Action movies often have a secondary romance plot (like Die Hard) and romance films sometimes have some action going on (see: fistfight in Pretty Woman.) But for this list, we’re sticking with films that have solid action sequences and a swoon-worthy romance, if not in perfect balance, then at least in perfect enough balance to enough to satisfy fans of both genres. The list is in chronological order.
To Have and Have Not (1944)
“You know how to whistle, Steve?” This is Lauren Bacall’s first film appearance; she was only 20 years old, but the poise, the husky voice, and the dry intelligence are all already in place. She plays Slim, a thief and singer passing through Vichey-controlled Martinique when she’s pulled into the magnetic orbit of Humphrey Bogart’s fishing boat captain Harry Morgan. At first, Harry doesn’t want to get involved (shades of Casablanca.)
But soon he’s performing daring rescues and winning gun battles with the suave masculine panache you expect when you adapt a Hemingway novel. Director Howard Hawks has fun with his trademark rapid-fire dialogue (“put your lips together and blow”). And…it’s Bogie and Bacall. What more can you want?
Johnny Guitar (1954)
In Nicholas Ray’s stylized Western melodrama words of love explode like gunfire and bullets hit like a bitter kiss. On the surface, the conflict is between saloon keeper Vienna (Joan Crawford) who wants to sell her property to the railway, and the rest of the townspeople who want to keep farmers off their ranch-land. But not far beneath is a web of jealousy and passion that tightens like a noose.
Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) wears a gunbelt over her dress, while Vienna is all eyes, cheekbones, trousers, and bright blouses. The men—Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) and the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady)—are just prizes as the women draw their guns and aim for the heart.
North by Northwest (1959)
Hitchcock’s classic spy thriller has a drunken car chase, a knife in the back, an assault by a crop duster, and a midnight flight down the face(s) of Mt. Rushmore. But the bit that will really set your heart thumping is Eve Marie Saint leaning over to blow out the match in Cary Grant’s hand. North By Northwest takes a while to get Grant as an ad executive mistaken for a spy onto the train where Saint’s seductive woman of mystery is waiting for him.
For Valentine’s Day fans, though, it’s worth the wait. The final scene which whooshes from a literal cliffhanger to the couple clasped as a train enters a tunnel is one of the most famous romantic climaxes (as it were) ever.
Contemporary superhero films mostly avoid dwelling on romance in favor of more action and franchise crossover Easter eggs. Not Superman though. There are plenty of superfeats, from getting cats out of trees to spinning the world backwards to reset time (how does that work again?) But much of the runtime is also devoted to the screwball comedy love triangle of Superman (Christopher Reeve)/Lois (Margot Kidder)/Clark (Reeve again, of course).
Reeve and Kidder channel Grants and Hepburns of old in their rapid-fire patter, and Reeve in that skintight suit is swoon-worthy enough that you can absolutely believe even Lois would…well, swoon. (“That’s Clark, nice.”) Add in the X-Ray vision as flirtation and the flying as even more flirtation, and you’ve got one of the great heart-throb super-action films of all time.
Romancing the Stone (1984)
Romance author Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) thinks she wants a noble, chivalrous hero. Instead, on a trip to rescue her kidnapped sister in Colombia, she stumbles on querulous scumbag Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas), who is motivated mostly by money and contrariness. The falling in love and the escalating chase sequences and alligator wrestling twirl about each other in lockstep, like the wonderful dance scene.
The film also contains what may be the iconic action romance scene, when the gritty, vicious gangster leader recognizes Joan Wilder from her book jacket. Why shouldn’t bad, tough men love romance too?
The Wachowski sisters’ first, and I’d argue best film, is also one of very few queer action romances filmed to date. Corky (Gina Gershon) is a butch handyman (in more ways than one) who falls for gun moll femme fatale seductress Violet (Jennifer Tilly). Violet falls for her right back, and the two plot to rip off unsuspecting mobster Caesar (Joe Pantoliano).
Corky actually ends up tied up in a closet at one point, as the director’s play with and conflate queer identity, noir deceit, and the eroticized rush of onscreen violence. The women are of course better at all the genres, from the steamy to the brutal.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Rom-coms always have a happily-ever-after. Action romances sometimes have a bit more room to explore different conclusions. Quentin Tarantino’s wonderful Jackie Brown is a case in point. Airline stewardess, money runner, and force of nature Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) and corny bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) shouldn’t fit together.
But her smarts and his honest fuddy-duddy doggedness turns out to be an explosive combination, as bodies fall around them, money falls into their hands, and they almost fall into each other’s arms. Two leads have rarely had such perfect chemistry. When Jackie and Max team up, the stellar supporting cast of Samuel Jackson, Robert DeNiro, Bridget Fonda, and Michael Keaton barely know what hit them.
Casino Royale (2006)
James Bond films have traditionally been more interested in sex than romance, racing from action scene to action scene with few breaks to fully develop a female lead. Casino Royale is the big exception, though. Daniel Craig in his first outing as a youngish James Bond is matched and then overmatched by British Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) in an escalating flirtation which will have you grabbing (like Bond after an unfortunate poisoning) for the defibrillator.
Green and Craig are both stunningly charismatic, and the lengthy 144 minute run time gives them space to reveal vulnerability, passion, tenderness, and tragic secrets, as well as the inevitable Bond-franchise standard steamy flashes of skin.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Edgar Wright’s giddily brilliant action rom-com requires would-be pop-punk hero Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) to battle for the love of Ramona (Mary Elizabeth-Winstead) by defeating her seven evil exes in a series of martial arts video-game battles. Wright’s action movie sensibilities are a brilliant collection of extroverted oddities—there are animated comic-book effects and snake demons, and when Scott defeats an enemy they explode in a shower of coins.
It’s not entirely clear that Scott deserves Ramona, but that’s in line with rom-com tropes too. The hearts that stream about the screen as they kiss at the end are not so much irony as an acknowledgment that happy romance endings and happy action movie endings alike are a bit of Hollywood pixie dust. Whether you believe it or not, you’re supposed to enjoy the exhilarating display.
The Lovebirds (2020)
Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) end their four-year relationship seconds before they are car-jacked and their vehicle used in a murder. The plot spirals into hyperbolic absurdity from there, as the couple tries to clear their name by interrogating frat boys, dodging (or not dodging) a kick from a horse, and infiltrating masked orgies. Nanjiani and Rae babble their way out from under an assassin’s gun (“I would say you’ve killed like exactly the right number of people. I wouldn’t add to it, because right now, the number of people you’ve killed is impressive, but not like worrying”) and back into each other’s hearts.
Other films that were on and off the list included Bonnie and Clyde, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and The Transporter. And what about Venom? Isn’t that a romance between Eddie (Tom Hardy) and his guttural voiced, long-tongued space-alien parasite suit? They even kiss at one point. Love sometimes comes in strange packages. And/or action movies do as well.
More From Wealth of Geeks
- 10 Unparalleled Shakespeare Movie
- Review: ‘I’m Not in Love’ is a Bitter, Albeit Indecisive Anti-Rom-Com
- Review: Ali Hazelwood’s ‘The Love Hypothesis’ is a Charming and Romantic Page-Turner
- How ‘Bridgerton’ Ushered Romance into Our Lives
- Review: ‘I’m Your Man’ Questions the Idealism of a Robotic Romance
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Feature Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.