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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)



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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