The Best Action Scenes of 2023

A survey of the year’s best action scenes, ranging from tokusatsu to wuxia, Kensuke Sonomura to Ma Dong-seok, India to Vietnam.
Jonah Jeng

The Action Scene is a column that explores the construction of action set pieces in order to deepen appreciation for and spark discussion about action cinema.

The following column examines my fifteen favorite action scenes of 2023. In their variety, virtuosity, and visceral power, they embody the vibrancy of contemporary action cinema. 

Like last year’s roundup, the focus is on action scenes—relatively sustained, heightened, self-contained expressions of action filmmaking craft—so some otherwise strong action films didn’t make the cut (for example, The Wandering Earth II, The Equalizer 3, Shin Ultraman, AKA), and not all of the films featured here are necessarily compelling beyond their set pieces. All included films made their official, non-festival, US theatrical and/or streaming debut in 2023. For the sake of variety, I’ve limited myself to one scene per film.

And now, on to the action. As with previous years, these scenes have been grouped by theme to foreground patterns and enhance ease of perusal.

CHINESE DIRECT-TO-VIDEO

Fight Against Evil 2 (Qin Pengfei and Yang Bingjia, 2023).

Had the one-scene-per-film restriction not existed, half of this list would be composed of fights from Fight Against Evil 2 (alternatively titled North East Police Story 2) and Fierce Cop, two blistering, sub-90-minute displays of supercop martial arts that attest to the exciting work being done in Chinese direct-to-video action. In Fight Against Evil 2, Xie Miao reprises his role as a small-town officer tackling organized crime, with the new twist being the discovery that his childhood friend (Liu Fengchao) is involved. Depending on the day, a later, bruising fight set entirely inside a car would be my vote for best action scene of the film. At the time of this writing, the top honor goes to a diaphragm-crushing throwdown between the two friends within a palatial public restroom (00:52:38 to 00:55:43 in the film). With vivid Foley work emphasizing the tug of fabric and the squeak of shoes, the first part of the scene stands out for its incorporation of MMA-style ground fighting, in which combatants grapple and trade blows low to the floor, extending their bodies horizontally. Ingeniously, directors Qin Pengfei and Yang Bingjia drop the camera down to the level of the action, using longer takes that slide around to simulate the fighters’ own movements, and letting the film’s widescreen aspect ratio further enhance a sense of horizontality. 

In the scene’s second section, the sprawl of bodies in an airy space is claustrophobically compressed as the fight moves into the stalls. This segment literalizes the axiom that constraint breeds creativity. Reduced camera mobility prompts the use of more dynamic camera angles, and restrictions in shot distance (tighter shots are all that can literally “fit” in the space) demand precise continuity editing, which pieces together a sense of the fight’s progress. " When longer takes are used, the achievement feels extra impressive for occurring within a situation of such limited maneuverability. In this scene, a tightening of space physically induces a feeling of increasing pressure and compels a heightened expressiveness of form. 

Fierce Cop (Chan Tai-lee, 2022).

Fierce Cop’s plot is as straightforward as its title: after his son is abducted by a human trafficking ring, a police detective (Richie Jen) carves a desperate warpath through the organization’s ranks. In the film’s most thrilling set piece (the climax is a close second), our bat-wielding protagonist battles a high-ranking heavy who’s armed with a pair of curved knives (Dang Shanpeng). This face-off (01:10:47 to 01:10:47 in the film, including the occasional cutaway to other characters) is a masterclass of movement, rhythm, and framing, courtesy of veteran action director Kenji Tanigaki, best known for his collaborations with Donnie Yen (for example, SPL [2005], Flash Point [2007], Raging Fire [2021], and Sakra [2023], which appears later in this list) as well as his work on the live-action Rurouni Kenshin films (2012-2021). Relatively lengthy, legato two-shots that move with combatants are punctuated by staccato close-ups that magnify specific moves. The choreography is similarly rhythmic, shifting between barrages of slashing, dodging, and parrying and moments of emphatic pause—the henchman snagging our hero’s bat between his blades, for instance, or leaping up to evade a swing before dropping a knee into the detective’s chest mid-descent, a flashy maneuver further accentuated by slow motion. Through it all, Tanigaki deploys a handheld camera that, while steady enough to lucidly capture the choreography, infuses the scene with an anxious energy, as if the camera itself were a dancing boxer ready to join the fray.

Mutant Ghost Wargirl (Liu Binjie, 2022).

In the best fight from Mutant Ghost Wargirl, a government agent forcibly injected with a gene-modifying fluid (Miya Muqi) battles a mind-controlled former colleague (Cui Zhenzhen), both of whom now possess superhuman abilities ranging from super strength to telekinesis to superspeed/teleportation (00:24:00 to 00:26:21 in the film). Evoking the South Korean Witch series (2018-2022) and Zack Snyder’s entries in the DC Cinematic Universe, especially Man of Steel (2013), the scene suggests high-speed motion through distinctive editing strategies, as well as in-frame, CGI-enhanced displays of impossibly fast movement. Near the scene’s start, a rapid, almost subliminal blitz of close-ups telegraphs the swiftness of combatants’ actions and reactions; the moment culminates with a foreground punch that rockets the victim into the distant background, conveying the pulverizing force of the blow. From there, the stylistic strategies proliferate. At points, the camera seems to be a step behind the characters—a fighter extends her arm frame right, the camera pans, and only then is it revealed that she is breaking off a piece from a stone pillar to fling at her pursuer—and action often occurs near the frame’s edges, indicating motion faster than what the human camera operator can capture. At other points, the camera itself moves with preternatural, CGI-enabled dexterity, like in a moment where it seems to keep pace with one of the mutants as she teleports through space. 

SUPERPOWERS

Shin Kamen Rider (Hideaki Anno, 2023).

Shin Kamen Rider, the third in a series that reimagines classic tokusatsu icons and includes Shin Godzilla (2016) and Shin Ultraman (2022), tells of a motorcyclist named Takeshi Hongo (Sôsuke Ikematsu) who becomes a human-grasshopper hybrid after being experimented upon by a sinister organization. Set free and tasked with taking down this organization, Hongo faces off against other hybrids who work for the company. The most remarkable of these showdowns is waged against a human-wasp hybrid (Nanase Nishino), who, during the fight, snarls at Hongo’s companion (Minami Hamabe), “I’m going to break your little toy before your eyes” (00:51:20 to 00:53:33 in the film). The scene—one of the most unique action set pieces in recent memory—seems to take these words to heart, making the action and characters appear toylike. Featuring a surreal mix of CGI and stop-motion animation, the scene oscillates between wider views of the fighters zipping around the screen and more tightly framed moments that unfold with a herky-jerky rhythm. With the wider shots making the characters appear small in the frame and the stop-motion evoking the act of arranging action figures into static poses, the fight seems to reference tokusatsu merchandising—the way the cultural legacies of such characters are tied to the tactile miniaturization of toys and other collectibles.

Maaveeran (Madonne Ashwin, 2023).

In some ways, the Shin Kamen Rider set piece adopts a godlike perspective, inviting the viewer to imagine themselves as an omnipotent being with a miniature world at their fingertips. Divine intervention is even more explicitly thematized in Maaveeran, a riff on Stranger Than Fiction (2006) in which, following a near-death experience, a timid comic-book artist named Sathya (Sivakarthikeyan) awakens to find his life narrated in the third-person by a disembodied voice only he can hear. Before long, it becomes clear the voice is no mere hallucination; everything it says will happen, does happen. The twist is that the narration paints Sathya’s life as the heroic journey of a warrior leading his community against a corrupt housing minister (Mysskin), whereas Sathya has zero interest in political activity or confrontation of any kind. 

The film’s comedy hinges on the sight of a befuddled Sathya apologizing for his inadvertent displays of defiance, such as appearing to stamp on a poster of the minister’s face because it’s become conveniently glued to his feet, or ostensibly refusing to sign a form—an attempt by the minister’s secretary (Sunil) to buy him off—because all the pens in the room have magically run out of ink (“the warrior couldn’t bring himself to betray the people,” the voice booms). This disconnect between intention and action also drives the film’s first and most entertaining action scene (01:20:52 to 01:27:58 in the film), in which Sathya, sporting a terrified expression the whole time, easily dispatches a group of thugs thanks to the voice’s preemptive instructions (“He swung to the left as a rod was about to strike him”; “He grabbed a sack from the left and threw it at them”). Buttressed by athletic handheld camerawork that cleaves to the flow of the action, nimbly circling and pivoting to catch movements and impacts, the scene becomes an homage to the art of fight choreography: the intricate, step-by-step work of designing and “narrating” fight scenes that, to those watching from the outside, appears effortless. 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (James Gunn, 2023).

Single-take action scenes, on the other hand, tend to flaunt the intricacy of their choreography. These “oners,” in pairing a mobile, continuous shot with the spectacle of fighting bodies, invite wonder at the logistical difficulty of coordinating various elements—bodies, objects, the camera itself—in “real time.” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 features an extraordinary example in its climax, which sees the eponymous space crew battling both human and mutant enemies (01:57:01 to 01:59:15 in the film). Set to the Beastie Boys’ propulsive “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and deploying wide-angle lensing to exaggerate a sense of panoramic depth, the scene is a tour de force of organized chaos—bodies and objects fly and weave around each other, with the unbroken shot additionally thematizing the Guardians’ unity and synergy. 

Even as the camera loops smoothly through the fray, however, the action abounds with slime, viscera, and other forms of bodily discharge that complicate the impression of clean, controlled execution. At one point, a tree man (Vin Diesel) shoves its fibrous arm down a creature’s throat, triggering grisly cracks and squelches and causing branch-like outgrowths to punch through the creature's exoskeleton from the inside out. Elsewhere, a cyborg character (Karen Gillan) has her neck (temporarily) broken by a punch, causing her head to flop back disturbingly far and large gobs of spittle to fly at the camera in slow motion. On one level a hysterical, hypnotic Grand Guignol that stretches the film’s PG-13 rating, the scene also thematically parallels the film’s focus on bodies experimentally mangled by a godlike alien race trying to engineer the “perfect” species. This tension between control and excess, between the ideal of perfection and the grotesqueries it both rejects and engenders, finds a provocative echo in the scene’s mix of slickness and off-putting corporeality.

THE LONG TAKE

Extraction 2 (Sam Hargrave, 2023).

The oner has become such a staple of contemporary action cinema that the past few years of this column could’ve all had sections titled “The Long Take.” That said, 2023 feels especially deserving of this section given the variety and virtuosity of long takes on display. The year’s most talked about example is the go-for-broke action centerpiece of Extraction 2 (00:26:17 to 00:47:23 in the film), which sees gun-for-hire Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) and his team (Golshifteh Farahani and Adam Bessa) attempting to break a mother and her children (Tinatin Dalakishvili, Andro Japaridze, and Marta Kovziashvili) out of prison. Shifting from claustrophobic gun-fu during a prison riot to a forest car chase to varied combat aboard a freight train (including firing at a helicopter in pursuit), the scene pointedly one-ups the still-impressive-in-its-own-right oner from the first Extraction (2020), which runs for a “mere” twelve minutes and is confined to the area in and around an apartment complex. Of course, quantity does not equal quality (although the sheer geographical sprawl and lengthiness of Extraction 2's long take do express an ambitiousness that would've been impressive even if the oner as a whole had been underwhelming). Stuntman-director Sam Hargrave and his team, however, demonstrate a practiced eye and feel for visceral action staging, skillfully syncing the handheld camera’s movements with onscreen choreography, whether it’s tracking, panning, and tilting with blows, impacts, and falls; shifting from one plane of action to another; or modulating thoughtfully between wider views of multiple combatants and tighter framings of faces and objects. In its physically involved and seemingly organic way of responding to and anticipating choreographic beats, the camera itself feels like a stuntperson.

Furies (Ngô Thanh Vân, 2023).

If Extraction 2’s long take is grounded and immersive, the one in Furies revels in artifice (00:58:38 to 01:02:33 in the film). Descending from the rooftops to track the nighttime ride of two women atop a motorcycle (Đồng Ánh Quỳnh and Tóc Tiên), the “shot” presents the riders as avatar-like figures within a computer-generated landscape—the inconsistent lighting and resolution of their bodies vis-à-vis their surroundings, as well as the flat colors and textures of the storefronts whipping by, expose the digitally composited nature of the image. Accompanied by a dreamy, melancholic pop ballad that transitions into a belting rock chorus, the long take seems to exist in an unreal, liminal space, which makes thematic sense. The women—vigilantes waging war against a Saigon-based crime syndicate—have just witnessed their team member (Rima Thanh Vy) being murdered. This moment seems to aesthetically channel their emotions, evoking the way trauma undoes the fabric of reality. The unrealism persists into the action, which kicks into gear when the women suddenly find themselves flanked by motorcyclists from the gang that killed their friend, here to finish the job. As the combatants trade blows atop their bikes, the choreography sometimes appears a bit stilted, and the hits are not always convincing in their impacts. “Hidden” cuts are shoddily masked, and the green-screened background remains a constant, derealizing presence, making bodies feel like floaty rag dolls. It works. Stylistically recalling last year’s “single-take” film Carter (2022), this scene from Furies benefits from its gaps and fissures, which lend the action an otherworldly air.

John Wick: Chapter 4 (Chad Stahelski, 2023).

For all of its larger-than-life lore, the John Wick series hinges on a certain realism: the heaviness of bodies and impacts, something director-stuntman Chad Stahelski and his team at 87Eleven Action Design accentuate through longer takes, wider framing, and choreography that is more labored and repetitive. This grounded action style, though distinctive and frequently thrilling, can also grow a bit monotonous; it’s fitting that the most refreshing set piece from John Wick: Chapter 4 leaves the ground altogether via one of the most innovative long takes in contemporary action cinema (02:08:18 to 02:10:04 in the film). Adopting an overhead perspective on a gunfight unfolding several meters below, the scene visually emulates top-down shooter games, especially the John-Woo-inspired The Hong Kong Massacre (2019), which Stahelski has cited as an influence. Contrary to the series’s dominant approach of fleshing out and lending weight to bodies in motion, this long take virtually flattens the visual field into two dimensions; the lazy, mechanical drift of the camera further underscores a sense of detachment from the characters below. The scene’s embrace of abstraction peaks in moments when incendiary “Dragon’s Breath” rounds are discharged, causing spark and fire to streak across the image like Etch A Sketch scrawls (Stahelski’s own wonderful simile).

STAR POWER

Sakra (Donnie Yen and Kam Ka-Wai, 2023).

One of John Wick: Chapter 4’s main attractions is Donnie Yen, whose character nods to both the iconic blind swordsman Zatoichi and the cocky supercop roles from Yen’s heyday. That said, the supreme Yen showcase of 2023 is Sakra, for which he served as star, co-director (alongside Kam Ka-Wai), and co-action-director (with the great Kenji Tanigaki, who also worked on Fierce Cop). A de facto vanity project that depicts Yen’s protagonist Qiao Feng—an esteemed martial artist falsely accused of murder—as an unimpeachably honorable warrior with peerless fighting skills, Sakra displays its hero’s abilities most spectacularly in a mid-film melee in which he duels a throng of former blood brothers out to avenge the dead (00:59:41 to 01:10:01 in the film). Following a dramatic drinking ceremony in which the brothers sever ties with Qiao—one of the most invigorating pre-fight hype-ups in recent memory—the action erupts into motion. Flitting around like a hummingbird, but delivering seismic impacts that speak to his outsized power—for example, palm attacks that cause blood to mist out the backs of opponents and hits so forceful the victim becomes lodged in a stone wall—Qiao battles with a mix of whip-fast arm-leg combos, physics-bending wuxia acrobatics, and blistering swordplay enhanced by metallic trilling Foley sounds that convey the speed and intricacy of the fencing.

The Roundup: No Way Out (Lee Sang-yong, 2023).

The singular screen presence of Ma Dong-seok—bearish physique, piledriver arms that pound sundry henchman into oblivion—headlines The Roundup: No Way Out, which sees Ma’s police detective (also named Ma) investigating a drug ring involving the yakuza and crooked cops. Where some action films generate a sense of desperation by having their hero barely survive each set piece, the Roundup movies opt for the opposite approach, presenting Ma as an unstoppable force who gives unsuspecting thugs a rude awakening with his fists (or his palm, in the case of his patented, one-hit-knockout slap across the face). 

The film’s most satisfying iteration of this theme occurs during the climax (01:32:56 to 01:36:48 in the film), in which Detective Ma squares off against the corrupt narcotics captain of another precinct (Lee Joon-hyuk). The underdog dynamic of much action cinema—in which the driving question is how the hero can overcome a tough situation—is here inverted: the suspense lies in seeing how much trouble the bad guy can cause before Ma inevitably defeats him. Lee’s villain puts up a good fight, throwing himself with feral abandon at the much girthier Ma and, at one point, wielding handcuffs as makeshift brass knuckles; the physicality of the brawl is enhanced by immersive handheld camerawork that cleaves tightly to fighters’ bodies and movements (medium shots and medium close-ups predominate). Ma, of course, wins in the end, and his finishing move is hilariously spectacular: a punch that—accompanied by whooshing, vacuum-like Foley work evoking a projectile breaking the sound barrier—causes Lee to rocket across the room and crater the doors of a metal cabinet.

PANDEMONIUM 

The Childe (Park Hoon-jung, 2023).

In the chaotic final fight of The Childe, the mysterious, impish stranger (Kim Seon-ho) who has dogged the protagonist, Marco (Kang Tae-ju), throughout the film lays waste to bodyguards working for Marco’s nefarious stepbrother Han Yi-sa (Kim Kang-woo). The enigmatic pursuer—identified only as “Nobleman”—appears right as Marco is about to have his heart forcibly harvested to save a dying father he’s never met (Choi Jung-woo), all to help secure Yi-sa’s inheritance of the ailing man’s vast fortune. With Nobleman’s motivation for intervening still unclear, the savior plows with casual ferocity through the enemy’s ranks, using everything from an electrical cord to a metal paperweight to traditional firearms (01:36:03 to 01:38:29 in the film). 

To intensify the sense of pandemonium, director Park Hoon-jung shoots the scene with a handheld camera that swoops and totters along with the careening bodies, and the pace of cutting is fast; together, these techniques generate an impressionistic, “shaky cam” visual style that borders on obscurantism. And yet, just enough is visible and audible to keep the viewer oriented. Shots linger just long enough to capture impacts and a sense of geography; match-on-action editing sustains a through line of propulsive movement across shots; and precise, detailed Foley work functions as a kind of sensory mnemonic, vividly evoking the target object in ways that compensate for visually murkier moments (the tympanic thump of a shotgun being fired, for instance, or the hard, metallic thwacking of the paperweight connecting with skulls). The result is a scene that feels acutely disorienting on the surface but continues to guide the viewer’s attention almost subliminally, infusing the mayhem with a subtle sense of force and trajectory. 

Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One (Christopher McQuarrie, 2023).

Trajectory is paramount to the nail-biting climax of Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, in which IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and professional thief / new IMF recruit Grace (Hayley Atwell) clamber up the length of the Orient Express as it slowly tips over the edge of a cliff, train car by train car (02:23:03 to 02:28:59 in the film). Along with the mathematical elegance of the scene’s premise—the way to safety is forward and up, the path to danger behind and down—the set piece’s brilliance hinges on communicating complex cause-and-effect relationships through crosscutting. A wide view of two linked train cars jackknifing upwards—forming a triangle—shifts to a shot of the rear car’s inhabitants levitating from sudden weightlessness. Shots of Ethan and Grace squeezed atop a tiny ledge alternate with views of a grand piano suspended perilously overhead and close-ups of the slowly unfastening harness holding it in place, generating suspense in a beautifully classical way: will they or won’t they get out of the way in time? Even the scene’s most hectic moment—a desperate climb through the train’s sloping kitchen car, in which piping hot grease sloshes out of a deep fryer; pots, plates, and cans tumble around everywhere; and open flames convulse atop a stove, with gas leaking half a foot away—demonstrates great formal precision. It is the accelerating crosscuts between the different hazards and our heroes’ slipping shoes that convey a sense of heightening pressure and entropy—the kitchen car as ticking bomb.

Ballerina (Lee Chung-hyun, 2023).

Some of the most kinetic action of the year can be found in Ballerina, which depicts a former bodyguard Okju (Jeon Jong-seo) exacting revenge on the sex trafficking ring that pushed her friend (Park Yu-rim) to suicide. The film’s first two fights feature frenzied cutting and camera movement that turn the image into a near-abstract blitz of motion and impact; the climax presents a wider, motley range of formal techniques to achieve a similar sense of reckless kineticism (01:16:06 to 01:18:02 in the film). Observing as Okju takes on sundry henchmen within a drug lab after coolly shooting dead their leader, the scene is a Frankenstein’s monster of speed ramping, stitched-together “oners,” varied camera angles (overhead shots, 90-degree Dutch angles), and, once more, rapid cutting. Channeling and heightening the chaos of the scene through sensory bombardment, the variegated style also embodies what I’ve elsewhere called a post-production aesthetic: a scene whose overt, fine-grained formal manipulations conjure the figure of the digital post-production specialist, remixing filmic space-time with abandon. In the Ballerina scene’s fragmented yet fluid style, expressed is a sense of exuberant omnipotence, the freedom of the infinitely manipulable, constantly shifting image. 

Bad City (Kensuke Sonomura, 2023).

Bad City revolves around a veteran police captain (Hitoshi Ozawa) leading a task force against a mafia kingpin (Lily Franky) and marks the second time Kensuke Sonomura has done double duty as director and action director (following Hydra in 2019). Sonomura’s style of action is one of the most idiosyncratic in contemporary cinema, and it’s on full display in his newest film’s climax (01:34:32 to 01:41:54 in the film), which crosscuts between two different fights: one between Ozawa’s cop and a treacherous member of the Korean mob (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi), and another between two task force members (Masanori Mimoto and Akane Sakanoue) and a frighteningly fast and vicious henchman (Tak Sakaguchi). 

In lieu of the big, powerhouse swings and impacts seen in much action cinema, Sonomura’s choreography features faster, more intricate maneuvers that resemble a kind of graceful fumbling. Characters grab at each other’s clothes and rain blows down on one another, with no particular move being decisive. Rather, gains and setbacks are incremental; the battle is one of speed and endurance, of evading and withstanding the pitter-patter of knees and fists longer than the other person. The culminating fight in Bad City feels like genuine scrapping—raw, disheveled fisticuffs that evoke the ungainly physics of “real-world” fighting, even as the spectacular complexity of the choreography maintains a sense of flourish.

***

The richness of 2023’s action is exemplified as much by what didn’t make the cut as by what did. To that point, here are some honorable mentions: the truck ambush from Raid on the Lethal Zone, cops versus robbers aboard a train in Moscow Mission, the first clash of armies in Kingdom 2: Far and Away, the opening prison beatdown in Bhagavanth Kesari, the train brawl in Pathaan, the fight against Sala Baker’s Brute in The Killer, the farmhouse confrontation in Blood & Gold, the hallway fight in Young Ip Man: Crisis Time, Xenk Yendar’s swordplay showcase in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the “one shot” car chase from Leo, bar gun-fu in Kill Boksoon, the forest fight in Fist of the Condor, the pool hall takedown in The Comeback, Lady Death’s jail yard fight in Sniper G.R.I.T.: Global Response & Intelligence Team, Ran’s MMA match against a hulking henchman in Knuckle Girl, and the climactic melee in High & Low: The Worst X.

A banner year for action scenes has ended, but the excitement continues unabated: a packed January slate featuring new films from Scott Adkins, Ma Dong-seok, and Jason Statham—along with the French actioner Mayhem! that made a splash this past weekend among genre fans—rushes us at full speed into a new year of action. Hang on for the ride.

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