Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film "Seven Samurai" set the standard for the modern action film. Yep, almost every movie on this list (all of them influential and important in their own ways) was itself influenced by "Seven Samurai."
It's not that there were no action movies before Kurosawa made one. Frantic comedies and action-packed Westerns were among the earliest and most popular films made [source: Dirks]. But before the Japanese filmmaker came along, filming action largely meant pointing a camera at something exciting. Kurosawa used film technology to depict action in ways no one had ever seen. He shot every scene with multiple cameras, some of them operating at different speeds. This allowed him to emphasize certain actions with slow-motion effects or intercut rapidly between angles to increase the pace of a scene [source: Nixon]. "Seven Samurai" established the visual language of modern action movies.
Watch "Seven Samurai," and you'll also find many modern action movie tropes. There's the process of assembling a team of heroes, misfits and iconoclasts who don't fit into society; the romantic entanglement; the duty-bound warriors doing a thankless job because no one else will – all of that could describe a gritty crime movie or countless espionage thrillers, but Kurosawa did it first [source: Ebert].