The 30 Greatest, Straight-Up Ass-Kicking Action Movies of the Century
I love a good superhero flying through the air, or Liam Neeson blurrily breaking a guy's wrist with his "special set of skills," but these days, it's harder than ever to find movies that glorify actual action. Are the stunt-filled movies that evolved out of Westerns and Bruce Lee, got pumped up during the Reagan-Stallone years, and learned spin-kicks when Van Damme showed up, gone for good?
I'm here to declare "no," and celebrate 30 of the best and baddest two-fisted, back-flipping action vehicles that have come out since 2000. Nothing against caped crusaders, but you won't find movies that emphasize visual effects over stunts and choreography on this list. Also absent are "post-action" movies, i.e., action-driven stories where camera tricks obscure what used to be money shots. Instead, these are films with thrilling, kinetic, and objectively badass set-pieces, preferably joined with characters and stories that capture our imaginations, or even have something to say.
With a few ties (OK... cheats), this top 30 contains movies ranging from obscure straight-to-video to massive blockbuster, and originating from many different countries (but apologies to Jason Statham, an actor I love and the era's only real marquee-level action star -- Transporter 2 nearly made this list). I think you'll find that the modern age of action has plenty to offer.
30. Fighting (2009)
Before Channing Tatum was a household name, he re-teamed with A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints director Dito Montiel for this idiosyncratic take on the underground-fight formula. Tatum's Shawn is a sweet, inarticulate Rocky Balboa-type, homeless and selling fake Harry Potter books until he falls into the mob-funded fight game.
Clearer and more varied fight scenes -- the standout involves Shawn out-grappling UFC fighter Cung Le on a shiny mansion floor -- would move Fighting higher up this list. But I'm enamored with Montiel's naturalistic dialogue, casting, and unglamorous depiction of a New York City teeming with oddballs and two-bit hustlers. I especially like Harvey (Terrence Howard), Shawn's sleazy manager whose dream is to save up enough money to start his own IHOP franchise. Fighting is like if young Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee took a stab at the Charles Bronson-led Hard Times.
29. District B13 (2004)
The Professional director Luc Besson is the mastermind behind the Taken series, the Taxi series, and the Transporter series. But the most purely Bessonian of his productions is B13. Blatantly inspired by Escape From New York, anti-hero Leïto (David Belle) teams with undercover cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) to find a stolen nuclear bomb in a walled-off Paris suburb. Belle is the founder of the movement discipline of parkour, while Raffaelli is a stuntman and the film's fight choreographer, and their physical abilities take center stage. First-time director Pierre Morel puts them through a series of jaw-dropping foot chases up walls, across rooftops and balconies, and climbing and rolling and leaping feet-first through tiny windows without the aid of wires or digital effects.
Besson showcased parkour in Taxi 2 (1998) and Yamakasi (2001), but pairing the art form with a story about the urban class war, a tension that would erupt into riots in Paris the following year, makes for a uniquely French exploitation film.
28. Hanna (2011)
After directing young Saoirse Ronan to an Academy Award nomination in Atonement, Joe Wright gifted her an action-revenge movie. She plays the badass Hanna, whose exiled-CIA-operative father (Eric Bana) raised her to be an assassin. On her 15th birthday, he literally flips a switch to lure the CIA to their secluded cabin in snowy Finland to begin avenging the death of her mother. Ronan and Bana scuffle with operatives and skinhead thugs sent by Cate Blanchett as the increasingly unhinged antagonist.
Though shaky-cam enables her hand-to-hand fights, Hanna sports plenty of chasing, pumped up by a Chemical Brothers score, plus two showstopping long-take fight scenes. But to me, the movie's real power comes from the character study of a girl raised to understand the harshest parts of life but deprived of very basic experiences. Hanna predates Hunger Games' Katniss and Brave's Merida as a masterful female archer and lethal being capable of friendship.
27. Death Sentence (2007)
Death Sentence is closer to Charles Bronson's Death Wish than the more active action movies that dominate this list. (In fact, the title comes from author Brian Garfield's Death Wish sequel, written as a rebuttal to what he saw as a pro-vigilante stance in the 1974 film.) Kevin Bacon plays Nick Hume, whose son is brutally attacked by a cartoonish punk gang. Instead of testifying against them, he decides to hunt the men down. Directed by James Wan (Saw, Furious 7), the film's most memorable set-piece is a carefully orchestrated one-take foot chase through multiple levels of a parking garage, ending with a car rolling over the side, and a final shootout captured by a nimble camera that floats down hallways, around corners, and through bullet holes. Bacon's Oscar-caliber effort elevates Death Sentence to high-minded, unpretentious pulp.
26. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Yeah, I get it -- The Matrix Reloaded is messy and meandering, far from the woven threads of concept, story, and style that help 1999's The Matrix still echo through culture today. But it would also be silly to deny the action potency of this weird, crazy movie, a blockbuster sequel so ambitious they built a 1.5-mile loop of freeway to film a car chase.
The Wachowskis pour out a feverish brew of mythology and philosophizing as their simulated world heads for an apocalypse of glitches and programming errors. Their further saga of now-flight-capable cyber-Superman Neo (Keanu Reeves) also tops the original in spectacle and filmmaking trickery. At the time, much attention was paid to the envelope-pushing special effects, such as those required for Neo to fight an ever-growing mob of Agent Smiths (all played by Hugo Weaving). But the other fights, choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-ping, cut deeper, like Neo's flipping, spinning battle, set in a chateau stocked with smashable statues and bladed weapons to pluck off of the walls. The aforementioned chase sequence features a buffet of high-speed vehicular stunts involving gunfire, crashes, and hand-to-hand in the backseat of a car. That's not even the climax. I can't scoff at a movie this daring and unorthodox and yet so full of thrills.
25. Redeemer (2014)
Chilean martial artist Marko Zaror and director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza have collaborated on several uniquely emotional action vehicles since Kiltro in 2006. While I love their James Bond/Shaft riff Mandrill, Redeemer, where Zaror plays a mysterious avenger wandering, praying, and playing daily Russian roulette as penance for his past as a cartel hitman, is their best. After saving a fisherman from a serious beatdown, "The Redeemer" decides to help the man with his gangster problems, either by negotiating a cease fire... or killing all of them. Whichever works.
The fights, choreographed by Zaror and staged as long-take one-on-ones, mix realism (jiu-jitsu holds, systematically breaking down opponents by noticing weak spots to focus on) and pageantry (backflips, 360-degree kicks). The story strikes a similar balance -- as withheld information comes out, a simple tale of revenge becomes much trickier.
24. Born to Fight (2004)
Shortly after putting Thai action movies on the map as stunt coordinator of the acclaimed Ong-Bak, Tony Jaa's mentor, Panna Rittikrai, directed one of the most insane collections of stunts enacted in the modern age. In Born to Fight, a group of athletes become a collective John McClane after stumbling into a poor village held hostage by drug lords who want to launch a nuclear missile into Bangkok(!). They use their sports specialties (pole vaulting, gymkata, kicking soccer balls) to fight back.
I might be making it sound too upbeat. Like many Thai films, it's full of wrenching melodrama and tragedy. But the stunts are radical. The players' powers mean everybody gets knocked around like tackling dummies, ricocheting off or breaking through walls, poles, and any nearby object. A fight set atop semi-trucks, the heroes leaping from trailer to trailer, is a mind-boggler -- each time they're knocked off, they bounce off other trucks and hit the ground in the same shot. I couldn't figure out how they did it until I saw the outtakes in the end credits… and realized they really just knocked them off of trucks onto the dirt. Sometimes they get up and laugh, sometimes they don't.
23. I Saw the Devil (2010)
After learning of his wife's brutal murder, Kim Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), an agent of South Korea's National Intelligence Service, uses his elite skills to hunt down all four suspects. But once he determines the killer is school bus driver Jang Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), he doesn't kill him. Instead, he puts a tracker on the guy, lets him go, and torments the hell out of him.
South Korean cinema is known for its bleakness, and it's hard to imagine a more extreme version of the old Last House on the Left, revenge-makes-you-as-bad-as-them trope. The nihilistic gorefest is not for the weak of heart or stomach, but it's a great leading-man showcase for Byung-hun, and director Kim Jee-woon (who also directed him in A Bittersweet Life and The Good, the Bad, the Weird) loads it with fast, clean action, from chases to beatings to motorcycle ramming to a bloody knife fight inside a taxi. Soo-hyun is a true ass-kicking hero, but he's also a compromised one. You can't help but feel guilty for thinking he's cool.
22. Hero (2002)
Acclaimed director Zhang Yimou's influential wuxia is period martial arts on the immense scale of an Akira Kurosawa epic. It focuses on only a half-dozen characters -- the nameless protagonist (Jet Li), three legendary rebel assassins (Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Donnie Yen), a student (Zhang Ziyi), and the king they're all plotting to kill (Chen Daoming) -- but it mostly takes place in a massive palace, surrounded by hundreds of armored guards ready to fire arrows like a cloud of locusts.
Between cinematographer Christopher Doyle's stunning imagery and the superb sound design it's an unusually sensual approach to martial arts, fetishizing the sights and sounds of vibrating blades and arrows, swords cutting through raindrops and hair, whirling clouds of leaves flying in the wake of a spinning kick. Choreographer Ching Siu-tung's elegant fights, a parallel to music and calligraphy, are heavy on sword techniques and aren't afraid to use wires for superhuman leaps and balance. A particularly magical scene has Li and Leung floating above a lake, occasionally cutting the surface with their toes, their palms, their blades. Hero has been accused of being propaganda, because it seems to glorify Jet Li's character for accepting a dictator's logic (which may be the result of an iffy English translation). But on a technical level, Hero is a filmmaking triumph, virtually unmatched in scope and beauty.
21. Blade II (2002)
This top-notch sequel mixes the 1998 original's unique vampires-'n-techno-'n-martial-arts style with incoming director Guillermo del Toro's weirder, more gothic tastes. Putting a fanged spin on classic action tropes, Wesley Snipes' half-bloodsucker super-slayer is forced to team with a special-ops vampire squad to fight a deadlier threat. Though the groundbreaking (if sometimes artificial) digital stunt-double techniques pretty much shepherded in modern special-effects action, there are still enough real stunts and choreography to qualify for this list: chasing motorcycles on foot, sword fights, and brawls that mix martial arts, WWE wrestling moves, and pillar-cracking super strength. The choreographer is none other than Donnie Yen, who also has a (dialogue-free) supporting role.
Though the quest of Blade II leads our hero to a fuller understanding of himself and his vampire brethren, he does not sacrifice his status as a larger-than-life hero with elite talent for superhero posing, posturing, and quipping. Often considered the best of the series, Blade II is a one-of-a-kind combo of badass action and colorful creature-feature.
20. Drug War (2012)
This complex police procedural plays almost like The Wire or The Departed meets Mission: Impossible. Chinese narcotics cops deduce that hospital patient Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) received his injuries in a meth lab explosion, and they use the threat of the death penalty to flip him against his superiors. Can they pull off an elaborate undercover operation with his help? Will he stay loyal to them? Should he?
Like he has with professional murderers, famed Hong Kong director Johnnie To (Exiled) depicts harsh drug laws and the surveillance state with a non-judgmental eye: They are ominous portents of oppression and intoxicatingly powerful law enforcement tools at the same time. Movie tradition causes us to assume Timmy is a rat. The impressive job skills of the police make them easy to root for as they rush around setting up cameras, changing costumes, planning cover stories, getting messages to other agencies, tailing vehicles, even clandestinely dealing with a drug overdose. It's one suspenseful sequence after another, but To does find a window for his traditional bonding-over-food scene, and a heart-wrenching speech delivered in sign language.
19. Chocolate (2008)
In this indulgent Thai delight, from Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew, then-24-year-old taekwondo phenom Jeeja Yanin debuts as an autistic prodigy who learns to fight by watching Bruce Lee and Tony Jaa movies. When her ex-gangster mother needs money for chemotherapy, she uses those skills to pick fights with gangsters who owe her money.
It's easy to balk at Chocolate's somewhat problematic treatment of neuro-developmental disorder as superpower, and its extreme tonal shifts from over-the-top action to tearful melodrama, but it's one of the best examples I've ever seen of an action film structured so that each fight is bigger and more elaborate than the last. The ludicrousness of the story is easy to forgive considering the Jackie Chan-like level of complexity in the choreography. There's really nothing else like the climactic multi-level fight on the side of a building, a setup many have compared to a live-action game of Donkey Kong. Gangsters pop out of the windows to attack and she bashes them like a game of Whac-A-Mole. For a must-watch follow-up, see 2009's Raging Phoenix, which pits Yanin against guys on pogo-stick stilts.
18. Man of Tai Chi (2013)
Like so many action movie heroes before him, Tiger Chen (played by… Tiger Chen) is a humble man drawn into a shady underground fighting circuit. As he develops his own style of tai chi that emphasizes power and competition, he finds himself caught between the opposing influences of his kind mentor (Yu Hai) and his decadent new boss (Keanu Reeves). He works to save his 600-year-old temple from foreclosure while learning to violate everything it stands for.
Man of Tai Chi is Reeves' directorial debut, and has all the elements we love about latter-day Keanu: clearly filmed action, reality-defying choreography (by Yuen Woo-ping of Drunken Master and Crouching Tiger fame), and earnest philosophical underpinnings enhanced by a behind-the-scenes story of loyalty; Reeves met Chen as a stuntman on the Matrix sequels and decided to give him a starring vehicle. The actor-turned-director also delivers one of his most fun performances, playing a weirdo villain who installs spy cameras and gets off on watching Tiger be sad. His build and body language are so unique that he's immediately recognizable when introduced wearing a spooky mask, and it's a genuine treat to realize "Holy shit, Tiger's gonna fight Neo!"
17. Ip Man (2008)
Ip Man is a period biopic that won top prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards. That's one thing wrong with America: Our best picture winners never have awesome fights choreographed by Sammo Hung! In Ip Man, Donnie Yen plays the legendary grandmaster, known as the first open teacher of Wing Chun and early mentor of Bruce Lee. We meet him living a life of privilege, sipping tea and practicing kung fu in a mansion, before the Second Sino-Japanese War leaves him poor, shoveling coal all day and fighting just to bring home a potato for his wife (Lynn Hung).
It's an inspirational story with great characters and story-driven fight sequences (notably an indoor duel against Riki-Oh star Fan Siu-wong, with both participants trying not to break any of Mrs. Ip's furniture or vases), but the movie is special primarily for Yen's performance as the all-time most modest screen badass. He takes challenges in private and is outraged when a neighbor gossips about him handing a guy his ass. Taking pains to defuse any conflict, he is overly polite and apologetic to all aggressors, and really doesn't want to have to show them who they're messing with. But he will. Yen has unsurprisingly continued the role through two very enjoyable sequels, but this first one has the best balance of martial arts and drama.
16. Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006)/Undisputed III: Redemption (2010)
Only in the unpredictable arena of direct-to-video sequels could Israeli stunt-coordinator/Power Rangers director Isaac Florentine turn a flawed prison boxing drama from the legendary Walter Hill into one of the era's best action franchises. In Florentine's Undisputed II, Michael Jai White takes over as Ving Rhames' George "Iceman" Chambers character -- the villain of Hill's film. He's a disgraced ex-champ, now framed, incarcerated in a filthy Russian prison and pushed into another underground fighting circuit. This time it's no-holds-barred, so the boxer learns to fight with his legs to defeat the "most complete fighter" Yuri Boyka (Scott Adkins in his breakthrough role). In the third installment, antagonist Boyka moves into the protagonist role to overcome his knee injury and battle "Dolor" Quiñones (Chilean star Marko Zaror in his English-language debut). Florentine's acrobatic, bone-crunching fights (choreographed by J.J. Perry and Larnell Stovall, respectively), dynamic camerawork, and gruffly sympathetic anti-heroes make for an appealing spin on the dependable illegal fighting tournament formula.
15. 13 Assassins (2010)
Takashi Miike's remake of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 film of the same name stays faithful to the timeless story: A veteran samurai, Shinzaemon (Kōji Yakusho), is secretly hired to assassinate the Shogun's lunatic half-brother Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) before he can attain a higher office. In classic commando-mission fashion, Shinzaemon and his recruited team plan their strategy, build their tools, train, and execute.
Like in Seven Samurai, there is much waiting and bonding before all this preparation amounts to trapping Naritsugu and his army in a wooden battleground, perfect for reaching higher ground and picking them off with spears, arrows, bombs, and boobie traps. Luckily, Miike's payoff is sensational, longer and bloodier than in the original, but still crowd-pleasing entertainment -- not the transgressive hot-rodding he made a name for himself with in movies like Ichi the Killer. His sick imagination is reserved for making us loathe Naritsugu, a villain so evil that bow-hunting small children is one of his least sadistic activities. Shinzaemon and the samurai end him in a most satisfying fashion.
14. Vengeance (2009)
The joyless, weathered face of French singer Johnny Hallyday takes center stage in Johnnie To's gorgeous poem of a movie. Hallyday plays Costello, a stoic, brain-damaged chef who hires a trio of assassins (Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, and Lam Ka-Tung) to help him avenge the murder of his daughter (Sylvie Testud).
Vengeance is rich with atmosphere and anticipation. To uses Macau as the otherworldly setting for brotherly bonding over violence, professional codes, and the sharing of food. Shootouts are overshadowed by tense, slow-motion staredowns, set against falling leaves or windblown detritus. During peacetime, the normally cold-hearted killers develop a deep emotional investment in the mission. As the backstory comes to light one piece at a time, we realize that the bad guys are a little less bad than we thought, and the good guys a little less good (Simon Yam is great and complex as the hard-to-hate crime-boss villain who politely calls the killers to ask if there's any way to work this out). The movie's conclusion illustrates the pointlessness of vengeance, as -- and this is a BIG FAT SPOILER -- it's achieved only after memory loss has deprived Costello of its meaning.
13. John Wick (2014)
Keanu Reeves' stunt double Chad Stahelski slid into the director's chair to reinvigorate the ex-killer-comes-out-of-retirement-for-revenge subgenre with a perfect premise, an ingenious mythology, and, most of all, extraordinary sequences of violence. As the title character, Reeves blends kung fu, submission holds, driving stunts, and close-range shootings so fluidly that the guns and cars feel like an extension of his body. The setting is an underground network of killers-for-hire with their own set of rules, currency, and services (ranging from hospitality to body disposal), further elaborated upon in this year's also-excellent sequel.
John Wick is a top-shelf festival of brutality in all respects, but what truly puts the "+" on its A is Wick's primary motive for his war against the mafia: They killed his dog. There's more to it than that, but that simple, primally relatable core conceit captured hearts around the world.
12. Haywire (2011)
What happens when Steven Soderbergh watches pioneering women's mixed martial artist Gina Carano fight on Showtime? Haywire, a throwback to when Don "The Dragon" Wilson or Cynthia Rothrock got their own star vehicles. Soderbergh's unique twist means quiet moments and artful lack of explanation that feel more like Point Blank-inspired The Limey.
As betrayed ex-Marine operative-for-hire Mallory Kane, Carano matter-of-factly armbars her way through every sucker who crosses her. The fights, choreographed by the great J.J. Perry (Undisputed II: Last Man Standing), are as blunt and brutal as early Seagal, and often take place in everyday locations like hotel rooms and diners where Carano smashes furniture and terrifies bystanders. Each fight provides the frisson of a woman credibly manhandling a series of surprised male A-listers, including Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, and Ewan McGregor (the cast also includes Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Bill Paxton). Even better, Soderbergh counters the Bourne-inspired shaky-cam trend with some of the cleanest, most elegant American action staging, framing, and editing of the modern age. It's a shame this didn't lead to a run of Mallory Kane adventures.
11. Red Cliff (2008)
After John Woo's decade-long diversion into compromised Hollywood blockbusters (see: Mission: Impossible II), many of us had given up hope for a return of the great Hong Kong action poet who delivered some of the most mind-blowing movies of the '80s and early '90s. When Woo finally returned to Asia, it wasn't for the nostalgic heroic bloodshed throwback we might've thought we wanted, but a new evolution of his filmmaking: a two-part historical military epic depicting the end of the Han dynasty.
On this enormous canvas Woo continues his favorite theme of intimate human beauty contrasted with extravagant scenes of violence. The endless gun clips of Hard Boiled are replaced with swarms of arrows, swords, spears, and Lord of the Rings-sized armies on horseback. Woo's craft allows less-obvious action to thrill us; in one scene, colorful rebel heroes form a giant protective tortoise shell with their shields. Later, the cold-hearted emperor floats the corpses of his typhoid-infected men down river like bio-weapon torpedoes. And, yes, the director's bird motif is present: At the end of Part 1, a messenger pigeon travels from one side to the other in an incredible effects shot that lays out the entire geography of the coming war.
10. Blood and Bone (2009)
Michael Jai White is one-of-a-kind. While he's done everything from Black Dynamite to JAG to Tyler Perry movies, the actor's built like a He-Man action figure, touting a black belt in eight different martial-arts styles. He was born to be an action icon, and Blood and Bone is his best showcase.
White plays Bone, a mysterious ex-con drifter who's as smooth and badass as Black Dynamite, but played straight. Bone enters an underground fighting circuit with an at-first-unexplained agenda against cruel-but-sort-of-honorable kingpin James (Eamonn Walker). Hiding inside that neatly traditional framework are all kinds of unexpected joys: a touch of race commentary, appearances by Kimbo Slice and a pre-Haywire Gina Carano, an Easter egg connection to Enter the Dragon, and a particularly memorable scene of villainy when James initiates a Wang Chung sing-along before chopping up an underling with a sword. White brings it all together, packing the bulldozer invincibility of early Seagal and the high-flying kicks of peak Van Damme. He's the heir to their eras.
9. The Raid: Redemption (2011)
After making a documentary on the Indonesian martial art pencak silat, Welsh director Gareth Evans saw the cinematic potential of practitioners Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian. The Raid is the peak of their collaboration (so far). Uwais stars as Rama, the most successful participant in a doomed police raid attempting to apprehend a crime lord (Ray Sahetapy) on the top floor of a housing project. They battle their way up floor-by-floor as the bribed residents come at them.
Choreographed by Uwais and Ruhian, the film sets a new standard for fight scene brutality with an unrelenting barrage of broken bones, stabbings, and head shots. Ruhian steals the show as bad-guy henchman Mad Dog, who so values a good fight that he puts down his gun and frees Rama's captured brother (Donny Alamsyah) so he can take on both of them at once. Then he puts up such a good effort that you almost start rooting for him.
The 2014 sequel, The Raid 2, ups the ante on action (bringing vehicles and a prison riot into the equation) for a complex gang saga, but there's a unique kick to The Raid's minimalistic story and characterization that happens almost entirely within the combat. It's like a police thriller pressurized into a diamond of pure action.
8. Furious 6 (2013)
I love the whole sprawling, increasingly ridiculous, NOS-injected Fast and the Furious saga, and thanks to the inclusion of The Rock, there's a strong argument for Fast Five (2011) as its finest chapter. But Furious 6 wins in a photo finish. Few films create as sustained a feeling of giggly excitement as this movie does with its wildly destructive tank-on-the-freeway and airport-runway chases, utilizing the large ensemble of characters with the effortless complexity of Star Wars space battles. That scene stages a pro-wrestling brawl inside an airplane involved in a high-speed, multi-vehicle chase and shootout. There are explosions, headbutts, and heartbreaking deaths, yet director Justin Lin still gets away with a perfectly knowing wink at the end when the chase finally ends right before the 27-mile runway does.
Then there's the series-encapsulating moment to boot: Dom (Vin Diesel) leaping from a speeding car off of a bridge to Superman-catch Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in mid-air without knowing he'll have somewhere safe to land. (He does, on a car, of course). It's a crowd-pleasing middle finger to action realism and at the same time a moving illustration of Dom's devotion to an ex who doesn't even remember him. Really, Lin wrings all the honor, brotherhood, bonding, betrayal, tragedy, and heroic sacrifice from Furious 6. It's a silly movie with a serious heart.
7. The Grandmaster (2013)
Yeah, it's weird that there are two unrelated movies on this list that are biopics of Wing Chun master Ip Man. But why fight it? Ip Man wouldn't. He would politely apologize.
Director Wong Kar-wai's take on the man is artier and more regretful than 2008's Ip Man. Tony Leung plays Ip as a suave, white-fedora-wearing romantic hero, while the story deals with martial-arts masters before and after the Second Sino-Japanese War, who saw kung fu schools popping up on every corner like Starbucks. Wong and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd create gorgeous imagery that magnifies the impact of the hits, using extreme close-ups to document splashing water, dripping blood, and nails tearing out of splintering wood in the wake of flying feet and fists. They shoot the fights, choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, with an attention to detail that heightens your senses of touch and hearing. It's about the airy sound of a missed swing, the crack of breaking furniture, the wisp of soft shoes sliding across a wooden surface (he seems especially concerned with showing the footwork).
In The Grandmaster's most emotionally loaded fight, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) challenges Ip to teach him her family's 64 Hands style. Ip, an advocate for publicly teaching martial arts instead of keeping them secret, tries to convince her to share the secret with the world. Wong treats fighters as poets who speak of their lives in metaphor and use their fighting styles and moves to teach life lessons. The movie is barely about Ip teaching Wing Chun to Bruce Lee (which the ads pushed), more about mourning the styles that died lost to family protection.
6. Kill Zone 2, aka SPL II: A Time For Consequences (2016)
This Hong Kong-Thailand co-production is a sequel in name only to the also-great Kill Zone/SPL (2005) with Donnie Yen. Wu Jing and Tony Jaa give career-best acting performances playing an undercover cop locked in a prison run by organ smugglers and an innocent guard at the prison whose daughter (played by Unda Kunteera Yhordchanng) needs a bone marrow transplant. Brought together by poetic coincidence and courageous moral choices, they're launched into envelope-pushing action sequences that include vehicle chases and big shootouts, but mostly martial-arts squabbles, displayed as expressions of individual characters. Jaa's sledgehammer elbows and knees are an angry working-class father's wrath against the spinning, surgical knife style of dapper villain Ko Chun (Zhang Jin).
Kill Zone 2 is anchored by the film's operatic portrayal of regular people fighting the unspeakable evil of an organization that abducts poor people to sell for parts. The battle is waged between those who compromised their values to accept the stolen organs and those who refused. Yes, this is some ludicrously pumped-up melodrama, but it almost needs to be to counter such a wealth of jaw-dropping action. It's an ideal balance of bloody knuckles and beating hearts.
5. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Call me corny, but Ang Lee's romantic, Oscar-winning story of young Jen (Zhang Ziyi) rebelling against her aristocratic upbringing sweeps me up. As a woman, she can't train at Wudang Mountain, but she sure as shit can sneak off at night to steal the Green Destiny sword and train with fugitive outlaw Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei). There's also the story of longing and unrequited love between old friends Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien (played by Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh, two of Hong Kong cinema's biggest icons), who help Jen find a better path in life even though she stole Mu Bai's sword and Jade Fox is wanted for murder.
While Jen lashes out at the world, the reserved elders try to keep the peace. But they can't contain the occasional explosions of combat, each one a stunner. With ferocious grace, they fight with swords, spears, hooks, and darts, float off the ground like kites, and flit gently across roofs and treetops. Choreographer Yuen Woo-ping gives them little character moments, like when Jen tears off an attacker's sleeve to taunt him about his nickname "Iron Arm." The long stretches of quiet character drama (compared by many to a Jane Austen novel) enhance the action like the build up to a great musical number.
4. The Protector (Tom-Yum-Goong) (2005)
We've seen so many movies where some dude goes on the warpath because his wife or daughter or friend was kidnapped, but there's only one where it's his elephant. That uniquely Thai spin on a standard action trope is just one reason why I consider Tom-Yum-Goong the ultimate vehicle for Tony Jaa, the Muay Thai phenom known for contrasting likable farm-boy naiveté with skull-smashing flying elbows and knees. In real life Jaa's family has raised elephants for generations, so this seemingly outlandish premise is actually quite personal.
Made after Jaa had already broken out with Ong-Bak (2003), Tom-Yum-Goong exudes a gleeful spirit of one-upsmanship, staging ambitious sequences like a four-minute, no-edits battle up several flights of stairs (taking out, by my count, 31 opponents) or the scene in which he's mobbed and breaks the bones of (again, from what my eyes could register) 47 attackers with a fighting style he invented that uses arms to mimic an elephant's trunk and tusks. Tom-Yum-Goong, best seen in uncut, international form, is a collection of fights and stunts as lovable and jaw-dropping as Jackie Chan at his peak.
3. Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)/Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)
I can't choose between director John Hyams's two improbably great Universal Soldier sequels. Both return Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren to the sci-fi action series started by Roland Emmerich in 1992, and imbue the concept with a grimmer tone. Regeneration is a requiem for the humanity of Van Damme's unfrozen hero Luc Deveraux, who's trying to rejoin society but only really comes alive when it's time to kill somebody (mainly revived villain Andrew Scott, who fights to the death while struggling to remember something he wanted to tell Deveraux before he was cloned). Superb action sequences gift the undead-cyborg warriors with MMA moves and exhilarating Children of Men-inspired, in-the-thick-of-it cinematography.
Day of Reckoning puts Scott Adkins in the lead for a far more tripped-out, surreal noir that bends and questions reality, a David Lynch eye towards capturing Larnell Stovall-choreographed fights. Though these two films are drastically different from each other, they share eerie performances by Van Damme and an approach that transcends expectations for low-budget action in both artistic vision and genre thrills.
2. Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair (2003, 2004)
It's hard to believe that, before Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino's movies barely had action in them. The conversations were thrilling enough. But in his epic, two-part martial-arts masterpiece he hired Yuen Woo-ping -- he's a master, if that's not clear yet -- to create some of the most entertaining and character-driven martial arts of the modern age. Many cite Volume 1's enormous House of Blue Leaves fight against Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) and the Crazy 88s as the highlight, but my favorite is Volume 2's Beatrix (Uma Thurman) vs. Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) in the trailer home, fists scraping the ceiling, bodies thrown through thin walls, a toilet used as weapon, and the disgusting sound of a bare foot stepping on a plucked eyeball. Volume 2 also has one of the best transitions in all of action cinema: the moment we realize her Pai Mei training is all backstory to The Bride one-inch-punching her way out of that coffin.
With his usual mastery of language, musical choices, and non-linear storytelling, Tarantino creates a heightened drive-in world that blends Shaw Brothers period pieces, Yakuza films, chanbara, spaghetti Westerns, and even a little anime. While Kill Bill exists in a cartoonish reality where it takes the mythical Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique to kill Beatrix Kiddo's ex-boyfriend, Bill (David Carradine), I find it Tarantino's most emotional film. Beatrix laying on the bathroom floor crying tears of joy that "the lioness has rejoined her cub and all is right in the jungle" gets me every time.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Not only is George Miller's multi-Oscar-winning masterwork the best action movie in contention, but I consider it the best movie of any type made this century. Fury Road is an absolute juggernaut of pulse-pounding vehicle action.
The characters come first. Their intense emotions, the detailed world they live in, and the timeless subtext make Fury Road so beloved. In particular it's Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who simultaneously works as a badass, robot-armed action hero, a powerful icon of feminist defiance, and an achingly human portrait of struggle. Without a doubt my favorite new movie character of the century.
Through a lightning-in-a-bottle mix of ambition, genius, and decade-long production delays, Miller and company created an armada of post-apocalyptic vehicles that are both works of visual art and innovative tools for the execution of envelope-pushing stunt work. Thousands of seamless visual effects lace them together, over 150 stunt performers -- including Cirque du Soleil acrobats who swung from bending poles attached to moving vehicles! -- contributed to the unprecedented festival of crashes, jumps, explosions, and vehicular combat. There is nothing else like this nightmarish caravan of painted-up muscle dudes straddling monster trucks, catching air, swinging around with chainsaws, hanging from bungees, spewing flames from electric guitars. It's a testament to cinematographer John Seale's kinetic camerawork that a movie can contain this much mayhem without ever turning into white noise.
Come back to me in another 17 years, I'll be surprised if this isn't still at the top of the list.
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