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The 50 Best Action Movies of the 21st Century

From martial arts movies to stories about bank robbers, the best action films of the 21st century breathe new life into the genre.

The 50 Best Action Movies of the 21st Century

40. “Black Panther” (2018)

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“Black Panther”

©Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett / Everett Collection

The Marvel Cinematic Universe films generally range from “not bad” to “quite good,” but “Black Panther” is one of the few in the series likely to be remembered as genuinely groundbreaking. Besides being the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars — and besides featuring one of the final performances of the great Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer two years after the film’s debut — “Black Panther” is the rare blockbuster that leans into the thorny questions raised by its story. The plot sees T’Challa (Boseman), the super-powered king of the sheltered African nation of Wakanda, reckoning with the revolutionary outsider Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who thinks the country’s copious resources should be widely shared. Directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, “Black Panther” features an eclectic cast of characters, elaborate art direction, and memorable action sequences, all put in service to what turns out to be an impassioned debate over the benefits and drawbacks of isolationism. —NM

39. “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

38. “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

37. “Wonder Woman” (2017)

WONDER WOMAN, Gal Gadot, 2017. ph: Clay Enos. ©Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

“Wonder Woman”

©Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection

The DC cinematic universe expanded for Greek goddess Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), better known as Wonder Woman, in Patty Jenkins’ critically-acclaimed 2017 film. Deemed DC’s “best superhero movie yet” at the time by IndieWire’s Kate Erbland, Wonder Woman’s origin story is part epic romance, between Diana and pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and part coming of age story as Diana (Gadot) finds her purpose fighting against an evil German scientist (Elena Anaya) and general (Danny Huston) during WWI. Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen star as Diana’s fellow immortal Amazons, while Lucy Davis, David Thewlis, and Said Taghmaoui round out the cast. The climax of the film makes for the ultimate showdown between good and evil, a goddess of protection and the return of Ares, god of war. It doesn’t get any more action-packed than that. —SB

36. “Gallants” (2010)

“Gallants”

Though it’s set in the 21st century, the action-comedy “Gallants” is an intentional throwback to kung fu cinema’s past golden ages, recalling Hong Kong’s biggest international hits of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Veteran martial arts movie stars Bruce Leung Siu-lung and Chen Kuan-tai play Tiger and Dragon, the aging proprietors of a teahouse and dojo, who have been attending to their sickly Master Law (Teddy Robin) while dealing with the incessant aggression of a local gang. When a dorky real estate arbiter named Cheung (Wong You-nam) comes to town to help broker peace, he finds he has a lot in common with these oldsters and soon becomes their pupil, learning their ancient secrets. “Gallants” is itself like Cheung, repurposing the lessons learned from old Shaw Brothers pictures: about how to entertain an audience with the story of a nebbish who becomes a hero. —NM

35. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, from left: Miles Morales (voice: Shameik Moore), Peter Parker (voice: Jake Johnson), Spider-Gwen (voice: Hailee Steinfeld), 2018. © Columbia Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

©Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Co / Everett Collection

Phil Lord and Chris Miller were doing Spider-Man multiverse stories long before it was cool. When “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was first announced, no one thought the world needed another Spider-Man, and it was easy to dismiss Sony’s animated movie as an unnecessary cash grab. But such an assumption could not have been further from the truth.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” may be the most creative thing that anyone has done with the iconic Marvel property, utilizing a stunning animation style and some exceptional voice acting (Nicolas Cage as Spider-Man Noir is a highlight) to tell a story of the many iterations of Spider-Man that exist in the multiverse. The film beat out Pixar and Wes Anderson for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and if early reports are any indication, the upcoming two-part sequel should be even crazier. —CZ

34. “Snowpiercer” (Bong Joon Ho, 2013)

SNOWPIERCER, SONG Kang-ho (standing, left), KO Ah-sung (woman, center of frame), Chris Evans (right), 2013. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Snowpiercer”

©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Snowpiercer” was sliced and diced by a certain He Who Won’t Be Acknowledged on its way to an eventual stateside release in the spring of 2014 by Radius-TWC, which all but dumped this brilliant science fiction film directed by Bong Joon Ho. You are pummeled by intense and in-your-face action as the passengers on a globe-spanning train — ranging from the dregs of society to its most elite — either partake in or try to fend off a mutiny. The world that Bong (six years before he became an international celebrity with “Parasite”) builds is top-to-bottom beautiful, and the ensemble of uprisers led by Chris Evans and “Parasite” MVP Song Kang-ho takes on some magnificently choreographed stunts. But it’s the folks at the upper echelons of the train, like a deranged bucktoothed Tilda Swinton and a sedate but nefarious Ed Harris, that end up stealing the show. —RL

33. “Widows” (2018)

WIDOWS, from left: Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, 2018. TM & copyright © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. /Courtesy Everett Collection

“Widows”

20th Century Fox Licensing/Merchandising / Everett Collection

“Widows” has all the winning elements in play for a great and even subversive action film: a stacked cast led by Viola Davis, a killer script co-written by “Gone Girl” scribe Gillian Flynn, and ace direction (and co-writing) from Oscar winner Steve McQueen. The extraordinary ensemble of this gritty caper includes Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, and Liam Neeson, all hurtling toward redemption or comeuppance. The plot follows four Chicago women who attempt to take steal $5 million from a local politician to pay back a crime boss from whom $2 million was stolen by their now-dead or missing husbands during a busted getaway, which makes for an electrifying opening sequence and sets a tone of fervor the movie sustains throughout its running time. It’s also hard to forget the incredibly graphic and all-consuming kiss, shared by Davis and Neeson, that opens the film, announcing that McQueen intends to startle you from the opening shot. —RL

32. “Hanna” (2011)

HANNA, Saoirse Ronan (right), 2011. ©Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collection

“Hanna”

©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

Before it became a TV series, “Hanna” was an arty action movie, directed by the restless cinematic stylist Joe Wright (best-known for offbeat prestige dramas like “Atonement” and “Cyrano”). Saoirse Ronan plays the title character: a teenager who has been isolated in the wilderness since childhood and trained by an ex-CIA agent named Erik (Eric Bana) to be an assassin. Written by Seth Lochhead and David Farr, “Hanna” unfolds as a kind of mystery, gradually revealing Hanna’s origins and Erik’s past as they work together to take down a shadowy government organization. But the story is really just a hook to pull Wright and company through a succession of nifty-looking and inspiring set-pieces, as their underdog heroes kick ass and befuddle the powerful. —NM

31. “Dawn of the Dead” (2004)

DAWN OF THE DEAD, Jake Weber, Sarah Polley, Mekhi Phifer, Inna Korobkina, 2004, (c) Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

“Dawn of the Dead”

©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

George Romero’s original 1978 version of “Dawn of the Dead” is a peerless horror masterpiece: a complex and visionary cross between a zombie-ridden gore-fest and a searing social commentary. But director Zack Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn’s 2004 remake is good too, in its own way. Snyder, Gunn, and their ace cast take Romero’s basic premise — wherein a handful of folks representing a cross-section of American society try to ride out the apocalypse in a shopping mall — and convert it into something more akin to an edge-of-the-seat thriller than to Romero’s eerie, slowly intensifying drama. From the opening sequence of a plucky nurse (played by the stupendous Sarah Polley) waking up to a nightmare-in-progress and fleeing for her life, this “Dawn of the Dead” is all about raw survival, as a colorful assortment of strangers endures one narrow scrape after another, while staving off their inevitable doom for as long as possible. —NM

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