Few other movie types have endured like the action genre. Ever since silent-film star Douglas Fairbanks first breathed life into Robin Hood, audiences have flocked in their millions to see daring deeds displayed on the big screen. And considering the fact that action films still consistently bring in big bucks at the box office, it’s safe to say that they’re here for the long haul.
The movie theater isn’t the only place where these films rule, though. After all, at any one time Netflix’s roster of action flicks far outstrips that of any multiplex. And given the sheer excellence of the following heart-racing titles, you’ll probably never need to leave the house again to get your fix. Here’s our comprehensive guide to the very best action movies on Netflix as of November 6, 2019.
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If you like to settle down from time to time with a classic, too, then take a look at our list of “The 50 Best Movies On Netflix Right Now.” If you need a flick to entertain the kids, on the other hand, then check out our list of “The 25 Best Family Movies On Netflix Right Now.” Just want to laugh? Then look at our list of “The 25 Best Comedy Movies On Netflix Right Now.” And for fans of fantasy, there’s also our guide to “The 25 Best Sci-Fi Movies On Netflix Right Now.”
However, if you’re a lover as well as a fighter, then you should see our list of “The 25 Best Romantic Movies On Netflix Right Now.” Fans of spooks and scares, meanwhile, should head right over to “The 25 Best Horror Movies On Netflix Right Now.” More up for nailbiting tension? Then check out “The 25 Best Thriller Movies On Netflix Right Now.” Want to see what life is like on the front line? March right over to “The 25 Best War Movies On Netflix Right Now.” And for the cream of the most recent releases, take a look at our list of “The 25 Best New Movies On Netflix Right Now.”
To establish which action movies should be included on this list, we first turned to New on Netflix USA’s ratings of action and adventure films currently available on Netflix. We then selected the 25 action films with the highest scores on that site. In addition, we conducted our own independent research to ensure that we featured only the very best movies out there.
To establish our ranking, we then gathered ratings for those 25 movies from each of the following touchstone sites: IMDb, Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. Any film for which only an IMDb rating was available was subsequently disqualified; and this was also the case for any movie with a Rotten Tomatoes rating based on fewer than 15 reviews.
The ratings were then combined to give each movie an average score out of 100, and the 25 action films with the highest average scores were concluded to be the best currently streaming on Netflix in the U.S. These scores also, of course, determined the final ordering of the movies.
25. Ip Man (2008)
As undoubtedly one of cinema’s greatest martial artists, Bruce Lee left a legacy like few others have. However, Lee might not have excelled without his teacher, Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man – the central figure of this Wilson Yip-directed biopic. Featuring Donnie Yen in the title role, the film documents Ip’s exploits during Japan’s occupation of China prior to WWII. And while some of the on-screen fights may seem unbelievable, Ip Man was filmed with one eye on the truth. Ip’s son Ip Chun was even brought aboard as an advisor to ensure that his father’s tale was told faithfully; and star Yen certainly believes the final product is successful in that aim. “I think we did justice to… his real story,” the actor told website easternKicks in 2009. Ip Man has spawned two sequels since its 2008 release and is a must-see for lovers of kung fu.
24. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Michael Cera may not seem an obvious action star, but the actor kicked butt in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – a relatively faithful adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel and certainly currently among the best action movies on Netflix. Perhaps it helps that Cera wasn’t cast as a macho meathead; instead, he plays an ambitionless indie musician who’s forced into combat against his new girlfriend’s evil ex-partners. Yet while Cera shines as Pilgrim, it’s Edgar Wright’s direction that really sets the film apart; that and Pilgrim’s sheer energy and wit, which are both in abundance. Given all of this, it’s no surprise, then, that the movie has picked up plenty of fans. And these include director Kevin Smith, who following a screening of Pilgrim told The Film Stage, “That movie is great. It’s spellbinding, and nobody is going to understand what the f*** just hit them.”
23. Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018)
A feature-length offshoot of the Ip Man movies, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy sees wushu expert Max Zhang take the reins from series star Donnie Yen. And, of course, Zhang – who once again portrays Cheung Tin-chi – had some hefty shoes to fill. After all, not only did the actor need to prove his worth as a leading man, but he also had to face off against Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa and Dave Bautista on screen – and fighting with such action stalwarts was no easy feat. Indeed, in a 2018 interview with the South China Morning Post Zhang admitted that ex-wrestler Bautista’s massive frame had actually “scared” him. But under Yuen Woo-ping’s direction, the star more than matched the masters in a film that the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan has called “a complete tonic” for any action fan.
22. Black Hawk Down (2001)
Films based on real-life events arguably tend to focus more on drama than thrills. Yet Black Hawk Down mines just as much action as emotion from its depiction of the deadly 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. This real-life conflict saw elite U.S. soldiers trapped in the Somalian capital following a botched raid during the country’s civil war. And Ridley Scott’s war film subsequently received particular acclaim for its frenetic editing and sound design – both of which bagged Academy Awards. What’s more, even though the picture was criticized for presenting a seemingly unfavorable view of Somalians, according to the Chicago Tribune, at least, Black Hawk Down “presents its subject so horrifyingly well that it doesn’t need to probe or preach.”
21. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Following Scott Lang’s mysterious absence from 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel fans were left wondering as to Ant-Man’s whereabouts. They didn’t have to wait long for the diminutive superhero to return, however; Ant-Man and the Wasp – a follow-up to 2015’s Ant-Man – hit movie theaters just months after its MCU predecessor. And this time around, Lang (Paul Rudd) is joined by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), whose promotion from sidekick to co-lead made her alter ego, the Wasp, the first female hero ever to be named in an MCU movie title. What’s more, Marvel’s decision apparently paid off at the box office; the Peyton Reed-directed film went on to bring in more than $622 million worldwide.
20. The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
The Legend of Drunken Master is a pure spectacle of physical action and arguably among Jackie Chan’s greatest works to date. The martial arts extravaganza is a worthy follow-up, then, to its predecessor, Drunken Master – which is fortunate in light of the 16-year gap between the two films’ releases. And, in fact, U.S. fans had even longer to wait to see Chan on screen again as hero Wong Fei-hung, since the flick only made it to American movie theaters in 2000 – more than half a decade after debuting in Hong Kong. Still, when The Legend of Drunken Master finally did travel across the Pacific, Roger Ebert, for one, greeted it with fervor, labeling the comedy “quite simply amazing” in his 2000 review. The late critic also noted that Lau Kar-leung’s picture features “the most intricate, difficult and joyfully executed action scenes [he had] ever seen.”
19. Fearless (2006)
Prior to Fearless’s 2006 release, Jet Li claimed that the movie would be his last ever wushu – or Chinese kung fu – epic. And if that ultimately turns out to be the case, then the star went out with a bang – as the Ronny Yu-directed feature remains a treat to watch. Inspired by the life of martial artist Huo Yuanjia, Fearless paints a revealing picture of the Chinese national hero. However, it’s Li’s impeccable fight scenes – choreographed to precision by Yuen Woo-ping – that put Fearless miles beyond its peers. Perhaps inspired to witness Li’s swansong, then, Chinese fans helped make the film a blockbuster; yet Fearless also received a warm welcome on Western shores. In a review for The Seattle Times, for example, critic Mark Rahner praised the flick as “a simple but elegantly told morality tale with beautiful sets and scenery and plenty of bracing action.”
18. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Having initially received criticism for 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, director Steven Spielberg chose a different tack for the character’s third instalment. That’s why Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade steers closer thematically to the archeologist’s acclaimed 1981 debut. This time around, then, Harrison Ford’s adventurer is joined by Sean Connery, who – despite being just 12 years older than his co-star – leaves a great impression as Indy’s father. The Scottish star even picked up a Golden Globes nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance. And the feature’s action, humor and globe-trotting story have made it a fan favorite, too. In his review of the film for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers even called it “the wildest and wittiest Indy of them all.”
17. Men in Black (1997)
After starring in the smash hits Bad Boys and Independence Day, Will Smith was seemingly on course to become the world’s biggest movie star. But the actor may not have eventually reached A-list status if he’d gone through with his decision to pass on Men in Black. Why was Smith reluctant to jump on board Barry Sonnenfeld’s film? Well, as the actor himself explained in a 2019 YouTube video, his Independence Day experience had left him with no desire to play yet another extra-terrestrial wrangler. Luckily, though, executive producer Steven Spielberg convinced Smith that headlining the sci-fi comedy wouldn’t see him end up being typecast as “the alien movie guy.” The star added, “[Spielberg] said, ‘Um, do me a favor. Don’t use your brain for this one; use my brain.” And $589 million in ticket sales later, it appears that Smith ultimately made the right call.
16. Serenity (2005)
Following Firefly’s cancellation in 2002, Joss Whedon knew that he owed fans a true conclusion to the sci-fi series. So, the director met with Hollywood producer Mary Parent, who in turn saw the potential for a feature-length Firefly movie. That film is 2005’s Serenity, which continues where Firefly left off and gives Mal Reynolds – played by Nathan Fillion – and his crew of intergalactic smugglers the send-off that they deserve. And while Serenity only performed modestly with paying audiences, it has since taken on cult status; a 2007 readers’ poll by SFX magazine even saw it lauded as the greatest sci-fi film of all time. The movie has also now become a fixture of the International Space Station’s film collection thanks to astronaut Steven Swanson.
15. Furie (2019)
After coming to worldwide attention as Paige Tico in 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Veronica Ngo returned to her native Vietnam to shoot high-octane actioner Furie. In the martial arts flick, Ngo wreaks havoc as a mother searching in vain for her abducted daughter, delivering a performance that The Hollywood Reporter’s Elizabeth Kerr praised for blending “badassery with vulnerability.” And it turns out that Furie is a history-maker, too, as it became the first feature-length Vietnamese production to officially receive U.S. distribution. Naturally, then, director Lê Văn Kiệt hopes that the work will help bring his nation’s movie industry and its output to international audiences. “I always thought that things would progress slowly,” the filmmaker told the Houston Chronicle in 2019 when considering the crossover potential of Vietnamese cinema. “But now I feel that people feel like it’s a leap with this film.”
14. King Kong (2005)
Although 1933’s King Kong remains an out-and-out classic, it naturally feels a little dated today. However, the tale of a gigantic ape who is seized from an island and brought to New York City was given a fresh spin in 2005 thanks to Peter Jackson’s revival. And whereas the original monster movie used Willis H. O’Brien’s then-groundbreaking stop-motion animation, Jackson worked with motion-capture technology to bring the super-simian – played by Andy Serkis – to life. The film therefore allows for Kong to take part in some impressive set pieces, including a fight with multiple dinosaurs and an update of his iconic rampage through downtown Manhattan. Moreover, with an eventual worldwide box-office gross of $550 million, Jackson’s King Kong was certainly a hit with audiences. The movie evidently left an impression on the Academy, too, which awarded the film three Oscars in 2006.
13. Hell or High Water (2016)
Although Hell or High Water is set in the 21st century, it nevertheless owes a great deal to the Western movies that came before. And yet despite this debt, there’s a more modern twist to boot, as the Tanner brothers – played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster – resort to raiding banks after they and their family have suffered the ill effects of the Great Recession. “[There] was an opportunity to shine a light on the raw nerves of contemporary America,” director David Mackenzie told The Independent in 2017. Some of Hell or High Water’s appeal hinges too, of course, on the Robin Hood-style daring of its antiheroes. As Mackenzie added, “These people are doing bad things. But we can’t help rooting for them at the same time, because you can see why they’re doing it.”
12. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
After Iron Man made its debut back in 2008, fans had a further ten years to wait before they saw the colorful cast of the MCU finally come together on screen. The consensus, though, is that Avengers: Infinity War was worth the delay. And that’s despite the fact that the flick was undeniably a huge undertaking. A cool 76 characters assemble to defeat the villainous Thanos, in fact – a feat that led Marvel to dub the film “the most ambitious crossover event in history.” Directors Anthony and Joe Russo rose to the challenge, mind you, with the pair ultimately creating the most successful superhero movie ever made. Avengers: Infinity War broke box-office records upon its 2018 opening before going on to gross an astonishing $2 billion worldwide.
11. Kill Zone 2 (2015)
Having gained global attention in 2003’s Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, Tony Jaa is now among Eastern cinema’s most dynamic stars. Need convincing? Well, Jaa’s action chops are on full display in his 2015 Hong Kong movie debut, Kill Zone 2. That’s also despite the fact that the Thai actor ran into some initial language challenges during production; however, he later admitted that he and his co-stars – who include Wu Jing as an undercover police officer exposing an organ-trafficking ring – had found a way to make things work. “Whatever might have been missing [in] vocabulary was made up for in camaraderie,” Jaa told City on Fire in 2016. And with the website lauding Kill Zone 2 as “one of the best Hong Kong productions in years,” the movie’s star may indeed have proved that actions speak louder than words.
10. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
At one point, the Thor series of movies was arguably the most underwhelming of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, that all changed with 2017’s riotous and ribald Ragnarok. Thanks to the handiwork of director Taika Waititi, the third installment of the franchise has a far more comedic tone than that of its predecessors. Stars Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston had free rein to ad-lib their lines, too. In fact, in a 2017 interview with MTV News, Waititi estimated that “80 percent of the film” had been unscripted. Elsewhere, Ragnarok sees Cate Blanchett shine as Thor’s villainous sister Hela, who ends up banishing her heroic sibling from Asgard. And the pair’s final fight – set to Led Zeppelin’s thunderous “Immigrant Song” – stands out as possibly one of the MCU’s defining moments.
9. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Directed, partly written by and starring Stephen Chow, Kung Fu Hustle is a martial arts film like few others. You see, although the movie seemingly takes ample inspiration from the works of cinematic legends such as Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, the grotesquely cartoonish special effects here push the levels of both action and humor to outlandish new heights. And it appears that the approach resonated with Chinese moviegoers, as the 2004 release remained Hong Kong’s highest-grossing homegrown hit for nigh-on seven years. That said, Kung Fu Hustle also has its fair share of fans on the other side of the Pacific – with Bill Murray chief among them. “There should have been a day of mourning for American comedy the day that movie came out,” the actor told GQ in 2010.
8. Shadow (2018)
At the 2018 Golden Horse Awards – otherwise known as the “Chinese Oscars” – Zhang Yimou’s Shadow took home four gongs, including the coveted Best Director prize. The wuxia actioner proved a hit with the Chinese public, too, raking in around $90 million during its domestic run. And while Zhang’s blockbuster didn’t pull in a similarly hefty financial haul internationally, Western critics’ overwhelming praise may well have provided a silver lining. The Houston Chronicle’s Cary Darling was among those who waxed lyrical about the martial arts drama, labeling it “a rapturously beautiful… work combining the exquisite details of Chinese ink-brush painting with the melodramatic extravagance and suspension of disbelief of opera.” And if that description has whetted your appetite, then sit back, relax and enjoy as the deposed Commander Ziyu – played by action stalwart Deng Chao – vies to regain his honor in ancient China.
7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Upon its 2017 release, Star Wars: The Last Jedi received a cold reception from some die-hard fans. In their eyes, the series had been marred by the new movie’s occasionally humorous tone, its apparent disregard for audience expectations and – gasp – several roles for women. In spite of this backlash from a section of the Star Wars fanbase, though, The Last Jedi likely captivated others who had tired of the saga’s tropes. After all, director Rian Johnson has concocted a thrilling sci-fi adventure that also serves as something of a meta-commentary on film franchises. The Last Jedi has won over many critics, too, earning it a 91 percent “certified fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
6. The Matrix (1999)
With its wild mix of cyberpunk, martial arts and existential musings, The Matrix initially left Will Smith scratching his head. Yes, the Fresh Prince star was the Wachowskis’ first choice for lead Neo, although Smith was so puzzled by the concept for the project that he ultimately passed. This, of course, in turn paved the way for Keanu Reeves to portray the hacker who discovers that humankind has been imprisoned within a machine-built false reality – the Matrix of the title. And this big idea certainly found its audience, with the sci-fi romp bringing in takings of more than $463 million at the international box office. Not only that, but the genre-bending work virtually revolutionized cinema thanks to its mind-blowing special effects – including the now-legendary “bullet time” slo-mo sequence. Two decades on from its initial release, then, The Matrix has firmly cemented its place in action-movie history.
5. District 9 (2009)
Few action films have blended incisive social commentary and giddy thrills as effectively as Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. Based on the director’s 2006 short Alive in Joburg, the 2009 feature neatly utilizes tried-and-tested sci-fi tropes to mirror the fear and prejudice witnessed during South Africa’s history. More specifically, District 9 offers a thinly veiled attack on the apartheid system through the allegory of the segregation and subsequent mistreatment of the aliens who land on Earth. Yet such weighty concerns haven’t, it seems, limited the sci-fi movie’s appeal, as it went on to make $210 million. District 9 received four Oscar nominations, too, including one for the coveted Best Picture award.
4. Black Panther (2018)
For years, audiences waited for black characters to take center stage in a Hollywood blockbuster. Then, film fans finally got their wish in 2018 with Marvel’s Black Panther, which features a predominantly black cast. Director Ryan Coogler also apparently used Afrofuturist themes to help create the world of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa – the king and protector of the fictitious African nation Wakanda. And the movie’s astounding success may in fact mark the beginning of a change in Hollywood. Indeed, as Rolling Stone put it in 2018, Black Panther appears to point “to a new direction for depicting not only black superheroes but also how we imagine our heroes.” Nicely put. It’s certainly worth its place among the very best action movies on Netflix.
3. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
After being passed over to direct a James Bond film in the mid-1970s, director Steven Spielberg found consolation with his buddy George Lucas. The story goes that the Star Wars creator offered Spielberg the chance to collaborate on a new project – one that Lucas promised would be even more memorable than 007. And the result would arguably more than hit this lofty expectation. Inspired by the adventure serials of the filmmaking duos’ youths, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark sees Harrison Ford’s daring archeologist fight the Nazis for a mysterious relic. A recipe for success, right? Well, the beloved film launched a movie franchise worth around $2 billion in ticket sales – and its hero toppled Bond as audiences’ favorite. Indeed, in 2015 the iconic adventurer was named cinema’s greatest character by readers of Empire magazine.
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Although casual film fans often overlook world cinema, some foreign-language movies prove to be just too good for the masses to ignore. Take Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for example; Ang Lee’s picture raked in a whopping $128 million at the U.S. box office. The martial-arts flick made waves with the Academy, too, as it received a record-breaking ten Oscar nominations following its release in 2000. It must be said, then, that neither critics nor audiences seemed to be put off by the film being entirely in Mandarin Chinese. And certainly, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn’t need a common language to awe the viewer; the wirework set-pieces achieve that all on their own. Such stunts are, of course, a key component of the movie’s arresting action scenes, with Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi’s graceful fight atop bamboo trees remaining a high point of the Chinese wuxia genre.
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
After Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse hit movie theaters in 2018, some of Hollywood’s brightest lined up to sing its praises. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins dubbed the superhero saga “one of the best films this year,” for instance, while Chris Pratt labeled it a “masterpiece.” Even live-action Spider-Man star Tom Holland honored Into the Spider-Verse, calling it “one of the coolest films [he’s] ever seen.” And in 2019 Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman’s picture received arguably its highest accolade of all: an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. So, assuming all of this has convinced you to select the animated adventure for that next family movie night, you can look forward to following teen Spidey Miles Morales as he attempts to save multiple realities – and multiple Spider-characters – from being destroyed.
Not to be forgotten…
The following were previously on our list of the 25 best action movies on Netflix, but they’ve either now left the streaming service or have since been pushed out of the top 25. Even so, these films are still very much worth watching.
Rumble in the Bronx (1995)
Despite its title, 1995’s Rumble in the Bronx wasn’t shot anywhere near the Big Apple. In fact, the martial arts flick – which sees Jackie Chan’s character getting embroiled in gang warfare during a family visit to America – wasn’t filmed in the States at all; the action took place in Vancouver, Canada. But while the movie may have taken liberties with its setting, it more than makes up for this with some exhilarating action scenes. Chan, especially, was so committed to performing his own stunts that he snapped an ankle while filming one hair-raising moment. The injury may have been worth it, though, as the Stanley Tong-directed caper turned out to be the Western breakthrough that Chan had been seeking. Rumble in the Bronx’s success eventually led the martial artist to become a Hollywood celebrity via roles in the likes of 1998’s Rush Hour.
The Final Master (2015)
After detailing the life of the legendary Ip Man in 2013’s The Grandmaster, writer Xu Haofeng turned again to depicting martial arts on screen in 2015 follow-up The Final Master. But whereas Wong Kar-Wai had handled the direction of the earlier film, here Haofeng took sole responsibility; and his knack for shooting rhythmic and graceful fight scenes had a genuine impact on the final product. Following Liao Fan as an ageing Wing Chun teacher, The Final Master is notable for its realistic depiction of pre-20th-century fighting styles. Hence, Haofeng incorporated hand-to-hand and knife combat, with the director’s attention to detail arguably putting the movie above and beyond. Deservedly, then, The Final Master triumphed in the Best Action Choreography category at the 2015 Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan.
V for Vendetta (2005)
In the main, action movies don’t have a great deal to say about politics, meaning James McTeigue’s anti-establishment thriller V for Vendetta pretty much broke the mold upon its release in 2006. What’s more, the film has seemingly taken on a life of its own since first hitting movie theaters, with activists having subsequently adopted the mask worn on screen by Hugo Weaving’s titular anarchist. And the stylized image of the face of 16th-century British rebel Guy Fawkes has also in turn become a symbol used by groups such as Anonymous. For all its apparent high-mindedness, though, V for Vendetta is still a barrel of fun – as well as a fitting adaptation of Alan Moore’s explosive graphic novel. The New Statesman certainly seemed to agree in its 2006 review; indeed, the publication claimed that the movie ultimately “blows the competition out of the water.”
Although Netflix has a lot of great third-party content, the streaming service has showcased some exceptional original material of its own as well. The Jeremy Rush-directed Wheelman is a case in point. Released via the platform in 2017, this thriller features Frank Grillo as a getaway driver who is betrayed by his partners in crime. And while this conceit may seem rather clichéd, first-time director Rush upended expectations somewhat by confining the action to the inside of the driver’s car. “I don’t think I knew that it was going to be as torturous as it actually was,” Rush joked to Film School Rejects in 2017 about his movie’s technically demanding production. The director’s hard work was duly rewarded by the glowing critical reception for Wheelman, though, and the movie currently boasts a score of 87 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Triple Frontier (2019)
Back in 2010, Triple Frontier was mooted as a potential Tom Hanks vehicle. Yet when the movie finally emerged, the veteran actor wasn’t present – perhaps because production had progressed rather slowly. In any case, though, this period of development limbo may ultimately have had an upside. Netflix eventually acquired Triple Frontier, you see, and the streaming service’s approach to filmmaking appears to have given director J.C. Chandor license to push the envelope. Star Ben Affleck certainly seemed to suggest as much in a 2019 interview with Collider, saying, “Netflix has shown a willingness to break with convention [and] try unusual things.” But regardless, the picture – which sees a gang of Special Ops veterans attempt to steal a drug kingpin’s money – boasts both intelligent character development and at least one unexpected plot twist. It’s a must, then, for anyone who, as Collider put it, “enjoys a brain atop their brawn.”
The Wave (2015)
For many film and TV fans, Scandinavia is practically synonymous with crime drama. But take note: the region has also produced a pretty acclaimed action movie in Roar Uthaug’s The Wave, which was Norway’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards. Taking its cues from Hollywood disaster films such as Armageddon, The Wave follows a group of village dwellers fleeing a deadly tsunami. Yet for all the film’s spectacle, this premise isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. You see, a similar incident occurred in Norway in 1934 – and ultimately resulted in the deaths of 40 locals. Shot for a mere $6 million, Uthaug’s movie had a real impact upon its release in 2015. So much so, in fact, that it led to the director making his Hollywood breakthrough with 2018’s Tomb Raider.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Although Temple of Doom is sometimes considered the weakest of the Indiana Jones movies, Steven Spielberg’s action extravaganza remains a joy to watch. After all, while battling it out with a devilish mystical cult, Harrison Ford’s whip-wielding archeologist features in some breathtaking set pieces. And yet Temple of Doom’s most important contribution to cinema arguably isn’t that thrilling mine-cart chase; instead, it’s to do with what happened behind the scenes. Concerned over the prequel’s occasional violence, the MPAA invented the PG-13 rating system specifically for the movie – to warn parents about its often less than child-friendly content. Still, this classification may not have harmed Temple of Doom’s appeal to audiences, who ultimately steered the adventure romp to a pretty impressive $333 million box-office gross worldwide. The success of Spielberg’s picture also arguably encouraged subsequent filmmakers to create work with younger viewers in mind.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
When word got out in 2003 that Disney’s next live-action film would be based on a theme-park ride, some were skeptical – and perhaps justifiably so. But Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl managed to defy those naysayers. Led by Johnny Depp’s ultra-charismatic Jack Sparrow, the Gore Verbinski-directed swashbuckler was a critical and commercial smash upon release. It also went on to spawn a film series that has to date grossed $1.45 billion worldwide. And even four sequels in, The Curse of the Black Pearl – which sees Sparrow, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) up against a ghostly cabal of villainous sailors – remains arguably the cream of the franchise as well as one of the best adventure movies on Netflix right now.
According to Ron Perlman, Guillermo del Toro could have made Hellboy many times over before he finally sat down in the director’s chair. The reason for the hold-up? Well apparently it was all down to Perlman himself – or at least del Toro’s insistence on having him play the actioner’s eponymous half-demon. You see, although studios offered up their own flavors of the month for the title role, the filmmaker stuck to his guns. And judging by the critical reaction to the resulting movie, the gamble paid off too. Roger Ebert, for example, heaped particular praise on Perlman, claiming that the star made “an impossible character really work,” while the Chicago Reader’s J.R. Jones raved that the film’s lead made for the “most magnetic action hero… in a long while.” As fans of the original comic books will know, Hellboy sees its superhero protagonist do battle against occult forces threatening to doom the planet.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Prior to Guardians of the Galaxy’s 2014 release, some predicted that the movie would underwhelm at the box office. But, of course, the Marvel feature proved to be a startling success – one that has in turn paved the way for a whole new franchise. The 2017 sequel to the original sees Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and company now firmly established as heroes. Along the way, Quill also reunites with his dad, Ego – played by action stalwart Kurt Russell – who secretly has rather megalomaniacal intentions. And there’s some welcome character development throughout the film, to boot, not to mention those trademark touches of humor. So, while director James Gunn’s 2018 firing by Disney may have put the future of any subsequent Guardians of the Galaxy films in jeopardy, Vol. 2 at least shows just how much promise the series possesses.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
The events of standalone Star Wars saga Rogue One take place before those seen in A New Hope, with the 2016 epic having chosen to reveal how the rebels – including Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso – manage to acquire the Death Star’s plans. In contrast to the 1977 classic, though, Gareth Edwards’ movie is rather bleak in tone, and there are deaths aplenty throughout the film’s 133 minutes. Still, Rogue One doesn’t shy away from thrills either; indeed, the movie’s epic final battle on and above the planet Scarif surely ranks as among the most exciting set pieces of the Star Wars franchise. Warmly reviewed upon its release, Rogue One was also a huge hit with audiences. The film brought in an astonishing $1 billion at the worldwide box office, too.
The Raid (2011)
The Raid perfectly demonstrates why simpler is sometimes better when it comes to the big screen. You see, the 2011 feature – which was directed by Gareth Evans – takes place almost entirely in one location: a gang-infested tower block from which Iko Uwais’ cop must escape. Uwais puts in a powerhouse performance, too; watching the star’s mastery of the pencak silat fighting style is still a breathtaking experience even now. And The Raid’s mixture of blistering gunplay and hand-to-hand combat certainly seems to have found favor with Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw, who labeled the Indonesian martial arts movie “skull-splinteringly violent, uncompromisingly intense and simply brilliant.” Proof, if any were needed, that it’s among the best action movies on Netflix at present.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Revenge may often be considered a dish best served cold, but Quentin Tarantino sure turned up the heat in 2003’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1. But, that said, creating the film – which sees Uma Thurman’s Bride seek bloody vengeance after being left for dead on her wedding day – was initially daunting for the writer/director. As Tarantino admitted to IGN in 2004, he had to first get his head around penning often wordless set pieces. “I was really trying to… throw my hat in the ring with other great action directors,” the filmmaker added. Regardless, Kill Bill: Vol 1. manages to blend Tarantino’s various influences – blaxploitation films and samurai flicks among them – to produce often dizzying brilliance. The film was a hit at the box office, too, ultimately earning $180 million worldwide.
Doctor Strange (2016)
With Marvel’s 14th entry in its Cinematic Universe, director Scott Derrickson dragged the franchise into new and surreal territory. Yes, 2016’s Doctor Strange – which focuses on Benedict Cumberbatch’s eponymous sorcerer-in-training – is chock-full of hallucinatory imagery. Effects whizz Richard Bluff apparently drew heavy inspiration from artist M.C. Escher in bringing the film’s reality-bending set pieces to life – and he earned an Oscar nomination for his efforts, too. But while Doctor Strange may be visually complicated, it still has all the levity that fans expect from the MCU. In her review for Time, critic Stephanie Zacharek certainly praised Cumberbatch’s comedic skill, noting the actor’s ability to get “a big laugh from nothing more than an arched eyebrow” while on screen.
Batman Begins (2005)
Following the dismal reception given to 1997’s Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. went back to the drawing board for the Dark Knight’s next outing. And in aiming to distance the masked vigilante from his previous incarnation, the studio took inspiration from Frank Miller’s gritty graphic novel Year One – which is perhaps why the resulting picture is more akin to a crime thriller than your average action flick. Bolstered by director Christopher Nolan’s eye for realism, 2005’s Batman Begins basically rebranded the entire superhero movie genre, with the origin story’s murky cinematography and air of brooding solemnity still imitated by blockbusters to this day. Small wonder, then, that critics generally seemed to love Christian Bale’s debut movie as Batman. For example, in his 2005 review, The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson pronounced, “Here’s how any great franchise should start: with care, precision and delicately wrought atmosphere.”
Hot Fuzz (2007)
It’s not often that high-octane cop films and English pastoral settings go hand in hand, but that’s exactly what’s on offer in Hot Fuzz. Filmed in director Edgar Wright’s home city of Wells, Somerset, the 2007 movie follows the carnage that ensues when Simon Pegg’s gung-ho London police officer, Nicholas Angel, is transferred to a sleepy British village. What makes Hot Fuzz great is its tongue-in-cheek mix of Hollywood blockbuster-style action and the low-key charm of British police procedurals. During the film’s press tour, Wright even admitted to Collider that its genesis had come by way of a question: “What [if] Tony Scott had to direct [rural U.K. police drama] Heartbeat?” Thankfully, the joke wasn’t lost on the public. And Hot Fuzz’s canny blend of humor and action led to it being named one of the 50 best British films of all time by Empire in 2016.
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Although The Dirty Dozen originally emerged in 1967, this classic war film influences action movies to this day. Certainly, modern blockbusters such as Rogue One and Suicide Squad appear to have taken their cues from The Dirty Dozen’s plot, which sees a band of antihero outsiders engaging in a potentially suicidal mission. And the over-the-top violence and dark wit of Robert Aldrich’s thriller seem to have since found imitators, too. But perhaps the film’s crowning glory is its array of stars, including Lee Marvin and John Cassavetes – the latter of whom earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. Indeed, Quentin Tarantino – who took inspiration from Aldrich’s masterpiece for his own Inglourious Basterds – has named The Dirty Dozen as one of his favorite WWII movies “for its iconic cast alone.”
For his third Hollywood release, John Woo received a budget of $80 million to explore his artistic vision. It was a good thing, too, as what the director delivered became one of the wildest action movies of all time: 1997’s Face/Off. Centered on mortal enemies who literally switch faces, the film is awash with Woo’s “gun fu” violence and over-the-top set pieces. But it’s actually stars John Travolta and Nicolas Cage – portraying an FBI agent and a terrorist, respectively – who make Face/Off truly special. Certainly, both actors appear to have so much fun on screen that it’s difficult to imagine the fact that their roles were originally intended for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. And while it may not be subtle, Face/Off is beyond entertaining. As The Concourse put it in a 2014 retrospective, “Why can’t we have movies like this anymore?”
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
In part two of the Bride’s quest for vengeance, Uma Thurman’s former assassin tries to track down the film’s titular target in Mexico rather than Japan. Despite the director setting some of his 2004 film in Latin America, though, Quentin Tarantino’s influences appeared to remain firmly Eastern. With the introduction of fighting master Pai Mei – played by Chinese martial arts star Gordon Liu – for example, Tarantino pays tribute to the legendary Shaw Brothers’ kung fu films. Meanwhile, Thurman’s character’s final use of the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” is a further nod to Asian cinema. And while the Bride’s tale may seem to have reached its natural conclusion, Kill Bill: Vol. 2’s $152-million worldwide gross could mean that she yet returns to movie theaters one day. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bride made one more appearance [on screen],” Tarantino told Variety in 2015.
Casino Royale (2006)
In 2002’s Die Another Day, the James Bond franchise was arguably reduced to a campy shadow of its former glory. So, Eon Productions seemingly went right back to the drawing board for 2006 successor Casino Royale, in which Bond – portrayed for the first time by Daniel Craig – appears in a daringly relatable new light. Here, you see, the steely but suave stereotype gives way to an altogether more flawed, and therefore more human, 007. But this doesn’t mean that the movie focuses solely on fleshing out Bond’s character; there are also countless moments of hair-raising action in the Martin Campbell-helmed flick. And Casino Royale’s canny mix of emotional depth and game-changing stunts – including a record-breaking car roll – led USA Today to name the movie the second greatest Bond feature to date.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
After Bruce Lee caught the eye of Hollywood with his Hong Kong-produced work, he seemed poised to conquer Western cinema. Sadly, though, subsequent picture Enter the Dragon would turn out to be the actor’s swansong. Featuring roles by future stars Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan – the latter of whom was accidentally struck for real by Lee during a fight scene – the film is a bona fide martial arts extravaganza. But it’s Lee – despite him having passed away one month before the movie’s opening – who remains the major draw here. Indeed, as a kung-fu master bent on exposing a drug syndicate, the screen icon elevates the Robert Crouse-directed flick through sheer skill. As The Hollywood Reporter put it back in 1973, Lee’s graceful fights “lift the movie the way Astaire and Rogers used to.”
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
After joining the Bourne franchise for 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, Paul Greengrass left audiences eager for an equally gripping follow-up – and with 2007’s Bourne Ultimatum, the director may even have blown expectations out of the water. Picking up shortly after the events of Supremacy, the film follows Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin, Jason Bourne, as he pieces together the truth about his life. Greengrass’ “shaky-cam” style depicts the operative’s subsequent clashes with enemy agents in bone-crushing detail, too. Movie fans certainly seemed stunned. But while Ultimatum’s $442-million box-office gross is impressive enough, its true legacy perhaps lies in the number of imitators that it has spawned. Indeed, the director’s signature technique – including quick cuts and handheld camera work – appears to have influenced subsequent action films from Quantum of Solace to The Expendables. In 2016 The Economist even claimed that Greengrass has “redefined action” using the shaky-cam method.
Though Daniel Craig may have won over contemporary film fans, Sean Connery remains arguably the quintessential James Bond. And in Goldfinger, the actor gives perhaps his best performance as the iconic secret agent – who on this occasion attempts to stop the movie’s eponymous villain in his plot to irradiate the United States’ gold supply. Goldfinger itself also appears to lay out the blueprint for future instalments of the Bond franchise. Guy Hamilton’s thriller has a memorable, over-the-top villain, for one, as well as innuendo-laced humor and a bold theme song. It’s here, too, that Bond’s Q Branch gadgets are first introduced – including his famous gizmo-laden Aston Martin. Yet while viewers today may not meet Goldfinger with the same fervor that surrounded its 1964 premiere – when fans almost rioted to get a seat – the movie is still undoubtedly seen as a classic.
The Terminator (1984)
Following his breakthrough performance in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, Arnold Schwarzenegger was on the verge of becoming a global superstar. Then, two years later, he achieved even greater fame after starring in a sci-fi movie about a time-traveling killer cyborg. But although The Terminator ultimately made Arnie a household name, the actor actually once considered passing on the part. In fact, he originally petitioned to play Kyle Reese – the human sent to stop the T-800’s malevolent mission – until director James Cameron asked him to reconsider. And fortunately, of course, Schwarzenegger listened to reason, and the role – which the star has since reprised three times – would become his most iconic. He’d go on to repeat The Terminator’s famous “I’ll be back” line in subsequent movies, too.
When Jaws hit movie theaters in June 1975, it came at a time of year when studios had formerly put out what they perceived to be almost-certain flops. Yet by contrast, the modest $9 million monster film became a surprise smash, with its $470 million box-office gross in turn paving the way for today’s summer blockbusters. Steven Spielberg’s feature about a shark terrorizing a New England beach town had some mishaps to battle through, mind you. The mechanical great whites on the production had a habit of breaking down, for instance; and one of them even trapped George Lucas’ head in its teeth during an on-set visit by the filmmaker. But by shooting around the finned killer’s technical limitations and keeping its attacks off screen for roughly two-thirds of the movie’s running time, Spielberg ultimately created extra layers of cinematic tension – leading to a classic still beloved by many today.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Although superhero movies have long been popular, such moneymaking genre pieces weren’t typically considered to be high art. When The Dark Knight came along in 2008, however, both audiences and critics saw that director Christopher Nolan had infused the film with a depth and gravitas lacking from previous comic-book adaptations. The Gotham that Christian Bale’s Batman haunts is raw and real, for one, while Heath Ledger’s chilling portrayal of nemesis the Joker was enough to net the actor a posthumous Oscar. The Dark Knight has left a legacy, too, through grittier superhero flicks including 2017’s Logan. And in addition, it has encouraged award ceremonies to consider movies such as Black Panther for their highest honors.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Few had seen anything like The Wild Bunch upon its release in 1969. At the time, after all, the movie made waves thanks to both its dizzying action scenes and graphic violence – not to mention a blood-soaked finale that clocked up more than 100 kills in under five minutes. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the epic Western was once controversial. And yet Sam Peckinpah’s tale of outlaws looking for one last score is also something of a groundbreaker. In particular, the director’s use of slow motion, rapid zooms and quick cuts set the precedent for the style of modern action movies – as evident in some of the work of John Woo, Quentin Tarantino and Kathryn Bigelow. Plus, The Wild Bunch cemented its place in cinematic history in 1999 when it became part of the U.S. Library of Congress.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Two Towers – the second part of Peter Jackson’s ambitious Lord of the Rings series – memorably packs in even more nail-biting action than its predecessor. And thanks to the fantasy film’s climactic Battle of Helm’s Deep – which pitches the evil Uruk-hai and other Orcs against the movie’s band of heroes and their Rohirrim allies – Jackson can boast of having produced arguably one of the most memorable war scenes ever to hit the big screen. Yet filming this intricate piece of cinema certainly wasn’t without its challenges. In fact, in 2002 Legolas actor Orlando Bloom told Syfy Wire that the grueling 120-day shoot “broke” most of the cast. “It was physically very demanding,” Bloom recalled. “We were filming it on a quarry, so just the uneven ground was a challenge.” Nevertheless, worldwide box-office takings of $926 million surely made the cast’s blood, sweat and tears worthwhile.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
It was no easy feat bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to the big screen. After first conceiving of the idea in 1995, Peter Jackson would work for six years – not least through a grueling 438-day shoot in New Zealand – before he saw his vision realized. Fortunately, though, the director’s efforts paid off, as the first part of the film trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, became a near-instant success. The movie went on to gross $869 million worldwide, in fact, while also making major stars of cast members Elijah Wood and Viggo Mortensen. Plus, the fantasy feature was a critical smash, and in 2002 it won four Academy Awards, including one for Weta Digital’s groundbreaking visual effects. Currently ranked as the 12th highest-rated film on IMDb, The Fellowship of the Ring remains just as powerful today as it was upon its 2001 release.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
As the final film in the Lord of the Rings screen trilogy, The Return of the King had lofty expectations to meet. Fortunately for fans everywhere, then, director Peter Jackson rose to the occasion by crafting arguably the best instalment yet. In the movie, the high-octane action of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is neatly balanced by a sense of emotional catharsis as Frodo’s quest to obliterate the One Ring epically climaxes. And judging by its jaw-dropping $1.1 billion worldwide box-office haul, The Return of the King was a hit with more than only Tolkien aficionados. The year after the picture’s release, the Academy then honored it with the Oscar for Best Picture – making the film the first in the fantasy genre ever to achieve the feat. Mind you, that award was just one of a record-equaling 11 presented to Jackson and his team on the night.