Adaptations dominated action cinema in the ’00s. It often feels as if there is nothing new under the sun in Hollywood–seemingly everything is a remake, or a reimagining, or a soft reboot of what came before. This goes beyond copying the plot; movies lift musical cues, aesthetics, and entire shot sequences from prior films, blurring the line between homage and outright theft.
Quentin Tarantino, who mainstreamed this mash-up approach to filmmaking in the ’90s, perfected it with Kill Bill (2003), which blended the best parts of Shaw Brothers kung fu, spaghetti westerns, and sexploitation into something original. Edgar Wright took tired action tropes and transposed them onto an English village setting in Hot Fuzz (2004). On the surface, the best action films of the ’00s often looked like they were made in the ’70s or ’80s; they took preconceived notions of what it meant to be an action film and reimagined them for a new generation.
Here are the 20 best action movies from the 2000s, ranked. Did your favorites not make the list? Sound off with the best ’00s action movies you can think of in the comments.
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker
Director(s): Justin Lin
For its first three movies, the Fast & Furious franchise centered around underground street racing. But when Justin Lin took the director’s chair, he shifted its focus with a tale about vengeance and drug smuggling for a Mexican cartel. The new heist-and-spy formula turned Dom and his #family into box office juggernauts. And they’re not done yet; the tenth installment debuts in May 2023.
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba
Director(s): Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
Based on Frank Miller’s neo-noir “yarns” about an urban hellscape, Sin City is less a movie adaptation and more a movie transference, as though Rodriguez storyboarded the entire movie based directly on the comic panels. Starring Mickey Rourke as Marv, a vicious killer with a heart of gold, Sin City is a triumph of style and digital technology. Many of the actors weren’t even in the same room when they recorded their scenes together, but the visuals–black and white with strategically placed splashes of color–hid the seams.
Starring: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung
Director(s): Zhang Yimou
Rich in color and philosophy, Hero is a formidable film; when legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou set out to make a wuxia film, he went hard. Steeped in history (the antagonist is Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor to unify China), it’s the story of Nameless (Jet Li), a martial artist who killed the king’s assassins to gain an audience with him. The opening fight, between Nameless and Long Sky (Donnie Yen), takes place entirely in their minds and is probably the best of them all.
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson
Director(s): Brad Bird
Brad Bird is a director who revels in subtext. And the Incredibles, which follows a superhero family forced to hide their powers, is a bold statement about individualism and celebrating one’s gifts instead of hiding them to appease others’ comfort. It is Pixar’s first feature film to feature humans as its main characters. And it has some fantastic, creative action scenes, especially the stretchy ones featuring Elastigirl.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell
Director(s): Steven Spielberg
Based on a Phillip K. Dick story, Minority Report takes place in a future where psychics can predict crimes before they happen, and law enforcement arrests people for murders they were about to commit. The muddy ethics of all this is tested when the head of the department (played by Tom Cruise) is predicted to murder someone in the near future. Spielberg is a masterful storyteller, and he stages action sequences that are always about something more than what’s literally happening on screen. But, what’s literally happening on screen is damn good too–an early chase scene features the coolest sonic gun ever conceived.
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen
Director(s): Bryan Singer
The best of all the X-Men films was this one, which nailed the angst of wanting to fit into a world that doesn’t want you. The dining room scene, where Bobby Drake “comes out” to his family for being a mutant, still hits hard. The villain, William Stryker, was irredeemable and despicable; the movie needed someone that evil to unite Magneto and Xavier under the same cause. And the action was first-rate. Nightcrawler’s attempted White House assassination still holds up, especially the slow-motion final sequence, where he takes down a roomful of Secret Service agents to get to the President.
Starring: Donnie Yen
Director(s): Wilson Yip
Like Wong Fei-Hung, Ip Man was a real man with a real backstory, but he became a folk hero–an avatar for Chinese pride in the face of Japanese imperialists and Western colonizers. His most famous pupil, Bruce Lee, was the biggest action movie star in the world. And Donnie Yen did everything he could to elevate Bruce’s teacher to the same level of notoriety. The “sticky hand” combat is simply mesmerizing to watch, and it tells a story unto itself.
Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley
Director(s): Gore Verbinski
When this movie first came out in 2003, studios viewed pirates as box office poison. This movie, based on a ride at Disneyland, did not seem to be the type to break that trend. But add in a rebellious, Keith Richards-esque character named Captain Jack Sparrow, and you have box office gold. Johnny Depp puts on the performance of a lifetime, and it has the perfect backdrop: swordplay with a crew of undead pirates, who reveal themselves as skeletons in the moonlight.
Starring: Daniel Craig
Director(s): Martin Campbell
Daniel Craig was not a conventional pick for James Bond, and he got plenty of criticism post-announcement. He’s not suave enough. He’s not urbane enough. He’s not handsome enough. But then we saw Casino Royale, and it put those concerns to rest. Craig was a more unpolished Bond, but he was also at the beginning of his career, having recently earned his 00 status and his license to kill. Action-wise, the parkour chase scene still stands out, but some of the tensest action is at the poker table, where Bond bankrupts a terrorist financer with a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em.
Starring: Matt Damon
Director(s): Paul Greengrass
All the Jason Bourne movies, about a highly trained tactical officer with amnesia, have a refreshingly gritty realism to them; the lighting is moody, the faces are weathered, and the action is highly improbable but rarely impossible. But the Bourne Supremacy stands in a class of its own, thanks to one of the finest car chases ever committed to film. It is imperfect, which is the entire point. These cars clip each other, spin-off each other, and crash into each other. And the shaky cam, which eventually becomes excessive in The Bourne Ultimatum, never impedes the storytelling.
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina
Director(s): Sam Raimi
With Dr. Octopus, Sam Raimi found the perfect comic book villain to indulge his love for monsters and camp. The hospital scene would be at home in any horror film. The subway scene is the perfect comic book fight, in the best sense of the phrase. And Raimi imbues his Spider-Man with pathos. You feel the burden of his responsibility–to protect the ones he loves–in every frame. And when he finally releases that burden, however inadvertently, it feels like such a relief.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix
Director(s): Ridley Scott
In Gladiator, every action scene feels tailored to elicit a standing ovation. There’s so much great entertainment packed into this film: the opening battle between the Romans and the Germanic tribes. The re-creation of the Battle of Zama. The 1-on-1 slugfest between Maximus and Tigris of Gaul. And then the scene where Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) gives his monologue about the bees tends to be a fan favorite as well. Those busy, busy, little bees.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Director(s): J.J. Abrams
The first Mission Impossible film dragged on. The second one was a slick mash-up, more style than substance. But the third Mission Impossible film is where the filmmakers finally got the balance right. They added comedy relief with Simon Pegg. The missions were more elaborate and involved than ever before. And Phillip Seymour Hoffman played the villain–a weapons dealer with a lazy drawl and a psychopath’s detachment. The opening scene, where he counts down from 10 and threatens to shoot Ethan’s wife, is an exercise in tense minimalism.
Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace
Director(s): Pierre Morell
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, and one of the best crowd-pleasers of the decade. It’s difficult to believe that prior to this movie, Liam Neeson wasn’t an action star. But in Taken, he’s such a natural fit, with his sad eyes, weary body language, and gruff voice. He’s the guy who’s seen it all. And he destroys the underground sex trade on every level: from the conman at the airport, to the pimps, to the bosses, to the cop that’s in on it, and finally, to the white-collar traffickers and their rich clients. They all suffer for their misdeeds.
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow
Director(s): Jon Favreau
It was the movie that birthed a multi-billion dollar franchise. Iron Man was a trendsetter in 2008, thanks to Robert Downey, Jr.’s indomitable performance as Tony Stark. This was no virtuous do-gooder; this was a war profiteer, and the best you could say of him is that he was naive to the impact he had on the world, if not downright negligent. But then, he had his crisis of conscience and started to do the right thing. The flawed guy who redeems himself is so much more relatable than the guy who’s good from the start.
The MCU today is very sci-fi; the technology gets crazier with every film. There’s something charming and DIY about the action in Iron Man. He built his first suit in a cave! With a box of scraps! And it’s more interesting to see the hero struggle with a small group of bad guys, instead of mowing effortlessly through waves of faceless aliens.
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger
Director(s): Christopher Nolan
It’s hard to look at this movie with fresh eyes, because of how pervasive it is in mainstream pop culture. But it remains a high watermark for the superhero genre, because of how it seriously deals with its heavier themes about heroism, villainy, and human nature.
Aside from the obvious high points, like Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart’s monologues, there’s some gripping action, especially the Batpod chase at the film’s midpoint and the Joker heist that opens the movie. There’s no psychological release or endpoint to any of this; Batman can’t kill, and Joker lives to fight another day. But the journey is what makes it worth it.
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
Director(s): Edgar Wright
Edgar Wright is a phenomenal director, using every trick and tool at his disposal to elicit the audience’s response. His last two films, Last Night in Soho and Baby Driver, demonstrate Wright’s wide range; he can direct sweet and understated drama, high-octane car chases, and suspenseful horror, usually in close proximity to one another. But whatever he does next, he might never top the Cornetto trilogy: Shaun of the Dead, followed by Hot Fuzz, followed by The World’s End.
Of the three of them, Hot Fuzz is the best. It is funny–so funny–and every joke is a reference or a callback to a prior joke or a prior event. The movie demands multiple viewings to catch them all. And some of the best jokes are non-verbal. There are self-aware sight gags, especially during the action scenes, that reference Bad Boys II, Point Break, Lethal Weapon, and more.
Starring: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu
Director(s): Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino cut Kill Bill into two volumes because he was worried that a 3-4 hour kung fu epic would come across as pretentious. It ended up working out: Vol. 1 was the violent adrenaline rush, and Vol. 2 was the quieter, more restrained meditation on that violence.
Tarantino approached Kill Bill in an authentic way; he wanted to use the same tricks as his 1970s predecessors. So he filled condoms with blood, rigged his performers to wires, and went to work. The sword fight between The Bride and the Crazy 88 is extremely well-choreographed and shot. So is the fight with GoGo Yubari. So is the fight with O-Ren. And so is the fight with Buck–although that’s more of an uncontested beatdown than a true fight.
Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Takeshi Kitano
Director(s): Kinji Fukasaku
Movies with messages should be like this one; lots of subtext and introspection, but only if you’re willing to dig for it. Battle Royale has a crazy premise: a class of high school students is kidnapped, sent to a private island, and fitted with collars that will explode if they attempt to escape. They must fight to the death, and only one winner will walk out alive.
It’s fascinating to watch the different students play to their respective strengths. The nerdy boys try to hack the security. The mean girls bully the weaker students to gain an upper hand but eventually turn on one another. There’s a good mixture of action: gunfights, knife fights, explosives, ingested poison, and plain old psychological manipulation. It’s the worst (best?) reality show of all time. And it’s both extremely distasteful and extremely difficult to look away from.
Starring: Choi Min-sik, Kang Hye-jung
Director(s): Park Chan-wook
Was there a more visceral, horrific depiction of violence in the ’00s than Oldboy? Example: desperate to learn why he was imprisoned for 15 years and falsely accused of murdering his wife, Oh Dae-Su tortures the head of the private prison by yanking out his teeth and then makes his escape by beating up an entire corridor of people. The infamous “hammer scene” was filmed in a single 4-minute shot, and it is both violent and oddly beautiful; it depicts the strength of the human spirit, however broken, against all odds.
But for all the physical and psychological violence, Oldboy is especially harrowing, and it’s anchored by one of the greatest narrative twists of the past 20 years. If you haven’t yet, watch Oldboy. It’s unforgettable, and it’ll sear itself into your brain.