In 2012, a New York Times piece called “How the American Action Movie Went Kablooey” posited that, like cars and other consumer products, it was the latest American export to be made better elsewhere in the world. Largely predicated on the success of Indonesia’s The Raid: Redemption, there was some truth to this, even if it was published on the precipice of an even larger corporate sea change. Two months later, The Avengers would debut, solidifying superhero films as the default mode of blockbuster moviegoing, and three years later, Disney’s first foray into Star Wars would become the highest-grossing domestic earner of all time. Despite these sizable roadblocks, there was still some life left beyond these behemoths: many of the best action movies of the decade proved the genre still had some imagination to spare in the coming years, with the release of Edge of Tomorrow, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, and the John Wick franchise.
So what should we consider an action movie? Well, pretty much anything with heroes, villains, thrills, and violence could qualify in some way. Although you could stretch the boundaries of what’s classified as action, we’ll set some arbitrary standards for what makes this list: all ostensibly real people, with no superpowers or abundance of fantasy elements. Franchises are in, as are futuristic sci-fi thrillers. Marvel, DC, and Star Wars are out — they get enough love elsewhere, anyway. Let’s dive in.
Casino Royale (HBO)
Remember the pearl-clutching over James Blond? Simpler times. Daniel Craig’s hair was so far from the most revelatory thing about Casino Royale, which helped set off the chain of gritty reboots. The film’s first 30 minutes are so fun, fleet, and live-wire, that it almost feels separate from the poker summit and third act melodrama. It punctured the character’s rote masculinity in the obvious ways (expressing emotion, falling in love,) and quite literally (egging a pitch-perfect Mads Mikkelsen to scratch him during the ball torture scene.) Everything that followed for Craig’s Bond sort of made me long for the silliness of the old films and alienated its star from the role, but Casino Royale struck the perfect midpoint. It’s both the best James Bond movie ever made and the best action movie of the century so far.
The Matrix (Netflix)
The Wachowski sisters made one of the most influential movies of all time, which became a sort of a rorschach test by design. The Matrix can either be viewed as a classic in queer cinema, portraying dysphoria better than any blockbuster film, or a place for misogynists to project their anxieties and cull a catchphrase for the culture wars. But it’s the kind of ambitious sci-fi that transcends competing interpretations, and the rare futuristic film that actually captured the scope of how the digital world would fail us. The fight sequences still feel fresh, and Keanu Reeves has never been a better avatar for projecting blank ennui.
True Lies (HBO)
One of those where you just kind of look at the release year and go, okay, when the more dated elements present themselves. Different times, same Arnold, moving right along. Once that hurdle is cleared, True Lies emerges as one of the great action comedies and one of James Cameron’s best. Bill Paxton’s loser used car salesman is a classic in the long line of punchable supporting characters. Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis have considerable fun with the premise, clumsily feeling out new identities in real time. And the next time anyone makes fun of Cameron’s direction, give them a wedgie and show them these shots.
Christopher Nolan lives to mess with you, evidenced by his near-sadistic hope of reopening movie theaters for Tenet in mid-July. If it wasn’t already clear by 2010, he left no room for doubt when that top started to wobble, or not, or maybe it did, right before the cut to black. The dreamy heist thriller remains one of the finest original action films in recent memory, with a director riding at the height of his powers. Does it still not really make any sense, 10 years after its release? Is it still Nolan’s best movie? Was this the last time I’d be able to understand Tom Hardy dialogue in a movie? Maybe!
Minority Report (Netflix)
In 2002, we got the first of two collaborations between the greatest modern action star and blockbuster director. A dreary, relentless, futuristic neo-noir was certainly new ground for Steven Spielberg and to a lesser extent Cruise, but it remains one of their best films to date. Based on a Philip K. Dick short story, Minority Report would come to envision the modern police surveillance state, Baby Hitler, and debates over preventative measures. This was Spielberg in full god mode, with the run of A.I., Minority Report, and Catch Me If You Can releasing in the span of two years.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Netflix)
There isn’t much new you can say about this one. But I will mention that watching National Treasure: Book of Secrets again recently (don’t ask,) only helped reaffirm the brilliance we often take for granted. With sturdier iconography and charisma from its lead than just about any action franchise before or since, Raiders of the Lost Ark captured a swashbuckling spirit that was hard to duplicate. As every modern blockbuster devolves into some focus-grouped quip factory, there’s no funnier action scene than Indy just shooting the swordsman in Cairo. Peerless.
Mission: Impossible — Fallout (Hulu)
The only modern actioner I’ve seen try duplicate Casino Royale’s frantic early pacing for the entire runtime, Fallout successfully raised the franchise’s stakes and giddy thrills. We already knew Tom Cruise had a penchant for danger that was at risk of reaching a plateau. (How do you compare skydiving or learning to fly a helicopter with dangling from an airplane or the Burj Khalifa?) But what’s most improved here was Christopher McQuarrie’s direction, and confidence to pursue the most audacious sequences possible. In the film’s jaw-dropping final 20 minutes, it simultaneously balances playful, Buster Keaton slapstick and globe-altering stakes. As you watch Cruise scale a helicopter with editing to confirm he’s really up there, and later that same helicopter hurtling toward Henry Cavill and Cruise, it becomes so apparent that the driving ethos for every action movie should really just be “why not?”
Fast Five (HBO)
The one where the gang drags a huge bank vault through the streets of Brazil. Do I really need to say any more?
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