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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.

Many films have great action, but that doesn’t necessarily make them action movies. In putting together this list, we leaned toward a more exclusive model that didn’t include films with their feet firmly planted in the drama or crime-thriller genres, as the idea of comparing “Zero Dark Thirty” to “Fast and the Furious” seemed like a futile exercise. Needless to say, there are a few movies that professed action movie fans may consider to be worthy of consideration for any survey of the best action movies, but they didn’t make the cut for our overview of the finest examples since 2000.

The following films have been excluded from this list not because of quality, but rather a desire to compare apples to apples: “Collateral,” “Gravity,” “The Revenant,” “Old Boy (2003),” and “Sicario.” Additionally, the following action films were disqualified purely based on the fact they appeared on our sci-fi list and we didn’t want to double dip: “Minority Report,” “Attack the Block,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Inception,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” and “The Host.”

Finally, the rousing success of “Wonder Woman” highlights both the need for more female directors and super heroes, something this list sadly reflects. Nevertheless, action films have done a much better job than most genres at presenting kick-ass female protagonists, and this list certainly speaks to that inclusiveness, starting with three of the top five films. We invite readers to share their own favorites in the comments.

25. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Walt Disney Studios

After Disney bought the Star Wars franchise for $4 billion, J.J. Abrams had the unenviable task of rebooting the franchise from where it left off in 1987 with “Return of the Jedi” and picking up the pieces from George Lucas, who destroyed his creation with the three prequels. It was a task with so many contradictory boxes to check that grinding out a single would have been a remarkable victory, but instead, Abrams smacked a double off the wall.

Smartly using the recognizable story beats of the original, Abrams introduced a great new generation of characters — with the brilliant outside-the-box casting of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaacs and Adam Driver — while doing service to the story arcs of Luke, Han and Leia. Shooting on film and returning the production to that dusty look, the film feels grounded in its 1977 origins.  Yet the biggest thing Abrams brought to the table was a group of great action scenes. He incorporates the large-scale spectacles required of a modern franchise film, but does so in a way that moves his multifaceted movie forward. As new elements to our familiar Star Wars world are being introduced, action clarifies and builds our emotional connection and understanding of the new characters, rather than leaving the viewer wondering who’s firing at who, or why it matters. “The Force Awakens” leaves no doubt about that. –CO

24. “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior”

Ong-Bak The Thai Warrior

“Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior”

Magnolia Pictures

When Magnolia Pictures acquired Thai filmmaker Prachya Pinkaew’s “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior” in 2004, president Eamonn Bowles remarked that he had “seen the future of the action film, and his name is Tony Jaa.” Channeling the fighting style and physicality of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Jaa introduced audiences to some of the most jaw-dropping martial arts ever seen on film with “Ong-Bak,” the title of which refers to a Buddha statue. When thieves steal the head from the sacred figure, a young martial artist (Jaa) travels from his home village to Bangkok to retrieve it, taking on an entire network of criminals along the way. The film spawned two sequels and helped launch Jaa’s career, leading to roles in a dozen action films, including “Furious 7” and “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.” -GW

23. “Logan” (2017)

Hugh Jackman stars as Logan


Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein

James Mangold’s “X-Men” entry is built around a novel concept: A comic book movie made for adults. In a dystopian 2029, life has gotten the best of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who has become a drunken limo driver filled with self-loathing. What’s remarkable about the film is how Mangold has imbued each action set piece with his emotionally rich character study. When provoked into violence, Wolverine’s knives pierce human flesh in a way that is both a cathartic outlet for his rage and a painful reminder of the blood he’ll never wash from his hands. Logan’s desire to slip off the face of the earth is complicated by his promise to deliver a 11-year-old mutant (Dafne Keen) to safety.  Following the conventions of a western, Mangold uses the landscape and rusted dystopian setting to tell the story of the hero’s elegiac last journey – exposing him to the family life he’s been denied and restoring a sliver of hope – which culminates in a powerful finale that is the perfect payoff for Jackman’s 17-year run as the character. –CO

22. “The Incredibles” (2004)

The Incredibles

“The Incredibles”

Buena Vista Pictures

For as cutting edge and game-changing as Pixar has been in ushering in the era of computer generated animation, their success has always been grounded in a very old-school approach to story and filmmaking. The struggles of an ordinary family are beautifully realized in the tale of super heroes brought out of retirement.  Brad Bird’s script and direction are sleek and fun, with a perfect comedic light touch, yet each twist and turn reveals everyday complications of what it means to be a parent, spouse and sibling. At a time when many bemoan action films’ over-reliance on CGI, this film – which fully embraces the fun of over-the-top cartoonish motion – demonstrates computers can absolutely be used to make a thrilling action scene when they are at the service of a director telling a story, not a studio creating spectacle. –CO

21. “Battle Royale” (2000)

Battle Royale

“Battle Royale”

Anchor Bay Films

Before “The Hunger Games,” there was this Japanese story of a class of high school students chosen by the government to take part in an annual game where they must fight each other to the death until there is one survivor. The first 30-40 minutes of the students going from silly kids on a field trip to becoming killers feels like delirium, as the film refuses to pull back and add a larger context. The other two huge differences between “Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale”: the brutal, frenetic portrayal of youthful violence and a sense of self-awareness, that when mixed together create a unique, thin layer of black humor. There is zero attempt by director Kinji Fukasaku to play it safe, moralize, or create a clear metaphor with a larger message. Whether you take “Battle Royale” as a bleak comment on society or a hard punk ode to being a teenager, this film is made to both appall and excite. It’s exactly the type of film Quentin Tarantino would champion, which he did in 2012, calling it his favorite film of the last 20 years, in addition to casting the young actress Chiaki Kuriyama in “Kill Bill” (remember Lucy Lui’s schoolgirl bodyguard). –CO

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