The Best Movie Stunts of the 21st Century

We look back at some of the most jaw-dropping sequences and moments captured in-camera with real life stuntmen. (And Tom Cruise.)

Tom Cruise on motorcycle in Mission Impossible 7
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Computer-generated and visual effects in movies have reached peak saturation over the past couple of decades. Seemingly every other “exterior” scene is shot against a digital background nowadays, and most action sequences look more like flashy video game cutscenes than genuine cinematic moments.

Amid the deluge of CGI sadness, however, there are still filmmakers and stunt people committed to filming action in the purest way, capturing stunts in-camera, on location, and with trained professionals. As much as visual effects have advanced over the years, there’s still nothing better than the real thing, and the movies on this list prove that the art of in-camera stunts is as potent and powerful as ever.

Tom Cruise Hangs on Side of Plane — Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

A case can be made that Tom Cruise hanging off the side of an A400 Atlas military plane as it takes off is the most iconic modern movie stunt there is. If you watch the shot back, Cruise and the body of the plane actually don’t take up much of the frame at all. Most of what we see is the ground rushing further and further away from the camera and the movie star’s dangling feet. The fact that Cruise actually did the damn thing for real is one thing, but the way the moment is captured in-camera makes it feel almost surreal. What’s unreal is that Cruise did the stunt eight freaking times.

Plane Hijack — The Dark Knight Rises

There’s a tenacity and ambition to Christopher Nolan’s approach to filmmaking that is unmatched by his peers. He has an affinity for dreaming up images that are seemingly unfilmable on paper and then filming them anyway, practically and in-camera, with minimal use of visual effects. The opening plane hijack scene from The Dark Knight Rises is perhaps his most ambitious set piece endeavor, as he and his team flew planes above Scotland (with permission from its government), deployed a team of stunt skydivers, and even dropped a model plane from thousands of feet in the air to ensure Bane’s introduction into the series was a memorable one. The crew was given five days to film the elaborate stunt but finished in two thanks to meticulous planning and execution. Nolan has named it his favorite action sequence in The Dark Knight Trilogy.

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Stairwell Fight — Atomic Blonde

The nearly 1o-minute stairwell fight scene in Atomic Blonde is so brilliant because of its high level of intimacy and intricacy. Save for a couple of cleverly stitched in tumbles handled by her stunt double, you can see quite clearly star Charlize Theron is doing her own choreography and stunts. The close-quarters fight is presented as an unbroken camera shot (it’s not unbroken, but the cuts are extremely hard to spot), which amplifies the urgency and grittiness of the violence. It’s a brutal scene, and the stunt and props teams’ usage of camouflaged foam (the stairs, the walls) and rigged furniture and appliances allowed the actors to up their intensity to insane levels. Theron did eight weeks of stunt training for the role, and it definitely paid off on screen.

Car Chase — The Raid 2

The high level of risk involved in stunt driving is obvious, but what often goes underappreciated is the action you don’t see onscreen. The planning, resources, and expertise it takes to film car chases is mind-bogglingly complex, and the car chase from The Raid 2 is a shining example of how all this hard work pays off. In one continuous shot, the camera starts from the interior of one speeding car, falls back to the vehicle behind it, enters through the passenger side window for a closeup of the driver getting shot at from behind, floats through to the opposite rear passenger window, and back outside to capture yet another car approaching. The logistics involved in getting the seemingly impossible shot need to be seen to be believed, but the cinematic result is simply remarkable.

Knoxville Cannon — Jackass Forever

Strange thought: For all its violence and idiocy, there’s something about Jackass—particularly in its current form—that harkens back to the silent film stunts of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The acts of self-destruction this troupe is known for are often outlandish and a little disturbing, but the sentiment behind them is sort of wholesome. They’re putting their bodies on the line to make us laugh, cheer, scream, and just generally have a great time, and the crew’s “Captain,” Johnny Knoxville, is always eager to entertain.

The image of him being shot out of a cannon directly at the camera and then plummeting to the lake below while wearing Icarus wings in Jackass Forever is maybe the dumbest metaphor ever filmed, but it’s also a delightful ode to the recklessly irreverent spirit of the franchise.

Polecats — Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is considered one of the greatest action movies of all time for myriad reasons, but George Miller’s insistence on shooting the film’s certifiably bonkers vehicular combat sequences largely in-camera really pushes the film over the edge. The stunt that most stands out as one of the defining images of 2010s cinema though is that of the demented War Boys swaying back and forth 20 feet in the air on polecats attached to trucks zooming across the desert at 50 mph. The stuntmen were trained by Cirque du Soleil performers to make the stunt as safe as possible, but the feat still looks positively death-defying onscreen. 

Burj Khalifa Scale — Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

The Burj Khalifa is inherently terrifying. It’s the tallest structure in the world, standing at a little over half a mile high, and even the thought of taking an elevator to its top floor is enough to terrify the average person. But Tom Cruise’s crazy ass? He scaled the damn thing. He jumped off of it. He ran down the side of it. He even did little spins and skips across the glass. Talk about committing to your craft. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a great movie on the whole, but this monster of a stunt sequence is pure movie magic and worth the price of admission alone.

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Foot Chase — Ong Bak

The sheer athleticism on display by Tony Jaa in Ong Bak’s Bangkok foot chase scene is simply staggering. The chase is essentially a series of parkour trick jumps in which the star contorts his body to dive through impossibly tight holes as the baddies fumble and fall trying to keep up. There’s some terrific fight choreography weaved in as well, and the way Jaa and the stuntmen mix the twisty acrobatics with the hard-hitting combat together is awe-inspiring to watch.

Some of the stunts are more than a little contrived (couldn’t he have just gone under the ring of barbed wire instead of through it?), but at the end of the day, when stunts look this badass, one shouldn’t let plausibility get in the way of a good time.

Tom Cruise Motorcycle Jump — Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part 1

Yes, Tom Cruise is on this list three times, and all for the same franchise. But seriously, how could he not be? His extreme feats of courage in the Mission: Impossible series are second to none, and his motorcycle jump off the cliff in Dead Reckoning Part 1 is yet another eye-popping stunt that boggles the mind as you’re watching it. In the lead-up to the movie’s release, Paramount Pictures even released a vignette laying out the enormity of the stunt, and the mini-doc is arguably more engrossing than the movie itself.

Watching this unimaginably rich human being literally fling himself off a damn mountain (multiple times) makes no sense on so many levels. And yet, there he is, risking life and limb for the sake of our entertainment, and at this point, it’s difficult not to respect him for it.

Baby’s Getaway — Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver opens with some of the most precise, nimble stunt driving you’ll ever see. Ansel Elgort’s titular getaway driver jams out to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” as he whips his red 2006 Subaru Impreza WRX through traffic and around tight corners to evade the cops with his bank-robbing passengers. The most dazzling shot sees Baby’s car twirl through a crowded alleyway without touching a thing, a moment more elegant and effortlessly stylish than what we see in your typical, testosterone-driven car chase. The way the scene is synchronized with the music is truly something special, a perfect example of Wright’s inspired approach to filmmaking.

Zoe Bell Car Hood — Death Proof

Quentin Tarantino already had legions of fans by the time Death Proof hit theaters as one half of his Grindhouse double feature with Robert Rodriguez. But the film was something of a coming out party for stuntwoman extraordinaire Zoë Bell, who slips and slides on the hood of a 1971 Dodge Challenger as Kurt Russel’s murderous Stuntman Mike pursues at high speed (up to a blistering 80mph) in the film’s nail-biting final chase scene. The scene was shot practically, and Bell insisted on doing all the stunts herself, with Tarantino capturing the action as only he can. There’s maybe no better example of how much more powerful action cinema is when it’s shot for real, in-camera, by highly skilled professionals.

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Vault Chase — Fast Five

The Fast saga is rife with visual effects-driven action sequences that are incredibly entertaining but obscenely over-the-top. The nice thing about Fast Five’s bank vault chase scene is that it was shot on real streets with real cars dragging a real vault that smashes through actual glass, steel, and pavement. The shot of the vault tumbling through the wall of a bank? Real! The bank customers were played by stunt people and the vault was rigged to roll on cue. It’s evident watching the scene that much of the destruction was achieved practically, and to this day, the vault heist is the high point for the series.

Zero-G Hallway Fight — Inception

It would have been so much easier for Christopher Nolan to have shot the zero-g hallway fight scene in Inception using CGI, but that’s just not how he rolls (punny foreshadowing intended). Instead he and his stunt team built a hotel hallway set that tilts and rotates so that when the camera moves in sync with it, the actors appear as if they’re defying the laws of physics as they slug it out. Joseph Gordon-Levitt did 12 weeks of stunt training so that he could do all the stunts himself, and the result is one of the most unforgettable and unique fight scenes in modern cinema.

Construction Site Chase — Casino Royale

Parkour is perhaps the most cinema-friendly sport there is, and the construction site foot chase from the opening of Casino Royale is proof positive of this fact. Parkour and freerunning pioneer Sébastien Foucan and Daniel Craig (or his stuntman) brave dizzying heights to pull the scene off, and the aerial shots of them trading blows dozens of feet above the ground are just breathtaking. The film kicked off a new, grittier era for the James Bond franchise, and this spectacle of an opener set the tone nicely.

Dog Fight — John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

“Are you a dog person, John?” Halle Berry’s Sofia Al-Azwar asks Keanu Reeves’ titular hero in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. We’re then introduced to her two snarling Belgian Malinois, who proceed to steal the show (and our hearts) as they help Wick and Sofia rip through gangs of baddies.

The stunt dogs worked seamlessly with the stuntmen to create a thrilling sequence of choreographed maulings. Berry was trained to command the dogs to jump and attack, which adds to the believability of the scene, helping make it one of the most memorable fight sequences in the series.