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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.

10. “Haywire” (2011)

Chameleon Steven Soderbergh turns himself into an action director while MMA fighter Gina Carano becomes an ass-kicking spy. When the relatively inexpensive (a reported $25 million budget) film was released, it received a lukewarm reception from critics who applauded Soderbergh’s cool, clean action direction, but found it lacking charisma and depth. Audiences were even harsher, with a D+ Cinemascore and less than $20 million in domestic box office.

But these hesitations suggest viewers were searching for a different kind of movie. There is no message to find in this midst of the film’s convoluted plot double-crossed spies, nor a desire to lure an audience with a charismatic character anchoring it. Instead, this lo-fi response to the American action film is Soderbergh’s exercise in matching his stripped-down filmmaking approach with the tremendous physical talents of Carano. The director even goes as far as removing David Holmes’ score during the hand-to-hand combat. With the fight scenes set in the confines of a normal-size hotel room, a diner, a snowy backroad and an empty beach, it’s not about scale, but skill (both filmmaking and fighting). The result is a pulpy, brutal, palette-cleansing piece of genre filmmaking of the highest order. –CO

9. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)

SPIDER-MAN 2, Tobey Maguire, 2004, (c) Columbia

“Spider-Man 2”

Columbia

The Spider-Man swinging action was always tailor-made for Sam Raimi’s exuberant swooping camera that distinguished his early low-budget genre work. By his second time on the dance floor with Spidey, Raimi’s had perfected this approach, applying a speed and agility on par with the character — particularly during the film’s electrifying set pieces. Raimi’s grip on the emotional core of the Peter Parker character (Tobey Maguire) is equally firm. Rather than delving into exposition and backstory, Parker’s struggle with his dual lives is baked into this film’s central conflict. The film’s real secret weapon, and where so many superhero films go wrong, is with its formidable and multidimensional villain, Dr. Octopus, played with diabolical deliciousness by Alfred Molina. –CO

8. “The Dark Knight”

"The Dark Knight"

“The Dark Knight”

Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to “Batman Begins” established the director as a true visionary when it came to reinventing the caped crusader and his place in Gotham City. While delving deeper into Bruce Wayne’s psychology and a possible retirement from fighting crime, Nolan also raised the stakes of the action sequences in the second installment, with more elaborate stunts and larger set pieces, beginning with the opening bank robbery that pits robber against robber. Heath Ledger’s Joker also brought a new kind of frenetic evil to the franchise, adding a psychopathic twist to the large-scale destruction awaiting Batman at every turn. Though “The Dark Knight” clocks in at just over two and a half hours, the film zooms by thanks to its nearly dizzying pace, often feeling more like a high-octane thrill ride than a conventional motion picture. –GW

7. “Casino Royale”

Casino Royale

“Casino Royale”

Columbia Pictures

The first James Bond film starring Daniel Craig was based on Ian Fleming’s very first novel about 007 and featured a less experienced double agent. The mission is classically Bondian — defeating a weapons dealer in a high stakes game of poker at Casino Royale — but “Casino Royale” reinvented the character by giving Bond a dark side. A tortured soul with a dry sense of humor, Craig’s MI6 agent is a more raw, rough-around-the-edges Bond after four films starring Pierce Brosnan, and the action likewise felt grittier than ever. Bond blows up an African embassy in Madagascar and sinks an entire building into the waters of Venice, all without losing his sense of romantic adventure. The film in which Bond earns his license to kill was a refreshing reboot of the franchise that set the tone for a more brutal, but also more vulnerable, 007. -GW

6. “John Wick” (2014)

"John Wick"

“John Wick”

Summit Entertainment

Next time Hollywood complains about how highbrow critics don’t understand how badly middle America wants big-budget action films, it is every committed genre fan’s duty to point out the alternative possibilities on display in “John Wick.” Starring Keanu Reeves as a man avenging his dog, the film was a debut by two former stunt coordinators and second unit action directors. It wasn’t exactly catnip for reviewers and would have been easy to dismiss. Of course, that’s not what happened, as word of the film’s greatness flew around around the film world after its Fantastic Fest premiere and was championed by the same crowd booing mediocre franchise films.

“John Wick” is sophisticated in its simplicity – from a clear, empathetic hook, we follow Reeves through every punch, kick, and gunshot until he exacts revenge for the death of his dog. As a force of nature we can’t help but root for, “John Wick” crams action into every scene. Its directors, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, bring a sense of clarity and fluidity to each stunt and fight move. The world of the film is revealed to us as time goes on – an elite group of assassins who attempt to pick each other off, even as they converge in a single otherworldly hotel – which means that Stahelski and Leitch never run out of ways to surprise us.  –CO

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