21 Action Movies Where The Hero Is Basically Normal

John Wick Chapter 4 just mowed down the competition at the box office, proving that fans were willing to once again show up for the globetrotting super-assassin.

John Wick beats up goons with nunchaku in a Japanese art gallery
John Wick beats up goons with nunchaku in a Japanese art gallery

Lionsgate Films

But with the release of the latest John Wick vehicle, Twitter discourse once again brings up the fact that most action vehicles these days are all about superheroes, secret agents, highly-trained soldiers, rogue cops, or indestructible contract killers.

However, there are plenty of movies from previous years that put normal, completely unexceptional people at the front and center of the action, which shook up the formula of the genre to often great effect.

Ryan Gosling, holding a gun, drops a cigarette in his pants while on the toilet
Ryan Gosling, holding a gun, drops a cigarette in his pants while on the toilet

Warner Bros.

However, there are plenty of movies from previous years that put normal, completely unexceptional people at the front and center of the action, which shook up the formula of the genre to often great effect. With this in mind, I’ve assembled 21 action flicks where regular folk kick butt, take on villains, and rise to the occasion without any particular sets of skills.

1.Snitch (2013)

Dwayne Johnson storms off with Michael K. Williams shortly behind him

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal, and Michael K. WilliamsDirector: Ric Roman WaughRuntime: 112 MinutesRating: PG-13Rotten Tomatoes

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has always had to face a problem of playing characters that match his unique body type, that being of a human brick house. Though he’s often relegated to playing mercenaries, super-powered folk, and secret agents, he did happen to manage a fairly impressive performance in Snitch, the 2013 action-thriller that pitted Johnson’s mild-mannered construction company owner against murderous drug traffickers when he volunteers to become an informant for the DEA to ensure his son’s freedom from prison.

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2.Cliffhanger (1993)

A mountain climber and his female companion stare at something in the sky

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, and Janine TurnerDirector: Renny HarlinRuntime: 112 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

Sly Stallone has played many iconic roles over the years, including human-killing machine John Rambo, the spirited boxing legend Rocky Balboa, and loose cannon cop Marion Cobretti in Cobra. Yet while Balboa can be called a blue collar legend by many fans of the Rocky franchise, his only other real notable sojourn into playing a “regular guy” action hero can be found in Cliffhanger, where Stallone plays a retired rescue ranger whose primary skill is mountain climbing, making him the least likely hero for shootouts or hand-to-hand combat with a gang of violent thieves.

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3.On Deadly Ground (1994)

Joan Chen and Steven Seagal ride horses in a mountain range

Cast: Steven Seagal, Joan Chen, Michael Caine, and John C. McGinleyDirector: Steven SeagalRuntime: 101 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

Steven Seagal made his name by playing a string of oddly-similar rogue police officers in several movies that bizarrely share the three-word-title structure, including Out for Justice, Hard to Kill, Marked for Death, and Above the Law. But he luckily changed things up for his directorial debut, On Deadly Ground, in which he plays a rogue Alaskan firefighter who takes on a corrupt oil CEO (played by Michael friggin’ Caine) and teaches toxic oil rig workers valuable lessons about their behavior in some of the most unintentionally funny cinema of all time.

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4.Black Dog (1998)

Patrick Swayze grimaces as he drives a truck

Cast: Patrick Swayze, Meat Loaf, Gabriel Casseus, and Randy TravisDirector: Kevin HooksRuntime: 88 MinutesRating: PG-13Rotten Tomatoes

Patrick Swayze was always an odd figure when it comes to the “action hero” actors of the 1980s and 1990s, as he had a much slimmer frame than the Arnolds and Stallones of the world, and yet, he was able to perfectly pair the physical demands of any role with his stellar dramatic chops. In doing so, he was able to elevate many action movies that would have become forgettable nonsense without his presence, including Black Dog, an underrated 1998 action vehicle where Swayze plays a troubled truck driver who is tricked into hauling illegal weapons by a relentless criminal (Meat Loaf). Black Dog may be just a notch above full-on B-movie territory, but I’ll be damned if Swayze doesn’t deliver in a role that is somewhat below his standard quality of work and, frankly, his star power, even in the late ‘90s.

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5.Conspiracy Theory (1997)

Mel Gibson holds his head in confusion while holding a handgun

Cast: Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, Cylk Cozart, and Patrick StewartDirector: Richard DonnerRuntime: 129 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

Written by L.A. Confidential’s Brian Helgeland and directed by filmmaking legend Richard Donner, Conspiracy Theory is a really solid action-thriller that has fallen into the sands of time despite being a notable success back in the late ‘90s. Perhaps this is because the film made its hero a paranoid taxi driver, an interesting central character that posits an interesting social dynamic but is also likely not the most relatable protagonist to follow through a high-stakes action movie.

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6.Enemy of the State (1998)

Will Smith looks concerningly while sitting near a briefcase

Cast: Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, and Lisa BonetDirector: Tony ScottRuntime: 127 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

Will Smith has defined his career by playing relatable, fast-talking heroes in films like Men in Black, Independence Day, and Bad Boys, but Enemy of the State goes a step further by making him a full-on regular dude on the run from corrupt government agents in this tense action-thriller. Enemy of the State surrounds a congressman’s assassination, the video of which falls into the lap of a labor lawyer (Smith) who must turn to an ex-intelligence agent (Gene Hackman) when he is framed for the crime.

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7.The Fugitive (1993)

Harrison Ford examines a protesthetic arm in a laboratory

Cast: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Sela Ward, and Joe PantolianoDirector: Andrew DavisRuntime: 127 MinutesRating: PG-13Rotten Tomatoes

A massive critical and commercial success, The Fugitive was the rare action film that spotlighted the versatility, resourcefulness, and courageousness of America’s true heroes: vascular surgeons. For those unfamiliar, the film pits the wrongfully accused Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) who attempts to clear his name and find his wife’s real killer while evading a brilliant and relentless US Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones).

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8.Big Game (2014)

Samuel L. Jackson stands atop a mountain with a hatchet

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Onni Tommila, Ray Stevenson, and Victor GarberDirector: Jalmari HelanderRuntime: 90 MinutesRating: PG-13Rotten Tomatoes

Samuel L. Jackson has always been a bit of an unconventional action hero, often utilizing his wit, confidence, and finesse to make up for the lack of a traditional muscle-bound physique. This is exceptionally true in the case of Big Game, a movie in which Air Force One is shot down over the mountains of Finland, and the President (Jackson) is forced to team with a 13-year-old local to survive the wilderness and psychopathic hunters hoping to kill him. It may not be the first presidential action film, as Air Force One did it more than 15 years prior, but whereas Harrison Ford’s Air Force One POTUS was an ex-military war hero, Big Game’s prez is strictly a brawn-free politician.

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9.Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Tom Cruise in a button-up shirt talks to Emily Blunt in a futuristic training facility

Cast: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendan Gleeson, and Bill PaxtonDirector: Doug LimanRuntime: 113 MinutesRating: PG-13Rotten Tomatoes

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Wait, isn’t Edge of Tomorrow the movie with Tom Cruise fighting aliens with a giant mech suit? How is that a normal guy?” That’s because Edge of Tomorrow is actually about a smarmy and largely unskilled public relations officer who is forced to fight on the front lines of a war against extraterrestrials, during which time he is imbued with the power to relive the same day over and over. While Cruise’s character eventually becomes a heroic badass, the film largely focuses on the “trial and error” element where the cowardly PR representative is repeatedly killed (often in a dumb, avoidable fashion) until he has the skills necessary to defeat the alien threat.

C Face to Face / Entertainment Pictures / Alamy

10.The Terminator (1984)

Linda Hamilton cautiously answers a call at a pay phone

Cast: Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, and Paul WinfieldDirector: James CameronRuntime: 108 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

When most people think of Sarah Connor, they imagine the Terminator 2 version of the character that is jacked to the gills, kicking ass, and going toe-to-toe with the T-1000. They might forget that the character eventually became a hero as an unassuming waitress and college student in the intense original Terminator, in which Linda Hamilton offered a stellar performance as an ordinary woman fighting to survive in an extraordinary situation.

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11.The Nice Guys (2016)

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe lean on a vintage bar

Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, and Margaret QualleyDirector: Shane BlackRuntime: 116 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

Filmmaker Shane Black has made his name on finding unlikely types of action heroes, including football players, housewives, and petty thieves all thrown against bigger, more sinister threats. This absolutely applies to his pairing of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in the 2016 action-comedy The Nice Guys, with the former playing a low-rent private investigator and the latter playing a thug-for-hire as they attempt to track down and protect a missing teenager with a link to a shocking conspiracy and the death of a local porn star.

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12.Collateral Damage (2002)

Arnold Schwarzenegger handles a powersaw in a fire

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elias Koteas, Francesca Neri, and Cliff CurtisDirector: Andrew DavisRuntime: 109 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

Arnold Schwarzenegger often had to play hulking ex-soldiers and mercenaries due to his body type, but he was given a blue-collar makeover for his role as a Los Angeles-based firefighter who seeks vengeance against a Colombian terrorist responsible for a bombing that killed his family. A surprisingly controversial movie for its time, Collateral Damage was one of Schwarzenegger’s final leading action roles prior to his election as the Governor of California.

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13.Executive Decision (1996)

Kurt Russell talks with Oliver Platt near a mechanical device

Cast: Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal, Halle Berry, and John LeguizamoDirector: Stuart BairdRuntime: 132 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

Executive Decision is one of the few action films on this list that actively uses its hero’s relatively ordinary background as an expectation-subverting twist, establishing Kurt Russell as an army intelligence consultant serving as the brains of a rescue mission to be executed by a highly-skilled soldier, played by Steven Seagal. But when the tables are surprisingly turned, Russell’s consultant becomes the mission’s unlikely last hope, utilizing his extremely limited field experience to stop a hijacked plane filled with nerve gas.

Warner Bros. / RGR Collection / Alamy

14.Road House (1989)

Patrick Swayze leans on a western-themed bar near a blonde woman

Cast: Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch, Sam Elliott, and Ben GazzaraDirector: Rowdy HerringtonRuntime: 112 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

With the ever-present machismo associated with the action genre, it was an inevitability that Hollywood would eventually produce a movie exploring the world of bar room bouncing and brawling in Road House. With Patrick Swayze finding one of his most beloved roles as the mysterious yet legendary bouncer Dalton James, Road House is currently being remade by Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman with Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role as a former UFC fighter who is recruited to bounce at a particularly dangerous Florida bar.

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15.National Treasure (2004)

Nicolas Cage uses an ultraviolet pen light to decipher a clue

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, and Sean BeanDirector: Jon TurteltaubRuntime: 130 MinutesRating: PGRotten Tomatoes

National Treasure was a fun and unexpected adventure movie that somehow made a meal (and an unlikely franchise) from the absurd premise that the Declaration of Independence is a treasure map. Of course, half of the film’s charm comes from the fact that the lead isn’t a federal agent or super-soldier, but rather a mild-mannered historian and cryptographer as portrayed by Nicolas Cage in a very game performance.

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16.Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Four people in an ornate Asian room look on in terror

Cast: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, and James HongDirector: John CarpenterRuntime: 98 MinutesRating: PG-13Rotten Tomatoes

A supernatural action movie that mixes over-the-top action with wry comedy, Big Trouble in Little China is bolstered by a tongue-in-cheek performance by Kurt Russell as a truck driver whose confidence clashes with how simply out-of-his-depth he is in a conflict surrounding ancient curses and immortal beings. Yet just because Russell’s Jack Burton misses many typical “hero moments” doesn’t mean the film is absent of those moments, as both Dennis Dun and Victor Wong rise to the occasion as Burton’s badass “sidekicks.”

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17.Guns Akimbo (2019)

Daniel Radcliffe holds up two guns nailed into his fingers on the city streets

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, and Rhys DarbyDirector: Jason Lei HowdenRuntime: 95 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

From the director of the cult horror-comedy Deathgasm, Guns Akimbo automatically set itself up for an unconventional action hero with the casting of Daniel Radcliffe, an extremely capable actor but not exactly the most intimidating figure in the world. However, Radcliffe isn't trying to pull a Jack Reacher on the audience, as he plays an average computer programmer who is kidnapped, has guns surgically grafted to his hands, and is forced into a life-or-death battle against an accomplished killer (Samara Weaving) for an underground livestream broadcast.

Prod DB / Jen Raoult / Altitude Film Entertainment / Four Knights Film / Hyperion Media Group

18.Collateral (2004)

Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx sit tensely in a taxi

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tom Cruise, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Mark RuffaloDirector: Michael MannRuntime: 120 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

Michael Mann's Collateral is one of the best (and, honestly, understated) action-thrillers of the last two decades, with the primary reason being the chemistry between the intense and scary assassin (Tom Cruise) and the desperate yet ambitious cabbie (Jamie Foxx). Cruise is absolutely perfect in an against-type villain role, but Foxx matches his every step in a really unglamorous role, transforming from an ordinary cab driver with dreams of entrepreneurship to a working class hero who stands up to his highly-skilled assailant.

Paramount / PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy

19.Nick of Time (1995)

Johnny Depp crouches near a van

Cast: Johnny Depp, Christopher Walken, Charles S. Dutton, and Roma MaffiaDirector: John BadhamRuntime: 89 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

Johnny Depp has always been on the fringe of the action genre, showcasing his ability to headline thrilling franchise fare like Pirates of the Caribbean yet very rarely accepting roles in traditional action movies. Yet one of his best showcases as an action lead can be found in Nick of Time, a pulse-pounding action thriller in which an ordinary accountant is kidnapped and instructed to kill a governor during a campaign appearance in exchange for his daughter's safety.

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20.Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

Gerard Butler runs out of a vehicle with a machine gun

Cast: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, and Souléymane Sy SavanéDirector: Marc ForsterRuntime: 127 MinutesRating: RRotten Tomatoes

Based on a true story, Machine Gun Preacher might disappoint you if you're looking for a shoot-'em-up action epic that lives up to the promise of the title. Instead, the Gerard Butler-starring film balanced both drama and action in the story of Sam Childers, a former biker who dedicates his life to Christ and decides to take up arms to protect the children of South Sudan from Joseph Kony's LRA rebels.

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21.Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Harrison Ford comes face-to-face with a snake

Cast: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, and Denholm ElliottDirector: Steven SpielbergRuntime: 115 MinutesRating: PGRotten Tomatoes

Perhaps the best known example of an action hero who defied the standards of the genre, Indiana Jones throws punches like a hero, runs headfirst into danger, and is willing to take on threats, regardless of his disadvantages. However, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones — a college professor and artifact collector — does indeed get beaten up, outsmarted, ridiculed, and, yes, scared silly by snakes, which is maybe why the character has been endearing for over 40 years.

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