Our Favorite Action Scenes of the 21st Century

By
Share:

Though it was considered a possibly tough sell upon its original theatrical release last December (due to the, shall we say, tricky PR challenges presented by star Tom Cruise), we probably don’t have to do much at this point to sell you on Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, the fourth (and best) of the series, out today on DVD and Blu-ray. But if you’re still unconvinced, it is worth reiterating that not only is the picture a smooth, confident, masterfully executed spy thriller, but it contains one of the single finest action sequences we’ve ever seen (below). Contemplating the weight of that statement got us thinking about some of the other contenders; in the interest of brevity, we decided to confine ourselves to films released in the current century. After the jump, take a look at some of our favorite recent action sequences, and be sure to add your own in the comments.

The Burj Khalifa Climb, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

M:I star Tom Cruise has attained something of a reputation for his willingness to take on extreme stunt-work in his action sequences, but he topped himself with this terrifying set piece, in which agent Ethan Hunt scales the 100-plus story Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building. Action sequences these days have become an exact (and often easily decipherable) science of doubles, green screen, and CGI, and while I’m certain they had to have done all of the above to make this scene work, it’s so beautifully executed that this viewer couldn’t see the seams. What’s more, I wasn’t looking for them — Brad Bird’s direction is so slick and involving that I was too busy gripping the arm rests to try to figure out how the hell they pulled this off.

Opening Getaway, Drive

We all had a good hearty laugh last year at the expense of the Michigan woman who brought a lawsuit against Drive’s distributor, FilmDistrict, claiming they had deliberately mismarketed the picture as a Fast/Furious style “chase movie.” And while it certainly was not, one thing that didn’t get mentioned in all of the subsequent laughing and pointing is that there are a couple of amazing action scenes in it — the music-free daylight chase from the pawn shop at the midway point, and the sleek, silky, suspenseful getaway sequence that kicks the movie off. It’s not all on YouTube, of course, but there’s enough above to give you at least a sense of this terrific sequence.

The Bride vs. The Crazy 88, Kill Bill Vol. 1

Quentin Tarantino had incorporated action elements into his first three films, but mostly for comic counterpoint or shock value; the 2003-2004 two-parter Kill Bill was his first full-on action movie (with his usual unique touches, of course), and any questions of his ability to handle bone-crushing fight scenes were quickly put to rest by the climactic sequence of 2003’s Kill Bill Vol. 1. In it, our protagonist The Bride (Uma Thurman) tracks O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), leader of the Tokyo yakuza, to her headquarters at the House of Blue Leaves nightclub. But before she can get to O-Ren, The Bride must take on her entire army of bodyguards, the “Crazy 88,” singlehandedly — which she does, with ease.

Prisoner transfer, The Dark Knight

The trouble with most big, blockbuster action sequences these days is what you could politely call the “Bay influence” — scenes that confuse editing and tempo, and proximity with immediacy, giving you a series of too-short, too-tight shots rammed up into each other to create the impression of action, but mostly just creating confusion and headaches. That’s why the clean, neoclassical style of Christopher Nolan is so refreshing — in a sequence like the thwarted transfer of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, he takes pains to set up the geography of his landscape (so you always know where you are), and shoots from a comfortable, orienting distance (so you always know what’s happening). And he uses admirable restraint in when and how he uses music, letting much of the scene work on its own merit, and with the impressive effects work creating its own musicality, rather than blasting a bombastic score that tells you to be excited. (Part two is here.)

Paris car chase, The Bourne Identity

The chase itself, above, is exciting, marvelously executed by director Doug Liman and his ace crew of drivers, jarring and suspenseful and (it seems) refreshingly free of any computer help. What’s really memorable about the scene is what occurs before this clip begins: when Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) realizes that there’s about to be a chase, and asks Marie (Franke Potente), sensibly: “You take care of this car? Tires felt a little splashy on the way over here.” And she gives him a quick diagnostic: “It pulls a little to the right.” And with that information conveyed, the car chase can begin. It’s the kind of little moment you never actually see in movies; ditto the final beat (also lopped off, natch), wherein Bourne parks the car and the pair take a moment, just a moment, to catch their breaths after the harrowing experience they’ve just shared.

Foot chase and fight scene, The Bourne Ultimatum

Bourne again — this time from the third film in the series, 2007’s Bourne Ultimatum, in which our hero rescues Nicky (Julia Stiles) by chasing down her pursuer Desh (Joey Ansah), leaping from one balcony into the window of another, with the camera thrillingly following his leap. Once he gets there, they engage in a scene of blistering hand-to-hand combat, shot by director Paul Greengrass in a style that, yes, uses the film’s love-it-or-hate-it shaky-cam, but to a degree that is clean and effective. Bonus: this is also the scene where Bourne kicks a guy’s ass with a book, a nice metaphor for this smart series’ superiority over its dumber action movie brethren.

Opening sequence, Casino Royale

We usually roll our eyes at reboots, but the James Bond series was in dire need of one when Daniel Craig was cast as 007, and the brains behind the series decided to go back to Bond’s roots with an official version of the first Ian Fleming novel (which had been loosely and unofficially — and badly — made as a spoof back in 1967). In the first scene, director Martin Campbell made it clear that this was a leaner, meaner, post-Bourne James Bond, with a beautiful black and white pre-title sequence that juxtaposed Bond’s signature cool with a rough-and-tumble bathroom fight. It was the first of several memorable action scenes in a film that beautifully jump-started the ailing franchise. (Watch it here.)

Restaurant fight, The Protector

If you’re as sick of choppy, disorienting action sequences as we are, feast your eyes on this masterful scene from Prachya Pinkaew’s 2005 martial arts extravaganza, in which Thai superstar Tony Jaa works his way up the five stories of an elaborate restaurant, taking out dozens of bad guys along the way — and does it all in one beautifully choreographed, unbroken shot. It’s showing off, sure, but to an end; by the time Jaa gets to the top level, we understand why he’s a little short of breath, and the accomplishment of that ascent is rendered all the more impressive by the fact that we’ve watched him do the whole thing in one go.

Hallway Fight, Oldboy

Speaking of exhausting, one-take fights, we couldn’t forget this amazing sequene in Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film Oldboy, which finds Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) taking on a hallway full of goons single-handedly — first with a hammer, and then with his fists — all in one stylized rolling shot. It’s a thrilling scene, but it’s also scrappy, messy, and ugly (y’know, like a real fight). There are no subtitles in the embedded clip, but don’t worry — you won’t need ’em.

Entire film, The Raid: Redemption

It would seem a sacrilege to leave out this year’s must-see action flick, Gareth Evans’ hyper-kinetic The Raid: Redemption — but the trouble is, it’s impossible to pick out a single standout sequence, since the film is basically one, non-stop action scene. “It’s as elegant in conception as a windup toy,” wrote Adam Sternbergh in The New York Times, and “(t)he movie, once wound up, never winds down.” Sternbergh uses The Raid as exhibit A in his argument that the action film “is an American invention that is now produced much better elsewhere in the world,” and while he may be on to something, there are still a few filmmakers doing their best to do it right.

What about you? What are you favorite recent action sequences — and why?