When moviegoers think of action movies, the soundtrack usually isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Heroes like John McClane and sequences like Oldboy’s hallway fight stand out more than the music playing in the background. As a result, most action movie scores are made up of generic, forgettable orchestrations.
But that’s what makes the best action movie soundtracks stand out so much. Whether a composer like Michael Kamen is giving a movie its own sound or a director like Edgar Wright is providing a personal playlist, there are plenty of action movies with awesome soundtracks.
10 Death Wish II (1982)
After the runaway success of Charles Bronson’s gritty vigilante thriller Death Wish, a sequel was promptly commissioned. The sequel’s plot is more or less a rehash of the original – architect Paul Kersey takes the law into his own hands after being menaced by street toughs – but it’s notable for its soundtrack.
The score was composed by Jimmy Page, the guitarist from Led Zeppelin, whose signature electric guitar sound and reverb-heavy drum beats can be heard over the opening credits.
9 Top Gun (1986)
The soundtrack for Tony Scott’s iconic action drama Top Gun has bold, melodramatic ‘80s pop hits accompanying equally bold and melodramatic (and ‘80s-centric) sequences.
“Top Gun Anthem” – written by Harold Faltermeyer and performed by Steve Stevens – captures the camp tone of the movie perfectly. Berlin’s Oscar-winning hit “Take My Breath Away” underscores an over-the-top, silhouetted sex scene. Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” beautifully sets the stage for the aerial sequences, while Loggins’ “Playing with the Boys” delightfully underscores an intense game of volleyball.
8 Baby Driver (2017)
Edgar Wright’s action-comedy Baby Driver is specifically constructed as an iPod playlist. All the music is diegetic as a getaway driver with tinnitus listens to his favorite tracks to focus on the job. Baby even rewinds one of his songs when a car chase goes on for longer than he anticipated.
This soundtrack is filled with Wright’s signature needle-drops, including such energetic hits as “Bellbottoms” by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned, “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, and Baby’s “killer track,” “Brighton Rock” by Queen.
7 Lethal Weapon (1987)
Shortly after completing the unforgettable score for Highlander, Michael Kamen got to work on the similarly memorable music for Richard Donner’s buddy cop classic Lethal Weapon. “Jingle Bell Rock” immerses audiences in the movie’s pre-Die Hard Christmas setting over the opening credits.
Eric Clapton’s guitar riffs represent Riggs’ renegade hotshot attitude. David Sanborn’s saxophone evokes the old-school noir stylings of Murtaugh’s grizzled worldview as a veteran cop perpetually on the verge of retirement.
6 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller’s long-awaited post-apocalyptic actioner Mad Max: Fury Road beautifully pairs the practical action of the franchise’s early classics with a modern blockbuster sensibility. Junkie XL’s score engages the audience in what is essentially a feature-length car chase.
On top of having riveting non-diegetic music setting the stage for the vehicular action, Fury Road has some unmistakable diegetic music as a guitarist appears on-screen strapped to a speeding car playing a flame-throwing guitar.
5 Batman (1989)
The soundtrack for Tim Burton’s groundbreaking superhero blockbuster Batman mixes a traditional score by Danny Elfman with original songs by Prince. Elfman’s Batman theme is one of the most iconic themes of all time. The melody was recycled in Batman: The Animated Series and the DCEU because it perfectly encapsulates the Batman character. Elfman’s high-energy compositions complement the thrills of each action set-piece (and the occasional horror set-piece, like the Joker’s haunting transformation).
Prince’s songs were more polarizing. His contributions were met with mixed reviews, but they bring an undeniably unique sound to the proceedings that pairs well with Burton’s surreal, gothic vision.
4 The Warriors (1979)
Walter Hill’s The Warriors has a distinctive punk rock sound that perfectly complements the movie’s controversially stylish, comic-booky depiction of gang violence.
The soundtrack contains such memorable rock ‘n’ roll songs as Barry De Vorzon’s theme, Joe Walsh’s “In the City,” and Arnold McCuller’s cover of “Nowhere to Run.”
3 Escape From New York (1981)
John Carpenter’s dystopian sci-fi actioner Escape from New York reinvented Disney star Kurt Russell’s on-screen image with the role of hard-as-nails antihero Snake Plissken.
In order to pair Plissken’s futuristic antics with the right musical tone, Carpenter composed synthesizer melodies that were later complemented by sound designer Alan Howarth using Fender guitars, an acoustic piano, and a Linn LM-1 drum machine.
2 Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
As with all Quentin Tarantino movies, the two-part martial arts epic Kill Bill has a spectacular soundtrack. It was largely produced and orchestrated by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. This movie features a diverse range of tracks, all paired perfectly with the tone or energy of a given scene. Nancy Sinatra’s somber gem “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” plays beautifully over the opening credits after the Bride is put in a four-year coma.
Al Hirt’s Green Hornet theme sets the manic energy for the House of Blue Leaves sequence when the Bride arrives in Tokyo. “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” pairs brilliantly with O-Ren and the Crazy 88’s glorious slow-motion entrance. The 220.127.116.11’s appear as themselves playing their catchy hit “Woo Hoo.” “Nobody But Me” by The Human Beinz is wonderfully juxtaposed over the blood-soaked climactic battle sequence.
1 Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
John Williams was nominated for an Academy Award for his iconic Raiders of the Lost Ark score, but he lost the Oscar to Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire score. “Raiders March” is one of the catchiest, most iconic themes in movie history.
Williams’ sweeping orchestrations contribute just as much to the pulpy, old-school style of the Indiana Jones movies as Steven Spielberg’s sharp direction and Harrison Ford’s charismatic performance.
NEXT: 10 Most Underrated Horror Movie Soundtracks
Harry Potter: 10 Times Harry Acted Like A Villain In The Series
About The Author