You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

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

This Article is related to: Film and tagged


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.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *