The 2010’s were quite the time to be an action fan. Along with horror, it feels like the one genre that sort of did redefine what was visually possible, and perhaps as important, what we should demand often as fans. There was something for everyone, whether that was big, sweeping set-pieces, or more contained, intimate ones. No name characters, and deep characterization. Of course, this is my subjective list, and I only operate with two rules:
- If a franchise had two or more qualifying entries (looking at you, Mission Impossible, John Wick, Fast and Furious, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe), I’m taking what I perceive to be the best of the franchise during the decade. Makes things more fun that way and allows more list diversity!
- For a movie to make the list, it’s got to at least have one—preferably two minimum—memorable, prolonged stretch(es) of action. Can we really consider awesome films like Logan, Drive, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes actioners if they behave more like dramas?
Without further ado, let’s start with honorable mention:
- The Purge: Anarchy (the movie that positioned the franchise as “action-horror” as opposed to “horror-thriller” for the better. Frank Grillo is so gritty and the choice to finally move the activities to the outside was gripping).
- Upgrade (part sci-fi, part body-horror, part comedy, part action from the mind of Leigh Whannell).
- Dredd (So much style in this movie. Man, this needed more box-office love, Karl Urban should be a star by now. But this is a lesser version of a franchise that did the premise slightly better).
- The Equalizer (Denzel Washington as a stoic protector of those who cannot protect themselves? Sold. It was kind of cool to see this movie released around the same time as John Wick, roughly a month between the two. Whereas John Wick was very graceful, Antoine Fuqua’s feature was like a big, bruising 260+ pound back running over people with no finesse, only force).
- Kick-Ass (Talk about going way back! The stylized and sort of self-aware presentation led by director Matthew Vaughn in many ways paved the way for similar works that would double down on over-the-top violence and humor. And, it has Nicolas Cage).
- King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (a movie that still gets too much hate, a good fantasy epic that low-key demystifies King Arthur in an intriguing way).
- Deadpool (an extremely satisfying opener, arguably as much of a love story as an action movie).
- Kingsman: The Special Service (no matter what side you stand on about the infamous church scene, it’s an extremely bizarre, did-that-just-really happen? chaos moment that deserves kudos for not being afraid to ruffle feathers).
- Skyfall (Extremely tough to leave this off the list, stellar movie and better as a straight movie than #10, just prefer #10 a tad bit more from a pure action perspective)
And now, the top 10:
Coming off the heels of District 9, Elysium is a clear step down. With that said, Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore effort isn’t a bad movie, and if you can get past some of the questionable story directions (screenplay definitely needed a bit more refinement), it works good as an action movie, and I’d wager it’s kind of forgotten on that front. With a mix of slo-mo, 180 camera cuts, and detailed gadgetry by way of energy shields and exoskeletons, it’s a great re-watch led by the ever-steady Matt Damon and an unhinged Sharlto Copley.
If my life depended on me giving a good summary of Atomic Blonde, I’d be dead in a heartbeat. Everyone crosses everyone, and there’s some MacGuffin list that’s super important. But the neon-bathed aesthetic set in the Cold War lends itself to a unique locale matched by few. The stairwell scene is one of the best set pieces of the decade bar none. Following John Wick, this served as David Leitch’s first solo directing effort. Since this movie, he’s added Deadpool 2 and Hobbs and Shaw to his filmography. I’d love to see him return to something on this scale.
Was he slow? Nope. Baby Driver is pure adrenaline perfectly tuned to a licensed soundtrack, utilizing music to tell and further its story. Is it a little gimmicky? Sure, and it covers for characters who make out-of-nowhere decisions and/or are written with the thinnest of meat. That withstanding, the driving sequences from Edgar Wright with contributions from cinematographer Bill Pope are exhilarating and pristine.
By 2014, it’s not like the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed a jolt financially or critically. Still, all of the films to that point felt…well, like a comic book visually and thematically. That’s not a bad thing, it just meant “high floor, low ceiling.” However, when Captain America: The Winter Soldier released in April, it became evident after first viewing that Marvel had a goal in mind to change viewers’ expectations, and it succeeded.
The Winter Solider is the best Jason Bourne movie of the decade. It thrives off the same grounded approach (or, as grounded as you can get in a superhero movie) that Paul Greengrass used. Directed by The Russo Brothers, they put an emphasis on clean, mano-a-mano fights with minimal CGI deployed, and in the process, they helped to redefine the types of mature stories Marvel could tell. Their work here led to them being the MCU’s go-to auteurs as the movies got bigger with Civil War and both installments that featured the big bad Thanos. Even as those works were much bigger in scale than The Winter Soldier, all retain a similar action aspect when appropriate.
Edge of Tomorrow? Live, Die, Repeat? Regardless of official title, the movie, directed by Doug Liman, is a true spectacle only outdone on a “grand” level by a few others appearing later on this list. It loses points in its muddled last act, exchanging the open battlefields for a harder-to-see underwater environment. But for two-thirds of the movie, it’s a perfect blend of the science-fiction, straight action, and war genres, even with a dash of comedy thrown in for good measure. Tom Cruise remains a capable leading man, but it’s Emily Blunt whose star rose a ton with this one. It’s still the best (unofficial) video game movie we’ve received this decade.
Both Raids, helmed by Gareth Evans, are absolutely bonkers. Why does The Raid get the nod over The Raid 2? Extremely close, but even with the best hand-to-hand fight of the decade taking place in The Raid 2, there’s slightly too much bloat and an “who was that?” type of story in the sequel that doesn’t exist in The Raid, which is a masterclass of lean, straight-to-the-point storytelling with an element of tension that doesn’t exist in the follow up. It does the “clear out the baddies” slightly better than the movie that came out a year later in the great Dredd. And the martial arts choreography? Impeccable. No punches are pulled, literally, in the action which often spans minutes with few cuts. This Indonesian actioner has no issues with brutality. Not for the squeamish, but a must-watch for any hardcore action aficionado. American cinema needs to make a good action movie for Iko Uwais, who’s been wasted to this point in Mile 22 and Stuber.
We’re getting to the point of the countdown where each of these movies comes close to—if not outright possessing—everything a truly top notch action movie needs: Surprisingly competent (even good)/streamlined plots, at least one car chase sequence, at least one fistfight, and a plethora of diverse action moment that chain together to the point where you get 15-20 minutes of unbridled energy.
Fast Five was The Avengers a year before Captain America, Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man assembled. Justin Lin built upon and simultaneously threw out everything we assumed about these flicks, going all in on physics-defying action. Snippets of Fast & Furious and Tokyo Drift (also directed by Lin) show that this was the road this franchise was eventually going to arrive at, yet he pulls off the transition without a hitch. Starting with the establishing shot of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, you just knew from that point you were going to get a different F&F movie. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson helped change the DNA of this franchise. All the diversity on hand here is still something that many studio movies chase after. The train heist, favella foot chase, and Dom vs. Hobbs could all be the best scenes in many action movies. But it’s the climatic vault heist with Dom and Brian dragging a huge chunk of metal across the city streets that has cemented Fast Five as one of the great action movies of the decade, if not all time. Salud, mi familia.
In 2014, a little movie premised around a hitman exacting revenge on those who had taken the life of his dog has gave way to what is the 13th highest grossing domestic feature of 2019. John Wick took two stunt coordinators from The Matrix in Leitch and Chad Stahelski who wanted to be directors and paired an old star (tied to The Matrix as well) who seemingly had seen better days in Keanu Reeves.
John Wick is shot with precision, not unlike his marksmanship with firearms. The home invasion and the Red Circle club scene, specifically, combine colorful cinematography along with on-point sound editing and a realistic element to battles. Who knew reloading could be so tense and awesome? Throw in rather impressive lore and character writing, and it is why John Wick has grown into a bona fide big franchise. You could put Chapter 2 and Parabellum in the place of John Wick, but where the initial installment beats them is how the story generates tangible vulnerability not often seen in action movies. The set pieces in the sequels are impressive, but Wick rarely feels like an individual who could die at any moment like he does in the first movie. That’s the downfall of having a franchise, I guess. Instinctively, the viewer knows that the protagonist will survive 99.9% of the time. Without John Wick, there are no “Keanu Reeves is too good for this world” articles.
Back in the Cinema Recap podcast days on ThatMomentIn.com, a minuscule few of you might remember me stating that I was never a massive fan of the M:I series starting out with the first three, but that I’d started to pay more attention after the release of Ghost Protocol and then Rogue Nation. Those are very good action movies in their own right…but Mission: Impossible-Fallout is something sublime.
It begins with the commitment that a pushing-60 Cruise shows, whether that be a thrilling halo jump, a breakneck sprint through the streets of London, a frenzied car chase, a rough-‘em-up restroom fight, or a sword fight with helicopters in lieu of swords, shot in ways that obscure nothing by Christopher McQuarrie. All of this is aided by a stellar score from Lorne Balfe, and the tightest script a M:I movie has ever had, building off of noteworthy characters who made their debut in Rogue Nation. Fallout is so good, a sizable contingent of people have hailed it the best action movie of the decade, save for one movie that likely will never be replicated again…
Let’s be real. It was always going to be Mad Max: Fury Road in the #1 spot. Director George Miller’s revisiting of the apocalyptic world he created 40 years ago doubles as both a semi-meditative survival story (1st half) and a constant, propulsively mad thrill ride in the 2nd half featuring a pump-em-up guitarist who shoots flames from his instrument (Doof Warrior, maybe the scene-stealer of the decade as it pertains to action?), and jumpers who hop from one spiked rig to another. These are but only two pieces among many that make up Fury Road, a film so big in scope you’d think the details wouldn’t matter to Miller and company, but they do.
Almost everything within this film such as the rigs, collisions, and costumed, were created with blood, sweat, and tears. Or, shot in dangerous conditions that end up showcasing the beauty of what Miller and his cinematographer John Seale were able to capture in ways that conventional CGI would not. Junkie XL’s score is super immersive and intense, taking inspiration from legendary rock bands of yesteryear as well as traditionally robust orchestral sounds. Great characters abound, played by Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, and Hugh Keays-Byrne. It’s a perfectly paced and unforgettable two-hour journey, and it’s my #1 action movie of the decade. Let’s see what 2020 brings…
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This post can also be seen on ThatMomentIn.com.