30. “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” (2008)
Hollywood may have given up on the Action-Western (and if they hadn’t before “The Lone Ranger,” they certainly have now), but Korea hasn’t, as Kim Jee-Woon’s agreeably nutty “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” makes abundantly clear. Like Sergio Leone directing a mash-up of “Treasure Of The Sierra Madre” and “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” the film’s convoluted plot sees the title characters (Jung Woo-sung, Lee Byung-hun and Song Kang-ho) tussling over a treasure map in 1930s Manchuria. Beginning with three cracking sequences in a row —a train robbery, a siege and a heist— the film barely lets off the gas from there, until the epic closing horse and motorcycle sequence. With the tone-juggling magic that often characterizes Korean cinema and Kim’s killer skills behind a camera, it’s essential for anyone that loves Westerns, Asian action flicks or cinema in general.
29. “All Is Lost” (2013)
No, it’s not really an “action film” in the Steven Seagal sense. It doesn’t have the set pieces, fistfights or chases that characterize the genre. But JC Chandor‘s gripping one-man-show, in which Robert Redford battles the elements and his sinking boat in the middle of the ocean with no means of communication, is, on another level, the purest action film on this whole list: all it is, from punchy beginning to harrowing, waterlogged end, is action. This can almost be to the detriment of the film as a classic entertainment piece: we get next to no characterization of the Redford character aside from him being essentially the personification of the will to survive, and there is no arc of change or growth to speak of. But Chandor more than makes up for it with his clinical, procedural attention to the minutiae of wave, rope and cleat, and some astonishing editing and scoring that amount to the viewer feeling as alone, stranded, weather beaten and breathless as our near-wordless hero.
28. “Shaolin Soccer” (2001)
Featuring a version of the world’s most popular sport that is closer to Quidditch or something equally fictional than to your average Premier League game, Stephen Chow‘s “Shaolin Soccer” was among the first of a glut of enjoyably over-the-top Asian action comedies that made a splash in the early 00s. Unapologetically embracing often fairly ropey CG, still there is enough technical skill on display here to make this slight story (in which the bad guys are literally called Team Evil) into an entirely winning, big hearted if totally simple-minded treat. With a ludicrous romance subplot about an acne-ridden baker girl whose kung-fu chops save the day, and an American superdrug that makes the Team Evil players invincible, it ends up as a kind of “Dragonball” meets “Street Fighter” meets “Football Manager” mash-up, but unlike most of the films that are more directly based on such video games, it’s enormous fun.
27. “Hot Fuzz” (2007)
The reason that so many parodies today, of the “Scary Movie”/“Meet The Spartans” variety, feel so utterly empty, sour and generally dour, is that they seem to be come from a place of contempt for the films they spoof. But at its best — “Young Frankenstein” or “Airplane!” to name but two — they’re infused with a love of the genre they mock, and “Hot Fuzz” is as great an example of that as you could imagine. Yes, you could roughly call it parody — what if a Jerry Bruckheimer movie was set in the sleepy British countryside, essentially — but Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s love for Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, Tony Scott, Shane Black, Jackie Chan, Kathryn Bigelow and so many more shines through. And even as they pay homage to the greats, the story’s more involving than most straight-ahead actioners, and the sequences, particularly the big final shootout, as well-constructed. Wright’s only grown as an action director since — the fights in “Scott Pilgrim” and “The World’s End” are world-class — but at least until next year’s “Baby Driver,” this is his purest entry to the genre.
26. “Elite Squad” (2007)
The first fiction film for Brazilian documentarian Jose Padilha (whose “Robocop” remake was more interesting than it had a right to be, and whose “Narcos” is thriving on Netflix), “Elite Squad” is a tough-as-fuck cop movie that takes a look at the “favelas” from the other side of the law in Brazil, and more specifically the BOPE, the special-forces unit who essentially undertake urban warfare against the country’s citizens. Shot in an arresting but mostly clear hand-held manner, it’s as focused on the internal politics of the unit (led by the excellent Wagner Moura) as on shootouts, but each works neatly alongside the other, leading to a gripping couple of hours that unsurprisingly made Padilha a hot property. Controversial at the time (it was condemned as fascistic by some, only for Costa-Gavras’ jury to give it the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival), it also led to a marginally inferior sequel a few years later.
25. “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” (2014)
Against almost all available odds, 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” relaunched the cult franchise so successfully that everyone forgot about the terrible Tim Burton attempt. And so it’s even more unlikely that the sequel to that film should have been even better, but Matt Reeves‘ take on the mythology proved even richer and more rewardingly smart, almost Shakespearean in reach. It also benefitted from grittier, somehow more grounded set pieces, leading to a climax which feels so well-staged and so well-earned that it’s only way later you realize how crazy it was to be invested in a film where a chimpanzee takes control of a turret gun in a tank. Featuring next-level performance capture (really, Toby Kebbell’s Koba and Andy Serkis‘ Caesar should have gained more plaudits in that regard) it’s a thrilling, absorbing and complex blockbuster that also delivers on the spectacle front.
24. “Sleepless Night” (2011)
A Jamie Foxx-starring remake is on the way in 2017, which makes this the perfect time to catch up on this terminally underseen French actioner from a few years back. Written and directed by Frederic Jardin (who surprisingly hasn’t been snapped up for blockbuster duty yet), “Sleepless Night” stars Tomer Sisley as a corrupt cop who rips off a drug deal, only for the dealer who owns the merchandise to kidnap his son to get it back, and for the coke to then disappear as well. Set almost entirely in a single location, a nightclub owned by the dealer, and deviously plotted, it’s got killer momentum from the first scene and mixes a certain Michael Mann-ish vibe with brutal realism (the fights are positively vicious) that really packs a punch. Add in a surprisingly well-realized father-son storyline, and you have one of the great overlooked genre pictures of the last few years.
23. “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)
It’s not that there isn’t a place for gratuitous action sometimes — plenty of films on this list prove that. But at its best, an action sequence can reveal character just as much a lengthy monologue, and it’s one of the reasons that makes “Captain America: Civil War” by some distance the best blockbuster of the year so far, and one of the best of the Marvel movies to date. Every punch thrown, every laser beam fired, feels deeply motivated. Even the way in which every character fights — and here, they fight a lot — feels true to their nature. And as pleasingly crunchy as the punch-ups are by the Russo Brothers here (as was true of the film’s predecessor, “The Winter Soldier”), it’s the joyfulness of the film’s centerpiece sequence, the airport throwdown, that lingers: a sequence full of surprises and great jokes even as the emotional current continues to run high.
22. ”Ong Bak” (2003)
Complete with a daft plot involving a sacred icon stolen from a small village and the purehearted local sent into Bangkok’s seamy underbelly to retrieve it, “Ong Bak” won’t win any prizes for thematic complexity. But it serves a much higher purpose: it was the international audience’s solar-plexus introduction to the martial art of Muay Thai, and its foremost filmic practitioner Tony Jaa. The action sequences in this film, whether street brawls or successive one-on-one underground fights, are little short of revelatory, and Jaa is simply Bruce Lee-beautiful to watch. Regular director Prachya Pinkaew serves his grace and athleticism perfectly —arguably, he’d do so even more in the “Ong-Bak” prequels and the “The Protector” series (“Where’s my elephant?”), but without “Ong-Bak,” none of that would have been possible. But don’t trust us on this —trust legendary MMA champion Anderson Silva, who first came to UFC attention by felling an opponent with an elbow strike he learned from Jaa in this very film.
21. “Fast Five” (2011)
With “Furious 7“‘s insane box office performance (it’s the 6th highest grossing film of all time worldwide), it’s possible to see franchise high watermark “Fast Five” as somewhat quaint: aww, it only took $650m! But the Justin Lin film reinvented the “Fast and Furious” series by bringing it out of the street-racing ghetto and into the vehicular heist movie territory it now occupies. And female ciphers aside, it’s still the best installment, combining a buddy dynamic between series stalwart Vin Diesel and crucial new addition Dwayne Johnson (“I’m in, Toretto”) with a ludicrous plot whereby they literally drag an entire vault out of a building and go careening down city streets with it bumping along behind, magically only taking out the bad guys. If the sky is now the limit for this franchise (and maybe not even that after the plane-drop scene in “Furious 7”), it’s really due to the good-humored, testosterone-soaked nonsense repped first and best by “Fast Five.”