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

Written by on February 7, 2017 

10. Collateral (Michael Mann)


Most nightmares would make great action movies. They’re filled with bizarre scenarios from which there is no escape and the only victory that can be found is earned through insane risk. Collateral plays like the nightmare of a Los Angeles taxi driver come to life, and the story is just the beginning of the simply and brutally efficient quality of this film. Jamie Foxx and a grey-dyed Tom Cruise are an amazingly mismatched pair, and each brings so much depth and consideration to their character that you can almost feel the rest of their lives existing off screen. Michael Mann‘s embrace of digital cinematography also means that the film is grimly gorgeous, with scenes never before really possible. Los Angeles has never looked more awful or more beguiling. – Brian R.

9. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)


The most sensual film on this list is, no surprise, un film de Wong Kar-wai, and thoroughly so: his transition to the kung fu picture leaves no trace of compromise or bending to a genre’s will, the Hong Kong master instead conforming the genre’s numerous conventions around his step-printing- and slow-motion-heavy style. That might explain why it took so very long to be completed, and in some part accounts for the existence of multiple versions. My advice is to stay with the longest, its original Chinese cut, but to take a look at the reconfigured American take. If nothing else, you’ll get one more great fight scene out of it. – Nick N.

8. John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch)


In so many ways, John Wick is the ideal modern action film. First, the setup is simple: a retired gunman loses his wife. Then, a couple thugs with ties to his past steal his car…and kill his dog. Now, John Wick (a pitch-perfect Keanu Reeves) must don the suit he swore off to his past for the most personal job of all, revenge. Within a razor-sharp economy of moments, John Wick offers genuine emotional weight behind all the mayhem. And what slick, beautiful mayhem it is. Ferociously paced and backed by a roaring soundtrack, the unbroken takes of Wick’s slaughter redefine how to depict action cinema. Giving birth to a new style of choreography known as “gun-fu,” these killings are so brutally stylized in their depiction as to almost become sensuous. Through a swirl of vibrant colors and pulsating lights, Jonathan Sela’s lush cinematography creates a dark underworld out of New York that is the sandbox for this violence. Lean, mean, and a one-man-wrecking-machine, John Wick is a new action icon we have been sorely missing. But now, thankfully, we’re thinking he’s back. – Mike M.

7. Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)


From the opening moments of Haywire Steven Soderbergh’s slice of espionage action pulp — a couple things become crystal clear: It is deceptively well directed and has proverbial balls of steel. The viewer has mere moments to chew over their surroundings before the main course kicks in. Shot with an unblinking eye, the fight choreography is slick and brutal, standing as an audacious proclamation from Soderbergh of his evolving verve in the current cinematic climate. What follows is a sleek hour-and-a-half stuffed with A-list stars and a story that is simultaneously breezily told and yet dense in its plotting. This is Soderbergh’s take on a spy thriller of generation’s past, combined with the gut and mind of a modern, R-rated action flick. You’ve been warned. – Mike M.

6. The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass)


The Bourne Ultimatum possesses a visual and narrative urgency that is as much a worldview as a device of suspense; as action cinema, this film hits an entirely different level of mastery. A defining draw of the series thus far has been the unity of brains and brawn in the titular hero, and both get a workout via several spellbinding set pieces. The pleasures of watching Bourne run the game at a distance are plentiful, but it is when he gets rough and running that Ultimatum truly hits its stride. A car chase through Manhattan easily rivals Supremacy‘s Berlin-set finale, but it is a car chase-turned-free-run-turned-fistfight in Tangiers that cements the film as one of this young century’s finest action pictures. Keeping the camera rattling and whip-panning to sustain the frenetic mood, Paul Greengrass nonetheless maintains continuity of motion across myriad shots so that we can still discern the who, what, and where of each scene. Meanwhile, the percussive score pounds like Ennio Morricone’s work from The Battle of Algiers; the sound editing is so detailed as to be tactile, and the momentum of it all carries us into a state of kinetic bliss. – Jonah J.

5. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee)


There may be no more diverse director working in Hollywood today than Ang Lee. Of course, he didn’t get his start there, rather with the Father Knows Best trilogy in his native land of Taiwan, but he soon returned to a formative genre with perhaps his career peak, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The highest-grossing foreign-language film in America (by a large margin) and multiple Oscar winner earns its reputation with its thrilling grace and stunning beauty. As Roger Ebert said, “Like all ambitious movies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon transcends its origins and becomes one of a kind. It’s glorious, unashamed escapism and surprisingly touching at the same time.” Indeed, Lee made a electrifying film about a culture clash and the results united the East and the West. – Jordan R.

4. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)


I’m still waiting for a better action experience in cinemas than the feeling of vertigo I experienced as Brad Bird‘s camera peered over the window’s ledge in the Burj Khalifa setpiece of Ghost Protocol. It certainly helped that I was at one of the largest IMAX screens in the world, but revisiting the film numerous time in the comfort of my comparatively minuscule own home proves that Brad Bird‘s live-action debut is an endlessly rewatchable. Yes, the villain is a far cry from its immediate predecessor, but the character work and snappy dialogue in virtually every scene only help to bolster the immaculately crafted setpieces. When it comes to popcorn entertainment — a term often used synonymously with action films — Ghotocol proves to the ideal example in the 21st century, and the peak of the Mission: Impossible franchise thus far.   – Jordan R.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)


Action movies often suffer from a problem of pacing. When the time comes for exposition things crawl to an ungodly halt, and then the action flares up rather inorganically, and the seams show like the sutures on Frankenstein’s monster. Mad Max: Fury Road solves this problem by being constant action, though – to use an apt metaphor – constantly running in different gears. Even the quiet moments are at first gear, rather than neutral, and the most action-packed moments are in sixth with a nitro-boost. The practical effects, the inventive setpieces, and the Doof Warrior are all lovely additions, but its the pacing that really sets this film a cut above the rest. – Brian R.

2. Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino)


Kung fu, wuxia, western, classic revenge tale, and maybe, ultimately, a synthesis of these forming a genre that’s yet to be given a proper name — so’s the makeup of what may in fact be Quentin Tarantino‘s masterpiece. (Sorry, Aldo Raine.) For all its thrills — and there is not a single dull action sequence within the four-hour runtime, to say nothing of the fact that all are distinct from one another — Kill Bill is about as deeply felt as movies get: a bloody bacchanal that gradually reveals itself as a tale of the insane things people do in the name of love. – Nick N.

1. Miami Vice (Michael Mann)


I dare you to find a movie that is more self-assuredly cool than Miami Vice. I dare you to find a film that is more in love with itself than Miami Vice. I dare you to find two characters more cool-infused than Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell as Ricardo Tubbs and Sonny Crocket (respectively) in Miami Vice. This movie burns with the fire that only the truly un-self-conscious can embrace, and every scene drips with style and grace. The violence is sudden and real while still managing to be thrilling and electrifying. Every beat is calibrated for maximum sleekness, and thanks to the investment of the actors and the determination of writer-director Michael Mann, that cool is achieved. The soundtrack thumps, the sun shines, and the bullets fly. This is the pinnacle of action in the new millennium. – Brian R.

Honorable Mentions

Off the bat, there’s a number of films that made our sci-fi list that contain a good deal of action, but we appreciated them more for their sci-fi elements, including the Matrix sequels, Looper, Star TrekLucy, and Snowpiercer. There’s also a handful of films that might have made the list, but sway a bit more into other genres, such as Pineapple Express, The Nice Guys, Drive, The Grey, 21 Jump Street, Eastern Promises, Django Unchained, Munich, Sicario, Green Room, City of God, Scott Pilgrim, Headhunters, Tell No One, and The Assassin.

As for actual action films that nearly made the cut, we considered The Raid: Berandal, Kung Fu Hustle, The Man From Nowhere, Tell No One, Smokin’ Aces, Bad Boys II, A Hard Day, House of Flying Daggers, Point Blank, Flash Point, Once Upon A Time In Mexico, Redline, Public Enemies, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi.

What are your favorite action films this century so far? 

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