10. “John Wick” (2014)
A pair of stunt co-ordinators-turned-directors’ debut film, an unashamedly B-movie premise, starring an actor whose most indelible recent contribution to pop culture came in the form of a meme in which he morosely eats a sandwich? Can you blame any of us for being blindsided by just how much fun Chad Stahelski and David Leitch‘s “John Wick,” starring Keanu Reeves, turned out to be? Taking a leaf from the less-is-more plotting of classic films like “Point Blank” and “Le Samourai,” and bundling it up into a revenge Western archetype, the film delivers lean, taciturn, gun-fu thrills in abundance, and shows off exceptional fight choreography and editing (Stahelski and Leitch are both experienced second-unit helmers too). The mooted “Taken“-style renaissance hasn’t quite happened as yet for Reeves, but frankly ‘Wick’ is miles better than that Liam Neeson vehicle, not least because chief among its virtues is a sly awareness of its own silliness, however straight it’s played.
9. “The Dark Knight” (2008)
To begin with, Christopher Nolan perhaps wasn’t a great action director. There’s a good chase scene in “Insomnia,” but there was something a bit lumbering and leaden about the big set pieces in “Batman Begins,” a sign that the then-untested director still had much to learn. But “The Dark Knight” soon put paid to that. So much bigger and better than its predecessor (and establishing the giant IMAX scope feel that’s since become the director’s trademark), it would thrill as an action movie alone: from its opening heist sequence to the truck flip and hospital explosion, it’s far more confident in assembling sequences. But it doesn’t just jump between set pieces either: Nolan sets up a genuinely fascinating story, a crime epic that paints a picture of a city even beyond the man trying to destroy it and the man trying to save it, and he changed the superhero movie forever as a result.
8. “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (2011) & “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” (2015)
We tried to separate these two out, but it was too hard. Either way, whichever your favorite is, most would concede that one of Hollywood’s strangest, most pleasingly unpredictable franchises — oddly auteur-driven, sometimes maddening, centered around dangling Tom Cruise off high things — has peaked with its two most recent entries. Brad Bird’s “Ghost Protocol” has the greatest set piece, the breathtaking Burj Khalifa sequence, and has a lightness on its feet that’s truly pleasurable. But Christopher McQuarrie’s “Rogue Nation” is arguably more consistent, is better plotted, doesn’t have a completely rubbish villain, and has the divine Rebecca Ferguson in it. Either way around, after three flawed-but-fun instalments in the years before, the formula’s been perfected in recent years, and the franchise has gone from being a guilty pleasure to just a pleasure.
7. “Edge Of Tomorrow” (2014)
Two pretty solid pieces of advice — never rule out Doug Liman, and never rule out Tom Cruise. The former is by most accounts one of the more chaotic big-budget directors out there, while the latter has often left his personal life and… interesting religion overshadow his talent. But their first team-up (drug-running drama “Mena” hits in January) is one of the most pleasant blockbuster surprises in recent years, and though it underperformed a little in theaters, clearly performed well enough at home that a sequel’s in active development. Essentially “Groundhog Day” meets “Starship Troopers,” it sees Cruise and badass Emily Blunt live through a sort of alien D-Day over and over again after being caught in a time loop. It’s funny, fleet-footed, smart (few movies have ever used Cruise’s star persona so cannily) and hugely exciting, with the combat sequences among the best in years. A summer blockbuster so good we didn’t really deserve it.
6. “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007)
We, or rather our spy franchises, live in such a post-Bourne world these days that it can be easy to overlook just what a tectonic shift the series represented in terms of how big-budget action films could be approached. While Doug Liman‘s first entry, “The Bourne Identity,” did the work in terms of establishing a new, real-world tone, it is really Paul Greengrass‘ nervy handheld docudrama style that redefined the action landscape, and of his two go-rounds, ‘Ultimatum’ is the more satisfying film — we have yet to see if this week’s “Jason Bourne” can top it. It also contains the single best action set piece of the series to date, a neat encapsulation of everything ‘Bourne’ did differently from the glossy, gadget-driven spy-jinks of yore: the foot chase through a crowded Waterloo station. Simply a masterclass in gritty action, it uses nothing more than tense cutting, comprehensible sight lines, and hundreds of extras in an enclosed space to create one of the most thrilling and genuinely perilous-feeling action sequences in recent memory.
5. “Exiled” (2006)
He’s never had the Western breakthrough that someone like John Woo got, but anyone who knows anything about the genre knows that Johnnie To is one of the best and most reliable names in the action genre, and he could have easily taken up four or five slots on this list, at least. In the end, just edging out “Election” and in addition to his terrific recent “Drug War,” (at no. 44) we went for the terrific “Exiled.” Set in the fascinating location of Macau, it sees four hitmen come to the city to kill a retired gangster, kicking off a gloriously complex plot of twists and turns that owes as much to the spaghetti Western as to classic Hong Kong action cinema. From the stunning opening sequence to the later shootouts, among the finest examples seen since Woo was last on form, this is To in tip-top form, and with a soulfulness that isn’t always in his work too.
4. “The Raid” (2011)
The chief competition for Gareth Evans’ “The Raid” is its own sequel — “The Raid 2,” if anything, delivers even more on the action front than its way action-packed predecessor. But we still lean towards the original, not just out of anti-sequel bias, and not just out of recognition that the first film is the one that allows the next to exist. Sure, without the breakout success of “The Raid”‘s pared-back minimal plot, wall-to-wall action, in which an Indonesian SWAT team led by Iko Uwais must work its way through a Jakarta slum-block’s worth of enemies (including the awesome Mad Dog, played by Yayan Ruhian), we’d never have got the wilder sequel. But the first film still feels like a better overall balance, with (very brief) moments of quiet allowing the action to really sing. Introducing the world to Pencak Silat, a martial art that involves every part of the body and uses weaponry too, it’s also a gauntlet thrown down in favor of practical action as opposed to whatever the latest Hollywood CG-fest. Not bad for a $1m-budget Indonesian-language movie.
3. “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” (2000)
It’s always been tricky to predict Ang Lee’s next move, but few thought that he would follow up acclaimed ’70s indie drama “The Ice Storm” and unloved Civil War epic “Ride With The Devil” with… a martial arts movie. But “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” wasn’t ready to be confined to simple genre boundaries: it picked up seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and to this day stands (by some distance) as the biggest foreign-language film ever in the U.S. Teaming megastars Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh (neither of whom spoke Mandarin), the film’s pairing of swooning period romance and stunning wuxia action (from the great choreographer Yuen Woo-ping) wasn’t new, but has rarely been better melded or refined than it is here, and the fight scenes and bamboo-forest-chases still rank among all-time action movie highlights.
2. “Kill Bill” (2003/2004)
After a six-year absence, Quentin Tarantino returned to refute accusations that he was all mouth and no trousers with his epic, formally inventive two-part roaring rampage of revenge that marked a new phase in the helmer’s career. Tarantino’s muse, Uma Thurman, plays The Bride, an ex-hitwoman who goes on an international quest to wipe out her former colleagues (Lucy Liu,Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah) and her boss/ex-lover, the titular Bill (David Carradine). Perhaps for the first time, in part because he had a bigger budget, Tarantino was able to indulge all his peccadilloes, from the Shaw Brothers and anime to lingering close-ups of feet, and the result is like the delirious fantasy by the smartest, funniest, most knowledgeable fourteen-year-old boy you’ve ever met. In a good way. And though he’d had little experience with action before, the set pieces sing, particularly the instantly legendary House Of Blue Leaves battle.
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
Ordinarily, we like to give a movie a few years to age before anointing it a classic to this degree. But there can’t be that many people with a brain, a heart, and an adrenal gland who came out of “Mad Max: Fury Road” back in May of last year who don’t consider it among the finest action movies ever made. George Miller (aged 71, for the record) took the template of his “The Road Warrior” and went completely mental with it, with a densely-realized world, a gloriously progressive agenda, and an understanding of framing, cutting, and blocking that puts directors half his age to shame. Extraordinarily designed, excellently performed, unapologetically subversive, and sometimes just staggeringly weird (remember when it turns into a Bergman movie in the middle for the blue-tinged section with the tree?), the only problem is that we’ve got 84 years of the 21st century left and we’re not sure anyone’s going to top it.
Again, we for the most part held war and western movies for other lists, so films like “Open Range,” “Appaloosa,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The Kingdom,” “Black Hawk Down” and “71” didn’t make the cut in the end. And there are few others that came close, but didn’t quite qualify either, like “The Nice Guys,” “Oldboy,” “The Grandmaster,” “World War Z,” “Drive,” “City Of God” and “Gangs Of Wasseypur.”
On our near-miss list are films like “Kung Fu Hustle,” “Ip Man,” “Haywire,” “Assassination,” “Miami Vice,” “District 9,” “Star Trek,” “Taken,” “Speed Racer,” “The Expendables,” “Yakuza Apocalypse,” “Zatoichi,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Skyfall,” “Time And Tide,” “The Man From UNCLE,” “Inception,” “Minority Report,” “The Rundown,” “Hanna,” “The Last Stand,” “Brotherhood Of The Wolf,” “Torque,” “Red Cliff,” Death Proof,” “Pineapple Express,” “Let The Bullets Fly,” “Welcome To The Punch,” “The Nest,” “Point Blank,” “Unleashed,” “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Matrix Reloaded.” Anything else? Let us know in the comments.