Since the dawn of the 21st century, action cinema has undergone a bigger change than perhaps any other genre. As the tools with which filmmakers craft their works have continually advanced, a sort of renaissance has begun wherein action films stepped firmly into their own. Often put in the same category as horror — not taken seriously as a form of artistic expression outside of its core fanbase — action has had to boldly announce itself as a viable medium through which big set pieces, but also big ideas, can be presented and explored.
With the highly anticipated John Wick: Chapter 2 arriving in theaters this Friday, we’ve set out to reflect on the millennium’s action films that have most excelled. To pick our top 50, we’ve reached out to all corners of the globe, choosing an array of films ranging from grand to gritty, brutal to beautiful. The result is a showcase of what action cinema can do at its peak presentation: knock you flat on your back while igniting ideas and emotions with explosive, lasting impact.
Check out our top 50 below and let us know your favorites in the comments. One can also see the full list on Letterboxd.
50. Shoot ‘Em Up (Michael Davis)
Everyone has that one friend who is just crazy, who runs across a highway with a bottle of whiskey in his hand while screaming something that might be considered a slur and also shamelessly hits on his friends’ girlfriends. Why do we hang out with that guy? Because every now and then he does something so insane you know that when you’re 80 years old you’ll be telling your grandkids about it when their parents are out of earshot. That is what Shoot ‘Em Up is – a mad bastard of a film that must be seen to be believed and that would have a giant Motley Crue back tattoo if it ever took human form. Clive Owen plays a sharpshooter by way of Bugs Bunny that has to team up with a prostitute played by Monica Bellucci to keep a baby safe from… everyone. This movie takes place in a universe where guns are the only tool, and the only thing deadlier than a gun is a carrot. God bless it, and keep it away from weddings. – Brian R.
49. Hanna (Joe Wright)
When it hit theaters in 2011, Hanna immediately distinguished itself from the annual mass of faceless action movies through sheer, idiosyncratic style. Spanning locations as varied as Finland, Germany, and Morocco and driven sonically by a pulsing electronic beat by The Chemical Brothers, Joe Wright’s film feels like a mélange of European art cinema, Jason Bourne, and Grimms’ fairy tales, a delectable confection that features Saoirse Ronan as a naïve teenage assassin qua Little Red Riding Hood and Cate Blanchett as the Big Bad Wolf in high heels who brings the wilderness of the wicked world to the uninitiated heroine’s doorstep. As a twisted tale of tainted innocence, Hanna packs a wallop, but the film can also be enjoyed on the more visceral level of its hand-to-hand combat, which astonishes not so much on account of its choreography (though the film ain’t half bad in that department either) but the accompanying editing and cinematography, which add a degree of rhythm and spatial dimension to the fight scenes that is absent from most of Hanna’s genre counterparts. Wright, in his wild experimentations with shot orientation, length, and composition, demonstrates an understanding that, though “action” can describe bodies in motion, the word can apply to the camera as well. – Jonah J.
48. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii)
The sequel to Mamoru Oshii‘s seminal 1995 cyberpunk film may seem an unconventional pick for a list celebrating action films – after all, as many irritable fanboys may tell you, the majority of the film consists of quiet mood scenes and dense, citation-heavy musings on the fate of man in a post-human world. The action scenes present, however, are like nothing else ever glimpsed in animation or live action. Though the quick and beautiful blitzkriegs of gunplay and futuristic martial arts combat may warrant the easiest comparisons to John Woo, Oshii and his talented crew at Production I.G. take full advantage of the possibilities of digital animation to play with movement, framing and distortion in ways live-action cinema could never imitate to the same degree of breathtaking fluidity. Though the film’s composition and editing takes at least a general cue from live action (in contrast to some other animated gems like Hiroyuki Imaishi’s masterpiece Dead Leaves — too short to qualify for this list, regrettably, but most assuredly wreaking havoc in our hearts — Oshii, whose earlier work helped inspire the iconic action choreography of The Matrix, is not content to let himself be overshadowed by Hollywood. In GitS2 he proudly demonstrates his mastery of the medium in a final act in which nine minutes of continuous combat are choreographed to a sweeping, otherworldly vocal suite of Buddhist poetry from trusted musical collaborator Kenji Kawai. The “bullet ballet” of East Asian action cinema has never before or since felt so literal, or so transcendental. – Eli F.
47. Three (Johnie To)
A sterile hospital building may not be the first choice to capture cinematic beauty, but Three proves that a film in the hands of Johnnie To means expectations will be upended. If cinematography is as much about camera placement and movement as visual quality, Three is a masterclass in the former. The best (perhaps only worthwhile) action movie of last year, this is the rare genre entry in which the intense build-up may impress more than the guns-blazing climax — itself a euphoric, sublimely executed bout of showmanship. – Jordan R.
46. Fast Five (Justin Lin)
The Fast and Furious movies began as a pretty blatant rip-off of Point Break. They offered the thrills and chills of high speed car races and undercover detective stories wrapped up in a single package. It was until the fifth installment, however, that the franchise found its true calling as a movie about demi-gods whose chariots happen to be muscle cars. A heist film mixed with action beats that laugh at even the pretense of reality, Fast Five put the outsized personalities of its stars (plus new addition Dwayne Johnson) into a mad context that deserved them. Everything since then has been bigger, but this is where the self-aware fun hit its apex. – Brian R
45. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Kim Ji-woon)
The films of Sergio Leone have influenced a generation (or more) of filmmakers, both explicitly and subtly, but few products of inspiration have more madcap fun than Kim Ji-woon‘s The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Featuring Lee Byung-hun (who would actually go on to star in another Sergio Leone remake last year), Song Kang-ho, and Jung Woo-sung, the perfectly-cast trio simply have a blast in this South Korean western, which never shortchanges both its sensibilities from its native country as well as the genre it’s embracing. – Jordan R.
44. Dredd (Pete Travis)
In Dredd, all that was once old and stolid becomes searingly new again. Combining the acute spatial coherence and laser-focused screenplay of Die Hard with the gritty dystopian vibe and satiric wit of Robocop, the film may well be one of the greatest pure shoot-em-ups since the genre’s heyday in the 1980s. And yet, the dazzling sensory onslaught of aestheticized uber-gore and the meticulously constructed sense of topography, each keenly picking and choosing the strongest aesthetic and narrative qualities of violent video games, are unmistakably products of a new generation. (For a fun activity, just try and find a scene where you can’t figure out within 20 seconds where one character is, and where they are going, in relation to another — then compare that to a Christopher Nolan film.) The fusion of old wisdom and irreverent young blood proves an explosive, enticing and deliciously nasty concoction. – Eli F.
43. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Prior to its release in 2014, Edge of Tomorrow seemed like a sure-fire failure. Its production was chaotic, its budget spiraled out of control, its title was changed (it wouldn’t be the last time), and the film generally had mounting bad buzz. However, it ended up earning glowing reviews, and it quietly climbed towards almost $400 million worldwide thanks to strong word-of-mouth. The film is a real sci-fi treat: Halo meets Groundhog Day, with Tom Cruise daringly playing against type in the first half as a cowardly guy who actually undergoes a character arc. Emily Blunt is likewise memorable in her role, and the two leads have genuine chemistry that helps to elevate the thrillingly repetitive story. While the movie suffers a bit in its final moments, reeking of studio intervention, the setpieces here make an impression — even if it’s the 50th time we see them. – John U.
42. Elite Squad (José Padilha)
Brazilian favelas are both rich with culture and crime. In this 2007 film directed by José Padhilla, the native filmmaker dives deep into the slums and creates an action-packed crime thriller that is one of the most intense portrayals of life in the favelas to date. By alternating between two narratives between the corruption of the police and their connection to the street gangs, Padhilla weaves a tapestry of betrayal and revenge. It also features some of the grittiest and elaborate shootout scenarios that any action film fan can truly appreciate, propelling the film to become a franchise in South America where it spawned two big budget sequels. – Raffi A.
41. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
South African director Neill Blomkamp was attached for some time to the unproduced adaptation of Microsoft’s Halo series, and that ill-fated project’s legacy peeks through in District 9‘s frantic, videogame-inspired second half. Eccentric aliens, head-exploding carnage and grimy futurism are all well and good, of course, but what really sets the film apart from the pack (including Blomkamp’s own modestly successful follow-ups) is the way it channels the political tensions of the director’s homeland. Drawing from South Africa’s loaded history of prejudice, terror and apartheid without offering explicit commentary, Blomkamp takes after The Twilight Zone in fashioning a twisted sci-fi fable in which cathartic action beats bear the undercurrent of lived history and relevant social context. District 9 may not be mistaken for a “cerebral” film — again, there are a lot of exploding heads — but in its class of genre thrill rides it’s one smart cookie. – Eli F.
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