Everybody loves a great movie villain, especially the rare and formidable character that gives film protagonists a run for their money. Thankfully, villains aren’t always the top dog. Some of cinema’s greatest heroes can be unstoppable, and audiences can only feel sorry for the goons who choose to oppose them.
Some of the industry’s biggest action protagonists are skilled enough to be terrifying forces of nature. Even in the most iconic, pulse-pounding action flicks, these one-man armies ensure that the bad guys who cross them could never dream of standing a chance.
Updated on March 22, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
With John Wick: Chapter 4 just around the corner (premiering on March 24), it’s the perfect time to dive back into the best action movies that feature the most incredible one-man armies in cinematic history.
1 ‘John Wick’ (2014)
Keanu Reeves enamored audiences in 2014 with John Wick, the Chad Stahelski-directed action-thriller that took the world by storm. With a star-studded cast featuring the likes of Alfie Allen, Ian McShane, and Willem Dafoe, the movie follows a former assassin on his quest for revenge.
Once they steal Wick’s car and kill his puppy, a final gift from his deceased wife, it’s game over for the movie’s villains. A peerless hand-to-hand and firearms combatant, Reeves’ John Wick became an iconic character the instant his film premiered. John Wick was followed by three sequels, John Wick: Chapter 2, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, and John Wick: Chapter 4.
Watch on Peacock
2 ‘The Bourne Identity’ (2002)
The premiere of The Bourne Identity changed action movies forever. The 2002 action-thriller stars Matt Damon as the titular super-assassin, Jason Bourne, who is on the run and searching for answers after losing his memory. Fortunately for Bourne, suffering from amnesia didn’t wipe his impressive slew of combat and survival skills.
The film spawned an iconic action franchise, which brought in talent like Julia Stiles and Jeremy Renner. Their distinct cinematography and visceral fight scenes in the Bourne action films changed the genre forever. The Bourne Identity and subsequent films seal Damon’s Bourne as one of cinema’s greatest spies, making you feel a little bad for the assassins sent out to get him.
Watch on HBO Max
3 ‘Kill Bill: Vol 1’ (2003)
Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol 1 is a fever dream of swords, gore, and quips. The 2003 action classic stars Uma Thurman as Beatrix Kiddo — just known as The Bride — a hardened now-iconic female movie assassin who survives her attempted murder and swears revenge on the team of killers who tried to take her life.
In volume one and its 2004 sequel Kill Bill: Vol 2, Tarantino spells out a singular message: you never mess with “the deadliest woman in the world.”
4 ‘Ip Man’ (2008)
This kung fu classic Ip Man bases its action on the life and exploits of the titular Wing Chun Grandmaster, known for instructing the martial arts movie icon Bruce Lee. The 2008 movie tells the story of Ip Man’s one-man-stand against the Japanese military after occupation during the Second World War leaving his hometown of Foshan in disrepair.
Ip Man and its sequels boast some of the greatest fight scenes ever committed to film, thanks in no small part to the movie’s star Donnie Yen, the Hong Kong martial arts star known for his appearances in Mulan and the Star Wars franchise. Yen’s Ip Man is a sight to behold, a relentless-yet-humble fighting machine that any villain would be stupid to battle.
Watch on Netflix
5 ‘Nobody’ (2021)
Written by Derek Kolstad, the creator of the John Wick series, Nobody is a spiritual sequel to the Keanu Reeves-led action franchise. The film stars Bob Odenkirk as Hutch Mansell, a retired assassin disillusioned with the mundanity of suburban, middle-class life. Acting alongside Odenkirk are Connie Nielsen and Christopher Lloyd.
After Mansell’s house is robbed and his family threatened, the retired hitman returns to his former life, commencing a revenge quest that is as terrifying for the movie’s villains as it is enjoyable for audiences and action fans.
Watch on HBO Max
6 ‘First Blood’ (1982)
An ’80s action classic, First Blood is responsible for debuting one of the greatest action heroes of all time: special forces veteran John Rambo, portrayed perfectly by Sylvester Stallone. An adaptation of the 1972 novel of the same name, the film follows Rambo as he survives an onslaught of police and government agents in the woods of Washington State.
Hardened by the Vietnam War, Rambo does more than just survive. As evidenced by First Blood and the many films that followed in its wake, Rambo is one of the most resourceful and intimidating action movie protagonists put to screen. His grit and one-of-a-kind set of skills makes him the perfect bad guy-mulching machine.
Watch on HBO Max
7 ‘The Equalizer’ (2014)
In The Equalizer, former U.S. Marine turned DIA intelligence officer Robert McCall takes matters into his own hands when the mafia threatens the safety of a teenage sex worker played by Chloë Grace Moretz. McCall is brought to life by the one and only Denzel Washington, an underrated, unstoppable actor in his own right and star of other films like The Book of Eli and The Tragedy of Macbeth.
The Equalizer and its sequels still hold a special place as some of Washington’s most iconic films and still stand as more examples of action films that would have ended better for the bad guys had they all turned tail and ran.
Watch on Starz
8 ‘Taken’ (2008)
In 2008, Luc Besson released Taken, one of the most seminal titles of the action-thriller genre. The highlight of Besson’s film was undoubtedly its star, Bryan Mills. Played by Liam Neeson, Mills — an ex-CIA officer and Green Beret – leaps into action when his 17-year-old daughter is kidnapped while traveling abroad.
Everything you need to know about Mills is summarized in his promise to the villains at the start of the film: “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want […] If you let my daughter go now that’ll be the end of it […] but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.” You need only watch Taken (and its sequels) to find out that Bryan Mills is a man of his word.
Watch on Starz
9 ‘Oldboy’ (2003)
Director Park Chan-wook‘s Oldboy is a legendary neo-noir action thriller that follows the tragic tale of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who finds himself caged in a cell for over a decade for seemingly no reason. When he’s released out of the blue, he sets out to exact revenge on whoever was responsible for his captivity, but soon becomes entangled in a complex conspiracy that’s related to the young chef he falls in love with, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung).
Anyone who has seen the film will be familiar with the iconic hallway fight scene, which highlights Oh Dae-su’s impressive close combat skills, which were not affected by the years he spent isolated from the world. The protagonist can fight the goons with ease, and it takes a mental and emotional attack to truly hurt him.
10 ‘Aliens’ (1986)
Ellen Ripley is back and better than ever in the award-winning sequel to director James Cameron‘s classic 1986 masterpiece, Aliens. Set in the far future and years after the events in Alien, Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Ripley, who is awoken from cryogenic sleep after being the sole survivor of an attack on her ship. She soon joins a group of arrogant Marines to investigate a moon with a human colony that has seemingly vanished.
Weaver plays her iconic character to perfection, as Ripley now has the experience and added motivation of saving a child as she destroys one Xenomorph after another. The aliens never stood a chance against the badass protagonist, who had no problem maiming, shooting, and incinerating the dangerous creatures.
Watch on Starz
NEXT: The Best One-Man Armies in Cinema