Former SAS officer Andy McNab was well qualified to take part in a poll to discover the ultimate film action hero.

Kill count, creative ass-kicking and sex appeal were all taken into account, he tells Steve Pratt.

AS A former SAS officer Andy McNab has been at the heart of a lot of action.

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Quite how that compares to negotiating the busy traffic in Lyons, I don’t know. But that’s what he’s doing as we conduct our phone interview as he returns from Italy where he’s been learning to sail.

Or not learning to sail... “It’s been a nightmare and the weather has been crappy,” says the former soldier who enlisted in the Royal Green Jackets at the age of 16.

But I’m not here to talk about driving with the former soldier whose account of the failed SAS mission Bravo Two Zero in the Gulf War became the highest selling war book of all time, with more than 1.7 million copies being bought. It was filmed for TV with Sean Bean starring as McNab, who’s now a successful writer of fiction and runs his own security company.

Whether Bean is a dead ringer for the SAS hero is anyone’s guess. Because of past military operations, McNab must remain a shadowy figure.

That’s not even his real name as he must protect his identity. His website shows only a shadowy figure where his mugshot should be.

This is a legacy of his undercover work in anti-terrorism and anti-drug operations around the world.

“During the war in Northern Ireland I was part of an intelligence operation.

Obviously, if I show my face, it’s potentially dangerous to other people in the group,” he explains in an accent which betrays his London roots.

What isn’t a secret is his participation in a Sky Movies poll to discover the ultimate action hero. He was on a panel of real-life action heroes and film industry experts who judged a shortlist of all-time top ten action heroes. Each star was judged on five categories – weapons, one-liners, kill count, creative ass-kicking and sex appeal.

“I thought it was great just getting to watch all the films again,” says McNab. “Obviously, it’s a bit of a laugh really, but when you start to look at them, you can see the way the genre has changed over the past 15 years with all the technology and all the stuff in the Bourne films.”

If you’re just “just looking at rough action and having a laugh and being entertained”, then the Eighties and Nineties were the prime time to go into action. He remembers watching Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator and how the success of his “I’ll be back” robot led to some of his other lesser films – he cites Commando – being seen in a better light.

“There’s obviously a lot more technology and effects now, but the stuff in Terminator and Alien was mindblowing then,” says McNab. “It feels a lot rawer, even the Stallone stuff. Those films get shown more than anything else. If you’re in a picturehouse in Mumbai and can’t speak English, you don’t want too much dialogue. All you want is to understand what’s going on.”

McNab doesn’t pretend that action movies reflect real life.

He’s not being casual about k i l l i n g (his biography says he killed for the first time at 19 during a firefight in Northern Ireland), but realistic about action used as entertainment.

But it does come as a shock to see the name at the top of the action hero poll – Sigourney Weaver, for her portrayal of tough, no-nonsense alien killer Ripley in the Alien space movies. As McNab says: “It all comes down to the T-shirt.”

She leads the list, ahead of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and, surprisingly, Chuck Norris. Completing the rollcall are Matt Damon (who starred in the three Bourne thrillers), a pair of Bruces – Willis and Lee – Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jason Statham and Steven Seagal.

Weaver’s Ripley earned top marks for creative ass-kicking (fighting the Alien Queen in the cargo loader) and kill count (she nuked a space ship in Alien and a planet in Aliens, as well as dispatching countless acid-bleeding creatures).

“She just outclassed everyone in all the categories,” says McNab.

“Plus, she looks much better kicking ass in a vest than Bruce Willis will ever do.”

The fact that it was a woman doing it earned her extra points in his book.

Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil movies has also impressed him.

He clearly knows his movies without counting himself a film fan. “It’s not as if I’m queueing up two hours before the show on the first night,” he says in his defence. “But those films are fun. You go and get your popcorn and are entertained. You don’t have a big in-depth discussion.”

Experience enables him to separate fact and fiction. “It’s a shame when people say ‘that wouldn’t happen’.

Film-makers are trying to make a fantasy. If someone like Schwarzenegger punched you, you’re not getting up in real life.”

When he left the SAS in 1993, McNab was the British Army’s most highly decorated serving soldier.

Since then he’s forged a career as a writer and security expert. His company runs specialist training courses for news crews, journalists and members of non-governmental organisations working in hostile environments, including war zones. He’s involved in training videos for the Ministry of Defence, lectures for the FBI and gives motivational talk for large corporations on both sides of the Atlantic.

He’s unlikely to outdo Weaver and the others as a screen action hero. He did work on Michael Mann’s thriller Heat, starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, where the director was keen to make the shootouts as authentic as possible.

“They were trying to make it realistic to the point of obsession. What you saw on film the actors had done on firing ranges beforehand,” he says.

Mann insisted that he appear in the film, if only in the background of the action. “I put a suit on and played a policeman. I didn’t have any lines or anything but managed to mess it up six times,” he admits.

For the BBC, McNab is developing a series called Warrior Nation about a rifle company in Afghanistan. The idea is to look at a regular company and the 18 to 20-year-olds in it. “We’re already talking to the MoD and they’re very keen. That’s good and soldiers want to be in it now,” he says.

Not much like the old Robson Green series Soldier Soldier, I suggest. “The beauty of that was it was nothing to do with the Army, just a couple of lads who used to be in the Army. It wasn’t about conflict and what’s going on,” he says.

“I think certainly any rifle company will recognise itself in the series.

With representatives from the commonwealth and the inner city, there will be lots of different characters.

“One of the reasons I’m able to do Warrior Nation is because I go to Afghanistan and spend a lot of time with the battalion there. It’s interesting to see what the reality is and compare it to what people think it is.”

McNab may go to areas of conflict but isn’t fighting on the ground. He doesn’t miss the danger. “Not at all,” he insists.

“Most people, once you get over that initial two or three years where it’s all exciting, find their time is up and it’s all over. It’s a job, although it’s not as bland as that makes it sound.”

■ The Action Season is running on Sky Movies Action/Thriller Channel until the end of April.

ULTIMATE ACTION HEROES

1 Sigourney Weaver

2 Arnold Schwarzenegger

3 Sylvester Stallone

4 Chuck Norris

5 Matt Damon

6 Bruce Willis

7 Bruce Lee

8 Jean-Claude Van Damme

9 Jason Statham

10 Steven Seagal

From a Sky Movies action heroes poll.