The Top 10 Ultimate Tough Guy Movies

Editor’s Note: See James Jay Carafano’s article from yesterday for the opposite of the films on this list: 10 Tinseltown Turkeys That Make Real Men Choke.


10. Straw Dogs (1971)

Dustin Hoffman made his bones as a misfit Hollywood Holden Caulfield in The Graduate (1967). Who would have thought of him as an action hero? “Bloody Sam” Peckinpah, that’s who. The director of the Wild West’s wildest tough guy movie, The Wild Bunch (1969), followed up with a controversial film starring Hoffman as a meek math professor on sabbatical in rural Cornwall. When a bunch of rowdy locals storm his home, Hoffman goes all Rambo proving his “manhood” in an orgy of violence. Even Hoffman’s character can’t believe what happens. “Jesus, I got ’em all,” he mumbles at the end of the movie. This film cemented Peckinpah’s place as the king of his generation’s tough guy moviemakers. For some unfathomable reason, the movie was remade in 2011. Stick to the original.

9. The Quiet Man (1952)

John Wayne wins hands down as the greatest Hollywood tough guy of all time. During a career that spanned more than three decades, he appeared in some 250 movies. Yet, there is no question as to which is his finest tough-guy role: director John Ford’s The Quiet Man. After accidentally killing a man in the ring, boxer Sean Thornton returns to Ireland to reclaim the family farm.  Naturally, his vow never to fight again only means we’ll see a fight before the last reel finishes. And there is a whopper of a whipping, one of the classic fight scenes in cinema history. It is certainly the only one that lasts so long the fighters take a time out to have a beer in the middle of the swing-fest.


8. Spartacus (1960)

Pairing great actors and iconic directors is part of the top tough guy formula.  Here, Stanley Kubrick directs Kirk Douglas in the greatest sword and sandal epic of all time. Spartacus the gladiator leads a slave revolt that shakes Rome to its foundations. Russell Crowe’s tough guy imitation in Gladiator (2000) was a box-office bonanza but doesn’t measure up to the original.

7. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Another one featuring a great director and a great actor… and they are both Clint Eastwood. After the Civil War, Wales heads west, his trail marked by increasingly violent encounters (none of his desiring) that end up bordering on the mythical. Wales delivers a classic summation of Tough Guy philosophy:

Now remember, when things look bad, and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up, then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.

6. The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Wikipedia claims this is “the second most shown film in U.S. television history, behind only The Wizard of Oz.” Believe it–and with good reason. John Sturges reimagines Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), switching the setting from medieval Japan to Old West Mexico. Yul Brynner leads a team of down-on-their-luck gunfighters defending a remote village against a band of marauding outlaws. Throw in the soaring, award-winning musical score, and this is one magnificent tough guy movie.


Blood of the Dragon movie poster

5. Blood of the Dragon (1973)

No tough guy movie list is complete without a martial arts flick. The choices are many, but the spots are few. The most famous “American” film might be Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973). The biggest U.S. box office hit paired Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). But it’s hard to top Jimmy Wang in the story of a mysterious fighter with a silver spear who leads an uprising against the Mongol overlords. Blood of the Dragon is classic Hong Kong kick-ass cinema. Perhaps not the absolute best of the breed, but a wildly entertaining example of a tough guy formula that is still copied and adapted in films like the modern sci-fi epic The Matrix (1999).

4. Aliens (1986)

Not all of the best tough guys are guys. Sci-fi films, in particular, have shown us tough-as-nails gals. Linda Hamilton looked tough in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Milla Jovovich kicked butt in Resident Evil (2002). But, director James Cameron and leading lady Sigourney Weaver teamed together to school Hollywood in how it’s done. Weaver spent most of the original 1979 film Alien being chased by one of the scariest movie monsters ever. In the sequel she takes the battle to the enemy. The space marines look like wimps beside the flame-thrower-wielding heroine.

3. Die Hard (1988)

Bruce Willis is the John Wayne of the Baby Boomer generation. No film cemented his claim to the title more than this story of a New York City cop trapped in a Los Angles skyscraper and tangling with terrorists on Christmas Eve. The sequel, Die Hard II (1990), is equally awesome. Sadly, after that the series dies with more forgettable films.


2. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

He was the tough guy that every other Hollywood tough guy tried to copy. In this film noir classic, Humphrey Bogart—under the direction of John Huston—gave the world private detective Sam Spade, the very model of a hardboiled hero. When the cops take away his dame at the end of the film Spade says, “I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.” Now that’s a tough guy.

1. Rocky (1976)

Rocky Balboa is a loser, a nobody. But the washed-up journeyman boxer gets a shot at a title match with the heavy-weight champ in this underdog classic penned by Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone. With more heart than skill, Rocky shows what a real tough guy can do. The sequels are dreadful. Somebody even thought Rocky would make a great Broadway musical. They were wrong. But the original Rocky still stands as an unforgettable icon, embodying the Hollywood tough guy.


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