The Best Action Movies on Netflix Right Now (September 2020)

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The Best Action Movies on Netflix Right Now (September 2020)

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 recently released 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.

Also new this month: Jurassic Park, baby!

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

Watch on Netflix

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


Jurassic Park

jurassic-park-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1994
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Samuel L. Jackson, BD Wong, Wayne Knight
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 126 minutes

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Jurassic Park’s standing as a technical milestone in cinematic storytelling isn’t only dependent on its then-revolutionary use of computer generated imagery: The special effects look as groundbreaking and seamless today as they did 25 years ago. The magic behind the film’s ability to bring dinosaurs to life could be in Spielberg’s expertise in approaching special effects on a shot-by-shot basis, merging each sequence with reliable miniature and animatronic work, making the connective tissue between these tricks as unnoticeable as possible. More than an achievement, Jurassic Park is an infinitely fun action adventure that also manages to insert some prescient themes into the mix—like whether or not humanity should interfere, on a deeply intimate level, with Nature—affording a moral angle that the sequels have pretty much abandoned or just plain bungled so far. —Oktay Ege Kozak


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


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


Casino Royale

casino-royale-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2006
Director: Martin Campbell
Stars: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 144 minutes

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With a crag-like, angular face, a sculpted body and the venomous delivery of “Does it look like I give a damn?” when asked about whether he wants his martini shaken or stirred, the James Bond of Casino Royale (Daniel Craig) is as broken, and deliriously determined to keep going, as the (deliberately post-9/11) world around him. The 21st entry into the then-40-plus-year-old franchise was more than just a reboot, and more than just a back to basics—it was a recalculation of what Bond would have to mean to the culture around him. And while what makes the character and the series interesting is this need to be reactive to the culture, Casino Royale insists that the audience, in addition to Bond himself, can feel every gut punch, kick, gunshot, wave of nausea, wave of paranoia and, perhaps most importantly, every heartbreak. Sent on his first mission as a double-0 agent to win a poker game with a man who’s financing terrorism, this Bond is most visceral as one with folly, mistakes and hubris. He makes risky bets, he jumps the gun, he exposes his heart. Craig established himself as a James Bond of the Fleming vein, not the wise-cracking, invincible superhero Bond had become over the course of the series, but flawed, mean, a tender bastard not yet used to the traumatic, unforgiving experiences of being the hired gun of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Mixing maximalist set pieces and the high tension drama of psychosexual mind games, Casino Royale gives Bond grit, a splintered heart and a palpable sense of mortality. —Kyle Turner


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

good-bad-ugly-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1966
Director: Sergio Leone
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach
Rating: R
Runtime: 161 minutes

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Arguably the greatest of the Italian Westerns, but also one of the finest Westerns ever made. Leone’s penchant for turning the genre’s sacred themes and obsessions inside out goes full tilt here. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are back for this third Dollars movie, but the addition of Eli Wallach adds a significant amount of caustic humor and even more cynicism to the mix. Set during the Civil War, though in a dry, barren landscape resembling the surreal panels of a Krazy Kat cartoon more than historical reality, Leone’s epic is the sublime, gloriously cinematic creation that he was always gunning for. Composer Ennio Morricone’s score ties it all together, particularly in the orgasmic “Ecstasy of Gold” finale. The director may have gone even more baroque with his subsequent Once Upon a Time in the West, but this is still his greatest achievement. Pop culture and the genre were never the same. —Derek Hill


Haywire

haywire-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Gina Carano, Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton
Rating: R
Runtime: 93 minutes

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With a needlessly complicated plot and a big enough budget to accommodate it, Steven Soderbergh’s take on DTV action thrillers seems to exist for the sake of refuting most established rules of DTV action-thriller filmmaking. Soderbergh doesn’t just break the 180-degree line, he shatters it repeatedly, but rather than strand the viewer in an amorphous geographic space while two people confusingly beat the pulp from each other, he offers up a singular cinematic language that thrives on both visceral style and astounding clarity. “No you shouldn’t think of her as being a woman. No, that would be a mistake,” slippery government operative Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) advises spy assassin (or assassin spy?) Paul (Michael Fassbender) about Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), our rogue and extremely capable hero. So Haywire proceeds, as Kenneth gets over getting dumped by Mallory by conspiring to kill her. Against the grain of Olivier Megaton’s nauseating Taken movies and Paul Greengrass’s inscrutable Bourne installments, Soderbergh follows Mallory from dingy European hallway to small diner in upstate new York to nice hotel room in Dublin, the empirical nature of the locations and the immediate athleticism of her brawls—typically just Carano and an A-list actor game to get grody—keeping all the action understandable even as it’s endlessly thrilling. Soderbergh trusts his audience to intuit what’s going on, and even if you don’t follow the international espionage plot, the violence tells a story known well enough: Mallory must prove herself at every confrontation, underestimated by every man she pummels her way through, punished for ever trusting them in the first place. It’s bleak, maybe, but it’s also really satisfying to watch her kick the shit out of some cops. —Dom Sinacola


Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

spider-man-spider-verse-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Stars: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin
Rating: PG
Runtime: 100 minutes

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There are, rarely, films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where ingredients, execution and imagination all come together in a manner that’s engaging, surprising and, most of all, fun. Directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey, writer-director Rodney Rothman, and writer Phil Lord have made a film that lives up to all the adjectives one associates with Marvel’s iconic wallcrawler. Amazing. Spectacular. Superior. (Even “Friendly” and “Neighborhood” fit.) Along the way, Into the Spider-Verse shoulders the immense Spider-Man mythos like it’s a half-empty backpack on its way to providing Miles Morales with one of the most textured, loving origin stories in the superhero genre. Plenty of action films with much less complicated plots and fewer characters to juggle have failed, but this one spins order from the potential chaos using some comic-inspired narrative devices that seamlessly embed the needed exposition into the story. It also provides simultaneous master classes in genre filmmaking. Have you been wondering how best to intersperse humor into a storyline crowded with action and heavy emotional arcs? Start here. Do you need to bring together a diverse collection of characters, nimbly move them (together and separately) from setting to setting and band them together in a way that the audience doesn’t question? Take notes. Do you have an outlandish, fantastical concept that you need to communicate to the viewers (and characters) without bogging down the rest of the story? This is one way to do it. Would you like to make an instant contemporary animated classic? Look (and listen). —Michael Burgin


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


Starship Troopers

starship-troopers.jpg Year: 1997
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards
Rating: R
Runtime: 129 minutes

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Glistening agitprop after-school special and gross-ass bacchanalia, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers delights in the ultraviolence it doles out in heavy spurts—but then chastises itself for having so much fun with something so wrong. Telling the story of a cadre of extremely attractive upper-middle-class white teens (played by shiny adults Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Nina Meyers, Jake Busey and Neil Patrick Harris) who get their cherries popped and then ground into hamburger inside the abattoir of interstellar war, Verhoeven cruises through the many tones of bellicose filmmaking: hawkish propaganda, gritty action setpieces and thrilling adventure sequences, all of it accompanied by plenty of gut-churning CGI, giant space bugs and human heads alike exploding without shame or recourse or respect for basic physics and human empathy. As much a bloodletting of Verhoeven’s childhood trauma, forged in the fascist mill of World War II Europe, as a critique of Hollywood’s cavalier attitude toward violence and uniformly heroic depictions of the military, the sci-fi spectacle can’t help but arrive at the same place no matter which angle one takes: geeked out on some hardcore cinematic mayhem. —Dom Sinacola


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


The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

36th-chamber-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1978
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Stars: Gordon Liu, Lo Lieh, Norman Chu, Lau Kar-wing
Rating: R
Runtime: 109 minutes

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This is why any kung fu fan will always love Gordon Liu. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is as classic as it gets: the definitive Shaolin movie, without a doubt, and the source of Liu’s nickname, “Master Killer.” He plays San Te, a young student wounded when his school is culled by the Manchu government, so he flees to the refuge of the Shaolin temple. After toiling as a laborer, he finally earns the right to learn kung fu, which begins the film’s famous training sequences. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is the rare film where those training sequences actually outshine its traditional fights, because they’re just so beautiful, fluid and inventive. In each of the 36 chambers, San Te must toil to discipline his body, mind, reflexes and will. They make up the whole center of the film, and are unforgettable, bearing an iconic gravitas, imbuing kung fu with a great dignity. Because true kung fu can only be attained through the greatest of sacrifice. —Jim Vorel


The Five Venoms

five-venoms-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1978
Director: Chang Cheh
Stars: Chang Cheh, Chien Sun, Pai Wei, Sheng Chiang, Philip Kwok, Kuo Chue
Rating: R
Runtime: 102 minutes

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This is what vintage kung fu—and martial arts cinema—is all about. The mythology alone is exquisite: The Five Venoms (aka Five Deadly Venoms) is the first Venom Mob film, and gave each of them a name for the rest of their careers. There’s the blinding speed of the Centipede (Lu Feng), the trickery and guile of the Snake (Wei Pei), the stinging kicks of the Scorpion (Sun Chien), the wall-climbing and gravity-defying acrobatics of the Lizard Kuo Chui), and the nigh-invincibility of the Toad (Lo Mang), along with the so-called “hybrid venom” protagonist, Yang Tieh (Chiang Sheng), who is a novice in all of the styles. It’s a film typical of both Chang Cheh and the Shaw Brothers: high budget, great costumes, beautiful sets and stylish action. Is it on the cheesy side? Sure, but how many great martial arts films are completely dour? It’s emblematic of an entire era of Hong Kong cinema and the joy taken in delivering beautiful choreography and timeless stories of good vs. evil. —Jim Vorel


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


The Grandmaster

grandmaster.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Kar Wai Wong
Stars: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Cung Le, Hye-Kyo Song
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 130 minutes

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Kar Wai Wong will indefatigably make anything elegant, and so it’s a given that The Grandmaster is a gorgeously paced historical epic told in patient piecemeal. A loose chronicle of the nascent legend of Yip Man, the film skirts the line between noir-ish tragedy and chiaroscuro thriller, rarely leaving room to discern the difference. From an opening set-piece that will leave you wondering why any other director since would ever bother capturing rain droplets in slo-motion, to one masterfully orchestrated balsa-wood-tower of martial arts prowess after another, there is little left to say about Wong’s directing other than hyperbole: This is heartfelt and beautiful action filmmaking, but never so far removed from the savagery of the action at hand that it romanticizes the pummeling of so many hapless foes. There are penalties to these punches and consequences to these kicks—there should be little doubt that The Grandmaster is not just a masterpiece of its genre but one of Kar Wai Wong’s best. —Dom Sinacola


Bloodsport

bloodsport-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1988
Director: Newt Arnold
Stars: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Leah Ayres, Donald Gibb
Rating: R
Runtime: 92 minutes

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There are tomes to be written and classes to be taught on the perplexing existence of Bloodsport—purportedly our current President’s favorite movie, if one were to fast-forward through the talking parts, directed by an adult man named Newt—but perhaps the film is best summarized in one moment: the infamous Scream. Because in these 40 seconds or so, the heart and soul of Bloodsport is bared, with little concern for taste, or purpose, or respect for the physically binding laws of reality—in this moment is a burgeoning movie star channeling his best attributes (astounding muscles; years of suppressed rage; the juxtaposition of grace and violence that is his well-oiled and cleanly shaven corporeal form) to make a go at real-live Hollywood acting. Although Bloodsport is the movie that announced Jean-Claude Van Damme and his impenetrable accent to the world—as well as serving as the crucible for (seriously) every single plot of every Van Damme movie to come—it’s also a defining film of the decade, positioning martial arts as certifiable blockbuster action cinema. Schwarzenegger and Stallone? These were beefy mooks that could believably be action stars. Van Damme set the bar higher: His body became a better and bloodier weapon than any hand-cannon that previous mumbling, ’80s box-office draws could ever wield. —Dom Sinacola


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


Kung Fu Hustle

KungFuHustleHKposter.jpg Year: 2004
Director: Stephen Chow
Stars: Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen, Shengyi Huang, Kwok-Kwan Chan
Rating: R
Runtime: 95 minutes

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Stephen Chow is probably the biggest name in martial arts comedy since the days of Sammo Hung, and Kung Fu Hustle will likely remain one of his most well-regarded films—both as director and performer. Gleefully kooky, the film combines occasional song and dance with expectedly extremely exaggerated kung fu parody in telling the tale of a young man who ends up overthrowing a large criminal organization, the “Deadly Axe Gang.” This is nothing complex—rather, Kung Fu Hustle is unadulterated absurdity: The action has no basis in reality, reveling in Looney Tunes physics, while characters are broad pastiches and/or references to famous actors from the genre’s history. With gags teetering decidedly on the juvenile (or inscrutable, for Americans at least) side, the film is a testament to Chow’s style—entertain first, make sense later. That’s what he does, and he does it better than anyone else. —Jim Vorel


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


Raiders of the Lost Ark

raiders-of-the-lost-ark.jpg Year: 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Wolf Kahler, Ronald Lacey
Rating: PG
Runtime: 115 minutes

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A near-perfect distillation of the excitement and fun of the radio and pulp serials of yesteryear, Raiders of the Lost Ark established Harrison Ford’s wookie-free leading man credentials once and for all (with an assist from Blade Runner). The film also raises the question: Has anyone had a more impressive, more industry-transformative five-year run than Spielberg and Lucas did from 1977-1982? —Michael Burgin


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


Five Elements Ninjas

five-elements-ninjas.jpg Year: 1982
Director: Chang Cheh
Stars: Cheng Tien Chi, Lo Mang, Michael Chan, Chan Shen, Chen Pei-Hsi, Kwan Fung
Rating: NR
Runtime: 104 minutes

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This was Cheh’s swan song with the Shaw Brothers, as tastes were changing and leaving the costumed period pieces behind—but man, it’s a doozy, one of the most ludicrous kung fu films ever made. This is the essence of Saturday morning kung fu theater in America, but if you only saw it that way, it’s doing the film a disservice, because you’re likely to miss out on the surprising and sometimes comical gore of the fight scenes. The story revolves around a few young fighters seeking vengeance against a ninja clan that massacred their classmates, but it’s the villains that really stand out. Each group of ninjas has their own absurd costumes and ridiculous quirks: Gold ninjas use their shields to blind enemies; water ninjas use snorkels and pull opponents underwater to drown them; fire ninjas use smoke shields to hide and move; wood ninjas pose as trees and use claws to slash and tear; and finally, the supremely goofy earth ninjas are somehow able to tunnel through solid soil like freaking earthworms and explode out of the ground with an almighty bang. Five Element Ninjas is as crazy as kung fu gets, but you’ve got to love it for its entertaining excesses. —Jim Vorel


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


Okja

okja-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Woo Shik Choi, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal
Rating: NR
Runtime: 118 minutes

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Okja takes more creative risks in its first five minutes than most films take over their entire span, and it doesn’t let up from there. What appears to be a sticking point for some critics and audiences, particularly Western ones, is the seemingly erratic tone, from sentiment to suspense to giddy action to whimsy to horror to whatever it is Jake Gyllenhaal is doing. But this is part and parcel with what makes Bong Joon-ho movies, well, Bong Joon-ho movies: They’re nuanced and complex, but they aren’t exactly subtle or restrained. They have attention to detail, but they are not delicate in their handling. They have multiple intentions, and they bring those intentions together to jam. They are imaginative works that craft momentum through part-counterpart alternations, and Okja is perhaps the finest example yet of the wild pendulum swing of a Bong film’s rhythmic tonality. Okja is also not a film about veganism, but it is a film that asks how we can find integrity and, above all, how we can act humanely towards other creatures, humans included. The answers Okja reaches are simple and vital, and without really speaking them it helps you hear those answers for yourself because it has asked all the right questions, and it has asked them in a way that is intensely engaging. —Chad Betz


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


Legendary Weapons of China

legendary weapons of china poster (Custom).jpg Year: 1982
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Stars: Gordon Liu, Lau Kar-leung, Lau Kar-wing, Hsiao Ho, Hui Ying Hung
Rating: NR
Runtime: 110 minutes

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Though a bit of a storytelling Gordian knot, Legendary Weapons of China’s interconnected plots makes for tons of colorful characters and combat. Its main narrative revolves around a group of “spiritual boxers,” martial artists attempting to train their bodies to resist the bullets of Western imperialist guns, committed also to hunting down former members of the group who have since admitted that stopping a bullet by flexing your abs probably isn’t possible. The film’s real attraction is the incredible array of styles: Ti Tan the impenetrable monk played by Gordon Liu, Maoshan “magic boxers” and more. As if that’s not enough, you also have the reason for the title: This film highlights the styles and uses of traditional Chinese weaponry better than few others of its ilk. Lau Kar-leung features 18 different weapons in total, many during the epic final scene where the hero and villain cycle through all of the legendary weapons as they probe the strengths and weaknesses of each bit of armament. It’s magnificent. —Jim Vorel


Angel Has Fallen

angel-has-fallen-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Stars: Gerard Butler, Nick Nolte, Morgan Freeman, Piper Perabo, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lance Reddick, Danny Huston
Rating: R
Runtime: 120 minutes

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If the Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) of London Has Fallen was a Jack Bauer for the Trump era—belligerently and relentlessly violent, doubling down on absolutely everything, “thirsty as fuck”—then the Mike Banning of Angel Has Fallen is a Jack Bauer for whatever moribund purgatory we currently endure. In Angel Has Fallen, our good big rectangle boy Mike Banning’s body is an open sore, his head a steaming pile of CTE and PTSD, the whole movie a sometimes weirdly somber affair about the toll of violence. (The last line of the movie is Nick Nolte announcing he’s going to pee himself.) Director Roman Ric Waugh’s introduction of Mike Banning this time around foregrounds the man’s physical dissolution: Stricken by frequent migraines and constant back pain, only symptoms of deeper issues to come, our hero denies pleas from his doctor to quit his taxing job as his best friend the President’s personal heavy. To his credit, Gerard Butler has settled well into his late-40s body; he is a massive block of cheese, and as Mike Banning he’s learned how to wield that bulk to empathetic ends, embracing the misery of his character’s day-to-day existence. We feel for Mike Banning here more than in any other installment, because Butler carries him like he’s seriously struggling, gritting his teeth and holding conversations seemingly staring through a fog. The man hurts. While Olympus Has Fallen sequel London Has Fallen gave Iranian-Swedish director Babak Najafi the chance to push Banning to gleefully needless extremes, Waugh complements his predecessor by attempting something subtler and smaller: to slow Mike Banning down without wrenching the franchise to a halt. Angel Has Fallen isn’t a drastic reimagining of the Fallen mythos, more a simplification, a head-stab at some intimacy. —Dom Sinacola

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