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The 50 Best Action Movies of the 21st Century Thus Far

Written by on February 7, 2017 

40. 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)

13-assassins

Historical action films suffer from a lot of issues. Clunky costumes, lame weapons (sorry muskets), and a lack of willingness to really go for it when the time comes to let loose. Brotherhood of the Wolf got around this by becoming a sort of French kung fu fairy tale, and 13 Assassins gets around it by really leaning into perhaps the most mythical and cool warrior class that ever existed: the samurai. With swords and arrows and cunning and speed, the samurai, and their public relations-savvy cousins the ninja, are the perfect action stars. This film layers that mythology and iconography over a simple story of revenge and lets rip with an extended sequence of mortal combat that is equal parts muscle and mind. – Brian R.

39. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)

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While it cannot match the impact of Casino Royale, Sam Mendes‘ first outing with the Bond saga still stands as a stirring and worthy entry, one that manages to inject depth and pathos into its age-old iconic characters, while still delivering the modern-day action goods. Skyfall, which centers on Bond’s most personal journey of the entire Daniel Craig series, is well aware of the ground it’s treading, allowing itself moments to poke fun at the wonky gadgets of the spy world, while also evolving Bond’s once virile secret agent into an aging and jaded loner. This paints Bond as a more sympathetic hero, one marred by both the demons of his past and his now-aging body. As the film builds momentum, it exchanges larger scale set-pieces for something much more intimate in its climax. Focused on Bond, M (Dame Judi Dench), and one of Bond’s most memorable villains (a scene-chewing Javier Bardem), the church showdown adds an emotional punctuation to what truly should have been the end of Craig’s run. And finally, it cannot go unstated that the film’s striking cinematography is lensed by maestro Roger Deakins. Nearly every frame is gorgeously composed, rendering every action beat with crisp definition and clarity. – Mike M.

38. District B13 (Pierre Morel)

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Parkour, the activity of acrobatically traversing space with efficiency and speed, has seen it’s fair share of iterations throughout the years in major action film franchises. Think of the opening scene of the James Bond reboot Casino Royale, or the bouncy villain from Live Free Die Hard and Matt Damon prancing along rooftops in the elaborate chase sequences of The Bourne Legacy. Yet none of these moments come close to capturing the frenetic intensity of parkour quite like District B13, a dystopian sci-fi French film that has some of the most intricately choreographed moments of running, climbing, swinging, vaulting, jumping and rolling ever committed to celluloid. It might have something to do with the fact that the lead protagonist of the film, Leïto, is played by David Belle, who is considered by many the founder of the sport of parkour. – Raffi A.

37. Unleashed (Louis Leterrier)

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Never count out the necessity of good character building. Unleashed (which was released in Europe over the much cooler name Danny the Dog) gives a fair amount of bone-crunching action up front, but when the time comes for the real story to start the film doesn’t shy away from really investing in its relationships. Jet Li is a man trained as a martial arts attack dog, while Morgan Freeman is the blind piano tuner who finds him and brings him back to humanity, along with his daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). It is, to be frank, a ridiculous story, but the actors sell it and the action delivers. Weirdly affecting and deeply satisfying, Unleashed deserves a lot of reappraisal. – Brian R.

36. The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman)

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Catapulting Matt Damon into a new echelon of leading man stardom, this first entry into the Bourne series may not be the height of the franchise, but it’s a thrilling, efficiently simple introduction to the character. With an intriguing set-up providing enough mystery to last two more films (we’ll forget about the spin-off and last summer’s much-requested, immensely disappointing follow-up), The Bourne Identity proved there was enough room in Hollywood for another globe-trotting spy franchise. – Jordan R.

35. Drug War (Johnnie To)

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The beauty of Johnnie To’s Drug War lies in how somatic it is. Rather than attempting to psychologize characters’ actions through expressive musical cues, poignant close-ups, or overly expository dialogue, the film tends toward matter-of-factly showing us what veteran cops and criminals do and forcing us to infer their motivations, which are genuinely complex rather than dumbed down for the audience. Stripped of all fluff or fat, the film races breathlessly through a crazily dense plot, forcing us to keep up without ever giving the sense that To has lost track of where his movie is going. This same level of intelligent terseness extends into the films’ various shootouts, which are paradoxically huge in scale. Indeed, the amount of ammunition that is expended in these scenes brings to mind the guns a’ blazin’ excess of a John Woo or Michael Mann picture, but Drug War’s grand spectacle never drowns out the fact that there are smart, capable people in its midst, trying to strategize their way to victory rather than blindly firing as most generic action heroes are wont to do. The film’s ten-minute finale is especially stunning, involving double and triple crosses, spur-of-the-moment decisions subtly conveyed through editing, and gunplay that manages to feel simultaneously pandemoniac and precise. Chaos this well-orchestrated is a welcome rarity in our age of spastic action-movie filmmaking. The same can be said about Drug War as a whole. – Jonah J.

34. Hero (Zhang Yimou)

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From action virtuoso Zhang Yimou, Hero is a fast-paced epic that represented the peak of the wuxia film stateside, following a film that (spoilers!) appears high up on this list, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Jet Li stars as a warrior with an agenda meeting with the King of Qin, surrounded by everyone from Zhang Ziyi to Donnie Yen to Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Swirling storytelling meets swirling stunts, cementing this one as a vibrant must-watch. – Dan M.

33. 300 (Zack Snyder)

300

Today, Zack Snyder may be a source of controversy among comic book fans, but with the 2006 film that turned him into a household name he was at least put to work on material perfectly suited to his own distinctive wavelength. Adapted from Frank Miller‘s graphic novel – itself adapted liberally from the histories of Herodotus – 300 is and should be the epitome of swords-and-sandals high camp. All of Snyder’s familiar tropes find their proper home in an orgiastic two-hour onslaught of digitally enhanced violence, machismo, eroticism and stylistic overkill. The film even has the savviness to justify its own excess via a clever framing device: the entire story is the visualization of a lone Spartan’s tale, ancient Greek propaganda with modern production values. Using green-screen techniques to replicate the distinctive aesthetic of Miller’s art and deploying fantastical costumes and imagery with aplomb, Snyder captures George Lucas’ dream of using digital technology to transform the frame fully into a canvas, with every image composed and manipulated exactly to the filmmaker’s liking – and unlike Lucas, he has the words and sensibilities of a competent writer to give his creations shouting, bleeding, chest-pumping life. Snyder, however, has never since seemed to fully grasp the absurdity of his own work, which makes 300 all the more valuable and eminently watchable as a blessedly unpretentious ode to overkill. – Eli F.

32. Ip Man (Wilson Yip)

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Ip Man, directed by Wilson Yip, does something quite profound with its action trappings. At the start of the film, the titular martial artist master (Donnie Yen) engages in a fight with a challenger in his home. The pair soar around the room, breaking potted plants and furniture despite the requests from Ip Man’s wife that nothing be destroyed. Ip Man is courteous in his victory, taking no pride in a gentleman’s joust. This is China before the Japanese occupation — vibrant, happy, and full of life, and the fighting reflects that state of being. Then the occupation begins, and all color is sapped. All joy is gone. And when Ip Man engages in another fight, it is the exact opposite of what has come before. It is vicious and personal. Ip Man does not smile, but battles with a ferocious intensity that reflects the world he has been thrust into. By contrasting the jovial and almost cartoonish tone of the earlier fight, Ip Man allows its genre concerns to stretch over its thematic ones. This creates deeper meaning for each, solidifying a strong bond between material and genre. This is a confidently paced, wonderfully choreographed piece of martial arts cinema. – Mike M.

31. The Guest (Adam Wingard)

the-guest

It struck me on my fifth viewing of Adam Wingard’s genre-blending action picture The Guest just how well it works as a movie-going experience (and that, yes, I was a bit obsessed as well). To be honest, the same sensation swept over me on my first viewing, but on a much more visceral level. By this, I mean that it manages to hit all the satisfying structural beats of a traditional narrative, while still pulling out surprises through its deep-seated knowledge of genre tropes. This makes for a film as fun to watch as it is to dissect. With a lavish color palette, clever editing, and a thumping soundtrack, Wingard and writer Simon Barrett craft a slick action film with a devilishly charming performance from star Dan Stevens. It slides by like a pair of grenades, exploding with its effortless cool and dark gut. – Mike M.

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