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The 25 Best Action Movies of the 21st Century, From ‘The Dark Knight’ to ‘Kill Bill’

From martial arts movies to stories about bank robbers, the best action films of the 21st century breathe new life into the genre.

20. “Lucy”



Scarlett Johansson played Marvel’s superhero Black Widow twice before starring in Luc Besson’s action-sci-fi movie “Lucy,” but audiences had still never seen her truly kick ass in an action film. That changed with Johansson’s portrayal of a kidnapped student in Taiwan who gains psychokinetic abilities after high quantities of an illegal synthetic drug leaks into her bloodstream. Armed with enhanced mental capabilities like telepathy and physical advantages such as immunity from pain, Lucy takes on the drug lords who kidnapped her and embarks on a mind-bending mission to discover the truth about her new condition, neutralizing all her enemies using only her heightened cerebral capacity. Besson lets his imagination run wild when it comes to Lucy’s supernatural talents, dreaming up one of the most dynamic action roles in recent history. -GW

19. “Hero” (2002)




Director Zhang Yimou quite literally elevates the wuxia film, as martial art stars Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are virtually weightless in some of the most gorgeous fight scenes committed to film. Yimou’s direction is inspired and the action is clean, allowing for a pure appreciation of the artistry.  The film’s stunning natural backdrops, filmed with vivid colors by War Kong-wai’s regular DP Christopher Doyle, only add to that appreciation. While the film lacks some of the genre’s grit and immediacy, it is not simply light as a feather, but offers an understanding of these warriors’ motivations, along with their sacrifice, that leads to an emotional payoff. –CO

18. “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

The fourth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise was the live-action directorial debut for Brad Bird (Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”) and the action truly called for a director not used to working within the constraints of the physical world. Tom Cruise’s IMF agent Ethan Hunt cheats death in even more miraculous ways than the prior three films, dodging bullets underwater after his car crashes into a river and jumping from the world’s tallest building in Dubai. The film repeatedly defies the laws of, well, just about everything, and Bird’s playful ingenuity and boldly-conceived set pieces make “Ghost Protocol” entertaining at every turn. -GW

17. “Sleepless Night”

Sleepless Night

“Sleepless Night”

Tribeca Film

French writer-director Frederic Jardin shot this frenetic but contained movie almost entirely in one location, a large nightclub on the outskirts of Paris, and squeezed more action out of his cramped environment than anyone could have predicted. The story follows a seemingly corrupt cop named Vincent (Tomer Sisley) whose theft of a bag of cocaine leads to his son being kidnapped. The film hits the audience like a shot of adrenaline from its opening carjacking scene, and never slows down. All the action takes place within the span of 24-hours, as Vincent pinballs around the nightclub’s hallways, elevators, kitchen and dance floor, constantly being chased, dodging bullets and fighting for his son’s life. Shot by Clint Eastwood’s frequent director of photography Tom Stern, the film’s camerawork has a “24”-like sensibility that keeps the action at maximum wattage from start to finish (and it’s a whole lot better than the Jamie Foxx remake). —GW

16. “Fast Five”(2011)

Fast Five

“Fast Five”

Universal Pictures

While the box office returns for the “Fast” movies have been remarkably steady, few franchises have been so uneven in terms of quality, as the excesses of machismo too often devolves into a cacophony of nothingness. Yet the real reason the series is so uneven is because none can compete with the pure excellence of this film, which unlocks the full potential of the franchise. Justin Lin’s third “Fast” entry knowingly embraces the the series’ excesses, and by adding Dwayne Johnson and a bank heist plot there’s an emphasis on fun over seriousness. The stunt-driven set pieces are jaw-dropping; Lin gives them a fluidity that’s involving, rather than a rapid fire series of jarring cuts that’s numbing. –CO

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