Much like the horror genre, action cinema demands a slightly different critical analysis than other categories of film. An airtight plot and compelling thematic undertones aren’t nearly as important as good editing and innovative fight choreography. Hammy acting will get a pass (and maybe even be encouraged) if the actor has impressive martial arts technique. And breaking new narrative ground isn’t nearly as important as doing something simple well, even if that something simple has been done a dozen times before. There’s a whole slew of worthwhile action films on Netflix that remain underappreciated to this day. If you’ve got a subscription and prefer roundhouse kicks to Oscar-worthy performances, you’ll have a blast with these.
13 Assassins (2010)
If you’re a fan of Audition or Ichi the Killer, here’s another classic from Takashi Miike. This one’s less brutal than those films but was favorably compared to The Seven Samurai, which is about the highest praise it could get. Taking place near the sunset of feudal Japan, our group of samurai gather together to defeat a sinister lord before he takes the throne. With 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, this might become a new action favorite.
The Finest Hours (2016)
Chris Pine stars in this tale of a daring 1952 Coast Guard rescue. Based on a true story, the film received some pretty positive reviews but kind of fell off the radar. Maybe because The Finest Hours is pretty generic for a title. It might as well be called A Heroic Movie. But this real-life tale is full of thrilling moments and moving drama. There’s even a little bit of a love story, but don’t worry–it doesn’t bog things down. So before The Finest Hours slips from your memory again, give this fine historical drama a try.
You have to see Alive, which is based on the true story of a Uruguayan rugby team struggling to survive in the Andes after a plane crash. After only 25 people live through the initial accident, the team members go to desperate measures to stay alive. If you didn’t already guess, yes, this is the movie where the survivors end up eating each other. But it’s not some bloody horror film. Watching these people struggle with the idea of eating their dead team members and grasping at hope through the very worst conditions is fascinating and harrowing. Though the movie sounds kind of gross and possibly depressing, it’s actually an uplifting tale of survival and the unbelievable strength of mankind.
If two installments of Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t enough to satisfy your love of James Gunn films, luckily Netflix has a classic waiting for you. Know that before you watch Super, Gunn’s first superhero film, that it is very dark. Very dark. It’s rated R for a reason; not a good one to watch with the kids. That said, it’s an incredibly interesting comedy about a man (Rainn Wilson) who decides to dress up as a superhero to save his ex-wife. This may not have the budget of Guardians, but you can see Gunn’s flare for action and humor shine through.
A crew goes out to find real trolls in the frozen tundra of Norway in Trollhunter. After our heroes find out that the existence of trolls has been covered up by the Norwegian government, they make it their duty to capture the elusive monster on film. This is no Troll 2. These trolls look amazing, are actually scary, and don’t have to turn humans into plants to eat them. Shot like a mockumentary, the film is often hilarious, though not without its tense moments. Moira MacDonald, film critic at the Seattle Times wrote, “Those fog-draped fjords provide a distractingly pretty backdrop to this tale of mysterious, massive creatures who roam the forest by night, searching for Christians on whom to munch.” You’re not going to find a better movie about massive monsters eating religious folk, so stream it on Netflix now.
Don’t worry, Zombeavers is a movie that knows it’s a movie about zombie beavers. Thankfully, it’s a fun horror parody that makes the idea of undead beavers as funny as it could possibly be. Critic Tim Brayton called it “the funniest horror-comedy since, at the very least, The Cabin in the Woods.” If you want a campy, diverting comedy that’s full of laughs and gross-out gags, Zombeavers is exactly what you’re looking for.
Welcome to the Punch (2013)
Mark Strong and James McAvoy star as a criminal and cop who team up to uncover a conspiracy. This movie is straight-up action. Since the stars are amazing actors, they lend a bit of seriousness and depth of character to the story, but we’re watching this for awesome chase scenes and gun fights aplenty. Welcome to the Punch is pretty violent, but you’d probably expect that from a film that invites you to a beating in the title.
Skin Trade (2015)
Tony Jaa. Dolph Lundgren. Ron Perlman. Michael Jai White. Throw in Peter Weller for good measure. Do we have your attention, action fans? If we don’t, you should check your pulse. That’s a dream action movie cast if we’ve ever seen one, and Skin Trade delivers on its promise in spades.
Lundgren plays a cop hellbent on catching Ron Perlman’s mobster character, so relentless in his pursuit that when Perlman escapes to Thailand, Lundgren follows him (with partner Michael Jai White in tow). Once there, they have to catch the well-connected mob boss while simultaneously avoiding Jaa’s detective character, who’s trying to catch the two cops as they’re operating outside of the law. The plot is pretty flimsy, but the thrill of seeing these action cinema legends all in one place doesn’t wear off. Lundgren manages to keep up with the much younger and more agile Jaa in some wild action scenes, and Jai White is, as always, a magnetic onscreen talent. Come for the talent lineup. Stay for the insanity of Dolph Lundgren fist-fighting Tony Jaa
Kill Zone 2 (2015)
For fans of modern martial arts cinema, a film in which Tony Jaa (Ong Bak) and Wu Jing is a match made in heaven, and Kill Zone 2 lives up to the promise of the pairing in a big way. Bearing no real connection to the prior entry in the Kill Zone series (Wu Jing, who appeared in the first, plays an entirely new character in this one), it starts fresh with a breakneck story about black market organ dealers, a father desperate to cure his daughter’s leukemia at whatever cost, and a cop who finds himself stuck in a private prison on the authority of said organ mob. While the whole film brims with unreal stunt work, the final battle is one for the ages and easily stands among the best work by all involved. If you’re coming for the action sequences, you won’t be let down, but you’ll likely find yourself surprised by how well the story is handled. It’s relatively simple, but there’s a lot of heart behind its spin kicks and Muay Thai strikes.
Savage Dog (2017)
Scott Adkins is pretty much the (ahem) undisputed king of direct-to-DVD action movies these days, and Savage Dog is an impressive and unique entry in his filmography. We rarely get to see Adkins in what is, effectively, a period piece, and the film stands out as unique and worth checking out for that alone. But beyond the unusual setting and aesthetic, Savage Dog is still something special.
Featuring narration by the great Keith David (who also has a role in the film), Savage Dog opens with the unbelievably cool image of Adkins’ character digging his way out of a shallow grave. He’s been left for dead, but the bad guys clearly should have stuck around a little bit longer to make sure it stuck. The film then takes on a nonlinear form, catching us up to the moment of his burial and then sending him on a brutal path of revenge featuring some gut-churning violence and stunning fight sequences. Adkins’ oeuvre is littered with cool action hits, but Savage Dog is a clear-cut high point.
Death Sentence (2007)
Modern horror master James Wan, of Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring fame, took a brief hiatus from the genre in 2007 in Death Sentence, a Kevin Bacon vehicle that follows a tried-and-true narrative of a man out for revenge. When his son is murdered in a gang initiation ritual, Bacon’s Nick Hume decides to take the law into his own hands, waging a one-man war on crime in his city and protecting his family from the death sentence that gang puts on them.
It’s nothing action fans won’t have seen before—Death Wish is the clear prototype—but you haven’t seen it directed by a wiz like James Wan or with an actor so effortlessly good in everything as Kevin Bacon. Bacon channels Nick’s relentless drive, grief, and rage in stunning, understated fashion. Throw in John Goodman as the film’s seething villain and you’ve got yourself a good time. It may be well-trodden ground, but it’s worth visiting, no matter how familiar it may feel.
Bullet to the Head (2013)
Walter Hill, director of cult classic The Warriors, dropped this little gem in 2013. It’s pure grindhouse fun, which is exactly what a Walter Hill action flick starring Sylvester Stallone should be. Having already directed the first entry in the Undisputed franchise, Hill is right at home making movies about tough guys solving their problems with their fists and firearms.
The film features Stallone teaming up with Sung Kang, of Fast and Furious franchise fame, as a hitman (Stallone) and a cop (Kang) forced to team up and bring down some bad, bad dudes. And bring down bad dudes they certainly do. Bullets fly, bodies drop, and cars are blown to bits over the course of this romp. It’s a great time, solidified by Jason Momoa’s role as the film’s villain, which he plays with devilish glee. And then there’s the big climactic fight between Stallone and Momoa, which is one for the books. All we’re saying is one of them has an axe. You don’t want to miss it.
Boyka: Undisputed (2016)
Scott Adkins holds together the later installments of the Undisputed series as Yuri Boyka, a prison inmate who participates in a brutal underground prison fighting ring. His role in the second film in the series was as the antagonist, though the next installment saw the focus shift to him as a new unlikely good guy. Boyka: Undisputed takes Yuri out of prison and into the real world and examines how a man like him, one who stakes his claim on this earth through violence, functions in the real world.
Undisputed sees Boyka fighting professionally under legitimate terms when he accidentally kills one of his opponents in the ring. He soon finds that said opponent’s wife is in trouble and takes on a series of fights to keep her out of it. It’s not unfamiliar ground for action cinema, but it sees Boyka grappling with some real internal struggle and evolving into a more complex icon of modern action movies than he has any right to be. Adkins is, of course, a physical specimen and his fight sequences are brutal, choreographed with just enough flair to keep things flashy and grounded enough to feel authentic. Four movies in, Undisputed is as fun as it’s ever been. Bring on the next one.
Small Soldiers (1998)
Children of the ’90s are likely to remember the toys that spawned from director and horror legend Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers, though the film has become something of a forgotten gem. Rewatching it now is a blast. It’s incredibly strange for a big-budget film from the ’90s, and kind of worth seeing for that alone, effectively playing out like Toy Story for high school students.
The film tells the story of a war between armies of toys with military technology that has given them sentience. One is a crew of G.I. Joe-esque soldiers and another an alien race, the Gorgonites, with an environmentalist message. The film is definitely made for a younger audience, but an action movie is an action movie, and this one is a lot of fun. Small Soldiers is weird, campy, and features some wild action sequences in which action figures go to literal war with one another. It’s a bizarre trip and absolutely worth revisiting. That this one hasn’t already become a cult classic is astounding.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
In a just world, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow would have been a box office smash and ushered in a new era of elegant, stylistic action cinema. Despite the fact that we do not live in the world in which that happened, we still have the film itself, and what a film it is. It was one of the first releases to pioneer the digitally-composed soundstage filming method later utilized by Sin City, giving it an astonishing, ethereal visual sheen.
Drawing heavily from pulp cinema and comic books, Sky Captain is a wild comic book-style romp through a steampunk reimagining of a pre-World War II world. The titular Sky Captain is a charismatic ace pilot who leads the daredevil Flying Legion. Played by Jude Law, he’s joined by reporter Polly Perkins (Gwenyth Paltrow) and a brief appearance by Angelina Jolie as an eyepatch-sporting Royal Navy officer, Franky Cook. It’s a killer cast heading up a fun, visually inventive action film that deserves a far larger fan following than it has today.
Officer Downe (2016)
Want to watch the craziest movie on Netflix? Officer Downe has got you covered. Adapted from the comic by writer Joe Casey and artist Chris Burnham, Officer Downe is that rare instance where you read a comic and can’t at all imagine a film or television adaptation. There shouldn’t be a way to translate its insanity from page to screen. And yet, under the direction of Slipknot’s M. Shawn Crahan, the film manages to pull it off. And if a movie is directed by a guy from the band that plays heavy metal in nightmarish monster masks, you know you’re in for quite the ride.
Starring Kim Coates of Sons of Anarchy fame, it’s a hyperkinetic neon thrill ride that plays out like Dredd on mescaline. It’s tough to describe this movie without sounding like a Stefon sketch from Saturday Night Live, but this movie has everything: drug dealing nuns with shotguns, an unkillable super cop, mutilation, and a hidden government conspiracy. It’s the kind of movie you’ll immediately text your friends about when the credits roll, imploring them to come over the next weekend with some beers and check it out. Run to Officer Downe’s sweet embrace as soon as possible.
It’s kind of hard to remember these days that Channing Tatum wasn’t always a megastar who guaranteed a film’s success. Fighting is one of the movies that came out during the No Man’s Land of his career, that awkward patch between Step Up and Magic Mike when the actor was still finding his place in Hollywood and figuring out what kind of roles suited him best. And before he teamed up with director Steven Soderbergh and we realized he’s a pretty killer character actor, Tatum appeared in this little-seen gem.
Tatum plays the tough-as-nails Shawn, a hustler who discovers he’s a prodigy as a street fighter. The film follows a prototypical pro fighting narrative, with his character finding an opportunity to make something of himself through fighting, but quickly ending up in over his head with the wrong people. Said fight scenes are brutal, no-holds-barred affairs that channel the intensity of street fighting to the screen very well. Honestly, Fighting is by no means an egregious Oscar snub or anything. But it’s a very interesting note in a talented actor’s career. Plus it’s got Terence Howard sleazing it up as a fight promoter, and that alone is worth your time.