Action heroes have evolved throughout the decades. From high-flying acrobatic kung-fu fighters to no-damage-taken badasses, we’ve seen the impossible done by these one-of-a-kind warriors.
But Action is an ever-evolving genre. While audiences lapped up the larger than life choreography of kung-fu movies in the past, today's moviegoers look for a bit more grit and realism. This paradigm shift was largely brought on by Matt Damon's Jason Bourne which ushered in the modern action film. Action heroes are no longer invincible. They take damage, they hurt, they feel pain, and, sometimes, their brand of justice doesn’t abide by the law at all. It’s all real, raw emotion and passion that comes out of these heroes. Sometimes—well, most of the time, really—their decisions are swayed by feelings of pain and revenge. That’s when the monster in them comes out, and we all enjoy them killing one bad guy after the other with guns, machetes, and their bare hands.
So let’s take a look at how these modern-day action heroes have redefined the genre and made it more rough, dirty, and violent in all the right ways.
The Equalizer - Denzel Washington
In a movie with corrupt cops, Russian gangsters, a lost teenager, and a retired Marine, you know sparks are going to fly.
In summary, a lot of innocent people die, getting caught in the crossfire. And, in case you needed help pondering why it’s called The Equalizer, let us put it in a way you can understand. There are two sides: those with power, and those who don’t have it. When people in power choose to abuse what they have to degrade those who cannot defend themselves, there has to be a balance. And for that to happen, someone has to step in, there has to be—you guessed it—an equalizer.
WARNING: Said equalizer doesn’t need to be a completely nice guy.
Taken - Liam Neeson
Take a man’s daughter (and her friend) for sexual slavery, and you’ll probably have the FBI kicking your doors down. But Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills is one badass, vengeful mothereffer that decided to do it himself. Thankfully, he’s a former government operative, so he’s pretty much got all the tools needed to take down an Albanian sex trafficking ring.
But Bryan didn’t have it easy, as he pretty much suffered more cuts, bruises, and possible concussions than we could count. The fighting (and killing) style definitely didn’t take the flashy route. Instead, it was all up in your face, no-nonsense brawling and knocking teeth down the bad guys’ throats.
Bourne films - Matt Damon
Except for The Bourne Legacy, Matt Damon gave us the most riveting and action-packed middle-aged identity crisis ever shown on the big screen. It might not occur to us, but sleeper agents are actually a thing, and the Bourne series takes that to a whole ‘nother level. Of course, thanks to Matt Damon and his portrayal of a stone-faced assassin who doesn’t even know his real name.
How far would one go to know the real him and get his life back? Fortunately, this isn’t some sappy coming-of-age story, but a realistic (in the assassin sense, of course) straightforward attempt to uncover the truth no matter what it takes.
John Wick - Keanu Reeves
You knew it was only a matter of time before we got here, but we all know that John Wick exhibits the most realistic, direct approach when it comes to people killing your dog. Everyone loves dogs, and you’re a monster if you don’t. And guess what nationality the culprits are. Go on, we’ll give you a moment or two.
Obviously, the Russians are the soulless masterminds who stole John Wick’s vintage car and killed his adorable puppy, Daisy. Despite being equipped to take on all the hitmen after him, John encounters some bloody hurdles along the way, including getting stabbed before disarming and fatally wounding Viggo. If you don’t know the names, just watch the damn movie. It’s 100% amazing. Oh, and, spoiler alert, John Wick gets himself a new pup. Now ain’t that adorable?
The Punisher series - Jon Bernthal
This one makes it as our wildcard. Despite being a TV series on Netflix, The Punisher is as realistic as the other films on the list. And, well, Jon Bernthal gives his absolute best PTSD-suffering, revenge-seeking ex Marine take. From his physique to his slight voice alteration, Bernthal transforms into the real life Punisher before our very eyes.
The latest season has Frank taking on his now ex-best friend and fellow Marine, Billy Russo, and a virtually unknown ultra-right Christian fundamentalist with a violent side. We don’t want to reveal much, but you better get started on the second season right now.