One of the most iconic stars of action cinema this century returns to the big screen this week, as Matt Damon gets back in his old shoes as Jason Bourne in, well, “Jason Bourne,” his fourth time playing the forgetful super-spy since 2002’s “The Bourne Identity.” And few action stars are as important to the genre as Damon and his creation.
As we entered the new millennium, action movies were still in the Bruckheimer years, a time of endless “Die Hard” rip-offs, where aging muscleheads were continuing to crank out movies to increasingly diminishing returns. Within a few years, the landscape changed enormously with 9/11, and though accidental (the film was shot before that date), Jason Bourne arrived with perfect timing, a new kind of action hero for a new age.
As the Bourne series progressed, so too did the action movie — the visceral, realistic quality introduced in the second installment spread to the James Bond series, for instance, while a similar kind of tone was applied to almost every other franchise. And the big action heroes were no longer Arnie, Sly and Bruce Willis, but Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt and Zhang Ziyi.
With Bourne now back, we thought it was the perfect time to take another look back at the recent history of the genre, and so we’ve expanded our old list and picked out the 50 Best Action Movies since the year 2000. It shows a genre in rude health, albeit with room for improvement — there’s still dispiritingly few of these movies directed by women, for instance, though we hope the likes of Patty Jenkins and Ava DuVernay will be changing that in the years to come.
Take a look at our picks below, and let us know your favorites in the comments. And if you’re looking for more recommendations, check out our Best Foreign-Language, Animated and Sci-Fi films features.
50. “Man On Fire” (2004)
One of the best of the spate of the revenge movies that served as Hollywood’s rageful howl in the years after 9/11, “Man On Fire” is an unrelentingly tough, sometimes ludicrously violent film made with the exact right mix of sincerity and ludicrous style. The second adaptation of A.J. Quinnell’s novel, the film sees Denzel Washington in one of his most iconic turns as John Creasy, a former CIA agent and Marine who takes a job as the bodyguard to a young girl (Dakota Fanning), and goes on a bloody trail of violence when she’s kidnapped. Tony Scott’s heightened, saturated, twitchy style finds its groove here (it was near-unwatchable in some of his later films), painting a picture of a hellish Mexico City through the center of which stomps a steely-eyed Washington. “Creasy’s art is death,” Christopher Walken says at one point, “and he’s about to paint his masterpiece,” The same could have been said of Scott.
49. “Sicario” (2015)
It will no doubt cause consternation, but especially with our list at 50, we felt justified in interpreting “action” in a broad sense, including films that expand on, subvert, or generally make us reconsider our old ideas of the genre. Denis Villeneuve‘s “Sicario” is a case in point. While it has set pieces, such as the border stand-off and several tense chase sequences, its overall mood is far more thoughtful and deliberate than rock’em-sock’em. A lot of this is down to Roger Deakins‘ extraordinary cinematography, in which we’re as likely to focus on the movement of a curtain or motes of dust dancing in a sunbeam as we are on an explosion or a close-up of a reloading gun or whatever. As a result, “Sicario” feels at times almost woozily disconnected from the thick of the action, a perspective which brings its own kind of suspense.
48. “Django Unchained” (2012)
It would be difficult to call Quentin Tarantino, probably the most adored director of his generation, ‘underrated’ in many respects, but the praise heaped on his writing sometimes means that he doesn’t get his due as an action director. And “Django Unchained” is, whatever other problems it might have, a hell of an action movie. Tracking the title character (Jamie Foxx) and his German dentist/bounty hunter pal (Christoph Waltz) as they set out to free Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from slaver Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s overlong and self-indulgent and tonally problematic in places, but it satisfies on a bone-deep level, and much of that is to do with the crunchy, splattery action sequences, which demonstrate that every minute Tarantino spent studying with Peckinpah and Woo VHS-es was well spent — the final shootouts in particular can stand with anything that he cooked up in “Kill Bill” in terms of set pieces.
47. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)
Sam Raimi‘s first go at the Spideyverse was a pretty decent effort, but his sequel blew it out of the water, and remains probably the greatest superhero film of the pre-Christopher Nolan, pre-MCU era. Mostly that’s down to the clear, and very human, stakes that are established throughout, and to a truly tragic villain in Alfred Molina‘s Doc Ock, but it’s certainly helped by a collection of excellent action scenes. These range from set pieces like the fight on top of a runaway R train, to the moment where Dr. Octavius fuses with his creation and becomes octopussified, to the many exhilarating scenes of webslinging. In fact it’s probably the simplest scenes, as Tobey Maguire swings and swoops through the city, that really warrant a “Spider-Man 2” slot on this list: using a technique that was developed especially for this series and that reached its apotheosis here, it reminds us that yes, with great power comes great responsibility, but also the ability, more or less, to fly.
46. “Avatar” (2009)
James Cameron is many things: a maniac, a genius, richer than many entire nations, unaware that people aren’t as interested in deep-sea diving as he is. But he’s first and foremost a great action-director. His work on “The Terminator” and “Aliens” rightly remains near the peak of the genre, let alone his later work. And while “Avatar” might have made a surprisingly light dent on pop culture, given that it’s the top-grossing movie of all time, it holds to Cameron’s usual standards in terms of the execution of the action sequences. Earlier scenes all grip, but it’s the epic battle that takes up most of the last third of the movie, as the Na’vi take on the invaders, that’s the most indelible moment: juggling multiple levels of the fight across a wide cast, Cameron keeps things thrilling, inventive and, crucially, geographically crystal-clear. It’s an extraordinary future-war unlike anything people had seen before in a blockbuster.
45. “Drug War” (2012)
Hong Kong director Johnnie To is such an action maven that he could take up several more spots than the mere two we’ve allotted him, but as a brilliant summary of the different approaches to action that even a single filmmaker can take, “Drug War” provides the perfect counterpoint to “Exiled” (see no. 5). Here, To mostly keeps the action on a very low flame, favoring an engagingly talky and involved first two acts in which lines of betrayal and loyalty criss-cross between a criminal and a cop, who form an uneasy alliance to bring down an organized crime ring. But that all ultimately feels simply like a set up for a bravura, almost dialogue-free finale, in which a shoot-out between gangsters and police occurs outside a school, and incurs a massive body count. To literally takes no prisoners, orchestrating an sprawling gunfight that feels like it lasts for hours, because he packs so much tension into each moment.
44. “Lucy” (2014)
In the early ’90s, after “Nikita” and “The Professional,” Luc Besson looked like he might be the next big action director, but he then made a string of misfires, and though he was more successful than ever as the producer of the “Taken” series, he had seemingly stepped away from directing. And then came “Lucy,” a $500 million sleeper hit that must number among the strangest blockbusters ever. Scarlett Johansson (in the third of the unofficial Scarlett Johansson Post-Human Trilogy begun by “Under The Skin” and “Her”) plays the title character, a naive ex-pat who’s forced into being a drug mule, only for the drug to, essentially, turn her into a god. Careening into increasingly trippy territory until a third act that’s probably best experienced on some kind of hallucinogen, Besson makes the whole thing look great on a relatively slim budget, and more impressively, pulls off the trick of making the action thrilling even when there are relatively few stakes involved.
43. “The Guest” (2014)
As effective as it is as a horror film, Adam Wingard’s “You’re Next” stood out in part because of how well choreographed its carnage was: like a sort of bloody “Home Alone,” it worked as an actioner as well as a slasher pic. The director’s follow-up shifted the balance in the other direction, though you were some way into the film before you realized it was really an actioner. Dan Stevens, in a career-reinventing role, plays a seemingly charmingly young man who befriends a family whose son he served with in the military, who turns out to be a brainwashed super-soldier, essentially. Even on a modest budget, Wingard handles the shootouts and punch-ups beautifully, while neatly subverting the “Captain America” archetype in the process. It’s stylistically striking too, an homage to a certain kind of 1980s Cannon actioner that builds and embellishes on the concept rather than just being a pastiche.
42. “Non-Stop” (2014)
Of all the Liam Neeson-as-grizzled-action-hero films we could have chosen (for indeed, it is quite the populous sub-genre these days) it may seem counter-intuitive to have gone with this Jaume Collet-Serra peril-on-a-plane thriller. It certainly is less about crunching the faces of unnamed ethnic human traffickers than it is about gleefully gravity-free mystery twists and turns, but it certainly has enough fisticuffs, explosions, gunplay and high-concept thrills to merit the “action” tag too. It’s also quite delightfully aware of its own silliness, as opposed to the grim, icky, right-wing self-seriousness of “Taken” and its ilk. This is probably why it attracted such a quality cast (Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Michelle Dockery, Lupita Nyong’o and Nate Parker) who all seem to be having a good time bouncing off the immovable object that is Liam Neeson, whose bulk seems to fill about 90% of the airplane cabin where it almost entirely takes place.
41. “Blackhat” (2015)
The biggest flop of 2015 so far is also one of the best action movies in quite some time. Michael Mann’s divisive techno-thriller just edged out “Miami Vice” for a slot on this list (“Collateral” and “Public Enemies” also have some stunning sequences, but we wouldn’t classify them as ‘action’ in the same manner), but really the two films are something of a piece: both are propulsive actioners shot virtually entirely in gorgeous nighttime, where the romance is just as important as the bullets flying. For our money, “Blackhat,” in which Chris Hemsworth plays a blackhat hacker named Hathaway (a line that should double as one of Ron Burgundy’s warm-ups) who teams with the Chinese to take down a mysterious figure who’s caused a nuclear meltdown, takes the honors. Mann pushes further into a kind of action-movie expressionism than ever before, driven by mood, atmosphere and sound, and the results are glorious.