5. “Exiled” (2006)
He’s never had the Western breakthrough that someone like John Woo got, but anyone who knows anything about the genre knows that Johnnie To is one of the best and most reliable names in the action genre, and he could have easily taken up four or five slots on this list, at least. In the end, just edging out “Election” and the more recent “Drug War,” we went for the terrific “Exiled.” Set in the fascinating location of Macau, it sees four hitmen come to the city to kill a retired gangster, kicking off a gloriously complex plot of twists and turns that owes as much to the spaghetti Western as to classic Hong Kong action cinema. From the stunning opening sequence to the later shootouts, among the finest examples seen since Woo was last on form, this is To in tip-top form, and with a soulfulness that isn’t always in his work too. 4. “The Raid” (2011)
Similar to some other entries here, the chief competition for Gareth Evans‘ “The Raid”‘s slot was its own sequel. But as in those other cases, we’ve leaned towards the original, not just out of anti-sequel bias, but out of recognition that the first film is the one that allows the next to exist. So, without the breakout success of “The Raid”‘s pared-back minimal plot, wall-to-wall action, in which an Indonesian SWAT team led by Iko Uwais must work its way through a Jakarta slum-block’s worth of enemies (including the awesome Mad Dog, played by Yayan Ruhian), we’d never have got the wilder, more sprawling, no less impressive “The Raid 2.” Introducing the world to Pencak Silat, a martial art that involves every part of the body and uses weaponry too, it’s also a gauntlet thrown down in favor of practical action as opposed to whatever the latest Hollywood CG-fest. Not bad for a $1m-budget Indonesian-language movie.3. “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” (2000)
It’s always been tricky to predict Ang Lee’s next move, but few thought that he would follow up acclaimed ’70s indie drama “The Ice Storm” and unloved Civil War epic “Ride With The Devil” with… a martial arts movie. But “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” wasn’t ready to be confined to simple genre boundaries: it picked up seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and to this day stands (by some distance) as the biggest foreign-language film ever in the U.S. Teaming megastars Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh (neither of whom spoke Mandarin), the film’s pairing of swooning period romance and stunning wuxia action (from the great choreographer Yuen Woo-ping) wasn’t new, but has rarely been better melded or refined than it is here, and the fight scenes and bamboo-forest-chases still rank among all-time action movie highlights.2. “Kill Bill” (2003/2004)
After a six-year absence, Quentin Tarantino returned to refute accusations that he was all mouth and no trousers with his epic, formally inventive two-part roaring rampage of revenge that marked a new phase in the helmer’s career. Tarantino’s muse, Uma Thurman, plays The Bride, an ex-hitwoman who goes on an international quest to wipe out her former colleagues (Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah) and her boss/ex-lover, the titular Bill (David Carradine). Perhaps for the first time, in part because he had a bigger budget, Tarantino was able to indulge all his peccadilloes, from the Shaw Brothers and anime to lingering close-ups of feet, and the result is like the delirious fantasy by the smartest, funniest, most knowledgeable fourteen-year-old boy you’ve ever met. In a good way. And though he’d had little experience with action before, the set pieces sing, particularly the instantly legendary House Of Blue Leaves battle.1. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
We would ordinarily be opposed to a film this recent topping a list like this; ordinarily, we like to give a movie a few years to age before anointing it a classic to this degree. But there can’t be that many people with a brain, a heart, and an adrenal gland who came out of “Mad Max: Fury Road” back in May who don’t consider it among the finest action movies ever made. George Miller (aged 71, for the record) took the template of his “The Road Warrior” and went completely mental with it, with a densely-realized world, a gloriously progressive agenda, and an understanding of framing, cutting, and blocking that puts directors half his age to shame. Extraordinarily designed, excellently performed, terribly subversive, and sometimes just staggeringly weird (remember when it turns into a Bergman movie in the middle for the blue-tinged section with the tree?), the only problem is that we’ve got 85 years of the 21st century left and we’re not sure anyone can top it.
Honorable Mentions: So what did we leave out? Well, a ton. We tried to avoid anything already appearing on one of these Best Of The Century lists, which meant things like “Edge Of Tomorrow,” “District 9,” “Star Trek,” “Inception,” “Minority Report,” “Attack The Block,” “Hot Fuzz,” “Gravity,” “Battle Royale,” and “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.” We also tried to avoid superhero movies, because we may do a separate piece for those at some point, and also because it’s not like they need the help. We also excluded war movies (“Black Hawk Down,” “The Hurt Locker”) and thrillers (“Collateral”), which would only muddy the waters further, and stuck to theatrical releases, so missing excellent DTV movies like “Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning.”
Even then there’s plenty we couldn’t fit in. Briefly (and excluding sequels to other films mentioned above), there was also “Ip Man,” “Avatar,” “The Rundown,” “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” “The World’s End,” “Hanna,” “The Last Stand,” “Brotherhood Of The Wolf,” “Kung Fu Hustle,” “Zatoichi,” “Torque,” “Red Cliff,” “300,” “Grindhouse,” “Chocolate,” “Pineapple Express,” “District 13,” “Let The Bullets Fly,” “Welcome To The Punch,” “Fulltime Killer,” “A Bittersweet Life,” “The Man From Nowhere,” “The Nest,” “Dredd,” “Point Blank,” “Fearless,” “Unleashed,” “Taken,” “Sherlock Holmes,” and “The Matrix Reloaded.” And sorry, vulgar auteur crowd, no Paul W.S. Anderson for us. Anything else you think deserved a mention? Let us know below.