Action movies are supposed to thrill, excite, and captivate. They share a lot alike with horror movies in that successful scenes get our hearts pounding and our nerves craving for more.
Which is why it's especially important for action movies to have strong opening scenes. They need to set expectations and convince viewers that the next 90 to 120 minutes are going to be worthwhile.
Here are our picks for the best opening scenes in action movies of all time and why they're so successfully thrilling.
10. Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
Has there ever been a movie star quite like Tom Cruise? With the leading role in Top Gun—the quintessential 1980s action movie—Cruise established himself as one of the most watchable men in Hollywood.
Almost 40 years later, he reminded the world that he still owns that spot with the expectations-shattering Top Gun: Maverick.
When Maverick arrives on site to test out a new super-jet prototype, they realize they only have a limited amount of time to fly the plane before their operation is shut down.
Maverick jumps into the pilot seat with only one goal in mind: reach Mach 10. But once he's there, his risk-taker attitude takes over and he pushes to go even faster—to disastrous results.
It's an incredibly tense and suspenseful opening to one of the best action movies in recent years.
9. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Raiders of the Lost Ark takes place in Peru, 1936. Indiana Jones—professor and part-time adventurer—is in the middle of the Peruvian jungle in search of a golden idol. However, it's not as easy as initially thought.
Believing the entire cave to be laced with booby traps, every step that Indy takes is filled with suspense and anticipation.
After he reaches the idol and switches it out with a sandbag weight in one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history, we think he's succeeded... only for the entire cave to start collapsing in on itself.
What follows is a thrilling sequence as Indiana Jones narrowly avoids getting crushed by a large boulder, impaled by spikes, or shot by poison-tipped darts. It's the perfect opening to the entire franchise.
And, of course, in typical Steven Spielberg fashion, there are several fun laughs along the way. Watching Harrison Ford's facial expression turn queasy when he starts slipping down a bottomless pit? Classic!
8. Deadpool (2016)
Irreverent, nonchalant, and perennially self-referential, Deadpool is the comic book character who's always been a crowd-pleaser at heart—and that's certainly true in his first standalone movie.
Deadpool is filled with impressive action sequences, but the opening in particular remains a stellar example of how to introduce a new character to mainstream audiences.
Tasked with finding Francis, Wade Wilson drops into a Jeep via sun roof and proceeds to dismantle the entire convoy of vehicles.
Using the kind of violent savviness that only an experienced mercenary would have, Wilson kicks and punches his way to victory, all the while dropping risqué punchlines.
7. Casino Royale (2006)
Ever since Pierce Brosnan surfed on a world-ending tidal wave in Die Another Day, James Bond had become a laughing stock. If Ian Fleming's character was going to survive the 21st century, then the franchise needed to take a different direction altogether.
Enter Daniel Craig and director Martin Campbell.
In the grittiest opening sequence of any James Bond film, we watch as Bond viciously brawls in a public restroom before drowning an underling in a dirty sink, complete with film noir style.
Given the films that preceded it, this scene was considered too dark by some fans, but we think it worked well. It wasn't only tense and exciting, but it completely revived the stagnant franchise.
6. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The James Bond franchise wasn't the only one to be revived by a fresh new take on action films. With Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller managed to reinvigorate his Mad Max series with one of the most enthralling opening sequences in cinematic history.
As we see the gruff Tom Hardy look over a barren desert, he delivers a chilling monologue about what his existence has come to, about how he has been reduced to one single instinct: survival.
After the monologue, he dramatically turns over his shoulder and gathers his things—he must flee, so he drives off, only to be caught by raiders.
As a film, Mad Max: Fury Road is essentially chase scene after chase scene, and this opening sets up your expectations for that. What a way to spark new interest in a near-forgotten film series!
5. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
Ethan Hunt has been a landmark of action films since Mission: Impossible first came out over 30 years ago. However, the series had its best opening with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
In this one, the IMF crew has to prevent a jet plane from taking off. Luckily for them, Tom Cruise can run. Like, really fast.
After sprinting onto the wing of a moving plane, Hunt latches onto the side of a door. Of course, the plane still takes off, which means Hunt must hang on with his superhuman grip strength.
Full of cool gadgets, quips, and an insane number of stunts—that Tom Cruise famously performed himself without a double—it represents an action-packed prelude to an action-packed film.
With this coming out around the same time as Mad Max: Fury Road, action movie fans were spoiled silly that year!
4. Baby Driver (2017)
What can't Edgar Wright do? He's proven himself to have incredible range, successfully directing movies in the action, comedy, and horror genres. Plus, he has brilliant music taste.
All of that was put on display with Baby Driver, an exciting action-comedy that had a boatload of captivating car chases. Even so, it's the opening scene that sticks out as the best of the film.
Featuring some of the smartest steering we've ever seen from a getaway driver, all of the action is perfectly timed to "Bellbottoms" by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
How does Edgar Wright edit so perfectly? Beats me! But it does make for one of the best action movie openings of all time.
3. Gladiator (2000)
Ridley Scott put on a directorial masterclass with Gladiator. Not only did he restore the sword-and-sandals genre to its former glory, but he also gave us one of the most immersive action openings of all time.
As the Roman army conquers, General Maximus Decimus Meridius stands opposite a barbarian horde. Legionaries march in formation and we witness some of the greatest sword fighting ever put to film.
On top of all the axe-swinging, arrow-shooting, and horse-riding, we have some incredible one-liners, beautiful cinematography, and memorable details. Who can forget the headless man strapped to a horse as it sprints toward Roman lines?
Alongside Hans Zimmer's haunting score, Gladiator represents one of the most cinematic openings to any action movie.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
Here we have an opening scene that's as iconic as the film that follows it. This bank heist introduction perfectly establishes the Joker character and sets the tone for the greatest action movie of the decade.
After a group of men in clown masks rob a bank, they begin to pick each other off one by one. The violent action is interesting, but we're really hooked by the mystery behind the strange leader of this group.
What kind of chaotic philosophy would lead them to turn on themselves? One that prioritizes confusion, anarchy, and entropy.
Few action movies in cinema history have an opening as strong as this one, and even fewer have managed to maintain this level of quality for the rest of their runtime. The Dark Knight successfully does both.
1. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Steven Spielberg has truly mastered the craft of filmmaking in any genre. With Saving Private Ryan, he gives us an actioner that's considerably darker than his family-friendly adventure pieces from the 1980s.
As a soldier transport lands on Omaha Beach, we're caught in the chaos of bullets, bombs, and bodies. The shaky cam and the tight shots quicken our pulses. It's an action scene, but one dripping with drama as we see the haunting effect it has on Captain John H. Miller.
Saving Private Ryan is a film that shocked many with its realistic depiction of military violence, doubly so for audience members who were old enough to have known people who fought on Omaha Beach.
The opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan ranks at the top of our list for its authenticity and impact. No other opener has had this kind of effect, making it the best action movie opening of all time.