Umberto Eco, a philosopher and author, famously said that a cult movie "must provide a completely furnished world" so that movie fans can act as if they belong to that movie's "private sectarian world." Brainy estimations of what a cult movie is aside, a movie gains "cult" status simply by virtue of its having a group of obsessive fans.
An action movie is any movie that tells its story mainly through action rather than dialogue. The term "action movie" is usually derogatory, a description that indicates that a movie is full of flash and explosions and not much substance.
It's easy enough to see where these two combine--action movies are often the go-to fare for teenage boys, a group famous for their obsessive fandom.
Here are a few cult action movie classics, beloved as much for their "completely furnished worlds" as for their bombs, gunplay, and liberal use of explosives.
A classic Spaghetti western (and huge influence on the work of director Quentin Tarantino), Django just barely meets the definition of a "cult action movie." Django makes the cut because, at the time, it was the most violent film ever made, featuring tons of shootouts, fingers being bitten off, crushed body parts, and buckets of fake blood. Django famously uses a "Gatling gun" to (at one point) mow down forty-eight guys in a single shot, a ridiculous automatic weapon resembling no actual gun ever used in the real world, one with no recoil and no apparent need for reloading. Some call Django the godfather of the modern action movie.
Charles Bronson, no stranger to cult action movies, stars with James Coburn in Hard Times, an action movie about illegal boxing matches in Louisiana during the Great Depression. Bronson plays the consummate cult action movie hero in Hard Times, a man of few words and a shady past, a drifter who can kick ass with little to stand in his way. Full of juke joints, street fights, and cheesy action movie foley sound effects (never have punches sounded so consistently like a guy going round for round with a side of beef), Hard Times is a cult hit because of its near-total lack of plot and gallons of sweat pouring off the main characters.
It's hard to believe that a screenwriter for the Oscar-winning film The Deer Hunter had anything to do with Extreme Prejudice. Deric Washburn, a collaborator on the screenplay for The Deer Hunter (one of the best films of the 70s) was a co-writer for this cult action movie starring Nick Nolte. Extreme Prejudice is billed as an homage to The Wild Bunch, though it is nowhere near the same quality of movie. In Extreme Prejudice, a Texas Ranger tries to thwart a bank robbery while simultaneously trying to bring down his former friend, now living a life of crime as a drug dealer.
What do Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Belushi, and crude attempts at Russian language and culture have in common? Red Heat, a 1988 buddy cop film that has achieved total cult status. This film surmises that a Russian narcotics officer (played by Schwarzenegger) and a Chicago cop (played by the always-bland James Belushi) would team up together to do battle with a Russian drug kingpin--a ridiculous notion made even more silly by the poorly translated Russian language and "Russian-ness" of the movie itself--lambasted by Russian speakers as the ultimate example of the 80s American vision of Russia as a nation of Communists and tough guys. Watch Red Heat for a prime example of Schwarzenegger at his acting worst, an Austrian dumbing his way through the movie pretending to be Russian.
Sam Elliot and Patrick Swayze star in Road House, a massive cult hit about a roadside bar bouncer and corrupt businessmen in small-town Missouri. Full of romance, arson, and fight scenes including an attempted ripping out of a throat with bare hands. More a "vigilante justice" movie than an action flick, Road House is still considered a cult action movie because of the lame dialogue and badass fight scenes. Often included on lists of the greatest "good-bad" movies, Road House makes this list if for no other reason than the awful 80s fashion present throughout.
Steven Seagal wrote and starred in this vintage early 90s action film. Out For Justice features the coolest main character name of any action movie I've ever seen--Seagal plays Gino Felino, a NYPD detective trying to solve the murder of his partner, the equally awesome-named Bobby Lupo. Featuring a cameo by Julianna Margulies, Out For Justice has one of the great cult action movie endings of all time: a puppy peeing on a bad guy's face. One of the first somewhat-successful NC-17 rated movies, this Seagal spectacular would be forgettable if not for the fact that it was the third-straight Seagal movie to premiere at number one in the box office.
Starring Billy Blanks, he of Tae Bo fame, Expect No Mercy is another pseudo science fiction/action hybrid, this time focusing on a secret group of assassins training in a virtual reality setting. This film has all the 90s action movie stereotypes, from a ridiculous vision of "virtual reality" to a climax involving plenty of violence and explosions and (of course) westernized martial arts. The team of Billy Blanks and Jalal Merhi provide the same action movie pap they're famous for in both Talons of the Eagle and TC 2000.
This star vehicle for Pamela Anderson Lee, an attempt to turn a B-list TV star into an A-list action movie phenomenon, re imagines Casablanca in the year 2017 during the "Second American Civil War." If that doesn't sound like prime cult movie material, I don't know what does. Roger Ebert weighed in that Barb Wire should have been a fun bit of movie camp, but that Pamela Anderson Lee's terrible acting and boring line delivery sinks the ship. Notable for Pamela Anderson Lee's extended topless striptease at the beginning and its attempt to set Casablanca in the future with a female lead.
More cult action movies are being made all the time. They perform well at the box office, and they're relatively easy to produce, requiring almost no script and zero acting ability. Expect this list of the greatest cult action movies to continue to swell, as long as the majority of US moviegoers prefer style over substance.