Critical acclaim is no guarantee of box office success, and over the years countless phenomenal movies and all-time classics have tanked in theaters, while there’s also been no shortage of awful titles that have raked in hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars despite nobody seeming to particularly enjoy them.
The divide between critics and audiences has been growing ever wider over the last couple of decades as the franchise model has seen the most familiar movies consistently make the most money as opposed to the best ones, and that applies to almost every genre. Most people would agree that the following ten examples of action cinema could be called cult favorites at worst and stone-cold classics at best, but for some reason, not a single one of them is rated Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
10 Taken (2008) – 58%
Liam Neeson was originally expecting Taken to be released straight to video, which just goes to show that the leading man didn’t exactly have high hopes that his late-career detour into action territory would turn out to be a success. Much to the actor’s surprise, audiences couldn’t seem to get enough of watching his grizzled Bryan Mills bulldoze his way through Paris punching Eastern European henchmen in the throat, and after raking in over $225 million at the box office and giving Neeson the most iconic monologue of his career, he was suddenly one of the most bankable action heroes in the business.
Taken is agonizingly close to holding a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but the level of enthusiasm in seeing Neeson lend his gravitas to the standard EuropaCorp formula wasn’t quite there in critical circles, despite fans going wild for the glorified B-movie.
9 Con Air (1997) – 56%
Con Air was sandwiched in between The Rock and Face/Off as part of the phenomenal Nicolas Cage action trifecta that arrived within twelve months of each other, but somehow the modern classic is deemed as being Rotten by the review aggregator. Not only does it boast one of the finest ensemble casts that the genre has ever gathered together in one movie, but the knowingly preposterous plot and Cage’s legendary wig and accent combination are also surely enough to warrant a much higher score from critics.
Unsurprisingly, the ludicrous narrative and over-saturated machismo are common complaints, but those are just two of the many charms of Simon West’s deliriously enjoyable blockbuster that cemented Cage’s transformation from eccentric thespian to even more eccentric A-lister.
8 Top Gun (1986) – 54%
Top Gun is one of the most influential blockbusters ever made, one that cemented the Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson duo as the industry’s finest purveyors of big-budget spectacle. It also marked Tony Scott’s first foray into action territory, and the filmmaker’s distinctive visual style would go on to greatly inform the genre over the next decade.
Not only that, but it rocketed Tom Cruise to the top of the A-list and he still hasn’t come down almost 35 years later, enduring as a slice of unashamedly glorious entertainment that’s so American you could cover it in cheese, deep fry it and it would taste even better. The aerial footage, thumping synth-heavy soundtrack, and macho exchanges are just as fun to watch now as they’ve ever been, and it remains a travesty that Top Gun has somehow been deemed as a Rotten movie, although 700,000+ users have ranked it at a much more worthy 83%.
7 The Last Boy Scout (1991) – 47%
The Last Boy Scout is very much a Shane Black movie, meaning that it boasts all of the rat-a-tat dialogue exchanges, gun-toting violence, and smart-mouthed banter that you’d expect from the Lethal Weapon creator, with the added bonus of Tony Scott behind the camera. Despite suffering from a troubled production where nobody seemed to get along, the finished product is more than comparable to some of the buddy cop efforts from the genre’s late 80s to early 90s heyday, with the real-life friction between stars Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans actually enhancing the dynamic between their characters.
Another movie that has a much higher rating on Rotten Tomatoes from users than it does from critics, more than one in two reviews believe that The Last Boy Scout is a bad movie, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
6 National Treasure (2004) – 46%
Nicolas Cage’s Benjamin Gates might not have been seen since the 2007 sequel Book of Secrets, but based on the reaction to the news that National Treasure 3 was in the works, the franchise clearly still holds a lot of goodwill among audiences.
Dismissed in some circles as Indiana Jones lite, John Turteltaub’s duology is a winning combination of old-fashioned adventure and earnestness that doubles in a quick lesson in American history, but the first installment remains a long way away from critical acclaim. Another movie rated much higher than users on Rotten Tomatoes, National Treasure is light and breezy viewing that provides constant enjoyment and is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food that makes ideal viewing on a lazy afternoon.
5 Reign Of Fire (2002) – 42%
What’s not to love about a post-apocalyptic B-movie that stars Christian Bale, Gerard Butler, and Matthew McConaughey as three of the manliest men available forced into a tenuous alliance to battle against a cabal of fire-breathing dragons? McConaughey’s Van Zan in particular is a force of nature, chewing on every piece of scenery he can find in an incredibly over-zealous performance that makes him the undisputed highlight in a movie like Reign of Fire where over the top is the order of the day.
Admittedly, the reach of the visual effects far exceeds the grasp, but Reign of Fire is the sort of thing you’d imagine Ray Harryhausen would have lent his name to if he was still churning out his signature style of camp epics in the digital age.
4 Road House (1989) – 39%
Patrick Swayze plays a handsome and charismatic bouncer with a penchant for roundhouse kicking troublemakers in the face, who runs into trouble when he crosses paths with a corrupt small-town businessman. That’s basically the entire plot of Road House, which is more than enough.
Opinion sways over whether or not the movie is so bad it actually becomes good, or it endures a slice of prime 80s cheesy action that can only be enjoyed ironically. The lasting popularity of Road House would certainly suggest the latter, despite what the critics may say.
3 Tango & Cash (1989) – 30%
Tango & Cash was the last movie to be released into theaters in the 1980s, and sums up the decade’s fascination with the buddy cop genre in microcosm, bringing together two big stars to shoot the breeze and use their effortless charisma to power through a formulaic plot.
The narrative is hardly original and the dialogue may as well have been written on a napkin, but Tango & Cash shines when Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell do what they do best and trade barbs back and forth while dealing with the minor inconvenience of almost being killed at every turn as they barrel through a series of well-executed set pieces.
2 Hard Rain (1998) – 30%
Hailing from Speed writer Graham Yost and Backdraft cinematographer Mikael Salomon, Hard Rain came armed with plenty of pyrotechnic pedigree. An action movie set during a flood is the sort of high concept the genre thrived on during the 90s, but despite an impressive sense of scale and reliance on practical effects, Hard Rain was dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences.
Which is a shame, because it marked the closest that Christian Slater ever got to be the genuine leading man the industry clearly wanted him to be, while Morgan Freeman is reliably great in a rare villainous turn, and the deluge provides ample opportunity for all sorts of inventive action scenes.
1 Bad Boys II (2003) – 23%
For better or worse, Bad Boys II is the most Michael Bay movie that Michael Bay will ever make. Throwing absolutely everything into the mix, subtlety is nowhere to be found in an unrelenting assault on the senses that stands out as perhaps the single most excessive action blockbuster of the modern era.
Packed with enough shootouts, car chases, gunfights, and explosions to power three movies and still have enough left over for more, Bad Boys II is the director in microcosm. It isn’t high art by any means, but it shows a man determined to deliver nothing but spectacle while leaving a trail of destruction and onscreen collateral damage in his wake.
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