20. “Why Don’t You Play In Hell?” (2013)
Sion Sono’s batshit-crazy mash-up “Why Don’t You Play In Hell?” signalled a shift from the heavier fare he’d been making to more genre-inflected territory, and served as a love letter both to both the action movie and to filmmaking in general. The movie sees the collision of a group of action-loving amateur filmmakers called the Fuck Bombers, mobster Boss Muto and his actress daughter Mitsuko, with the former enlisted to make an action movie that immortalizes both Mitsuko and the big gang battle. Both slapsticky and strangely sad, it’s an extraordinary mix of tones that shouldn’t work at all, but does tremendously well —Sono clearly relishes the action sequence, particularly in a demented, blood-soaked final battle. Follow-up “Tokyo Tribe,” a hip-hop musical, arguably has even better action, but it’s also exhausting and queasily misogynistic, so this is definitely our pick.
19. “Gravity” (2013)
“Like a rollercoaster ride” — a half-compliment, half-insult that’s often applied to a certain kind of giant blockbuster, especially in the era of 3D tentpoles. It’s rarely been applied better than to Alfonso Cuaron’s extraordinary “Gravity,” essentially a space survival simulator that unfolds in more or less real time, and sees Sandra Bullock’s stricken astronaut attempting to find her way back to Earth despite being totally alone, adrift and with her space station having been destroyed. Cuaron’s facility for handling effects and action had been proven with his “Harry Potter” film and “Children Of Men,” and he designs nightmarishly terrifying, breathless sequences unfolding in long, unbroken shots and achieved with immaculate digital effects, proving once and for all that the director has an imagination that few others could compete with. But for all its white-knuckle excitement, it’s got a great big soul too, thanks to a mighty performance by Sandra Bullock.
18. “Crank” (2006)
If part of the value of any action film is in how well it sets up its thrills, there is a zen-like purity to the premise of “Crank” (and, to a lesser extent, its even-more-gonzo sequel “High Voltage“) that must place it high on any list of action greats. Here, the enormously underrated Jason Statham, revelling in the awesome moniker Chev Chelios, through a completely preposterous series of events, must keep his adrenaline levels elevated…or die! Cue a frenetic series of skits, courtesy of no-holds-barred absurdity merchants Neveldine/Taylor, in which Chelios tried to find the bad guys, while picking fights, snorting coke, stealing police motorbikes, having sex in public, and generally engaging in the most reckless behavior he can — anything to keep the blood pumping. Massive props would be due for devising this event-horizon action plot hook even if the film were less fun — but it’s also an inventive, hilarious blast.
17. “A Hard Day” (2014)
If there’s one country consistently producing cleverly reimagined genre-inflected fare right now, it’s probably Korea, so it’s no surprise that one of our biggest action discoveries of the past few years should hail from there. It’s only director Kim Seong-hun‘s second film — the underperformance of his prior movie apparently sent him into a confidence tailspin from which it took 8 years to emerge. But be glad he did, because this is the absolute real deal: a careeningly energetic and inventive black comedy in which every single scene seems to have been precisely calibrated and imagined down to the tiniest detail for maximum tension, comedy or catharsis. Also featuring two or three of the nuttiest extended fights you’re likely to see, this story of a corrupt cop very reluctantly finding the path to righteousness via his extraordinarily hard day only had a minuscule stateside theatrical release, which, as a silver lining, means many of you must still have this treat in store.
16. “Casino Royale” (2006)
His track record in other movies might be troublesome (see, or rather, don’t, “Vertical Limit” and “Green Lantern”), but if you’re looking to bring back Bond, Martin Campbell is your man. Eleven years after revamping 007 with Pierce Brosnan and one of the best films in the series for “Goldeneye,” Campbell repeated the trick with the series’ first Daniel Craig film. “Skyfall” might have been more successful, but “Royale’ is simply the better movie: it has a great villain in Mads Mikkelsen, a great love interest in Eva Green, and is the rare Bond film where the quieter moments are just as memorable as the set pieces. Not that the action’s lacking, though: the opening parkour sequences might still be the high watermark of the Craig era as far as sequences go. It runs out of steam by the time that it gets to Venice for the conclusion, but this is top-tier 007 otherwise.
15. “Apocalypto” (2006)
What do we talk about when we talk about “action”? Generally speaking, in how the word is used in a Hollywood context, it means fights and/or chases. “Apocalypto” is essentially one long chase, interspersed with several fights, all the more remarkable for taking place during the end of the Mayan era, in 16th century Guatemala. As his idyllic life as husband, father, and son of the tribe’s chief is threatened by invading forces, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) must battle his way back to his hidden family through unforgiving jungle and enemies seen and unseen. But the real greatness of Mel Gibson‘s film (and no matter how persona non grata he may be, this film proves his directorial chops even more than his more celebrated movies) is in the kinetic pacing of its foot chases, which become every bit as thrilling as the explosions, gunplay, and car crashes that the genre usually deals in.
14. “Gladiator” (2000)
It’s easy to forget many Oscars and hundreds of millions of dollars later, but “Gladiator” was hella risky on paper: a director who hadn’t had a hit in a decade, a genre, the swords-and-sandals picture, that hadn’t been in fashion since the 1960s, and an untested star best known for playing a chubby grey-haired man twenty years older than him in “The Insider.” But even fifteen years on, Ridley Scott’s film still thrills. Using CGI to bring a vision of Ancient Rome like little that had been seen before, telling a characterful, textured story, and stacking the cast with great actors, from fresh faces like Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix to sozzled veterans like Oliver Reed and Richard Harris, it works on almost every level, not least in the blood-splattered, hugely influential action sequences. It inspired a dozen imitators, but from “Alexander” to “Troy” none hold a candle to Maximus.
13. “Hero” (2002) / “House Of Flying Daggers” (2004)
We’re breaking our own rules here for a split entry, but who could possibly pick between Zhang Yimou’s gorgeous, extravagant wuxia epics? The two were released just months apart in the U.S. (due, it may not surprise you, to Harvey Weinstein) and make perfect companion pieces. “Hero” is the artsier of the pair to some degree, a narratively tricksy story of a Nameless warrior (Jet Li) relating to his king how he killed three assassins, while “House Of Flying Daggers,” set a few hundred years later, is the more straightforward action movie, with police captains Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro utilizing a blind dancer to lead them to a rebel group. The films have different DOPs (Christopher Doyle shot “Hero”), but both are spectacularly colorful and every-frame-a-picture beautiful, feature some of the most thrilling martial arts sequences put on film and showcase some of Asia’s biggest stars at their best.
12. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015)
JJ Abrams‘ triumphant relaunch of the Most Beloved Blockbuster Franchise of All Time™ already feels like a fact of life so it’s hard to remember it was ever in doubt. But it was an uncertain prospect not least because the heart-in-mouth thrills of the original trilogy came less from bravura filmmaking and more from our investment in the characters and our understanding of what was at stake. So if a lot of bigger action sequences here are rather too beholden to the originals (Poe Dameron mimicking Luke’s X-wing assault on the Death Star, for example) it can kind of be forgiven, because the smaller, more intimate character-through-action sequences are so good. From Finn’s and Poe’s escape to Rey’s introduction salvaging scrap from old fuselage to the scenes of them capering around the Millennium Falcon, or fighting the smaller, one-on-one lightsaber battles, it’s the smaller set pieces that matter most here, and Abrams knocks them out of the park.
11. “13 Assassins” (2010)
You know that odd/even rule about “Star Trek” movies (which has kind of been debunked by the reboot series, but anyway)? Imagine that, but if there was no rhyme or reason to whether the movies were good or not, and if a “Star Trek” movie came out every four months, and you begin to understand what it’s like to follow Japanese actor/director/general superstar Takashi Miike. But every so often, something like “13 Assassins” comes along, and you remember why you loved Mr. Miike so much in the first place. A “Seven Samurai”-style epic about a baker’s-dozen of badasses planning to kill a mad aristocrat, it’s a slow-burner, but one that explodes gloriously when the climax comes with a giant battle sequence (featuring Hollywood-level production values) that Kurosawa would be proud of. Perhaps if Miike slowed his output a little, we’d have more like this, and less like, well, “Zebraman 2,” the director’s other 2010 picture.