Action Films That Shined in the 21st Century

It became apparent while compiling our list of the Best Action Movies of the 21st Century. So far, those action films have split down the middle in the last two decades. Despite being less physically active than pixelated, most franchise IP blockbusters released to large box office hauls might be classified as action pictures. This is especially true of superhero films. But some of the most deeply personal, expensive films are those in the action genre that rely less on fetishized source material. Action films can be emotional dramas focused on compelling characters when done right.

Indeed, this is what distinguishes a great deal of the films included in the series film: Some are deliberately quirky character pieces, such as when Jason Statham needs to keep his heart rate up at adrenalized extremes in “Crank: High Voltage,” when Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci have sex while blowing away bad guys in “Shoot ‘Em Up,” or when there are endless platitudes about “family” in the “Fast” saga. Some of the best instances of cinematic purity from this young Century are included below. There’s a reason they’re called “motion pictures”; these flicks have a movement that wouldn’t be possible in any other medium.

Even though Steven Spielberg tried to make a Tintin movie for 30 years, the wait was worthwhile. As the title suggests, “The Adventures of Tintin” is faithful to Hergé’s classic comic book series. The motion-capture animation does a fantastic job of capturing the look and feel of the books, giving the plot depth without sacrificing any of the books’ signature two-dimensional charm. The comics’ upbeat adventure adventures and Edgar Wright’s stellar screenplay capture the comics’ distinctively Continental sense of humor, making them a perfect fit for Spielberg’s style. Even though the chances of seeing either of the two sequels to “The Adventures of Tintin” are decreasing daily, the film still deserves to be recognized as one of the better comic book movies of recent years. 

The Zombie Comedy “Shaun” (2004)

Edgar Wright’s aesthetic is so consistent that it seems he was born with a camera in his hands when he directed the first film in his Cornetto Trilogy. It has the killer soundtrack, complex visual humor, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost, everything you expect from an Edgar Wright film. Wright’s obvious affection for the Romero zombie films is acknowledged. Still, the real brilliance of the film is in its decision to center on the relationship between Simon Pegg’s Shaun and his fiancée Liz (Kate Ashfield). There is a good argument to be made for including “Shaun of the Dead” on lists of the best comedies, best horror pictures, and best romantic comedies of the Century. However, a particular sequence set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” cemented the film’s place among the best action movies of all time.

The Retiring Elite (2020)

Recent films have explored the idea that being a superhero is not an easy job, with depictions ranging from the profound (“Logan”) to the absurd (Tobey Maguire as a goth in “Spider-Man 3”). Gina Prince-“The Bythewood’s Old Guard,” a Netflix adaptation of the 2017 comic book miniseries of the same name by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez, is driven by the same idea. Still, it feels as new as any funny book movie made since superhero mania hit the theatre.

Peter Berg’s “Hancock,” in which Charlize Theron also starred, explored the strangely relevant concept that being a superhero can be a real drag. In this setting, she is the eldest of the Ancient Guard, a group of badass mercenaries who are both very old and immortal, a pretty rare combination indeed. At the start of the film, she is wondering why it is worth it to keep on fighting what seem to be the same fights over and over again. Although it follows a formula used many times before, “The Old Guard” is surprisingly fresh and engaging.

“High Voltage Crank” (2009)

In their 2006 film “Crank,” co-writer/directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor developed a fantastically cheesy concept for an action movie: What if Jason Statham played a hit man who, after being injected with medication, needed to maintain his adrenaline flowing at all times or else his heart would stop beating completely? After the first film’s unexpected success, directors Neveldine and Taylor decided to take things to the next level of insanity by giving their ultra-violent protagonist Chev Chelios an artificial heart that he must constantly recharge using jumper cables, tasers, or any other live electric wire he can get his hands on. “Crank: High Voltage,” like its predecessor, is a live-action, adult-only cartoon filled with crude jokes and comedic carnage. It’s not simply an exciting ride; it’s also purposefully stimulating.