The action movies of the 21st century are an entirely different beast to the times of The Great Escape, Dr. No and Yojimbo, with modern directors being treated with an entire toybox of fancy gizmos and technological widgets to help them to bring their vision to life. Such has led to fantasy epics and impossibly frenetic scenes that would be the mere pipedream of golden age Hollywood.
Though the genre came on leaps and bounds throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was upon the release of The Bourne Identity in 2002 that modern action would truly change, with the choppy, swift and nimble cinematography being picked up by filmmakers across the landscape of contemporary cinema. Moving with frightening pace and a genuine sense of brutality, such modern action films make genre movies of old seem like mere child’s play.
Ever since the release of Liman’s film, action films haven’t looked the same since, coming at audiences with a new sense of tenacity and veracity, leading to the birth of brand new movie icons such as John Wick, The Bride and Yuda from The Raid. Looking back at 22 years of cinema, we’ve tried to piece together the ten best action sequences of the 21st century, painfully omitting the likes of Casino Royale, Kick-Ass and Gladiator from the list.
The 10 best action movie sequences of the 21st century:
10. The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002) – Pen vs. Knife
Forever changing the course of action cinema, Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity caused a significant ripple effect on the rest of Hollywood cinema. Starring Matt Damon, the film tells the story of Jason Bourne, an action hero with amnesia who’s trying to piece together the reason why he’s being pursued by a gang of assassins. Well known for popularising quick cuts and frenetic action scenes, there’s one moment, in particular, that would make the movie iconic.
Ambushed by an assassin whilst inside a flat, Damon’s Bourne attacks the knife-wielding man with a pen and manages to take him down in the most brutal fashion possible.
9. The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015) – Opening sequence
Gut-wrenchingly intense, the battle that sparks the start of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s epic story The Revenant is a technical marvel, showing a brutal fight between Native Americans and a group of frontiersmen. Expertly constructed by Iñárritu, the scene is captured in one masterful shot whilst the soundtrack fuels the fears and intensity of the moment, it’s a truly heart-pumping moment.
Led by Leonardo DiCaprio, the beauty of the scene is that, whilst the actor remains the focus of our attention, everywhere you look chaos, death and blood-curdling violence reigns.
8. John Wick 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017) – Red Circle Nightclub fight
John Wick may be the most successful action franchise of the 21st century, certainly if you consider the Marvel movies to exist within their own bubble, with Lionsgate making a brand new action hero from total scratch. As the titular star, Keanu Reeves has emerged as a revitalised Hollywood leading man, charging from the front in each of the John Wick instalments with the second film in the series perhaps being the very best.
The film is brought to an exciting peak when Reeves enters the Red Circle Nightclub and proceeds to take down what seems like the majority of its late-night revellers with a pumping electro soundtrack and wild cinematography.
7. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) – Car Sequence
Speaking of cinematography, nobody does it quite as well as the Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, with his one-shot sequence in Children of Men standing out as a moment of true excellence in 21st-century action cinema. Ambushed by a crazed gang, the group of main characters, led by such actors as Clive Owen and Julianne Moore, engage in a truly intense car chase as they try to evade the violent mob.
The very definition of heart-thumping, the scene is made all the better by Emmanuel Lubezki’s baffling cinematic achievements that led to an Oscar nomination, though shockingly no win.
6. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) – Showdown at House of Blue Leaves
The (ongoing?) Kill Bill series wasn’t made for its meticulous scenes of dialogue, it was made for Quentin Tarantino to fully embrace his love for frenetic action movies and Japanese samurai films. Fantastically over the top, Kill Bill features vibrant costumes, an eclectic soundtrack and insane visuals of spurting blood and rolling heads, with no scene better illustrating this chaos than the House Of Blue Leaves fight.
With dynamic cinematography and luscious choreography that covers every inch of the manic fight, the blade battle at the House Of Blue Leaves is most definitely Tarantino’s greatest action scene of all time.
5. The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans, 2014) – Yuda vs. The Assassin
Releasing The Raid in 2011, Gareth Evans worked to redefine the world of modern action cinema, showcasing a film that was captured with blistering pace and an explicit attitude to gore and violence. Packed with terrific action sequences the original 2011 film is matched by its 2014 sequel that ramps up the action and ferocity even more in its pursuit of action greatness.
Whilst there are several scenes we could pick out from the sequel, we’ve gone for the fight between Yuda and The Assassin which shows off an exemplary action set piece with second-perfect choreography.
4. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) – Hallway Fight
Revenge, deceit and malevolence are the order of the day in Park Chan-wook’s venomous crime thriller, Oldboy, following a man who is released from unexplained captivity only to be told that he must find his captor in five days. A frenetic journey that makes the audience question whether revenge is ever worth it, Oldboy is memorable for one gruesome scene in which the protagonist takes on a hall of criminals with only a weathered hammer.
Violent, chaotic and captured as if it’s part of a 2D side-scrolling video game, the hammer scene of Park Chan-wook’s film is one riddled with subtext, showing moments of comedy from within the chaos.
3. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) – Hallway Fight
Though the films of Christopher Nolan may not reach the true potential of their set-up, there’s no question that the British filmmaker is one of the best around, with the Hallway Fight sequence in Inception proving this beyond all doubt. Constructing a specially-made technical rig to achieve the stunning gravity-defying moment, Nolan made cinema history with this influential moment in the spectacular film.
Geniously constructed by Nolan, the intense sequence is intercut with several other simultaneous sequences, retaining its intensity thanks to some impressive editing and a thrilling soundtrack.
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002) – The Battle of Helm’s Deep
Changing the definition of fantasy cinema, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was so significant that epic action movies are still trying to copy its formula to this very day. Though there are multiple moments from the trilogy that we could’ve picked out, for our money, nothing beats the intimidation, excitement and brutality of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, fought in the dead of night.
Capturing a gritty authenticity from the dirtied costumes and makeup to the grisly prosthetics of the villainous orc army, Peter Jackson created a piece of cinematic perfection that is still yet to be matched in fantasy cinema.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) – The chase begins
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. Practically any moment of this insane action movie could be chosen as the greatest moment, but for us, nothing can beat the moment the wild car chase begins.
Embracing total insanity George Miller imbues the mainstream action movie with some arthouse avant-garde, bringing several bonkers elements together, at one point flames come out from the top of a guitar being played by a blind man on strings sitting atop a giant war rig. Genius.