Bullets. Chases. Unadulterated escapism. A film typically defined by fast editing, booming stereo soundtrack, and the characters' insistence on resolving their conflicts via gun battles, fist fights, sword fights, and the like. The Action/ Adventure films of 2000-2009 (for better or worse) saw the return of Indiana Jones after a 19-year hiatus, introduced us to new action heroes like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Vin Diesel, ushered in the martial arts film as mainstream cinema, and even dared to ask, "Are you not entertained?" The most satisfying Action films provide the expected thrills (and then some) without insulting the audience's intelligence.
The Top Five:
5. Banlieue 13 (District 13) (Pierre Morel, 2004)
No other film this decade featured more exciting stunt work. This canny French import showcased the art of parkour (dictionary-defined as an "athletic activity in which the participant seeks to move quickly and fluidly through an area... by surmounting obstacles such as walls and railings and leaping across open spaces"), and it blew a lot of people's minds. Stuntmen-turned- movie-stars Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle leap across rooftops, scale walls, defy gravity – and all without the aid of wires or CGI. Yes, the acting's hokey. And the plot's a virtual rip-off of Escape From New York and 48 HRS., to just about every buddy flick ever made. But if the genre's sole purpose is to get your pulse racing, to wow you with physical action, then this movie's fluid and eye-popping action sequences are hard to beat. They truly are one of a kind.
4. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)
You'll probably be most familiar with parkour (or "free running") from the first major action sequence of Casino Royale. Otherwise, it's back to basics for James Bond, and we're all the better for it. Martin Campbell reboots the formula à la Batman Begins, and re-invigorates a character who'd gotten tired and silly over the past forty years. No Moneypenny, no Q Branch, just a man surviving by his will and his wits alone, which is just as it should be. Daniel Craig was a controversial choice for the role (because of his blond hair, of all things), but he pretty much laid all that to rest the instant he uttered his first words as Bond. He's the closest any actor's come (sorry, Connery fans) to embodying Ian Fleming's iconic creation – tough, deadly, cold. Cold, that is, until he gets his "armor stripped" by Eva Green's no-nonsense Vesper Lynd, the only Bond Girl in movie history who's more than the sum of her parts (pun fully intended). And then (SPOILER) he's left alone, angry, even more ruthless than before. This is more than a "Bond movie." It's bold, takes chances – a 007 for the new millennium.
3. Kill Bill Vol. 1 / Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003 / 2004)
Quentin Tarantino's awesome two-part opus was originally meant as a single film, until he decided to split it in half to make it more palatable for Western audiences. But it's a provocative piece of cinema no matter how you slice it. Vol. 1 is all about bloody, spectacular action, with violence so over the top – blood literally spurts like a cartoon fountain – I'm justthis surprised the MPAA had issues with it. Vol. 2, on the other hand, is all about character – and Tarantino's patented referential dialogue. More important, it's where everything actually matters. The Bride (Uma Thurman) embarks on a sprawling, violent journey to strike back at the man (and former lover) who left her for dead – and it's only at the end of that mission (as she lies sobbing on a bathroom floor) that we truly understand the toll it's taken. I'm getting sentimental, of course. What makes the Kill Bill experience such a giddy visceral thrill is how Tarantino's mad-crazy genius bleeds across every frame.
2. Wo Hu Cang Long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) (Ang Lee, 2000)
Let's get one thing straight: Ang Lee wasn't the first director to blend pathos and chop-socky action; he was simply the first to do so and enthrall audiences the world over. The martial arts sequences (choreographed by The Matrix's Yuen Wo Ping) are breathtaking, all right, but they'd just be surface pleasures if the movie didn't have grander things on its mind. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh are aging warriors too bound by duty to admit their feelings for each other; their romance is contrasted with the story of two young lovers (Chen Chang and Ziyi Zhang) who find themselves engulfed by passions they just aren't prepared for. Honor, betrayal, sacrifice, love: That's some fairly potent stuff for a film of this type – themes so transcendent and heartbreaking, in fact, that the film earned a fifteen-minute standing ovation at its Cannes premiere (from a theater full of jaded film critics, no less). Plus, it's absolutely gorgeous to look at. You don't often mix the words "beautiful" and "action film" together in the same sentence. This is filmmaking of the highest order.
1. The Bourne Identity / Supremacy / Ultimatum (Doug Liman / Paul Greengrass, 2002 / 2004 / 2007)
Yes, I know. It's cheating. But Matt Damon's amnesiac super- spy trilogy exists in my mind as three chapters of a single adventure, each one flowing logically into the next. Directed by Doug Liman, The Bourne Identity is a smart, modest thriller that actually underwhelmed me on first viewing. Over time, though, as summer blockbusters grew more bloated, it got easier to appreciate just how tautly-constructed it is. (Damon showed, too, that he's an action star to be reckoned with, lithe, lethal and always one step ahead of his enemies.) Then Paul Greengrass took over for The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, respectively, and what impresses me most is the humanity he brought to the series. Shaky-cam format aside (which I'd argue works for each movies' intensity, not against it), it's surprising how Supremacy ends on a note of sorrow and regret, with Bourne seeking penance from the daughter of a diplomat he killed (it was his first mission) and the pain it's caused her. Ingeniously, much of Ultimatum's plot (and exhilarating action) takes place before Supremacy's final moments, and it's these game-changing twists that make the franchise such a rich and special pleasure. It proves, more than anything else this decade, that the Action genre doesn't have to be all style, zero substance.
Well, that's one down. Agree? Disagree? Please comment below! We'll see you back here soon with Part 2 of our series, Comedy films! Bring on the funny!