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The 16 Most Epic Action Movie Franchises Of All Time

The 16 Most Epic Action Movie Franchises Of All Time: Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

As London Has Fallen demonstrates, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a well-made action movie. Whether it’s breathless fight scenes, eye-popping special effects or simply a story that pits one grizzled hero against incalculable odds with the only solution requiring guts, grit and abs of steel, there is little as viscerally thrilling as a great action film.

That lure might explain why so many action movies spawn sequels, prequels or tie-ins of multiple flavors. But not every action movie can handle the pressure of a sequel. (I’m looking at you, Speed and XXX.) That’s why it’s worth celebrating these, the 16—like MI-6, kinda sorta—most epic action movie franchises of all time. They came, they saw, they kicked our asses.


JASON BOURNE
Years Active: 2002-
First Movie: The Bourne Identity
Most Recent Movie: Jason Bourne
No. of Installments: 5
Like a turbo-charged James Bond, the Jason Bourne series — newly revived, with Jason Bourne due out this summer, as Matt Damon returns to the franchise — features a man literally created to be the perfect spy… except that he doesn’t quite remember which side he’s on, or anything else for that matter. From that one simple idea, a movie series was bourne (ahem), with more twists and turns than might be feasible, building to something so slick and enjoyable that even a Jeremy Renner vehicle couldn’t deaden the fun.


THE EXPENDABLES
Years Active: 2010-
First Movie: The Expendables
Most Recent Movie: The Expendables 3
No. of Installments: 3
The familiar faces and muscular bodies in The Expendables franchise might have been kicking ass and taking names when their audience were in middle school, but that doesn’t mean that they still couldn’t beat our asses without breaking a sweat today. Add that sense of nature-defying awe to a series of fun, old-school thrillers packed with one-liners and explosions, and what you have is a guilty pleasure that everyone can enjoy. Well, aside from those who’re waiting for Sylvester Stallone to start acting his age. (He’s almost 70, you guys.)


DIE HARD
Years Active: 1988-
First Movie: Die Hard
Most Recent Movie: A Good Day to Die Hard
No. of Installments: 5
How can the same shit happen to the same man so many times? Who can tell, but at least the world can be grateful that cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) has proven to be so resourceful that he can save the day when faced by anything from terrorist sieges to extremely elaborate Russian politicking that involves his son for reasons that don’t make too much sense when you stop to think about it. Just imagine the shape the world would be in if John’s marriage or relationships with his family were healthier.


JAMES BOND
Years Active: 1962-
First Movie: Dr. No
Most Recent Movie: Spectre
No. of Installments: 26
You have to give it to Mr. Bond: he’s been in Her Majesty’s Secret Service for more than half a century, adapting to the times as he’s gone (even periodically changing his face, like that other British standout from the ‘60s, Doctor Who). While the Bond franchise has rarely been on the cutting edge of the action genre, it’s remained a reliable marker of where the genre is at any given moment for all but the Roger Moore years. And with the current Daniel Craig era, it’s arguably at its best.


MAD MAX
Years Active: 1979-
First Movie: Mad Max
Most Recent Movie: Mad Max: Fury Road
No. of Installments: 4
Who would’ve thought that a series of movies about a dude driving through the Australian outback would’ve ended up bringing us not only one of the most exciting movies of the 1970s, but also possibly the most exciting movie of 2015? Thank writer/director George Miller, who takes the post-apocalyptic concept as far as he can in almost every direction, creating a series of movies that are overwhelming in the very best ways possible. (There’s also Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but we don’t like to talk about that.)


RAMBO
Years Active: 1982-2008
First Movie: First Blood
Most Recent Movie: Rambo
No. of Installments: 4
The journey of the Rambo series is a fascinating one: What started as an adaptation of a novel about a traumatized soldier who can’t fit back into the country he fought to defend became a cartoonish right-wing fantasy with each of its successive 1980s follow-ups, only to get pulled back to a more nuanced take with its final installment 20 years later. Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo might not be the most subtle of cinematic heroes, but it’s difficult to argue that he’s not a remarkably watchable one.


THE TERMINATOR
Years Active: 1984-
First Movie: The Terminator
Most Recent Movie: Terminator: Genisys
No. of Installments: 5
To get the obvious matter out the way immediately: Yes, the latter three movies in this series do include high levels of suck. However, the first two movies—both written and directed by James Cameron, a man who knows what’s what when it comes to action sequences—are so good as to forgive even the sin of whatever the hell last year’s Terminator: Genisys was supposed to be. Man versus machine is a universally relatable premise, and ramping that up to “woman versus unstoppable killing machine” just makes Terminator feel like modern mythology.


LETHAL WEAPON
Years Active: 1987-1998
First Movie: Lethal Weapon
Most Recent Movie: Lethal Weapon 4
No. of Installments: 4
Hey, remember when Mel Gibson was cool? If not, then clearly you need to revisit this run of 1980s classics, which took the basic formula of the buddy comedy, as demonstrated in 48 Hours, to beautifully gaudy extremes, thanks to Gibson’s deranged Sgt. Riggs and his too-old-for-this-shit partner, Sgt. Murtaugh (Danny Glover). Quite how Joe Pesci ended up as a third wheel is still inexplicable even decades later, but don’t let that throw you off; this remains a high-water mark for the tricky-to-achieve comedy action movie.


PREDATOR
Years Active: 1987-
First Movie: Predator
Most Recent Movie: Predators
No. of Installments: 3 (5, including the two Aliens vs. Predator movies)
While the Alien franchise, which this theoretically ties in with, only flirted with the action genre in one installment—1986’s amazing AliensPredator has always been an action movie series, with even its sci-fi trappings coming in second to the siren song of the action genre. Just look at the list of actors who starred in the series: Arnold Schwarzenegger! Bill Paxton! Laurence Fishburne! If that doesn’t promise a good, violent time, what does?


ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA
Years Active: 1991-1997
First Movie: Once Upon a Time in China
Most Recent Movie: Once Upon a Time in China and America
No. of Installments: 6
Based on a series of Chinese folk tales, these movies were massively successful in their home country and popular enough outside of China to make Jet Li an international star—sadly, Vincent Zhao, who followed him as the lead of the fourth and fifth installments wasn’t so lucky—thanks to some wildly kinetic filmmaking from director Tsui Hark and action sequences that remain stunning to watch more than two decades later.


MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE
Years Active: 1996-
First Movie: Mission: Impossible
Most Recent Movie: Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation
No. of Installments: 5
The truly impossible factor in this long-lived reboot of the 1960s TV series is the fact that Tom Cruise has barely aged throughout its 20 year run, with the actor performing stunts as outrageous and impossible as hanging onto the outside of a plane as it takes off in the most recent installment. Almost as unlikely is the fact that the movie survived after a genuinely nonsensical second movie that features some of the most hilariously over-the-top action sequences ever caught on film. On second thought, that’s probably how it did survive…


THE MATRIX
Years Active: 1999-2003
First Movie: The Matrix
Most Recent Movie: The Matrix Revolutions
No. of Installments: 3
Everyone remembers the first Matrix for “bullet time,” and the second for that improbable, more-dated-than-you-remember rave sequence, but this was a movie series that sought to change hearts and minds—to inspire its audience to demand something more from their lives than the mundane. Few action movies aim to be so inspirational, so perhaps we can overlook the more… unusual excesses that accompany it on its path.


THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS
Years Active: 2001-
First Movie: The Fast and the Furious
Most Recent Movie: Furious 7
No. of Installments: 7
All hail the current reigning chief of the action genre—a movie series that’s massively successful across the world, featuring one of the most diverse casts in terms of race in mainstream franchise cinema and with a overly-complicated continuity based around a recurring series of protagonists and antagonists who just might switch sides depending on who’s involved at any given occasion. None of that is in your mind as you watch, though; instead, you’ll end up caught up in the speed, the stunts and the belief in “family” that the series is based on, while wondering if you could drive like that given the chance. Spoilers: The answer is no.


THE RAID
Years Active: 2012-
First Movie: The Raid: Redemption
Most Recent Movie: The Raid 2
No. of Installments: 2
Anyone who thinks that it’s all reboots and superheroes in action cinema these days should check out Gareth Evans’ unstoppable 2011 movie about a SWAT team trapped in a building where everyone wants them dead, and its 2014 sequel, which takes the original’s protagonist and places him undercover in a criminal underworld where his chances of survival are even smaller. Exciting, fast-paced and self-aware, it’s a movie series (a third installment is reportedly planned for the next couple of years) that knows exactly what its audience wants, and it’s perfectly prepared to deliver. Even if you’re not a fan of Indonesean cinema, you might be familiar with the unofficial English language remake of The Raid: Redemption, which for some reason or another, went under the name Dredd in 2012. (I kid because I love, but, really; Dredd is pretty much The Raid: Redemption but with added Karl Urban.)


TAKEN
Years Active: 2008-2015
First Movie: Taken
Most Recent Movie: Taken
No. of Installments: 3
There is little as perfect in the action movie genre as the Taken series, which really does have it all: a family in peril (a kidnapped daughter, a threatened vacation and a murdered spouse, respectively), a former CIA operative brought back into the dangerous life for a succession of last missions and, best of all, Liam Neeson, giving the role exactly as much seriousness it deserves (read: little, but he’s very grumpy about things). Score another one for creator Luc Besson, whose resumé should speak for itself: The Fifth Element, Leon and The Transporter all came from his wonderfully fertile and trashy mind.


OLYMPUS/LONDON HAS FALLEN
Years Active: 2013-
First Movie: Olympus Has Fallen
Most Recent Movie: London Has Fallen
No. of Installments: 2
The Fallen series isn’t just home to some impressive feats of heroism and ripped-from-the-headlines threats (North Korea in Olympus, and of course I’m not going to spoil London just yet); it’s also a sneakily smart franchise where the bad thing actually happens, and then the rest of the movie is about the good guys striking back. The White House is attacked—here’s what happens next! Britain’s Prime Minister is killed—now keep watching! Add to that a cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett and Robert Forster, and it’s no surprise that the series has proven to be a hit with audiences. It’s 24 with a bigger budget, larger scope and less watching the clock. Who doesn’t want to see that?


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