10. Hydra (Japan)
Like Baby Assassins above, Hydra mostly limits its action to the beginning and end of the film. Unlike Baby Assassins, though, it did receive a release here in the US (albeit two years after its initial release). Takashi (Masanori Mimoto) is a bar owner who’s maybe a bit gruff and a lot quiet, but what his employees don’t know is that he’s also a retired killer. The bulk of the 77-minute film follows his interactions with others and the eventual softening that comes with positive human interaction, but once the proverbial shit hits the fan it unloads at a blistering pace. Fight choreographer turned filmmaker Kensuke Sonomura lets his action beats breathe just as clearly and beautifully as his character moments, and Mimoto is terrifically skilled with an amorphous fighting style involving knives, grappling, and jiu-jitsu. Here’s hoping both of these small bites of ass-kicking excellence from Japan lead to more movies with everyone involved.
Available on Blu-ray and streaming.
9. The Suicide Squad
Superhero movies don’t typically land high on my action lists because, while I often enjoy them, their “action” is too often the creation of digital artists as opposed to stunt performers, choreographers, and filmmakers who appreciate the capabilities of the human form. I know, I’m a dick, but they’re my lists. Which brings me to James Gunn‘s The Suicide Squad. In addition to being very funny and featuring a terrifically game cast, the action here is immensely entertaining. Yes, a lot of it is CG-created/assisted, but there’s more than enough here to satisfy fans of physical carnage, athletic ability, and action style. From the opening beach slaughter to a rebel camp massacre, the latter complete with competitive kills, to Harley Quinn’s mesmerizing hallway killstreak that we essentially see through her eyes, the film delivers some stellar action sequences alongside the copious laughs.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and streaming.
The overwhelming majority of action movies are built on fairly one-note, simplistic premises, and that’s okay — we’re watching for the action, and the rest is just icing. When the rest is done well it elevates an action movie even higher, but if it’s not, well good action can still carry a movie to greatness. Which brings me to Nobody, a film that hangs some terrifically entertaining action beats on the skimpiest of “plots.” The movie is essentially nothing more than the product of Bob Odenkirk telling some John Wick veterans that he wanted to do an action film. A barebones script by Derek Kolstad, some action-friendly direction by Ilya Naishuller, and an impressively dedicated Odenkirk — he trained for over a year, and it shows on the screen in fights captured in extended or even unbroken takes — combine to deliver ninety minutes of smartly crafted and fun action scenes.
Available on Blu-ray and streaming.
7. Xtreme (Spain)
Max (Teo Garcia) is a hitman for a mob business run by his own family, but when his father and young son are brutally murdered, Max fades into the background. He’s pulled back out, though, when new concerns and old grudges offer the opportunity for revenge. Again, as is often the case with the genre, the plot is pretty straightforward. What sings in its own unique voice, though, is the action and set-pieces captured by director Daniel Benmayor against the beautiful backdrop of Spain. Gunplay, martial arts, and katana duels are the order of the day, and all deliver smart choreography and entertaining execution. The story can feel like a 90s DTV retread, but the mix of styles combined with stylishly lit locales gives the film a more attractive sheen than those movies typically achieved. Add in a memorably nasty villain — Max’s own half-brother! — and you have a good time for action fans.
Available to stream on Netflix.
6. The Matrix: Resurrections
Lana Wachowski‘s fourth entry in The Matrix franchise is as ambitious and fearless as you’d hope while also being immensely entertaining in its use of old favorites and fresh ideas. Happily, the action follows suit with some absolutely stellar set-pieces starting with an opening sequence that calls back to the original film while letting newcomer Jessica Henwick — she’s a star across the board, and if there’s any justice we’ll be seeing her in many, many more movies — shine on her own merits. Fights range from intimate one vs one battles to an epic brawl involving hundreds, and the stunt work recalls some beloved Matrix magic while still making room for new thrills and leaps of imagination. You’ll want to see this one in theaters if that’s a safe possibility for you, but expect to be rewatching it on HBO Max as well.
Available (starting December 22nd) in theaters and on HBO Max.
Keep reading for more of the Best Action Movies of 2021!