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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

30. “Birds of Prey” (2020)

BIRDS OF PREY, from left: Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, 2020. ph: Claudette Barius / © Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection

“Birds of Prey”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Finally, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) lands her own — and let’s be real, far superior — DC spin-off. Harley is so much more than the Joker’s girlfriend, and while 2020 breakout film “Birds of Prey” references her twisted ex (Jared Leto), it’s a feminist anthem all the way. Directed by Cathy Yan, “Birds of Prey” teams up Harley with lounge singer superhero Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), mercenary Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and police officer Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) to take down Gotham criminals led by club owner Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor).

Yes, it’s about avenging your ex, and part of your pride. But “Birds of Prey” is one of the most stylish comic book films to date, with Harley’s costumes exquisitely out-of-this-world meets derelict chic as Robbie swings a baseball bat embellished with nails as a most violent accessory. As IndieWire’s Kate Erbland wrote, “It’s a girl-powered, earnestly feminist superhero movie with big, implausible action sequences and outsized personalities” that makes the film “fantabulous in its own way.” —SB

29. “Ip Man” (2008)

IP MAN, (aka YIP MAN), 2008. ©Well Go/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Ip Man”

Well Go/Courtesy Everett Collection

The real-life martial artist and Wing Chun master Ip Man was famous for multiple reasons — including teaching a teenaged Bruce Lee how to fight. Director Wilson Yip’s biopic “Ip Man” is the first in a series of films about the man, as well as part of a wave of movies about him that have been released in the past 15 years. It focuses primarily on the 1930s and ’40s, when the humble hero (played by Donnie Yen) fought to maintain the dignity of his family and neighbors during the Japanese occupation of their city. Though rooted in history, “Ip Man” is very much a kung fu picture, building imaginative fight scenes out of real anecdotes. It’s the story of a simple and decent fellow who could humiliate his opponents with just his well-honed body, his wits, and whatever hard-hitting objects might be within reach. —NM

28. “Hero” (2002)

Hero

“Hero”

Miramax

Director Zhang Yimou quite literally elevates the wuxia film, as martial art stars Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are virtually weightless in some of the most gorgeous fight scenes committed to film. Yimou’s direction is inspired and the action is clean, allowing for a pure appreciation of the artistry.  The film’s stunning natural backdrops, filmed with vivid colors by War Kong-wai’s regular DP Christopher Doyle, only add to that appreciation. While the film lacks some of the genre’s grit and immediacy, it is not simply light as a feather, but offers an understanding of these warriors’ motivations, along with their sacrifice, that leads to an emotional payoff. CO

27. “Training Day” (2001)

TRAINING DAY, Denzel Washington, Snoop Dog, 2001, © Warner Bros. / Courtesy: Everett Collection

“Training Day”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Two decades after its initial release, “Training Day” still holds up as one of the most brutal police stories ever told on film. Antoine Fuqua’s story of an ambitious cop’s introduction to the dark underside of the LAPD during his one-day evaluation is a taut, satisfying thriller with an excellent script by David Ayer. But the film has lived on in our memories for one reason: Denzel Washington. The leading man went against type for his portrayal of an incredibly corrupt narcotics cop, winning his second Oscar for the transformative performance. Twenty years later, Detective Alonzo Harris remains the gold standard for villainous cop characters. —CZ

26. “Vengeance” (2009)

"Vengeance"

“Vengeance”

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

25. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022)

Everything Everywhere All at Once

“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

YouTube/screenshot

Daniels, the masterminds behind “Swiss Army Man,” aren’t just uniquely prepared to meet the present moment, they’ve been waiting for it to catch up with them for a long time. It’s a machine of a movie powered by the greatest performance that Michelle Yeoh has ever given, pumped full of the zaniest martial arts battles that Stephen Chow has never shot, and soaked through with the kind of “anything goes” spirit that’s only supposed to be on TV these days.

It’s a movie… about a flustered Chinese-American woman trying to finish her taxes. Evelyn Wang (Yeoh) is being audited — first by the IRS, and then by the other great evils of our multiverse. She and her stubbornly guileless husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, a sublime revelation in one of his first major roles since the days of Short Round) immigrated to California in pursuit of happiness after Evelyn’s overbearing father, Gong Gong (James Hong, 93 years old and yet still in his prime) forbid the marriage, but their dreams of a brighter future were soon quashed by the realities of running a small business and raising a child of their own. Evelyn soon finds herself pin-balling between “alternate life paths” in much the same way as Neo was slingshotted between the real world and a simulation. Daniels spin the tedium of laundry and taxes into an apocalyptic war against the spirit of nihilism itself. —David Ehrlich

24. “Casino Royale” (2006)

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

23. “Taken” (2008)

TAKEN, Liam Neeson, 2008. TM and ©copyright Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights reserved./Courtesy Everett Collection

“Taken”

©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Few movies have been quoted (and parodied) as often as “Taken.” By this point, we all know that lead star Liam Neeson has a “very particular set of skills” that can rescue his daughter (Maggie Grace) from a European vacation gone awry. Neeson stars as divorced former special agent Bryan Mills who polishes off his aforementioned skills and resurrects his integrity to save his family from sex traffickers. The 2008 film spurned a trilogy, but not without a year-long delay release stateside. The EuropaCorp French-English film, directed by Pierre Morel, was distributed by 20th Century Fox in January 2009 after releasing in France in February 2008.

“Taken” resurrected Neeson’s career as a bona fide action star, but Neeson revealed to GQ in 2014 that he believed “Taken” would just have a direct-to-video release. “I really thought it would be kind of a little side road from my so-called career,” Neeson said in a cover story. “Really thought it would go straight to video. But it just got great word of mouth. I was stunned.” —SB

22. “Extraction” (2020)

EXTRACTION, from left: David Harbour, Chris Hemsworth, director Sam Hargrave, on-set, 2020. ph: Jasin Boland / © Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Extraction”

©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Netflix has yet to make a big-budget film that captures the zeitgeist the way its best TV shows have, but “Extraction” might be its best attempt at a blockbuster so far. Sam Hargrave’s film, scripted by the Russo Brothers, stars Chris Hemsworth as a mercenary who goes to work for a dangerous crime lord, tasked with extracting his kidnapped son from danger. The idea of a protagonist doing a good deed for a bad man was a refreshing twist on stale tropes, and the result is a zippy thriller that is a cut above blander Netflix blockbusters like “Red Notice.” —CZ

21. “Nobody” (2021)

Bob Odenkirk as Hutch Mansell in "Nobody," directed by Ilya Naishuller.

“Nobody”

Allen Fraser/Unive

“Bob Odenkirk as an action star” may not have been on anyone’s bingo cards a few years ago, but in hindsight, is it any less likely than “Bob Odenkirk as a prestige TV drama star”? Odenkirk’s ability to reinvent himself is unparalleled in Hollywood, and “Nobody” is an excellent reminder that he has plenty of talents that we haven’t seen yet. Ilya Naishuller’s revenge thriller about a family man who breaks bad and goes toe-to-toe with a Russian crime syndicate could have been destined for Sunday afternoon TV obscurity, but the hard-R film never shies away from its brutal side, and Odenkirk’s performance makes it deserving of multiple rewatches. Plus, that bus scene! —CZ

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