It’s certainly overused, but that’s because there are few more satisfying tropes in movies than the bit about “assembling the team.” These movies lay out a goal, introduce the protagonist with the most personal connection to that goal (whether it’s a convoluted heist, a military strike, or a humanitarian mission), and then put together a team of talented individuals with the unique skills to carry out the plan.
The best of them make sure we know exactly who everyone is and what they can do, either through careful character building or just by sketching them out in broad strokes so that we know why they’re there. It frequently helps to put some famous faces on the team to further help us keep track of a big cast. (If only real life were so simple. My friends all have the same skills, and not one of them could help me carry off a heist.)
Here are some of the best squads that movies have to offer.
Predator broke from the mould of butch ‘80s action-thrillers by introducing a sci-fi twist and a mythology intriguing enough to generate either four or six sequels, depending on which films you count. The creature is a highlight here, of course, but the squad is also an impressive one: Led by era mainstays Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers, the members of the ad hoc military unit sent to hunt the creature in a Central American rainforest get just enough screen time to establish their individual skills and personalities (the nerd, the tough guy, etc.) before becoming the Yautja’s most dangerous game. It’s also the only cinematic squad that can boast the presence of two future United States governors (Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura), a development that would have seemed tightly unlikely circa 1987.
The Seven Samurai (1954)
Both a dramatic and technical achievement, Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece succeeds brilliantly as a straight action movie, but establishes the members of the assembled team as unique and complicated individuals, in many ways not that much better than the bandits they’ve been hired to fight. Set in Japan of 1586, penniless villagers decide to hire samurai to defend themselves from raiders. Since they have nothing to offer but food, they have no choice but to seek out only the most desperate rōnin to help them. The rag-tag band of outsiders is forced to come together in the face of a merciless onslaught — a device that would become a movie trope, though never done better than here.
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Spike Lee’s latest is also one of his best, a modern look at the Vietnam War era that centralizes the experiences of a group of Black American veterans on a mission. In the present day, a landslide exposes a piece of a crashed aeroplane which leads to four veterans (lead by Delroy Lindo) reuniting to repatriate the remains of the fifth member of their squad (Chadwick Boseman)…and also to smuggle out the gold they know is also in the aircraft. It has all the satisfying elements of the best squad team-up movies but doesn’t sacrifice any of Spike Lee’s signature style nor themes.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
The 1960 original (technically Ocean’s 11) is a lot of fun, but was mostly just an excuse for the Rat Pack to pal around together for the length of a movie shoot. Steven Soderberg’s remake takes the premise a bit more seriously without taking it too seriously. An appropriately A-list team of actors lead by George Clooney’s Danny Ocean and Brad Pitt’s Rusty Ryan put together an ambitious plan to empty the vault of the Bellagio in Las Vegas on the night of a major boxing match. Each member of Danny’s team, naturally, has a unique skill, and the distinctive faces ensure that we always know who’s who. The movie also makes brilliant use of the old trope wherein the plan is laid before in great detail only so that we can watch it fall apart later on.
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Owing a debt to The Seven Samurai, with its story of a rag-tag squad of desperate individuals without much to lose, The Dirty Dozen would also go on to inspire The Suicide Squad, both in comics and on-screen. In the run-up to D-Day, Lee Marvin is placed in charge of “Project Amnesty.” He’s to recruit and train Army prisoners — the worst of the worst — to assault a château near Rennes, France in order to eliminate the dozens of high-ranking German officials expected to be gathered there. In the unlikely event that any of them survive? Freedom. Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, and Donald Sutherland are just a few of the familiar names that are up the ill-fated team.
The Suicide Squad (2021)
Not to be confused with Suicide Squad, the best-forgotten 2016 movie to which this is part sequel and part remake, James Gunn’s movie is both more violent and more fun. Ruthless intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) once again assembles a group of superpowered individuals for her Task Force X, which offers Dirty Dozen-style suspended sentences for those who survive. Before long, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, and John Cena’s Peacemaker (among other DC villains) are up against a giant alien starfish that’s making zombies out of innocent civilians.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
John Sturges’ American western remake of The Seven Samurai isn’t nearly as accomplished a bit of filmmaking as is Kurosawa’s 1954 original, but fairly earned its spot as a classic in its own right. Here Eli Wallach leads a group of bandits harassing a Mexican village, and Yup Brynner leads the desperate group of gunslingers (including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Robert Vaughan) who overcome their mutual antagonism in order to fight an unwinable battle. The 2016 Denzel Washington remake isn’t bad either, but doesn’t quite match up.
The Harder They Fall (2021)
Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba lead the packed cast of The Harder They Fall, playing a group of real-life western figures tossed together in a beautifully bonkers bit of pure fiction. Sort of a violent, revenge-soaked mash-up involving the greatest Black figures of the American west — names like Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), Nat Love (Majors), Rufus Buck (Elba), Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), and others. In the film’s heightened version of history, Love and Buck are competing outlaws, though for Love it’s more personal: Buck killed his parents. With news that his rival has been released from prison, Love reunites his old gang and adds some unlikely allies in order to get his revenge.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
The rare prequel that actually feels like it serves a bit of a purpose, Rogue One also sits in the top tier of Star Wars movies in general, especially those made after the original trilogy. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) very reluctantly heads up a mission to rescue her father from the Empire — the alliance being less interested in the man himself than in his knowledge of the Death Star. With the help of a surly Rebel captain, a defector, a blind Force evangelist, and his “friend,” she sets out to explain a throwaway line in the Star Wars opening crawl in a surprisingly effective way.
Does Ripley need a squad? Probably not. Would I want to be part of Ripley’s squad? Also no, since that almost never ends well. Still, James Cameron’s just-as-good-but-very-different sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien introduces some memorable teammates for Sigourney Weaver’s iconic survivor; though the Colonial Marines here are largely nameless xenomorph fodder, there are standouts including Michael Biehn’s Hicks, Bill Paxton’s “Game over, man!” Hudson, and Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez. The team also includes civilians Newt (Carrie Henn) and Burke (Paul Reiser). Squad movies very often involve a body count, this one just happens to be a bit larger than most.
The Monster Squad (1987)
The group of kids that come to make up the titular squad are already huge fans of the Universal monster movies (or, in this case, their public domain equivalents) when leader Sean (Andre Gower) comes into possession of the diary of vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, who, it turns out, was very real. It turns out that Van Helsing never quite finished the job back in the day, and the monsters are due to rise again and, perhaps, destroy the only means of defeating them. It’s an awful lot of fun.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
By the third Nightmare movie, we’re already in proto-Avengers territory, as the filmmakers here assemble a squad of super-powered teens to tackle Freddy on his home turf (resulting in the almost-best movie in the series). Patricia Arquette’s troubled Kristin Parker is joined by original Freddy-hunter Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) who helps her understand that, with a little practice, she can take control of her dreams and fight back. Fellow residents of the Westin Hills Psychiatric Hospital cultivate their own distinctive dream powers, electing to take on Freddy all at once rather than wait for him to get them one by one.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino’s wildly satisfying alt-history sees Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Ray assemble a team of Jewish commandos (the Basterds) whose sole job is to scare the living shit out of Nazis by killing and scalping German soldiers behind enemy lines, striking and then pulling back, guerrilla style. The whole thing puts exploitation-cinema tropes to surprisingly good use, Tarantino crafting a prestige picture out of unsavoury elements.
The Great Escape (1963)
A (highly) fictionalized film based on a very real event, The Great Escape depicts a 1942 attempt by a group of Allied POWs to escape from the new Stalag Luft III, effectively a superman facility built by a German Luftwaffe grown increasingly frustrated by Allied escapes. Steve McQueen is in the lead here, with James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, and James Coburn (among others) contributing the skills needed for the elaborate, action-packed, but ill-fated escape plan.
Gunpowder Milkshake (2021)
A neon-infused western, Gunpowder Milkshake stars Karen Gillan as Sam, a master assassin who teams up with her estranged mum (played by Lena Headey and also an assassin, natch), as well as three of her mum’s old colleagues played by Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, and Angela Bassett. It’s all more style than substance…but with this much style, and a cast like this, who the hell cares?
13 Assassins (2010)
Roughly half the runtime of 13 Assassins has to do with assembling the team: Near the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the utterly sadistic (not to mention corrupt) Lord Naritsugu is to be offered a seat on the Shogunate Council, a promotion that will not only see the cruel lord’s power increase, but will likely set off a civil war between his supporters and those who hate him. The Shogun’s justice minister decides that assassination is just the only way, and so hires a dozen samurai in order to carry out the execution. The second half of the film sees the plan put into action, and reminds us that director Takashi Miike made his name in several memorably visceral horror films.
Bob le Flambeur (1956)
An early heist movie that’s also a precursor to the French New Wave in general, Bob (the gambler) is an ex-con who’s been living a quiet life in an upscale community in Paris. Life’s going well until a run of bad luck and the complications involving a young woman he’s allowing to stay with him puts things on the downturn…but, luckily, the veteran safecracker gets a tip that the local racetrack will have around 800 million Francs on hand in anticipation of a major horse race (shades of the later Ocean’s 11/Eleven). What’s there to do but put a team together and go for it?
The Old Guard (2020)
The comic-inspired Netflix film stars Charlize Theron as Andromache, the sometimes leader of a group of immortal-ish individuals who are already centuries old. They generally work as mercenaries when the cause is right, but find their group starting to splinter in the face of a new threat: Modern technology has made it harder to hide their secret, and a pharmaceutical exec has plans to capture them, figure out why they’re immortal, and then make a sellable product. The movie’s a solid blend of comic-book heroics and mercenary-movie action, with a sequel on the way.
The Guns of Navarone (1962)
The mission here is right in the title: Two giant guns on a German fortress in the Aegean threaten Turkey, prompting the formation of an Allied commando unit that will need to infiltrate the island and destroy the guns. Anthony Quayle’s Major Roy Franklin is in charge, ably assisted by spy Gregory Peck, David Niven’s munitions expert, and Anthony Quinn’s Greek expat, among other recognisable faces.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
It’s not a heist movie, exactly (unless you count some light potato pilfering), but Peter Jackson’s first filmatic foray into Tolkien includes all the tropes: a disparate band composed of both untried outsiders and those with more experience, and a pivotal gathering at which our heroes are called upon to choose whether or not to accept Elrond’s call to assemble under Aragorn’s leadership.
Birds of Prey (2020)
One of the best of the recent DC-based movies is also one of the least seen…which is too bad. Margot Robbie is at her Harley Quinn best here, wallowing in a recent break-up, and crafting a glorious ode to breakfast sandwiches, before reluctantly joining up with Black Canary (June Smollett-Bell), The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) to battle crime lord Roman Sioni’s (Ewan McGregor). The screenplay is sharp and genuinely funny, giving each character a purpose, and the anarchic action is top-notch.
The Expendables (2010)
A mid-life crisis in a movie, The Expendables works because it knows exactly what it is: Neither arch nor meta, it’s simply an excuse to bring together some of the most popular male action stars of days past (alongside a few more recent faces) in a tribute to the military-action style blow-ups of the ‘80s. Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Steve Austin, and others are all involved in a plot that has something to do with bringing down rogue CIA agent Eric Roberts. But we’re not here for the plot.
Fast Five (2011)
The earlier Fast and/or Furious movies were plenty of fun, but this is where the series evolved into its final, and most successful form: as heist movies par excellence, with the action moving away from the street racing of earlier films. Anyone who’s seen the earlier films already knows the crew here: Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) gets busted out of a prison transport by sister Mia (Jordan Brewster) and one-time nemesis Brian (Paul Walker). Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris soon join the squad to complete that mythical One Last Job before they can all retire to quiet lives in Mexico. Six movies and counting later, they’re still working on it.
The Avengers (2012)
Others have tried desperately to copy the success of Marvel Studios’ original Avengers movie, with nowhere near the luck. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk had all already held their own in individual movies, and here they’re joined by Black Widow and Hawkeye under the watchful eye of Superspy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). If this one hadn’t worked, the entire Marvel project could have gone out the window. But here we are, ten years later, with no signs of a let-up (for better or worse).
The Italian Job (1969)
Aside from boasting some of the coolest auto-action in the movies (sorry, Dom), The Italian Job also includes one of the better, and most eclectic squads: Michael Caine is in charge of the plan to steal $4 million in gold by deliberately creating a major traffic snarl, joined by a team that includes Noël Coward (the money man) and Benny Hill (the computer expert).