15 Action Movies That Were Ahead of Their Time

We celebrate both the critical darlings and underrated classics that were ahead of their time in the action genre.

Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

An action movie is created to excite and wow us, taking the audience on a rollercoaster ride to see if and how our protagonist — who may or may not be much of a hero — survives amid pure chaos. It’s also a genre that often strives to top itself. Many of our favorite films have found new ways to raise the bar, whether it be through the storytelling, cast, or sequences that completely change the game.

Den of Geek is celebrating 15 movies that looked forward, whether they were celebrated in their day as innovators or have been finally reevaluated years after release. All of these action movies were ahead of their time, whether it be through never-before-seen fight choreography and stunt work or advancements in special effects and storytelling.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Yeah, we all know that one film nerd who gets on your case about watching Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai at least once. There’s a good reason for that. This three-hour epic still feels fresh more than half a century later, the minutes whipping by in a flash as earthy humor mixes with terror and violence. More importantly, it’s the birthplace of the “getting the band together” trope that you still find in action and heist movies today, from The Dirty Dozen to Star Wars. And it spawned plenty of remakes and homages too, most notably the Western classic The Magnificent Seven.

The success of this movie meant Kurosawa’s far sleeker Yojimbo would also see a benchmark remake, though A Fistful of Dollars made a cheap — and legally actionable — attempt to file off the serial numbers. The Spaghetti Western genre certainly owes a debt to Kurosawa, and Seven Samurai is where the legacy begins. 

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Duel (1971)

Film students also know that Steven Spielberg’s big break came courtesy of a cheap TV movie called Duel, but the twin facts that this watershed moment of thriller cinema cost a scant $450,000 and was released in 1971 still turns heads. The Richard Matheson script is already a banger, another gift from an underrated genre writer who helped make both Roger Corman and Rod Serling look good. Spielberg also puts into play an early riff on his Jaws principle: we’re never going to understand what set this mayhem into motion. It’s no mistake that our protagonist is named David Mann and his antagonist is the machine grinding at his heels.

In the film’s roughly hour and a half running time, we never actually see the trucker at the helm of the deadly Peterbilt tanker truck. Legendary stuntman Carey Loftin is the ghost in the machine, offering Mann (Dennis Weaver) occasional glimpses of a sun-leathery arm and a thick boot. The ending is a triumph, a clash that Mad Max director George Miller had to have kept in mind for Max’s earliest years.

Westworld (1973)

Believe it or not, the first use of digital effects in the meat of a movie didn’t happen in Tron or Star Wars. It happened way back in 1973. Michael Crichton’s Westworld was the first to experiment with computerized digital image processing, which turned two minutes of film footage into the pixelated sight of its android aggressor, one-upping Predator with a roughly 15 year head start. Story-wise, this film about a theme park populated by life-like androids was also a capable trial run for Crichton’s blockbuster 1990 novel Jurassic Park.

Lost in the terror of Yul Brynner’s relentless, haywire drive to fulfill his storyline as the ultimate gunslinger is the bleak and still-too-relevant gag that Westworld’s management is initially way more worried about lost park revenue than their wayward homicidal robots. Doesn’t sound too far off from our own reality, does it? Maybe the robots should win.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

John Carpenter didn’t only make horror movies, but all his films do converge on the variety of ways we fear the unknown. His second film, Assault on Precinct 13, is a zombie movie by way of Rio Bravo. A horde of gang members zero in on an understaffed police precinct, intent on getting revenge for a bloody SWAT ambush. The few cops on duty, and an unlucky bus of prisoners, end up having to work together to survive the onslaught.

The composition of the gang is kept vague; a threat largely divorced from racial baggage. But inside the besieged station is a psychodrama of another kind. A Black cop (Austin Stoker) and a white prisoner (Darwin Joston) become unlikely allies, upending old tropes and building their own kind of equality under fire. But Assault on Precinct 13 isn’t just poignant to anyone who watched the horrific footage out of DC during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. It’s a film that, in 1976, foresaw the violent crime wave that haunted American cities during the 1980s. It’s also as ageless as a George A. Romero zombie joint. Within its blood spatters is a searing look at what we can become in the dark.

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Tron (1982)

The Academy locked Tron out of a nomination for Visual Effects because it used early CGI for a small portion of the film, which was treated as cheating in the early ‘80s. First of all, how dare you? Secondly, although it’s true that this film helped CGI take a flying leap into the future, the bulk of its astounding effects are achieved in lower-tech ways. The neon-lined suits of the Grid are backlit onto black and white footage, a hefty animation technique that would never be repeated on this scale.

Tron is also the movie that helped a generation of moviegoers personalize their relationship with computers, alongside teaching an early audience basic concepts like binary and computer security. You know, deep down, every time you fire up Steam on your PC, its counterpart on the Grid looks just like Valve founder Gabe Newell. Today, Tron’s legacy endures, and we still want that third movie. Just… maybe not with Jared Leto?

RoboCop (1987)

On paper, RoboCop seems like an amped up basic ‘80s action flick. Take a Terminator, give him a police badge, and watch him go. But this sneaky satire has a ton going on under the hood, from incredible special effects by VFX master Phil Tippett to a cast of incredible actors, such as Peter Weller and Kurtwood Smith.

Not only does the titular RoboCop keep a nigh-Shakespearean sense of loss permeating his chrome shell, but under the bombastic level of violence — we stan the X-rated cut, where Officer Murphy is shot up by Boddicker’s men for a protracted length of time that verges on the darkly hilarious — is a John Carpenter-style middle finger pointed at corporate cronyism. Verhoeven makes no bones about tying the decay of Old Detroit to the corruption of Omni Consumer Products, and if you think that isn’t a prophetic metaphor for how Amazon gutted the archetypical Main Street USA, well, I don’t know what to tell you.

Predator (1987)

The effects of 1987’s Predator are even cooler when you realize there’s no CGI at all. Instead, rotoscope animation, chroma key techniques (for the invisibility effect), and clever chemistry all combine to give us the viewpoint of a creature from another world. The Predator itself — a Yautja, if you want to get technical — is a Stan Winston masterpiece. Under its steel mask is a face meant to haunt the dreams of its prey. Y’know, for as long as the prey can survive. Which usually isn’t long.

But in addition to its technical merits, Predator is also an ahead-of-its-time subversion of the ’80s action movie, where the hardest dudes on Earth come up short against an enemy on turf that favors it. Suddenly, the elite and heavily armed military bros we expect to win at the beginning of the movie are running for their lives and getting wiped out one by one, their struggle a testament to the phrase “survival of the fittest“: If your species can’t hack it against this apex predator, you’re probably not getting off the planet.

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They Live (1988)

If Nada (Roddy Piper), the anonymous everyman at the heart of They Live, met Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas), Nada would’ve broken his hands beating the shit out of the guy. The timing would’ve worked, too. Wall Street, that paean to ‘80s greed, came out in 1987, one year before this blue collar drifter found himself in a transient camp set up next to the keys to an awful secret.

That secret is capitalism, with Carpenter’s pissed-off view on Reaganomics writ not just large, but intergalactic. They Live is relentlessly, unhappily topical, an old movie that’s always actually about today. The rich get fantastical gadgets and luxe homes. The rest are turned into grist for a mill that won’t even pay inflating rents. And they’re too exhausted, too kettled and anxious to fight back. The ones that do are crawling uphill under heavy fire — but hell, even if we don’t know their names, at least they’re trying.

Midnight Run (1988)

The action buddy comedy was codified with the 1982 release of 48 Hrs., starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. The tentpole is probably 1987’s Lethal Weapon. But the movie that best leaned into making the buddy movie into something joyfully stupid is Midnight Run. Its other big win for the future history of cinema? This is the movie that took America’s go-to heavy, Robert De Niro, into new territory.

De Niro plays off co-star Charles Grodin as sincerely as a Scorsese movie, letting Grodin joyfully lead both their characters into nutball situations. The addition of a road trip plot gives the proceedings a Cheech & Chong feeling in places, carrying us through a plot that grows like kudzu from its humble beginnings. It’s De Niro’s first time playing the straight man in a comedy, and he nails it so well that he was nominated for a Golden Globe. From such humble beginnings comes his ability to charm us, make us laugh, and terrify us in the same minute. The movie unlocked a whole new way to watch the legendary actor on screen.

La Femme Nikita (1990)

Luc Besson makes unforgettable movies. Whether they’re a financial success, or even good, is beside the point. He’s got a remarkable eye for a shot, presenting his characters as stylish, competent, and alienated all at once — an exemplar of the early French cinéma du look film movement. La Femme Nikita released four years before Leon: The Professional, and is still so sharp to look at, it’s easy to assume it came later.

Nikita (Anne Parillaud), a street kid turned black widow assassin, is the modern benchmark for movies that let their leads girlboss their way into the boys’ club genre of murder-as-entertainment. She ran in high heels to ensure future women warriors like Charlize Theron could be treated as the threats they are. Possibly the biggest compliment of all was this film getting the Kurosawa treatment: Point of No Return, with Bridget Fonda in the lead, was rushed into American theaters 3 years later. The original is, naturally, better.

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Last Action Hero (1993)

It’s easy to look back at 1993 now and say oof. Pitting a too-clever Arnold Schwarzenegger action comedy against a park full of rampaging dinosaurs was not the win Die Hard director John McTiernan and studio Columbia Pictures had hoped for. There are terrific autopsies out there on all the ways Last Action Hero damn near became Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero Job, but few address how this movie upended its star’s own complaints about the ways moviegoers’ perception of the ’80s action hero had changed by ’93.

This is a flick that cleverly leans into its meta commentary, owning up to all the ways a blockbuster action romp can overlap with a slapstick cartoon. A documentary about fictional action hero Jack Slater’s movie world would be called “Who Blew Up Roger Rabbit With an Mk 153 Rocket Launcher?” This is the movie that turns a plan to assassinate Schwarzenegger, the real-world actor, into a central plot point. While it might not have been the big success the studio hoped, The Last Action Hero advanced the art of lighthearted metafictional critique into the next century.

The Rock (1996)

The blockbuster success of Bad Boys bought Michael Bay a ticket to the big leagues, but to follow it up, he’d have to raise the stakes. Bay did exactly that, finagling a dream team of Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris into an unusually thoughtful — for Bay — action flick about the threat of terrorism built on a justified cause.

Bay’s cinematographic style approaches its apex in this film, as the director deploys his now-signature wide shots. Missiles fly over a kneeling Cage in one of the most memorable versions, turning a sight we expect from Blue Angel airshows into thriller tension as we wonder if Alcatraz is about to be destroyed. It’s even amusingly meta. All in all, the movie delivers the sort of explosive spectacle that would come to define his brand of very loud filmmaking that followed. And despite what Jerry Bruckheimer says, there’s no way Connery isn’t playing a version of James Bond here, cynical humor and all.

The Matrix (1999)

The Wachowskis used the aggressively turn-of-the-century leather, latex, and cyberpunk aesthetic of The Matrix to pull us bodily into the sad online paranoia of today. And as dated as the fashion is now, it’s still a good look on both Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, to say nothing of the rest of the sprawling cast. While the trilogy is primarily an introspective look at the self, using this battle couple to showcase both its Buddhist and philosophical trappings, the sheer amount of cool stuff the Wachowski sisters codified is hard to overstate.

To highlight just one, the popularization of the bullet time shot has its origins in the first movie, an amazing time-displacement effect that swivels us around Neo as a fixed point, bullets swimming harmlessly through the air around him. The Wachowskis’ greatest creation was of course heavily inspired by anime, the writings of William Gibson, and the wire fu style of Hong Kong filmmakers like John Woo, but they combined all these influences to make something so fresh that Hollywood is still nodding to it almost 25 years later.

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Speed Racer (2008)

We were all so rude to Speed Racer when it was released in 2008. Well, maybe not all of us: anime devotees and hardcore fans of Speed Racer creator Tetsuo Yoshida picked up on what the Wachowskis were putting down. Everyone else is still catching up to this pop-neon fever dream.

Replete with the sort of high-concept zany visuals Ken Russell dreamed of back when he was making the LSD-laced Altered States, this action-packed love letter to Yoshida’s work is not even remotely interested in grounding Speed Racer’s kaleidoscopic world, instead covering the screen in psychedelic color and mesmerizing shots that make it feel more like a living cartoon, especially during its mind-bending racing sequences. This is a visually forward-thinking film that predates and even cued up the kinds of CG spectacles now overflowing from cinemas.

John Wick (2014)

Two things define the continuing legacy of John Wick: Its joyful, obscenely over-the-top gun fu violence and the way it re-embraced practical effects and highly choreographed sequences to revitalize a genre that’d gone a bit stale at the turn of the century. After years of bland CG explosions and flicks full of disjointed fights delivered via shaky cam, director and stuntman Chad Stahelski went in the completely opposite direction in 2014 with long takes that lingered on the beautiful chaos unfolding with every pull of the Baba Yaga’s trigger.

It’s to the credit of Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves (who performs many of his own stunts in these films) that the action in the John Wick films can look so real but also so enjoyably far-fetched at the same time. You can feel every single blow, even as bullets fly off our hero’s bespoke Kevlar-weave Brioni suit jacket. In this urban fantasy world of assassins, we roll with it. It’s too much fun for such minor facts as the laws of physics and high fashion to matter. What does matter is that the original and its sequels set a new template for what action could be on the big screen in the 2010s and now, with many other stuny-heavy actioners following in its footsteps.