Best/Worst Of The Decade: Action

Continuing our review of some of the best and worst that the first decade of this century has had to offer, we take a look at action films.


Battle Royale (2000)

A film so shocking and controversial it was denounced on the floor of the Diet (the Japanese equivalent of Congress), Battle Royale was actually a savage critique of the Japanese education system and the national drive to succeed at all costs wrapped in the disguise of an action film. In the near future, a junior high school class is randomly chosen to fight amongst themselves to the death on a remote island, with the action being broadcast on national television. The students pretty much react the way they would in any high stress, highly competitive situation (like the Japanese public education system), as seen in the below clip. Although some would try to dismiss as crass and exploitive, it does not take away from the damning statement of condemnation that director Kinji Fukasaku was making.

Casino Royale (2006)

The kick in the ass that the decades-long franchise needed, Casino Royale reboots the story of British secret agent James Bond, by making it more than just another random mission he undertakes at the behest of Her Majesty’s Government. By taking us back to 007’s early days as an agent, we get a rough around the edges brute whose impetuous nature can do more harm than good. It’s the first instance of real characterization in the series for Bond since 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and offered the promise that over the next films we will see those edges slowly chipped away to reveal a truer version of the cold killer of author Ian Flemming’s novels than has ever been seen before.

The Departed (2006)

You usually don’t expect much from a remake. But, then again, not every remake is directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Matt Damon.

Adapted from the Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs, the film focuses on two men. One is an FBI agent who is undercover infiltrating the Irish mob. The Irish mob has their own man on the police force, and the two begin a brutal cat and mouse game in effort to discover the other man before he is discovered himself.

It might seem impossible to screw this one up, but in the wrong hands, it could be a disaster. But Scorsese is a master at pacing and keeps us at the edge of our seats the whole film. And each character is excellently cast, from top to bottom. This is an especially strong showing from DiCaprio, who delivers a performance of a lifetime. – William Gatevackes

Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to make us wait nine years between his original concept films and then give us a two-volume epic.

It’s the story of a former assassin shot by her ex-lover on the day of her wedding to another man. She enters a coma and when she awakens years later, she begins to hunt down her former teammates with the ultimate goal of killing Bill, the ex-lover that shot her.

It sounds like a typical revenge story, but nothing is typical in Tarantino’s hands. He fills the script with his usual witty dialogue, references to grindhouse Hong Kong films, scores a brutal swordfight with a catchy pop tune, and cast 70s icon, David Carradine, in a pivotal role. But this film is more fantastic yet more bloody and violent than his previous work. It is arguably Tarantino’s best work and definitely one of the best films of the decade. – WG

Shoot ‘Em Up (2006)

This is less an action movie than a live-action Warner Brothers cartoon with guns. Clive Owen’s character has a penchant for eating carrots for a reason, I would wager to bet. This is a high-octane, no holds barred, brutally violent amusement park ride of a movie. It isn’t a think piece. It has nothing to say about humanity (despite the political conspiracy subplot). It is just people killing people for 86 minutes. And if you like action movies, then you’ll love this one.

Owen stars as Mr. Smith, a man who stumbles across a group of assassins trying to kill a pregnant woman. He doesn’t arrive in time to save the woman but is able to save the baby. He spends the rest of the movie trying to protect the child as he tries to unravel the reasons why people want it dead. Oh, and he kills everything that gets in his way.

This film is ultra-violent and silly as anything you’d see. It really isn’t for everyone, but if you like hard boiled action films with a taste of the absurd, then this one’s for you. – WG

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2004)

While others were concentrating on using CGI to create photo-realistic worlds for their films, director Kerry Conran went the opposite direction in creating the stylized milieu of Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. Taking place in a futuristic art deco 1930s that never existed, Sky Captain (Jude Law) is a two-fisted aviator hero in the best pulp and cliffhanger tradition who, along with his gal pal reporter Gwyneth Paltrow, races to solve the mysterious connection between the disappearances of several scientists and an army of giant robots attacking Manhattan. Their investigation leads them on a globetrotting adventure that takes them from Nepal to a foreboding island in the Pacific Ocean. Conran’s use of modern tech to recreate the thrills of yesteryear is inspired, even if a majority of audiences couldn’t connect with the time period that the director so obviously adores. Their loss. And ours too, I guess, as if Sky Captain had been a hit, we would have probably seen a sequel or two by now. – RD

Speed Racer (2008)

Much like Sky Captain, Speed Racer is a phenomenal bit of world building scorned by critics and ignored by audiences who did not just want to stretch their imaginations enough to enter the hyperkinetic and Technicolor world created by directors Andy and Larry Wachowski. A pity, as under all the visual gloss is a story about growing in to adulthood and the responsibilities that may entail, the importance of doing the right thing no matter what the cost and the value of family. But at the heart of the story of teen race car driver Speed Racer running afoul of the multinational conglomerates that control the sport from behind the scenes is a sense of innocence and lack of cynicism that makes it so refreshing. It also has a scene where a guy in a race that is flying through the air punches in the face another race car driver dressed as a Viking whose car is also flying through the air. That alone qualifies it for this list. – RD


Formula 51 (2001)

I could save you some reading for this entry by saying this film features explosive diarrhea as a plot point, a pill that could literally cause a human being to explode, and ends with a naked Samuel L. Jackson playing golf on the Scottish estate of the family that owned his ancestors as slaves. That should tell you exactly how bad this film was. The plot was about Jackson’s character, Elmo McElroy, who is a chemist who created a new drug that is “”fifty-one times more powerful than cocaine, fifty-one times more hallucinogenic than acid, fifty-one times more explosive than ecstasy.” This, of course, creates a strong demand amongst the criminal community, and a series of back stabbings and one-up-man ships that takes McElroy all the way to Scotland.

The film is a convoluted mess. It goes for a wacky over-the-top humorous feel and fails miserably. It is filled with convenient coincidences (Hey, the assassin hired to kill McElroy once had a relationship with the hit man hired to protect McElroy! What are the odds?) and characters that are impossible to care for. – WG

The Island (2005)

This is really the tale of two movies. The first half of the film is science fiction worthy of Philip K. Dick (in fact, Dick’s widow Tessa believed the plot was copped from Dick’s 1964 novel, The Penultimate Truth). A society of sheltered humans lives in an environmentally controlled facility. They are told that the air outside the facility is too dangerous for human existence. The only place that is inhabitable is a mythical “Island,” which the residents can go to if they win a special lottery. But the truth, as found out by a curious inmate named Lincoln Six Echo, is that all the residents are clones and the trip to the Island is actually them being harvested for organs for the host bodies out in the real world. Lincoln Six Echo escapes with a female clone named Jordan Two Delta.

This is where the movie fall into blockbuster action movie hell as the facility sends mercenaries out after the escapees. All sense and logic is thrown out the window and the sheltered clones are able to drive vehicles, shoot guns and do a whole bunch more of action-y things that they could never do considering where they came from. But plot logic goes out the window when there are big explosions to happen and huge chase scenes to be had.

The first half shows so much potential. The latter half is incredibly dumb and stupid. The result is a bad movie. – WG

Matrix Reloaded (2003)

The Matrix was one of the best comic book movies not to come from the world of comic books. It was a cyberpunk sci-fi story which created a visceral reality that drew viewers in and kept them there quietly as the ride commenced. Any sequel to that film would be highly anticipated and find it hard to live up to the example set by the first movie.

But no one quite expected the sequel to be quite this bad. Instead of the lean and mean plotting and pace of the original, we get the bloated and padded version here. It seems that the original vision the Wachowski’s had for the trilogy somehow got away from them. When an announcement of the human survivor’s impending doom causes a spontaneous rave to break out, you want to yell out the screen “Wait, you’re about to die in three days and you’re dancing? Shouldn’t you be preparing or something?”

There are still a lot of finely choreographed fight scenes, but not enough to make up for the disappointment the shoddy writing brought on. – WG

Rush Hour 3 (2007)

Let’s face it. The awesomeness of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong films is pretty much in direct proportion to the awfulness of his films done in Hollywood. Compound that with the cinematic equivalent of sand in the swimsuit that is Chris Tucker and you have the Rush Hour series. If paper thin plots, flat attempts at humor and poorly staged and photographed action sequences can be considered the hallmarks of the series, than Rush Hour 3 is the apex (or is that nadir) of the Chan-Tucker collaborations. A good example of the Rush Hour films’ propensity for just not getting it right is the clip below. The idea of having a nun have to interpret a suspect’s interrogation suggests some laughs, but the film attacks the premise with sledgehammers, obliterating any possible humor and perhaps even hinting at a bit of racism. Is it any wonder that the Rush Hour films have been Tucker’s only film work in over a decade? – RD

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About Rich Drees 7019 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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