chudes, a rival tribe. After finding survivors from a nearby community of his people, he must lead them to safety across the land while trying to stop the Chudes from killing them all.
There’s more than hint of Pathfinder in the later Apocalypse’s DNA for sure, and included in that is the breathless action pacing and ingenious ways of attacking a vastly superior enemy (as well as having the entire film in a relatively obscure language too). This is definitely a good thing, and Pathfinder deserves seeking out. Just make sure to avoid the terrible 2007 loose remake.
Point Blank – 84 minutes
(Directed by Fred Cavayé, 2010)
One of the best action films of recent years, Point Blank has a great set-up. Samuel is a nurse who saves the life of a notorious criminal. But after his pregnant wife is kidnapped, he is informed he must help the criminal escape from the now heavily guarded hospital. To say anymore would really spoil all the surprises in store, but rest assured this is a refreshing French take on the action genre.
It’s an ordinary man with no special skills whatsoever beyond his medical knowledge up against a legion of people who want to kill him and his patient. So instead of a methodical killing machine we get a truly exhausted man who just wants to save his wife, raising the stakes and making every bullet count.
Shoot Em’ Up – 86 minutes
(Directed by Michael Davis, 2007)
Clive Owen leads this action comic come to life, which proves equally thrilling, funny, vile, and stupendous at alternate times. The action scenes are pulled off with aplomb by director Michael Davis, but perhaps the less said about the plot the better. It doesn’t really make a huge amount of sense, but then again that really isn’t the point here. Shoot ‘Em Up is all about the joy of cinema, with balletic gunplay, outrageous stunts, and hyperreality all par for the course over the short run time.
[Rec] – 75 minutes
(Directed by Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza, 2007)
My action-horror pick for this list, the original [Rec] is one of the most intense film experiences you could ever hope to have. More of haunted house thrill ride then a narrative feast, this found footage spectacular starts off sedately, with the Spanish crew of a TV series called While You Were Sleeping charting the activities of firefighters on a night shift. But when they find themselves called to an apartment building to rescue a trapped elderly woman, the film takes off. Treading the thin line between rage virus and reanimated corpses, the monsters of [Rec] are ultra-aggressive “zombies,” which makes for high-octane action, and a huge amount of jumps along the way. This is still the only film I’ve watched where I saw a grown man try to escape through a window to get away from it.
Tokyo Fist – 87 minutes
(Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, 1995)
Tetsuo director Shinya Tsukamoto delved into themes of revenge, male jealousy, and emasculation for his break from his earlier genre work. In Tokyo Fist, he plays Tsuda, a salesman trapped in a unrewarding life who loses his partner to old school friend Kojima, who has reinvented himself as a super powerful boxer who ripples with masculinity and power. Romantically thwarted and simultaneously intrigued, he embarks on a training regime of his own in order to become someone new. The quick edits, montages, and loose narrative serve to disorientate the viewer at times, but the focused runtime lends a punch to the action on screen, and means the film never loses its way as it strips back the humanity from Tsuda, who literally and figuratively beats himself up over his perceived failings. It’s intense and powerful.
Shogun Assassin – 89 minutes
(Directed by Robert Houston, 1980)
Complied from the first two Lone Wolf And Cub films (although it is mostly the second film, Lone Wolf And Cub: Baby Cart At The River Styx) this is a grind house version of the Japanese jidaigeki film. Radical reworking the two films, it jettisons most of the character work in favor of ridiculous non-stop action, with which the new dubbing only adds to the cartoon vibe. A massive influence of Kill Bill, Shogun Assassin is as much historical film artefact as it is a great action flick.
Ghost In The Shell – 82 minutes
(Directed by Mamoru Oshii, 1995)
Based on the manga of the same name and widely considered to be one of the greatest animes of all time, Ghost In The Shell certainly comes with some pedigree. But 20 years on does it still pack a punch? Definitely. In the year 2029, humanity can access a cast cyber network through “shells,” cybernetic bodies which house their consciousness. Section 9, tasked with public security, are on the trail of a mysterious hacker who can take over the shells, known as the Puppet Master. What follows is a cat and mouse game with ever increasing action set-pieces leading to a surprisingly thoughtful finale. The groundbreaking use of animation and CG special effects make the film look awesome, and easily the equal of blockbusters.
The Most Dangerous Game – 63 minutes
(Directed by Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932)
One of the earliest examples of action-adventure as we’d recognize, The Most Dangerous Game is an adaptation of the 1924 short story of the same name, and is about a rich big game hunter who hunts humans on his private island. A production companion piece to King Kong, with which it shares the same two leads (Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong), directors and producers (Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper) and jungle sets, it deserves to be held in as high esteem as its giant ape brother. Made infamous by its links with the Zodiac killer (and referenced numerous times in Fincher’s Zodiac) The Most Dangerous Game was classic Hollywood flexing its action muscles for the first time.
El Mariachi – 81 minutes
(Directed by Robert Rodgriuez, 1992)
The first in Robert Rodriguez’s Mexico trilogy, this is the $7,000 miracle film that launched the career of one of Hollywood’s most enduring and respected action directors. Despite the shoestring budget though, this is a film that more than holds it’s own with multi-million dollar action flicks. A deceptively simple tale of mistaken identity and revenge, leading up to a tense stand-off, El Mariachi was one of the main instigators in igniting the independent film boom of the early 1990s.
Passenger 57 – 84 minutes
(Directed by Kevin Hooks, 1992)
It may be the hostages on a plane action movie that established Wesley Snipes as a bona-fide star, but Passenger 57 is really worth watching for one reason alone, Bruce Payne’s gloriously demented turn as ‘”nternational psychopath terrorist” Charles Rane. Equally hammy, terrifying, charming, crazed, and always compelling, Payne is the glue that holds a terrible plot and decent action together, and genuinely makes Snipes look amazing, just for being able to go toe to toe with him.
Blue Ruin – 90 minutes
(Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, 2013)
With his follow-up Green Room about to land, its a perfect time to revisit Jeremy Saulnier’s riveting sophomore film, an action thriller which sought to showcase just what a real-life rampage would be like, with the psychology of the action heroes we celebrate transferred over to a damaged loner. The answer is riveting, uncomfortable, and utterly magnificent. Dwight Evans is a drifter, who upon finding out the man who killed his parents is to be released from prison, springs into action, weaving a murderous path involving two families and their intertwined history of hurting each other. It’s truly edge of the seat viewing and grips you from the off, all the way to the inevitable and climatic shoot-out finale.
Heroes Shed No Tears – 82 minutes
(Directed by John Woo, 1986)
An early effort from John Woo, this found the director leaving behind his comedy work of previous years and tackling action. An almost testing ground for his follow-up classic, A Better Tomorrow, Heroes Shed No Tears is about a group of Chinese mercenaries who are tasked with capturing a powerful drug lord in the Thai golden triangle, a region near the tai-border with Laos and Vietnam known for its opium production. Featuring several of Woo’s soon to be iconic trademarks, this is a slick action film which is essential viewing for fans of the genres history – how many times do you get a see a master’s early steps?
Cobra – 87 minutes
(Directed by George P. Cosmatos, 1986)
In terms of iconic ’80s posters, this film wins hands down. Incredibly a reworking of Beverly Hills Cop after Stallone left that project, Cobra has Sly as elite LA cop Marion Cobretti, a literally take no prisoners maverick. After killing his way through a hostage situation, Cobretti learns of the existence of The New Order, a radical criminal gang. After taking Ingrid Knudsen (Brigitte Nielsen), a witness into their murders into protective custody, the two leave town. The secret location revealed however, Cobretti must fight off the New Order by himself. Hugely violent and critically denied upon release, Cobra has gained a cult afterlife and is well worth seeking out as one of the more extreme examples of ’80s mainstream action.
Shaolin Soccer – international cut 87 minutes
(Directed by Stephen Chow, 2001)
The film that gained Stephen Chow international recognition as a true master of his craft, Shaolin Soccer remains, for this reviewer at least, his most impressive and funniest work to date. Chow stars as a kung fu master who marries his martial arts skills with football, and sets up a team to enter a tournament in Hong Kong. Hilarious, yet filled with incredible action sequences and joyous moments (the power kicks to knock opponents down, as well as the smash cuts to the crowd waiting for a ball to return to Earth after one such kick) and the sheer pace of the film are utterly irrepressible.
The Way Of The Dragon – 90 minutes
(Directed by Bruce Lee, 1972)
Written and directed by Bruce Lee (his only completed theatrical work), Lee also stars in this action-comedy which never quite gets the acclaim of Enter The Dragon. For me, that’s a real shame as this is the complete Bruce Lee film, demonstrating not only a superior range of his skills, and lightning reflexes, but also his utterly charming screen presence. One would be enough to make a star, but allied together showcases why Bruce Lee is the martial arts action hero all other aspire to be, and The Way Of The Dragon is the film that proves his credentials.
Django – 90 minutes
(Directed by Sergio Corbucci, 1966)
A spaghetti western of the highest order, Django is the tale of a drifter dragging a coffin who finds himself in a town at the centre of a conflict between the Ku Klux Klan and Mexican revolutionaries. Frances Nero established an icon with his Django (and would later go on to make a cameo in Tarantino’s homage Django Unchained), but the film also lays down the blueprint for modern action films. Far more violent and set-piece oriented than contemporary films of its time, Django pointed the way to the future, and audiences liked it.
Torque – 84 minutes
(Directed by Joseph Khan, 2004)
From Fast And Furious producer Neal Moritz, this bike themed movie about underground racers was dismissed by many as a two-wheeled version of Vin Diesel’s franchise. But it genuinely is so much more than that. Look past the surface similarities, and Torque is one the best times you can ever have watching an action film. Funny, over-the-top, and very knowing about it, this is a hyper-edited mega-cut of stunts, explosions, and take-downs of the very films it’s aping.
Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm – 76 minutes
(Directed by Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm, 1993)
The best Batman film ever made? Many fans would back that claim up, as the Animated Series creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski masterfully stepped up to helm a big screen adaptation. Choosing to concentrate on one of the lesser known villains from Batman’s rogues gallery proved a inspired decision, letting the film concentrate more on Batman and Bruce Wayne rather than his foe. It was also a decision repeated by Christopher Nolan over a decade later with Batman Begins, with which Mask Of The Phantasm seems more of akin to than the ’90s Batman films.
Cyborg – 86 minutes
(Directed by Albert Pyun, 1989)
As if I would leave the muscles from Brussels off a list of great action films. Cyborg may not have been his best foray into sci-fi action films (hello Time-Cop), but it’s the goofiest and most enjoyable, which considering this is Jean-Claude Van Damme we’re talking about, is worth something. Part martial arts movie, part cyberpunk dystopian action movie, Cyborg will never ever win any awards for its script and story, which involves finding a cure for a virus, but the action sequences are bloody and brutal, and truly astounding. In fact they got so intense that one of the actors involved lost a eye after being struck in it by Van Damme with a prop knife. If you want to know why JCVD was briefly one of the biggest stars in the world, then it’s his work in films such as Cyborg you should look to.