The Best Movie Fight Scenes of the 2000s
I had two thoughts walking out of Atomic Blonde. One, I had absolutely no idea what to make of the plot, and couldn’t describe exactly what happened in the last act if Charlize Theron pointed a gun to my head. And two, the stairwell sequence in this film, where Theron’s Agent Lorraine Broughton slowly works her way down a building from top to bottom, kicking, punching, stabbing, shooting, and throwing one bad guy after another, is instantly a Hall of Fame-level action sequence, and immediately in the conversation for the title of best movie fight scene of the 2000s.
So what are the other contenders? In our humble opinion, these 20 scenes, presented in alphabetical order, are the rest of the best of the best of the last 17 years.
1. Blade II (2002)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Blade II never gets the respect or recognition it deserves as one of the premiere superhero movies of the century. The first Blade was a solid thriller, but Guillermo del Toro’s sequel really stepped up the horror aspect, the monstrosity of the character design, and the intensity of the martial-arts action. The graphic elements of lighting and color only enhance the intricate choreography.
2. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo
Even as they’ve come to dominate the marketplace for large-scale action movies with multiple films every year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has delivered surprisingly few truly iconic action sequences. The one undeniable highlight so far was the epic Avengers showdown at the climax of Captain America: Civil War, where the forces of Iron Man’s pro-registration team squared off with Cap’s anti-registration squad. There are a lot of heroes involved in this sequence, but directors Anthony and Joe Russo juggle them all brilliantly, and succeed in finding tons of clever ways to play different characters off each other.
3. Casino Royale (2006)
Directed by Martin Campbell
Part parkour chase, part fight in an extremely high and precarious position, the opening action sequence of Casino Royale kicked off the Daniel Craig Bond series in bravura fashion. After several tediously campy Pierce Brosnan entries, this intense, high-energy battle made a statement: This is a new Bond, who does things differently.
4. Creed (2015)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Though spun off from the long-running Rocky series, Creed didn’t simply rehash the style of boxing matches that Sylvester Stallone and his collaborators had churned out in their six previous films. Nor did director Ryan Coogler simply mimic the shots and cuts of a TV boxing match. Instead, he experimented with different techniques, giving Creed a unique feel for a boxing movie. In this show-stopping sequence, he captures an boxing match in a single take, with the camera bobbing and weaving through the mayhem. Few action scenes attain this level of you-are-there immediacy.
5. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Directed by Ang Lee
Crouching Tiger was the rarest of action movies: It was viscerally exciting and it won a bunch of Oscars. Fans have different favorite fights in the film; mine has always been this one between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi because of the one-upmanship involving the different weapons. “Oh you have a sword? Well here’s a staff!” “A staff? Seriously? Try these curved blades.” The variety keeps things fresh and allows the two stars to showcase tons of different techniques.
6. Eastern Promises (2007)
Directed by David Cronenberg
There are not enough fight scenes that feature the hero punching dudes while his junk is flopping around all over the place. In all seriousness, the novelty nudity here is more than a gimmick. It gives this bathhouse battle real stakes and intensity. Few protagonists in fight scenes have ever been as vulnerable as Viggo Mortensen’s character is here. He is totally exposed. (It should go without saying, but this clip is NSFW.)
7. Flash Point (2007)
Directed by Wilson Yip
No list of the best action films or sequences of the 2000s would be complete without at least one Donnie Yen fight. Yen has been one of the most dependable action heroes anywhere on the planet over the last two decades; this slot could have easily gone to something from one of the Ip Man films or even his great blind battle with Stormtroopers in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. For my money, this brutal and lengthy duel from Flash Point is his best: Inventive moves, great camera placement, and terrific integration of modern MMA style throws and submissions.
8. Haywire (2011)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Speaking of MMA, one surefire way to make a believable action movie is to cast a legitimate fighter in the lead. And thus Steven Soderbergh picked Strikeforce alum Gina Carano (MMA record: 7-1) to play his besieged spy in Haywire. The best moment is this ferocious rumble in a hotel room between Carano and Michael Fassbender. The hits in here are just merciless (watch how Carano [or her stuntwoman] goes through that television set), but Soderbergh still manages to balance out the brutality with fluidity as well. It’s like the GoldenEye sex fight, except not ridiculous and even more awesome.
9. House of Flying Daggers (2004)
Directed by Zhang Yimou
The best fights combine athleticism with beauty. Few action sequences of this century do that any better than this magnificent example from House of Flying Daggers. You could hang stills from this scene on your wall and they’d look like beautiful pieces of art (that would also just so happen to kick an enormous amount of ass).
10. Inception (2010)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
After a century of action movies, it can be tricky to find truly new ways to present the tried-and-true fist fight. Christopher Nolan found a novel reinvention in Inception, by setting this back-and-forth in a dream world where gravity is spiraling out of control. Movie fights are often compared to dance numbers because of their careful footwork and remarkable feats of physicality. That makes the Inception zero-G fight the action equivalent of Fred Astaire’s dance around the room from Royal Wedding.
11. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
With Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino set out to make the ultimate tribute to the martial arts movies he loved. In this jaw-dropping, gore-tastic battle between Uma Thurman’s Bride and the members of the Crazy 88, he succeeded.
12. King Kong (2005)
Directed by Peter Jackson
As a general rule of fight scenes, the less CGI and more authentic movement the better. The centerpiece showdown of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, where Kong protects his beloved Ann (Naomi Watts) from a bunch of dinosaurs, is a rare and notable exception. This sequence is bursting with creativity and moves a human could never pull off (Kong can grab stuff with his ape feet, giving him some very unusual kicks) and the computer effects enable Jackson to engineer some thrilling escapes and close calls that would be otherwise impossible.
13. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Directed by George Miller
Before Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron proved her action bona fides as Imperator Furiosa in George Miller’s triumphant return to the Mad Max series. Though most of the film’s action involves pedal-to-the-metal car chases, the best scene in the entire movie might be this furious struggle between Furiosa and Tom Hardy’s Max. The punches and kicks are relatively simple but the stakes are enormous, the intensity is off the charts, and the use of different props and weapons is endlessly clever.
14. Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013)
Directed by Isaac Florentine
For years now, Scott Adkins has quietly been the best movie action hero nobody talks about. He’s gotten a couple of small supporting roles in bigger projects but most of them don’t take full advantage of his gifts. (In Doctor Strange, he played a thug who got beaten up by a magic cape.) To get the full Adkins experience you need to explore his direct-to-video work, which is ample and typically a lot of fun. His masterpiece may be Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, a ridiculously titled revenge picture which involves very little actual ninjaing, and a lot of awesome fight sequences. This bar brawl showcases Adkins’ speed and agility, and how deftly he can chain lots of different moves together into impressive long takes.
15. John Wick (2014)
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Combining guns into elaborate martial-arts fight scenes has proven a difficult hurdle for many gifted directors to clear. Chad Stahelski (along with an uncredited David Leitch, who went on to direct the aforementioned Atomic Blonde) managed to achieve that action Holy Grail in John Wick. It helps that Keanu Reeves is such a terrific and convincing action star. Arguably, no genuine movie star has been better at fight scenes than him. In fact, let’s give him one more scene!
16. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Directed by the Wachowskis
The original Matrix came out in 1999, so it just missed the cut for our list, and the sequels mostly didn’t live up to the first film when it came to flat-out incredibly kung-fu spectacles. Still, amidst some janky computerized Agent Smiths and epic highway chases, there is this masterful interplay between Keanu’s Neo and a whole bunch of baddies who work for Lambert Wilson’s Merovingian. (Remember the Merovingian? I did not.) Even great action scenes often work on just a single horizontal plane; the Wachowskis broke out of that box here, with the characters leaping up, down, and around this gorgeous chateau.
17. Oldboy (2003)
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Forget a girl and a gun; Oldboy suggests all you need to make a movie is a live octopus and a hammer. (It helps to have an army of stuntmen willing to be bludgeoned too, I guess.) The pure cinema on display here helped make an incredibly dark and twisted revenge film into an international arthouse hit.
18. The Protector (2005)
Directed by Prachya Pinkaew
Picking just one Tony Jaa fight scene is an almost impossible task. Ultimately, I couldn’t choose anything over this awesome sequence from The Protector, Jaa’s 2005 follow-up to his breakthrough film Ong-Bak. The way the camera participates in the action, trailing Jaa up this huge stairwell, suggests it could have been an inspiration for Atomic Blonde’s signature sequence. Plus he throws a guy down like three stories and the camera just tracks him as he falls and then crashes through a little stand and it is basically one of the coolest things you’ve ever seen.
19. The Raid 2 (2011)
Directed by Gareth Evans
Both Raids provided numerous high points for the action genre. While I prefer the first movie to the second, the sequel has the most unforgettable moment in either film, the exceptional fight in the cramped quarters of a speeding car. Director Gareth Evans creates all kinds of ingenious camera angles (That God’s eye view!) to deliver the perfect shot for each beat, and Iko Uwais proves that even smushed in the middle back seat of a sedan, he can still beat up four guys at once.
20. The Transporter (2002)
Directed by Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen
Jason Statham has been this century’s preeminent figure in the field of Solid B-Action Pictures, but too many of his movies waste his physical gifts, cutting up his fights into incomprehensible messes. He needs more sequences like this one from The Transporter, where he covers himself in oil and then slips through the grasp of a bunch of henchmen. And you can quote me on that.