It is strange that the films of the early 21st Century now seem “retro,” and that the early developments of the digital era are quite different from the world of cinema today. Compared to the action films of the 90s, which included a mix of high camp and more experimental auteurism, action cinema in the early 2000s began to rely heavier on established franchises and properties.
Among the greatest phenomena of the past twenty years of film history has been that movie stars have been replaced by established IP; audiences no longer flock to a film purely based on the charisma of an action star like Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Sylvester Stallone, or Bruce Willis, but because of a character like Harry Potter, Spider-Man, or Ethan Hunt. Nevertheless, the action genre has evolved in many ways that were positive, and the 21st century has certainly produced its fair share of action classics.
While it is fair to say that the action films of the 2010s, such as Mad Max: Fury Road, John Wick, and The Raid, brought respect back to the genre, the preceding decade brought forth many brilliant action films that took chances and reinvented familiar story archetypes. Here are the top twenty best action films from 2000 to 2009.
Although he was previously known for his dramatic roles in such films as Schindler’s List, Kinsey, and Michael Collins, Liam Neeson made a sudden reinvention of his career by becoming an action star. Neeson’s first real foray into the genre was Taken, a loosely plotted film that allows the respected Irish actor to be a slick force of nature who wrecks all in his path as he searches for his daughter.
Although the story is formulaic and the villains are quite campy, Neeson is believable in the role of an overprotective father, and his dramatic gravity elevates the material. While the film’s reputation may be somewhat diminished due to the abysmal sequels, the original holds up as a nail biting thriller.
19. Layer Cake
Matthew Vaughn’s slick, snappy directorial debut was not only the film that supposedly won Daniel Craig the role of James Bond, but also what established Vaughn as Guy Ritchie’s heir apparent in the realm of quirky London gangster thrillers.
Layer Cake is a much classier take on the genre than Ritchie ever attempted, and by means of Craig’s protagonist, the film explores the wheeling and dealing that occurs in the British cocaine trade. Craig gives a phenomenal performance; not only does he convey the intelligence of someone who has long been in this business, but he also plays the role with a twinge of sadness, as his character is desperate to leave this lifestyle.
18. Sherlock Holmes
As Sherlock Holmes is a public domain character, there have been countless adaptations over the years, spanning all the way back to the earliest days of cinema. Guy Ritchie’s take on the Arthur Conan Doyle honed in on the relationship between the infamous sleuth (Robert Downey Jr.) and the loyal Dr. John Watson (Jude Law), and reimagined them as a bickering, buddy cop duo.
While it’s obviously influenced by 80s buddy cop films, Ritchie does craft an intriguing enough mystery that relates to the central Holmes theme of explaining the supernatural through logic, and the action scenes are energetic in Ritchie’s signature fashion. However, it is the charm of seeing Downey and Law breathe life into this relationship that makes the film (and its sequel) so entertaining.
17. V for Vendetta
The influence of the Wachowski sisters (who produced and wrote the film) is evident in V for Vendetta, as it seamlessly combines energetically stylized action lifted straight from comic book panels with a timeless story of confronting totalitarianism.
There’s a good deal of reality in how the film depicts the relationship between militarism, propaganda, and bureaucracy, and these potent themes help to ground some of the more eccentric elements. Even if he’s hidden behind a mask the whole time, Hugo Weaving is captivating as the masked vigilante who becomes the face of a movement, and it is powerful to see the story through the eyes of the outsider Evey (played by Natalie Portman, in one of her better roles) as she gains awareness and chooses to take action.
16. Mission: Impossible III
While the Mission: Impossible franchise is now known as the most consistently great recurring saga in Hollywood, the series was in a bit of a flux in the early 2000s, as the negative response to Mission: Impossible II threatened its longevity. Thankfully, J.J. Abrams instilled the series with new energy and told a more personal story about Ethan Hunt trying to balance his future married life with the responsibilities he feels to IMF.
Without a doubt, the film works as well as it does because of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman; the Mission: Impossible series generally lacks a compelling villain, but Hoffman is absolutely terrifying as a mischievous arms dealer that has his eyes on an elusive package.
2000’s X-Men was a successful comic book adaptation that succeeded in bringing the core themes and characters of the Marvel comics to screen, but given that it was the first film in the franchise, it was tasked with handling a lot of exposition. X2 didn’t face that issue; the film jumps immediately into the action by introducing the new character Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) in a thrilling set piece set in the White House.
The film digs deeper into the philosophical differences between Charles Xavier and Magneto, showing the evil nature of man and how it inspires mutant aggression, and as always Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are riveting with their performances. X2 also gave audiences the first teases of Wolverine’s backstory as he’s tormented by memories involving Colonel Stryker, played menacingly by Brian Cox.
Serenity is a film that has no right to exist, and even less right to be as great as it is. Firefly was a beloved cult series that was criminally cancelled after one season, leaving a gap in the minds of fans everywhere who wanted to see more of Macolm Reynolds and crew. Serenity wasn’t just another adventure, but a film that had to address and resolve the backstories and fates of these characters that would’ve presumably been told across several more seasons.
Somehow, the film managed to surpass expectations; it’s relentlessly paced and incredibly tight in how it integrates all the characters and teases the larger universe seen on the show. The film also was a breakout role for Chiwetel Ejiofer, who plays the enigmatic villain known only as “The Operative;” the best villains are those who see themselves as heroes, and the way Ejiofer defines himself as “a necessary evil” makes for an engaging foil to the rag tag heroes.
13. Star Trek
The Star Trek franchise was in absolute ruins in 2009, as the critical and financial failure of the The Next Generation films had soiled the reputation of the series, and the prospect of seeing the original crew recasted left many skeptical. The 2009 reboot did something incredibly clever in that it established an alternate universe in which these characters could exist in a different timeline, and provided an origin story that was never previously told.
Playing fast and loose with mythology, the film sheds real light on how James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) grew from a troublesome farmhand into a leader, and how Spock (Zachary Quinto) overcame cultural obstacles to create his own identity. The entire film is filled with a cast that makes the characters their own, but it’s the endearing relationship between Pine and Quinto that is the story’s heart.
Gladiator is one of those films that’s reputation was hurt due to the fact that it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as it’s often ranked negatively in comparison to other winners or its competition that year. This is unfortunate, because Gladiator is a really entertaining throwback to the Cecil D. Demille era of epic filmmaking, and tells an exciting revenge story of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russel Crowe) as he attempts to win vengeance for his family’s death and restore democracy to Rome.
The scope of the film is among the grandest that Ridley Scott ever attempted, featuring gladiatorial combat scenes that still hold up and an iconic score from Hans Zimmer. There have been so few sword and sandal movies since, but Gladiator is easily among the best of the genre.
11. Minority Report
Inspired by the Phillip K. Dick short story, Minority Report successfully combines heady philosophy about the nature of justice, free will, and authoritarianism, all while pushing the visual medium forward with a chilling futuristic vision.
It’s one of the darkest and most complex films within Steven Spielberg’s filmography, and forms a unique trilogy with A.I. Artificial Intelligence and War of the Worlds of Spielberg’s contemplative genre pieces that question the future. Although much of the film is inspired by the noir genre, the thrilling chase sequences and tense standoffs make it a modern action classic.