The Best Action Movies on Netflix Right Now (2021)

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The Best Action Movies on Netflix Right Now (2021)

The best action movies on Netflix reflect an unheralded Golden Age of ultra-stylized, bone-snapping violence: hand-to-hand combat, car chases, gun fights, sword clashes, spaceship battles, derring-do and great escapes, jungle adventures and animated spectacle. Bring the excitement into your home (where you live forever now) care of the following, which range from martial arts classics and war movies to sci-fi superhero blockbusters, not to mention the Netflix original Extraction, starring Chris Hemsworth as a man named Tyler Rake who kills a man with a rake, as well as the likes of The Old Guard, a Netflix original starring Charlize Theron as an immortal woman named Andromache who kills multiple people with this Pokemon-ball-looking ancient axe thing, and Beyond Skyline, a DTV gem starring Frank Grillo as a cop on leave named Mark who defeats an entire advanced, warlike alien civilization, and Manhunt, a culmination of John Woo’s entire career.

Here are the best action movies streaming on Netflix right now:

Manhunt

manhunt-john-woo-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: John Woo
Stars: Zhang Hanyu, Masaharu Fukuyama, Ha Ji-won, Qi Wei, Angeles Woo, Jun Kunimura, Nanami Sakamura
Rating: NR
Runtime: 109 minutes

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Increasingly inactive, rumors of future film projects long ago gone to pasture, John Woo might be building his mythos by default, his latest opus (from three years ago) the work of an icon undoubtedly aware of the reputation he has, which has only grown the more he’s kept quiet. Manhunt presents less of a return to form for the action movie maestro, more a culmination of his legend-making preoccupations: brotherhood, duty, vocation, trial by slo-mo obliteration, morality cut in epic swathes of gunfire, unlimited bullets forever and ever, amen. How does one celebrate one’s visual obsessions? By going belligerent with the doves, having them form a dove tornado that serves as the backdrop between our two brawling protagonists, a dove at least once giving each combatant an advantage, if brief, over the other—doves everywhere, doves as weapons and as symbols of grandiosity and as cheap plot devices, representing all that is great and all that is parodic about the director. Two men, exemplars of their professions—super lawyer Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) and excellent-but-troubled detective Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama)—develop something more intimate than friendship as they unearth a vast conspiracy somehow involving corporate espionage, police corruption, secret high-tech prisons and assassins enabled by super-soldier serum: bloated plot contrivances were they not indebted to every masterpiece John Woo’s ever made. These are the facets of Woo’s gun operas that we adore, and with Manhunt he’s just taking the opportunity to curate his own greatest hits collection. —Dom Sinacola


The Paper Tigers

the-paper-tigers-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Bao Tran
Stars: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Roger Yuan, Matthew Page, Jae Suh Park, Joziah Lagonoy
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 108 minutes

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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


Gladiator

gladiator.jpg Year: 2000
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris, Tommy Flanagan
Rating: R
Runtime: 155 minutes

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In Gladiator, Sir Ridley Scott shamelessly leans on the glitz of Hollyrome; it’s a shallow, overused trope, but if you can stomach the utter film’s veneer of historical fakery, you’ll be rewarded with some absolutely spectacular bloodshed. Here, too, Gladiator wrestles with issues of accuracy – particularly in its opening fracas – but when swordplay and siege is this well staged, you’re on the wrong side of cinema if you dare reach for your Latin textbooks. Whether on the battlefield or in the arena, Gladiator’s magnificently orchestrated violence will keep you held firmly in its crimson-streaked thrall; you will be entertained.—Andy Crump


Apocalypse Now

apocalypse-now-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1979
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne
Rating: R
Runtime: 148 minutes

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Let’s invoke Truffaut, because his spirit feels as relevant to a discussion of Francis Ford Coppola’s baleful adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as to a discussion of a war film like Paths of Glory, and to considering war films in general. Maybe, if we take Truffaut at his word, Apocalypse Now can’t help but endorse war merely through the act of recreating it as art. Maybe that doesn’t stop the film from conveying Coppola’s driving theses: War turns men into monsters, leads them on a descent into a primal, lawless state of mind, and war is itself hell, an ominous phrase now made into cliché by dint of gross overuse between 1979 and today. If the film innately sanctions war by depiction, it does not sanction war’s impact on the humanity of its participants. In fact, Apocalypse Now remains one of the most profound illustrations of the corrosive effect nation-sanctioned violence has on a person’s spirit and psyche. It’s cute that in 40 years later we’re OK with quoting this movie in gratingly awful AT&T commercials, or repurposing its period backdrop for the sake of making King Kong happen for contemporary audiences for a second time, but there’s nothing cute, or even all that quotable, about it. Apocalypse Now sears, sickens and scars, branding itself in our memories as only the grimmest displays of human depravity truly can. —Andy Crump


The Old Guard

the-old-guard-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Stars: Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Van Veronico Ngo, Henry Melling, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli
Rating: NR
Runtime: 93 minutes

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Gina Prince-Bythewood, given a budget more than worthy of the best DTV action flick anyone could hope could make it to permanent Netflix browsal, succeeds in towing, and then mildly subverting, the genre line: She proves she can capably steer a high-concept action blockbuster while cobbling together something that feels like the kind of movie “they” just don’t make anymore. All of it amounts to a one-step-forward-one-step-back appraisal: There is much to cull from the travails of Andromache the Scythian (Charlize Theron), an immortal warrior who, thousands of years later, still questions the purpose of her own endlessness, and sequels, given Netflix’s ostensibly unlimited resources, are all but guaranteed—but one wishes for more capably clear action auteurism, even when Prince-Bythewood’s action chops confidently step up. Still: There are countless joys to behold in The Old Guard, most of all the emergence of Kiki Layne—last seen as hyper-dramatic personae #1 in If Beale Street Could Talk—as exceptionally promising action star, executing a one-handed pistol cocking so confident and so unremarked-upon it automatically achieves cinematic canon. Otherwise, trigger-happy editing gets in the way of itself too often, admirable set-pieces sometimes chopped to shit, though plenty of violence—squelching and tendon-splitting—abounds, and the final villain is dispatched with such disregard for the human body that one can’t help but applaud Prince-Bythewood for getting it—for knowing that the key to good action filmmaking is treating people like piles of wet meat. —Dom Sinacola


Leon: The Professional

leon-the-professional-poster.jpg Year: 1994
Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jean Reno, Gary Oldman
Rating: R
Runtime: 110 minutes

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It’s tough to construct a screenplay around a child who contains a distinct character arc and expect the performance of the actor cast in the role to pull that off. Since films are usually shot out of order, it’s a bit much to expect a child actor to be completely in tune with where their character is emotionally in relation to the big picture. That’s why, apart from Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, the only other example that comes to mind where such an arc was pulled off so effectively, is Natalie Portman’s breakthrough performance as Mathilda, the hitwoman-in-training in Luc Besson’s action classic/creepy underage romance, Leon. When we meet young Mathilda, she acts tough, cigarette in hand, but Portman still taps into her childhood charm. After her little brother is murdered courtesy of bad cop Gary Oldman’s glorious scene chewery, Mathilda’s soul hardens and a rude awakening into the violent world her previously frail soul inhabits is put on full display. As she learns the tricks of the hitman trade from the introverted Leon (Jean Reno), her arc into becoming a kind of monster no child should have to face is complete. Yet this cynical relationship somehow blossoms into a profound love between Leon and Mathilda. That’s a lot of layers to ask from a child actor, and Portman comes out of the gate swinging. —Oktay Ege Kozak


The Harder They Fall

the-harder-they-fall-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Jeymes Samuel
Stars: Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, RJ Cyler
Rating: R
Runtime: 139 minutes

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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.


Beyond Skyline

beyond-skyline-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Liam O’Donnell
Stars: Frank Grillo, Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Jonny Weston, Bojana Novakovic, Callan Mulvey
Rating: NR
Runtime: 106 minutes

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In which Frank Grillo’s “Mark” joins the cinematic pantheon of “hard-living L.A. cops somehow able to defeat a technologically advanced, warlike alien civilization” alongside Danny Glover’s Lt. Mike Harrigan. Mark, a police detective suspended for—one can only guess in retrospect—some infraction having to do with violence, has barely any time to catch up with his estranged son Trent (Jonny Weston), fresh out of the clink, before an alien invasion quickly decimates Mark’s scummy West Coast metropolis. Though the debatably successful 2010 Skyline ended on a clear setup for a sequel, with the brain of Jarrod (anthropomorphic goatee Eric Balfour) bringing an alien exoskeleton to life to protect pregnant girlfriend Elaine (Scottie Thompson), Beyond Skyline works overtime to justify its existence, sucking up its predecessor’s humorless worldbuilding and disaster movie plot to spit out a wildly imaginative barrage of setpieces and sci-fi wonkery. Mark’s adventure takes him from LA to outer space to Laos, affixing a Mega-Man-brand hand cannon to his beefy middle-aged arm for a final shoot-out and bone-splitting melee involving Yayan Ruhian and Iko Uwais from The Raid movies assaulting the ever living shit out of aliens among ancient Southeast Asian ruins. Along the way, Mark helps Elaine give birth, on the alien ship, to a baby girl who grows at such an accelerated rate she becomes a three-year-old in just a day, and who just may hold the key to defeating the aliens in her DNA. It’s pretty fucking nuts. Wall-to-wall action, buttressed by dependable fight choreography and a script that refuses to back down, Beyond Skyline is a relentless delight—all the better for the fact that it maybe should have never existed at all. —Dom Sinacola


Snowpiercer

snowpiercer.jpg Year: 2014
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt
Rating: R
Runtime: 126 minutes

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There is a sequence midway through Snowpiercer that perfectly articulates what makes Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho among the most dynamic filmmakers currently working. Two armies engage in a no-holds-barred, slow motion-heavy action set piece. Metal clashes against metal, and characters slash through their opponents as if their bodies were made of butter. It’s gory, imaginative, horrifying, beautiful, visceral and utterly glorious. Adapted from a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world. Nearly two decades prior, in an ill-advised attempt to halt global warning, the government inundated the atmosphere with an experimental chemical that left our planet a barren, ice-covered wasteland. Now, the last of humanity resides on “Snowpiercer,” a vast train powered via a perpetual-motion engine. Needless to say, this scenario hasn’t exactly brought out the best of humanity. Bong’s bleak and brutal film may very well be playing a song that we’ve all heard before, but he does it with such gusto and dexterous skill you can’t help but be caught up the flurry. —Mark Rozeman


Gunpowder Milkshake

gunpowder-milkshake-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Navot Papushado
Stars: Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino, Angela Bassett, Paul Giamatti
Rating: N/A
Runtime: 114 minutes

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Can we ever really protect our children from the violence of the world we’ve created? Gunpowder Milkshake dares to sort of pose this question, then double dares the audience to try to follow an ultra-convoluted plot that is simply an excuse to watch hot mother figures (Lena Headey, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino and Angela Bassett) bash in the heads of a horde of generic hitmen. The film’s thin thread of emotional sincerity gets lost in Israeli horror director Navot Papushado’s gory venture into big-budget action. His movie favors neon lighting, intricate set pieces, slow-mo as storytelling and the squeezing of brilliant actors into minimally backstoried, fabulously outfitted cardboard characters over much in the way of development or consistency. It’s a bloody feast for the eyes, and if you’re looking for a movie sprung solely from the iconography of other neo-shoot ‘em ups, it’s got some fun in store—you just might have to leap over the plot holes and massive tonal shifts while wielding customized mini-bayonets to enjoy the good stuff. —Shayna Maci Warner


Da 5 Bloods

da-5-bloods.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo, Norman Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Jonathan Majors, Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Lê Y Lan, Johnny Trí Nguy?n
Rating: R
Runtime: 156 minutes

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The hunt for buried gold neither ends well nor goes off without a hitch. The long road to reconciliation, whether with one’s trauma, family or national identity, is never without bumps. Glue these truths together with the weathering effects of institutional racism, add myriad references to history—American history, music history, film history—and you get Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a classically styled Vietnam action picture made in his cinematic vision. As in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, Lee connects the dots between past and present, linking the struggle for civil rights couched in conscientious objection and protest to contemporary America’s own struggle against state-sanctioned fascism. After opening with a montage of events comprising and figures speaking out against the Vietnam War, referred to predominantly as the American War throughout the rest of the movie, Lee introduces four of the five bloods: Otis (Clarke Peters), Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), bonded Vietnam vets returned to Ho Chi Minh City ostensibly to find and recover the bones of their fallen squad leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman). There’s more, of course, “more” being around $17 million in gold bars planted in Vietnamese soil, property of the CIA but reappropriated by the Bloods as reparations for their personal suffering as men fighting a war for a country governed by people who don’t care about their rights. Lee’s at the height of his powers when bluntly making the case that for as much time as has passed since the Vietnam War’s conclusion, America’s still stubbornly waging the same wars on its own people and, for that matter, the rest of the world. And Lee is still angry at and discontent with the status quo, being the continued oppression of Black Americans through police brutality, voter suppression and medical neglect. In this context, Da 5 Bloods’ breadth is almost necessary. As Paul would say: Right on. —Andy Crump


Total Recall

total-recall-1990.jpg Year: 1990
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone
Rating: R
Runtime: 113 minutes

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Very loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (and aren’t all PKD adaptations “very loose”?), Total Recall functions as a construct for Paul Verhoeven to take a high-concept premise about memory implants and lost identity and motivational uncertainty and turn it into an Arnold Schwarzenegger schlock-fest. It should be bad, but it’s not; it should be, at best, cheesy fun—but it’s even more than that. Unlike many of it’s sci-fi action peers, Total Recall never runs out of steam or ideas; it starts with the memory implant stuff, but on the back end gives us a vividly imagined Mars society with an oppressed mutant population (which is, like, the best special make-up effects portfolio ever) and a secret alien reactor that’s a MacGuffin but also a deus ex machina. The plot’s a mess but so is Arnold. It all works. Total Recall’s $60 million production budget was absolutely huge for its time, but unlike similar Hollywood ventures that put money towards glitz (like the 2012 remake, so slick it slips right out of one’s head), Verhoeven uses the loot to give us more dust, more grit, more decrepit sets, more twisted prosthetics and maximum Arnold. Verhoeven, in fact, uses Arnold as much as he uses anything else in the budget to tell this darkly exuberant story, from the contorted confusion of the set-up right on through to the eye-popping finale. It results in a sci-fi screed written in the form of a hundred Ahh-nuld faces, absurd and unforgettable. For as many times as Dick has been adapted, this is perhaps the one time the go-for-broke energy and imagination of his work has made it into the cinema (Blade Runner is something else entirely). Total Recall may have little in common with the actual content of the story it blows up, but it knows the vibe. And PKD vibes are the best kind. —Chad Betz


Extraction

extraction-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Sam Hargrave
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Golshifteh Farahani, Rudhraksh Jaiswal, David Harbour, Randeep Hooda
Rating: NR
Runtime: 116 minutes

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One can imagine Extraction as something better during its interminable downtimes—something that would have allowed Chris Hemsworth some room to turn on the charm; something that could have been tighter in less franchise-greased hands; something that doesn’t revel in the orientalist filth of Bangladesh—but then a man named Tyler Rake (Hemsworth) splits a man’s skull apart with a rake. First-time director Sam Hargrave knows his way around a visceral action scene, most likely earning his A-list star and substantial budget from working with the Russo brothers as stunt coordinator on a few of the biggest MCU entries, and Extraction goes HAM once Rake’s full powers are unleashed, stabbing a man’s brain with the aforementioned rake and/or kicking a table so hard across the floor its edge crushes another man’s throat. Carnage reigns; sound design feels wet and sloppy, organs rupturing everywhere. The film’s second act culminates in a fake one-take that actually begins by Rake telling his handler over the phone that he’s now officially in “survival mode,” continues as a teeth-shaking car chase, followed by a murder spree through an apartment building, a knife brawl and vehicular manslaughter. Later, an RPG tears a helicopter asunder; Rake ring-around-the-roseys a dead guy to use the dead guy’s legs to break another guy’s neck. One can imagine a movie that doesn’t look like it cost this much, but then again: This is Netflix. It’s OK to just fast-forward to all the mayhem. —Dom Sinacola


Fearless

fearless poster (Custom).jpg Year: 2006
Director: Ronny Yu
Stars: Jet Li, Nakamura Shido II, Sun Li, Don Yong, Nathan Jones, Collin Chou, Masato Harada
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 105 minutes

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After his somewhat underwhelming Hollywood period, Jet Li returned to Hong Kong to pull off his last great historical kung fu film, Fearless. One can tell that the story of Huo Yuanjia, a martial artist who triumphed over a variety of international fighters at a time when China’s national identity was flagging, is an important one to him. Fittingly, Li imparts one of his best acting performances to the film, which tells the tale of how Yuanjia learned his skills and realizes he must stand up for his nation’s reputation. The film ends with a tragic fight sequence as Yuanjia takes on an honorable Japanese swordsman but is simultaneously poisoned by scheming aristocrats. The choreography is beautiful but appreciably restrained in reality, which was rare to see in a high-budget film in the years following Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As a result, Fearless is one of the better historical kung fu biopics to come out in the past 20 years. —Jim Vorel


21 Jump Street

21-jump-street-poster.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Stars: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Ice Cube
Rating: R
Runtime: 109 minutes

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Against all odds, 21 Jump Street—a movie based on a Fox television series remembered mainly for helping launch the career of Johnny Depp and briefly reminding the world that Dom DeLuise had a son—is an immensely enjoyable, frequently hilarious film. The premise is unchanged. Two youthful-looking (and since this is a comedy, spectacularly incompetent) police officers are assigned to a special division that places undercover agents in schools in an attempt to stop illegal activity. For officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), fresh out of the academy, this is not so much an opportunity as a richly deserved exile. Their mission, as delivered by a purposefully prototypical Angry Black Police Captain (Ice Cube): Contain the spread of a dangerous new drug that has shown up at a local high school. For Jenko, the return to high school represents a return to his glory days. For Schmidt, it’s more of a return to the scene of a crime where the body outlined in chalk looks suspiciously like his own. Unlike so many comic remakes, reboots and long-delayed sequels, 21 Jump Street doesn’t overly rely on nostalgia to generate its laughs. Hill isn’t doing anything he hasn’t done before, but that doesn’t make his deadpan-acerbic delivery any less funny, especially alongside the earnest doofus-ness of his partner. Hill and Tatum are supported by a strong ensemble of recognizable faces, including Rob Riggle, Ellie Kemper and Chris Parnell. But though “ensemble piece” usually refers to cast and crew, 21 Jump Street is even more impressive when viewed as an ensemble of comedic approaches. There are laughs to suit all tastes—from sarcastic jibes to pratfalls, from pokes at film conventions (“I really thought that was going to explode.”) to exuberant, undeniably infectious, juvenile displays. And each is conveyed in a measure appropriate to its form. As a result, there’s just not much time spent watching 21 Jump Street without at least a smile on one’s face. —Michael Burgin


The Outlaw Josey Wales

outlaw-josey-wales-poster.jpg Year: 1976
Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Sandra Locke, Bill McKinney, John Vernon
Rating: PG
Runtime: 135 minutes

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If you’re in the mood for a superb classic western—looking for a satisfying combo of the morbid whimsy found in Leone’s work and the wholesome, adventure-heavy John Ford style—then The Outlaw Josey Wales should deliver on this compromise. Eastwood sensed the popularity of the traditional western was on its way out when Josey Wales went into production, so he composed a fitting Swan Song for the genre. It’s a messy proposition, but what we get is an epic genre exercise that seldom loses our attention, mostly due to the intense narrative focus Eastwood carried over from his work with Don Siegel. Eastwood is predictably badass in the title role, but the MVP of the picture is his no-nonsense sidekick played by the illustrious Chief Dan George. (For more of George’s natural charisma, check out Little Big Man.) —Oktay Ege Kozak


Django Unchained

django-unchained-poster.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Rating: R
Runtime: 165 minutes

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The best thing about Quentin Tarantino is also the worst thing about Quentin Tarantino—he believes, wholeheartedly, in whatever he’s doing. Most of the time, what he’s doing consists of overly referential homage mashups with dialogue that would give most screenwriters carpal tunnel. The old video store clerk is sublime at saying important things through mediums that don’t usually convey them—Kung Fu films, revenge fantasies and spaghetti Westerns, for starters. He is an artist dressed as a Philistine, splattering the screen with cartoonish violence when what he’s really blowing is our minds. Although Tarantino’s effort here isn’t his best, it is his most ambitious, and for someone capable of so much, that means quite a lot.—Tyler Chase


The Night Comes for Us

night-comes-for-us-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Timo Tjahjanto
Stars: Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Sonny Pang
Rating: NR
Runtime: 121 minutes

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While Gareth Evans confounded fans of The Raid movies by giving them a British folk horror film (but a darn good one) this year, Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us scratches that Indonesian ultra-violent action itch. Furiously. Then stabs a shard of cow femur through it. Come for the violence, The Night Comes for Us bids you—and, also, stay for the violence. Finally, leave because of the violence. If that sounds grueling, don’t worry, it is. You could say it’s part of the point, but that might be projecting good intentions on a film that seems to care little for what’s paving the highway to hell. It’s got pedal to metal and headed right down the gullet of the abyss. It’s also got the best choreographed and constructed combat sequences of the year, and plenty of them, and they actually get better as the film goes along. There’s a scene where Joe Taslim’s anti-hero protagonist takes on a team inside a van, the film using the confines to compress the bone-crushing, like an action compactor. Other scenes are expansive in their controlled chaos and cartoonish blood-letting, like Streets of Rage levels, come to all-too-vivid life: the butcher shop level, the car garage level and a really cool later level where you play as a dope alternate character and take on a deadly sub-boss duo who have specialized weapons and styles and—no, seriously, this movie is a videogame. You’ll forget you weren’t playing it, so intensely will you feel a part of its brutality and so tapped out you’ll feel once you beat the final boss, who happens to be The Raid-star Iko Uwais with a box-cutter. It’s exceptionally painful and it goes on forever. Despite a storyline that’s basically just an excuse for emotional involvement (Taslim’s character is trying to protect a cute little girl from the Triad and has a lost-brotherhood bit with Uwais’s character) and, more than that, an easy way to set up action scenes on top of action scenes, there’s something about the conclusion of The Night Comes For Us that still strikes some sort of nerve of pathos, despite being mostly unearned in any traditional dramatic sense. Take it as a testament to the raw power of the visceral: A certain breed of cinematic action—as if by laws of physics—demands a reaction. —Chad Betz


Avengement

avengement-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Jesse V. Johnson
Stars: Scott Adkins, Craig Fairbrass, Thomas Turgoose
Rating: NR
Runtime: 87 minutes

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The second of three films directed by Jesse V. Johnson released in 2019, Avengement is as crystalline, as empirically precise, as micro-budget VOD martial arts action can aspire. With that kind of prolificacy, a journeyman director’s bound to do something right—which would be a valid assessment, were everything Johnson’s done not so undeniably solid. Thanks goes, of course, to Johnson’s muse, Vicious Beefcake Scott Adkins, a flawlessly sculpted humanoid so squarely planted in Johnson’s sweet spot—melodramatic, archly brutal action cinema with enough wit and heart to leave a bruise—a Johnson film without him as the protagonist doesn’t quite feel fully realized. Look only to Triple Threat, Avengement’s 2019 predecessor, to yearn for what could have been, mollified by a scene in which Adkins body slams a sedan going at least 40 mph. Triple Threat boasts three writers and a cavalcade of international action cinema stars, from Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa, to Tiger Chen and Michael Jai White (still in decent shape, but so outclassed by Adkins and his peers’ athleticism he seems pretty much immobile), while in Avengement Johnson works from his own script, winnowing the plot to a series of increasingly higher stakes brawls as wronged nobody Cain (Adkins) makes his bloody way through the criminal organization (led by his brother, no less) that left him to rot in prison. As is the case with Savage Dog and The Debt Collector (both on Netflix), Avengement thrives on the preternatural chemistry between director and star, the camera remarkably calm as it captures every amazing inch of Adkins in motion, beating the living shit out of each chump he encounters, Adkins just as aware of how best to stand and pose and flex to showcase his body. Charming character actors cheer from the sidelines; the plot functions so fundamentally we hardly realize we care about these characters until we’ve reached a satisfying end at their sides. Perhaps Scott Adkins is a better dramatist than we’ve come to expect from our kinetic stars anymore. Perhaps we’ve set our expectations too low. —Dom Sinacola


Space Sweepers

space-sweepers-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Jo Sung-hee
Stars: Song Joong-ki, Kim Tae-ri, Jin Seon-kyu, Yoo Hae-jin
Rating: NR
Runtime: 136 minutes

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Netflix introduced its audience to Southeast Asian big-budget sci-fi with the Chinese film The Wandering Earth, a mess of a story that was still beautiful to look at. Space Sweepers, from Korean filmmaker Jo Sung-hee, is a much more cohesive and coherent offering with just as much flash. The dystopian setting sees the head of a giant tech company creating an Eden on Mars, essentially consigning most of humanity to poverty and pollution. A ragtag team of space-junk collectors is each looking after their own self-interest when they find a mysterious young girl who entangles them in much larger worries. With compelling characters, thrilling action sequences and an engaging plot, it’s a strong entry for Korea’s first sci-fi blockbuster. —Josh Jackson


Best of the Best

best-of-the-best-poster.jpg Year: 1989
Director: Bob Radler
Stars: Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Sally Kirkland, Christopher Penn
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 97 minutes

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A hilariously sincere American cheese-fest, Best of the Best is essentially Cool Runnings, except the stakes are a life-and-death martial arts tournament against that evil foreign superpower we all love so much: Korea. It’s a story about an American team of martial artists thrown together from the dregs of society—“they’re a ragtag bunch of misfits!” There’s the street fighter from Detroit, the guy who’s a cowboy for some reason, the grizzled veteran/widower, and, of course, the young kid seeking vengeance for the death of his brother at the hand of the Korean leader, who, I shit you not, wears an eyepatch while fighting. The ending in particular is pure schmaltz: Rather than give in to hate and kill his opponent in the ring, our hero lets Team Korea win to keep his honor. And then the Koreans apologize, hand the Americans their medals, and everyone hugs it out. With James Earl Jones as the coach who yells stuff! —Jim Vorel


Army of Thieves

army-of-thieves-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Matthias Schweighöfer
Stars: Matthias Schweighöfer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Stuart Martin, Guz Khan, Ruby O. Fee, Jonathan Cohen
Rating: TV-MA
Runtime: 129 minutes

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Army of the Dead is a film full of pleasant surprises, but Matthias Schweighöfer, playing a German safecracker with a hair-trigger for impassioned speeches about locks and bolts, is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of them all. The man has a twitchy sort of charm easily misidentified as “quirkiness.” In reality he’s well-mannered to a fault and polite to the point of timidity, but with one other propulsive quality buried beneath the affable veneer: Intensity. Everything Schweighöfer does in Army of the Dead is informed by a vigor belied by his nervousness. He’s a squirrely burglar, quivering one moment over flesh-eating ghouls and doing a heroic sacrifice the next. This intensity carries over into Army of Thieves, the prequel film to Army of the Dead, where Schweighöfer replaces Zack Snyder in the director’s chair. To allay any fears that Schweighöfer might copy Snyder’s style, don’t worry: Schweighöfer is not Zack Snyder, because nobody is. Everything that singled out Schweighöfer’s work under Snyder’s guidance is infused into Army of Thieves on a molecular level, as if he managed to get his hands on Shay Hatten’s screenplay and bleed all over its pages. Army of Thieves replaces the doom, gloom and zombie chaos with deep-rooted joy, as if Schweighöfer, behind the camera, can scarcely believe he’s directing a film this big established by a filmmaker like Snyder. It’s impossible to resist that sort of bubbly, crackling enthusiasm, which makes Army of Thieves’ predictable elements easier to countenance. —Andy Crump


Project Power

project-power.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback
Rating: R
Runtime: 111 minutes

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Take a pill, get a new superpower for five minutes. It’s not the most original concept for a sci-fi film, but it should have been enough to lay the groundwork for a fun-if-not-groundbreaking two hours on the couch. Unfortunately not even the cast of usually charismatic actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jamie Foxx could save this dull affair. Instead of an array of imaginative new superpowers, we get to see no more than about a half dozen people take the pill. And while it’s refreshing to see a film like this set in one of America’s most unique cities, even New Orleans gets short shrift here. The brightest moments in the movie are when Dominique Fishback takes center stage as Robin, whether she’s freestyle rapping or connecting with Foxx’s damaged military test subject, Art. —Josh Jackson


Shadow

shadow-yimou-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Zhang Yimou
Stars: Chao Deng, Sun Li, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Xiaotong Guan, Wang Jingchung
Rating: NR
Runtime: 115 minutes

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Zhang Yimou’s latest is Shadow, a wuxia film based on the Chinese “Three Kingdoms” legend. Where Yimou’s recent filmography either favors substance over dazzle (Coming Home) or dazzle over substance (The Great Wall), Shadow does what the best of his movies do by sewing them together into one seamless package. As in Hero, as in House of Flying Daggers, the anti-gravity fight scenes are stunning to behold, but those movies put performance and action on the same plane, and Shadow deliberately separates them with a gorgeous monochrome palette, backgrounded by gray scale that lets the actors, and the copious amount of blood they spill throughout, hold its forefront. Here, in this tale of palace intrigue, Commander Yu (Deng Chao) employs a double to act in his stead (also Deng Chao)—his shadow, if you will—to seize control of a city of strategic value from invading forces against orders from his king (Zheng Kai). The film twists and turns, but through Zhang’s devoted stylization, the intricacies never overwhelm. Instead, the stylization does. —Andy Crump


Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro

cagliostro.jpg Year: 1979
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Yasuo Yamada, Eiko Masuyama, Kiyoshi Kobayashi, Makio Inoue, Goro Naya
Rating: NR
Runtime: 100 minutes

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The nature of Miyazaki’s oeuvre is such that it brims with an embarrassment of riches, each film in its own part situated indelibly into the continuum that is the anime canon. His films garner so much acclaim for their visual storytelling and emotional virtuosity that even those few that could be considered his “worst” movies still rank leagues above those animators who only aspire to his status. Case in point: Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. Miyazaki’s take on Kazuhiko Kato’s notorious master criminal is at once a rip-roaring heist film with heart and what might arguably be Miyazaki’s lesser films. Chalk it up to Miyazaki’s nascent efforts as a director; Castle of Cagliostro suffers from a plodding middle half and a disappointingly simplistic antagonist while still somehow managing to sparkle with his signature charm peeking through the baggage of a preexisting work. Fans of the series passionately criticized the film for relieving Lupin of his anarchic predilections and instead casting him in the mold of a true gentleman thief, stealing only when his nebulous sense of honor permits it. In any case, The Castle of Cagliostro remains an important and essential artifact of Miyazaki’s proto-Ghibli work. A flawed Miyazaki film is a triumph all the same. —Toussaint Egan


Ip Man

ip-man.jpg Year: 2008
Director: Wilson Yip
Stars: Donnie Yen, Lynn Hung, Dennis To, Syun-Wong Fen, Simon Yam, Gordon Lam
Rating: R
Runtime: 106 minutes

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2008’s Ip Man marked, finally, the moment when the truly excellent but never fairly regarded Donnie Yen came into his own, playing a loosely biographical version of the legendary grandmaster of Wing Chung and teacher of a number of future martial arts masters (one of whom was Bruce Lee). In Foshan (a city famous for martial arts in southern/central China), an unassuming practitioner of Wing Chung tries to weather the 1937 Japanese invasion and occupation of China peacefully, but is eventually forced into action. Limb-breaking, face-pulverizing action fills this semi-historical film, which succeeds gloriously both as compelling drama and martial arts fan-bait. —K. Alexander Smith


Headshot

headshot poster (Custom).jpg Year: 2017
Director: Timo Tjahjanto, Kimo Stamboel
Stars: Iko Uwais, Sunny Pang, Chelsea Islan, Julie Estelle, Zack Lee, Very Tri Yulisman, David Hendrawan
Rating: NR
Runtime: 118 minutes

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Anyone familiar with the tropes of this kind of flick can pretty easily guess that Ishmael (Iko Uwais) is a veritable killing machine, a man bred to wreck any poor bastard fool enough to tangle with him. The film takes his backstory beyond the edges of obviousness, though, eventually landing somewhere in the same neighborhood as movies like Louis Leterier’s Unleashed (a.k.a. Danny the Dog), where childhood innocence is tied to adult barbarity. Headshot is surprisingly melancholic, an actioner built to break hearts as easily as Uwais breaks bones, characters paying for the crimes of their past with their lives in the present. In several instances, innocent people end up paying, too: Lee’s thugs hijack a bus on its way to Jakarta, intending on finding Ishmael. When they realize he isn’t aboard, they murder the other passengers and burn the evidence, which just adds to Ishmael’s moral onus. Odds are that you’re not tuning into Headshot for the story, of course. The good news is that the film delivers in the ass-kicking department. The better news, perhaps, is that Tjahjanto and Stamboel have outdone Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2’s bloated fusion of story and action. Headshot clocks in at only 118 minutes and spaces out narrative beats and beatings beautifully, developing the harrowing truth of Ishmael’s upbringing without either belaboring the point or denying the audience the thrill of unhinged but precisely choreographed martial arts violence. Broad swaths of the action movie canon are fist-pumping shindigs that celebrate good guys serving bad guys their just desserts. In Headshot, as in the films of Evans, the action snatches the breath out of our lungs. The end of each fight relieves us of our ratcheting anxiety. Coupling that dynamic with the emotional substance of Ishmael’s existential woe makes the film a soul-rattling, hand-wringing affair made with Tjahjanto and Stamboel’s daringly aggressive sense of craft. You’ll nearly wish that more filmmakers shot action movies the way this duo does—but your nerves probably couldn’t take it if they did.—Andy Crump


The Debt Collector

debt-collector-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Jesse V. Johnson
Stars: Scott Adkins, Tony Todd, Michael Paré, Louis Mandylor, Selina Lo, Vladimir Kulich
Rating: NR
Runtime: 97 minutes

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Playing out like an escalating series of boss battles throughout L.A.’s seedier side, impossibly dependable action director Jesse V. Johnson’s The Debt Collector follows a cash-strapped Iraq-vet-turned-martial-arts-instructor, French (Johnson mainstay Scott Adkins), trying to keep his dojo afloat by making a few collection runs for a local mobster (Vladimir Kulich). As French learns about the vocation of sleazebag-on-sleazebag violence alongside perpetually clammy Sue (Louis Mandylor), a long-time loanshark enforcer more than willing to let French do all the work (i.e., beating the bejeezus out of dips who owe their boss money), Johnson compiles a surprisingly broad glimpse of a City of Angels that’s gotten used to feeling desperate, palm trees limning a world greased with intimidation and built on casual violence. As such, every encounter—in which French pummels increasingly unpummelable human edifices, whatever room they fight within just torn to pieces—could be French’s last, the moral implications of his job catching up to him with every shattered jaw or devastated collar bone. Choreographed by Luke LaFontaine, the battles within lack the grace of many of Johnson’s outings with Adkins, but that’s probably intended: Pulling from ’90s buddy action flicks and inching at a sweaty homage that lands somewhere between Tony Scott and Luc Besson, Johnson can’t help but capture Adkins in motion with an intuition, pace and sense of place that lifts The Debt Collector from VOD time-filler to yet another microbudget triumph care of one of best action auteurs we’ve got working right now. —Dom Sinacola