Converging evidence has shown that action observation and execution are tightly linked. The observation of an action directly activates an equivalent internal motor representation in the observer (direct matching). However, whether direct matching is primarily driven by basic perceptual features of the observed movement or is influenced by more abstract interpretative processes is an open question. A series of behavioral experiments tested whether direct matching, as measured by motor priming, can be modulated by inferred action goals and attributed intentions. Experiment 1 tested whether observing an unsuccessful attempt to execute an action is sufficient to produce a motor-priming effect. Experiment 2 tested alternative perceptual explanations for the observed findings. Experiment 3 investigated whether the attribution of intention modulates motor priming by comparing motor-priming effects during observation of intended and unintended movements. Experiment 4 tested whether participants' interpretation of the movement as triggered by an external source or the actor's intention modulates the motor-priming effect by a pure instructional manipulation. Our findings support a model in which direct matching can be top-down modulated by the observer's interpretation of the observed movement as intended or not.