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We think it was Jean-Luc Godard who once said “the purest form of cinema is Tom Cruise dangling off something very high.” Well, maybe it was Bresson. Regardless, this week sees the release of “Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation,” the fifth in the long-running spy series that over the last twenty years has presented some of the most spectacular set pieces for the screen in modern times, and in a year when action cinema has been thrillingly revived, it marks a high point.
The action movie has been around since 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery,” and when done right, it’s a form of pure cinema injected straight into the veins. It’s a very particular set of skills, one that’s thwarted many great directors, but in able hands capable of precisely choreographing a fight, battle, chase or showdown, to shoot them in inventive and thrilling ways, and to cut them to maximize tension and visceral qualities, the form can reach a level of transcendence.
With Ethan Hunt smashing up motorbikes and hanging off planes again, it seemed like the perfect time to turn the spotlight of our Best Of The Century So Far series (see Comedies, Sci-Fi, Music Documentaries, Animations and Horror) to the action movie. We tried to exclude films in slightly adjacent but different genres —war, thriller, superhero— and those that had already appeared in one of our lists, but otherwise, any theatrically-released action fare was game. Take a look below and let us know your favorites in the comments.
25. “Bad Boys II” (2003)
Love him or hate him (and it’s increasingly difficult to love him), few would deny that Michael Bay is a master of action. Perhaps Bay-Max’s finest hour, at least in this century and before he entered the ‘indistinguishable pieces of colliding metal’ phase of his career, is “Bad Boys II.” A thoroughly reprehensible, morally appalling, deeply queasy piece of entertainment, the film values excess to the exclusion of all else, like most of Bay’s work. But this cop flick, which pits Will Smith and Martin Lawrence against Cuban Ecstasy dealers (not that it matters), is also stuffed with thunderingly good action sequences, from shootouts to not one but about five freeway chase sequences, including one where the villains literally throw cars at our heroes, and a metaphorically insane recreation of the opening of Jackie Chan’s “Police Story” as a humvee demolishes a shanty town. In other words, shit just got real.
24. “Unstoppable” (2010)
He was unquestionably one of the modern-day action masters, but only the most insistently vulgar auteurists would suggest that much of the late, great Tony Scott’s 21st century output was up to his best. Fortunately, the filmmaker went out on a high with “Unstoppable,” a throwback disaster movie that mixed old-school genre tropes with his own hyperactive style to surprisingly effective effect. The premise couldn’t be simpler: a high-speed train (“a missile the size of the Chrysler building”) is out of control, and only engineers Denzel Washington and Chris Pine can stop it. But Scott gets a surprising amount of variety and tension out of a film that’s literally on the rails —it looks spectacular, and it’s full of fun little performances from Rosario Dawson and Kevin Corrigan. It might be a cliched journey, but it’s one that leaves your knuckles white in the best sense, and a reminder of how much we’ll miss Scott.
23. “Lucy” (2014)
In the early ’90s, after “Nikita” and “The Professional,” Luc Besson looked like he might be the next big action director, but he produced a string of misfires, and though he was more successful than ever as the producer of the “Taken” series, he had seemingly stepped away from directing. And then came “Lucy,” a $500 million sleeper hit that must number among the strangest blockbusters ever. Scarlett Johansson plays the title character, a naive ex-pat who’s forced into being a drug mule, only for the drug to, essentially, turn her into a god. Careening into increasingly trippy territory until a third act that’s probably best experienced on some kind of hallucinogen, Besson makes the whole thing look great on a relatively slim budget, and more impressively, pulls off the trick of making the action thrilling even when there are little stakes involved.
22. “Blackhat” (2015)
The biggest flop of 2015 so far is also one of the best action movies in quite some time. Michael Mann’s divisive techno-thriller just edged out “Miami Vice” for a slot on this list (“Collateral” and “Public Enemies” also have some stunning sequences, but we wouldn’t classify them as ‘action’ in the same manner), but really the two films are something of a piece: both are propulsive actioners shot virtually entirely in gorgeous nighttime, where the romance is just as important as the bullets flying. For our money, “Blackhat,” in which Chris Hemsworth famously plays a blackhat hacker named Hathaway who teams with the Chinese to take down a mysterious figure who’s caused a nuclear meltdown and may have worse planned, takes the honors. Mann pushes further into a kind of action-movie expressionism than ever before, driven by mood, atmosphere and sound, and the results are glorious.21. “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” (2008)
Hollywood may have given up on the Action-Western (and if they hadn’t before “The Lone Ranger,” they certainly have now), but Korea hasn’t, as Kim Jee-Woon’s agreeably nutty “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” makes abundantly clear. Like Sergio Leone directing a mash-up of “Treasure Of The Sierra Madre” and “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” the film’s convoluted plot sees the title characters (Jung Woo-sung, Lee Byung-hun and Song Kang-ho) tussling over a treasure map in 1930s Manchuria. Beginning with three cracking sequences in a row —a train robbery, a siege and a heist— the film barely lets off the gas from there, until the epic closing horse and motorcycle sequence. With the tone-juggling magic that often characterizes Korean cinema and Kim’s killer skills behind a camera, it’s essential for anyone that loves Westerns, Asian action flicks or cinema in general.