Since the dawn of the 21st century, action cinema has undergone a bigger change than perhaps any other genre. With the highly anticipated ‘Mission Impossible : Fallout’ alraedy arrived in theaters now, we’ve set out to reflect on the millennium’s action films that have most excelled.
As the tools with which filmmakers craft their works have continually advanced, a sort of renaissance has begun wherein action films stepped firmly into their own.
As major studios increasingly devote their resources to spectacle-filled comic book tentpoles like Avengers: Infinity War or sci-fi extravaganzas, the more grounded punch-fest has become a specialized commodity for fans who keep track of streaming debuts, OnDemand releases, and the latest international exports.
Needless to say, there are a few movies that professed action movie fans may consider to be worthy of consideration for any survey of the best action movies, but to pick our top 20, we’ve reached out to all corners of the globe, choosing an array of films ranging from grand to gritty, brutal to beautiful.
The result is a showcase of what action cinema can do at its peak presentation: Check out our top 20 below and let us know your favorites in the comments. It’s a solid, creatively rich time for action movies. You just need to know where to find them.
1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
The best intentions often come back to haunt you. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT finds Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team (Alec Baldwin, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames) along with some familiar allies in a race against time after a mission gone wrong.
Review: Peter Rainer
As summer franchise movies go, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is near the top of the heap. Pretty much a sequel to the previous movie in the series, “Rogue Nation,” it features Tom Cruise as globe-hopping Ethan Hunt in full calisthenic mode hanging from helicopters and cliffs, motoring madly through Parisian streets with police in hot pursuit, parachuting onto the roof of the Grand Palais – you name it. Read Full Review…
2. Game of Thrones
In the mythical continent of Westeros, several powerful families fight for control of the Seven Kingdoms. As conflict erupts in the kingdoms of men, an ancient enemy rises once again to threaten them all. Meanwhile, the last heirs of a recently usurped dynasty plot to take back their homeland from across the Narrow Sea.
Review: Ed Bark
Numerous characters, a good number of them diabolical, populate the sprawling story at hand in this “deadly cat-and-mouse game for control of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.”
After a while, your head may hurt if you’re not already a full-fledged devotee of Martin’s elongated tomes. How did Arryn die, though? Might he have been poisoned? And what about the marauding, vicious otherworldly “wildings” of the frozen tundra up north? Read Full Review…
3. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
In the aftermath of ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ Scott Lang grapples with the consequences of his choices as both a Super Hero and a father.
As he struggles to re-balance his home life with his responsibilities as Ant-Man, he’s confronted by Hope van Dyne and Dr. Hank Pym with an urgent new mission.
Scott must once again put on the suit and learn to fight alongside The Wasp as the team works together to uncover secrets from their past.
Review: Katie Walsh
The playful and appealing “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” out Friday, like “Ant-Man,” seen in 2015, are outliers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They feel far more self-contained than the sprawling, interconnected capers featuring the other superheroes.
The buggy movies are local, family-oriented stories. They even manage to make the stakes appropriately sized, which is ironic, given how much Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and his new partner, the Wasp, enjoy playing with the scale and proportion of everyday objects. Read Full Review…
4. Skyscraper (2018)
FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader and U.S. war veteran Will Sawyer now assesses security for skyscrapers. On assignment in Hong Kong, he finds the tallest, safest building in the world suddenly ablaze, and he’s been framed for it.
A wanted man on the run, Will find those responsible, clear his name and somehow rescue his family who is trapped inside the building above the fire line.
Review: James Berardinelli
It would be fair to say that Skyscraper does what it sets out to do but the unambitious agenda isn’t something I’m especially interested in watching.
A dumbed-down Die Hard with a Towering Inferno infusion, the film exists solely as a showcase to promote Dwayne Johnson as today’s biggest action star. Unfortunately, his charm gets lost in all the fire effects and relentless action. To be fair, some of those scenes are exciting but the jolt is ephemeral. Read Full Review…
5. Ready Player One (2018)
In the year 2045, the real world is a harsh place. The only time Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) truly feels alive is when he escapes to the OASIS, an immersive virtual universe where most of humanity spends their days. In the OASIS, you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone-the only limits are your own imagination. Read Full…
Review: Alison Willmore
Ready Player One takes place in a near future where everyone is burying themselves in entertainment while things go to hell around them — not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan), the film’s undistinguished protagonist, lives with his aunt and her latest lousy boyfriend, and spends his days in an immersive virtual simulation called the OASIS, where he tries to solve the mysteries of a quest laid out by late OASIS founder James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Read Full Review…
6. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
As the Avengers and their allies have continued to protect the world from threats too large for any one hero to handle, a new danger has emerged from the cosmic shadows: Thanos.
A despot of intergalactic infamy, his goal is to collect all six Infinity Stones, artifacts of unimaginable power, and use them to inflict his twisted will on all of reality.
Everything the Avengers have fought for has led up to this moment – the fate of Earth and existence itself has never been more uncertain.
Review: Peter Rainer
“Avengers: Infinity War” reportedly cost around $300 million and was 10 years in the making. This doesn’t mean the film took 10 years to make. It just means that all that time was required to amass virtually all the Marvel characters into a single entity.
The other Marvel movies can be viewed as a sort of prequel to this one. For that matter, “Infinity War” is essentially a prequel, too – the second installment of the two-part story is scheduled to arrive with a heavy thud next summer. Read Full Review…
7. Rampage (2018)
Primatologist Davis (Dwayne Johnson) shares an unshakable bond with George, the extraordinarily intelligent silverback gorilla who has been in his care since he was young.
When a greed-fueled corporation’s genetic experiment goes awry, George and other animals across the country are mutated into aggressive super creatures who destroy everything in their path.
In this adrenaline-filled ride, Davis tries to find an antidote, not only to halt a global catastrophe but also to save the fearsome creature who was once his friend.
Review: Matthew Lickona
Director Brad Peyton’s latest “Let’s smash a city with Dwayne Johnson” feature may be based on a video game, but it plays like a live-action cartoon, one that doubles as a fantastical journey into the imagination and sensibility of a 10-year-old boy, complete with rude hand gestures and goofy declarations of badassery.
“You mess with me, you mess with my friend, mother.” It’s not that the result is good, exactly, but it is kind of impressive to see adults so in touch with their inner child. Read Full Review…
8. The Flash
Barry Allen is a Central City police forensic scientist with a reasonably happy life, despite the childhood trauma of a mysterious red and yellow lightning killing his mother and framing his father. All that changes when a massive particle accelerator accident leads to Barry being struck by lightning in his lab. Read Full…
When John Wesley Shipp first appeared as Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash, on CBS it was a surprise that the series wasn’t terrible.
Up until this point, superheroes on film and television tended to come across as cheesy, over-the-top camp or simply poorly produced blights on the medium that were best left forgotten. Read Full Review…
9. Deadpool 2 (2018)
After surviving a near-fatal bovine attack, a disfigured cafeteria chef (Wade Wilson) struggles to fulfill his dream of becoming Mayberry’s hottest bartender while also learning to cope with his lost sense of taste.
Searching to regain his spice for life, as well as a flux capacitor, Wade must battle ninjas, the Yakuza, and a pack of sexually aggressive canines, as he journeys around the world to discover the importance of family, friendship, and flavour – finding a new taste for adventure and earning the coveted coffee mug title of World’s Best Lover.
Review: Richard Brody
In many ways, “Deadpool 2” is an improvement on its predecessor. Like the first film in the series, it’s largely a comedy, because of the torrent of snark that the protagonist (Ryan Reynolds) spouts, onscreen and in voice-over, from beginning to end—and because much of the action, even when it deals with earnest matters, is shaped to match these antic attitudes.
The drama of “Deadpool 2” is more sharply focussed than in the earlier film. The first “Deadpool” set out the protagonist’s grim origin story. Read Full Review…
10. Ocean’s Eight (2018)
Danny Ocean’s estranged sister Debbie attempts to pull off the heist of the century at New York City’s star-studded annual Met Gala. Her first stop is to assemble the perfect all-female crew: Lou, Rose, Daphne Kluger, Nine Ball, Tammy, Amita, and Constance.
Review: Christopher Orr
“You are not doing this for me. You are not doing this for you. Somewhere out there is an 8-year-old girl dreaming of becoming a criminal. Do this for her.”
Thus does the master thief Debbie Ocean exhort her female partners in crime on the eve of their big jewellery heist in the director Gary Ross’s Ocean’s 8. Read Full Review…
11. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
Three years after the Jurassic World theme park was closed down, Owen and Claire return to Isla Nublar to save the dinosaurs when they learn that a once dormant volcano on the island is active and is threatening to extinguish all life there.
Along the way, Owen sets out to find Blue, his lead raptor and discovers a conspiracy that could disrupt the natural order of the entire planet. Life has found a way, again.
Review: Matthew Lickona
Golly, maybe life really will find a way, even in a franchise whose last installment played like a zombified version of the original entry from Steven Spielberg.
Director J.A. Bayona’s most recent feature was titled A Monster Calls and featured a child dealing with painful news about his mother. Bayona weaves a remarkably similar storyline into a tent pole film about dinosaurs, and even more remarkably, he makes it work to genuine emotional effect. Read Full Review…
12. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Thor is imprisoned on the other side of the universe and finds himself in a race against time to get back to Asgard to stop Ragnarok, the destruction of his homeworld and the end of Asgardian civilization, at the hands of an all-powerful new threat, the ruthless Hela.
Review: Justin Chang
From the opening scene of Thor hanging out in a subterranean cavern, blissfully unconcerned that he’s being held captive by an ancient fire demon named Surtur (picture a more eloquent Balrog), you are invited to kick off your clogs, settle in and pay as much or as little attention to the plot as you please.
One of the more disarming aspects of “Thor: Ragnarok,” at least initially, is that it treats its relatively high-stakes premise as if it were no big deal. Read Full Review…
13. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
CIA chief Hunley (Baldwin) convinces a Senate committee to disband the IMF (Impossible Mission Force), of which Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is a key member. Hunley argues that the IMF is too reckless. Now on his own, Hunt goes after a shadowy and deadly rogue organization called the Syndicate.
Review: Peter Rainer
Tom Cruise, reprising his role as Ethan Hunt, is almost alarmingly spry (and appears to be doing many of his stunts).
The IMF has been shut down by the CIA (headed by Alec Baldwin in prime surly mode) and Ethan, eluding the agency’s dragnet, is on a worldwide undercover mission to uncover the nefarious Syndicate, a power-mad organization the CIA does not even believe exists. Read Full Review…
14. The Equalizer (2014)
In The Equalizer, Denzel Washington plays McCall, a man who believes he has put his mysterious past behind him and dedicated himself to beginning a new, quiet life.
But when McCall meets Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young girl under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters, he can’t stand idly by – he has to help her. Read Full…
Review: David Denby
Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), a former black-ops guy, is now retired and living in Boston, where he reads Cervantes in an Edward Hopperish late-night café.
He protects a forlorn young prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) and winds up taking on the Russian Mafia, killing its members by fist, pistol, automatic rifle, corkscrew, electrified water, garden tool, and glass shard. Read Full Review…
15. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
After the Battle of New York, the world has changed. It now knows not only about the Avengers, but also the powerful menaces that require those superheroes and more to face them.
In response, Phil Coulson of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division assembles an elite covert team to find and deal with these threats wherever they are found. Read Full…
Review: Ed Bark
Memory serves that S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division) is a talkie presented in living color.
It’s handsomely produced, sprinkled with some impressive special effects and has an ample amount of light, quippy banter because that’s a set-in-stone trademark of executive producer Joss Whedon (Buddy the Vampire Slayer, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog). Read Full Review…
16. Justice League (2017)
Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy. Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly awakened threat.
But despite the formation of this unprecedented league of heroes-Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash-it may already be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions.
Review: Bob Mondello
Exactly like all the others in fact, which is part of the problem. When Marvel does this sort of thing, there’s a lightness that has mostly eluded the folks in the DC cinematic universe.
Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman got the tone right last time, which suggested things were looking up. But without director Patty Jenkins around, she’s subject to the dismissive male gaze for which Hollywood’s long been criticized. Read Full Review…
17. Incredibles 2 (2018)
While the Parr family has accepted its collective calling as superheroes, the fact remains that their special heroism is still illegal. After they are arrested after unsuccessfully trying to stop the Underminer, their future seems bleak. Read Full Description…
Review: Richard Brody
The very premise of Brad Bird’s 2004 Pixar film, “The Incredibles,” pits “a world of born” against “a world of made,” and comes down strongly in favor of the former.
The villain of the story is Buddy Pine, a.k.a. Syndrome, a warped genius who creates a device that can rival the powers of superheroes, especially those of Mr. Incredible, a.k.a. Bob Parr. Read Full Review…
Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs is the leader of a team of special agents belonging to the NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) Major Case Response Team. Gibbs, a former Marine, is a tough investigator and a highly skilled interrogator who relies on his gut instinct as much as evidence. Read Full…
Review: Robin Oliver
NCIS – for Naval Criminal Investigative Service – is slick, though with too many sexist jokes for starters. A taut story of a marine whose parachute didn’t open.
Were his reactions too slow or was he hung out to dry? Another forensic puzzler is helped by a droll performance by David McCallum as Dr. Ducky (no less). Read Full Review…
Years ago, Krypton was about to explode and Kal-El was sent to Earth to escape that fate.
However, his older cousin, Kara, was also intended to accompany the infant as his protector. Unfortunately, Kara was accidentally diverted into the timeless Phantom Zone for years before finally arriving on Earth decades later and found by her cousin who had grown into Superman. Read Full…
Review: Heather Hogan
It’s been a bleak year so far for queer women who love TV. In addition to Lexa’s devastating death on The 100, we’ve lost seven supporting lesbian and bisexual characters to the Bury Your Gays trope.
CBS finally added Person of Interest‘s fifth season to the primetime schedule but canceled it almost immediately after the announcement. Once Upon a Time‘s ballyhooed gay storyline is nowhere to be found. Read Full Review…
20. Black Panther (2018)
After the events of Captain America: Civil War, King T’Challa returns home to the reclusive, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda to serve as his country’s new leader. However, T’Challa soon finds that he is challenged for the throne from factions within his own country.
When two foes conspire to destroy Wakanda, the hero known as Black Panther must team up with C.I.A. agent Everett K. Ross and members of the Dora Milaje, Wakandan special forces, to prevent Wakanda from being dragged into a world war.
Review: Christopher Orr
Yes, Black Panther is another multizillion-dollar installment in the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe. But that is not all that it is.
Other superhero movies have dabbled in big ideas—the Dark Knight trilogy most notably, and the X-Men franchise to a lesser degree. But their commitments to the moral and political questions they contemplated were relatively haphazard and/or peripheral. Read Full Review…