With those two things in mind I found myself pondering – using Fury Road as the gold standard – what does it take to be considered one the very best action films of the last twenty years?
Super-charged vehicular chaos – check.
Stunt work bordering on lunacy – check.
Characters whose arcs arc conveyed and defined by the physical – check.
Unrelenting delectable foes – check.
Lead characters who take some shots and happily wipe blood from their brow – check.
Large portions of the movie-going populace clawing at their armrests or holding their breath – check.
With this criteria in mind, here are the best action films since the year 2000 that aren’t Mad Max: Fury Road.
Lexi Alexander’s cult classic is the merger of Frank Castle’s (aka The Punisher’s) comic brutality with B-movie exploitation. It makes the character sing in ways that would not be permissible in the Disney-owned MCU.
This is director Takashi Miike’s spiritual sequel to Akira Kurosawa’s canonical Seven Samurai. Taking the James Cameron approach Miike supersizes the stakes, the ferocity and the lead villain’s callousness – so much so that our desire for his comeuppance nearly vibrates into the film. The clash of katanas, the close quarter carnage, the pathos of forgotten warriors all entangle into this bombastic and bloody samurai spectacle.
When someone says that a mixed martial artist is trading their four ounce gloves and the octagon canvas for scripts and trailers, it should be met with skepticism. However, Gina Carano’s terrific debut leading Steven Soderbergh’s tale of freelance espionage gone wrong simply gives arguably the most strikingly beautiful and terrifying woman on the planet an excuse to beat the living daylights out of a wonderfully rich cast of Hollywood’s finest.
Doug Liman passed the baton and Paul Greengrass created a watershed moment in the espionage genre. Supremacy (and Ultimatum for that matter) not only catapult Matt Damon further into the superstardom, they redefined the aesthetic for modern action. For better or worse Greengrass’ experiential style inspired a decade of imitators to relinquish steady cam and attempt to rattle with the bones of their protagonists. Supremacy and Ultimatum succeeded in getting us inside cars or brawls with Jason Bourne, while many of their imitators simply induce motion sickness.
Daniel Craig’s first outing as the iconic 007 needed only have had him bursting through the wall during the film’s opening parkour-inspired foot chase, and it would have undeniably appeared on the list. Craig brings the bulldog back to Britain’s sophisticated super-spy.
One half of Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film, the Shaw Brothers inspired “Chopsocky” showcase of Uma Thurman’s Bride is unrelenting, hilarious and ferocious. The House of Blue Leaves sequence is truly an all-timer. With wave after wave of the Crazy 88, Go Go’s , Hatori Hanzo swords and that absolutely sensational Bruce Lee tracksuit, just try and resist.
Keanu Reeves is the unicorn of action cinema: a magnificent, graceful, rare beauty with an eclectic and diverse career. In John Wick, foolhardy Russian gangsters mistake his pensive grief-stricken manner, caused by his wife’s death, as an invitation to steal his beautiful muscle car and to kill his puppy. Cue the entire audience turning into Roman Colosseum patrons screaming and howling for John Wick’s bloody vengeance. Brief reprieve from this gun-fu comes in a rich tapestry that continues to spawn sequels and series.
Gareth Hue Evans’ The Raid is glorious because it’s elemental. The really bad guy – the Big Boss if you will – is located in the highest apartment in a building fully stocked with henchman. A small tactical team penetrate the building in an attempt to evade capture and eliminate threats on their covert ascent. Half way through their journey, they trip their alarm and have to fight their way through a wholly hostile force. Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian are the MVP’s of this blood curdling, not stop brawl.
Let’s face it, the Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie creative collaboration is responsible for some of the best action films we’ve seen in recent memory. Fallout, like Fury Road, commits to a relentless pursuit requiring every physical faculty possible to stop John Lark and Solomon Lane’s Apostles from coordinated nuclear attacks triggering armageddon.
Cruise’s continuing commitment to enacting his own stunts leaps literally to unfathomable new heights. Halo jumps, helicopter dog fights, leaping between buildings…but it’s the stunning multi-vehicle chase through Paris that reaches the closest heights to Fury Road of perhaps any film on this list.
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