Act of Valor is coming out on DVD and Blu-ray on June 5. The film stars real Navy SEALs as men on a mission to stop international terrorists from sneaking into the United States and wreaking untold destruction. It’s but the latest in a long line of men on a mission movies, about a group of individuals given a nearly insurmountable task that they must accomplish for the greater good. Though similar to heist movies, the men on a mission genre depends on a cast of characters who aren’t just involved for personal gain, although they may have some added incentive. They’re out to save the world, turn the tide of a war or at least do the right thing, and the odds are stacked against them. It’s one of the most thrilling movie genres we have. Here are our picks for the ten best.
The Expendables (dir. Sylvester Stallone, 2010)
In 2010, the unthinkable finally happened. For decades, little boys had been dreaming of all – or hell, even some – of their favorite action stars to share the big screen. Sylvester Stallone, God bless him, finally made it happen in The Expendables, which united big screen and small-screen heroes, old and new, for a men on a mission movie that was so explosively masculine it could make a newborn infant grow a beard. The gimmick alone is enough to make the list, which is a good thing because the mission itself – something about liberating a small island nation from Eric Roberts – is the most forgettable part of the film.
Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
Quentin Tarantino didn’t quite remake Enzo G. Castellari’s World War II flick of (pretty much) the same name, The Inglorious Bastards, but he used that film’s subversive men on a mission tone for an excellent, Oscar-nominated film about a platoon of Jewish soldiers placed behind enemy lines to strike fear in the Nazi’s hearts. Brad Pitt and his men shine as memorably frightening and also funny “heroes,” but the film itself is at least equally about the charismatically evil Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who earned his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) and Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), an escaped Jew whose own clever scheme for taking down the Third Reich arguably had greater success than Inglourious Basterd’s supposed heroes.
Sunshine (dir. Danny Boyle, 2007)
Most men on a mission movies seem to revolve around soldiers, but it’s not a requirement for the genre. Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle brought the genre into the science-fiction realm with 2007’s exciting thriller Sunshine, about a crew responsible for traveling into the sun – the freaking sun – to reignite the celestial body and save the human race. Anchored by a remarkable cast, including future Captain America Chris Evans, kung fu legend Michelle Yeoh and Batman Begins co-star Cillian Murphy, Boyle turns the space odyssey into a powerful fight against the odds, buoyed by memorable suspense sequences and culminating in an unexpected finale that polarized some audiences. But we dug it.
Dr. Strangelove (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Not generally considered a men on a mission movie, Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb features several parallel stories, one of which perfectly qualifies. The story kicks off when Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, who blames Communist Russia for his impotency, orders his squadron of bombers to attack the Soviets, sparking an international incident. While President Merkin Muffly (Peter Sellers) and the titular Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers) try to put a stop to the catastrophe in the war room, and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers again) tries to talk sense into Ripper, one of the bombers makes its fateful run into enemy territory, led by Blazing Saddles star Slim Pickens, who was reportedly never told that the film was a comedy. In a vacuum, their mission seems like a noble one, and they complete it with glory. In context, holy crap did they screw up.
The Guns of Navarone (dir. J. Lee Thompson, 1961)
Considered one of the iconic men on a mission movies, J. Lee Thompson’s adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s (fictional) World War II novel united big name stars like Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn in a tale of rip-roaring adventure. They’ve been assigned to blow up two powerful Nazi cannons that are making it impossible for the Navy to navigate the Mediterranean and rescue prisoners of war. Glorious infighting, moral dilemmas and Nazis who are suspiciously knowledgeable of their plans make their task seem nearly impossible. The sense of scale is impressive and the cast is truly spectacular, but we’re not putting The Guns of Navarone near the top of the list because, if you watch it again today, the film feels unnecessarily padded to over 2 1/2 hours.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (dir. Peter Weir, 2003)
Master and Commander is one of Peter Weir’s best movies, and that’s saying a lot for the director of Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Witness. Russell Crowe stars as Captain Jack Aubrey, who along with the crew of the HMS Surprise has been tasked with taking down French pirates during the Napoleonic Wars. Unfortunately, their beloved ship is outgunned by Aubrey’s nemesis, a French captain who might just be as clever as our hero. Incredible action sequence and superlative performances from Crowe, Paul Bettany and young Max Pirkis (HBO’s “Rome”), playing a young midshipman torn between war and science, make Master and Commander one of the best naval warfare movies ever made, and a fantastic men on a mission film.
The Dirty Dozen (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1967)
Considered by many to be the iconic men on a mission movie, Robert Aldrich’s iconic World War II drama stars the great Lee Marvin as Major John Reisman, tasked with assaulting a chateau in France that’s playing host to a group of high-ranking Nazi officials. Unfortunately, the assignment basically defines “suicide mission,” so he enlists convicted felons for the job. If they complete the assignment, and live, they get to go free. Backed up by a wonderful cast, including Donald Sutherland, John Cassavettes, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas and Charles Bronson, The Dirty Dozen became one of the most popular World War II movies of all time, well familiar to people the world over, whether or not they’ve actually seen it. They should. It’s a rousing adventure.
Hell is for Heroes (dir. Don Siegel, 1962)
Not the best known men on a mission movie, but one of the very best, Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes stars Steve McQueen, Bobby Darin, James Coburn and Bob Newhart as members of a small squad of soldier who, due to a tragic SNAFU, are forced to hold off the entire German Company for 48 hours in World War II, with no backup or heavy artillery. Their solutions to this seemingly insurmountable task are clever without straining credulity, the performances are all excellent, and Don Siegel’s direction (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry) has never been better. Hell is for Heroes isn’t very well remembered today, and that’s a genuine tragedy.
The Lord of the Rings (dir. Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)
A group of disparate heroes are given a suicide mission to destroy the enemy’s greatest weapon, and turn the tide of a war. That’s a men on a mission movie, even if it does take place in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It helps that director Peter Jackson upped the action in the classic Lord of the Rings novels for his (also classic) Oscar-winning adaptations. Over the course of three epic films, the Fellowship of the Ring overcome one monumental obstacle after the next, and as in the best men on a mission movies, victory never seems certain, right up until the end. Powerfully acted and full of some of the most spectacular action sequences ever filmed, The Lord of the Rings trilogy deserves to be called one of the best men on a mission movies of all time.
Seven Samurai (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
Arguably one of the best directors who ever lived, Akira Kurosawa essentially invented the men on a mission movie with 1954’s classic The Seven Samurai, an action drama featuring a cast of both aging and novice samurai who undertake the seemingly impossible job of defending a small village from an army of bloodthirsty bandits. It’s no exaggeration to say that every men on a mission movie, and pretty much every team-oriented action film, owes its existence to this thrilling and powerful epic, which treats every aspect of its story – from the interpersonal drama to the plight of the innocents to the slice-and-dice actions sequences – with equal respect and skill. Seven Samurai is not just the best men on a mission movie, it’s one of the very best movies of all time.
Full Disclosure: This article has been sponsored by Relativity Media.