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

Written by on February 7, 2017 

30. SPL: Sha Po Lang (Wilson Yip) and SPL II: A Time for Consequences (Cheang Pou-soi)

Kill Zone 2

In one sense, SPL 1 and 2 are only nominally part of the same series. No characters from the first installment reappear in the second, though a couple actors do return to play new roles. In another sense, however, the two films are very much of the same blood. Both exist in a world where morality is relative, cops and criminals wage all-out war against each another, and, most importantly, some of the world’s most recognizable martial arts stars wander the streets on both sides of the law, injecting gravity-defying, bone-breaking quixotism into an otherwise dark and gritty existence. Additionally, both films possess the added virtue of having deftly edited, coherently shot action scenes, ones where the relative placement and orientation of the fighters remains discernible even when the camerawork turns frenetic.

Despite the films’ shared genre DNA, however, the specific genetic coding of SPL 1 and 2 differ significantly. The first film, likely resulting in large part from budget constraints, is smaller in scale, with fight scenes occurring in closer quarters and usually between no more than two or three combatants. Its story has a corresponding straightforwardness, structured around a single, primary goal (take down the mob boss). SPL 2, on the other hand, is a bloated beast of a crime epic, zigzagging across various storylines and locations, and the film’s set pieces are similarly huge, possessing multiple players and topographically complex physical spaces (just look at the penthouse of the film’s finale). In the movie’s most impressive scene, a prison riot is captured in a single take that moves across two floors and what seems like a hundred extras caught within one giant melee. This stunning moment evokes what Bilge Ebiri described about the prison fight scene in The Raid 2. As bodies collide like molecules heated over a raging fire, SPL 2 untethers itself almost entirely from narrative, becoming instead purely about motion and impact i.e. action cinema distilled to its glorious fundamentals. – Jonah J.

29. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell)


Skyfall gets all the love these days, but I still consider Casino Royale to be the best of the Daniel Craig-led Bond movies – and, indeed, one of the finest of the entire series. It’s easy to forget just how lost the Bond franchise had become prior to its reboot – 2002’s Die Another Day was a true low point. Craig’s casting caused an Internet uproar, but in the end, as with Heath Ledger’s Joker, the Internet hostility was fruitless. Craig seemed to understand the roots of the Ian Fleming character arguably better than any other actor in the series, and the movie was dark and exciting and thrilling without losing its sense of humor. (I like Craig’s follow-up but I do think Royale more deftly balanced the grim with the funny.) The end of the movie when the iconic Bond theme song finally kicks in is still one of my favorite things to have experienced in a movie theater, with the entire audience breaking into applause. – John U.

28. Exiled (Johnnie To)


Thousands of bullets are shot over the course of Exiled, but it’s more notable how many of them never hit another person than the ending body count. Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To has only ever been nominally interested in the usual conventions of the action genre, using grandly orchestrated bullet ballets as a means, but never an end. And To’s best films are a reinforcement of that notion, shooting each gunfight with a heightened moral consequence, and closely examining the spontaneous emotional reactions of everyone involved. A sequel to 1999’s exceptional Triad crime film, The Mission, Exiled reunites the tightly bonded bodyguards of the original, and throws them into an existential death match, testing their loyalties to their professional and personal codes – and in the process, offering one of the most tense, fluid, and thrilling action films of the century. – Michael S.

27. Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie)


It’s unfortunate that the recent sequel to Jack Reacher was such mediocre fare, because the first movie is a solidly crafted throwback to the patient, adult action-thrillers in the vein of Dirty Harry and Bullitt. Tom Cruise received a lot of flak when his casting was announced, simply because he isn’t as physically imposing as the character in the books; but he’s charismatic and intense, which go a long way toward making his performance work in favor of the character. It’s clear that Cruise relished being able to play an anti-hero, one who phones his enemies to tell them that he wishes to drink their blood from the bottom of his boot, and you can sense it every moment he’s on screen. Director Christopher McQuarrie captures the retro style of iconic ‘70s action-thrillers, and the movie’s greatest sequence is a car chase featuring real cars driven by real people doing real stunts, a truly rare sight to behold in today’s age of CGI vehicles flying through the air. – John U.

26. A Bittersweet Life (Kim Ji-woon)


Kim Ji-woon has always been a director interested in taking a genre and pushing it to the extreme. A Bittersweet Life, his take on the crime/revenge thriller, is an uber-slick thrill ride with a beating heart. From his camera placement in a car getaway scene to an intense weapon disassembly (and life-or-death reassembly) to a take-no-prisoners finale shoot-out, most Hollywood directors could bit the bullet and learn a great deal about pacing and execution from this South Korean action spectacle. – Jordan R.

25. Man on Fire (Tony Scott)


Tony Scott’s Catholic guilt revenge movie, Man on Fire, may be a sprawling, messy behemoth, but it’s kinetic, hyper-stylized aesthetic never distracts from the film’s grounded emotional tone. Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland spend an hour setting up the relationship between bodyguard Creasy (Denzel Washington) and Pita (Dakota Fanning) before she’s taken, to quote the title of a grossly inferior work, and one clearly influenced by this film’s man-on-a-mission narrative. Scott’s use of violence feels almost subtle, wisely aware that the emotional impact resonates much more by leaving a little to our imaginations. And when I say, subtle, I do so with the admittedly notable exception of a much-discussed scene involving a piece of C-4 explosive placed inside a man’s rectum. Treating heightened genre tropes with utter sincerity, Scott delivers an unusually enthralling piece of entertainment, which stands the test of time, if audiences can look past the occasional cliché. – Tony H.

24. Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin)


One of the most under-appreciated characteristics that an action protagonist can have is desperation. Desperation makes people dumb, but it also makes them bold, and it creates an air of immediacy that cannot be matched, even by a ticking clock. Sleepless Night involves a father desperately trying to save his son from gangsters in a night club, and the various floors and rooms in the club mean each new scene can have a different feeling, while still allowing the same level of desperation and claustrophobia to exist. With dire gambits and clever solutions aplenty, along with some visceral action, Sleepless Night is the low-key actioner the world needed, a pretty solid pre-John Wick blend of style and action. – Brian R.

23. Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra)


There are a few reasons why “Hitchcock would be proud” may be the very worst of all pull-quotes, not least because it compartmentalizes complex genius into a recognizable brand. So when I tell you Non-Stop is bested only by De Palma’s finest as the most-worthy holder of that plaudit, I also mean to say this: Non-Stop is not fucking around. (Now, will they put that on the case of its tenth-anniversary hologram release?) It’s the best of both worlds: willing to indulge in a bit of grand idiocy — Liam Neeson’s “I’m an alcoholic!” speech, well-acted and melodramatic in the Bigger Than Life mold, is probably the best evidence of as much — while playing this tone for significant narrative effect (some hate the ending, but I love it as a casually insensitive and, yes, perfectly logical endpoint). Thanks to Jaume Collet-Serra’s understanding that small need not equal limited — what an elaborately staged mapping of the airplane’s geography — nothing from its respective year quite hit the visceral sweet spot like this. – Nick N.

22. Time and Tide (Tsui Hark)


The aesthetic of speed and montage which Tsui Hark originated and nurtured throughout the 1980s and 90s possibly reaches its final perfection here — there are some who call it the ‘ real last gasp of the Hong Kong action cinema” of that era. If this film’s plot consistently appears to be almost incomprehensible, it’s made up for one of the most staggering displays of stylistic devices within the medium’s history. Here is an action film where the alternative compositions and montage effects of more economically made cinema is applied to a large-budget film, perhaps because Hark knows that it’s these exceptions which drive the medium forward. Almost avant-garde at times, yet never distanciating, and always breathtaking. – Neil B.

21. Inception (Christopher Nolan)


Inception is an arthouse movie with blockbuster aspirations. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. It is the product of a director given free reign by his studio, and a film that challenges its audience as much as it seeks to delight them. Who can forget the dream-within-a-dream world building, or the visually stunning action sequences such as the one that takes place inside a rotating hallway? Dizzying, beautifully scored and edited, and filled with memorable performances (including the role that properly introduced Tom Hardy to many American viewers), Inception is without a doubt one of the most influential and respected films to emerge from the genre in recent years. – John U.

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