40. “The Revenant” (2015)
Nearly a decade before it shot, “The Revenant” nearly got made with Park Chan-Wook directing and Samuel L. Jackson starring, something that perhaps would have been less of an awards magnet, but perhaps more fun. And for all of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Malick-isms, the film still probably works best on a base, pulpy level, of a man battling through harsh nature to take bloody revenge, rather than as something that could be mistaken for profundity. Iñárritu picks up from the expertly choreographed nature of “Birdman” and applies it to action here, and the sequences from the attack that opens the film through to the bird attack and the final battle, are gripping, visceral and hugely exciting — probably some of the best stuff that the director’s shot (and near a career peak for Emmanuel Lubezki, who won his third Oscar for the film too). Maybe it wasn’t the desired effect, but it made us want to see a full-blown actioner from Iñárritu rather than something more Oscar-friendly next time around.
39. “300” (2006)
There is little love lost between us and most of the films of Zack Snyder, it’s true, but with tremendous ill-grace we can grudgingly admit that this adaptation of Frank Miller‘s graphic novel retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, does play to his strengths. Instantly influencing a hundred knock-offs, Snyder’s hyper-stylized, speed-ramp-heavy, airlessly synthetic aesthetic works here to deliver a deeply faithful version of the source material: which means glorifying and getting off on the battles and fight scenes to an almost fetishistic degree. So never mind that it feels like there’s 20 minutes of story stretched out via excessive slo-mo to feature length, or that characterization is achieved mostly through facial hair and costume (aside from Gerard Butler who does get to bellow a lot). If you watch “300” purely for the flash and dazzle of its style and action, it’s hard not to be impressed with it as an era-defining spectacle.
38. “The Man From Nowhere” (2010)
We’d argue that what the films of Hong Kong were to the action cinema of the 1980s and 1990s, Korean movies have been to the genre in the first couple of decades of the 21st century. And the bullet-strewn “The Man From Nowhere” is perhaps one of the clearest lines between the two eras. Directed by Lee Jeong-beom and starring Won Bin (“Mother”), it feels like a conscious tribute to films of the era of “The Killer” or “Hard Boiled,” with ex-military pawn-shop broker Tae-sik Cha (Won) turned to kicking ass again when a sweet-natured six-year-old girl he’s befriended is kidnapped. It’s undeniably melodramatic, almost old-fashioned stuff, but ultimately pleasingly so, with Lee handling the action beautifully, and Won proving to be a fierce presence at the eye of the hurricane (and revelatory to those who know him only from “Mother”).
37. “Bad Boys II” (2003)
Love him or hate him (and it’s increasingly difficult to love him), few would deny that Michael Bay is a master of action. And perhaps Bay-Max’s finest hour, at least in this century and before he entered the ‘indistinguishable pieces of colliding metal’ phase of his career, is “Bad Boys II.” A thoroughly reprehensible, morally appalling, deeply queasy piece of entertainment, the film values excess to the exclusion of all else, like most of Bay’s work. But this cop flick, which pits Will Smith and Martin Lawrence against Cuban Ecstasy dealers (not that it matters), is also stuffed with thunderingly good action sequences, from shootouts to not one but about five freeway chase sequences, (including the one where the villains literally throw cars at our heroes) and a metaphorically insane recreation of the opening of Jackie Chan’s “Police Story” as a humvee demolishes a shanty town. In other words, shit just got real.
36. “District B13” (2006)
The relatively young discipline of parkour got its best cinematic workout to date in Pierre Morel‘s breathlessly exciting, balletic French-language actioner. A loose take on an “Escape from New York” scenario sees parkour creator David Belle star alongside free-runner Cyril Rafaelli as a criminal/cop duo forced into an uncomfortable partnership when a nuclear bomb is smuggled into the titular lawless district, which has been sealed off and abandoned by the authorities. The plot is mechanical at best, and the acting less than stellar, but that’s because the film, which was scripted and produced by Luc Besson, exists solely to show off the non-stunt-man, non-CG athleticism of its “pro” parkour-ers. And it does this amazingly well, from one-on-one fights, to sprawling chase sequences in which they tumble and clamber and slither down building facades and balconies like liquid. And there’s a directorial grace on display too that somehow all but disappeared with Morel’s U.S. debut, the distinctly un-balletic “Taken.
35. “Dredd” (2012)
It wouldn’t have been enough for the second movie based on the great 2000AD future cop judge-jury-and-executioner character to merely supersede the first, because 1995’s Sylvester Stallone vehicle “Judge Dredd” was completely awful. Fortunately, the 2012 edition of “Dredd” was a vast improvement. Written by Alex Garland and directed by Pete Travis, it sees the title character (Karl Urban, entirely under a helmet), and his new sidekick Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) attempting to storm a 200-floor tower block to take down crime kingpin Ma (Lena Headey), who’s pushing a new drug called Slo-Mo. The film suffered a bit at the time from plot similarities to “The Raid,” and it’s still perhaps lacking a little in the way of Verhoeven-ish satire from the source material, but it does an extraordinary amount of world building, Urban is perfect casting, and the bullet-strewn hard-R action deeply satisfies.
34. “A Bittersweet Life” (2003)
He hasn’t yet attracted the kind of critical adulation that countrymen Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho rightfully get — he’s more of a straight-up genre guy to some extent — but Kim Jee-woon is nevertheless a hugely talented filmmaker, and “A Bittersweet Life” is one of the clearest and bloodiest demonstrations of that. An action-thriller that verges on the operatic in places, it sees Lee Byung-hun play a mobster who falls in love for his boss’s mistress Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah), a classic noir premise that nevertheless feels extremely fresh here, in large part to the soulful romanticism that Lee inflects it with (Hollywood have tried to captured it since with “G.I. Joe” and “Terminator: Genisys,” but never with much success). Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t deliver on the action front: Kim does that stuff better than 99.9% of filmmakers, and every burst of violence here is impeccably executed. His work on the underrated “The Last Stand” is worth checking out too.
33. “Unstoppable” (2010)
He was unquestionably one of the modern-day action masters, but only the most insistently vulgar auteurists would suggest that much of the late Tony Scott’s 21st century output (aside from “Man on Fire” see above) was up there with his best. Fortunately, the filmmaker went out on a high with “Unstoppable,” a throwback disaster movie that mixed old-school genre tropes with his own hyperactive style to surprisingly nail-biting effect. The premise couldn’t be simpler: a high-speed train (“a missile the size of the Chrysler building”) is out of control, and only engineers Denzel Washington and Chris Pine can stop it. But Scott gets a surprising amount of variety and tension out of a film that’s literally on the rails —it looks spectacular, and it’s full of fun little performances, like those from Rosario Dawson and Kevin Corrigan. It might be a cliched journey, but it leaves your knuckles white in the best sense, and is a reminder of how much we’ll miss Scott.
32. “Shoot Em Up” (2007)
Lots of people really, really hate “Shoot ‘Em Up.” But helpfully it’s a film that contains a kind of acid test for your response within the first five minutes. If you don’t enjoy watching Clive Owen kill a bad guy with a carrot, a few minutes after delivering a baby by shooting through the umbilical cord that attaches him to his recently deceased mother, chances are you’re going to be one of the haters. For those of us with lower standards however, that’s only the beginning of the film’s cavalcade of guilty pleasures in which grotesque bad taste (Monica Bellucci as a gold-hearted hooker who breastfeeds grown men for money for starters) meets defiantly overstylized action aesthetics. The plot is nonsense, and the film underperformed at the box office, but even its many detractors praise director Michael Davis‘ way with action, so surely he should be due for release from director’s jail soon, having done his time?
31. “The Avengers” (2012)
If “The Avengers” didn’t work, we’d be looking at a very different cinematic landscape today. Sure, “Iron Man” had been big hits, but “The Incredible Hulk” had disappointed, and “Captain America” and “Thor” were solid but not “Dark Knight”-sized smashes. But much to the envy of every other studio in town, Joss Whedon pulled off the near-impossible, and made his superheroic team-up one of the most entertaining blockbusters in years. Mashing-up Marvel’s heroes to battle an alien invasion instigated by the devious Loki (Tom Hiddleston), long-time comics fan Whedon is clearly having a blast getting the characters to wind up, mock, and spar with each other, and it means that many of the film’s highlights are quiet character moments or beats. The rest, obviously, are the big loud action moments, and for someone only on their second feature, Whedon does a cracking job with the two major sequences, particularly the latter, which better than anything before, or arguably since, feels like comic panels come to life.