Best Action Films of the 21st Century

With the recently released Mission: Impossible – Fallout generally being hailed as the best action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road (it is definitely one of the best) I figure this is as good a time as any to comb through the action films of this century and suss out what the best might be. This proved to be an interesting exercise because as early as the beginning of this decade there were numberous articles declaring the action movie genre dead or at the very least on its last legs citing the usual suspects of superhero movies, the decline of the Hollywood actor, multiple alternative entertainment options, and the internet for reasons of its decline. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, and the action movie has seen a tremendous resurgence in recent years. Looking over the close-to-two decades of this century, it is clear that there have been excellent action movies aplenty.


PRELIMINARIES

Let me just get this out of the way first: this category is stacked. I thought limiting myself to this century might make for a manageable shortlist to work with but I still ended up with way too much to narrow down to ten so the official list will be the rare Top 20 for me. Even then there are excellent movies that are going to be consigned to the honorable mentions list and other worthy candidates that get left out altogether.

If there is anything that I can be accused of with this list it is that I may be guilty of being too broad in my definition of an “action” movie as I feel that any movie that has a significant chunk of its runtime devoted to extended fight scenes, physical feats, and chases aplenty qualifies regardless of what other genre the movie could more naturally be categorised into. Also to be clear I am evaluating the best movies that fall into my broad “action” genre and not the best “action”; a movie’s overall quality ultimately matters more than the

In order to thin out the herd I went with a strict “one movie per franchise” rule. I also eliminated most “war movies” with a few exceptions. Also I have to own up to the fact that in the area of foreign action movies, I am currently deficient so there are probably a host of international contenders that are egregiously missing here. I look forward to all of you pointing them out to me. And with that here we go:


 

MV5BOTAzODEzNDAzMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDU1MTgzNzE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,677,1000_AL_20. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) dir. J.J. Abrams

The task of rebooting a well-beloved franchise that has fallen on hard times is no doubt a daunting one, but in The Force Awakens J.J. Abrams gives a masterful example of how exactly one should do that. By using the same story beats of the original 1977 film, the movie buys a whole lot of goodwill to introduce us to a new cast of characters to carry the film forward – each of whom subtly subvert our expectations in their own way. Meanwhile in order to keep the movie from being a mere retread, Abrams wisely infuses the series with a modern action aesthetic, revitalizing the franchise, reestablishing its relevance for a modern audience, and providing some great actions sequences to boot.

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19. THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007) dir. Paul Greengrass

I was tempted to kick this movie of the list simply because of the franchise’s legacy of introducing the nausea-inducing “shaky-cam” effect into the cinematic lexicon. But then I took a step back and realized that to do this was to ding a truly exceptional series for the mediocre action films that used the same camera techniques to mask their inadequacies. This is because Paul Greengrass uses the technique for what it was meant to do – to show the true disorienting visciousness that is close quarters combat and this is something Greengrass does masterfully. Also the reason this beats out the others is simple: after two straight films of wathcing Bourne run for his life, there is an undeniable cathartic thrill of watching him take charge for a change.

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18. HANNA (2011) dir. Joe Wright

The director of Atonement employing Saiorse Ronan as an action star. This should not have worked for a myriad of obvious reasons, but thanks to some mad alchemy it does. By employing a Grimm’s fairy-tale story structure – in which Ronan plays a sort of deadly Little Red Riding Hood – but marrying it to a European art-film sensibility and Jason Bourne-ish visceral action aesthetic, Hanna tells a brutally psychedelic tale of lost innocence that is instantly memorable for its alien strangeness. But Wright also proves an unlikely purveyor of action, using his camera to create a thrilling landscape for this strange fable to unfold.

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17. THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (2008) dir. Kim Jee-Woon

A South Korean homage to Italian spaghetti-western which are themselves homages to classic Hollywood Westerns somehow manages to not be a tonal joke. Instead it is a madcap barrel of fun as the central trio (Jung Won-sung’s the Good, Lee Byung-hun’s the Bad, and Song Kang-ho’s the Weird) race across the countryside to retrieve some treasure or something (classic meaningless MacGuffin), all the while training their guns and impressive fighting skills on whomever stands in their way, including each other.

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16. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003) dir. Gore Verbinski

It is difficult to remember, thanks to its current status as a tired billion-dollar franchise, just how obvious a failure this movie was supposed to be. Pirates in the early 2000s were by all accounts, uncool. Fortunately for all of us, we underestimated just how entertaining Johnny Depp’s Keith Richards-inspired take on Captain Jack Sparrow would turn out to be. And in a similar vein, we all underestimated just how fun swashbuckling could be when modern cinematic action tricks were applied to the equation, leading to a rollicking adventure that refuses to take itself too seriously and is instead one of the great purely entertaining movies of the century (its sequels are another thing entirely unfortunately).

MV5BMjM3MjQ1MzkxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODk1ODgyMjI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_15. BABY DRIVER (2017) dir. Edgar Wright

In Baby Driver Edgar Wright refines his pinpoint precise comedic timing and trains it on a pure action film. The end result is a riotous ride that is as close as you could possibly get to a musical without the characters breaking out in song. Every song chosen syncs up perfectly to the insane driving that happens in this movie, which is all the more remarkable when you realize these are physical stunts being performed. Usually that sort of precise control can render a movie artificial. However when the architect is Edgar Wright, it can’t help but be a cool and fun ride.

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14. INCEPTION (2010) dir. Christopher Nolan

Most of us spent so much time trying to figure out exactly what the deeper meanings of Inception that we hardly noticed that right there in front of us was an effortless action flick disguised perfectly as a deep philosophical film. Working at the height of his creative freedom, Christopher Nolan leveraged his success from The Dark Knight to brilliant effect by providing audiences with a blockbuster thriller that was every bit as cerebral as it was visceral and is one of the few action movies of this list that can boast some truly innovative visual additions to the genre.

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13. EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014) dir. Doug Liman

This movie is evidence that sometimes we don’t deserve nice things. An original big budget sci-fi movie featuring an intelligent script, compelling leads, and some fantastic action scenes against a landscape of indiscernable IP-based action blockbusters and it gets met with a tepid response. Which is a shame because this mash up of Groundhogs Day and Starship Troopers is simply a hoot as an against-type Tom Cruise is forced to relive the same hellish day as he gets killed multiple times by an invading alien force and only has the help of kickass general Emily Blunt to bail him out. It is one thing to create a set of competent action scenes, it is another thing to show the same action scene a dozen times and have it still be compelling.

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12. HOT FUZZ (2007) dir. Edgar Wright

Watch any number of parody films and you realize that it is really not that hard to poke holes and make fun of other famous movies or genres. What Hot Fuzz does is much more impressive for while it is on some level a parody of the buddy-cop action film and a pitch-perfect homage to the genre, it is also simultaneously a spectacularly entertaining action-flick in its own right. Edgar Wright’s genius is in knowing that the eccentricities of small town England is absurd enough on its own to carry most of the comedy and instead trains his insanely precise editorial eye to making a non-stop propulsive action extravaganza that I have doubtless watched too many times.

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11. SKYFALL (2012) dir. Sam Mendes

While Casino Royale might be the more obvious Bond movie to include here, I chose Skyfall instead because it managed to do the one thing that all the other Bond movies have failed to do: it made me care about James Bond. By eschewing the usual world-saving plots of Bond movies past in favor instead of an intimate showdown between a jaded Bond (Daniel Craig), M (Judi Dench), and Javier Bardem’s betrayed villain, the movie iconoclastically rips the myth of Bond and his righteousness to shreds, all while providing some truly visceral and stylishly assembled action to boot.

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10. MINORITY REPORT (2002) dir. Steven Spielberg

It is insane that Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, two of the biggest modern Hollywood legends, have only collaborated one time. Yet fortunately for us, their paths crossed when they were both arguably at close to peak form. Spielberg brings his penchant for pure blockbuster spectacle but trains it presciently on a more paranoid modern age by anticipating all our current anxieties about privacy in the digital age that ethical quandaries of judging before crimes have been committed. And in Cruise, he has the perfect vehicle not only to inhabit those anxieties, but to carry out some incredible feats of physicality and strength.

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9. IP MAN (2008) dir. Wilson Yip

As anybody who has watched a Steven Seagall movie can attest, it is extremely easy to make your hero an unbeatable warrior. What is much harder to do is to keep that hero compelling. Ip Man succeeds more or less because Donnie Yen portrays the larger-than-life legend with a humility and grace that makes him instantly rootable while the film is honest enough to show that no level of expertise in martial arts is truly enough to defeat an army of guns in the shadow of an occupied China in World War II. With these two important pieces out of the way, it becomes terribly easy to be thrilled by the plentiful lightning-fast martial arts displays that litter this moving drama at just about every turn.

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8. HAYWIRE (2011) dir. Steven Soderbergh

Sure, Gina Carrano does not have great acting abilities. Neither did Bruce Lee. But like Bruce Lee, Carrano comes alive in a way few actors can when she is given the chance to use her frighteningly brutal MMA techniques on her hapless foes. And if there is a director capable of capturing the tenacity of her performance better, it is the cool and precise Soderbergh who basically recreates the action movie in his own image by stripping most of the unnecessary filler out. Additionally, unlike Bruce Lee, Carrano is supported by a cavalcade of compelling actors like Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, and Ewan McGregor just to name three, and watching her tear through this who’s who of recognizable actors makes for undeniably pleasurable viewing.

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7. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) dir. Ang Lee

Bringing Wuxia to a mainstream Western audience was always going to be a tall task. The mere fact that Ang Lee succeeded merits inclusion on this list alone, but it earns its spot because it is also a simple and classic tale of a woman finding her place in the world punctuated by character-building action scenes that are as graceful as any ballet but ferocious to boot. That it is also framed by some stunning cinematography and beautiful landscapes simply adds to this movie’s undeniable moving power. It is easy to see why this is the most successful foreign movie of all time.

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6. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL (2011) dir. Brad Bird

To be honest, I was close to flipping a coin between this and Fallout but ultimately reason prevailed and I had to go with Ghost Protocol for one reason: it was first. Before Ghost Protocol the Mission: Impossible franchise had a reputation of being a mixed bag that shifted tones as often as it shifted directors. But then Brad Bird had Tom Cruise perform some death-defying stunts over 100 floors up on the tallest skyscraper in the world in Dubai. And ever since then the series has simply embraced its gonzo storytelling through incredible stuntmaking, thus changing its status from a decent-but-forgettable franchise to appointment-viewing.

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5. KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 (2003) dir. Quentin Tarantino

Stuffing just about every major action style from the Western to Wuxia into one movie sounds like a recipe for disaster for most normal directors. Fortunately most normal directors are not Quentin Tarantino as he sends up a love letter to just about every action trope ever made and creates a moving action masterpiece. Uma Thurman is masterful as the Bride, a wronged assassin who seeks revenge by taking out the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad one-by-one in their own special and unique way, Really this spot on the list belongs to both Parts 1 and 2, but since I can only choose one, the edge goes to the first, bloodier movie simply because of her battle with the Crazy 88 alone.

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4. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017) dir. Chad Stahelski

While the original John Wick is the ideal lean and mean modern action movie, it also functioned as a proof-of-concept film seeing if audiences would buy the mad vision of the world David Leitch and Chad Stahelski had created and their image of Keanu Reeves as a bereaved angel of death. Chapter 2 simply is an eye-opening expansion of the crazy underworld universe the directors created and an elegant refinement of the stylized “gun-fu” action style that was the original movie’s calling-card, while Keanu himself with his zen-cool persona is the perfect vehicle for the mayhem that follows. The movie’s larger budget also allows the film to move into some truly exotic locations, which only heightens the absurd beauty of this ever-growing franchise.

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3. THE RAID: REDEMPTION (2011) dir. Gareth Evans

The setup is simple: one special tactics unit is sent into an apartment block in the middle of Jakarta’s slums in order to apprehend a crime lord and eliminate his operations. But they quickly find themselves in over-their-head and are forced to fight their way out of a desperate situation they are hopelessly unprepared for. So far this sounds run-of-the-mill but what elevates it to being one of the best action movies of the century is the unrelenting ferocity with which this battle unfolds as director Gareth Evans brings the incredibly elegant and brutal Indonesian martial-art of silat to the big screen while giving us just the right amount of backstory to make us care desperately about the fate of this trapped unit and its young cadet protagonist Rama (Iko Uwais).

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2. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) dir. Christopher Nolan

This is a textbook example of how to create a sequel. Christopher Nolan’s specific vision for the caped crusader reaches its apex as the stakes are raised and Batman has to face a Joker who is not interested in traditional power and glory, but simply wnats to watch the world burn. Punctuating this terrorist-vision of the Joker are more elaborate stunts and action sequences that ratchet up the tension to an almost unsustainable level as this two-and-a-half hour movie flies by at a dizzying pace. That this movie also dares to calls into question the very validity of superhero vigilantism and plunge Batman and his allies into much murkier ethical waters also makes it a shockingly compelling tale in a superhero genre that tends to peddle easy morality.

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1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) dir. George Miller

Many, many words have been said about just how amazing this movie is, and almost all of those accolades are well deserved. While the intense action scenes and the way they have been expertly shot by George Miller and his crew rightly get most of the press, it is the completeness of the world and the people who inhabit it that truly elevate this movie into an all-time great. Despite a minimal amount of dialogue, the motivation of Furiosa (Charlize Theron) – who steals the movie from and her sidekick Max (Tom Hardy) – to basically save the world from the dystopia created by men is as clear and powerful a statement as any political drama, and a message that grows more prescient with each day. It also just happens to also contain the most insane and perfectly orchestrated action scenes ever put to screen and as of now, I cannot conceive what kind of effort it will take to knock this movie of its perch.


HONOURABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order)

Atomic Blonde

Battle Royale

Fast Five

Gladiator

The Incredibles

Kung-Fu Hustle

Logan

The Matrix Reloaded

Pacific Rim

Speed Racer

 

 

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