10 Best Action Movies of the Decade

So what does it take to make this list? It’s not enough for the action scenes to be exciting, the film itself has to be enjoyable even when things aren’t being blown up. The action needs to work but it can’t be the entire point of the film. But at the same time the action has to be a big enough aspect for the film to safely be labeled as part of the “action” genre. So without further ado here’s the best adrenaline rides of the last decade.

10) The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

While it wasn’t as strong as the first in the series and its memory is tarnished by the failings of Matrix Revolutions this was still a strong enough action film to make the list. Neo (Keanu Reeves) continues to lead the rag tag band of humans in a fight against their machine oppressors. Writing/directing team the Wachowski Brothers did their best to have the action be more than just a retread of the ground breaking work they did on the first one. And they managed to pull that off by both shifts in enemies and in sheer quantity. With new enemies such as the ghostly albino twins who have powers and skills that change the dynamics of the fights, and with Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith able to duplicate himself things have definitely changed from the first time around. The most memorable fight is still Neo battling an ever increasing number of Smiths, eventually being forced to retreat. Some of the effects are starting to show their age but the inventiveness of them keeps everything still very enjoyable.

9) Hot Fuzz (2007)

When it comes to British crime movies it’s always the gangsters that are cool, the English cops are either bumbling fools or simply absent. This action/comedy from the team behind Shaun of the Dead finally turns that around and creates the single most skilled and all out cool British copper ever in Simon Pegg’s Nicholas Angel. Of course this infinitely capable officer is dropped into an astoundingly dull country town with an enthusiastic but highly unskilled partner (played by Nick Frost). Aside from an opening montage to establish Angel’s skills the action actually doesn’t kick in until the very end of the film. Up to that point it actually bares more resemblance to an Agatha Christie style who-dun-it as the town develops a disturbing body count. But then the gloves come off, everybody pulls out a gun and the action fires on all cylinders in a glorious tribute to the height of 90’s era American action films.

8) Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)

One of the most popular anime series in both Japan and the US hit the big screen in high flying fashion. The bounty hunting crew of misfits that live aboard the spaceship Bebop find themselves wrapped up in a terrorist attack and the works of a madman. While the entire four member crew is featured, special attention is paid to martial artist Spike and trigger happy Faye. Spikes confrontations with the terrorist Vincent is what provides much of the traditional action. But there’s also spaceship chases, races against time and tense one on one scenes all set to one of the most energetic jazz soundtracks ever put to film. This anime feature has a very well done English dub, that combined with the stellar animation that isn’t as stylized as some Japanese animation make this a very accessible film even to those who might not go for it normally.

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7) Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

Writer/director/star Stephen Chow already had an over the top kung fu flick with Shaolin Soccer but while energetic the film was awkward at points and a bit heavy handed. All those flaws were smoothed out with this highly enjoyable follow up. Kung Fu Hustle tells the story of a run down slum and vicious gangsters who want to take it over. What they don’t realize is that living there are several masters of various kung fu styles, who are quick to take arms to defend their run down home. Thrown into the mix is a young would be gangster (played by Stephen Chow) who’s conscience battles him ambition and has him flipping sides regularly. At times the action is flat out Looney Tunes-esque but once the film establishes the rules (basically that there are none) the audience can just enjoy how inventive each fight is. Due to each kung fu master (hero and villain) fighting in a completely different way the combat is never dull and is different in each fight as outlandish fighting styles are pitted against each other. There is rampart broad humor throughout but the final conflict and conclusion is surprisingly heartfelt. Chow really managed to make all the ridiculous aspects work in this one glorious over the top kung fu lovers dream of a film.

6) The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

While he didn’t create the problem it could probably be said the director Paul Greengrass popularized the overly shaky shooting style that has ruined so many recent action movies. But this climax to the Bourne trilogy proves that Greengrass (and possibly him alone) knows how to make this spastic shooting style actually work. As with The Bourne Supremacy the action is either Jason Bourne running away from those after him or simply kicking their butts. While the shaky cam is present throughout Greengrass seems to have perfected the balance of making the action frantic yet still allowing the audience to actually follow what’s going on. With the return of characters from both earlier films this entry really does carry the weight of the entire trilogy and it doesn’t let that responsibility bog it down. Just as pulse pounding as either of the other entries and in fact more so as the audience finally gets to see Matt Damon’s Bourne attain some level of closure to the mystery that has been his life.

5) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Where most films revel in brutal, hard hitting action this Chinese import is another beast altogether. The combat more closely resembles a finely choreographed dance than the kind of violence most Americans are used to, which only added to the beauty of the film. Chinese action cinema legends Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh at at the height of what they do best, but the true standout was the younger newcomer Ziyi Zhang as a fiery and overly ambitious young fighter. The fights are elegant and sublime in a way that is simply beautiful to watch. Several very potent love stories also deepen the whole experience. Rather than detract from the action they actually give weight to the combat by rounding out the characters and making the audience really care about them rather than just get excited about the fights.

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4) Wanted (2008)

Combining stellar action with the very embodiment of non-pornographic male wish fulfillment, Wanted tells the story of an office drone who finds out that he has the skills to be greatest assassin in history, and Angelina Jolie shows him the tricks of the trade. James McAvoy is perfectly cast as the unfulfilled average joe who gets to embrace a new and greater destiny. Most memorable of the film are the physics defying bullet curves, which are shot is truly loving detail. Director Timur Bekmambetov truly does shoot his action scenes with care, rather than cutting them excessively as has become the trend. He’s rather fond of slow motion but not gratuitously, rather he will slow down the action during the most outrageous moments so that the audience is able to drink in all of the madness that is happening on the screen. With a solid supporting cast, a strong central performance, some truly inventive action moments and careful use of slow motion this was the action lover’s film of 2008.

3) Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)

While the conclusion of the Kill Bill story proved to be more thoughtful this first half was pure unadulterated mayhem. In this first installment Uma Thurman as the Bride goes after the first two names on her personal hit list. First to go is Vivica A. Fox in a brutal opening battle, and from there it’s a steady build up to the massacre in Japan. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino builds the anticipation with flashbacks and even an extremely bloody animated sequence. It all culminates in the ballet of severed limps and spilled guts as Thurman hacks her way through the “Crazy 88” on her way to throwing down with Luci Lui. There are literally gallons of blood spilled (and sprayed) in this vicious and seemingly never-ending fight. But even as it goes on and on it never gets dull and each hacked off body part is just as thrilling as the first one. That Tarantino was able to keep this sequence from becoming repetitive is a tribute to his skill as a director. And the massive amounts of blood on the floor is a tribute to his love of exploitation cinema.

2) Equilibrium (2002)

Though unfairly dumped by the distributor and barely shown in any theaters the film was able to find a life and a following on DVD and deservedly so. Writer/director Kurt Wimmer took a not particularly original dystopian future where emotions are outlawed (and suppressed by drugs) and brought it to full life with strong casting and the brilliant conceit of “gun kata.” Christian Bale stars as an agent of the ruling government who suffers a crisis of faith and then goes off of the emotion suppressing drugs that he’s required to be on. Finally permitted to feel he rebels against the society he once fought to defend. The story isn’t all that fresh on paper but many little touches help make this a true action classic, the first being a great cast. Bale challenges the acting muscles he would later use to great success as Batman. Supporting him are charismatic actors such as Taye Diggs, Sean Bean and Angus McFadden all of whom do great work. But at the heart of the action is the gun kata, an invented martial art that takes probability to devise the most effective body positions from which to fire and hit the target while avoid fire at the same time. This action premise is wonderfully simple and allows the outlandish gunfights to feel totally organic to the characters. There’s some delightful sword work thrown in to top it off.

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1) 300 (2006)

Thanks to 300 “THIS… IS… SPARTA!” will forever be part of the pop culture lexicon, taking it’s place with “Say hello to my little friend” and “There is no spoon” as a reference that everybody knows even if they haven’t seen the film. But 300 is much more than shouted slogans, it’s a visually striking and perfectly paced symphony of unrealistic action. It really is worth pointing out how over the top and detached from reality the action is, because it’s something so rarely seen anymore. Todays films must strive for realism even in the post absurd settings and the wonder of seeing the truly impossible is often lost. These days the only way to get away with the level of surreal action that 300 has is to do a super hero movie. But who needs a super hero when you have Gerard Butler in the role he seems to have been born to play. This story of 300 Spartan soldiers fending off the uncountable hoards of the Persian Empire features impossibly buff men engaged in perfectly choreographed orgies of violence (and there really is no other word for it). The visual style is singular (a prefect reproduction of the Frank Miller comic book of the same name) and the action ebbs and flows at just right times. There is never a moment when it is not visually exciting to watch the screen, but it never feels overloaded or spastic. The crowning accomplishment in action in the first decade of the 21st Century.