“I tend to think of action movies as exuberant morality plays in which good triumphs over evil.” – Sylvester Stallone
Action cinema has come a long way since its heyday in the 1980s where action heroes were infallible boulder-trains of masculinity, from the likes of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. In contemporary film, action heroes are far more broken individuals, capable of emotional torment and physical degradation as their involvement in high-stakes shootouts and brawls are felt as harrowing experiences.
Upon the release of The Bourne Identity in 2002 this would all change, with Doug Liman’s groundbreaking classic utilising choppy, swift and nimble cinematography and a rapidly cut edit, making action scenes frenetic and brutal. The film had a knock-on effect on the rest of Hollywood cinema with Christopher Nolan mimicking the style for The Dark Knight and Inception whilst the new and improved James Bond series would do the same with Casino Royale.
Suddenly action heroes were fallible, with every punch, kick and bullet suddenly having so much more of an impact on the likes of James Bond, Jason Bourne and John Wick, in comparison to their ‘80s counterparts. Having come a long way since the 20th century, modern action cinema is snappy, moving with a frightening pace whilst a bevvy of explosions, bullets and punches rain down on the brave heroes.
Including the likes of filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan, Ang Lee and Quentin Tarantino, let’s take a look back at the top ten action movies of the 21st century.
10 best action movies of the 21st century:
10. Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015)
Holding a frenetic European sense of identity, Victoria is a hectic one-shot action triumph that succeeds due to the sheer ingenuity of its premise and the deviation of its crew and impressive cast.
Starring Laia Costa, Frederick Lau and Franz Rogowski, Victoria follows a young Spanish woman and her group of friends who finds herself in trouble after flirting with a local maniac on a night out. Chaotic and gripping, director Sebastian Schipper does a fantastic job to bring the audience on a wild ride, well utilising a one-shot concept that could have easily become a gimmick, Victoria ends up to be a highly enjoyable thrill ride.
9. The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007)
The final film of the critically and commercially loved Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum bookended an impressive action series that would later define the shape of modern genre cinema as we know it.
Known for its snappy pace and notorious shaky-cam, the final film in the trilogy averages a cut every two seconds with its 3200 shots and 105-minute runtime. Starring Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, Paddy Considine and Daniel Brühl, the film follows a former CIA assassin who sets out to kill a major official whilst trying to repair his fractured memory. Intricate and intelligent, The Bourne Ultimatum is a spy thriller for the modern age that would become a major influence on James Bond, John Wick and more.
8. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
In Christopher Nolan’s glittering career of superhero movies and bombastic sci-fi’s, Inception comes out on top as his greatest action effort to date despite the likes of Tenet and The Dark Knight.
Well combining his own spectacular visual storytelling together with a surprisingly touching human story, Nolan creates a wild science fiction journey, as well as an inspired cinematic tale. Starring the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard and Elliot Page, Christopher Nolan’s film became a cultural staple upon its release in 2010 becoming a spectacle ubiquitous with the most enigmatic science fiction action films ever since.
7. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
A major Chinese classic that would have a considerable impact on western action cinema, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from director Ang Lee is an insane martial arts romance with high-flying acrobatics.
Having earned the trust of production studios through the success of the likes of Ride with the Devil and Sense and Sensibility in the 1990s, Ang Lee was allowed a considerable budget to make the marvel of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. With notable eastern stars including Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang, the film caught the attention of Hollywood thanks to its staggering cinematography and revolutionary fight sequences.
6. Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
Veering away from stylish, relatively minimal crime stories, Kill Bill is in many ways the hinge of Tarantino’s career, marking a notable move toward revenge stories of strong violence and, in the case of Kill Bill, impressive action sequences.
A cinematic playground showcasing Tarantino at his most free and expressive, the film utilises an exaggerated soundtrack and gaudy cinematography in its homage to B-movie martial-arts cinema. With the likes of Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen and more, Quentin Tarantino created one of his most iconic modern works, with the Bride’s final battle with the Crazy 88 well known as a classic scene of contemporary action cinema.
5. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
Arguably Pixar’s greatest ever animated film, The Incredibles capitalised on the early emergence of the superhero sub-genre to bring a story of vibrant adventure and creative brilliance.
The story follows a family of superheroes including mum and dad, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, as well as their three children Dash, Violet and Jack-Jack as they become embroiled in an evil plan to destroy the existence of ‘supers’ altogether. With the help of a rousing score and breathtaking animation considering its 2004 release, The Incredibles is a spectacular show of animated imagination featuring set-pieces infused with a sense of spectacle that the likes of the action genre had never seen before.
4. Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007)
The snappy frenetic energy of Edgar Wright has helped the director to become one of the leading voices of modern cinema, bolstering his repertoire with the likes of Baby Driver, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Last Night in Soho.
Along with Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz may just stand as one of the director’s finest films, utilising the partnership of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg superbly as they star as two police officers tasked with bringing down a sinister cult. Wonderfully tied into the culture of small-town British life and oddball comedy, Edgar Wright creates a rousing, violent thriller that never takes its foot off the accelerator.
3. Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
A major influence on the career of Quentin Tarantino, Kinji Fukasaku’s classic Battle Royale would also have a staggering impact on the sub-genre of the same name, inspiring the likes of The Hunger Games and Squid Game, as well as video games Call of Duty: Warzone and Fortnite.
Having a staggering long-lasting effect on popular culture, the film itself is a classic in its own right, telling the sinister tale of a class of ninth-grade students who are forced to kill one another in a game of ‘last one standing’. Starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Chiaki Kuriyama and Takeshi Kitano, Battle Royale is an intense action-thriller that is infused with intrigue and heartache as we urge these young characters to liberate themselves from such a torturous game.
2. The Raid (Gareth Evans, 2011)
Whilst the Bourne trilogy redefined the standards of the modern action blockbuster, The Raid polished its product, elevating such action standards further as Gareth Evans created a martial-arts showstopper.
Tracking the movements of a SWAT team raiding a building of flats deep in the Jakarta slums, a gang quickly notices their arrival and they are immediately outnumbered and outgunned, leaving a barebones team left to take out the manic gang. The unlikely hero of the team is Yuda (Iko Uwais), a master of martial arts with the ability to dismantle anybody, with kicks, punches, slaps and any sharp object in his vicinity. This is slick, terrifically choreographed action filmmaking at its very best.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
This diesel-powered thrill ride through desolate madness in the post-apocalyptic outback is the reimagining of the Mad Max universe that we never knew we needed, with George Miller’s modern take on the tale causing a cultural whirlwind that would stamp its influence on popular culture.
Essentially an extended action chase movie, the film stalks a lonely traveller Max (Tom Hardy) escaping the savagery of Immortan Joe’s crazy gang whilst leading a group of women across the wastelands into pastures new. Fabulously bonkers, Mad Max: Fury Road is an ode to the 1980s action genre where rules didn’t apply and individuality and insanity was embraced. There is truly no other film quite as unique as George Miller’s modern classic, sparking a taste for bombastic action movies in modern cinema.