Bill Simmons Picks the Best Action Stars of All Time, Year by Year

actionhero

We all know that action movie fans love to take their favourite action stars and pit them against each other, fanning the flames of age old arguments like Stallone vs. Schwarzenegger and Van Damme vs. Seagal. It has almost become an unofficial sport, if you will, which is why it’s no surprise that sports journalist Bill Simmons recently came up with an interesting twist on these epic debates. This week he posted an article over on Grantland called “The Action Hero Championship Belt”, in which he goes back through action movie history and retroactively decides which actor was the reigning action star of each year.

What’s interesting is that he takes the view that the “body of work” for a particular action star generally matters more than any one individual movie. The more prolific you are, the better. That certainly feels like the stat-oriented perspective of a sports fan, but it’s still kind of fun to see how he breaks it all down. My only complaint is that there is some overlap between various years, leading to some unfair wins for Stallone in my opinion (and I don’t buy Simmons’ excuse for excluding Will Smith in 1996). Do you agree with his picks for the action hero championship belt? Check out the full list of winners after the jump.

  • 1968-1973: Steve McQueen (Bullitt, Le Mans, The Getaway, Papillon)
  • 1973-1980: Clint Eastwood (Magnum Force, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Eiger Sanction, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Enforcer, The Gauntlet, Every Which Way But Loose, Escape From Alcatraz, Any Which Way You Can)
  • 1980-1982: Chuck Norris (The Octagon, An Eye for an Eye, Silent Rage, Forced Vengeance)
  • 1982-1984: Sylvester Stallone (First Blood)
  • 1984-1986: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan the Destroyer, The Terminator, Red Sonja, Commando)
  • 1986: Sylvester Stallone (Cobra)
  • 1986-1987: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Raw Deal, Predator, The Running Man)
  • 1988: Bruce Willis (Die Hard)
  • 1989: Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon 2)
  • 1990-1992: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop, Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
  • 1992: Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven)
  • 1993: Sylvester Stallone (Cliffhanger, Demolition Man)
  • 1994-1996: Arnold Schwarzenegger (True Lies, Eraser)
  • 1996: Sylvester Stallone (Daylight)
  • 1997-2000: Nicolas Cage (Con Air, Face/Off, Snake Eyes, 8MM, Gone in Sixty Seconds)
  • 2001-2002: Vin Diesel (The Fast and the Furious, Knockaround Guys, xXx)
  • 2003-2004: Uma Thurman (Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Kill Bill: Vol. 2)
  • 2004: Denzel Washington (Man on Fire)
  • 2005-2006: Jason Statham (Transporter 2, Revolver, Crank)
  • 2007: Jackie Chan (Rush Hour 3)
  • 2008: Liam Neeson (Taken)
  • 2009-2011: Vin Diesel (Fast & Furious, Fast Five)
  • 2011-2014: Liam Neeson (The Grey, Taken 2, Non-Stop)

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  • Loren

    I like how with each belt holder Bill Simmons goes about listing all the other contenders for each one, and Steven Seagal and Van-Damme were never belt holders. Kurt Russell was a contender for 1981-1982 for “Escape from New York” and “The Thing”. After the write-up debated was if Russel Crowe would have held the belt in 2000 with Gladiator, and if Keifer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24 would be eligible and hold the belt instead of Vin Diesel from 2001-2002… putting Sean Connery first as Bond in 1962 as first belt holder came up, but he thought the best place to start with the modern action hero would start with McQueen. It was a great way to look at the genre, and loved how Arnold kept taking the belt away from Stallone. I don’t agree with Stallone for Daylight though and agree with Sean on Will Smith for 1996. Thanks for linking the article for everyone to see, curious what people think.

  • Kenneth Serenyi

    I agree that would have made the list more interesting. The early 80’s was when Harrison Ford was at the top of his action game.

  • Loren

    If you read the article he goes into the rules, and why Ford wasn’t included. Think he had him as a contender though, but no belt holder.

  • Lisa

    The Best Stars of All Time “In American cinema”. Just like it is The Academy Awards “of American cinema”.

    The best films, creators and actor are, naturally, outside of the English-speaking borders. And, naturally, very few in here have heard of them.

  • LordAwesome

    Action movies didn’t being in 1968.

  • Kenneth Serenyi

    Yes I saw that, thanks. His rules make this list less interesting and virtually pointless.

  • Sam

    Lee Marvin in both Point Blank and Dirty Dozen in 1967 wouldn’t qualify?

  • AwakeNbake

    Jackie Chan in Rush Hour 3? Nigga, you serious? All the years he could have picked for Jackie Chan and this Nigga went with Rush Hour 3? Bill Simmons, eat a fucking dick!

  • AwakeNbake

    No Dolph Ludgren? Bill Simmons eat a dick bitch!

  • J. Thunder

    Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones should have made the list in 1981 for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Does anyone even remember the name of Chuck Norris’ character in Eye for an Eye? Maybe Indy can’t throw down the martial arts like Norris, but he’s an interesting character revealing dogged determination and vulnerability at the same time. He took out an entire Nazi convoy! Nic Cage over Crowe in Gladiator is also all kinds of ridiculous. Are Snake Eyes and 8MM even considered action movies?

    Daniel Craig in Casino Royale getting beat by Statham in 2006 makes no sense. Did Revolver even have a theatrical release in the US? Matt Damon as Bourne not winning in 2002 and or 2007 because of subpar Vin Diesel and Jackie Chan entries taking the top spots I know these are Simmons’ personal preferences, but they convince me he’s the last person I would go to for movie recommendations. Daylight? Is that the one where Stallone shows a collapsed tunnel who’s boss?