The 21st century has been kind to the action genre: big-spectacle, high-budget films have become hot commodities once more after limping through the 1990s hobbled by waning interest in big muscles, big guns, and big explosions. Instead, bigger was not only better but necessary to draw back increasingly shrinking audience engagement in action films. The results have moved the needle significantly as a result, where nearly every year in the 21st century has produced incredible action films – maybe even the best ever.
Not an automatic draw as they once were, action films got a lot smarter as a result: complex protagonists, plots, and scenarios began to populate the genre, with filmmakers realizing a cool kill and lots of explosions won’t draw the audience into action movies like they used to. As a result, the quality of plot and characterizations got a lot better in the new century, with unexpected juxtapositions producing action films that were actual good films in their own right. With that, let’s take a look at the 20 best action movies of the 21st century so far.
1. The Raid (2011)
This Indonesian action masterpiece is a non-stop ride filled with absolutely stunning fight scenes and heart-pumping action.The Raid: Redemption’s cinematography feels precise and purposeful, with explosive violence balanced with a surprisingly emotional storyline for an action film.
A violent ballet of bullets and intense action sequences, The Raid is one of the most well-reviewed rated action films ever made that expresses the inherent gory violence that occurs during police raids in extremely dangerous situations.
2. Equilibrium (2002)
Equilibrium is like the love child of The Matrix and Fahrenheit 451. This dystopian action flick takes place in a society where all forms of emotion are banned, and anyone who dares to feel is immediately executed.
Christian Bale gives a standout performance as a “Grammaton Cleric” who is tasked with enforcing these rules but eventually discovers the joy of emotions himself. The gun-kata fight scenes are a work of art and will satisfy any fan of the John Wick series. An action movie with a brain, Equilibrium is an underseen action classic.
3. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
The Bourne Ultimatum is the best film in the Jason Bourne franchise. Featuring Matt Damon at the top of his action game as the amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, the action sequences are intense and visceral, with hand-to-hand combat that feels realistic and brutal.
The film’s fast-paced editing and globe-trotting storyline keep you caught up in the action, and the twists and turns leave you guessing until the end. A new classic in the action genre and a highlight of the series.
4. Atomic Blonde (2017)
You would have never thought it about the Academy-award winning actress,, but Charlize Theron absolutely kills it as an action star in Atomic Blonde. This is a stylish and ultra-violent spy thriller set in Cold War-era Berlin. The action scenes are dazzling, with a ten-minute single-take fight scene that is a true masterpiece of choreography. Theron’s character is tough as nails and unapologetically badass, making her one of the most compelling female action heroes in recent memory.
The film’s soundtrack, featuring ’80s hits like “99 Luftballons” and “Blue Monday,” adds to the film’s cool factor. If you’re looking for a slick and stylish action flick starring an Oscar-winning chick, Atomic Blonde is definitely where to find it.
5. Haywire (2011)
A smart and sleek action movie with a killer cast, Haywire stars Gina Carano as a black ops agent who is betrayed by her own agency and sets out for revenge. The fight scenes are fantastically detailed, smartly utilizing Carano’s MMA background, while the film’s stripped-down style and minimalist approach to storytelling make it stand out from most 21st century action films.
With an all-star supporting cast – including Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, and Antonio Banderas – delivering strong performances, Haywire is a hidden gem in the action genre that deserves more attention than it’s gotten..
6. Ip Man (2008)
Ip Man is a martial arts movie that tells the story of the real-life Wing Chun master who trained Bruce Lee. Donnie Yen stars as Ip Man, and his performance is nothing short of incredible. The fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, with an emphasis on speed, precision, and creativity.
The film’s depiction of wartime China is both harrowing and inspiring, and the character of Ip Man himself is portrayed as a true hero. Whether a fan of martial arts or biopics, Ip Man is one of the best of both so far this century.
7. Extraction (2020)
A high-octane action flick that delivers on all fronts, Extraction stars Chris Hemsworth as a black-market mercenary who is hired to rescue the kidnapped son of an international crime lord. The action sequences are jaw-dropping, including a stand-out 12-minute long single-take fight scene.
The film’s emotional core is also strong, with a touching relationship between Hemsworth’s character and the boy he is trying to rescue. An action flick that has serious artistic chops, even film fans who usually shy away from action movies will want to check this one out.
8. Dredd (2012)
A gritty and ultra-violent adaptation of the classic British comic book character, Dredd erases the embarrassing 1995 Sylvester Stallone adaptation. Karl Urban stars as Judge Dredd, a law enforcement officer in a dystopian future who is tasked with taking down a drug lord who controls an entire city block.
Stylish action matches the futuristic landscape the film is set in, with a standout slow-motion sequence that is surprisingly unknown. Urban plays Dredd with the character’s established stoicism and menace, again making Stallone’s performance in the older adaptation look like a cartoon in comparison. Forget Marvel films, next to Dredd they look like movies made for babies.
9. Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)
Shoot ‘Em Up is a wildly over-the-top action movie that knows exactly what it is and revels in it. Clive Owen stars as a mysterious drifter who saves a pregnant woman from assassins and embarks on a mission to protect her and her baby. The action sequences are absurd and gleefully violent, with Owen using everything from carrots to umbrellas as weapons.
This is an action film with humor that is actually funny, with Owen’s deadpan delivery and Paul Giamatti’s scenery-chewing performance as the villain kicking this film up a few notches on the action post. If you’re in the mood for a fun and ridiculous action movie, Shoot ‘Em Up is the perfect choice.
10. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Speaking of absurd fun, Kung Fu Hustle is a genre-bending martial arts comedy that defies description. The film takes place in a fictionalized 1940s China and follows a group of gangsters who unwittingly start a war with the residents of a housing complex that is secretly full of kung fu masters.
The action sequences are wildly colorful and creative, with a blend of wirework and CGI that explodes off the screen. Its mix of slapstick and witty dialogue makes this a super-fun film that keeps you engaged between, and during, the action sequences. A true gem in the action genre, Kung Fu Hustle is the surreal martial arts comedy you didn’t know you were missing out on.