The Best Action Movies of the 21st Century

If curating the Best Action Movies of All Time felt borderline impossible, then ranking just the top entries from this century is Mission Barely Manageable –

Most franchise IP blockbusters released to big box office hauls in recent years could qualify as “action movies” in one way or another. That’s particularly true when it comes to the omnipresent cultural phenomenon we call superhero films. It can be tempting to write off the entire action genre when all you see is the over-pixelated epics about super-somethings stopping intergalactic injustice that make up an increasingly large chunk of modern Hollywood. However, the action movies that depend less on fetishized source material have yielded some of the most personal higher-budget workaround. When done well, action movies can tell great character-driven stories through movement. Action — acted or animated — is simply drama made dynamic.

That principle is what separates so many of the movies on IndieWire’s list from their weaker counterparts. Some gleefully take their action to self-consciously ridiculous extremes, from Jason Statham needing to keep his heart rate at hyper-adrenalized levels in “Crank: High Voltage” to Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci having sex while blowing away baddies in “Shoot ’Em Up,” to the endless platitudes about “family” in the “Fast” saga. Others opt to use action to tell more serious, human stories that just happen to feature thrilling fight sequences. The movies below are some of the finest examples of pure cinema that this still-young century has to offer. They’re called “motion pictures” after all, and these movies move — and couldn’t exist in any other medium.

These are movies that have tried to show audiences something new. Art that quickens the pulse is sometimes dismissed as lowbrow or inferior, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are the 57 Best Action Movies of the 21st Century, from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”

Plane

 

As sturdy, weathered, and no-frills as the Reagan-era passenger jet that lends this January-ass film its poetically blunt title, Jean-François Richet’s “Plane” becomes the most airworthy Gerard Butler vehicle this side of “Greenland” by answering a question that Clint Eastwood didn’t even have the courage to ask: What if, instead of ditching US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River like a total loser, Capt. Sully Sullenberger had been man enough to land that baby in the middle of a steroidal ’80s action movie? You know the kind! The sort where vaguely racist man-vs.-army spectacle that finds a couple of jacked-up English-speaking everymen forced to kill their way out of a sweltering foreign jungle full of indigenous militants, and climaxes with the bad guys loading the shoulder-mounted rocket-launchers that Southeast Asian henchmen always keep on hand in case Sylvester Stallone ever decides to reboot “Rambo” again

 

Shoot ‘Em Up

 

Many of this century’s best action movies have been made by connoisseurs for connoisseurs, paying homage to the classics while also reassembling their best elements into something new. Writer-director Michael Davis has said his “Shoot ‘Em Up” was inspired by the flashy gunplay in John Woo’s 1990s Hong Kong crime movies — and in particular the famous sequence in “Hard Boiled” where a cop protects the babies in a maternity ward. In Davis’s rocket-paced riff on Woo, Clive Owen plays a roving stranger who saves a newborn from a cold-blooded killer (Paul Giamatti), and then, with the help of a sex worker (Monica Bellucci), tries to get to the bottom of a strange and far-reaching criminal and political conspiracy. The story plays out in cleverly staged action scenes where the hero keeps having to overcome some increasingly ridiculous disadvantages — from fighting off assailants while in the middle of having sex to trying to fire a gun with broken fingers

 

Shaun of the Dead

 

The first entry in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy gave the film world its first real look at the talented British hyphenate, but Wright’s aesthetic practically emerged from the womb fully formed. Everything you want from an Edgar Wright film — the killer soundtrack, the dense visual gags, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost — is already here. The film pays tribute to the Romero zombie flicks that Wright clearly adores, but the film’s real brilliance lies in the decision to focus on the love story between Simon Pegg’s Shaun and his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). While you could make a strong case for listing “Shaun of the Dead” as one of the century’s best comedies, best horror movies, and best rom-coms, a certain sequence featuring Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” secured its place in the pantheon of great action movies as well

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