The 10 Best Action Movies of 2021
Digging into the best action movies of any given year is an exercise in genre definition. Most pure-grade action movies that aren’t entries in one of a handful of franchises go straight to streaming or DVD.
This is the realm of Adkins, Jaa, Uwais and Michael Jai White. It’s also where you’re likely to find some of the best and brashest fight choreography. Naturally, we dug into this year’s DTV offerings, but then there are the blockbusters. The “/action” movies where sci-fi, Westerns and comedies throw in fights or races or chases to keep our blood pumping. We’ve got those too. Then there are the outliers, the non-qualifiers with a great setpiece here or there.
The best one of this year, the Korean Escape from Mogadishu, embeds a spectacular car chase—better than anything in F9—in its sleepy political drama. The resulting batch of actioners might feel the most eccentric of any of our genre lists this year, but they all share one thing in common: Your adrenaline will flow, your eyes will stay peeled and your knuckles might whiten as you watch.
Here are our picks for the 10 best action movies of the year:
Filmmaker James Nunn reunites with Scott Adkins once again for a gimmicky and often unpleasant tour around a militarized island newly under siege, all made to look like it’s one 90-minute shot.
For some of that runtime, you wish they would learn about cutting so you didn’t have to watch someone walk across a field or down a base hallway in real time—especially as the walk-and-talk dialogue is filled with a silly terrorist plot and grating characters that’d make a Call of Duty writer note the lack of nuance. But for the stuff that matters, the gunfights and the knifefights and the fistfights, you’ll be glad Nunn and his team trusted in the process.
Adkins is still an exceptional workhorse, not just as a combatant but as a dramatic performer. With the handheld camera mostly following him tight throughout, he’s a compelling presence even when he’s not breaking arms or cutting throats. He’s even magnetic when he’s reloading. Gamers will note the visual language of third-person shooters (or those of an FPS, extrapolated outward), as camera angles around cover or over shoulders replicate their visceral placement. There’s a lot to appreciate in the technical planning and execution here. Sure, it’s a terrible script and nobody really gets anything to do (though Adkins’ SEAL squadmates all acquit themselves well), but a brutal last 20-minute blitz will make all but the deepest sticks in the mud scoot to the edges of their seats.—Jacob Oller
The importance of Black folks to the “taming” of the West is a central thrust to The Harder They Fall, both as a motivation for first-time feature director Jeymes Samuel, who grew up watching Westerns and wanted to see one starring Black people, and for the plot.
The actors, visual style and musical choices elevate an imperfect script with memorable if not completely unique dialogue and scenes. The cast and performances are remarkable and it’s an aesthetically striking film with great set, sound and costume design. Real-life historical figures are treated like folk heroes, for better and for worse.
The Harder They Fall has its problems, but it’s a testament to the idea that there are still interesting things to be done in familiar genres, like inserting color aesthetically and demographically.
It’s worth watching at least once for the spectacle of the vibrant colors and great performances, and to be introduced to real historical characters, even if audiences must look far from the film to figure out what they were actually like. It does a great job reinserting Black people into the story of the U.S. western expansion, but it’s a qualified success because the film ignores the people the U.S. was stolen from, in places and among people where they could still be found.—Kevin Fox, Jr.
This latest entry marks the return of director Justin Lin, who helped guide the series’ evolution from Tokyo Drift to Fast & Furious 6, and while he struggles with how unwieldy F&F has become, his undeniable understanding of what makes these movies tick keeps the film roaring along.
Lin’s still adding new characters and twists to this high-octane telenovela as often as prefixes, retconning deaths and introducing long-lost brothers as easily as he moves from simply defying physics to defying astrophysics—as easily as he turned street-racing spies into globe-trotting superspies. The crew, including the newly domestic Dom and Letty, is pulled back into the world of…whatever it is they do…once again and their impossible mission (which they always choose to accept) has to do with another globally destructive techno-MacGuffin and a globally destructive flesh-MacGuffin: Dom’s younger brother Jakob (John Cena), excommunicated from the family for sins that become apparent over the course of extensive flashbacks.
As Dom’s uneasy relationship with Jakob becomes clear—over the course of explosion-laden jungle races, rooftop chases and posh sitting room brawls—F9’s knowing relationship with its own cartoonishness balances it out. One of the funniest gags sees Tyrese Gibson’s Roman openly speculating if he and the rest of the crew have plot armor.
Are they actually invincible? The gang realizing that they’re all in a movie seems like it could honestly be the next step, with them turning their cars towards the camera and bursting out of the fiction like Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck. While both come too late in the film for my taste (leaving much of the film hanging on how pleased you get seeing the admittedly amusing returns of Sung Kang and Lucas Black), two innovations keep F9 on the cutting edge of ridiculous action: Magnets and rockets. But such winning ideas, timed as they are to energize a relatively dramatic entry like last-minute nitro boosts, have a hard time standing out amidst the meandering plot and the narrative’s bevy of cameos. Perhaps the most telling way in which you can tell that F9’s action is a little underwhelming is that the standout moment from the film is purely dramatic. A shockingly well-directed “life flashing before your eyes” sequence allows Diesel to undersell a bevy of emotions through little more than a lemon-pursed mouth, while Lin spins his past, present and future around him. It’s not a great standalone entry into the Fast canon, but as the franchise speeds towards its finish line, it’s still satisfying to know that it’s in the hands of someone well-versed in the series’ strengths and still willing to imagine new ways to crash its toys into each other.—Jacob Oller
You’ve probably seen a movie like Deliver Us From Evil. The second feature helmed by Hong Won-Chan (who also wrote the script), this Korean action-thriller is a revenge story about a killer with a heart of tarnished gold, risking it all for an innocent. Like many hitman movies, it’s about the ultimate tragedy of someone realizing they want to get out of a murderous lifestyle but can’t—and that their lifetime spent killing will always be reflected back upon them.
Thankfully, though this is the kind of premise that Liam Neeson, Nicolas Cage or countless other actors have churned out as a paycheck-cashing B-movie, Hong’s garnishing of his realism with savvy style and a game villain bolsters the lack of novelty with quality. Deliver Us From Evil’s sweaty thrills might be derivative, but they’re far from dead on arrival. In-nam (Hwang Jung-min), a clenched jaw of a hitman, has just finished his requisite One Last Job, and is—as nature dictates—immediately Pulled Back In. His ex-girlfriend, whom he had to leave when he first started up in this underworld gig, needs his help.
Her young daughter has been kidnapped and In-nam is just enough of a softy for this situation to attract his ire. Bad news for the kidnappers, but also bad news for In-nam, whose last job attracted some ire of its own from a vengeful yakuza known as The Butcher (Lee Jung-jae). Lee’s perfectly pitched: Fun and scary, embodying and adding nuance to his prototypically garish and serpentine gangster executioner. His styling is great (massive shades, florals and ostentatious topcoats compliment neck tattoos and scars), but his restraint when teasing out The Butcher’s unhinged and unrelenting nature is better. Hong lets him be cool too: Lee kicks a metal pan underneath a soon-to-be-bled victim, hanging from the ceiling, with an engrossing and terrifying nonchalance. Hong’s ability with camera and tone hint at a filmmaker ready to apply himself to a more unique tale, going either deeper into noir nastiness or higher into the over-the-top action stratosphere.—Jacob Oller
It’s telling that Craig’s swan song No Time to Die being the longest Bond ever, at a superhero-sized 163 minutes, probably won’t inspire as much public self-flagellation as the leaner, meaner Quantum. No Time to Die is neither lean nor mean; it’s a hard-working attempt to reconcile the Bond rituals with a series-finale emotional weight that these movies have been accumulating (with mixed success) since 2006.
Apparently, that reconciliation process takes time: Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (or, more likely, Eon Productions, the tight-gripped caretakers of the Bond franchise) is so unwilling to drop either aspect of this opus that it often feels like two movies in one, both feature-length. So pronounced is the movie’s two-track approach that many of its story elements feel doubled: The opening sequence is a bit of creepy, horror-tinged backstory for Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann (first introduced in the half-lackluster Spectre) and a big Bond action sequence jostling him out of retirement. It feels like 30 minutes before the opening titles finally roll.
Then, after those credits, it’s five years later, and the movie gives us a whole other Bond retirement, this time in Jamaica rather than Italy. If it seems like the characters, locations and plot turns keep on coming, and that it’s impossible to keep from mentioning the other Craig Bonds that have preceded it, that’s very much the experience of watching No Time to Die—and not always unpleasantly. If you can accept a saga-fication of Bond, with callbacks and plot threads and interconnections, it’s, at minimum, less of a Forever Franchise than the endlessly self-teasing superhero mythologies (ironic, given that this is the most forever of franchises). This movie really does want to tie the extended Craig era—longest in years, though not in total output—together. Despite the craft on display, No Time to Die lacks pantheon-level Bond action sequences.
Cuba is terrific fun, Fukunaga stages a solid late-movie one-take stairwell fight and the big/delayed opener delivers. But the movie is more concerned with the human stuff, a decision that’s by turns hubristic, heartening and unprecedented. (Well, not entirely. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service tried something different, and the filmmakers show their belated appreciation for that once-maligned Bond classic here.) The emotional weight it’s trying to foist onto its loyal audience doesn’t always feel earned, just because it’s tricky to parse what, if anything, the movie is actually trying to say about a James Bond who has spent the majority of five movies beginning and ending, sometimes on a loop.
Yet fans may welcome the chance to watch the series struggle against its conventions: Are these performances good, for example, or are all the good guys just beautiful? Is this movie visually sumptuous or was it just shot on film? Has James Bond been deepened, or just weathered? As neatly as No Time to Die wraps up, its certainty is ultimately limited to the last line of the credits: James Bond Will Return. How is another question altogether.—Jesse Hassenger
The 1995 Mortal Kombat film is still one of the better live-action videogame movies and one of the most faithful cinematic adaptations of a game, yet it still couldn’t quite represent the bloody depths of MK’s depravity under the restrictions of a PG-13 rating. (And the less said about Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, the better.) A quarter of a century later, director Simon McQuoid’s feature debut gives the supernatural fighting franchise a facelift and that coveted R-rating, with blood geysers that’d leave Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah envious.
It’s not just added in for some adolescent awesomeness factor, though it punctuates already delightful choreography with bright-red visual exclamation points. It’s a grounding element that keeps the fights from feeling plastic, fake or ethereal. People lose arms, get cut, take damage.
They feel necessarily mortal, in part because we’re constantly reminded of their bloody biology. While the gore level might feel like a small component of a film, it’s indicative of this Mortal Kombat’s understanding and ability to be over-the-top without being out of control. But fights are only as good as their kombatants, and Mortal Kombat’s selection screen is star-studded and pitch perfect. The cast is of predominantly Asian heritage, a welcome development that allows veterans like Hiroyuki Sanada and Chin Han to steal scenes (the imposing haughtiness of Han’s soul-sucking Shang Tsung pairs perfectly with the quiet show of deadly magic from Joe Taslim’s supervillainous Sub-Zero) and rising stars like Ludi Lin and Max Huang to make the case that they’ve always belonged in the spotlight. Lin’s fire-blasting Liu Kang is particularly charismatic, able to balance deadpan and mystical seriousness on top of the physical requirements of the role…and it doesn’t hurt that he’s absolutely diesel. Mortal Kombat is blockbuster filmmaking that manages to be a satisfying action film, thanks to tactile and intimate one-on-one fights—and a “kid with a blank check” carnival ride for those who love the franchise. It might not fix videogame movies overnight, but Mortal Kombat might finally deliver their sweepingly bad reputation a devastating fatality. And yes, it has a “Get over here!” moment so good it’ll give anyone who’s spent time with the arcade fighter goosebumps.—Jacob Oller
From its intricate and exciting swordplay to its detailed depiction of styles and cultures underutilized by the House of Mouse, Raya and the Last Dragon is one of Disney’s better action-adventures. Its first foray into a Southeast Asian environment blends its traditional “princess” movies with a trial-hopping quest like Kubo and the Two Strings. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), after a youthful tragedy leaves her father (Daniel Dae Kim) turned to stone and her land fractured, must hop from community to community—gathering up the pieces of a magical gem and new quirky team members—so that Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon, can depetrify everyone and put the world right. There’s a well-meaning but sloppily implemented lesson from writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim about trust at the film’s heart, explained almost like an argument for nuclear disarmament—basically, mutual animosity won’t improve if nobody’s willing to take the first step. But it’s all just an excuse really, to take us through some of the best environmental work of Disney’s 3D era and some of its best fight sequences ever. A muddled but bold finale keeps Raya from being a tour de force, but it’s still worth taking a tour through Kumandra.—Jacob Oller
How is James Gunn one of the only people that actually seems to know how to make a comic book movie feel like it was built out of a comic book? Sure, the excellent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did it, but it took making one of the most impressive animated movies in years.
Writer/director Gunn, who’s hopped over to DC after making a pair of Guardians of the Galaxy movies for Marvel, achieves some of the same delirious multimedia fidelity in live-action with The Suicide Squad, his bombastic, silly and self-aware revisionist take on the super-group of screw-ups coerced into jobs too tough, dangerous and/or undesirable for the conventional wetworkers of our humble government. Gunn’s action has such a clear and confident tone that it can pepper in filmmaking winks—like quick Bourne-like zooms when Task Force X director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) plays God with the lives of costumed crooks from the safety of her command center—to add a little more visual flavor to its already over-the-top, R-rated, downright enjoyable adaptation.
Part of the joke is the sheer quantity of goofball Legion of Doom rejects shoved into the mix. Sure, you’ve got the familiarly chaotic clown-about-town Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, who’s by now thoroughly made the role her own), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and straight-laced military man Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) alongside the new A-listers (John Cena’s Captain America pastiche, Peacemaker; Idris Elba’s gruff sharpshooter Bloodsport). But there’s a Golden Corral buffet of questionable riffraff introduced as well, including but not limited to: King Shark (Sylvester Stallone, channeling a dumber and hungrier Groot), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Blackguard (Pete Davidson) and a human-sized weasel (Sean Gunn). They’re all distinct and most of them are distinctly, joyfully hateable. And over the course of The Suicide Squad’s solid tropical island action movie—one that’s politics are almost as sharply cynical as its true-to-source treatment of its protagonistic supervillains—Gunn isn’t afraid to dole out the kind of consequences that have mostly been relegated to the fun-poking, franchise-flouting realms of TV superhero meta-critiques like The Boys and Invincible. These aren’t unfamiliar to Suicide Squad readers, but they’re increasingly shocking, strange and bracing (not to mention fun!) to find in AAA studio movies. As the team moves from FUBAR beach operations on Corto Maltese to sabotaging its local lab’s super-science, actual tension develops—a rarity among The Suicide Squad’s contemporaries. Whatever power its additional The gave it couldn’t completely divorce it from some expected genre limitations, but it’s helped continue and solidify the way Warner Bros. is responding to Marvel’s utter dominance of the form: Not by getting more serious, but by seriously investing in the idiosyncrasies of its comics.—Jacob Oller
There are few things about a thriller that get me more excited than realizing the movie doesn’t rely on complicated plot MacGuffins, but on a fully realized setting and characters that either make their home or find themselves helpless there. From writer/director Taylor Sheridan, Those Who Wish Me Dead is one of those thrillers—and those two elements, setting and character, are two that Sheridan is most capable with. Based on Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel of the same name, the film’s rock-solid survival story is enhanced by its charming ensemble and striking, elegant environment.
This simplified adaptation (which Koryta co-wrote with Sheridan alongside Charles Leavitt) thrusts good and evil together with the same easy confidence of a corral shootout. A forensic accountant (Jake Weber, playing a pretty badass accountant but not a The Accountant-level badass) and his son, Connor (Finn Little) are on the run. Why? Well, the most we get is that Connor’s dad found out something pretty damn incriminating and those incriminated are none too happy. “What did you do?” Connor asks. All he really gets by way of answer is, “The right thing.” Quickly, that hard ol’ reality sets in that the right thing might not be the consequence-free thing it’s cracked up to be. It’s all carried by its cast, and Angelina Jolie is its best member. She plays Hannah, whom Connor stumbles into in the middle of the forest after Plan A is jettisoned for B. A smokejumper (basically like if a regular firefighter was in Point Break) with PTSD, Hannah was left guilt-ridden and shaken after a particularly awful wildfire.
It also left her stuck in a dead-end assignment: All alone on watch duty, high above the forest in an isolated fire tower. Among the other visual feats pulled off by Ben Richardson (Sheridan’s cinematographer on Wind River and Yellowstone, who recently helped Mare of Easttown “[render] our small, collective suffering in stark shapes”) is the height, lonesomeness and awe of this skyward sentry, far above the verdant treetops. Ensembles collide, ricochet and tangle as Those Who Wish Me Dead builds its brutal if expected thrills, and it’s near impossible to look away. It’s the dense woodland, the savvy character work, the moral core that’s both optimistic and pessimistic enough to sustain its modern-day white and black hats. It pulls off the kind of complexity and aesthetic cohesion that Without Remorse and Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Sheridan’s latest screenplay works) so sorely lack. Gripping and intelligent, Those Who Wish Me Dead is revitalizing.—Jacob Oller
When you’re a martial artist and your master dies under mysterious circumstances, you avenge their death. It’s what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young man or if you’re firmly living that middle-aged life. Your teacher’s suspicious passing can’t go unanswered. So you grab your fellow disciples, put on your knee brace, pack a jar of IcyHot and a few Ibuprofen, and you put your nose to the ground looking for clues and for the culprit, even as your soft, sapped muscles cry out for a breather.
That’s The Paper Tigers in short, a martial arts film from Bao Tran about the distance put between three men and their past glories by the rigors of their 40s. It’s about good old fashioned ass-whooping too, because a martial arts movie without ass-whoopings isn’t much of a movie at all. But Tran balances the meat of the genre (fight scenes) with potatoes (drama) plus a healthy dollop of spice (comedy), to similar effect as Stephen Chow in his own kung fu pastiches, a la Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, the latter being The Paper Tigers’ spiritual kin.
Tran’s use of close-up cuts in his fight scenes helps give every punch and kick real impact. Amazing how showing the actor’s reactions to taking a fist to the face suddenly gives the action feeling and gravity, which in turn give the movie meaning to buttress its crowd-pleasing qualities. We need more movies like The Paper Tigers, movies that understand the joy of a well-orchestrated fight (and for that matter how to orchestrate a fight well), that celebrate the “art” in “martial arts” and that know how to make a bum knee into a killer running gag. The realness Tran weaves into his story is welcome, but the smart filmmaking is what makes The Paper Tigers a delight from start to finish.—Andy Crump