Kept up with cinema’s body-count over the past ten years? Nah, neither have we, but boy did the best action pics prove memorable. Here, thanks to the writers at Flicks, we count down the 20 best action pics of the decade (yes, part of Flicks’ Best of the Decade coverage).
A somewhat underappreciated golden nugget in the World War II genre, writer-director David Ayer helmed this no-holds-barred action drama centred on a Sherman tank commander (Brad Pitt) and his crew (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal and Logan Lerman). Giving the audience very little time to breathe, Ayer’s gritty control over the film’s firefights (as well as the AAA sound design) ensured every shot had an impact and that even the slowest tank-on-tank battle carried the unbearable threat of instant death.
“A superior war film that doesn’t shirk from sudden, shocking violence but still doesn’t overplay its hand when it comes to man’s inhumanity to man.” -STEVE NEWALL, FLICKS
Somewhat typically for S. Craig Zahler, there’s plenty of time between bursts of action, but when they emerge they’re a sight to behold. Vince Vaughn is one hell of a hulking unit here, his enormous frame throwing punches that could knock out an automobile (which he memorably does early on, pummelling a car into a wreck in shades of Street Fighter 2). When he finds himself in prison, Bradley (Vaughn) is tasked by a ruthless gang boss with killing a maximum-security inmate. As he makes his way to the infamous Cell Block 99, and towards the events of the title, Bradley finds himself in some extremely violent situations, not least of all at the hands of the sadistic warden (Don Johnson).
“Vince Vaughn is so intimidating in Brawl in Cell Block 99, even the back of his head seems to be glaring at us and asking, “Do we have a problem here?”” -CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Considered by many as the finest entry in the Daniel Craig 007 saga, director Sam Mendes delivered one burly spy epic that looked damn pretty to boot (thanks to Oscar-winning camera wizard Roger Deakins). Whether it’s the gorgeously silhouetted fight between Bond and a sniper, or the sight of a train crashing through the ceiling, or the Home Alone-esque climax, Craig’s third shake as the martini/Heinekin-loving secret agent gave fans much to remember (and re-remember upon countless rewatches).
“Mendes certainly brings the spectacle: a silly, CG-enhanced motorbike chase across the roofs of Istanbul gets things off to a very Brosnan-y start, the coral-inspired credit sequence is beautiful, and a neon-flecked fistfight every bit as awesome as the trailer suggests.” -MATT GLASBY, FLICKS
Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine spent over a decade slicing and chopping people in films that showed hardly any blood or dismembered limbs. It was frustrating. Very, very frustrating. In James Mangold’s R-rated standalone film, however, he wasn’t having of that sanitised shit—a direction made awesomely clear in Logan‘s opening minutes of mutilation. From there, it’s a gruesome chase film with as many grisly and poignant showdowns as any Western you’ve seen.
“Logan provides the tough, adult version of Wolverine that fans have been wanting for a long time, and it earns it not just with blood and f-bombs, but by saying a thoughtful goodbye to a long-lived character with real emotional weight.” -TONY STAMP, FLICKS
Just look at that face. Karl Urban was magnificent casting as Dredd, in this 2012 adaptation scripted (and shaped in post-production) by Alex Garland, who unsuccessfully sought a co-director credit. With a relatively small budget to work with, the film forgoes expansive world-building in favour of a day-on-the-job tale of OTT action, with Dredd taking a rookie Judge out for evaluation and going up against an entire building of violent crims led by Ma-Ma (Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey). Extremely satisfying, gritty action—even with some of the wind taken out of its sails with the somewhat similar The Raid.
“Dreddbenefits greatly from not trying to be all things to all people – it’s tailor-made for fans of old school brutal action who are under-served by today’s blockbuster landscape.” -DOMINIC CORRY, FLICKS
Christopher McQuarrie’s first outing as Mission: Impossible director found him with a tough act to follow after Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol. Rising to the challenge, and with Tom Cruise doing the now-familiar in escalating the stunt craziness, the film benefits from one of the franchise’s most watchable villains (Sean Harris). Even more so with the introduction of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who brings the hurt in some close-up action as well as excellent set-pieces. Some of the sillier mask work of the series though? Maybe.
“This is the rare sequel that leaves its franchise feeling not exhausted but surprisingly resurgent at 19 years and counting.” -VARIETY
After expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe with espionage thriller The Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers boosted their blockbuster arsenal with this burlier entry in the Captain America trilogy that pitted the Avengers against one another. Along with the introduction of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, the Russos turned nerd fantasy into cinematic reality with one joyous and beautifully choreographed centrepiece battle that ranks amongst the finest moments in the MCU.
“With more superpowers to show off, the Russos go beyond with a fantastic faceoff between the divided Avengers. Everyone gets a moment of badassery, a joke to crack, and a reason to be there” -LIAM MAGUREN, FLICKS
Christopher Nolan distilled three timelines into one dizzying narrative with this ticking-clock WWII thriller well-deserving of its sound and editing Oscars. Frighteningly effective in its ability to strangle the audience with suspense, this no-nonsense action blockbuster went above and beyond to relay the panic-inducing experience of being an English trooper stuck on the German-surrounded death-trap known as Dunkirk.
“You’ll leave thrilled and shaken by the scale of the real-life endeavour as well as Nolan’s cinematic version.” -STEVE NEWALL, FLICKS
It took a while for Timo Tjahjanto’s insane Indonesian splatter action pic to reach us but thanks to Netflix, living rooms worldwide were flinching and cursing in response to the glorious ultraviolence on offer here. Equipped with a laundry list of ways to kill humans and a seemingly endless supply of baddies for cannon (and cattle-bone) fodder, the simple narrative of a gang enforcer hunted after rejecting his life as a killer does all it needs to in getting to the gore, and boy there’s a bunch of it. Great to see The Raid‘s Joe Taslim and Iko Uwais go head-to-head, with Uwais in an unfamiliar villain role.
“An insane splatter action movie that’s so over-the-top, it makes 2008’s ultraviolent Rambo seem restrained.” -DANIEL RUTLEDGE, FLICKS
Not only proving the worth of a thing we now call a ‘cinematic universe’, Joss Whedon’s superhero team-up blockbuster knew the worth of its key players, too. Everyone gets their joke, their moment, their motive, and their bone to pick with someone else on the squad. So when they finally get their act together for the abundantly joyous climax, it’s a stupendous sight to behold—and a never-before-seen dream-come-true event for popcorn-munching cinema-goers.
“It’s also the first Marvel film to capture the epic scale, excitement and humour of its source material, best captured in the Rampage-style carnage of the film’s huge final conflagration in which the audience is dazzled rather than bewildered” -STEVE NEWALL, FLICKS
In the realm of the rising superhero genre, Matthew Vaughn’s story of a teenage try-hard crime fighter was a real shit-stirrer. Embracing its immaturity like a child who just learned ALL the swear words, the film’s no-fucks-to-give attitude extended to its ultra-violent action scenes that include, but not limited to, a masked child known as Hit Girl slaughtering a room of drug dealers with a samurai sword.
“Action-packed, crazily colourful and plenty of fun, Kick-Ass is really so much better than you might expect.” -ANDREW HEDLEY, FLICKS
Japanese great Takashi Miike directs this samurai epic made of two halves. The first sets the scene, introducing a group of unemployed samurai in Japan’s feudal era hired to take down a crazed Shogun and his army. The second half is a gigantic battle so gloriously long, it cannot be expressed in words.
“A wildly entertaining blockbuster that should appeal outside the extreme Asian cinema niche market.” -ANDREAS HEINEMANN, FLICKS
Further confusing the naming convention of this franchise, and the first to seize the potential of moving away from street racing in favour of embracing sheer ridiculousness, Fast Five is perhaps the high-water mark of this series, which has creaked under the pressure of how to better itself ever since. The next film in the series may have embraced the newfound freedom and staged some of the best set pieces in the franchise (tank on the highway and cars vs cargo plane), but there’s no bettering the surprise factor of Fast Five‘s audacity, the introduction of Dwayne Johnson to the franchise, or the viewer realising at its climax that this film does not give a flying fuck about physics or realism. A treat.
“It’s telling of how far the franchise has moved from its origins that we’re not even shown a mid-film street showdown, Fast Five moving from macho posturing to race outcome in the blink of an eye and zero carbon footprint.” -STEVE NEWALL, FLICKS
Returning determined to better his previous (excellent) film, Christopher McQuarrie ups the ante with the addition of Henry Cavill, whose physicality (and Superman-sabotaging) moustache adds a fresh dimension, particularly action scenes like the super-punchy bathroom fight. With more brilliant set-pieces, building and building in a glorious run towards the film’s conclusion, you might be forgiven for not keeping track of them all until a rewatch—not because they’re not good, there’s just so damn many.
“That bit in Mission: Impossible – Fallout where Henry Cavill reloads his arms in the middle of a frenzied punch-up? That’s also Christopher McQuarrie, on the first day of production, preparing to lay waste to whatever memory you have of Hollywood action filmmaking in the last couple of years.” -AARON YAP, FLICKS
Not looking to drastically change a winning formula, the second chapter of the John Wick saga relished in the opportunity to visually upscale its already incredible action set pieces and present new ass-kicking scenarios for Keanu to fight his way out of (yes, he actually killed somebody with a fucking pencil in this one). And you know what? We bloody loved it all over again.
“It’s a more audacious, visually adventurous effort, matching expertly choreographed knife-to-the-balls Wickian ultraviolence with strikingly Baroque, even hallucinatory, mise-en-scène.” -AARON YAP, FLICKS
Though the story’s mostly about Tom Cruise’s character learning not to be such a goddamn coward with his new reset-the-day ability, don’t overlook the fact that director Doug Liman crafted a bountiful number of action set pieces in this underappreciated alien invasion sci-fi. The only thing more destructive and intimidating than the aliens (essentially inverse insinkerators) was Emily Blunt’s character (a badass killing machine).
“Liman has made his best film since the first Bourne, a tough, thrilling caper that’s funny as well as fun, and remembers to stimulate viewers’ brains as well as their eyes.” -TONY STAMP, FLICKS
Sequel to 2011’s intense martial arts and action epic sees writer-director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais return, widening the scope of the original into an intrigue-driven ass-kicking underworld epic that establishes the gangland crime dynamics across Jakarta. While Evans may have gotten a bit ambitious with the narrative here—this movie is looong—the action’s as inventive and adrenaline-charged as the first outing, and it was great to see The Raid not simply repeated in a new setting.
“The fighting and stunt scenes are integrally intertwined with the narrative, but the latter serves to break them up, bringing a high anticipation for their arrival and an opportunity to reflect when they have passed – needed recovery from the spectacular brutality, choreography and cinematography served up.” -STEVE NEWALL, FLICKS
Kiwis were robbed of the chance to see this released in cinemas, leading to the highly unusual situation of an action series growing in box office earnings over the course of its sequels following a home video release. Why? Because John Wick is fucking awesome. Keanu Reeves’ return to action is stunningly graceful when dispatching dudes, his resolve unflappable when we need to buy his steely determination, the stuntwork impeccable, and the pacing of this film gripping to the close. A supremely rewatchable action pic, all the more so for its tighter focus than the world-building-obsessed sequels.
“It’s a B movie made with A-student love for the relentless thrill of bodies in brutal motion.” -LOS ANGELES TIMES
Rarely is a film so completely described by its title as this, because once this initially tactical, stealthy police raid on a criminal safe house begins, it does not let up for the runtime of this incredible action achievement out of Indonesia. Trapped inside an apartment block that houses Jakarta’s deadliest gangsters, a constantly enthralling mix of guns, blades, hands and feet are employed in an action pic that at times approaches survival horror in its paranoia and piling up of bodies. Director Gareth Evans and his committed, incredibly talented cast (some of whom became action stars here) conjured an all-time action masterpiece.
“Everything you’ve heard about The Raid is true. This is the best action film in years” -STEVE NEWALL, FLICKS
After several false starts, director George Miller brought the dystopian classic of Australian New Wave cinema back, with Tom Hardy as Max, and good lord was this worth the wait. A painstakingly created film that looks amazing, brilliantly blends practical stuntwork with CGI, and continues to expand the series’ world-building, damn near every frame is a work of art—not that you’re stopping to pay attention, as Fury Road is a thrill ride that seldom relents. Hardy’s great, Charlize Theron is more than his equal (she’s the true hero of this film), and Fury Road further benefits from its atypical female roles and focus on women in the post-apocalypse. An instantly iconic addition to pop culture and the action pantheon.
“A modern action classic that’s not beholden to contemporary or past stylistic trends, Fury Road is its own unique beast, perhaps beamed in from a parallel universe where the last thirty years of action movies have been this bloody good the whole time.” -STEVE NEWALL, FLICKS