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The best parkour action movies you've never seen

The roots of parkour can be traced back to 1902, when a volcanic eruption on the Caribbean island of Martinique killed 28,000 people and left the town of St. Pierre in ruins. French naval lieutenant George Hebert coordinated the evacuation efforts that day, and he was left astounded by the way in which the indigenous inhabitants managed to traverse the rubble all around them with both speed and grace. This led him to develop a technique that would later be adapted for French Special Forces training, and when former solider Raymond Belle decided to share the moves with his son, David, and his friends, parkour was born.

It was a niche activity for a number of years, but we now see parkour everywhere, including Hollywood. Films like Casino Royale and Captain America: The Winter Solider had some stunning parkour action sequences, and the big-screen adaptation of Assassin's Creed (known for its addictive parkour gameplay system) had Michael Fassbender leaping and vaulting around ancient Andalusia like a pro. Parkour made for standout moments in each of those movies, but if one scene just wasn't enough for you, you've come to the right place.

There's been a number of parkour-heavy action movies released in the years since its inception, but the vast majority flew under the radar. From forgotten films led by Marvel and former Twilight stars to insane, stunt-packed foreign pictures that are well worth seeking out, these are the best parkour action movies you've never seen.

Yamakasi was the first real parkour movie

The founding father of parkour, Frenchman David Belle brought together a group of like-minded, psychically fit people and taught them "la méthode naturelle," George Hebert's technique. Belle saw the natural method simply as a way to train, but some of his friends had other ideas. While Belle believed parkour should be about moving through obstacles quickly and efficiently, his peers believed it needed more flare. This led to the development of free-running, a parkour offshoot that includes flips and fancy tricks. The differences led Belle to split from the group, who would become known as the Yamakasi, a Congolese word meaning "strong in one's person."

In 1998, the Yamakasi got their big break after catching the imagination of Luc Besson, who saw their high-flying antics on a TV news report. The French filmmaker cast them as ninjas in the film Taxi 2, and then he decided to write a full screenplay based on the team. Released in 2001, Yamakasi became the first genuine parkour movie, and its thrilling action sequences still stand up today. It follows the titular traceurs as they attempt to raise money for a sick boy who needs a new heart. Nine-year-old Jamel suffered a cardiac arrest after falling from a tree, and when the Yamakasi discover that a shady surgeon is trying to rip the boy's mother off, they start hitting the houses of the hospital's board of directors, hoping to put enough cash together to save the kid.

Tracers is a high-flying journey through New York City

Taylor Lautner was a big name in Hollywood when his New York-set parkour action flick Tracers started shooting in 2013. In the film, the former Twilight star plays Cam, a bike messenger in heaps of debt with increasingly impatient gangsters. He's living out of a rented garage and struggling to keep his head above water when a chance encounter with high-flying beauty Nikki (Marie Avgeropoulos) sends him tumbling headfirst into a world of crime and free-running. Nikki is part of a group that uses parkour to pull off heists around the city, and Cam has to learn fast if he wants to join. 

Obviously, the star had to be in top shape for the role. "I think it's fair to say I did everything," Lautner said when Entertainment Weekly asked if he'd done his own stunts. "It was actually quite surprising to me. I did extensive training in L.A. with the best people in parkour, but there were some pretty insane stunts, and I think they just about let me do everything." Lautner's physicality and commitment made for some impressive action sequences, but the film failed to find an audience (it didn't come out until 2015, when Twilight-mania was fading). However, some critics were able to appreciate Tracers for what it is — an often exhilarating love letter to the Big Apple. "[The] film shows love not just for stunts, but for the dynamic surfaces of the city," The New York Times said in its review.

Run is a parkour passion project

The Chronicles of Narnia star William Moseley leads the line in 2013's Run, a film about a teenage parkour enthusiast who gets talked into becoming a cat burglar by his old man. Petty crook Mike (Adrian Pasdar) and his son, Daniel (Moseley), travel from city to city hitting jewelry stores and pawn shops. They've been avoiding returning to New York City on account of Daniel's mob boss uncle (Eric Roberts), who blames Mike for the death of his sister during childbirth, though when the movie begins, they've run out of places to go. But when they get there, Daniel quickly falls in with the city's parkour crowd, who make him question his allegiance to his father.

Run was a labor of love for writer-director Simone Bartesaghi, who decided to quit his managing job and begin working on a movie about parkour after becoming enamored with it. There was some buzz about the script (Bartesaghi won the Milan International Film Festival's Award for Best Screenplay), so why hasn't anyone heard of the film? NYC proves once again that it's the perfect setting for parkour action movies, but the reason you haven't heard of this one is that it falls flat in other areas. The film took "a gangster B-movie shortcut in its final act" according to Film Intuition, though the site went on to say that "parkour enthusiasts will still want to give Run a spin since so few representations of what they do have made their way to the silver screen."

District 13 won over critics with its crazy action scenes

David Belle had parted ways with the Yamakasi by the time Luc Besson wrote the film of the same name, but Besson would go on to work with parkour's pioneer in a later project. Besson co-wrote and produced 2004's District 13, a frenetic French actioner that takes place in a Paris overrun by crime. The titular district has become so bad that Parisian authorities have walled it off from the rest of the city, leaving the poor inhabitants to fend for themselves. When a government bomb is smuggled into the slums, David Belle's Leito teams up with undercover cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) to find it before it detonates, uncovering a sinister plot by the ruling class in the process.

Helmed by Pierre Morel (who would go on to direct Liam Neeson in 2008's Taken), the film was well-received in France and the US. While most acknowledged that the plot wasn't exactly groundbreaking, the stunning action sequences more than made up for that. In a glowing review, The New York Times waxed lyrical about the athleticism and artistry on show throughout, saying, "Parkour isn't par-for-the-course movie mayhem, but a gorgeously choreographed gymnastics of pain that elevates District 13 over the impossible missions and last stands of the season." The vast majority of critics agree that District 13 is worth your time, as this white-knuckle, roller coaster ride of a movie holds an impressive 80 percent Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

District 13: Ultimatum takes the series up a notch

The 2009 sequel to District 13 brought gravity-defying stars David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli back together for another thrill ride through dystopian Paris. District 13: Ultimatum sees our heroes continue their efforts to bring down the walls surrounding the slums and rid the place of drug dealers for good. However, there's mass unrest when two police officers turn up dead in the district, but Leito and Damien soon discover that it's a frame job — the cops were killed by corrupt government agents who plan to blow up the five tower blocks at the center of the district and replace them with luxury apartments.

It's not too dissimilar to the first film in terms of set-up, but the action has been stepped up a notch. While the original concentrated largely on Belle's parkour, writer Luc Besson wanted to make sure he made the most of Raffaelli's martial arts skills this time around. Both men pull off multiple physically impressive feats during the 106-minute runtime, and it's action movie perfection. The film is made up of "a predictable (but no less impressive) series of action sequences involving parkour chases through the city, plenty of hand-to-hand combat, and a slew of wildly tattooed, mean-as-hell gangsters," Film School Rejects said. "The violence is brutal, especially when we see Damien going hand-to-hand against any of his foes." Like its predecessor, District 13: Ultimatum is Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a 74 percent rating.

Brick Mansions is a decent remake starring Paul Walker

Paris is swapped out for Detroit in 2014's Brick Mansions, the American remake of French hit District 13. Luc Besson was once again involved, and so was David Belle, parkour founder and star of the District 13 films. Cyril Raffaelli was replaced by Paul Walker in what would be his penultimate movie appearance (the actor passed away following a single-vehicle accident while filming 2015's Furious 7), a move Belle approved of. When one fan complained about the change on Twitter, Belle defended the decision. "Personally I like very much the work Paul Walker has done," he said (via Parkour.com). "The film will be a new experience for me, and I look forward to working with him."

As is usually the case with Hollywood remakes of foreign films, Brick Mansions doesn't live up to the original. There isn't as much breathtaking parkour as District 13 (which Empire attributed to the fact that Belle was "getting on a bit" in years), and Paul Walker doesn't match up to Raffaelli in terms of combat ability, but there's an undeniable chemistry between the two leads. "When we first met, we sort of looked each other up and sized each other up," Belle told We Got This Covered. "But from the very first shot, the shells broke, and we realized that we actually really like each other." Brick Mansions was quickly forgotten about, though fans of Walker and/or Belle will definitely get a kick out of it.

The Tournament puts Sebastien Foucan's parkour skills on full display

When Daniel Craig's James Bond chases a nimble terrorist across the rooftops of Madagascar in Casino Royale, that's no ordinary stuntman he's pursuing. Bombmaker Mollaka is played by Sebastien Foucan, an old friend of David Belle and one of parkour's earliest practitioners. When Belle and Foucan came to an impasse over the future of their passion, the latter moved across the English channel to the United Kingdom and started calling the activity "free-running" instead. It was in northern England that the Frenchman got the chance to showcase his vision for free-running by co-starring in the Middlesborough-set action film The Tournament.

In writer-director Scott Mann's universe, a society of rich folks gather the best assassins in the world for a big shoot-out every seven years. The killers all descend on one town, and the last one standing walks away with a cool $10 million. Ving Rhames, Robert Carlyle, and Liam Cunningham all feature, though when it comes to the action, it's Foucan who impresses. The free-runner's flowing moves work perfectly with the breakneck pace of the movie, often distracting viewers from its unfortunate narrative shortcomings. "Sebastien Foucan's leap onto a moving bus is pretty sweet, and while I don't pretend to understand the motivation behind some of his more extraneous parkour move, I have to admit I'm entertained watching them," Film School Rejects said. Elsewhere, The Action Elite hailed The Tournament as an "underrated gem" of a movie.

K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces is a fun Japanese action flick

K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces is a Japanese action movie that's equal parts superhero flick and noir detective story. Set in the late 1940s, Shimako Sato's unforgettable film unfolds in a city called Teito, Japan's capital in this semi-fictional universe. World War II never happened, and the Japanese aristocracy is out of control. See, 90 percent of the wealth belongs to the rich, but they're routinely targeted by a mysterious Robin Hood-type character. However, the titular K-20 — or the Fiend with Twenty Faces, as he becomes known — isn't a good guy. To evade authorities, the prankster frames circus acrobat Heikichi Endo (House of Flying Daggers star Takeshi Kaneshiro) and lands him prison. Determined to prove his innocence and bring the real K-20 to justice, Endo escapes, adopts the persona for himself, and begins hunting him down.

There's a lot to love about this film, from the pulpy aesthetic to the lead's committed performance. We're here to talk about parkour action movies, however, and while K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces doesn't necessarily rely on leaps and vaults, there's some truly memorable parkour on show here, especially in the final battle. Endo finally comes face to face with the man who framed him atop a skyscraper at the end of the movie, and the fight that follows will delight even the most picky of action fans. Variety called the "jaw-dropping" finale a "winning combo of two parkour doubles and impressive visual effects."

Freerunner does a whole lot with its tiny budget

Freerunner was made on a much lower budget than most of the other movies we've discussed, and that most definitely shows. Still, there's no denying that the parkour on display is outstanding. Lawrence Silverstein's film follows Ryan (Sean Faris) as he races across Cleveland with an explosive collar strapped around his neck. He's one of eight free-runners selected to take part in a contest in which the winner gets $1 million, and the losers die. As soon as one participant crosses the finish line, the remaining collars detonate. Shady businessmen watch the action unfold from afar, placing bets on the outcome. Ridiculous? Maybe. Worth watching? If you love inventive parkour and crazy stunts, absolutely.

"Freerunner hits all the expected marks for a movie like this, doesn't disappoint, and the free-running is neat to watch," said Movie Mavericks, who dubbed the parkour flick "Fast and Furious without the cars." David Belle wasn't involved, but Silverstein had Ryan Doyle to rely on. The Brit (crowned the first international Freerunning Champion in 2007) appeared in the film and was also in charge of choreography, though sadly, some of his work was undone in post-production. "Split screen is used frequently, and hyper-editing rarely offers shots longer than two seconds," High-Def Digest said in its Freerunner review, bemoaning the fact that "the mind-blowing wireless stunts of its parkour team" were cut short in places. Still, this one's worth a watch purely to see snippets of the "physically astounding" moves they pull off.

Colombiana proved Zoe Saldana could be an action star

Zoe Saldana shot to prominence in 2009 with roles in Star Trek and Avatar, though her parkour infused follow-up failed to make the same impact. Co-written and produced by Luc Besson, 2011's Colombiana didn't fare well in reviews at the time. Some Colombians complained that the movie portrayed them in a negative light, but it's always had supporters, and rumors of a potential sequel have been sprouting up in recent years. But if the film was a dud, why do people want more? Because in the right pair of hands, a new Colombiana film could be something special.

The majority of critics honed in on lackluster filmmaking in their Colombiana write-ups, throwing the book at spectacularly named director Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3) while largely absolving the ever-committed Saldana of any blame. The star trained hard in preparation for the violent Bogota-set actioner, in which she plays a scantily clad professional killer out for revenge against the ruthless drug baron who killed her family. "Lord, was it difficult," Saldana said of her fight training during a presser for the movie, "but it was fun in the end." Besson brought friend and frequent collaborator David Belle on board, and the parkour master passed on his tried and tested techniques to the cast, even the kids. "I was really honored," Amandla Stenberg (who played the young version of Saldana's Cataleya) the Los Angeles Times.

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior is a parkour classic

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior introduced Tony Jaa to the wider world in spectacular fashion. Mixing the intensity of Bruce Lee with the acrobatics of Jackie Chan, Jaa is absolutely mesmerizing as Ting, a humble muay thai expert from a rural village in Thailand. When thugs from Bangkok decapitate the village's prized Buddha statue and take the head back to the capital, Ting decides to follow. When he discovers that the Buddha's head has fallen into the hands of the mob, he throws himself head first into Bangkok's underworld, taking out swathes of gangsters with his muay thai skills as he hunts for the missing piece of the statue. The fight scenes are gritty and impeccably choreographed, but watching Jaa run away from fights is just as entertaining.

In one of Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior's most famous scenes, Ting goes into full free-runner mode as he's chased through the narrow lanes of central Bangkok by over a dozen angry henchman. The six-minute sequence goes from impressive to off the charts as the out-of-towner jumps clean over moving cars, performs front flips through narrow panes of glass, and cannonballs through a ring of barbed wire that no man his size has any right fitting through. Jaa turns his pursuers into a human parkour course when cornered, using them as stepping stones before scaling a wall and escaping. The critics absolutely loved it, and if you're an action fan, you will too.