Top 10 Action Directors

We take a look at some of the finest action movie directors including James Cameron, John Woo and Kathryn Bigelow…

With franchises like The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Fast and the Furious, James Bond and Transformers becoming multi billionaire franchises as the new standard for Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking, the best action directors are in demand.

Now I know that there will be many names I forget, even in the honourable mentions. So whether you agree or disagree, let us know who your favourite action director are in the comments. The main qualifier I’m looking for is at least three classic action films or films with classic action sequences.

Martin Campbell

Known for: Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale

GoldenEye_Tank_Pierce-BrosnanIf there was going to be one director who made a James Bond film on this list it had to be the man who successfully rebooted the franchise twice. Goldeneye and Casino Royale are often regarded some of the best James Bond films. Martin Campbell also made the classic Zorro film that helped bring the character into modern knowledge (if only briefly – look up Zorro: Generation Z). While in recent years he’s floundered a bit with the lame The Legend of Zorro, the forgettable Edge of Darkness and the truly disastrous Green Lantern (though I blame the studio for that), his body of work boasts some of cinema’s classic action moments and scenes. Consider Goldeneye and that dam-jumping opening or later the carnage as Bond gets his hands on a tank. Casino Royale had that classic chase scene in Madagascar. He’s a great action director who’s often forgotten.

Antoine Fuqua

Known for: Training Day, The Equalizer, The Magnificent Seven

Denzel Washington, Training Day, Top 10 FilmsOne of the best modern technicians of action films with an edge is Antoine Fuqua. His distinct yet subtle action style has produced absolute classics like Training Day, The Equaliser and the better than anticipated The Magnificent Seven remake. He also has Tears of the Sun, Shooter and Olympus Has Fallen under his belt. The most fun I’ve had in his movies are when big rapid-fire weapons come out to play, he really knows how to show bullet-riddled carnage.

James Cameron

Known for: Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Avatar

James Cameron, the man who made the highest grossing film…then beat his own record. Your pedigree as an action filmmaker has to be earned and for Cameron it started with 1984’s The Terminator and continued through the likes of Aliens and Terminator 2 and True Lies and eventually Titanic and Avatar. These films show the immense technical talent of the man as well as his dramatic ingenuity as a writer of action too. He’s able to create action that feels naturally integrated to the plot instead of the story stopping to entertain the audience.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Known for: Spawn, Kung Fu Panda 2, Kung Fu Panda 3

Kung Fu Panda, Film, DreamworksAction in animated projects always goes overlooked. Originally I was going to give this spot to Mamoru Oshii, but his only great action film sequences in animation occur in the Ghost in the Shell and The Sky Crawlers, so instead I gave it to Jennifer Yuh Nelson who made the Kung Fu Panda sequels and the animated Spawn series (which is awesome). Nelson’s style of action sequences in 2D or 3D is practically flawless, Kung Fu Panda’s sequels are major improvements over the original (the second is the best) and that includes fluid animation, great pacing and sequences, and how they tie to the story. And considering the Spawn TV series could’ve been so cheap, lazy and lame, she helped make it awesome.

Michael Mann

Known for: The Last of the Mohican’s, Heat, Collateral

Heat, Mann, De Niro, Pacino, Crime, Top 10 Films,From the origins of creating Miami Vice and off-beat genre classics like Thief and Manhunter, Michael Mann has become somewhat of an action master. The Last of the Mohican’s is a feat of filmmaking genius, Collateral’s digital shooting added a gritty realism to its quick and dirty shootouts in an alley, nightclub and train, but his best action scene goes to the one from 1995’s heist classic Heat (a film that would influence Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight years later. Specifically, the failed heist shootout around midway through the film: violence and gunfire pouring into the street like madness. The entire film itself is amazing as a deconstruction of masculinity in a post-modern era, but that action scene is amazing. The actors Al Pacino and Robert De Niro really doing their own shooting and acting without much direction: all the actors did 6 weeks of training for it. And there was no stage or set, it was a case of shutting off downtown Los Angeles and letting bullets rip through cars. Even the audio wasn’t done in post, they just used the on-set blank rounds firing to create a more impressive effect than any sound stage could produce. It’s one of the best action scenes and even with recent flicks like Miami Vice, Public Enemies and Blackhat, Mann is an action master.

George Miller

Known for: The Mad Max Quadrilogy

Mad Max Fury Road - Top 10 Films reviewOkay, this might seem a little cheap as George Miller from Australia has only done his action in the Mad Max series but it’s amazing enough to celebrate. Even if we were only counting The Road Warrior or Fury Road, George Miller earns a place on this list as an action master. Mad Max: Fury Road is undoubtedly one of the best action films ever, let alone in recent years. It’s able to join classics like Die Hard, Speed or The Matrix. The technical, creative genius in his works flows perfectly in almost every aspect. Fury Road was the perfection of that by using practical effects, special effects and even pitch perfect editing matched to directorial framing. You could teach a class on action, action storytelling, visual storytelling and how to effectively use the Hero’s Journey/Three Act Structure with that film. And those prior films still stand for a reason, because Miller made them with passion, vision and raw filmmaking talent.

John Woo

Known for: The Killer, Hard Boiled, Face Off

While I wanted to give this spot to Zhang Yimou for Hero, John Woo earns this for pure action adrenaline. Known for popularising slow motion, any single shootout from his films could count as an example of his talents. Whether it was the stand offs in The Killer, the tea house shootout in Hard Boiled or the police breaking into the gang lair in Face Off, they’re all spectacular but my personal favourite goes to the one shot hospital shootout in Hard Boiled that took a lot of effort, a lot of blanks and a lot of time for one of the best shootouts and single takes in cinema history. Plus his influence on modern action films sets him apart.

Kathryn Bigelow

Known For: Point Break, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty

There are a number of talented female action film directors such as the previously mentioned Jennifer Yuh Nelson or Lexi Alexander (who made Punisher: War Zone). However, Kathryn Bigelow not only made an action classic in Point Break (whose remake has no soul) but some really amazing action sequences in later, more mature work. From tense stand offs in Blue Steel, the chase in Point Break, the opening first person robbery in Strange Days to the sniper battle in The Hurt Locker. Her masterpiece in action cinema, however, was the final raid on Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. What makes Bigelow’s action intense is the use of realism and building in tension without needing a score as much. The only sequence as tense as her Zero Dark Thirty raid was Sicario’s bridge scene by Denis Villeneuve, but Bigelow has that beat with that elongated raid. She deserves more credit. She’s one of our finest directors full stop.

Sergio Leone

Known for: A Fistful of Dollars, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West

Eli Wallach, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,The ancestor of the modern action film was the western. While John Ford and others made some good action scenes, it was during the Spaghetti Western era that brought out the truly masterful creators. Namely Sergio Leone, the godfather of Westerns whose intense close up, harsh wide angles and snappy shootouts continue to inspire every filmmaker today. His “Man with No Name” trilogy starring Clint Eastwood and Once Upon a Time in the West have shoot-outs that are thrilling not for their excessive violence or massive bullet count (like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch), but through their tense build ups and payoffs that he nailed through his signature direction. He’s a master of the camera, master of the shoot-out and unsurprisingly inspired many of the other greats on this list. And his westerns weren’t even his best films. That accolade goes to Once Upon a Time in America.

John McTiernan

Known for: Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt For The Red October

Predator, John McTiernan, Horror, Action,But to find the modern progenitor and textbook filmmaker for action cinema of today: it has to go to the one and only John McTiernan. McTiernan recently said Marvel films were inspired by his style (in a less than flattering way, alleging they stole from him. His disapproval sounds ungrateful but it shouldn’t be. I think most action films have ignored the letter of his direction (favouring shaky cam over lyrical shots that don’t need rapid cuts) – his intention of action has become every filmmaker’s goal. From his second film Predator, his build up to the shootout at the beginning of the film is brilliantly shot, choreographed and focused. Die Hard a year later also showed his moving, swooping, diving and mobile camera, his approach aimed at producing suspense, display geography and excite. It’s a masterpiece of action cinema.

Even the non-action heavy The Hunt for the Red October has brilliantly realised action sequences to produce tension and a feeling of movement in clearly displayed geography. And even in his other good films like Die Hard with a Vengeance or The Thomas Crown Affair, and bad films like Last Action Hero, 13th Warrior and Rollerball, his camera speaks and creates action in the modern era like almost no other. Unfortunately he’s now retired, has a bad reputation amongst his peers, and despite possible hints at a return, I don’t’ think he will. Still, his filmography (like his camera) speaks for itself to inspire the next action master.

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Honourable Mentions:
-Michael Bay (The Rock, Bad Boys 2, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi)
-Zack Snyder (300, Man of Steel, Batman V Superman)
-Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, Spy Kids, Sin City, Machete)
-Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones Series, Saving Private Ryan, The Adventures of Tintin)
-Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, Dunkirk)
-Paul Greengrass (Bourne, United 93, Captain Philips)
-Edward Zwick (The Siege, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond)
-Sam Pekinpah (Straw Dogs, Cross of Iron, The Wild Bunch)
-Pete Travis (Vantage Point, Dredd)
-Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, Leon the Professional, Lucy)
-Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers)
-Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, Pacific Rim)
-Peter Jackson (Tolkien’s Middle Earth Franchise, King Kong)
-Peter Berg (The Kingdom, The Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon)
-Neill Marshall (Dog Soldiers, Doomsday, Game of Thrones)
-Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight)
-Gareth Evans (The Raid, The Raid 2)
-F Gary Gary (The Negotiator, The Italian Job, The Fate of the Furious)
-Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, The Sky Crawlers)
-Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Body of Lies)
-Tony Scott (Top Gun, Enemy of the State, Man on Fire)
-Zhang Yimou (The House of Flying Daggers, Hero, The Great Wall)
-The Wachowskis (The Matrix Trilogy, Speed Racer, V for Vendetta [as second Unit]

So; do you agree? Disagree? Did I place an action master in the honourable mentions instead of the list or miss one entirely. Let us know what you think in the comments below. And as a question to you: who is your favourite action director and your favourite action film?


Fav. Action Director: Michael Mann
Fav. Action Film: Pacific Rim

Written and Compiled by Tyrone Bruinsma

Tyrone Bruinsma
About the Author
Born in Australia with a love of storytelling and cinema, Tyrone Bruinsma has gone to earn the skills in both making and critiquing cinema. With a love of visceral, disturbing and horrifying works (both to make and watch), he's aiming to make a strong name for himself in the industry he loves so much. Currently working his way into the larger workforce and gaining a positive reputation so far, his voice, talent and attitudes towards filmmaking are showing his genuine strengths as a creator and critic. You can follow him on Twitter & YouTube

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    Tobey Reply

    You’ve covered most of the great ones. Nice job. I might have included the Wachowski’s in the top 10 because of their work in The Matrix and how well that movie did at the box office. The bullet time stuff was immense.

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    Rachel McGovern Reply

    Good choices. Edgar Wright has turned a few heads recently with baby Driver. His mix of comedy and action is quite unique. Perhaps he’s worth a mention.

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    Callum Reply

    Nice to see the shout out for Martin Campbell. GoldenEye is one of the best Bond films. But on the subject of Bond, I feel Lewis Gilbert deserves attention. He delivered some of the great Bond action scenes, especially the parachute escape in The Spy Who Loved Me.

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    Dan Reply

    Some excellent choices Tyrone. There’s one man who sticks out that isn’t on the list though. That’s Jackie Chan. His choreography in films like Police Story is immense. For action cinema, he took the practical approach to another level. The manufactured nature of CGI wasn’t evident in his best action scenes. You knew he was putting his body on the line. That made the action cinema of Chan so potent, so special.

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    Nicole Reply

    Paul W.S. Anderson. While his films are mostly lackluster, you can’t deny that he at least deserves an honourable mention for the action sequences in the Resident Evil movies or Mortal Kombat. It’s the action in these movies that bring it almost out of the brink and into entertainment.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Nicely done. Since you asked, I’d place Spielberg in the top ten as well as Bay. John Woo is great no doubt, but there are other Asian directors that could be here as well.

    Cameron is an obvious choice so good stuff with that one. I think Lucas should have been in the honourable mentions. I think James Wan could be mentioned as well simply for his additions to the Fast and Furious franchise.

    And an old school action director should be on the honourable mentions as well and that’s William Friedkin. He might be known mostly for the Exorcist but his work on The French Connection and Sorcerer is outstanding.

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      Dan Reply

      Good calls Dan.

      Totally with you on Spielberg – his ingenuity with an action scene always ensures story/character/plot development isn’t sidelined solely for visual spectacle. The rail car pursuit in Temple of Doom is one of my all time fave chase sequences. And of course there’s a number of exceptional sequences in Saving Private Ryan as a second example.

      Lucas is another good one, particularly what he did for the visual effects industry to create action scenes that were previously impossible. He paved the way for the over-produced CGI scene which I hate but his early work is definitely noteworthy.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Richard Donner as well. Lethal Weapon films have some outstanding action.

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