Top Ten Action Scenes of the 2010's - The Part-Time Critic

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Top Ten Action Scenes of the 2010's

I love movies. I particularly enjoy action films with sequences built to viscerally move, thrill, surprise, and impress. This past decade has seen some of the best action sequences ever to put to film. We saw the rise of Marvel as big-budget action kings and the absence of Bond or Bourne as the top shelf for non-fantasy action. As we approach a new decade, I thought it would be a fun exercise to share my favorite ten sequences from the past 10 years.

Five Quick Notes on My Action Philosophy (Skip Down if Not Interested):

1. Even though I've seen over 800 films this decade, I'm certain there are great films and actions sequences I've not seen or haven't remembered well enough. Starting in the 2000's, the action genre has exploded worldwide and great action sequences are being produced in all places of the world by big studios and small independent film makers. Unless it was a full-time job, it's impossible to get a full grasp of the action scene. That in mind - I feel like I've seen most of the major sequences produced this decade.

2. Sometimes what people consider to be action sequences I don't really consider to be action sequences. For me, an "action sequence" is not just a scene with kinetic action and movement (otherwise the clearing of the ghetto in Schindler's List would be an 'action scene'), but is a scene that features extended kinetic action between characters in competition and opposition that is focused primarily on the action between them. Is that definition better? I don't know, but it's one of those "you know it when you see it" kind of things.Let me give you a five great non-action action sequences from this decade to show you what I mean:
  • "Bane's Mid-Air Escape" -The Dark Knight Rises
  • "Breaking Magneto Out- Time in a Bottle" -X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • "Climbing the Tallest Building in the World" -Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
  • "Ambushed by Indians at a Fur Trading Camp" -The Revenant
  • "Shootout: Crossing the Border" -Sicario
I would disqualify these sequences for several reasons. For instance, in the awesome Quicksilver sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past, the focus is less on competition and more on the spectacle of the slow-mo. It's fairly short, there's no back and forth, and the focus is more on the spectacle of one particular attribute. This doesn't mean it's "less than" other action scenes, just that I would qualify it differently than a straight up action scene. In the case of Cruise climbing the Burg Kalifa (which is on many top lists) - I think this is more of a thrilling scene than action. No one claims Free Solo to be an "action film" and I think this sequence is better defined as something else.

3. Great action sequences do not always make great action movies and vice versa. Die Hard is my favorite action film, but there is not a single action set piece from the movie that would rank in my top 100 or 200 of all-time. Why? Because the movie is not really about 5-10 minute individual action set pieces, but about punctuated moments of action that don't really stand up to other films' set pieces outside of the context of the story. That's fine. On the flip side, there are a lot of horrible films out there with stand out action scenes. I mention this to say that ranking action sequences doesn't speak on the quality of the whole film. While The Raid:Redemption is one of the greatest action films ever put to film, it's hard to identify individual sequences in that film because they tend to blend together, connect, and continue on.
4. Finally, it probably helps to share a little of what I find great in an action sequence. When it comes to action scenes, I prefer my action sequences to be extended set pieces - something that lasts at least 4-10 minutes and features a beginning, middle, and end within itself. I typically prefer 3-4 extended action sequences in a movie over 8-10 mini-action sequences within one film. Additionally, I have a soft-spot for hand to hand fighting, kinetic and dynamic camera's that highlight the difficulty of the combat, and sequences that look for a grand or epic scope. I love it when an action scene makes me lean forward in my chair and think, "I don't want to miss a thing because this scene keeps showing me things I've never seen before." In the end, the sequences below are ones that appeal to me personally. In general, the way the list is constructed is, "If I had only 10 sequences to keep from the 2010's, it would be these."

5. Honorable Mentions: Strong scenes, just missing my list:

  • "Hulk vs Hulk Buster" -Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • "Captain America vs. Iron Man vs. Bucky" -Captain America: Civil War
  • "Mad Dog vs. Rama vs. Andi" -The Raid: Redemption
  • "Ip Man vs Mike Tyson" -Ip Man 3
  • "Finale: Wu Jing & Tony Jaa vs Crime Boss" -Kill Zone 2
  • "Paris Mayhem: Ambush, Chase, and Escape" -Mission: Impossible - Fallout
  • "Chase Through Town in a Single Take" -Adventures of TinTin
  • "Finale: Assassins Confront Hanbei's Army" -13 Assassins
  • "The Battle of the Five Armies" -The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
  • "The Battle of Agincourt" -The King
  • "Chicago Finale" -Transformers: Dark of the Moon


10. "Finale: Staying on Sofas & Photo Mayhem" - Chinese Zodiac (Link)

This film and this sequence is really the end of an era for Jackie Chan. It's a great throwback sequence that would fit right in with Chan's mid-90's to early 2000's output. It begins with a clever duel with the condition of staying on a sofa and ends with the inventive prop work that became Chan's iconic trademark.

9. "Night Club Shootout" - John Wick (Link)
You could take your pick of best action sequence between the three Wick films as the museum finale in film two and the knife throwing sequence in film three are also standout scenes. For my money, this sequence is the epitome of the series - great John Woo like gunplay mixed with an MMA style fighting filmed with interesting locations/lighting. I think the action scenes in later films would end up being too short (love the motorcyle samurai thing in the third film but its only 2 minutes long) or too long and over the top that it feels redundant (unlike the hospital shootout in Hard Boiled).  Check this one out to get a taste of a sequence that has nearly all the best features of the three films in one nice 6-7 minute moment.

8. "Car Chase, Foot Race, & Power Tool Fight to the Hague" -The Hitman's Bodygaurd
This film and sequence seemed to come out of nowhere. It released without much fanfare and was directed by a guy who hasn't really impressed (his biggest action work previously was Expendables 3). The final major action sequence of this film is one of my favorite types (that seems increasingly rare), the chaotic blend of car chase, shootout, and hand to hand fighting in a single sequence. 

7. "Ip Man vs Cheung Tin Shi for Wing Chun Grandmaster" -Ip Man 3 (Link)
It's nice to see that Donnie Yen was able to make the list this year with the best single fight sequence in the entire trilogy. Yen's foe, Max Zhang, is an incredible martial artist himself, and the two have a fight that is grounded enough to feel genuine and impressive, but dynamic enough, with enough camera flair, to feel epic. The fight progresses in three stages from bo staffs, to short knives, and finally in hand to hand combat that ends with the iconic one inch punch. This fight deserves to go on the short list of best fighting sequences of all-time.

6. "Stealing the Vault & Escaping Through the Streets of Rio" -Fast Five (Link)
This film lifted the Fast and Furious series to action greatness. Previous movies may have been primarily about racing with a side of mediocre action - this film places the action set pieces front and center. There were other great car chases (one coming later in the list) this decade, from Baby Driver and Raid 2 in particular, but none had the inventiveness, the scope, and the tactile nature this one did. While there might be a lot of CGI used, it certainly doesn't look it or feel it - when you watch this, it feels like they actually dragged a vault around Rio and destroyed the city. It's great.

5. "Church Mayhem" -Kingsmen: The Secret Service
This mid-film sequence will probably never be topped in the series, though they will likely try again and again. "Free Bird" playing while Colin Firth gets brutally violent on enraged religious fundamentalists in increasingly clever gun play and fighting is an odd mix that just works so well. There's no other sequence I can think of like it and no other sequence that has equaled it.

4. "One-Take: Lorraine protects Spyglass from the Russians" -Atomic Blonde (Link)
This faux one-take action sequence lacks the cinematic flair and cultural mashup of the church mayhem scene, but instead shines on gritty "realism." Charlize Theron shines here as she fights with great weight and vulnerability in a sequence that features a great mix of a dynamic and moving camera with gun play, fighting, wrestling, and prop work. It tells a bruising story and with the exception of number one on my list, is the best fight scene of the decade.

3. Marvel Avengers Finales
In what may feel like a cop-out I'm putting the Avengers finales at number three on my list. Specifically, we are talking the "Battle of New York" from the first Avengers, the "Airport Showdown" from Avengers 2.5 (a.k.a Captain America: Civil War), and the two finale showdowns with Thanos in Infinity War and End Game. I spent hours trying to rank these and realized it was pointless. They are all excellent, big-budget, epic action sequences that were the gold standard in this decade. Marvel took the mantle this decade previously held by Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. If you want intelligently produced spectacles with visual flair, you go to these movies. If you forced me to only choose one of these sequences, it would probably be the Battle of New York from the First Avengers film followed by the Titan/Wakanda finale from Infinity War.

2. "Back to the Citadel" -Mad Max: Fury Road

Who would have thought at the beginning of the decade that Charlize Theron would feature in two all-time great action sequences? Probably just as many people who thought the resurrection/reboot of Mad Max would turn out as great as it did. This instant action classic surprised everyone in 2015 and still feels as epic, creative, and zany as it did four years ago. The sequence's emphasis on practical stunt work (yes, even though CGI is well used), amazing art direction and character design, separate it from any competition. This sequence pulls off the rare combination of enough grand spectacle (the wide shots of explosions and the vehicle caravan in the desert is awe-inspiring) without losing the intimate details of give and take necessary for a fully engaging action sequence. The amount of times you feel like the characters get an upper hand only to be met with another new idea or attempt by the villains is exhausting (in a good way). This is a master-class and would be the best sequence of the decade if it wasn't for the work found in...

1. "Finale: From the Loading Bay to the Kitchen" -The Raid 2 (Link)
In 1994's The Legend of Drunken Master, Jackie Chan perfected his action finale sequence. The perfect Chan finale was not just about a great end fight, it was about crafting a 20-25 minute sequence where it would begin with 2-3 fights that were strong, featured different styles, and would culminate in an epic final boss fight that featured Jackie going to previously un-thought of levels of skill and risk. This kind of sequence had no equal, until The Raid 2. 

The finale sequence begins with a multiple man fight in a loading bay that would be the standout fight of most other action films. From there, the hero moves on to fight two well-crafted and interesting supporting villains (bat boy and hammer girl!) in a tight hallway. The fight style here is different enough, the characters unique enough, that it feels like a genuine progression of difficulty, a perfect middle to a three-tiered challenge. Finally, the hero moves on to the central physical challenge and fight. This is done in an extended and bloody sequence in a white kitchen. The fight alone is perhaps the best filmed one-on-one sequence ever. That it comes as the culmination of three back to back sequences makes it the best of the decade. It is fitting that the ending of Chan's career begins the list and the contemporary equivalent of his best work ends the list. Chan's influence is still being felt in the action world today.

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