The 10 Best Action Scenes of the Past Decade

The 10 Best Action Scenes of the Past Decade

Feb 12, 2015

In Kingsman: The Secret Service, director Matthew Vaughn takes the tropes of old-school spy movies and ratchets them up to 11. Formerly silly or innocuous gadgets now create bloody messes. Colin Firth's gentleman spy is brutal enough to make Sean Connery blush. However, it's all done with a sly wink and nod. Above all other things, the action is fun. More importantly, it's unique enough to completely stand out in a landscape full of movies where heroes obliterate countless enemies and make it look easy.

To celebrate the assured action of Kingsman, we pored over the action films of the past 10 years and created a list of our favorite action scenes. And then we whittled it down. And whittled it down further. Eventually, after losing scenes we love from movies we love, we were left with this. These are the 10 best action scenes of the past decade.

A special note: this list favors action scenes that have been constructed to be pure entertainment. In the interest of keeping things concise, visceral scenes of action where the violence is intended to be frightening or disturbing (Children of Men, Zero Dark Thirty, etc.) got left on the cutting-room floor.

 

10. Rambo

Sylvester Stallone's fourth John Rambo film, simply titled Rambo, means business. This is a movie so nihilistic and grim, its worldview so pessimistic and brutal, that it somehow manages to reverse course, turn in on itself and become a big, goofy blast. This is a movie best experienced with a strong cocktail or three. Although the entire film offers bloody, bizarre and giddy pleasures (Stallone has never mumbled better), it achieves action movie immortality with its climax, where the grizzled John Rambo decapitates a bad guy, takes control of his mounted machine gun, and transforms an entire army of a hateful villains into red goo. There's not much elegance here, but Stallone knows what's up: sometimes, you just want an aging '80s star to straight-up massacre a band of one-dimensional villains. Stallone probably doesn't know just how silly this scene is, but that doesn't diminish its pleasures in the slightest.

 

9. The Bourne Ultimatum

Love him or hate him, director Paul Greengrass established a new school of action cinema with The Bourne Supremacy. With his chaotic style and handheld cameras, Greengrass thrusts the audience right into the heart of the action. He doesn't care much for choreography and elegance -- he cares about the confusion and mayhem of actually being in a life or death struggle. However, our selection from his filmography comes from his second Jason Bourne outing, The Bourne Ultimatum. The film's climactic life-or-death car chase between Matt Damon's amnesiac super spy and a henchman played by the great Edgar Ramirez is a finely calibrated slice of mayhem. It's downright anarchic, throwing the rules of action cinema out the window. What Greengrass' imitators don't understand is that his messy approach is done with great care. Every jump cut, every broken rule, every queasy POV shot, has a purpose.

 

8. Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho's intentionally preposterous Snowpiercer fluctuates between giddy and brutal at a moment's notice, caring less about the details of its postapocalyptic sci-fi world and more about letting wild ideas marinate in a massive bed of crazy. But in between the ruminations on class and humanity, the film finds time for its fair share of incredible action scenes. Although we love the massive shootout from deep in the film (where characters on board the titular train battle the laws of physics to take the perfect shot), we're giving the spot on this list the early scene where Chris Evan's band of rebels battle Tilda Swinton's fascist security force in hand-to-hand combat. It's brutal, visceral stuff, but it's elevated by Bong Joon-ho's unique sense of style and his even more unique sense of humor, which finds time between the killing for acknowledge just how crazy this whole situation is.

 

7. Inception

Christopher Nolan has always been a director whose films have succeeded in spite of their action, not because of it. Even his Batman trilogy is defined by its more emotional thrills and ethical conundrums than its mediocre fight scenes. However, he managed to create an all-timer in the middle of Inception, utilizing the film's literally dreamy setting to do something completely unique. You probably know the scene: in the midst of an already complicated dream-within-a-dream mind heist, a plunge off a bridge in one dream layer causes gravity to go bonkers in another. In other words, it's an opportunity for Joseph Gordon Levitt to get in fight with a guy in a hallway that has decided to stop obeying every natural law. It's a rare moment where Nolan's ideas actually power his action in a very real and direct way. The result is moment that belongs in every montage of memorable scenes from the past 10 years, not just action sequences.

 

6. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino has always managed to make conversations just as tense and thrilling as any ol' action scene, but with the arrival of the Kill Bill films, he proved himself equally adept at filming action. However, both of those films barely miss the cutoff for this list. Thankfully, Tarantino once again displayed his penchant for ultraviolent mayhem in Django Unchained, a racially charged Western that embraces and dismantles its genre in equal measure. A master of mixing tones, Tarantino follows up one of the most genuinely shocking scenes in the film with one of its silliest. Before we can absorb the shock of Christoph Waltz's Dr. King Schultz and Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie being killed, Jamie Foxx's Django attempts to shoot his way out of an already messy situation. Naturally, things don't go well and the talented amateur of a bounty hunter finds himself surrounded by racist goons who die really well. Set to an anachronistic soundtrack and filled with sound effects that seem to have been stolen from a Saturday-morning cartoon, the shootout is preposterously gory and totally hilarious. In terms of raw action beats, Tarantino doesn't do anything we haven't seen before, but the tone places it all it a truly wild new context.

 

5. 13 Assassins

Few directors work as frequently as Takashi Miike, who has 23 feature credits to his name in the past decade alone. As you'd expect, anyone who works that much is bound to churn out a stinker or two every so often, but even Miike's bad films are strange enough to check out. And that means that his best movies are often unforgettable. Take 13 Assassins, his 2010 action masterpiece that is essentially Seven Samurai turned inside out. After a slow burn of a first hour, the film ultimately launches into its extended climax, which feels like a valiant attempt to ensure no other samurai movies ever get made. Because how do you top that? Miike also knows to modulate the action, never staying at the same tempo for too long. By the time the film wraps up, you have witnessed literally every possible way that rival swordsman could possibly kill each other in feudal Japan...and you loved every second of it.

 

4. Fast Five

It took the Fast and Furious series five movies to get perfect, but when it did, it got perfect with a bang. Fast Five is a movie made by lunatics for lunatics. Its massive box office success is just some kind of freak accident. Picking one scene from this glorious pop masterpiece is tough. After all, this is movie that features characters surfing their cars as they drive off cliffs. If features a scenes where Dwayne Johnson fights Vin Diesel! However, we have to go with the obvious choice. The final car chase isn't just a car chase. It's a heist, where the heroes use their improbably supercharged muscle cars to drag vaults full of money through the streets, ultimately battling against the laws of the natural world to use their cargo as a weapon. It's the kind of stupid nonsense that only a total genius could concoct and execute this well.

 

3. Casino Royale

The first major set piece of Casino Royale feels like an announcement. We have barely met Daniel Craig's newly rebooted 007 before he's in hot pursuit a terrorist with a thing for parkour. But this new James Bond, while modernized, isn't that modern. He's a blunt instrument, a battering ram of a human being who literally runs through an unfinished wall when his opponent outmaneuvers him. It's a long sequence, but director Martin Campbell (and the always reliable 007 second unit team) keep it fresh by restaging the action as frequently as possible. Lengthy chase scenes are common in this 50-year-old franchise, but few have visited so many different locations and covered so much literal ground. This is meat-and-potatoes action filmmaking, but it's told with nerve and verve. This is a spectacular sequence.

 

2. Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol

If you didn't see Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol on the big screen, then you didn't see it at all. Sure, Brad Bird's energetic, funny and totally thrilling spy caper (the best in its series) is perfectly entertaining at home, but this was a movie that was made for the theatrical experience. It was shot to be seen on a screen the size of your house. Or on an IMAX screen. Especially on an IMAX screen. While watching it at home will still make for a good time, the instantly iconic sequence where Tom Cruise climbs the Burj Khalifa (aka the tallest building in the world) is utterly transcendent on the big screen, with Bird combining terrifying stunt work with vertigo-inducing cinematography to create a scene that is utterly unlike anything we have seen before. Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol has its fair share of gun battles and fights to the death, but its most thrilling moments are all about man vs. architecture. It's not just jaw-dropping to witness, it's a wonderful change of pace from what you usually get in action scenes.

 

1. The Raid 2

There was only one other film that had a shot at the number one spot and that is the first The Raid film. In the interest of not dedicating 20% of this list to one film series, part one has been disqualified to make room for its sequel. Let's get real for a second though: The Raid is a better movie than The Raid 2. The sequel is an hour longer, but the result is a more bloated film that's more tedious than its lean predecessor. And then the climax of The Raid 2 rolls around and you go "Ohhh, okay. This was worth it."

Director Gareth Evans and his team of Indonesian martial artists/mad men have made a movie where the stunts look so real that you can't help but wonder if some of the actors actually died. These seemingly life-threatening fights are shot by cameramen who obviously don't fear death considering how close they're getting to the action. We could easily pick any random chunk of the final 45 minutes of The Raid 2 and it would still top this list, but we'll call out of the final showdown in the kitchen. Words really can't do it justice. Just watch the embed above. 

 

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