The best action movies on Netflix cover a wide range, because action films themselves can be realized in a number of different forms. From small budgets that focus on character or movement, to blockbusters where drinking a shot every time something blew up would surely end in death, Netflix probably has something to accommodate your desire to get lost in something that hits the adrenaline just right.
Action movies have come a long way from when the very existence of the medium of film itself was sufficient. Whether your tastes run to superheroes bashing each other, movies known for their exhilarating care chases, or films in which the fight choreography is something that has to be seen to be believed, you can find hundreds of examples of movies that put the emphasis on fast-paced developments, high stakes for everyone involved, and probably more than a couple of explosions.
Is Netflix the best place to find action movies in 2021? This is one area of movies where the streaming giant may actually have an advantage. Indeed, perhaps as a way to compete with Marvel and other big action properties, Netflix has greenlighted a number of different projects in this genre, in addition to offering a pretty solid array of some of the best action movies of all time.
1. Baahubali (The Beginning and The Conclusion) (2015/2017)
Director: S. S. Rajamouli
While technically two separate films, I’m very hard-pressed to imagine that you will watch one Baahubali movie and not the other. Not just because this is a single extraordinary Indian epic, broken down into two parts, but alsp because the films themselves are nothing short of visually astonishing. If you haven’t seen these, get ready for some of the most elaborate mass combat sequences staged for a modern film.
These scenes are combined with memorable hand-to-hand fights, an exceptional cast, and a sense of spectacle that seems to be increasingly difficult to create in a way that stands out from the ever-widening crowd of movies that aspire to this kind of ambition. Whichever way you watch these, do so immediately.
Or whenever you have 6 hours to kill.
2. The Bank Job (2008)
Director: Roger Donaldson
One of the most impressively and enduringly versatile action stars in recent memory, Jason Statham has proven his particular brand of tough guy can work well across several distinctive types of action films. The Bank Job to date remains one of his most impressive efforts. Not just from the fast-paced action standpoint, but in terms of acting, as well.
While there’s nothing revolutionary here, there’s just something very satisfying about a good heist movie that is done well on every possible front. The Bank Job benefits from a good ensemble, an attention to pacing that still allows for an actual story to occur, and an ending that absolutely hits all the essential marks for the best action movies anyone might name.
3. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Director: Arthur Penn
One of the few true classics on Netflix, the industry-shaking Bonnie and Clyde isn’t quite as relentless as some of the other entries on this list. I’d like to think that’s not a dealbreaker for anyone, but it’s worth mentioning all the same.
Bonnie and Clyde offers moments of quiet drama or even tranquility, which are then punctuated with scenes of a degree of violence and mayhem that are still impressive to this day.
While not particularly concerned with accuracy in its telling of the bank robbers, Bonnie and Clyde is still a masterpiece of action. Even when things are seemingly at a standstill. The film also made stars, or at least elevated the standing, of several of its cast members. This includes Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, and basically everyone else who was in this.
4. Casino Royale (2006)
Director: Martin Campbell
Daniel Craig breathed an impressive amount of life into the sagging James Bond character with Casino Royale. The movie also remains a favorite for seamlessly combining not only the best elements of Ian Fleming’s novel, but also several different types of action.
The essential car chases are there, as well as the more quietly-thrilling elements of the secret agent genre, but the film also realizes the best of how action movies were being made at this point in time. Casino Royale really is the best of just about everything you need to make the best kind of action film. That includes Eva Green as a decidedly new type of “Bond Girl”, Mads Mikkelsen as the scene-stealing villain Le Chiffre, and Judi Dench as Bond’s boss M.
However, what truly separates this film from almost anything like it is how the most exciting part of the movie is a card game. If you haven’t seen this, trust me on that.
5. The Dark Knight (2008)
Director: Christopher Nolan
While the merits of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy are debatable to some, pretty much everyone agrees that The Dark Knight is one of the most exciting movies to come out in the first decade of the 2000s.
While the shadow of Heath Ledger’s powerhouse, unforgettable take on Joker would loom over this film, regardless of whether or not he would live to see its ongoing popularity, he isn’t the only aspect The Dark Knight that continues to see it highly regarded as not only one of the best superhero films ever made, but one of the best modern action movies, as well.
From well-executed fight scenes, to incredible stunt and special effects pieces, and to the pitch-perfect score by Hans Zimmer, The Dark Knight is a lean, unforgettable epic of crime, the coming wave of restlessness and abandonment breeding chaos, and of course, vengeance.
6. The Departed (2006)
Director: Martin Scorsese
As remakes go, the almost-blinding intensity and excitement of The Departed sets it apart from most other films based on a movie someone already did.
A remake of the 2002 Hong Kong action classic Internal Affairs, director Martin Scorsese finally won his Best Director Oscar for bringing together Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, as well as several others, to create what is easily the most action-packed film, going from start to finish, that at least he’s ever directed.
However, if you don’t really care about directors, The Departed still packs a serious punch for performances, visual energy, action, and at least one or two very nicely-executed surprises. For action fans with 2 hours and 30 minutes to kill, The Departed delivers on every requirement you may have.
7. Ip Man (2008)
Director: Wilson Yip
Unsurprisingly, a sprawling, action-heavy biopic of Ip Man, a Wing Chun grandmaster and teacher to Bruce Lee, kicks an awful lot of ass. Beautifully directed by Wilson Yip, Ip Man is a wonder of fight choreography, storytelling, breathtaking cinematography, and the presence of Donnie Yen.
Widely considered to be one of the greatest martial arts actors of all time, certainly among the greatest alive today, Yen brings a multifaceted intensity to his portrayal of a man whose story is finally given the breadth and energy it deserves.
Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of biopics, or films based in historical circumstances, Ip Man is still going to be one of the most exciting action movies you’ve ever seen. Lucky for you, the other films in the series are available on Netflix, as well.
8. Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Directors: Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski
At this point, we could almost put together an impressive film festival of works by the Wachowski sisters that are:
1. Not a Matrix.
2. Not initially very successful with critics or the box office.
3. In fact very exciting and entertaining on every possible level.
Jupiter Ascending could lead this festival, followed by at least Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas. If you happened to like either of those, but you stayed away from Jupiter Ascending for one reason or another, I can promise you in no uncertain terms that Jupiter Ascending will be the surprise hit of whatever year or season you happen to watch it.
Beyond the unique, utterly incredible special effects, action sequences, and use of Mila Kunis as the badass action hero most of us assumed she could be, Jupiter Ascending is also a heavy mix of themes that cover consumerism, classism, and other items of note that have shown up in other works by Lana and Lily Wachowski.
Take those themes on if you want, or just relax with one of the most inventive action films on this list.
9. Mad Max (1979)
Director: George Miller
While perhaps not quite as good overall as Mad Max 2 or Fury Road, the 1979 entry that jumpstarted one of the best post-apocalyptic franchises of all time is still a damn good action movie in just about every possible way.
Director/co-writer George Miller began one of the most versatile directing careers in recent memory with a decidedly fast-paced, grimy portrayal of Australia in what could be called the salad days of societal collapse. Mel Gibson lends the essential presence to Max as a character, but so much of this movie’s appeal to action audiences for the past several generations comes down to an unstoppable atmosphere of violence, confusion, and dread.
Mad Max is thrilling. It is also a harrowing depiction of a decidedly-ugly, yet irreversibly-forward concept of human evolution.
10. The Night Comes for Us (2018)
Director: Timo Tjahjanto
Some of these movies feature a few bruises. Others are so bloody, they make the elevators from The Shining feel inadequate. We can pretty safely put the Indonesian thrill ride The Night Comes for Us into the second category.
Crime family dramas lend themselves pretty well to the best action movies on Netflix. The Night Comes for Us shows there is still considerable life in this premise. Joe Taslim as Ito is a big part of that, finding new dimensions to a character who suddenly decides to make a moral choice that will pit them against the potentially insurmountable forces they once worked for. Asha Kenyeri Bermudez as Reina, the young girl Ito chooses to protect, is another standout.
While The Night Comes for Us features great characters and performances, perhaps the real star of the movie remains the fight scenes. They come at you fast, and they come at you hurling a few dozen buckets of blood. If you like that sort of thing, this film is a must-see.
11. The Old Guard (2020)
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Between Chiwetel Ejiofor, KiKi Layne, and Charlize Theron (once again emphasizing her status as one of the most consistently exciting action stars on the planet, among other talents), there is a weight to The Old Guard that manages to keep it distinctive from other movies with sci-fi/superhero elements.
Make no mistake about it, while this is a big budget action epic, directed with clear enthusiasm and experience by Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Old Guard pays a lot of attention to its characters. The film also finds a number of ways to keep things moving along, while virtually never stumbling on any cliches you might expect from the story of immortal mercenaries, suddenly threatened by a malevolent force of considerable power.
12. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Director: Edgar Wright
Personally, after having once seen this movie three consecutive times in a single day, which I promise is not a very interesting story, I will probably never watch it again. However, while I won’t be seeing it again, and while Michael Cera (a good actor) is impressively unlikable as the titular Scott, it’d be silly of me to pretend this isn’t one of the most visually sumptuous, creative action movies ever made in my lifetime.
Steeped in the comic book source material, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World takes a number of action tropes and expectations, and runs them through a blender filled with a genuinely funny script, and the kind of brisk arcade game pacing that most video game movies fail to create on the screen.
As modern action movies go, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is at least a minor masterpiece.
13. Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Director: Guy Ritchie
Would author and noted paranormal enthusiast Sir Arthur Conan Doyle enjoy Guy Ritchie’s grimy, action-packed, relatively humorous take on iconic Sherlock Holmes creation?
Maybe, but it might depend on whether or not he really used cocaine. I’ve always liked to think he did, so we’ll just imagine a coked-out Doyle having a lot of fun with Robert Downey Jr’s performance as Holmes, Jude Law as one of the best Watsons ever to grace the screen, and the superb chemistry those actors share together. In addition to the rest of the movie.
For all of the memorable action sequences, and the 2009 Sherlock Holmes offers a ton of them, as well as the flawless pacing, that relationship is the heart and soul of most of the best Sherlock Holmes stories.
14. Snowpiercer (2013)
Director: Bong Joo-ho
For many people, Snowpiercer was their first serious exposure to Bong Joo-ho, who currently and rightfully is one of the most prominent, respected directors in the world. As an introduction to one of the best directors in the world, Snowpiercer will be a juggernaut of atmosphere, plot development, and furious periods of almost intoxicating action.
For those who just want a modern action classic, packed with strong performances and technical mastery from every aspect of what makes the best movies truly shine for years to come, Snowpiercer will be one of the biggest surprises you’ve ever taken on. Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton lead a strong cast, contributing to a degree of tension and adrenaline-raising-stakes that never disappoints.
15. Total Recall (1990)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
While pretty different from the Philip K. Dick story upon which this film is based, it seems as though most people prefer the liberties this 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, to the more-faithful adaptation that was attempted in 2012. I don’t blame them. It’s a good short story, but that doesn’t mean it would make for a very good movie.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven, who also directed Robocop, the 1990 Total Recall takes the best aspects of its source material. Namely, the idea of dreams and memories being things that can be used on their own terms as very unique weaponry. The rest of the movie is a furious-paced assembly of explosions, one-liners, a great supporting cast, and the kind of big screen violence that seems to bring out a certain kind of whimsy in some.
Total Recall gets a lot of intrigue and storytelling out of themes like identity. It also manages to build a ridiculously fun action flick on Netflix around that.
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