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As the 2010s wind to a close, HeadStuff gathered the collective minds of our Film section to bring you our picks for the best action movies of the decade. Below are #25 to #11. See our top 10 best movies here.
25. 13 Assassins
Takashi Miike has never been a director to unleash the predictable on the masses but when the Japanese filmmaker helmed a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 13 Assassins (1963), no one was ready for what was to come. Reportedly filmed over a mere two month period, Miike’s re-imagining is everything you want from old school samurai carnage.
Following thirteen honourable Ronin as they seek to put an end to the tyranny of Lord Naritsugu’s reign in Edo period Japan, Miike’s movie pulsates, snarls and bludgeons you into cinematic bliss. With an appropriately bloodsoaked finale clocking in at 45 minutes and often referred to as ”The Village Of Death” segment, 13 Assassins is savage in its execution, admirably human in its characterization and unflinching in its mastery of ambitious spectacle. Feeling like Miike’s most human and grounded work, it’s an ode to movies like Seven Samurai (1954) and the Lone Wolf And Cub series and is arguably the defining masterpiece of a director who is unrelenting in his devotion to cinema. John Hogan
24. Zero Dark Thirty
Few action films leave such an echoing emptiness in their wake as Zero Dark Thirty does. It’s a film that opens with the torture of a suspected terrorist and ends with Maya (Jessica Chastain) crying after being asked where she wants to go. Whether it’s a commentary on patriotic necessity or the worthlessness of such an operation is up to the viewer but nothing can fill the hollowness the film leaves you with.
The story of the near decade long hunt it took to find Osama bin Laden that culminated in his assassination in Operation Neptune Spear in 2011 was well known by the time Zero Dark Thirty came out. The film’s depiction of real life events like the Camp Chapman attack and the raid on bin Laden’s compound are shot with the grit and realism that won Kathryn Bigelow her Oscar. For a film so obsessed with the nightmarish realities of the War on Terror it’s surprising how ambiguous Zero Dark Thirty can be. Maybe all we can hope for in this black hell that’s become our generation’s Forever War is ambiguity. Nothing will ever be the same again and Zero Dark Thirty was the first to say it. Andrew Carroll
Somehow sandwiched between the absolutely meat-headed Sabotage and the well-documented mess that is Suicide Squad in writer-director David Ayer’s filmmography is this bold, brutal yet simulataneously old-fashioned war picture about the terror of combat. The filmmaker’s homage to the likes of Kelly’s Heroes and The Big Red One, Logan Lerman stars as an inexperienced young US solider in World War II. He is assigned to a tank and crew led by Brad Pitt’s commander nicknamed Wardaddy, a man hardened by what he’s seen in the fighting.
Fury was a great vehicle for allowing Ayer to get back to what he does best; capturing moments of dirt under the nail grit and exploring hyper-masculine relationships under pressure (see End of Watch). Thanks to the weathered caked with mud faces of its character actor ensemble, the claustrophobic confines of the title tank, and a climactic genuinely heart-stopping last stand action set-piece, Fury was certainly one of the most visceral mainstream cinema experiences of the past decade. Stephen Porzio
22. Blood Father
Following drunken outbursts and spats with significant others, it seemed like Mel Gibson’s cinematic career was six feet under. However, after the success of his return to the director seat with Hacksaw Ridge, the star was back on track for achieving a shot at redemption. Coincidentally, the plot of Blood Father bears similarities to Gibson’s situation. He plays recovering alcoholic John Link who comes into contact with his estranged daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty, no relation to yours truly) who is being targeted by some truly dodgy folk from her past.
Blood Father harkens back to the grisly revenge thrillers of the 1980s along with more contemporary additions to the genre (most notably Taken). Yet, it’s also got a lot of heart. The dynamic between John and Lydia gives the film an emotional ground as the two are both figures looking to escape their past to achieve a better life. Aside from that, it will certainly quench your thirst for action spectacle as there are a number of thrilling sequences ranging from intense shootouts to adrenaline-fuelled car chases. Sean Moriarty
21. Fast Five
Ask a group of film fans when the Fast and Furious franchise became good and you’ll get a different answer from each of them. Some will argue it was the 104-minute Teriyaki Boys music video Tokyo Drift. Others will say the series was always solid from the jump with its 2001 Point Break knock-off. For me, it was when street racer/car-jacker Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) met his match in the similarly muscular and massive special agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) – the two very much the Pacino and De Niro of 2011 action cinema.
Set in Rio de Janeiro, Fast Five is the most beautiful to watch entry in the franchise. The action meanwhile is pitched nicely between the charming small scale antics of the early films with the over-the-top global rammifications of Fast & Furious 6 onward. No matter which of the series is your favourite, it’s hard to deny that the scene where Toretto and Hobbs team up to rob a vault inside a police station by literally ripping it out of the wall with their cars and driving off is truly something special. Stephen Porzio
20. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Out of nowhere this decade the Tom Cruise starring Mission: Impossible series went from being a fine if not particularly well-regarded franchise into arguably Hollywood’s most reliable and thrilling. Giving Bond fans what they were left craving after the underwhelming Spectre (also released in 2015), fifth entry Rogue Nation saw IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) go after a rogue shadowy villanous organisation known as the Syndicate.
Introducing Alec Baldwin as Hunt’s IMF boss, Rebecca Ferguson as an undercover MI6 agent and Sean Harris as the Syndicate’s supreme leader, the cast of Rogue Nation is so good that the franchise broke its own rules by bringing them back in the next entry. The biggest praise you can heap on the Mission: Impossible series is that despite its fifth movies’s amazing practical stunts – including a scene where Cruise hangs off the side of an airplane as it takes off and a car/motorcycle chase on the dirt roads of Casablanca – this is only the first of three times an M:I film appears on this list. That said, while we rank Rogue Nation third best of the series, the moment where Baldwin calls Cruise’s character ‘the living manifestation of destiny’ is a franchise high. Stephen Porzio
19. Kingsman: The Secret Service
In a decade with a shockingly low Bond output it was inevitable someone would fill the void and director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman were in many ways a logical choice given their genre-hopping and “pulp but make it visceral and irreverent” shtick. Kingsman: The Secret Service is hyper violent, completely juvenile, subversive yet offensive and managed to annoy pretty much everyone on all sides. That said, it still delivered a deliriously entertaining action film that lived in the aesthetics of old Bond but with little else of your grandpa’s spy movie. It also contains a world-shattering finale no sequel should ever have attempted to follow. Richard Drumm
18. Baby Driver
Thanks to its killer car chases, wickedly funny script and jukebox soundtrack, Edgar Wright’s film upon release was rightfully heralded as an instant classic of action cinema. It’s so entertaining in fact that it’s easy to forget how ambitious and almost experiemental it is. A long time passion project for the English filmmaker, boasting a concept he had previously used for a music video in 2003, it centres on Baby (Ansel Elgort), a young getaway driver who drowns out his tinnitus by constantly listening to music – songs which soundtrack his criminal endavours. When he finds love with waitress Debora (Lily James) and gets in over his head with a dangerous gang of thieves, he tries to exit the crime life.
In order to accuately convey its central character’s music filled existence, Wright essentially made a feature length music video, with each carefully selected track in sync with the movement of the actors and stunt performers, along with the many action set-pieces themselves. Whether it’s the film’s jaw-dropping intro to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s song ‘Bellbottoms’ – the track’s mid tempo build and frenetic crescendo scoring a bank robbery – or the use of ‘Tequila’ – its beats punctuating a shoot out – action cinema has rarely felt more fluid. Stephen Porzio
Following the hiccup of Quantum of Solace, Sam Mendes’ Skyfall represented a grand return to form for the Bond series and solidified Daniel Craig as one of the all-time greats among the hallowed halls of Mi6. Exquisitely shot by Roger Deakins, the film deftly side-steps the lumbering continuity leftover from its successor in favour of a splendidly standalone story (at least at the time of release anyway) captained by a grotesquely blonde Javier Bardem and Dame Judi Dench in her best turn as M to date. Ben Whishaw fills the shoes of the late great Desmond Llewellyn (and John Cleese that one time) as Q, sorely lacking from the previous Craig entries. Naomie Harris brings Moneypenny back to life and ensures that the character won’t suffer the same indignity as previous incarnations.
Like many Bond entries, Skyfall cheerfully lifts elements from other popular movies (specifically The Dark Knight), but it never does so without a certain grace. The film does more to successfully bring Bond into modern times than any earlier efforts and provides a neat essay argument as to how he can be one of Britain’s most ancient relics but paradoxically one of its greatest treasures. Rob Ó Conchúir
16. Atomic Blonde
Director and stuntman Chad Stahelski has helmed all three John Wicks. However, he had help on the first from another stunt performer turned filmmaker David Leitch. After the first entry in the franchise, the latter parted ways from Stahelski, bringing some of that John Wick action – the type which feels simultaneously tangible and realistic but also bonkers and berserk – to the Charlize Theron starring Atomic Blonde.
A spy thriller with a host of jaw-dropping set-pieces, the movie centres on a female MI6 agent (Theron) sent into 1989 divided Berlin. She’s there to recover a stolen microfilm document that contains the names of every spy active in the German capital. Featuring a rich historical setting, a banging 80s soundtrack, endless neon and James McAvoy hamming it up as a macho rogue fellow agent, Atomic Blonde has it all. Most noteworthy though is its bone crunching and stabby seven minute unbroken stairway fight, rendered in what looks like an unbroken shot. Stephen Porzio
When critically acclaimed Korean director Bong Joon-ho announced he was adapting the hugely influential French sci-fi graphic novel Le Transperceneige, many believed the source was near unfilmable and that he would fail. He proved naysayers wrong, however, making a film like no other.
Embracing steampunk and approaching its complex narrative with undeniable care, Snowpiercer tests the limits of science fiction and action cinema. It isn’t a movie that spans decades and brings us on a fruitful journey through uncharted lands and an unforgiving galaxy. Instead, Snowpiercer is completely and entirely confined to an ever moving train. Despite the potentially claustrophobic setting though, Joon-ho created a film that feels enormous, where every new train cart becomes an opportunity to explore its strange world.
After finishing filming, Joon-ho battled with distributor Harvey Weinstein to bring his creative vision to the big screen as intended. In the West, Snowpiercer only received a limited release and was nearly forgotten. However, the few English speaking audiences that saw it were greeted with a truly audacious sci-fi, one that transcends its minimal setting and gives viewers something truly fresh and captivating. John Hogan
14. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
The second M:I entry on this list, fourth film in the franchise Ghost Protocol proved their was still plenty of life to be mined out of the exploits of Tom Cruise’s IMF agent. Helmed by the acclaimed director Brad Bird, already a legend by this point in animation, he was out to prove his merits as a live action filmmaker. He succeeded wildly, never more so than in the movie’s central action set-piece, a sequence which sees Hunt hanging off the side of the tallest building in the world (Dubai’s Burj Khalifa) – a scene guaranteed to raise the heart rate of even those not terrified of heights.
While the above set-piece dominates most discussion regarding Ghost Protocol, the entire film is a thrill ride – largely down to Bird taking the franchise away from overly CGI stunts and outrageous spy gadgetery to more practical effects and analog technology. Indeed, Ethan Hunt’s introduction – breaking out of a Russian prison as Dean Martin’s ‘Ain’t That a Kick in the Head’ plays over speakers – is a perfect distillation of the entire movie to follow – light, playful but undoubtedly epic. Stephen Porzio
13. The Night Comes For Us
In 2013, Gareth Evans (director of The Raid movies) made a short horror segment for an anthology film called V/H/S/2 with a somewhat unknown Indonesian film director named Timo Tjahjanto. That segment, the incredible ‘Safe Haven’, sparked a strong relationship between Evans and Tjahjanto eventually culminating in 2018 when Evans provided inspiration for Tjahjanto’s newest creation The Night Comes For Us.
Taking stylistic cues from Evans’ The Raid franchise, The Night Comes For Us is unrelenting action cinema. Joe Taslim’s Ito has turned his back on the crime syndicate that once called him their own and now hell is coming for him. Where The Raid movies focus on the technicality of action cinema, The Night Comes For Us is a showcase of sheer, unpredictable brutality where anything within reach truly becomes a dangerous weapon. With minimal reliance on plot and character development, Tjahjanto’s film is bare bones. But don’t be fooled, the writer-director has pushed the concept of action set pieces as far as they can go, crafting scenes so violent – seemingly without fear of obtaining a dreaded NC-17 rating. The Night Comes For Us is not for the faint of heart. Yet, if you can handle its ferocious savagery you will be rewarded with one of the strongest action movies of the decade. John Hogan
Sicario revolves around idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who is enlisted by a government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico. The goal of her new agency, led by the mysterious, shadowy figures of Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), is to bring down the head kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel.
Alejandro insists that taking out the leader would be like finding a vaccine to a disease ravaging society. At first we agree, but the genius of Sicario is how it constantly keeps the viewer guessing as to the true motives of its characters. As the bodies pile up due to Alejandro and Matt’s actions, we begin to wonder who the true sicario (Spanish for ‘hitman’) is. On both sides of the law, there are multiple killers in Taylor Sheridan’s complex and razor-sharp script. Although the entire cast is outstanding, with Blunt and Del Toro as standouts, the true star of the film is Roger Deakins’ brooding cinematography. The expansive overhead shots of Juarez, a lightning strike on a desolate desert motorway and a raid seen through night-vision goggles deserve to be seen on the largest screen possible. Stephen Porzio
11. The Raid 2
Teaching a class of 16 year olds about movies was hard work. I can’t really blame them for getting bored within the first 30 seconds of a clip from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln nor can I blame them for their rapt attention during the six-minute long prison fight in The Raid 2. Action at its best captivates an audience and this is what The Raid 2 does incredibly well. Soon after the events of the first film Rama (Iko Uwais) goes undercover in prison to establish a link with Uco (Arfin Putra), the son of Jakarta’s biggest crime boss. After his release Rama is adopted into Uco’s gang but Uco has designs on controlling all of Jakarta’s underworld and Rama must stop him.
That prison fight is only the beginning. There were a few complaints that the plot of The Raid 2 was too complicated. While it is more complex than The Raid so too is its action. In action filmmaking the phrase “Bigger means better” is the bedrock sequels are built on. The fight scenes are a controlled kind of chaos expertly directed by Gareth Evans and choreographed by Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, two masters of the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat. Silat involves using every part of the body and environment as a weapon. Rama takes his opponents apart piece by piece, sometimes literally. From that opening prison fight to the ten-minute climax that feels like a mini version of the first movie, The Raid 2 set itself up as an all time great. Andrew Carroll