When you think of an action movie, the first thing you think of probably isn’t the score. You might think of the actors, the plot, or the set pieces, but underlying every great action movie is an equally great score. These scores help you understand what kind of movie you’re watching, and keep you locked into the biggest moments in some of the best action movies ever made.
A great action score should be engaging on its own, but it should also reinforce the movie around it. All of the scores on this list do exactly that, and they have at least one iconic theme you’re likely to recognize as well.
7. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
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The first Terminator movie laid down the template for what these movies could sound like, but it wasn’t until the hit sequel T2 that we were treated to the ideal Terminator soundtrack. Featuring the signature, drum-forward theme from the first movie, T2‘s soundtrack gives the entire movie a grander feel than it might have otherwise.
You get the impression that this is the most important movie ever made, and Brad Fiedel’s music is a huge part of why. James Cameron knows how to make his movies feel huge, and the T2 score does just that.
6. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
The iconic theme for Mission: Impossible dates all the way back to the original TV series, but Lorne Balfe’s score for this 2018 action masterpiece finds new ways to ramp up the tension that fuels these movies.
Fallout‘s score combines that original theme with a suite of other pieces that perfectly underscore the movie’s many extended action sequences. In the quieter moments of the film, Balfe gives us a chance to breathe a little bit, but he knows exactly the right moments to begin working the audience back into a froth once again.
5. Top Gun
The 1980s were a deeply strange time for film scores, which were often filled with synths and had largely ditched the orchestral themes that defined scores for decades.
In Top Gun‘s case, though, Harold Faltermeyer’s synth- and guitar-heavy score proves to be the perfect fit for one of the defining movies of the decade. Top Gun may not have the most coherent plot you’ve ever seen, but its score is a core part of the vibe that it manages to capture and perfectly communicate to the audience.
Nobody writes a score quite like John Williams, which is why he’s the only composer with two entries on this list. His Superman theme set a high bar for what superhero scores could sound like. It’s filled with soaring trumpets that provide a wholesome, perfect backing for the original superhero.
Williams’ score works to make Superman feel even more like an American ideal. It’s hard to imagine a score that more completely captures the hope and uplift that the character is meant to inspire, so much so that it’s still the theme most associated with the character almost 50 years later.
Whether you appreciate the way Inceptionone of Christopher Nolan’s best movies, changed action scores or not, it’s hard to deny that this score is incredible in and of itself. The “BWAM”-heavy score is a huge part of what makes this movie work, as it provides a much-needed intensity and seriousness from the second the movie starts.
Hans Zimmer has been known to push the boundaries of what movie scores can sound like, and he’s never pushed harder than he did on Inception. Unfortunately, those who have attempted to imitate Zimmer’s approach have often fallen woefully short.
Danny Elfman’s score for the original Batman is another great example of a score that perfectly matches the character its meant to describe. A much more sinister, complex theme than Williams’ Superman score, Elfman’s Batman score is the perfect combination of a superhero theme and the score for an excursion into Tim Burton’s imagination.
In a single theme, Elfman manages to take us from the feeling of sitting alone in the Batcave all the way to driving the Batmobile around Gotham. Batman holds up as a classic, and its score is one of the main reasons for its enduring appeal.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Steven Spielberg’s regular collaborations with John Williams have led to some of the best scores ever written, and high on the list of their collaborations is undoubtedly Raiders of the Lost Ark. This rousing, momentous theme feels like a call to adventure all by itself, and Indy’s main theme isn’t the only flex in the movie.
In fact, it’s complemented by an entire score that seems dedicated to perfectly setting the mood for one of Spielberg’s very best movies. From Indy’s love theme to scoring some intense action sequences, Williams firmly established himself as the best in the biz here thanks to the best action score ever devised.