7 of the Greatest Action Movie Trilogies of All Time

Mel Gibson in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

Mel Gibson in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior | Source: Warner Bros.

What’s better than one great action movie? How about three? Here are seven of the greatest action film trilogies that have ever been made. Although the action movie trilogies selected for this list were chosen purely on the basis of personal taste, the trilogies are listed in order of the best critical ranking achieved by any one film in each series, from lowest to highest.

7. Vengeance trilogy (2002-2005)

Renowned Korean director Park Chan-wook’s highly acclaimed thematic trilogy of films each feature a storyline about people seeking revenge. Besides sharing the same overall theme, each of the films in this trilogy is also characterized by some intensely violent action sequences, including the famous “hammer fight” scene in Oldboy that was shot in one long continuous take.

The series begins with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance which currently only has a 54% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes — many of whom seemed disturbed by the film’s graphic depictions of violence. The second film in the series — Oldboy — earned the most critical acclaim from Rotten Tomatoes with a Certified Fresh rating of 80%. Oldboy also took home the prestigious Grand Prize of the Jury award from the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, according to IMDb. Finally, the last film in the Vengeance trilogy — Sympathy for Lady Vengeance — earned the Certified Fresh seal of approval and a fairly high approval rating of 74%.

The widespread popularity of Oldboy led director Spike Lee to remake the film in 2013 with Josh Brolin in the starring role. However, the remake was widely panned by the critics and currently only has a 42% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. While Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy ostensibly demonstrated the futility of seeking vengeance, the films also proved that seeking vengeance could involve plenty of impressively choreographed action.

6. Ong-Bak trilogy (2005-2011)

The first film in this trilogy, Ong-Bak (also known as Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior) was a breakout role for Tony Jaa and instantly made him an international martial arts action movie star. The success of Ong-Bak spawned two prequel/spin-off films, Ong-Bak 2 and Ong-Bak 3.  Although the final two films are set hundreds of years before the modern-day setting of the first film, all three films star Tony Jaa and feature thematic elements that tie the whole series together.

Like many other movie trilogies, the first in the series is widely considered to be the best with an 86% Certified Fresh rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes. On the other hand, Ong-Bak 2 and Ong-Bak 3 only earned 48% and 43% ratings, respectively. Nevertheless, the Ong-Bak trilogy is without a doubt one of the greatest martial arts action film trilogies ever made.

5. The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003)

The Wachowski’s groundbreaking science fiction action film The Matrix became an instant classic when it debuted in 1999 and the commercial and critical success of that film spawned two sequels: The Matrix Reloaded and the The Matrix Revolutions. Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Hugo Weaving, the films depict a dystopian future when humans are enslaved by intelligent machines in a simulated reality known as “the Matrix.”

Both The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded garnered the Certified Fresh seal of approval from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes with scores of 87% and 73%, respectively. However, many critics and fans were let down by the final installment, which only achieved a dismal 36% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Even so, this influential film series still ranks as one of the greatest science fiction action film trilogies ever made.

4. Iron Man trilogy (2008-2013)

Starring Robert Downey, Jr. as the title Marvel Comics superhero character, all three films in this action-packed trilogy were commercial and critical successes. Gwyneth Paltrow costars in all of the films as Iron Man/Tony Stark’s long-suffering assistant/love interest Pepper Potts, while Stark’s friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes is portrayed by Terence Howard in the first film and Don Cheadle in the second and third films. Besides being a highly successful standalone trilogy, the first Iron Man movie was also the first of the many subsequent blockbuster hits that involve the shared fictional world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, such as Thor, The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

As far as critical rankings from Rotten Tomatoes, the first installment in the trilogy leads the series with a Certified Fresh 93% rating. However, Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 also both earned the Certified Fresh seal of approval and currently have decent ratings of 73% and 78%, respectively. For this reason, the Iron Man film series ranks as one of the greatest superhero action movie trilogies ever made.

3. Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012)

After the Tim Burton/Joel Shumacher-directed series of Batman films concluded with the atrocious Batman & Robin, it was clear that the movie franchise featuring this iconic DC Comics character was in dire need of a major overhaul.  Director Christopher Nolan gave the franchise a much needed reboot with his vastly improved and much darker Dark Knight trilogy. The trilogy stars Christian Bale as the brooding and tormented Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as James Gordon, and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. The character of Rachel Dawes is portrayed by Katie Holmes in the first film and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the second and third films.

All three films have been Certified Fresh by the critics at Rotten Tomatoes and each of the sequels raked in over $1 billion in worldwide gross, according to Box Office Mojo. Nolan kicked off the trilogy with the appropriately titled Batman Begins, which currently has an 85% approval rating. The second film in the series — The Dark Knight — garnered the most critical praise and currently has a stellar 94% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The Dark Knight also earned two Academy Awards, including a posthumous Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar for Heath Ledger, who portrayed The Joker. The Dark Knight Rises finished the series with an 88% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Along with the Iron Man trilogy, the Dark Knight film series is one of the greatest superhero action movie trilogies ever made.

2. Mad Max trilogy (1979-1985)

One issue with documenting great action film trilogies is that the best ones often don’t remain trilogies for long. Such is the case with the Mad Max series of dystopian action films that kicked off with Mad Max in 1979, continued with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior in 1981, and then appeared to be concluded with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985. However, a fourth movie starring Tom Hardy (instead of Mel Gibson) and Charlize Theron was added to the series when Mad Max: Fury Road made its U.S. theatrical debut on May 15, 2015.

However, it can be argued that the original Mad Max film series is a standalone trilogy, since the titular character was recast. For this reason, we believe the Mel Gibson-helmed Mad Max films still stand as one of the greatest three-part action film series ever made about a post-apocalyptic Earth. Although the first installment is the only film in the series to win the Certified Fresh seal of approval (95%) from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome both achieved high uncertified approval ratings of 100% and 81%, respectively.

1. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)

Based on author J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel of the same name, director Peter Jackson’s three-part film series is considered one of the most commercially successful trilogies ever made with nearly $3 billion in total worldwide gross, according to Box Office Mojo. All three films were also critically acclaimed and collectively won 17 Academy Awards out of 30 total nominations, according to IMDb.

While The Lord of the Rings trilogy falls under the fantasy genre, the extended battle sequences featured in each of the films unquestionably also qualifies it as an action movie trilogy. The Lord of the Rings trilogy has the highest overall rankings from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes than any of the other action movie trilogies featured on this list. While each film earned the Certified Fresh seal of approval, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring earned the lowest rating at 91%, while The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers earned the highest rating at 96%. Finally, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the last film in the series and the one with the most Academy Awards (11), earned a 95% approval rating.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS

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