This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, Rob Hunters explores the best action movies of 2021.
Action movies offer a special kind of balm in troubled times as they’re most often built on the idea of catharsis. While evil often goes on living in horror films and dark dramas, action movies are almost exclusively built on the premise of good ultimately triumphing over bad — whether with fists, feet, guns, cars, superpowers, etc. The real world rarely provides that same kind of satisfaction, and instead, it turns out that action movies are providing a valuable mental health service.
2021 may have been a shit year in other ways, but it rocked when it comes to action movies. The fifteen titles below represent the best the genre had to offer this year, from blockbusters to indies, from Hollywood to Japan, and we recommend checking out all of them if you find yourself looking for an exciting and satisfying pick me up.
Now keep reading for the 15 Best Action Movies of 2021!
15. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Consider this bottom spot the MCU placeholder this year as it could just have easily gone to Black Widow or Spider-Man: No Way Home, but Shang-Chi wins here on the strength of the late Brad Allan‘s fight choreography. MCU films are action movies of a sort, but those beats rarely feel tangible or grounded as they’re instead brought to “life” via ones and zeros. Captain America: The Winter Soldier still holds the top spot when it comes to visceral action sequences in the MCU, but Shang-Chi makes a decent effort starting with a fun and energetic bus fight. There are no real superpowers on display, and instead, it’s just one dude taking on multiple enemies while their bus careens through the streets of San Francisco. Allan’s choreography puts lead Simu Liu through a mix of moves both combative and entertaining — Allan’s work with Jackie Chan is clear — and while later action beats move away from that grounded feel there’s still fun to be had with a big scaffolding rumble and some solid one on one brawls.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and streaming.
14. Paper Tigers
Martial arts movies about students seeking vengeance for the murder of their sifu are a common sight in action cinema, but Paper Tigers does something a little bit different with the concept. Rather than see ass-kicking fighters lay waste in the name of revenge, here we’re saddled with students who’ve not quite kept up with their training. Gifted teens have grown into middle-aged men with bellies and backaches. Writer/director Quoc Bao Tran takes this angle and turns the film into an underdog tale like The Karate Kid. As with that box-office hit from the 80s, the fights here aren’t exactly impressive as pure entertainment — Donnie Yen these guys aren’t. The fights are sincere, though, in both their authenticity and respect for style and form. That presentation fits the narrative and characters as well, and it affords the action a different kind of satisfaction. And yes, you’ll still be cheering for the underdog in the film’s finale.
Available on Blu-ray and streaming.
13. One Shot (UK)
It wouldn’t be a “best action movie of the year” list without a Scott Adkins joint, and this year’s contender is something a little bit different from the British brawler. One Shot is a military action film focused on gunfights and tactical action, and it’s all presented as a single take — it’s actually a handful of long shots seamlessly stitched together, but it succeeds at delivering the feel of a single oner. That’s key to the film’s success as leaving viewers there for the in-between beats and transitional movement offers a more immersive feeling, and that in turn gives the action a more visceral feel. Adkins does get to engage in a couple of smaller hand-to-hand scraps, but the bulk of the action sees repeated sequences of bullet exchanges as soldiers attempt to hold pinch points or change locales. James Nunn‘s film stands apart from the norm thanks to both the format and that tactical style, and the result is a solid piece of action filmmaking.
Available on Blu-ray and streaming.
Netflix Originals aren’t exactly a reliable source of quality — they’ve delivered some real winners but the sheer quantity of releases also means lots of immediately forgettable fare — but when it comes to action movies, this year’s list features an impressive four entries from the streaming giant. And no, Red Notice is not one of them, obviously. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan‘s Kate barely out-scored that star-studded dud on the ol’ Tomatometer, but it’s far more deserving of eyeballs and fans. Sure, the story is a generic riff on familiar hitman cliches, but Nicolas-Troyan, star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and a team of action veterans ensure the onscreen carnage thrills. Fight scenes, shootouts, and wicked knife battles deliver energetic entertainment while visual stimulation is pushed even further with neon lighting, attractive locales, and editing that knows better than to hit viewers with rapid-fire cuts. Action fans will see every story beat coming, but they’ll have a good time all the same.
Available to stream on Netflix.
11. Baby Assassins (Japan)
This will be a cheat to some, but Baby Assassins hasn’t actually been released in the US yet. Sorry! It opened in Japan and did play a festival or two here, and as there isn’t a US date (or distributor) yet I’m including it in the hopes of getting more eyeballs onto its greatness. The film follows two teenagers, Chisato (Yukina Fukushima) and Mahiro (Saori Izawa), who also happen to be highly skilled assassins. Forced to share an apartment, the two see their personalities clash resulting in a fun comedy about slackers, friendship, and physical violence. The action is limited with the two best sequences essentially bookending the film, but in addition to the midsection being entertaining in its own right with laughs and character beats, those action set-pieces are phenomenal. Izawa in particular is an extremely talented fighter/stunt performer, and she packs a wickedly fast punch. Her final fight moves from guns to brutal brawling, and it’s a thrilling and dramatic sight to see.
Keep reading for more of the Best Action Movies of 2021!