From martial arts movies to stories about bank robbers, the best action films of the 21st century breathe new life into the genre.
When thinking about our list of the 50 Best Action Movies of the 21st century so far, it became clear that action movies have taken two paths in the past couple of decades. On the one hand, most of the franchise IP blockbusters — especially superhero films — released to massive box-office hauls could qualify as action movies in one way or another, even if they’re less kinetic than pixelated. However, the action movies that depend less on fetishized source material have yielded some of the most personal higher-budget work around. When done well, an action movie can tell great character-driven stories through movement: drama made dynamic.
And that’s what defines so many of the movies on IndieWire’s list: Some are self-consciously quirky character pieces, from Jason Statham needing to keep his heart rate up at adrenalized extremes in “Crank: High Voltage” to Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci having sex while blowing away baddies in “Shoot ‘Em Up” to the endless platitudes about “family” in the “Fast” saga. The movies below are some of the finest examples of pure cinema in this young century to date. It’s called “motion pictures” after all, and these movies move — and couldn’t exist in any other medium.
These are movies that have tried to show audiences something new. And yet art that quickens the pulse is sometimes dismissed. Not by us, though, and we hope, not by you.
Chris O’Falt, Kate Erbland, Ryan Lattanzio, and Graham Winfrey also contributed to this list.
50. “The Adventures of Tintin” (2011)
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Steven Spielberg spent 30 years trying to direct a Tintin film, and it was worth the wait. “The Adventures of Tintin” captures the spirit of Hergé’s beloved comic book series of the same name. The motion-capture animation manages to recreate the aesthetic of the books in a way that feels authentic and fresh, telling a three-dimensional story without losing any of the character’s two-dimensional charm. The optimistic adventure stories fit firmly within Spielberg’s wheelhouse, and an excellent script from Edgar Wright captures the comics’ uniquely Continental sense of humor. While the two planned sequels look less likely with each passing day, “The Adventures of Tintin” deserves to be remembered as one of the better comic book movies in recent memory. —CZ
49. “Shaun of the Dead” (2004)
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The first entry in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy gave the film world its first real look at the talented British hyphenate, but Wright’s aesthetic practically emerged from the womb fully formed. Everything you want from an Edgar Wright film — the killer soundtrack, the dense visual gags, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost — is already here. The film pays tribute to the Romero zombie flicks that Wright clearly adores, but the film’s real brilliance lies in the decision to focus on the love story between Simon Pegg’s Shaun and his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). While you could make a strong case for listing “Shaun of the Dead” as one of the century’s best comedies, best horror movies, and best rom-coms, a certain sequence featuring Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” secured its place in the pantheon of great action movies as well. —CZ
48. “The Old Guard” (2020)
Being a superhero isn’t an easy gig, an idea that has inspired recent cinematic explorations ranging from the sublime (“Logan”) to the ridiculous (Tobey Maguire going goth in “Spider-Man 3”). That same concept also drives Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Old Guard,” a Netflix-produced take on Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez’s 2017 comic book miniseries of the same name, but her version is as fresh as any comic book movie made since superhero mania swept the multiplex.
Even the film’s own star Charlize Theron previously interrogated the weirdly relatable theme that being a superhero can be a real slog in Peter Berg’s “Hancock.” Here, she’s the oldest member of the Old Guard, kick-ass mercenaries who happen to be a) very old and b) mostly immortal. And as the film opens, she finds herself again pondering the value of fighting the seemingly same battles on an unending timeline. Despite the familiarity, “The Old Guard” manages to be both very grounded and very entertaining, a marriage of expectations and twists like little else the genre has inspired even during its most fruitful times. —KE
47. “Crank: High Voltage” (2009)
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In 2006’s “Crank,” the co-writer-director team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor introduced a wonderfully trashy idea for an action movie: What if Jason Statham played a hitman who’d been injected with a drug requiring him to keep his adrenaline flowing, lest his heart stop completely? The frenetic and often wacky film became a surprise hit; so for the sequel, Neveldine and Taylor went even more gonzo, giving their ultra-violent protagonist Chev Chelios an artificial heart, which he has to recharge frequently via jumper cables, tasers, or whatever other live electric wire is handy. Like its predecessor, “Crank: High Voltage” is like a live-action, adults-only cartoon, full of broad humor and hilarious slapstick violence. It’s not just a wild ride; it’s one that’s been designed to over-stimulate. —NM
46. “F9” (2021)
Who would have thought the “Fast and the Furious” franchise would have nine installments? And that’s not even counting the spin-offs like “Hobbs and Shaw.” Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, and Jordana Brewster team up again as the car-racing, world-saving “family” behind the “Fast and Furious” saga. Yet this time, John Cena, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, and Helen Mirren are along for the ride. The 2021 film focuses on Dom Toretto (Diesel) coming to terms with his past after younger brother Jakob (Cena) returns and forces Dom out of retirement with an evil plan.
IndieWire’s David Ehrlich called “F9” the “most ridiculous movie yet” of the franchise, with the “biggest, wildest, gravity-defying-ist” stunts to date. “The world of ‘F&F’ has never felt more out of control than it does here,” Ehrlich wrote, “but for the first time in a long time it feels like it’s drifting in the right direction.” —SB
45. “Shoot ‘Em Up” (2007)
©New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection
Many of this century’s best action movies have been made by connoisseurs for connoisseurs, paying homage to the classics while also reassembling their best elements into something new. Writer-director Michael Davis has said his “Shoot ‘Em Up” was inspired by the flashy gunplay in John Woo’s 1990s Hong Kong crime movies — and in particular the famous sequence in “Hard Boiled” where a cop protects the babies in a maternity ward. In Davis’s rocket-paced riff on Woo, Clive Owen plays a roving stranger who saves a newborn from a cold-blooded killer (Paul Giamatti), and then, with the help of a sex worker (Monica Bellucci), tries to get to the bottom of a strange and far-reaching criminal and political conspiracy. The story plays out in cleverly staged action scenes where the hero keeps having to overcome some increasingly ridiculous disadvantages — from fighting off assailants while in the middle of having sex to trying to fire a gun with broken fingers. —NM
44. “Lucy” (2014)
Scarlett Johansson played Marvel’s superhero Black Widow twice before starring in Luc Besson’s action-sci-fi movie “Lucy,” but audiences had still never seen her truly kick ass in an action film. That changed with Johansson’s portrayal of a kidnapped student in Taiwan who gains psychokinetic abilities after high quantities of an illegal synthetic drug leaks into her bloodstream. Armed with enhanced mental capabilities like telepathy and physical advantages such as immunity from pain, Lucy takes on the drug lords who kidnapped her and embarks on a mind-bending mission to discover the truth about her new condition, neutralizing all her enemies using only her heightened cerebral capacity. Besson lets his imagination run wild when it comes to Lucy’s supernatural talents, dreaming up one of the most dynamic action roles in recent history. —GW
43. “13 Assassins” (2010)
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Throughout the prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike’s career, he has bounced between twisted horror movies, sick comedies, weirdo martial arts pictures, and surreal experiments. So for Miike, the slam-bang samurai saga “13 Assassins” is surprisingly mainstream — or at least as “mainstream” as a movie that contains a nearly hour-long battle sequence can be. Written by Daisuke Tengan (from a Shōichirō Ikemiya story, adapted from director Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name), “13 Assassins” is a rousing crowd-pleaser, following a group of warriors and hunters who unite to fend off hundreds of guards while on a mission to trap and kill a vicious nobleman. Miike and his team construct their story masterfully, carefully setting up the elaborate attacks and defenses that their hired swordsmen execute, one after another, in the film’s lengthy and pulse-pounding climax. —NM
42. “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior” (2003)
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
41. “Inception” (2010)
Christopher Nolan’s 2010 sci-fi thriller is probably most memorable for its time-twisting, gravity-bending special effects. But it’s also impossible to forget the action sequences that always seem to start off with characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, and Elliot Page syncing up via IV to an altered dream state. Being unconscious as a van plummets into water? That’s one way to get audiences’ hearts pounding.
“Inception” hinges on the use of experimental dream-sharing technology used to extract information from targets. Professional thief Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) infiltrates victims’ minds to con secrets out of them, like the code to a safe. Cobb’s partner Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) is tasked with researching the missions, as Eames (Hardy) acts as an enforcer. Yet things start to take a turn for the worse after Cobb continues to be haunted by the death of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, and Dileep Rao also star in the action film that ruminates on guilt, loss, and stolen dreams. “Inception” was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film won four: Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects. —SB