As nebulous and vague as the term "action movie" is, we’re here to celebrate some of the more recent entries in the genre. With a series of 14 movies that, between them, possess enough vehicles, weapons, ammunition, and henchmen to populate a small army, they’re a relatively diverse bunch. After all, the 21st century has been a watershed period for action flicks. The influence of eastern cinema over the past 20 years has led to a deluge of highly choreographed and spectacularly brutal fight scenes, while the influence of sci-fi, fantasy, and comic books has pushed the genre’s boundaries, making it more inclusive than ever before.
From futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopias to galaxies far, far away, from the crime-riddled streets of Gotham City to sleepy Sandford, Gloucestershire, we’ve got all the high-octane action, screeching tires, gunfire (both traditional and alien) and fisticuffs you can shake a lightsaber at. In these films, bullet holes heal just as quickly as bruises, and the bad guys can only be stopped in the very final act.
Our collection is simpler than Fight Club, too, as there’s only one rule: Only one film is allowed per franchise, to spare this from becoming a list dominated by any particular action film series. So, to the distant strains of Lalo Schifrin’s "Mission: Impossible" theme — be careful not to burn yourself on that fuse — let’s get started.
Edgar Wright is a director that’s difficult to pigeonhole, proving himself as adept at comedy (see: the Cornetto Trilogy) as he is at comic book adaptations ("Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") and documentaries ("The Sparks Brothers"). Even though he never completed his work on "Ant Man," Marvel’s lightest series is alive with his distinctive style. In "Baby Driver," Wright turns his hand to action — specifically, car chases — with equal aplomb.
Dating back to Wright’s early work on the UK comedy series "Spaced," music has always been a critical part of the director’s work. "Baby Driver," which is arguably a musical about car chases, is the natural extension of that trend, a horse-powered ballet with a kick-ass contemporary soundtrack. Inspired by Wright’s own music video for Mint Royale from 15 years earlier, "Baby Driver" tells the tale of the titular Baby, a talented getaway driver who is in high demand. Carefully choosing the soundtrack for each mission, Baby is after that one last job that’ll let him escape this life of crime.
Of course, it’s hardly that easy. Shot by cinematographer Bill Pope, "Baby Driver" is stunning to look at, especially as Baby maneuvers cars with the grace of a dancer in a Busby Berkeley musical. Like Baby himself, the film rarely misses a beat.
The Bourne Ultimatum
If movie characters had to adhere to real-life physics, Jason Bourne and Bond — if not both stone dead — would be meeting up at the retirement village for super spies, all mental faculties irrevocably damaged by too many blows to the head. It is to Matt Damon’s singular credit that, despite his character’s outlandish skillset and preternatural physical abilities, he makes all of Bourne’s heroics terrifyingly plausible. Fights have the proper dynamism and weight, with every landed blow seeming like it genuinely hurts.
In "The Bourne Ultimatum," Bourne is brought out of hiding thanks to an English reporter who has uncovered information about Operation Blackbriar, a mysterious program with links to Jason himself. Finally, the spy is given the opportunity to uncover the subterfuge of his past, while avoiding the Company’s attempts to kill him.
There’s a successful formula to the Bourne movies, and like its predecessors, "Ultimatum" rarely veers into genuinely surprising territory. However, there’s a definite place for the grim pseudo-realism of the Robert Ludlum-created character, and the tone proved successful enough that the Bond producers "borrowed" Bourne’s style when they made "Casino Royale".
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Mad Max series takes place in a grim post-apocalyptic world that’s been plunged into war and starvation, and where both water and gas, those most precious of natural resources, have been virtually exhausted. Max Rockatansky, driving the deserts alone in his heavily modified V8 Interceptor, becomes embroiled in a struggle between a brutal Warlord and his escaped female prisoners.
Despite the title, it’s Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa who is the main star here, virtually relegating Tom Hardy’s Max to a supporting character in his own movie. Max might be mad, but Furiosa is furious. George Miller lost none of his knack for visual flair in the 30 years that elapsed between "Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome" and "Fury Road," as he crafted a terrific set of stand-out set pieces that play out across sprawling apocalyptic desert vistas. Nobody does bombastic vehicular mayhem like Miller; for a movie that is effectively one lengthy chase scene, it remains energetic, visually hypnotic, and continually surprising from start to finish.
Past his prime and involved in an assignment that goes horribly wrong, it appears that Bond’s past is finally catching up with him. When MI6 and its agents around the world are compromised and attacked, Bond and M are forced to flee, traveling back to Bond’s childhood home and reopening old wounds.
Cards on the table: I’m not the biggest fan of the Bond franchise. Other than the excellent "GoldenEye," I can take or leave them. However, "Skyfall" won me over instantly. With the franchise finally accepting of the passage of time, Daniel Craig brings a welcome vulnerability to the role. In addition, "Skyfall" introduces a long overdue sense of character’s history and legacy to the franchise.
Some of the set pieces veer towards the preposterous and don’t stand up to scrutiny, but they are at least memorable, and the film moves along at a brisk space. "Skyfall" is probably the highlight of Craig’s tenure as the suave superspy who can’t resist telling everybody his name (twice), and is the first Bond to have what feels like a proper and complete story arc. "Skyfall" is a Bond movie that doesn’t feel like a Bond movie, and it’s all the better for it.
The Raid: Redemption
Rama is the new member of an elite police SWAT team, and one of the few survivors of an ambush during an attempted assault on a vicious crime lord in a high-rise tenement block. Taking command, Rama and his team must traverse the 15-story building to complete their mission.
Welsh writer-director Gareth Edwards is behind this Indonesian actioner, which feels like a video game in cinematic form. Like the side-scrolling beat ’em ups of old, "The Raid" is relentless and driven, moving from set piece to set piece as its characters get closer and closer to the boss level. "The Raid" is wonderful when it comes to constantly one-upping itself — just when you think you’ve seen it all, the film throws something new at you. As Rama, actor Iko Uwais is a revelatory force of nature, a lethal weapon on two legs.
The film also spawned a sequel, which basically turns the dial on "The Raid" up to 11. It’s louder, its set pieces are even more outlandish, and it benefits from a larger budget. However, much of the appeal of the first film is the claustrophobic setting and its sheer ambitiousness; in a head-to-head ranking, the first film will always win out for sheer chutzpah alone.
The Dark Knight
Writer-director Christopher Nolan has plenty of films that could have easily appeared on this list ("Inception" and "Tenet" in particular) but it’s his second outing for Christian Bale’s Caped Crusader that tops them all, both improving on and expanding the mythology of "Batman Begins."
There’s a new criminal in town, and Batman, Lieutenant James Gordon, and District Attorney Harvey Dent must work together to stand any chance of thwarting the Joker’s criminal ambitions. It’s a story that will be the ultimate test of Batman’s mettle, and one that will tear friendships and loyalties apart.
Ledger’s portrayal of the Crown Prince of Crime is arguably the definitive big-screen take on the character, and to watch his powerful and multi-layered performance reminds you what a great loss his untimely death was. The tension in the scenes between Batman and his grease-painted nemesis are as electric as anything in "Heat," and there are a number of majestic set pieces that make this film stand out from its already excellent predecessor — the opening bank heist alone is well worth the price of admission.
Adapted from a manga series that ran from 1996 to 1998, "Oldboy" tells the tale of Oh Dae-su, a family man who is kidnapped and held prisoner in a private makeshift prison. Upon release, he seeks revenge on his mysterious captors.
This South Korean movie’s plot is as aggressively brutal as its action scenes, with a reveal in the final act that is infinitely more thought-provoking than anything in your standard, run-of-the-mill action flick. "Oldboy" is famous for one particular scene, but the movie is so much more than a hammer fight in a hallway, delivering roller-coaster thrills at every opportunity and, unusually, a protagonist who is as interesting and nuanced as his antagonist.
"Oldboy" is definitely not for the squeamish — the fight scenes will make you visibly wince, as will one particular drawn-out act of animal cruelty — but, if you can tolerate it, "Oldboy" is one of the pinnacles of Korean action cinema. Just watch out: In 2013, Oldboy" received an average John Brolin-led remake from Spike Lee, which unsurprisingly pales into insignificance next to the standout original.
Ever since Hugh Jackman beat Dougray Scott for the role of Wolverine, he’s embodied the diminutive clawed Canuck. Starring in a variety of X-Men movies and an assortment of spin-offs of varying quality, "Logan" is the swansong for Jackman’s Wolverine, and finally a film worthy of the character’s legacy.
It’s the near future, and an aged Logan works as a limousine driver in order to make ends meet. Caring for an elderly and dementia-ridden Charles Xavier, he’s forced out of retirement in order to protect a young mutant with powers very similar to his own from those who would seek to exploit her unusual abilities.
"Logan" is a classic Western in all but name, with a variety of not-too-subtle hints that remind viewers of the genre’s tropes. Logan in particular takes the part of an aged gunslinger reluctantly forced to ride out one last time — he just has claws instead of a Colt 1873. "Logan" is gritty, poignant, and a fitting and touching farewell to both our favorite bald telepath and his cigar-chomping, adamantium-infused protector. "Logan" is an action film, but has heart to spare.
The culmination of 11 years of work, "Avengers: Endgame" is the penultimate film of Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A sprawling roster of characters and overarching plotlines from more than a decade’s worth of movies all converge here, where Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (and some of their interstellar chums) square off against prune-chinned megalomaniac Thanos and his dastardly minions.
We Brits are a more reserved lot than our American cousins, and any noise in a cinema louder than a cough is usually greeted with disbelieving expressions and, in extreme circumstances, loud tutting. So, yes, it was a big deal when Thor’s hammer returned to Captain America’s hand and he muttered "Avengers, assemble," making the entire cinema absolutely erupt. Popcorn may have even been spilled.
"Avengers: Endgame" isn’t on this list because it’s a perfect movie. Far from it. There are plot holes and contrivances galore, and at times it feels bloated, favoring spectacle more than story. "Avengers: Endgame" is on this list because it’s earned its place through 11 years of goodwill, and because it made an English cinema audience cheer like there was free tea on offer.
John Wick: Chapter 2
If there’s any adage that’s appropriate for people who can put "super" in front of their job title — ie, super-spies, superheroes, and super-criminals — it’s that it’s never possible to properly retire. For those people, the tranquil life of a civilian is unattainable. That’s something that super-assassin John Wick learns the hard way when a gangster acquaintance turns up unannounced, reminding him of favors left unpaid. Somewhat reluctantly, Wick travels to Rome to try and topple a vicious crime syndicate.
Frankly, any of the John Wick films would be right at home on this list, but "Chapter 2" has a slight edge. It expands on the world-building introduced in the first movie, but isn’t unnecessarily long like the third. The John Wick films feel like they take place in a parallel reality, a heightened world where the most crippling of injuries can be shrugged off, and gunfights are elegant dances, not frenzied arenas full of sprayed lead. It’s a world where, at best, the laws of physics are malleable — and, at worst, function like something from a cartoon. But it’s still a lot of fun. From the video game stylings of many of John Wick’s most fearsome battles, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Keanu might still be inside the Matrix.
This is the second Edgar Wright film on this list, but this one takes him back to his English roots. "Hot Fuzz" is the second movie in Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, a series that began with "Shaun of the Dead" and concluded with "The World’s End," and pokes gentle fun at the buddy cop movie, a genre that frequently sees two disparate personalities forced to work together. "Hot Fuzz" follows ambitious Inspector Nick Angel as he’s forced to team up with Danny Butterman, an unmotivated and over-excitable local police officer.
Provincial British fictional towns are no strangers to murder (Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple has easily attained the same body count as "Murder She Wrote" lead Jessica Fletcher), and Angel’s new home, Sandford, is no exception. As bodies begin to drop, the unlikely pair are forced to find the secret behind the recent spate of killings.
As skillfully observed as it is hilarious, "Hot Fuzz" features everything you’d expect from the action genre: car-chases and hot pursuits, huge explosions, vast caches of automatic weaponry, and the lengthy pursuit of an escaped swan. The cast is a veritable who’s-who of British talent, including former James Bond Timothy Dalton and "The Wicker Man" star Edward Woodward, who is no stranger to action himself: He was the star of the first incarnation of TV’s "The Equalizer," which is currently awaiting a reboot.
Mission: Impossible — Fallout
Featuring Ethan Hunt going up against his most dangerous foes yet — the formidable tag team of Henry Cavill’s August Walker and his luxuriant moustache — "Mission: Impossible — Fallout" is the sixth film from the ever-rolling action franchise, and one of the best. Once again striving to devalue the word "impossible," Ethan and his crew of multi-talented operatives must prevent a terrorist organization known as the Apostles from getting ahold of three plutonium cores, which the bad guys want to use to power deadly bombs.
The "Mission: Impossible" franchise is a fascinating beast in that you know exactly what to expect from each film — car-chases, gunfights, explosive devices that are defused with one second to spare, and Tom Cruise dangling from something taller than he dangled from in the previous instalment — and yet, even though they’re predictable, they’re consistently great. Pretty much any of the "Mission: Impossible" films (barring the first, since it’s from the 20th century) could have been featured on this list. Considering the diminishing returns from a great many other action franchises, that’s no mean feat.
Based on his 2005 short "Alive in Joburg," South African-Canadian Neill Blomkamp’s first feature-length film finds Wikus, a company operative, responsible for maintaining order in a South African shanty town called District 9. The slum is a haven for an alien race that arrived 30 years earlier — specially, a slave species that was desperately seeking refuge from their dying world. Wikus ends up infected by a mysterious virus that alters his DNA and discovers that the district, despite the obvious dangers, is the only safe place left for him.
In addition to being an excellent action movie, with some standout battles in the latter acts, "District 9" is a sharp political satire that comments on both immigration and racism. The alien race, nicknamed the Prawns, is portrayed as lazy, stupid, and violent, despite its advanced technology. However, as Wikus finds himself transforming into one of the insectoid creatures, he’s subject to the same bigoted rhetoric that he was using against them just hours before. When Wilkus’ company learn that he’s now singularly capable of using alien technology, he’s considered less than human — to the bosses, he’s just another resource to exploit. South Africa makes for an intriguing setting, too; having only recently abolished Apartheid themselves, this film is about its reintroduction, only this time it’s reserved for extra-terrestrial immigrants.
Featuring a wide array of alien weaponry and huge suits of mechanized armor, there’s enough action in "District 9" to keep things exciting without drowning out the politics. The movie’s message is a little on the nose and its storytelling is heavy-handed, but it works.
Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that there was no overarching master plan for the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Each movie was developed separately when it was needed. That said, when it debuted, the "The Last Jedi" felt like a breath of fresh air, as though Lucasfilm and director Rian Johnson were trying to do something new with the franchise.
Cultural phenomenon that it is, it’d be impossible not to include a Star Wars film on this list. As action movies, they’re second to none, and masters in their (star) field. That being said, does the new trilogy create a coherent storyline that matches the sheer quality of its lightsaber battles and dogfights? That’s arguable.
To the possible chagrin of many, "The Last Jedi" makes this list over "The Force Awakens" and "The Rise of Skywalker" simply because of the potential it had. Admittedly, that potential was squandered and retconned by the next movie, but at the time it felt like "Episode VIII" was pushing the franchise in a new and interesting direction, one not smothered by the stifling legacy of the Skywalker surname.