The 20 Best Action Movies of The 21st Century So Far
14. SPL: Kill Zone (Wilson Yip, 2005)
Before director Wilson Yip and action star Donnie Yen wowed audiences with their “Ip Man” films, their 2005 crime film featured some of the most violent, visceral action sequences for a standard Hong-Kong thriller. The action sequences were choreographed by Yen and Hung (uncredited), and they’re pretty spectacular.
Despite their age, both men demonstrate speed and technique that felt fresh at the time. Throwing some MMA into the into the classical chopsocky style not only keeps things interesting, but adds a bit of credibility to the moves performed by both men.
The person I do wish to highlight in this film is actor Wu Jing. With a background quite similar to Jet Li, Wu Jing is the definite highlight of the film, playing the top enforcer for Hung’s villain. His fight with Yen was reportedly improvised, relying on their training and quick thinking to best the other performer during the take. As a result, the fight feels unpredictable and tense—all the while remaining super badass.
A sequel is being released quite soon that starts Wu Jing and Tony Jaa. If that doesn’t excite you then I don’t know what will. Until then, I definitely recommend this film and 2007’s “Flashpoint.”
13. Crank (Neveldine/Taylor, 2006) & Crank: High Voltage (Neveldine/Taylor, 2009)
Actor Jason Statham in the mid-2000s felt like the decades answer to the big action stars from the 90s. While “The Transporter” was his big break into action (not counting his supporting roles prior) his best work in the genre are arguably with both “The Crank” films.
Playing a hitman who needs to keep his heart rate up to prevent death, Statham embodies and compliments the manic energy in the filmmaking by the directing pair. Shot in Los Angeles, the “Crank” films revel in violence, destruction and depravity with absolute glee that one can’t help but to simply enjoy the ride.
The stunts in both films are both insane and amazing, with stories from the production that just seem crazy. I don’t know of any other production in which one of the directors would rollerblade and film the action in such close proximity, or hang-off the side of a helicopter with their lead as it’s taking off.
Stunt people were injured (automatically making it into the film) and consumer cameras were rigged and destroyed from the crazy production. The DIY approach feels appropriately punk rock for a these crazy films.
While the first entry is a bit more coherent, the sequel is a masterpiece of absolute chaos and insanity that many critics at the time were somewhat right in comparing it to the open-world madness popularized in video games. The comparison doesn’t feel lost, since the pair would explore in their film 2009 film “Gamer.”
12. The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002)
“The Bourne Identity” is both beloved and somewhat criticized when it comes to modern action filmmaking. On the one hand, it gave the United States their own cinematic spy that felt on par with the iconic British agent, James Bond.
The car chase is intense and energetic, while Bourne himself is swift, but effective killing machine. Reportedly a mix of Kali and Jeet Kune Do, the fighting had been unseen and felt fresh for mainstream audiences. The cat-and-mouse shootout between Clive Owen’s rival spy has it’s own tension in the calm, atmospheric silence.
However, “The Bourne Identity” (and the sequels) became the go-to template for staging and shooting modern action sequences. Thematically, it felt appropriate with that character and that particular film, yet the convoluted, fast-editing style has made it’s way into plenty of modern action films, most notably the “Taken” franchise. That’s why the recent “John Wick” earned so much praise, since that film pulled the camera back and let the action unfold in absolute clarity.
11. Fearless (Ronny Yu, 2006)
If you’re is watching a Hong-Kong, martial-arts film in which the action director is done by Yuen Woo-Ping, then expect some amazing fight sequences by one of the best action choreographers alive. Coupled with the skills and talent of Jet Li, then you know you’re in for a treat.
At the time, “Fearless” was reportedly Li’s final foray into the “Wuxia” sub-genre, so fans were expecting for the man to go out on a high note. That sort of happens, depending on the cut of the film you’ve seen. Personally, I recommend the International Director’s Cut.
But what makes “Fearless” stand out aside from the stellar action sequences is the story and arc of Li’s character, Huo Yuanjia. Audiences get a pretty solid redemption tale about a man who finally finds purpose greater than pride and glory as a fighter. The filmmakers convey that in the dialogue, but more importantly, the action.
As a result, there’s an emotional weight come time for the grand finale, a tournament that pits Huo Yuanjia against an international cast of varying styles and techniques that should get any fan of the sub-genre giddy with joy. Yuen Woo-Ping does something similar with 2010 “True Legend,” but that film has structural problems that drags it down near the finale (while having some solid action).
10. Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011)
There aren’t many franchises that get more and more successful with each new film. While the “Furious 7” broke records, I feel that many who latched onto the franchise later on, did so with the film’s fifth installment. I have no problem against that, since “Fast Five” is probably the best entry in the entire franchise, action-packed without taking itself too seriously.
The film not only features the star of the original film, but includes the stars of all the following sequels. Whack continuity aside (taking place before “The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift”), “Fast Five” treats the gang like a group of thieves reminiscent of Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” films, just a more high-octane and non-serious.
The action sequences are loud and explosive, taking the vehicular mayhem to a level that’s ridiculous in all the right ways. It’s fun in a way that lesser entries in the series struggle to match. Joining the carnage is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and fans have responded heavily to his inclusion in the series, even leading to talks regarding the character’s own spinoff.
It’s far from perfect, and the fight scene between Diesel and Johnson was admittedly sort of a letdown, but there’s a lot to enjoy with the stellar cast and the creative set pieces. The finale is absolute insanity that pretty much gives the finger to Rio and physics, opting instead to give audiences a memorable ride.
9. Ip Man (Wilson Yip, 2008) & Ip Man 2 (Wilson Yip, 2010)
While Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip delivered some solid action films prior to the “Ip Man” films (e.g. “SPL: Kill Zone” and “Flashpoint”), it wasn’t until they collaborated in bringing the legendary Wing Chun pioneer onscreen that audiences worldwide fell in love.
The first film is structured in two parts that seem odd, but actually works. There’s a pre-Japanese invasion that does all the character work (while teasing his abilities), and once they arrive, Yen and company unleash the lightning-fast punches that are associated with Wing Chun. It’s a great film with a lot of heart (and nationalism, if you’re into that sort of thing). The sequel adds the much welcomed presence of Sammo Hung (action director of both films), as he gets to have some fun as well.
The table-top sequence that pits Ip Man against the other masters is the film’s highlight, superbly choreographed while excellently shot. The Wing Chun in these films are exaggerated, but that doesn’t make it all the less exciting to see onscreen. The speed-ramp technique has definitely been used in other, recent films (e.g. “Once Upon A Time in Shanghai” or “The Raid 2”).
While the “Ip Man” films are nowhere near as culturally impactful in the west as something like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Hero,” the action and talent on screen has made this film an immediate recommendation for those wanting to see something a bit more recent and available.
8. 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2010)
“13 Assassins” proves that gonzo director Takashi Miike is probably one of the best working filmmakers out there, if not the busiest. There’s a simplicity to “13 Assassins” that doesn’t reduce the film in any negative way. Instead, Miike is able to make a huge film regarding a pretty straightforward premise of a group of assassins hired to execute a villainous lord related to the shogun. The result is one of the best samurai action films of the 21st century.
“13 Assassins” is a film in three parts. The first part introduces our heroes and their mission, but more importantly, the villain. He’s such a bastard that the audience and the protagonists throw forgiveness right out the window and desire nothing but a painful demise. Then as both parties slowly build and converge during the film’s middle part, the third act is essentially an extended battle sequence that lasts over a half-hour.
What’s marvelous about that battle is that Miike keeps the long event interesting, coherent, and crazy violent. It’s where you see his print—flaming boars and all. The battle has several exciting bits, with a personal favorite being the moment you realize why all those swords were sticking out the wall. It gets a bit exhausting near the end, but in a good way.
A bloodbath with absolute investment and chaos, “13 Assassins” can be considered one of the better “modern” samurai films when compared to the nation’s absolute classics. It’s Miike at his absolute best.