From The Raid to Ong-Bak, we rank the best Asian action movies of the modern era.
Many Asian countries have a long tradition for creating kick-ass action films, and have garnered worldwide recognition and a huge fan base. The Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and John Woo classics from the 20th Century can never be dethroned, but the 2000s also had their share of films worthy to be inducted into the action hall of fame.
In this article, we’ll make the attempt to list the 20 best action films to come out of Asia in the 2000s. All films on this list deliver relentless spectacle and excitement, but of course there’s a ton more awesome action films from the Asian continent. If you believe we skipped your favorite movie, let us know!
20) Wira (2019)
Director Adrian Teh and actor/martial artist Hairul Azreen put Malaysia on the action movie map with the follow-up to their 2018 military actioner Paskal. Ex-soldier Hassan returns to his father and sister, only to find out that they have gotten into trouble with the local mafia. He sets out to set things straight for them, and cracks a few skulls in the process. The simple story is told in atmospheric images from a rough neighborhood, and paves the way for a massive martial arts fest. Azreen and Fify Azmi form a great brother-and-sister tag team and deliver some pretty spectacular fights, that are brutal but always retain a sense of realism. And the clash between Azreen and the intimidating Yayan Ruhian is a jaw-dropping finale. Wira is a terrific genre entry, and Azreen a rising star of martial arts cinema!
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19) Versus (2000)
Today’s recipe for a cult classic: Yakuza vs. zombies! A chase between an escaped prisoner and a Yakuza gang turns into a fight for the very existence of humanity when a portal to hell is opened and spits out an army of zombies. Versus kicked off the careers of director Ryuhei Kitamura and actor Tak Sakaguchi, and showed us their vision of a kick-ass action flick. Kitamura created an awesome blend of Slapstick splatter humor a la Dead Alive, Tarantino-esque coolness, and Matrix-inspired fashion. The shootouts and sword fights keep coming almost non-stop, and the super-low budget is almost rendered invisible due to the sheer intensity and excitement the film radiates. Versus is and will always be wild and goofy fun.
18) Train to Busan (2016)
A rapidly spreading virus causes all infected to become murderous zombies. Seok-Woo is traveling with his daughter Soo-An as the catastrophe unfolds, and together with the other passengers they embark on a journey of terror. Fast and bloodthirsty zombies, a claustrophobic setting, with every station where the train stops feeling like the entrance to hell, this turbo-charged zombie flick will leave you exhausted and maybe even in tears. The film brings a strong emotional depth to the table that will make you root for the characters, and the action hits so many times harder because of this. Train to Busan has stellar production values, delivers nerve-wrecking and visceral action, it’s simply the best modern zombie film!
17) Battle Royale (2000)
Battle Royale was not the first film with a Last Man Standing premise, but arguably it’s one of the most gripping. In near-future Japan, the Battle Royale event is held each year to combat the lack of youth discipline. A class is brought to a deserted island, and the students are forced to kill each other within three days. The film caused a lot of controversy when it came out, and some scenes are rather disturbing also to this day. You can read a lot into it, and it’s a clever flick on several levels, but on top of that it’s also a thrilling action film! The worst traits are brought out in teenagers at the brink of death, which results in murder lurking behind every tree, desperate fights and numerous bloody deaths. Disturbing, energetic and exciting all the at the same time, if you find A Clockwork Orange too timid, Battle Royale is your go-to film!
16) Blade of the Immortal (2017)
Takashi Miike has established himself as one of the most unique filmmakers of our times, often with a taste for the bizarre. He also knows how to create kick-ass action flicks, and Blade of the Immortal is another highlight of his long career. Manji, an immortal Samurai, takes on a mission to protect a girl and to avenge the death of her parents by a clan of assassins. So far so simple, and the film is pretty much the most violent road trip you’ll ever see. Manji is not a noble knight, but a badass samurai, slashing mercilessly through hordes of enemies. It’s a fairytale written in blood with possibly the most people killed in melee combat by a single character ever in a movie. On top of that, the film looks terrific, and the fight choreography is superb. Blade of the Immortal is a sword-fighting spectacle of the highest caliber.
15) Tokyo Gore Police (2008)
Japanese exploitation flicks are an acquired taste for sure, but if you’ve built up a tolerance (or even have an affinity) for their grotesque imagery, they can be a lot of fun. A chainsaw melee fight would be a highlight in every action movie, but the opening sequence of Tokyo Gore Police is just the overture for the crusade of police officer Ruka against a genetically engineered mutant race called the Engineers. The film has a low-budget look, yet succeeds in creating a pervasive creepy atmosphere and an overkill of bizarre creature effects. The action sequences are also well done, with slick editing and countless ultra-gory killings as Ruka drives her Katana through hordes of mutant enemies and their deformed bodies. Tokyo Gore Police delivers non-stop hysteric and campy horror action with a serious disgust factor. I dare you to check it out, but you have been warned!
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14) The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)
If you’re attempting a remake of Sergio Leone’s eternal masterpiece The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, you better make sure that you can deliver! And what director and co-writer Kim-Jee Won puts on display is a fireworks of thrills, humor and action! Just like in Leone’s classic, the hunt for a hidden treasure turns into a violent cat-and-mouse game with many double-crossings abound. The first and only Korean Spaghetti Western also features some of the best action sequences you’ll ever find a Western. Filmed masterfully, the plot moves at breakneck pace with a train heist, gun duels and a frenzied and chaotic finale that will leave you breathless. Wild and charming, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is great entertainment from the first to the last minute.
13) SPL: Kill Zone (2005)
Martial Arts legend Sammo Hung and rising star Donnie Yen clashed in this awesome mix of a hard-boiled cop thriller and martial arts spectacle. Police detectives Chan and Ma are trying to bring crime boss Wong to justice. Chan, who suffers from an inoperable brain tumor, has nothing to lose and resorts to drastic measures to take down Wang. SPL: Kill Zone (aka Saat Po Long) tells an archetypal action film story about both good and bad guys with a cause. The film impresses with neo-noir aesthetics similar to the John Woo classics of 1980s and 1990s, a stylish car chase and a couple of intense shootouts. But the fights delivered by Yen and Hung push the film into ultimate awesomeness territory, with bone-shattering and masterfully choreographed hand-to-hand combat that will knock you off your seat. SPL: Kill Zone showed everyone that Hong Kong martial arts cinema is still alive and kicking in the 21st Century!
12) Shaolin Soccer (2001)
Stephen Show made his first huge mark in the action genre with this terrific action comedy about a band of former Shaolin monks who have given up the old ways, and live in poverty and misery. When a former soccer star wants to form a new team, they can put their skills to good use. With Shaolin Soccer, Chow created a truly unique branch of action cinema that evoked the spirit of past Kung fu classics, and infused it with charming slapstick humor and CGI-enhanced fighting sequences that go completely over the top. The soccer pitch transforms into a Kung Fu battlefield, and every tackle becomes a duel between martial arts masters with soccer balls becoming missiles fired at hyper-speed. Shaolin Soccer was Chow’s first masterpiece, and he was even able to trump it a few years later with Kung Fu Hustle.
11) 13 Assassins (2010)
Takashi Miike’s re-imagining of the classic Samurai period pieces gave us an atmospheric action spectacle with mesmerizing images. A sadistic lord and his henchmen have it coming big time, when a secret plot is devised to have him assassinated by the 13 best Samurai the country has to offer. The first half of the film sets the stage and introduces us to the political machinations and the mighty warriors chosen for what seems a hopeless endeavor. The second part is a single action set piece with ferocious skirmishes in the streets, houses and rooftops of a booby-trapped village. The sheer scale and choreography of the action sequences are unsurpassed in the Samurai movie genre, and Miike’s crowning achievement as an action director. 13 Assassins excels at combining old-school storytelling with epic sword battles, and is pretty much cinematic perfection.
10) Re: Born (2016)
Re: Born, the ultimate knife fight film! Former special ops member Toshiro is brought back from retirement when his niece is abducted by his former teammates. A traumatized main protagonist, bleak visuals and an overall fatalistic mood, Re:Born is not exactly an uplifting film. There’s all sorts of goofy secret assassin stuff happening, though, to remind us that this is not a family drama, but a weird action fairy tale. Tak Sakaguchi gives another stellar performance as brooding anti-hero, and handles his blades with an uncanny speed and precision. The first half already has a couple of nice fights, but the last 50 minutes are a single showdown with an almost trance-like mood as Toshiro slashes his way through a forest full of enemies. Re: Born is a knife-fight inferno, and an absolute highlight of Japanese martial arts cinema!
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9) Headshot (2016)
Two years before their masterpiece The Night Comes for Us, director and writer Timo Tjahjanto and Iko Uwais joined forces for their first collaboration. Headshot it is a lot more than just a warm-up, but an action classic in its own right! A man’s search for his identity after waking up in a hospital with amnesia becomes a violent crusade against a crime syndicate and its psychotic kingpin. The unlikely plot strongly benefits from its surprisingly well fleshed-out characters. Most of the time, though, it takes a backseat to ferocious action sequences with with bones breaking, blood spurting, and the fighters using everything their surroundings offer as weapons. Headshot is another testimony to Uwais’ incredible martial arts skills, and only adds to the impression that Indonesia has taken the throne from Hong Kong as the new epicenter for Asian action cinema.
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8) Ong-Bak (2003)
Ong-Bak was the breakthrough film for Tony Jaa, and the best advertisement for the Muay Thai fighting style on celluloid ever! The story of Ting who goes to Bangkok to find the head of the Buddha statue that was stolen from his village’s temple is a simple, but efficient hook for many incredible action sequences. Jaa’s elbows and knees are almost the main protagonists of the film, shattering bones and hammering people into the ground. Jaa delivers some pretty raw fights with jumps and flips everywhere, but there’s enough physical and slapstick humor to lighten up the mood. A chase on motorized rickshaws also provides a great parody of the typical US-American car action sequences. Ong-Bak was the starting point for a wave of action classics to come out of Southeast Asia in the 2000s, and it’s still one of the best entries to the genre!
7) Ip Man 1-4 (2008-2019)
I apologize for lumping all parts of the Ip Man saga into one entry on this list, but all four of them deserve to be in our Top 20, and we need to leave some room for the other entries. I think for many people the names Donnie Yen and Ip Man have become almost synonymous with each other, so convincing and commanding is Yen’s portrayal of this legendary Chinese martial arts grandmaster. The films follow Ip Man’s life through the hardships of Japanese occupation, and to building a new life in Hong Kong, all the while living a life of honor. The films take a lot of liberties with Ip Man’s biography, but this results in an epic historical drama with plenty of breath-taking martial arts sequences thanks to Yen’s incredible physical skills. The Ip Man films demonstrate that modern martial arts cinema does not need to rely on extreme brutality to be compelling.
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6) SPL II: A Time for Consequences (2015)
A sequel in name only to Donnie Yen’s classic, the second SPL packs even more of a punch than its predecessor. Instead of Yen, Tony Jaa and Jing Wu take over the fighting duties, with additional support by Hong Kong star actor Simon Yam. The fates of two Hong Kong police agents and a Thai prison warden and his daughter become violently entwined during their attempts to take down an organ-trafficking ring. We’re presented an unusually complex and compelling story for a martial arts action film with properly fleshed out characters. There’s no mercy in the action sequences though, with both Jaa and Wu delivering fights from another dimension with a manic intensity. SPL 2: A Time For Consequences is an action opera of the most epic kind, another slam dunk in the franchise that was followed up with the third (and also pretty awesome) installment Paradox.
5) The Raid 2 (2014)
The infernal trio of Gareth Evans, Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian reunited for the sequel to the The Raid: Redemption, and The Raid 2 is every bit as awesome as it’s predecessor! Cop Rama is back, and goes undercover to infiltrate a crime syndicate after his brother is killer by the clan boss. The film leaves the confinement of a single apartment building and takes the action outside, there’s a whole world to wreak havoc on after all! Evans packs a ton of killer action sequences into a runtime of 150 minutes with classic set pieces such as a mass prison fight, a kitchen fight, and an insane car chase, but every single of them has already become a classic. The story takes enough turns to keep things interesting, Uwais and Ruhian again are at the top of their game, and The Raid 2 became another instant action masterpiece!
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4) The Protector (2005)
If you think John Wick goes batshit crazy when his dog is killed, then you haven’t seen what Kham (Tony Jaa) is willing to do in The Protector (aka Tom-Yum-Goong) to get back two sacred elephants that were stolen from his village. Just as in Ong-Bak, the plot is a single line of text, but the combination of goofy humor and gravity-defying action is another winner! Jaa delivers body-shattering blows, and the action is allowed to unfold in long takes, with a several minutes long fight sequence shot in a single take as the centerpiece of the film. You will not believe what you see as Kham fights his way up a long winding staircase with enemies flying left and right through windows and off balconies. Tony Jaa said that no one was seriously injured during shooting which is nothing short of a miracle if you look at the insane acrobatic work delivered by the stunt team and himself, that is unsurpassed in the action genre.
3) The Raid: Redemption (2011)
The film that popularized action made in Indonesia has the simplest of premises: An apartment building filled to the brim with gangsters, and an assault team with the ungrateful task to make it to the top floor to arrest a drug lord. The confined setting with enemies lurking around every corner creates a constant tension that regularly explodes into frantic fire fights and martial arts battles. Director Gareth Evans puts the focus fully on the skills of his actors, and what Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian put on display will give you an adrenaline overdose! The fights are brutal, but not sadistic, spectacular, but not comically over the top, it all sits perfectly in the sweet spot for no-nonsense martial arts action. With a by comparison bargain budget of just a little over 1 million USD, The Raid: Redemption became one of the best action films of all time.
2) Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Stephen Chow held the martial arts banner high for Hong Kong action cinema in the 2000s, and with Kung Fu Hustle created one of the best action films to come out of Hong Kong ever! The Axe gang terrorizes the people Shanghai, and small time gangster Sing wants to be a part of it. Too bad that he’s completely untalented, but after he takes a massive beating he is transformed into a Kung Fu luminary for the forces of good. Slapstick humor that always hits its mark is combined with action sequences that mix classic Wuxia with Looney Toon physics. And on the top of all the Kung fu madness, Chow creates an immersive setting of 1940s Shanghai and an engaging story with charming characters. Kung Fu Hustle is a testimony to spectacle cinema of divine caliber, a splendid action film and a piece of art.
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1) The Night Comes For Us (2018)
The Night Comes for Us: the action movie to end all action movies. Joe Taslim as triad hitman who discovers his conscience, and Iko Uwais who is tasked by the cartel to take him down, duke it out with a brutality unseen before in the action world. The film tells a grim story that is filmed beautifully in a gloomy neo-noir setting. The action is of an intimating intensity and often outright painful to watch. The fight sequences are visceral, with fighters who should have died five times already from their wounds and blood loss, but just keep going. The Night Comes for Us is ultimate action movie perfection from director Timo Tjahjanto, his stars Uwais and Taslim, and the hole stunt team. I have to warn you, it may be hard to appreciate most other action films after you’ve seen this masterpiece, a genre benchmark where I have difficulties imagining how it can ever be surpassed.
The Man From Nowhere absolutely deserves to be on this list! I understand you can only fit 20. I’ll have to check out the ones I haven’t seen. BTW, Re: Born is extremely underrated. I don’t think it gets talked about enough
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