When thinking about the action genre, the first things that will inevitably come to mind will be action scenes. Most commonly, these take the form of hand-to-hand fights (with or without weapons), car chases, shootouts with guns that don’t usually need to be reloaded, and big, fiery explosions. All of these things are staples of the genre and incredibly fun to watch play out on screen, but an action movie doesn’t need to include these things to be considered part of the action genre.
The following titles demonstrate this well, as all can be classified as action movies despite not containing those more expected sources of action throughout. Whether it’s about battling nature, fighting for survival, or taking on some kind of foe that can’t be combated using traditional means, all the following movies serve to broaden the action genre, and deliver excitement and spectacle in surprising ways.
10 ‘The Meg’ (2018)
When it comes to movies about giant sharks, most feel as though they’re horror/adventure/thriller movies more so than action films. The movies in the Jaws series exemplify this well, because while there’s a good deal of tension and suspense, the human vs. shark conflict doesn’t often play out through proper action sequences.
But the Jason Statham vehicle The Meg is a big shark movie that belongs in the action genre, for better or worse. Making a shark movie into a big, dumb spectacle does heavily reduce the potential to get invested in the story and feel some kind of fear or tension, but viewers who just want to see Statham fight a giant shark might come away with some degree of satisfaction.
9 ‘7500’ (2019)
A claustrophobic thriller about one co-pilot’s efforts to save lives during a midair hijacking, 7500 works decently within its constraints. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a reliably good performance in the lead role, and the film does a solid job of maintaining a sense of tension and danger throughout.
Seeing as all the action happens on a small scale and inside an airplane, 7500 doesn’t exactly have the scope to depict big action set pieces. But it’s not trying to be that kind of action movie, instead relying on suspense and the threat of violence always looming to keep things nerve-wracking and exciting for its audience.
8 ‘Tag’ (2018)
Loosely based on a real-life story about a game of tag that a group of childhood friends extended well into their adulthood, Tag is largely a movie about grown-ups acting like kids. Both IMDb and Letterboxd consider there to be enough chasing for Tag to be labeled as an action/comedy, and therefore as far as the “action” scenes are concerned, Tag may have some of the lowest stake ones in film history.
For as silly as it is, it can be a fun film. There’s a ton of running, jumping, and falls, with there being some entertainment value in seeing grown men take a children’s game so seriously. For anyone wanting some stress-free thrills without any real violence being inflicted upon anyone, Tag might suffice.
7 ‘Unstoppable’ (2010)
A satisfyingly direct action/thriller with a satisfying, direct title, Unstoppable is unsurprisingly about a train that cannot be stopped, and the two people who have a chance at preventing a catastrophe. It becomes a runaway train early on in the movie, and seeing as it’s carrying toxic waste, the stakes are high, particularly when it becomes clear that it will derail at a certain location that’s also heavily populated.
Most of the excitement and action come from Denzel Washington‘s and Chris Pine‘s characters attempting to stop the train before a disaster happens, and putting their lives on the line in the process. And sure, the early scenes involving characters pursuing the train to keep up with it can almost feel like car chase sequences, but the circumstances are very different.
6 ‘Jackass: The Movie’ (2002)
It’s hard to define something like Jackass: The Movie as belonging to a single genre. It’s a comedy, but beyond the premise of each individual scene, there’s no real script. That might make it tempting to call it a documentary, but it doesn’t exactly tackle any weighty subjects or argue some sort of point beyond perhaps presenting the idea that true friendships are so strong that no matter how much you mess with your close friends, they’ll still like you.
Jackass: The Movie and its sequels all serve as excuses for a group of guys to participate in wild, dangerous stunts while also constantly pranking each other. There’s a good deal of violence and mayhem, but as far as these action sequences go, they don’t exactly involve fighting or chasing. It’s more just about the spectacle of seeing how much punishment and risky stunts the daredevils in the Jackass crew can handle.
5 ‘Le Mans’ (1971)
Le Mans is a movie that’s likely to be loved by fans of racing and at least appreciated by those who aren’t so into the sport. It takes a dry, no-nonsense approach to depicting the experience of being a driver participating in the famous 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans, here centering on a main character played by the legendary Steve McQueen.
Character development is minimal, and there’s not a ton of story happening outside the racing scenes. Yet those racing scenes are undeniably exciting and action-packed, and though they might not have quite as much crashing and smashing as a car chase in an ordinary action movie would, watching the racing sequences in Le Mans still proves to be visceral and immersive.
4 ‘All is Lost’ (2013)
Remarkably, All is Lost is an action/survival movie with just one character. He’s an unnamed man played by Robert Redford who’s stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean, and has to spend the entire movie fighting against the elements if he’s to have any chance of surviving and making it back to shore alive.
It’s a thrill ride stripped down to the bare essentials, feeling very minimalist thanks to the one-man cast and the very infrequent dialogue. It does work remarkably well though, and manages to feel exciting and surprisingly action-packed despite having a very simple premise and confining all the action to a single boat.
3 ‘Creed’ (2015)
The Rocky films tended to have at least one or two decent boxing matches per movie, but Creed bumps things up when it comes to sports action. It’s a beefier, more bombastic take on a familiar formula, and as it updates the tried and true underdog story for a modern audience, it gets a little flashier and harder-hitting when it comes to the boxing scenes.
Those boxing scenes are all done within the context of a sports match, meaning that even if the participants are pummeling each other, it doesn’t quite have the same energy as the more dangerous fistfights that tend to be found in most martial arts movies. Yet the boxing scenes are still fantastic and intense to watch, making Creed the rare sports movie that could also be defined as an action film.
2 ‘Ford v Ferrari’ (2019)
Focusing on a historically significant conflict between American and Italian car manufacturers during the 1960s, Ford v Ferrari makes for one of the most spectacular car-racing movies in recent years. All the action takes place on various racetracks, but the fact it’s a sport and not (strictly speaking) a battle of life and death doesn’t stop it from being exciting.
Admittedly, that might be partly due to how dangerous high-speed racing is, because while the drivers are not directly fighting, a wrong move while behind the wheel can lead to significant injury or death. Car racing has seldom been this exciting, making Ford v Ferrari a worthy watch regardless of one’s personal interest in racing as a sport.
1 ‘Free Solo’ (2018)
Free Solo could well be the worst movie to watch for viewers who have a severe fear of heights. It’s a documentary that follows a rock climber named Alex Honnold as he attempts to climb Yosemite’s 3000-foot-high El Capitan wall not only by himself, but also without the assistance of safety gear or ropes.
Thanks to it being a documentary and therefore free of special effects or digital trickery, the climbing sequences are absolutely harrowing to watch. The level of danger Honnold puts himself in makes this exciting enough to be classifiable as an action/thriller, despite the documentary conventions, as much of the movie is all but guaranteed to get a viewer’s heart racing.
NEXT: ‘Unbreakable’ & Other Superhero Movies That Aren’t Actually Action Movies