Tom Jolliffe offers up a list of essential 21st Century action films…
As an action aficionado and self-confessed old git, I quietly nod in a small amount of agreement with Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese’s Marvel/modern cinema shade. I grew up in an era when action was performed almost entirely in camera, with an eye dazzling array of stunts and pyrotechnics. Maybe it’s Hard Boiled, the revolutionary fight theatrics of a peak era Jackie Chan, the brilliance of Die Hard, Terminator 2, or the run and gun shenanigans of Stallone, Arnold and the rest. This was my bag. Have standards dropped in the 21st century? Spectacle often supersedes character and a reliance on green screen and top to toe spandex takes away some of the inherent danger one felt in sequences like the Terminator 2: Judgment Day helicopter chase (all practical) or the rope bridge cross in Sorcerer. Still, when sitting back to ponder the 21st century action output, the current century isn’t without its gems and trendsetters.
Here are 15 essential action films from this century…
A film almost criminally overlooked, Upgrade really took critics and the fans who found it, by surprise. This sci-fi actioner upgrades the man/machine mesh, popular in the last century (RoboCop, Universal Soldier) and gives it a distinctly modern day tech upgrade. Crippled after an accident, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is offered a chance to try a revolutionary new treatment that will help him walk again. He becomes an unwitting guinea pig, fused with an AI that not only allows him to walk, but can override his physical and decision responses. Useful in fight scenes to a point, but pretty soon the AI takes more and more control. It’s a fresh spin on old ideas, with some great choreography and camera work. It’s delightfully lithe in an era where escapist cinema rarely comes in under two hours. Green is superb, it looks great and the neo-retro style makes for cult material.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Perhaps the most unexpected new franchise of the era, the original film came during a career lull for Keanu Reeves. It was a very moderate budget and for a time almost teased the possibility of hitting the shelves instead of the cinemas. As it was, Keanu had enough credit in the bank to warrant a theatrical run, it was a smash hit and has now spawned a franchise currently into its fourth film (and spinoff series). The third entry took things up a level in scale, broadening Wick’s world (and the whole series has been excellent as far as world building) and increasing the variation in set pieces. Additionally, Wick found himself pitted in hand to hand combat with martial arts legends like Mark Dacascos as well as Raid twosome Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman. Halle Berry appears in a great mid-section that features a brilliantly realised set piece featuring two Belgian Malinois. Reeves has always sold the role very well with pathos and further proven physically adept as an on-screen fighter.
Mad Max: Fury Road
A spectacular, awe inspiring trailer (in an era when trailers are more often than not, the opposite), proved to be a spectacular and awe inspiring action film. George Miller’s triumphant return to his post-apocalyptic world and stoic hero (replacing Mel Gibson with Tom Hardy) proved worthwhile in a relentlessly paced juggernaut filled with stunning visuals and breathtaking set pieces. Max is something of a passer by in a wider story (as he was in Road Warrior and Thunderdome), and this is kind of Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron) film. She’s superb, in the beginning of that narrow minded fan revolt against ‘woke/feminist’ cinema. Whilst there are a minority of detractors (for entirely ridiculous reasons), this still goes down as one of the very best 21st century action films. On the big screen this excited me in a way big budget action blockbusters very rarely do.
Scott Adkins has made his name in an era where being the ‘next action star’ is far more difficult than it was in the 80’s/90’s (where people were often plucked out of Dojo’s and Gyms to be the next headliner). He came to the fore, particularly as a straight to video headliner (always on the precipice of a breakout) but has lasted the course for one particular reason: He’s very fucking good at what he does. A physical force of gravity defying martial arts and gymnastics, Adkins evokes plenty of power alongside his grace. Avengement saw him hone the dramatic side, that often came second to the physical, and perfected the cohesion he had with director Jesse V. Johnson. Avengement took many by surprise, and its focused simplicity is delivered with ruthless efficiency and even more ruthless action. Adkins is not only a beast in this, but his performance (arching from wet behind the ears younger brother to crime lord, to rage fuelled behemoth) is superb. It’s a perfectly tight 90 minutes of well paced carnage and snappy dialogue, well aided by the support cast (including Craig Fairbrass, Nick Moran, Louis Mandylor and Thomas Turgoose) and furthermore it has something oh so increasingly rare in action cinema (especially DTV), a protagonist’s theme in the score.
An Indonesian action film, made by a Welsh director. An unexpected fusion that melds East and Western action sensibilities and utilises a simple story and singular setting to brutal effect. The Raid was savagely groundbreaking action, that slowly magnetized the genre fans who were discovering it. Iko Uwais is currently riding high and completing a Hollywood transition but this was his launching pad. Quiet stoicism and some vulnerability combined with eye popping physical speed. The action is stunning, littered with bone crunching impacts and stunts, all grounded. The sequel was a little more bloated by a lengthy run-time but expanded the action to varied settings and vehicles. The first film remains the more pure and lithe film however. It’s still astounding, but just as importantly, emotionally investing.
Prior to The Raid, the big breakout from Southeast Asia had been Ong-Bak, starring physical dynamo Tony Jaa. Like many of the best action films of recent times, one key is a simple narrative. Too many films become overcomplicated with convoluted plot-lines (and when combined with unengaging characters, it’s a death knell). Ong-Bak is simple enough, a village’s sacred statue head is stolen and Tony Jaa sets off to retrieve it. This leads to an array of spectacular stunts and fight sequences, battling a mass of opponents. At the same time, Jaa has a quiet enigma and likeability that makes him easy to root for. This knocked people for six, taking recognisable Jackie Chan physical theatrics and upping the violence a few notches. Jaa become infamous for savage elbows and knees and among an array of sensational stunts, he even manages to perform a fight scene with his legs on fire. Crazy.
The recently departed Bond, Daniel Craig, began with an action film that finally found a big scale Hollywood action film worthy of competing with the last century classics like T2 or The Matrix. Director Martin Campbell, delivers all the Bond tropes you expect, whilst allowing Craig to impart a kind of tortured intensity, rarely seen. It was a grittier, dirtier Bond, fleshing out what Dalton’s era had teased. The opening foot chase is astounding and the set pieces that follow (at an airport and in Venice) are also great. The mid-film card game break is a nice diversion into 60’s style thriller, and Craig is more than matched by Mads Mikkelsen in a role that brought the Dane firmly under Hollywood’s radar. He’s a top 3 Bond villain easily and honestly, as he’s further proven, just elevates every sequence he’s in.
The Dark Knight
With The Dark Knight, Chris Nolan perfected his approach to Blockbuster cinema. A combination of dramatic intensity and award level quality gave the comic book genre a legitimacy it had never had. The epic crime saga, as much Heat as any comic book film, features one of the all time great villains. If Christian Bale gets a little overshadowed, it’s down to the presence of Heath Ledger’s Joker, and the complex transition of Harvey Dent. With stunning set pieces, offset by barnstorming Hans Zimmer accompaniment, The Dark Knight is still, far and away, the best comic book film ever made.
The Bourne Ultimatum
As an antithesis to Bond, The Bourne series began with grounded intensity and intelligent action, that contrasted with the demise of Brosnan’s ailing Bond portrayal. It proved a revelation in a trilogy which got progressively better as it went on. If some stylistic choices under the Paul Greengrass direction proved contentious (shaky cam and brisk editing), then the intrigue and high brow approach to creating enthralling espionage cinema, worked brilliantly. There was a raw visceral energy to the frantic and brutal fight scenes. which have rarely worked outside of the Bourne world. Matt Damon proved his action chops, offering grizzled performances too. The third entry is a great culmination to the saga, featuring stunning fights and car chases and it’s a supreme example of action editing.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
The Mission: Impossible franchise has arced in an interesting way. Initially lead by very distinct auteurs like Brian De Palma and John Woo, the last three instalments have turned to a more functional approach, over directorial flourishes. It’s proven to work, maintaining a very classic, conventional approach to action. We have big set pieces and stunts, filmed with clarity and edited likewise. The big selling point to this perpetual re-use of McGuffins has always been the Tom Cruise stunt show. Fallout outdid each film before it, offering stakes and fallibility we’d not previously seen. Cruise has always been a good fulcrum for these, even if his character is never quite as enthralling as a Bourne for example. The stunts here are wonderful of course and Cruise is always front and center.
Yimou Zhang’s stunning Wuxia epic was greeted with worldwide acclaim upon release. The film marked a critical high for martial arts star, Jet Li, never appreciated as an actor (but rather for his high kicking qualities). It’s an A-list cast of Hong Kong icons with Tony Leung, Donnie Yen joined by the stunning ethereal perfection of Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi. A film with a cast this good looking needs to looking stunning and Zhang’s colour coded cinematography (Christopher Doyle) and mise-en-scene are breathtaking. The martial arts are also sensational throughout this Rashomon inspired masterpiece (and the soundtrack is also glorious).
The last great Spielberg action blockbuster. This unfairly forgotten classic has a great sci-fi concept (based on a Philip K Dick novel) and is plump full of memorable set pieces as Tom Cruise goes on the run to clear his name, after being accused of a murder he’s yet to commit. There’s intrigue and nefarious characters as some shift from figures of trust to antagonism (and vice versa). Cruise is as good as ever, as the drug addled head cop of pre-crime (where murder can be seen prior to it happening), tortured by the pain of losing a son. Meanwhile this came right in the early days of Cruise launching himself as an action icon. He performs a number of impressive stunts and Spielberg puts together some enthralling set pieces in a beautifully conceived near future.
Taken became an unexpected pop culture phenomenon. Liam Neeson, into his 50’s, became an unexpected action hero (which he continues being to this day). On paper it seems like a film Steven Seagal might have been doing, but there was a vibrancy to it, and Neeson’s gravitas gave the film an unexpected layer of character. Some of the writing might be riddled with well worn clichés (particularly the somewhat cheesy opening 20 minutes, up until the action kicks into gear). However Neeson’s gruff intensity and a thundering pace once his daughter is kidnapped, sees this one through to a head shot riddled finale. The Bourne style camera and editing works here, where it never does in the future sequels, and Taken essentially launched its own ‘Taken-style’ sub-genre after.
Bong Joon-ho does a Western post apocalyptic action sci-fi film stuffed with social commentary and class divides. The confined settings created an intimate action filled and intelligent film that far too few people saw (thanks to Harvey Weinstein essentially binning a film he’d overseen). It’s now seen a little resurgence thanks to a TV reboot and Joon-ho’s recent rise to prominence in the west, thanks to Parasite. There are some savagely brilliantly set pieces in Snowpiercer, a film that still deserves much wider attention.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Before Hero, there was Crouching Tiger, a film that hit a wide audience, perhaps unexpectedly. It brought Wuxia epics to Western attention, despite a long standing history in Chinese cinema. Coming off the back of The Matrix (itself, heavily influenced by Wuxia films) certainly helped. Ang Lee, a director renowned more for intense character studies, ventures into martial arts cinema, though in actuality he’s proven highly eclectic throughout his career. The film has real A-level star power with Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh, and the film saw young star Zhang Ziyi become a huge star in the East and West. Stunning cinematography and artfully graceful martial arts sequences (courtesy of Yuen Woo-Ping) are the order of the day in a beautiful and tragic film. The fact it won four Oscars (and a host more nominations) was also a pleasing surprise to many, even if it might feel aggrieved not to have won more. The fact Michelle Yeoh, between this and her fantastic turn in Crazy Rich Asians, hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar, is also a travesty.
What are your favourite 21st century action films? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.