The past ten years have been, among other things, a banner decade for action cinema. With 2020 around the corner, we wanted to celebrate the ongoing vibrancy of the genre through highlighting the best action scenes of the 2010s, since it is the action scene that has traditionally been the most concentrated, heightened expression of action filmmaking craft. And it is craft that this article focuses on: the specific and concrete ways in which various facets like narrative, mise-en-scène, sound, and editing work together to produce exceptional action.
The following is Part 2 of the round-up; Part 1 can be found here.
The next film on our list is helmed by a director who had never directed a pure action film up until this point. Then again, if your name is Steven Soderbergh, breaking new ground is part of your modus operandi, and with Haywire (2011), more than ground is broken over the course of a brisk and bruising 93 minutes. Exceptional action appears throughout the film, but the best scene is the very first one. In this scene, ex-marine Mallory Kane, played by former mixed martial artist Gina Carano, goes to meet her erstwhile colleague Aaron (Channing Tatum) in a diner in upstate New York. Speaking on behalf of his shady higher-ups, he demands that she get in his car with him, and, when she refuses, he throws hot coffee in her face. This jolt of brutality comes out of nowhere and, ironically, is all the more shocking thanks to Soderbergh’s understated approach: rather than opting for a medium close-up of Mallory and the scalding details of her pain, Soderbergh captures the entire action using an almost entirely static long shot from across the room. The ensuing brawl, thanks to a combination of such steady shot framing, muted sound design, and a lack of diegetic score, feels bracingly realistic: you almost believe you're watching a real bar fight, sans Hollywood's typical visual and aural embellishments. Many action filmsuse kinetic camerawork and fast cutting to communicate an experience of force, but Haywire does the same with the opposite approach: through his subdued shooting style, Soderbergh foregrounds the weight and frailty of the human body, and, by positioning us as could-be onlookers of this fight, compels us to imagine how our own bodies would fare in this situation.
The power of the best action scene in Atomic Blonde (2017) similarly depends on a sense of physical vulnerability, of bodies bruising and breaking beneath blows that, in many action movies, would have left fighters looking relatively unfazed. Director David Leitch—who co-directed the original John Wick (2014)—follows Soderbergh’s style of keeping the shots long, but, in the action centerpiece of the film, long is really long: in this scene, Stahelski captures a savage stairwell brawl between Charlize Theron’s MI6 heroine and two KGB agents using what appears to be a single, unbroken seven-minute shot.
What is astonishing here is not only the convincing illusion of spatiotemporal continuity but the degree of visual coherence that Leitch achieves. Shots of this length often loop around objects in ways where the action is at points obfuscated or completely blocked (see, for instance, this decade’s other major stairwell fight from the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil ), in such a way where the viewer becomes aware that kinks in the choreography—or even a cut—could have been hidden behind a carefully placed body or object. In Atomic Blonde, however, Leitch minimizes this sense of obvious orchestration even as the virtuosity of the one-shot illusion inevitably and intentionally draws attention to itself. The mobile frame of the shot seems to almost always provide a clear view of the fighters, and when it does swerve away, it may be hiding a cut but is presented as if it were capturing a key action, like a gun being knocked over the stairwell bannister. This visual clarity is a testament to the skill of cinematographer Jonathan Sela, but it also demands a lot from the actors. Since the entire fight is on-camera at virtually all times, blows must look convincing, and, to that end, the scene succeeds in spades, especially in moments where characters are kicked down the stairs and it’s clear that the actors and stunt doubles actually tumbled one step at a time to the platform below. The entire tone of the scene is built around this commitment to physical strain: like with Haywire, Leitch has stripped away all musical score, allowing the thud of fist and concrete on flesh and the sound of pained yells to permeate the soundtrack in seeming real-time.
Atomic Blonde emerged out of the Charlize Theron renaissance of the past decade, but the period hit its aesthetic zenith two years earlier with Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Little can be said that hasn’t already been said about George Miller’s action masterpiece: the way the film pays tribute to legendary proto-action films like Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman’s The General (1926) and John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939); the subversive centrality of Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, whose mission to free the wives of a misogynistic tyrant steals the spotlight from the film’s male namesake, giving rise to a rousing socialist and feminist vision; and, above all else, Miller’s peerless action filmmaking craft, honed over 15-years of development hell that, in the end, proved to be a purifying flame. Video essayist Vashi Nedomansky has noted the way Miller places key actions at the center of his frames so that, across shots, the most important elements are easily tracked thanks to their shared visual position, and it is through canny choices like these that Miller, cinematographer John Seale, and editor Margaret Sixel have crafted some of the most complex yet coherent set pieces ever caught on camera.
It is difficult to single out one action scene in a film that is essentially one long chase, but the climactic stretch, in which the motley crew of heroes make a U-turn and race back to the very place they had been fleeing, is a culmination of the film’s technical craft and emotional urgency. In this scene, Miller and crew cross-cut between various planes of action, from Furiosa at the helm of our heroes’ trusty oil tanker to flanks of marauders trying to mount the larger vessel to Max on the roof fending off those who have successfully boarded. The way the film establishes relationality between these actions is ingenious: just as each characters’ task is both its own thing and a part of the larger goal of making it home, so the film’s editing simultaneously tracks what each character is doing and traces how each of these micro-actions reverberates outward to shape the trajectory of the larger chase. The power of this scene—and Fury Road in general—stems primarily from this skillful evocation of cause-and-effect relationships between a panoply of moving parts on varying scales, and though other great chase scenes from this decade have attempted a similar feat (e.g. the final airstrip chase from Fast and the Furious 6 , which, in a universe without Fury Road, would probably have been the film I wrote on), none can hold a candle to what Miller accomplishes here.
If there is one chase scene that feels qualitatively different than Fury Road, it would be the one from The Villainess (2017), the South Korean action melodrama about an assassin hell-bent on revenge. The set-piece in question involves the heroine Sook-hee being pursued by a gang of katana-wielding thugs on motorcycles (the motorcycle chase from John Wick: Chapter Three , though excellent, is heavily indebted to this scene), and what impresses isn’t just the pulpy genre iconography on display (motorcycles, katanas, black-clad fighters) but the camerawork, which, for a full minute, loops behind, around, in front of, and even under the racing motorbikes with what appears to be zero cuts. This setup produces a palpable sense of danger, both for the camera crew and the stunt performers who, appearing quite physically present under the scrutiny of the (ostensibly) unbroken shot, are framed as actually having “been there,” trading blows atop of wobbling motorbikes burning rubber at 100 miles an hour. Moreover, in having the camera circle vertiginously around the stunt people, bringing us into as intimate proximity with the fighters as they are with each other, the film produces the cinematic equivalent of a roller coaster ride for viewers: a feeling of whooshing around characters who are, already, moving very, very fast.
In a discussion of movie chases, I would be remiss in not mentioning this decade’s Mission: Impossible sequels, of which the epic pursuit—whether on foot, by car, or via helicopter—plays a central part. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, in particular, contains a muscular two-part chase that is a masterclass in clear visual framing and stuntwork whose largely non-CG-assisted nature makes the crashes feel weightier and more tactile. All that said, the scene ultimately doesn’t do anything that Fury Road hasn’t done better, so it would be a bit redundant to talk about it here. However, I do want to take a moment to discuss the near-unanimous praise that Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018) has received, with many mentioning it alongside Fury Road as one of the best action films of the century so far, if not of all time.
At the very least, the designation “action film” applies to Fallout. If the first five entries in the series banked on elaborate heists and escapes where action was often subordinated to suspense, Fallout minimizes wind-up in favor of bludgeoning release, presenting longer and more frequent spectacles in which Tom Cruise can show off how committed he is to doing his own stunts. Indeed, what seems to be galvanizing many fans is the knowledge that Cruise actually performed a Halo jump, actually leapt from one rooftop to another, and actually piloted a helicopter through mountainous terrain, knowledge made available through numerous making-of videos cannily circulated ahead of the film’s release to drum up anticipation. The thing is, text and paratext are not the same thing, and, ultimately, the best behind-the-scenes stuntwork does zilch for an action scene if the camera and editing don’t underline the realness of the stunts, working it into the film’s aesthetic. To a degree, Fallout does do this—the one-shot approach to the Halo jump does indeed produce the impression of actual bodies moving through a real, three-dimensional space—but, ultimately, much of the action is pretty unremarkably shot and edited.
The one major exception is a bathroom brawl that occurs early on, in which Cruise and Henry Cavill face off against stuntman Liang Yang, who plays a middleman for a mysterious arms dealer named the White Widow. Compared to the film’s other set-pieces, the actual stunt work in this scene is relatively modest, but a combination of shrewd aesthetic choices—from varied camera angles (the overhead shot is sorely underused in Hollywood hand-to-hand fight scenes) to bruising sound design to slightly longer shots that foreground the choreography—makes the scene an old-school banger on a blockbuster budget. The actors’ performances are key to this scene’s power—their yells, grimaces, and exaggerated swings perform exertion in the way that Reeves does for the John Wick films—but so is the smart reliance on the age-old trope of having characters fight in suits (also a John Wick staple). The unfitness of such a wardrobe choice for this sort of activity—evidenced visually by the way the fabric stretches tightly and awkwardly across the fighters’ frames and grows increasingly disheveled, triggering viewers’ own memories of the limited flexibility afforded by fancy evening wear—makes the sense of strain even more palpable. This action scene is Fallout’s best because it is aesthetic first and paratext second, using image and editing to directly solicit the audience’s perceptual and bodily response.
IN THE RING
Historically, hand-to-hand combat has appeared not only in impromptu, fight-to-the-death contexts but in the boxing, wrestling, and mixed martial arts picture. At least a couple films have carried the tradition into the decade admirably. One of these is Warrior (2011), Gavin O’Connor’s tale of two estranged brothers vying for the same, five million dollar prize that awaits the winner of an international mixed martial arts tournament. The cumulative emotional force of this film is overwhelming; the movie makes it a point to invoke primordial motifs like the bonds of family and the sacredness of home and to make both brothers sympathetic, such that we’re unsure whom to root for. Out of all the films I spotlight, this is the one where discussing a scene in isolation from the rest of the film becomes most impossible, since the bruising power of each fight draws strength from the dramatic groundwork laid by the film’s screenplay and performances up until that point. Put another way, this is the film where the experience of watching a scene on its own versus watching it in context diverge the most.
All that said, if one were to single out a scene, one would find plenty to praise. Arguably the most effective set piece is the film’s penultimate fight, in which one brother Brandon Conlin, the underdog fighting for the livelihood of his family, faces off against undefeated Russian wrestler Koba. This scene, which involves Brandon being clobbered for two rounds before, in a burst of pure will, vanquishing the champion in the third, doesn’t operate under the same principles that the previous films do. It doesn’t provide an especially clear view of the action, often shooting through the grating of the fighters’ cage from the outside or cutting to reaction shots from the crowd. When the camera does join the fighters in the ring, the shots are more evocative than representational, showing fragments of motion more frequently than the full trajectory of a kick or punch.
There are several reasons why this scene still works. The first is the ingenious way (and this is a trope among sports films) that the movie supplements images of action with the sound of announcers giving a blow-by-blow account of what is happening, such that, even if we can’t always literally see what is going on, the verbal descriptions fill in most of the blanks. Another is the way the film uses the reactions of the crowd—gasps when Brandon is pounded into the floor, cheers when he seems to be getting the upper hand—to signal how we should respond. The music, too, swelling as the fighting intensifies, invites viewers’ emotional investment, and the thud and thwack of gloves hitting flesh along with close-ups of fighters’ grimacing faces offer plenty for us to imagine the punishing physical experience of being in the ring. And, ultimately, it is this last part that does the most work, especially when contextualized by the film’s themes: the sense of physical exertion and pain, even if not conveyed with the utmost visual clarity, becomes a powerfully corporeal metaphor for the lengths to which one will go to fight for those they love.
In contrast to the way Warrior builds a mood and milieu of tension, passion, and drive through cutaways from the main action, the first boxing match in Creed (2015) fulfills the same goal by not cutting at all. In this scene, Adonis, the son of Apollo Creed from the Rocky movies (1976–1985), competes for the first time, a moment of truth that, for him, will determine if he can emerge from his father’s shadow and make a name for himself. The stakes are high, and director Ryan Coogler’s decision to present the whole fight in a single shot ratchets up the tension to near-unbearable levels. The suspense stems from the way the “real-time” nature of the shot allows us to see how every incremental setback (the opponent’s blow connecting) or advancement (Adonis getting a hit in) moves him closer to or further from his goal. However subtle it may have been, a cut would have implied a jump in temporality, a piece of the story leapt over, a sliver of history foregone. What the long take does is keep us apace with Adonis in his pivotal moment where every second counts, nothing is guaranteed, and everything is possible.
SCOTT ADKINS AND THE DTV ACTION FILM
Warrior and Creed exemplify the way action filmmaking can be molded to express and enhance a film’s dramatic goals, but Boyka: Undisputed (2016) brings back the action basics with gusto, reveling in the primal spectacle of brutal beatdowns and insane physical prowess that are the raison d'être for sports like boxing and mixed martial arts. Following the “most complete fighter” Yuri Boyka as he faces off against a series of opponents in a bid to save the widow of a man he’d accidentally killed in the ring, the film is the third sequel to the Walter-Hill-helmed boxing movie Undisputed (2002) and embodies the reason why many action fans have been turning to the contemporary DTV (direct-to-video) circuit to get their action fix in our age of CG-infused blockbuster mayhem. At their best, these movies take up the mantle of ’80s and ’90s straight-to-video actioners by featuring trained martial artists in starring roles and revolving around effects-light, stunts-heavy set pieces that showcase performers’ athletic abilities. One of the most popular DTV stars of the past decade has been English martial artist Scott Adkins, whose combination of stocky musculature and gymnast-style fleet-footedness makes him a happy medium for those raised on Schwarzenegger and Stallone on the one hand and Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee on the other.
Two Undisputed sequels came out this decade, and while many scenes from Undisputed III (2010) could easily have made it onto this list, I’ve decided, for the sake of minimizing redundancy, to focus just on a scene from Boyka: Undisputed (2016), the film that I like better and which, incidentally, works as a kind of meta-commentary on Adkins’ career in the way it has the hero narrowly miss the big leagues (to the outrage of his fans, Adkins has never broken into Hollywood beyond small supporting roles) but continue to reign supreme in underground fighting. In the film’s most thrilling scene, Boyka faces off against two opponents simultaneously and the series’ strengths are on full display, chief among which are Adkins’ unbelievable athleticism (he performs kip-ups and somersaults with as much ease as the average person throws punches) and a shooting/editing style that lets us appreciate it.
These two elements go hand-in-hand: because Adkins does his own stunts and does them so magnificently, director Todor Chapkanov didn’t need to use the kind of obfuscating shots and edits typically deployed to mask stunt doubles or the fact that certain moves weren’t completed in one go. In this scene, shots often run long enough to capture an entire sequence of blows without any cuts; these same shots are often blocked in such a way where fighters look like they’re actually hitting each other (probably because they actually did); and, when Adkins performs an especially elaborate, often midair maneuver, the film switches to slow-motion to emphasize the realness of the stunt. This last point is another reason I chose this film over Undisputed III: although the latter does this as well, Boyka: Undisputed plays with frame rate in a manner that is especially fluid, shifting from slow-motion to “real-time” to speed ramping in a way that accents the impact of the fighters’ blows without sacrificing a sense of physicality and presence.
Another Adkins film I could have highlighted was Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013), which was directed by Isaac Florentine (of both Undisputed II  and Undisputed III) and choreographed by Boyka: Undisputed’s Tim Man, but that film’s action excellence occurs along the same lines as what has already been discussed. The same could be said about Florentine/Adkins' Close Range (2015), a low-rent neo-western beefed up by lucid, hard-hitting fight scenes. The one Adkins film that really stands out—and that many including myself consider to be among the best of his career—is Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012). The film is the second of two sequels to Universal Soldier (1992), the serviceable, early ’90s actioner starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as undead super-soldiers locked in a grudge match, but it resembles the original almost exclusively in name. Whereas the first film was a holdover of ’80s cheese and hard-body bombast, Day of Reckoning is a pseudo-Lynchian fever dream of bestial masculinity and unraveling psyches starring Adkins as the grief-stricken hero seeking the man who murdered his family (the first and even better sequel, Universal Soldier: Regeneration , is also tonally subversive and would have made it onto this list had it been released a year later).
The film reaches its atmospheric and choreographic apex when Adkins’ character ends up in the supposed murderer’s lair and proceeds to slaughter a procession of henchman in a blind rage, a cacophony of violence captured by cinematographer Yaron Levy using several Steadicam shots stitched together to simulate a single, unbroken take. Here, what intrigues is not only the surrealistic tone—director John Hyams supplements the already oneiric tenor of Steadicam with slow-motion and speed ramping that further untether viewers from “real-time”—but the ambiguity of whom we’re supposed to identify with. Placing tension on action cinema’s tendency toward a rhetoric of spatial mastery and retributive justice, Hyams both revels in spectacle and undercuts it, framing the protagonist’s rampage as being motivated less by heroism than insanity. Here, violence is not a path with an end but a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction.
Put another way, what makes the scene from Day of Reckoning so provocative is how it makes “cool” action feel “wrong,” and though Hyams edges this feeling of wrongness toward horror, other films have leaned on the side of (still somewhat horrific) comedy. One of the wildest action set pieces of the past ten years is also one of the funniest, and it appears in Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013), a love letter to grindhouse cinema and samurai films that unfolds through the tale of a failed filmmaker’s dream of making a masterpiece. In the climax of Sono’s film, this director-character finds his prayers answered when he stumbles into the middle of a yakuza gang war. Rather than fleeing for his life, he strikes a deal with the gangsters: let me capture footage of the fighting for my movie, and I will make you all stars.
The resulting film shoot depicts a hilarious violation of basic filmmaking ethics: the film crew gleefully record while actual people are murdered before their eyes; the fighters themselves strike poses in front of the camera before being cut down in geysers of blood; and in the craziest moment in the movie, two members of the camera crew “shoot” with camera and machine gun simultaneously, capturing the carnage they themselves create. In this scene, the trappings of the action film are pushed to absurd extremes (the amount of blood here makes Kill Bill: Vol. 1  look squeaky clean) and comically twisted by the frame narrative of the film shoot.
A similar, anarchic sense of action cinema gone wrong pervades the infamous centerpiece of Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) in which veteran agent and poster boy for British dandyism Harry Hart is, via a form of inhibition-destroying mind control, set loose within the church of a hate group. Though the members of the church are also mind controlled and attempt to kill Harry back as well as each other, the guy’s exceptional combat skills make the scene a de facto massacre in which the fantasy of a hating and hateful demographic getting their comeuppance is played out with a shocking disregard for taste or political correctness.
The scene, already queasy at the time, scans even worse today given the epidemic of church shootings that have taken place in recent years. That said, in the way director Matthew Vaughn creates a portrait of total abandon, the scene remains, at the level of its construction, one of the most extraordinary action set pieces of the decade. As Harry sprints gun in hand through the pews, dodging and throwing punches and projectiles, the camera whips after him in a jittery, simulated long take. Though the scene was filmed on-set with actual actors, Vaughn and his team stylize the movements so that people look almost like CG dolls, an impression enhanced by the obvious fakeness of the digital blood. As Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” runs on the soundtrack, the scene takes on a manic energy, becoming an exhilarating live-action cartoon and a spectacle of pure id reminiscent of the films of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.
TESTING THE LIMITS
If there was a film from this decade that feels like a covert Neveldine/Taylor picture, however, it would be Hardcore Henry (2015), a film that was shot entirely from the first-person perspective of the cyborg protagonist as he scales buildings, leaps through the back window of a racing van, and, in the film’s climactic bloodbath, faces off against a legion of technologically enhanced super soldiers like himself. In its lewdness, gruesomeness, and hyper-kinetic visual style, the film feels like a spiritual successor to Neveldine/Taylor’s Crank (2006) and Crank: High Voltage (2009), movies in which a life-or-death race against time becomes a pretext for the “hero” to behave very badly. This link becomes clearest in the aforementioned climactic scene, in which the unnamed protagonist injects himself with two syringes full of adrenaline and proceeds to wreak bloody havoc on his opponents.
By conventional action filmmaking standards, much about this scene doesn’t work because, like the rest of the film, it gestures toward video game and VR without fully being either of those things. The first-person viewer address seems to invite a sense of immersion and agency à la those two forms of new media, but this stylistic choice has the opposite effect because, based on both video game experience and lived experience, we expect a sense of proprioception to accompany the first-person view, but the film, as a film, obviously can’t give us that. Relatedly, since we’re not controlling where the camera looks, its navigation of the filmic space appears unpredictable and jerky to us, whereas, in everyday life, visual perception tends to be a seamless affair, with the erraticness of actual head and eye movement being mitigated by our proprioceptive knowledge of where we will look next and the cognitive, top-down knowledge of how the world is supposed to appear.
And yet, this sense of viewer alienation from the narrative world also prompts greater awareness of Hardcore Henry as a spectacle of pure movement. In the film, the camera is made to move in ways and to degrees that it seldom does, resulting in a borderline avant-garde celebration of cinematic kinesis. Also, the film is not altogether not immersive, either—even though the first-person viewer address alienates, the corresponding length of the Go-Pro-style takes constantly reminds us of the stuntman who actually careened through space to give us these shots, and the mere experience of seeing shots track forward at high speeds generates a kinaesthetic rush. In the film’s climactic scene, the combination of experimental visual kineticism, vicarious embodied movement, and pure ecstatic carnage creates one of the most chaotic set pieces in recent memory, one super-charged by the sound of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” on the soundtrack, whose title, when applied to this film, becomes something of a clarion call for action cinema (and cinema in general) to literally and figuratively keep on moving, to persist by adapting to an age where film is no longer the dominant form of visual media.
Hardcore Henry may sit at an aesthetic crossroads between cinema’s past and its possible future, but it is Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011) that more explicitly thematizes our reality of historical, technological, and aesthetic transition. Set in Victorian England nine years before the turn of the twentieth century and four years before the official birth of cinema, the film departs from the aesthetic conventions of the “period” picture by representing this historical milieu almost entirely using CG whose flatness and muted colors draw attention to the fact that what we’re seeing is pointedly not a faithful recreation of England in 1891. The significance of this stylistic anachronism crystallizes alongside the film’s vision of rampant industrialization: just as the characters in the film are on the precipice of a new world order, so digital imaging technology has transformed how films are made.
Director Guy Ritchie puts the limits of his medium to the test in a thrilling, forest-set foot chase. Intermixing jump cuts, shifting frame rates, and impossibly zippy camera movement executable only through digital assistance, Ritchie creates a set-piece that is not only thrillingly fragmented but strangely machine-like. At points, the camera whizzes through the filmic space as if perched atop a launched cannonball; at others, it cleaves to a sprinting actor’s motions in such a way where his too-smooth forward movement feels less human than locomotive. When the enemy unveils their secret weapon—a massive howitzer—and preps it for action, the camera practically becomes the machine for a few strange seconds, thrusting up and down in a piston-like motion in one moment and, in another, spinning in seeming synergy with the turning of a wheel. In the context of the film, this weapon is cutting-edge technology, and, in aligning the camera’s gaze with it, the movie thematizes the way new technology can produce visual textures and tempos the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
It is fitting that, at the end of the chase, the surviving characters escape by boarding a train. On the one hand, the railroad is both a historical emblem of modernization and a key figure of cinema since the medium’s inception, but, on the other, the way the tracks extend in two directions—the path we’ve traveled as well as the road ahead—nicely encapsulates the way the present is perpetually suspended between past and future. The action scenes of the 2010s, in running the gamut from stunts-heavy martial arts pictures to unabashed digital spectacle, embody the exciting way in which old and new are always in dialogue with one another. Over the past decade, this tension has produced some exceptional set-pieces. Here’s hoping the next ten years will do the same.
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