The 15 Best Action Movies of 2021

From blockbuster epics to an indie comedy from Japan, these are the best action films of the year.
Best Action Movies

5. Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning (Japan)

Sometimes you start a five-film franchise with the final entry, and it all works out beautifully in the end. Such is the case with Keishi Ohtomo‘s epic tale about a former assassin whose vow to never again take a life is put to the test by all manner of threats, challenges, and villains. The fourth and fifth entries premiered this year, properly in Japan and as Netflix Originals here in the States, and they are stunners. The Beginning may be the final film, but it’s also a prequel bringing moments mentioned and teased in the earlier films to dramatic life. Takeru Satoh once more takes the lead role of Kenshin Himura, and this is the love story that led to both tragedy and redemption. Ohtomo shoots an attractive picture, the cast is immensely talented, and the script is smartly written. But the action — the action! — champions speed, precision, and artistry. Satoh is a force of nature demonstrating controlled chaos with his sword, and his physical prowess, combined with some surgically deployed wirework, result in action splendor.

Available to stream on Netflix.

4. No Time to Die

Daniel Craig‘s final go-round as James Bond is somewhat divisive with fans with some disliking it despite it being the third-best of Craig’s tenure. (It’s true, and you know it.) That said, even those who take issue with the story turns and character choices most likely recognize the film’s accomplishments as a big, beautiful action movie. While too many blockbusters these days are content unspooling their wares against CG backdrops or with CG characters, the Bond films remain one of the few true event franchises in the genre to utilize mostly practical locations and action. Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s entry continues that trend with some impressive action set-pieces crafted with immaculate skill in Cuba, Norway, and Italy. The Cuban sequence is highlighted with a memorable turn by a gun-toting Ana de Armas while the cobblestone streets of a small Italian town become home to a breathtaking car chase and motorcycle jump. Fukunaga’s decision to capture the bulk of it via IMAX cameras is just the icing on the cinematic cake.

Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and streaming.

My full review.

3. The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (Japan)

Another Japanese franchise comes roaring into one of the top spots on this Best Action list, and it’s once again a story about a killer trying to cut back on all the murder. Akira Sato (Jun’ichi Okada) returns after 2019’s The Fable, and he’s on strict orders from his handlers not to kill a single person. He keeps busy with his parakeet, his favorite comedy shows, and a gig as a graphic designer, but soon collateral damage from his past comes rolling into his present. As with the Rurouni Kenshin films, The Fable is an action movie that unfolds with clarity, speed, and epic amounts of fun. Akira’s efforts to avoid killing see him forced to wound and evade whenever possible, and the result is as entertaining as it is jaw-dropping. Think the scaffolding set-piece in Shang-Chi is impressive? It’s absolute bullshit compared to the shenanigans that Akira and friends get up to here. Both Kan Eguchi‘s original film and his sequel are currently on Netflix, so do yourself a favor and settle in for a wild ride.

Available on streaming.

2. Raging Fire (Hong Kong)

Well Go USA

The late Benny Chan gifted action fans with one last movie before his passing, and it is an absolute banger. Donnie Yen stars as a by-the-book detective who can’t be pressured by politicians or punks, but he’s forced to get creative when an ex-cop with a grudge starts tearing through the city. Yen gets to grapple and beatdown perps with MMA-style abandon, but Chan also ensures the film delivers with car stunts, an epic shootout, and a killer knife fight in an abandoned church. Nicholas Tse co-stars as the big bad, and he’s the kind of villain whose argument almost finds sympathy with viewers — think Ed Harris’ turn in The Rock — which in turn makes for a compelling clash with Yen’s straightlaced cop. This is big, thrilling action cinema from Hong Kong, possibly the last of its kind as China’s restrictive control grows ever tighter, and it’s electrifying stuff.

Available on Blu-ray and streaming.

My full review.

1. Rurouni Kenshin: The Final (Japan)

It’s probably not ideal to enter a franchise on the fifth film then chase it with the fourth, but it works out when they’re subtitled The Beginning and The Final, respectively. Chronologically speaking, this is the movie that ends Kenshin Himura’s (still a terrific Takeru Satoh) story, and goddamn is it a fantastic time. Characters from past films return with vengeance on their mind, and this time out the ensemble is an eclectic mix of outlandishly stylish baddies. One has a cannon for an arm while another is masked and adorned with sharp rakes at the end of each arm. All of them are brought to life with memorable costume design and wonderfully maniacal presence, but even better, they’re all skilled martial artists ensuring the action is executed with energy and impact to spare. The speed of the fights can sometimes be bewildering — don’t be surprised if you find yourself rewinding and rewatching more than a few of the clashes to catch the carious moves these wildly talented performers are throwing down. (Keep an eye out for Baby Assassins‘ Saori Izawa too who does stunt work in both of these Rurouni Kenshin films.) If you watch nothing else off this list, make an exception for this one and its follow-up, The Beginning. They’re far from the dry period films you might be expecting and are instead bursting with style, life, and fun thrills.

Available to stream on Netflix.

Honorable mentions: Copshop, Escape from Mogadishu, Godzilla vs Kong, Space Sweepers, The Swordsman, Wrath of Man

Read more from the 2021 Rewind here.

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Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.