The 18 Best Unexpected Action Stars Through Hollywood History

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18 Unexpected Action Stars We Love To WatchA24

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There's no shortage of amazing action stars out there—the genre itself can carry an actor's entire career if they want it to. But as fun as it is to watch our known favorites, there's something really exciting about seeing an actor deliver a top-tier fight scene that you were never expecting to see from them. Some of the stars on this list are household names nowadays, but there was a time when hardly any of their fans would have expected a wild gunfight or bloody-knuckle brawl to show up in their filmographies. Whether they left the genre behind after a few excellent movies or went on to make hardly anything but action, these 18 actors delivered unexpectedly incredible action performances.

Bruce Willis

Before he was John McClane, Willis was a comedic TV star and a reasonably successful recording artist (really!), but his breakthrough action role combined solid stuntwork with an affable everyman charm that was essential in cementing Die Hard as a stone-cold classic all these years later.

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Ke Huy Quan

Michelle Yeoh was already a superstar when it came to action movies, but her co-star in Everything Everywhere All At Once, Ke Huy Quan, was a delightful surprise and kicked just as much ass as she did. During his acting hiatus after work dried up in the '90s, Quan worked behind the camera as an assistant director and even a stunt choreographer.

Quan used this experience to amazing effect in EEAAO, taking on the role of Waymond Wang (and his many multiversal incarnations) so well that he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work.

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Scarlett Johnansson

Johansson's casting as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow for 2010's Iron Man 2 was a departure from the dramas she was most known for like The Girl with the Pearl Earring and Vicky Christina Barcelona. From this very first hallway fight, however, Johansson became the definitive silver-screen Black Widow and managed to get some of the most awesome stunt scenes in the MCU even when surrounded by superheroes.

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Michael Keaton

Keaton was mostly a comedic lead before playing the caped crusader in Tim Burton's Batman films. Some questioned the wisdom of this casting, but Keaton did a great job throwing down as Batman, and he was a charming Bruce Wayne as well.

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Matt Damon

Who would've thought that Will Hunting could kick tail like Matt Damon did when he took on the moniker of Jason Bourne? The combination of the Bourne Identity and Ocean's 11 coming out in the early-aughts established Damon firmly in the genre. Damon keeps busy will all sorts of genres nowadays (in front and behind the camera), but we still love to see him jump back into action.

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Liam Neeson

Leading man Neeson had done great action work before Taken premiered (check out Sam Raimi's Darkman if you haven't), but he was mostly known for portraying historical figures, romantic leads, and doing other more dramatic outings before this turning point in 2008. After Taken, Neeson did a ton of great action movies including its sequels, the survival film The Grey, the action thriller Non-Stop, and so many more that he could retire today and leave us with hours of great action to watch.

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Michael Cera

Michael Cera was perfectly cast in this adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's classic Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, starting as a wimpy bassist dating a high-schooler and slowly becoming a fighter as he faces off against the Seven Evil Exes of his new love Ramona. The vibrant visuals sold Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but the film would have fallen flat on its face if Cera's performance hadn't convinced us to root for Scott passionately.

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Uma Thurman

Thurman had established an impressive range by the time she portrayed the Bride in Quentin Tarantino's amazing two-part martial arts revenge saga, but she truly over-delivered beyond any wildest expectations when Kill Bill dropped. Her incandescent rage in every shot propels Volume One to all-timer status, with Volume Two adding more depth to her character and shaking the pace up in a fascinating way.

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Nicolas Cage

We all know Cage can do it all these days, but his move to the action genre from prior film roles like Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, and Leaving Las Vegas was a pleasant surprise to fans everywhere. Cage (and the audience) clearly had a ton of fun with parts in these action classics like Con Air, Face-Off, The Rock, and recent amazing outings like the ultra-violent thriller Mandy.

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Eli Roth

If you know Eli Roth from his violent directing oeuvre, you may have guessed he could be capable of if given the right role. Roth usually appears in his own films and made a cameo in Death Proof before taking on the role of Sgt. Donny Donawitz (aka the Bear Jew) in Quentin Tarantino's excellent alternate history war drama Inglorious Basterds. Fun fact: this role was originally intended for Adam Sandler, but Roth knocked it out of the park (pun intended).

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Daniel Day Lewis

Did you know that one of the most celebrated dramatic actors of all time also made a badass war movie with none other than Heat director Michael Mann? If not, here's your next movie night figured out, easy-peasy.

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Bob Odenkirk

That's right, Saul Goodman has action chops. Odenkirk has been known as a hilarious comedy writer and gained prestige as a dramatic actor over the years, but he shocked audiences by producing and starring in an excellent action film: 2021's Nobody. Odenkirk plays a retired assassin who becomes the target of a crime lord when he beats up a group of drunk hooligans on a bus who are involved with the Russian mafia. You'll feel every punch in this awesome bus fight, and that's only the beginning.

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Emily Blunt

Blunt's performance in 2014's Edge of Tomorrow was a great departure for the actor, and she seemed just as comfortable in the genre as her much more seasoned co-star Tom Cruise. The next year saw Blunt take the lead in the brilliant thriller Sicario, a phenomenal one-two punch of action films that are totally different but equally brilliant.

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Dev Patel

Patel has acted in a few thrillers, and (in)famously played Prince Zuko in... that Avatar: The Last Airbender adaptation, but his directorial debut Monkey Man shows so much promise for his future making movies. It's unfortunate that no directors gave Patel a chance to flex his action chops before he made his own movie, but he made it absolutely worth the wait with Monkey Man.

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Daniel Craig

It's hard to believe now, but when Daniel Craig was first cast as James Bond in 2006's Casino Royale, reactions from fans and the press were pretty negative with Craig receiving unfavorable comparisons to previous Bond Pierce Brosnan. Craig's take on Bond shut up questioning fans quickly, with Casino Royale standing out today as one of the gold-standard James Bond movies ever made. From this very first scene, where Bond relentlessly chases his parkouring target through a construction site, Craig brings an intimidating physicality to the super spy.

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Charlize Theron

Theron has always been friendly with the action genre, with a great role in the American remake of The Italian Job way back in 2003, but it's safe to say she reached action superstar status as of the 2010s with her roles in films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde, and even the Fast & Furious movies.

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Will Smith

What would the world look like if Will Smith kept making music instead of signing on for Bad Boys and Men in Black in the mid-90s? While he still takes on roles in a variety of different genres, Smith is still such a bankable action star that the Bad Boys series continues to this day, and we couldn't be more excited about it.

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Chris Pratt

Pratt was known as a lovable sitcom goofball on Parks and Recreation, and then combined action with comedy in the perfect transition when he played Starlord in Guardians of the Galaxy, which stands out to this day as one of the best MCU films. You'd think Pratt was born for big action blockbusters with his Marvel experience and subsequent projects like The Magnificent Seven and the Jurassic World movies.

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