10. District 9
Among the most exciting things about modern action cinema is that due to the larger democratization of the medium, lower budget genre films from emerging filmmakers are able to have mass market appeal. District 9 is an unconventional action movie in many ways; its blatantly political in its allusions to apartheid and discrimination, and utilizes a found footage element in order to make the drama all the more realistic.
Neill Blomkamp’s vision of what would really happen if aliens landed on Earth is a gripping survival story about man’s banality and the nature of identity, and the bumbling performance by Sharlto Coppley at the story’s center provides a much different type of action star.
9. Spider-Man 2
Spider-Man was an absolute phenomenon, and although films such as Blade and X-Men had reintroduced audiences to the potential of comic book films following their decline in the late 1990s, it was Sam Raimi’s first film that redefined the genre. Yet, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 was even better.
Raimi’s hyper sincere characterization edges on being corny, but behind each plot point is a well developed character arc that manifests beautifully, particularly in the characterization of Aldred Molina as Doc Ock, one of the strongest comic book movie villains. Raimi’s background in horror clearly benefited the film, as its mix of cheeky humor, suspense, and eye popping visuals make it distinct from other comic book films.
8. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is straight up one of the most beautiful films of the 21st Century, regardless of genre, and its intricate art design and fluid cinematography reflect the deep respect that Ang Lee and his crew had for depicting the traditions of feudal China.
While much of the film revolves around such traditional themes as the sanctity of the master and apprentice relationship and the purity of spirit, the film’s emotional core revolves around Michelle Yeoh’s character Yu Shu Lien as she comes into her own as a warrior. The martial arts sequences are among the best ever put to screen, with Lee finding a unique blend of hyper stylization and impressive stunt work.
7. Hot Fuzz
Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz is a love letter to the classic era of buddy cop movies, openly referencing films such as Point Break and Bad Boys II as it subverts the expectations by placing a big city cop (Simon Pegg’s Nicholas Angel) in a small town. Pegg chews the scenery in a clever parody of the hyper masculine action hero stereotype, and Nick Frost’s Danny Butterman is the perfect affable counterbalance.
Cleverly lampooning conspiracy theories and British small town culture with a series of entertaining plot twists, Hot Fuzz is surprisingly profound in how it examines secluded communities. It’s also a parody film that doesn’t skimp on the action; the film’s relentless pace includes some truly shocking gore and incredible stunts, culminating in a wickedly entertaining third act in which the action becomes completely wild.
6. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Shane Black is often thought of as one of the godfathers of the buddy cop genre thanks to his tenure as the screenwriter of the Lethal Weapon franchise, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Action Hero, and The Last Boy Scout. Black’s directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang took a dive back into that world through the eyes of Harry Lockart (Robert Downey Jr.), a thief who becomes an actor and ends up shadowing a real cop, Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer).
Kilmer utilizes his decades of stardom into playing a terse, experienced lawman, and Downey (who was only a few years away from becoming Tony Stark) is able to instill a snarkiness based on his awareness of crime fiction cliches. It’s often dark, finding the futility within the failings of the characters, and the film finds a balance between callbacks to earlier films and pushing the genre forward.
Park Chan-wook’s 2003 masterpiece is one of the most disturbing films ever made, an unsettling voyage into the nature of vengeance through allusions to Greek tragedy. Oldboy essentially questions how a revenge fantasy shapes a person, and how a struggling alcoholic like Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) can transform himself in a quest for answers.
In fact, the film’s gruesome violence is never quite as disturbing as the moral anguish that each of the characters find and the secrets that are unveiled. The action is choreographed in a way that values consequence more than entertainment, with the iconic hallway fight scene being one of the singular greatest one shot action sequences of all-time.
4. Miami Vice
Michael Mann has always been a bold filmmaker, and Miami Vice is a film that was simply ahead of its time, and has grown in cult appreciation since its initial release. Released at the dawn of digital filmmaking, the film utilizes its gloomy visuals, layered environments, and hyper realistic action sequences to create a fascinating meditation on the futility of crime fiction.
It’s the exact opposite of the suave swagger of the original series, as Mann considers the reality of placing “MTV Cops” in a tactile, digital world. It’s easy to get lost in the minutia of the plot, but what’s never lost is the impressionistic sadness in which Mann paints his heroes Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) as they live only moments of comfort within their gruelling everyday lives. It’s an arthouse film disguised as an action film, and it remains a fascination among film scholars to this day.
3. The Bourne Ultimatum
It was challenging to include just one Bourne film on this list, as each film within the original trilogy has a case for being the best of the bunch. The Bourne Identity is a fascinating look at a man wrestling with a life he never knew and The Bourne Supremacy was a relentless chase film with strong emotional plotting, but it’s really the trilogy’s conclusion that is most memorable.
The Bourne Ultimatum sees Bourne searching for answers regarding his past, and in turns pits him up against other Treadstone operatives. The Bourne films were masterpieces in exploring the world around him, and in The Bourne Ultimatum the audience sees the mechanisms within politics that allowed this program to exist. However, the focus never strays from Bourne himself, and Matt Damon does some of his best work as the character finds answers, and in turn, closure.
2. Casino Royale
There are many great films within the James Bond franchise, but Casino Royale joins the rare group (which includes Skyfall, Goldfinger, and From Russia, With Love) that are classics within any genre and transcend the series itself. Casino Royale is Bond’s origin, and explores how a low level MI6 agent became a ruthless killer, a serial womanizer, and slick charmer that despite his advantages, always finds himself to be incomplete. Daniel Craig had the rare challenge of making Bond human, and the film reveals how tragedy and betrayal shaped his outlook on the world and the nature of his job.
The film is absolutely astounding in the way it stages its action, with sequences such as the Madagascar crane chase and the Grand Canal shootout that are all-timers, and the story is modernized in a way that reflects modern attitudes on espionage. Featuring one of the most terrifying villains in the series with Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, Casino Royale stands as the film that set the Bond franchise on a new trajectory.
1. The Dark Knight
A cultural landmark in modern American cinema, The Dark Knight is a transcendent comic book movie that touches on the realities of the genre and the very nature of escalation within conflict. Many post-9/11 action films considered how heroes could provide damage control to insurmountable threats, but The Dark Knight puzzles with how to deal with a villain that can’t be reasoned or negotiated with; the Joker’s motivation is chaos itself, and in turning the war on crime into a game of theatrics, he calls Batman’s very existence into question. Joker is a response to Batman, and his series of twisted mind games makes a point of revealing the sinister banality behind each of the institutions that Gotham City holds sacred.
It would be impossible to talk about The Dark Knight without talking about Heath Ledger; unquestionably one of the greatest movie villains of all-time, the Joker is a character of such dominative presence that he often overshadows the rest of the characters. Christopher Nolan stages brilliant action revolving around impossible decisions and futile attempts to mitigate, bringing in elements of neo-noir, suspense, and Michael Mann crime films to create an expansive epic. While its reputation has only grown in estimation since release, The Dark Knight remains one of the most essential films of the new century, and certainly the most important action film of the decade.