Writing that review for Unleashed, this question really stuck in my head: what were the action movies of the 2000s? It really was a rancorous time, despite being a very solid decade for movies overall. It saw Spirited Away, Children of Men, Lady Vengeance, City of God, No Country for Old Men, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Korean New Wave came into its own, David Cronenberg reinvented himself, but action and horror were a way’s off from their own resurgences. We were mired in their episodes of blockbusters and remakes respectively, reinforcing the creative depletion surely at the heart of either. I can’t say there was a truly great “pure” action movie made in the span of 2000 to 2009, between the highs of Hard Boiled, The Matrix, and T2 on one side and The Raid, John Wick, and Inception on the other. The 2000s were even a doldrums for franchises that roared back to life later, like Godzilla, Marvel, Fast and Furious, and Mission: Impossible. There was no Mad Max, no big action stars save Jason Statham and Will Smith. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh were bumping around in Hollywood to varying success. Looking back, it’s all very sad.
Some of the best action sequences of the decade came from non-action movies, like Oldboy, District 9, and even Tarantino movies. I’ve looked at two listicles which put The Dark Knight at number one, but that’s no more an action movie than Heat. And again, it does have a standout action sequence, the hostage rescue toward the end. Today we’ll be looking at action movies classified by the porno principle. Some of these might share other genres, but they’re probably structured by action scenes and set pieces. In keeping with that Unleashed review, this list is for when you want action, so you can pop in a movie to satiate that desire. Because that’s definitely how people watch movies. Anyway, I know there’s a ton of 2000s action movies I have yet to see, so the list is a representation of where I am now, as a time capsule, and if you have recommendations, especially from non-Asian markets, do let me know them.
Ong-Bak, Equilibrium, Blade II, The Rundown, Kung Fu Hustle, 3:10 to Yuma, Running Scared, Transformers, any of those Bourne movies
Not Purely “Action” Enough
Revenge of the Sith, Return of the King, The War of the Worlds, Sin City, Planet Terror, Ghost in the Shell 2
On the Watchlist
House of Flying Daggers, Born to Fight, SPL, Jet Li’s Fearless, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Zatochi (2003), The Twilight Samurai, Chocolate, The Protector, Shoot ‘Em Up, Open Range, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Final Fantast VII: Advent Children, The Sky Crawlers, Speed Racer, The One
10) 300 (2007)
One of the few pure action movies of the era, this comic book adaptation from future Übermensch Zack Snyder reinvented action and action filmmaking. Emerging from an era of experimentation with green screens, which we’re only now leaving behind with motion capture and the inventions of The Mandalorian, 300 makes ample use of CGI blood and long, fetishistic shots of men and their spears. This may have been the last straw for comedic irony over homosexuality, as indeed it was only another eight years until the legalization of gay marriage. A round of applause. Of course, I’m not sure how, if you’re an Iranian viewer, you’d even be able to watch 300, which doesn’t exactly take a balanced view of history, needlessly glorifying ancient Spartans and turning Persians into monsters. I will say that the touch of fantasy running through it is actually kind of cool, though proof that surrealism and figurative imagery in American cinema is only allowed if the source material did it first.
9) Redline (2009)
One of the preeminent names in anime now, Takeshi Koike bled and labored for years to establish himself with Redline, a frenetic, futuristic racing epic rendered in stunning 2D animation. It’s one long Mos Eisley cantina sequence at a hundred or maybe a thousand miles per hour, with an easygoing attitude and distinct visual style. I remember the conversation around this one was that Redline was the next Akira, and while that comparison does no movie any favors, it remains probably the closest successor in terms of boldness of vision and painstaking detail.
8) Doom (2005)
I couldn’t not include Doom on this list. It gets so little love despite being the best video game adaptation yet. If you want space marines shooting demons (mutants?) in an above-competent blend of Aliens and the first Resident Evil movie, this is a surprising delight. Starring Karl Urban and Rosamund Pike too long before they were famous, Doom also sports a turn by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson revealed to be against type. With creature effects by Stan Winston’s company, and lots of guns and blood – not to mention a surprise score by Clint Mansell – this one’s got all the right stuff, suffering a bad rep just for the name.
7) Versus (2000)
There’s Versus the movie and Versus the movement, the sub-industry of indie Japanese splatter the film introduced to international audiences. It doesn’t have the budget to be exactly “live-action anime,” but the crazy hair, the costumes, and the inventive approach to action (sparking swords, anti-gravity) suggest that imagination need not be bound by money. Like Evil Dead long before it, this suggestion was the spark that inspired even better fare later on. Versus itself is more important than it is strictly good, but definitely recommended nonetheless.
6) Appleseed (2004)
If you like the look of cyberpunk but don’t want all that dystopian dreariness you experience every time you open the door, check your phone, or interact with the toaster now listening to you, the other world of Masamune Shirow beckons. This second try at adapting his manga Appleseed to anime, about an elite police squad in a utopian city where most of the population is made up of emotionless androids, is an early win for both 3D CGI and Shinji Aramaki – though the two are sort of one in the same. The man can design scifi machinery, and he can stage an action scene. The climax is an absolutely breathtaking sequence where police in robot suits fly around attacking giant octopus tanks. The sequel, Appleseed Ex Machina, is a better movie overall, but its action has less weight, inflected by new producer John Woo. There’s an immediacy and even a brutality to the violence in the original, notably rated R where the rest of the series is certified PG-13. You can skip the final entry, Appleseed Alpha, which pretends to be a prequel but contradicts the established continuity.
5) Gladiator (2000)
Ridley Scott is a good director, but Gladiator is maybe the only of his movies I’ve seen that I can recommend with no reservations, other than Alien. For most of its run, it doesn’t have that signature Scott boredom, taking a simple story and sticking to it (for a contrasting example, see Black Hawk Down). The arena combat is brutal, all underscored by the journey of an easy, likable hero. And the midpoint chariot scene, culminating in “My name is Maximus”? Goosebumps.
4) The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
It was an honest shock to return to the Chateau fight after having seen The Matrix Resurrections. I thought I’d fully internalized the action in all the Matrix movies, but its flow and generous staging manages to surprise even now. Even the detractors reserve praise for the white-knuckle highway chase, which makes creative use of all the toys in the Matrix sandbox. While there’s nothing as dramatically satisfying as the set pieces of the original, the pure aesthetic of Reloaded’s action scenes pushes it to the top for me, personally. You might balk at this entry, especially off all my preamble about franchises, but especially when compared to its 2021 successor, Reloaded is an old-school kung fu movie. Who is Neo if not a Shaolin monk, and indeed the Wachowskis wanted Jet Li to play Seraph.
3) Crank: High Voltage (2009)
There may not be a killer, individual set piece you can use to sell the whole thing, like the dojo scene that made Donnie Yen a global icon in Ip Man, but the Crank duology moves at a delirious pace from one upsetting moment to the next, with Jason Statham at his most unhinged. It may be “Grand Theft Auto the movie,” or like a bad joke from South Park, but both films are made with such earnestness and evident craft that they’re also genuinely thrilling. I wish indie filmmakers sometimes chose to do this with their miniscule budgets, and in some pockets of moviedom, they still do. It’s the same spirit that animated Versus and later movies like Merantau. But with, like, gross shit.
2) Battle Royale (2000)
Maybe more effective as a horror movie, Battle Royale nonetheless impresses with its action set pieces. Coming from director Kinji Fukusaku, whose gangster movies seemed to substitute action for indiscernible masses of bodies kicking and punching, here there’s a terrible clarity, all the better to watch school children obliterating each other with bullets and knives. Anchored by a villainous turn by Beat Takeshi, and introducing Chiaki Kuriyama to Quentin Tarantino at least, Battle Royale is impressively still a badge of honor among dorks, replaced now in the mainstream consciousness by Squid Game, The Hunger Games, and an entire video game genre. It packs a raw power still unmatched, especially by its sleep-inducing sequel.
1) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
My God, I am such a sucker for this movie. It may not satisfy the “Oh, shit, yeah” part of us I seem to be prioritizing, but it’s a crowd-pleaser, well-rounded in emotional effect and introducing the beauty of high-flying kung fu to the world. It also unites three generations of action women, with Cheng Pei-pei, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi. Director Ang Lee can never decide if he wants to make another masterpiece or a dud, but no matter what else he does, Crouching Tiger will always have a special place. It’s a sweeping, romantic epic in itself, and a pointer back to a long history of wuxia in film.
All in all, I think this contemptible top ten proves my point, and that was the important part. It always is. Some of these movies are good, but we’re lacking the quantity of other eras. What do you think? Any glaring omissions? James Bond, anyone? Hello?
(Ed. Well, turns out things weren’t that dire, I just had a case of the morons. For the next-day revised list, check out this follow-up)