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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.

15. “Baby Driver” (2017)

Baby Driver

“Baby Driver”

TriStar Pictures

“Baby Driver” is scheduled to come out a week after this list’s completion, and normally we like to let a movie marinate for a while before giving it a distinction as notable as best of the century. But to exclude it would have been a far worse calculation, as Edgar Wright’s musical ride marks a significant action step up for the comedy-genre director. (Plus, if we didn’t include it, Wright’s “Hot Fuzz” would’ve made the cut instead.)

Wright’s love for creating scenes set to foot-stomping tunes has always been satisfying, but with this story of a young getaway driver (Ansel Elgort), he takes it to a whole other level. The car chase scenes are conceived, written, visually designed, choreographed, shot and edited to perfectly chosen tracks. The musical car chases were shot practically, as Wright mirrors the mathematical precision of Walter Hill’s “Driver,” so that the viewer completely understands how each of Baby’s virtuoso driving moves causes crashes, spin-outs and the destruction of anyone trying to catch him. The result is edge-of-your-seat action from a director whose films are a celebration of all the different ways movies can be cool and fun. In 2017, “Baby Driver” is an endangered species that deserves protecting – a director-driven original action film, that (correctly) assumes summer audiences are more interested in thrills than a VFX arms race where franchises try to out-spectacle last year’s model. –CO

14. “Vengeance” (2009)

"Vengeance"

“Vengeance”

Hong Kong producer and director Johnnie To has made over 50 films this century, having directed 36 himself since his career started in 1980. These aren’t quicky B-films either, but slickly-made genre efforts with a distinct and original voice. The 62-year-old director’s films have always been successful at home, but in recent years he’s started to be get some love on the international film festival scene and received American distribution for a handful of films, which includes his first English-language movie – the 2009 action thriller “Vengeance,” which premiered in competition at Cannes. To is a master of action and composition, and his sense of movement and staging has a Spielberg-like exactness and efficiency. He’s able to pack so much into his films not because of pure speed, but due to an economy of language and flair for story. Written by frequent collaborator Way Ka-Fai, “Vengeance” is a story of a French chef (Johnny Hallyday) who returns to his assassin past to avenge his daughter against a gang of Triads. The film has a dark psychological undercurrent, but never loses touch with its playful cinematic qualities. –CO

13. “The Grandmaster” (2013)

"The Grandmaster"

“The Grandmaster”

Annapurna Pictures

Style meets style: the kung fu mastery of Ip Man (best remembered for training Bruce Lee) paired with the visual poetry of Wong Kong-wai. The Yuen Wo Ping-choreographed fight scenes are perfection. Each has its own distinct pace and tempo, with Wong being more concerned with the physical ballet and atmosphere than actual hand-to-hand combat. The narrative is an episodic historical epic stuffed into the mold of a biopic, which wouldn’t seem like a perfect structure for a director who creates meaning by juxtaposing abstractions. Yet, rather than supplying a false, boiled-down version of the connection between man and country, Wong gives his audience glimpses of a complex man and creates rich atmospherics to capture his changing backdrop. –CO

12. “The Bourne Ultimatum”

The Bourne Ultimatum

“The Bourne Ultimatum”

Universal Pictures

The third installment of the Bourne franchise and second directed by Paul Greengrass, “The Bourne Ultimatum” picks up right where “The Bourne Supremacy” left off, with Matt Damon’s former CIA assassin searching for new clues about his past, before he joined Operation Treadstone. Following Bourne with a camera that seemingly never stops moving, Greengrass pulls off some of Hollywood’s most chaotic and daring action scenes, including one set in the middle of London’s Waterloo Station, disorienting the viewer without losing our attention for a second. Unlike the diverting violence of many big-budget action films, with “The Bourne Ultimatum,” you feel the impact of every punch, gunshot and car crash. The heart-pounding chases and fight scenes are more daring and audacious than the previous two movies, and the film swept the Oscars in its technical categories, winning for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing, for good reason. –GW

11. “Kung Fu Hustle”

Kung Fu Hustle

“Kung Fu Hustle”

Sony Pictures Classics

Writer-director Stephen Chow’s 2004 martial arts film combined the stunning choreography of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with cartoonish playfulness to create a period gangster film that felt like one of the freshest takes on the action genre in years. Set in Shanghai, China in the 1940s, the film follows a petty thief (Chow) who rallies a group of poor resident of a local slum to defeat the ruthless Axe gang. Chow cast several retired actors famous from 1970s Chinese cinema for the film, which combined traditional Chinese music with gorgeous special effects to produce thrilling and elaborate fight scenes that breathed new life into kung fu cinema. –GW

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Comments

Jodorowsky

I agree with a lot of this list and can get over most of what I don’t agree with but I have a request for all the people that make reviews and lists here at Indiewire. Please, for the love of God. Stop. Praising. Lucy. I love Luc Besson but it’s a genuinely bad movie.

    Kevin

    I was originally coming here to complain about Lucy being anywhere near a list that says “Best”. Then I saw Miami Vice at #3 and decided not to bother, this list is clearly worthless.

    And for all the praise that Indiewire has showered on Wonder Woman, it’s only an honorable mention?! And they called it Wonder Women??

Daniel

I think any “best” list can easily be debated.

John Thompson

No Rogue One? The final act was phenomenal – easily the best space-action battle in history.

Mark

Hahahahahahahahahahahaha. Ahhhh hahahahahahahahahaha.

Ko

It’s Wong KAR-wai not Wong KONG-Wai

Sheldon

How in the world do you rank Vengeance over Exiled when talking Johnnie To films? How is Lucy even on this list? And Miami Vice? How is John Wick ranked higher than The Dark Knight, or Hero? Lists are subjective, for sure. But that brings in taste. And some of the rankings on these films just show poor taste. Of course, this is just my opinion.

c37

Hanna

Abhinav

you need to check out Gangs of Wasseypur 1&2, made in the small and insignificant film industry of India part of Asia, easily puts a lot of the ‘best’ here to shame.

A.

I’m glad that a movie like Miami Vice is appreciated in this list, for I find it to be a very underrated piece of work, but the problem is that it’s ranked on top rather than TDK or Kill Bill. Also I have the same feeling for John Wick, it’s brilliant achievement on the genre of action but there are some better choices on the list for that spot. Haywire suits fine in here, even though many movie fans disagree with this hypothesis. Lucy is way out of it’s place, was surprised to find it in here. IMO you should’ve consider Warrior, Iron Man or Jackson’s King Kong rather than Lucy.
Cheers !

Nate

Me: They better have the Raid on here…where’s the Raid….this is bullshit…Ghost Protocal? Are you serious, where is the Raid….unbelievable, they should be asham– Oh, there it is. Raid #4. Great list….lol.

John

“Lucy” was decent, but “Hanna” was better…Also, the movie “Faster” with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was an intense thrill ride. Like the british hit man said about the The Rock’s character, this movie was “Pure. No Hesitation”. It’s got the same “no-frills” ethos of “John Wick” (a movie I love), but it’s so much more gritty and raw.

“Bourne Identity” and “Bourne Supremacy” are far better than “Bourne Ultimatum”

I most unhappy with the inclusion of “The Force Awakens” on this list (completely “note for note” derivative of “A New Hope”). Here are recent movies that were original (in approach, if not subject matter) and much more entertaining:

“Taken”
“Hancock”
“Man of Steel”
“Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows”
“Kingsman: The Secret Service”
“Big Hero 6”

    John

    One more thing: I loved “Casino Royale”, but “Skyfall” was–in my estimation-the better film. Tremendous action with the emotional weight of Bond dealing with his feelings for “M” and the idea that he might be getting too old to do this anymore. Also, the film really dealt with how warfare has changed–an army of one creative hacker can do more damage than a force of a hundred armed men.

David

Hero got a low placement compared to Crouching Tiger. If you score the pure action value, I can understand why Hero didn’t reach higher. But then why the second spot to Crouching Tiger? A bit inconsistent, but overall a very nice list.

Reg

Needs more “Train to Busan”

Tim

Minority Report?

Chase Tremaine

Interesting list. I would’ve quickly replaced Casino Royale and John Wick, though, with Skyfall and John Wick 2. Skyfall is, by current estimates, my favorite action film of all time.

Ojete

No Undisputed 2? Fuck this.

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