The Best Action Movies Of 2021


What were the best action movies of 2021? The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic era have left the release of many movies in a state of flux, with numerous films originally scheduled for 2020 either going to streaming platforms or jumping to safer waters in 2021. Action movies were no less affected, and the havoc the state of the world has wreaked on the release calendar continues to have lasting effects.

Despite this, 2021 still had plenty of great action movies for audiences to thrill to. Coming from all corners of the world, some leaned into comedy, while others were all about keeping viewers on edge. A few even brought some unique technical gimmicks to the game, along with a lot of exhilarating gunplay, chases, and martial arts fights.

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With 2022 now here, audiences have a new slew of exciting action movies to look forward to, though sadly, the highly anticipated John Wick: Chapter 4 will have to wait until 2023. At the same time, the best of what 2021 had to offer is more than worthy of looking back over. Here are the best action movies of 2021.

The Paper Tigers


Bao Tran’s crowdfunded indie kung-fu comedy The Paper Tigers captured the hearts of millions in 2021, and deservedly so. Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins play Danny, Hing, and Jim, a trio of former kung fu students now largely distant from their martial arts days. The Three Tigers, as they are known, find themselves forced to unite and get back in shape to avenge the murder of their Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan). The Paper Tigers is as endearing as it is hilarious, deconstructing the age-old kung fu movie trope of the student avenging the teacher in a modern context with out-of-practice former warriors. Fans of the YouTube series Enter the Dojo will also revel in the appearance of Matt Page as the trio’s kung fu rival Carter, who steals the show in the movie’s best and funniest fight scene. The Paper Tigers is the best action and comedy combo of 2021, and a fun exercise in flipping a classic martial arts movie plot on its head.


Prisoners of the Ghostland


Nicolas Cage in Prisoners of the Ghostland

If Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t everything great about Nicolas Cage going into overdrive distilled into one movie, nothing is. Cage plays the film’s protagonist, known simply as “Hero,” who is tasked with retrieving Bernice (Sofia Boutella), one of the “granddaughters” of Samurai Town’s ruler Governor (Bill Moseley). To ensure his compliance, Cage’s anti-heroic Hero is outfitted with a jacket covered in explosives and given three days to complete his mission. Prisoners of the Ghostland relishes in taking its Twilight Zone post-apocalyptic premise for everything its got, bringing viewers into a section of Japan that’s half Samurai-era throwback and half Mad Max: Fury Road. Tak Sakaguchi also makes a (silent) Western debut as Governor’s sword-wielding right-hand man Yasujiro, breaking out his skills in the slashfest movie’s action scenes. Prisoners of the Ghostland is a descent into insanity in all the best ways, and with Nicolas Cage on board, there’s no shortage of entertaining overacting.


No Time To Die


Daniel Craig as Bond in No Time to Die

Daniel Craig’s James Bond swan song finally arrived in October 2021, and despite numerous delays, No Time To Die was well worth the wait. Craig’s Bond is now happily living in Italy with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), until the sinister terrorist Safin (Rami Malek) forces him out of retirement. With his fellow MI6 agent Nomi (Lashana Lynch) now the new 007, Bond faces a daunting challenge in Safin’s nanobot-based plot. Craig will go down in history as the most physical Bond actor by far and he closes out his 007 tenure with amazing action sequences. No Time To Die‘s opening car chase through the tight streets of Italy is already worthy of the Bond top ten list, while Craig’s dry banter with Lynch gives his Bond finale a sprinkling of levity. The fact that No Time To Die goes where it does in its closing moments also ensures it’ll be remembered as the most unforgettable finale any Bond actor has ever gotten. Daniel Craig had an amazing run as James Bond, and No Time To Die is as heartfelt and action-packed a farewell as anyone could’ve asked for.


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Kate


Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Netflix movie Kate

The assassin action movie train keeps on trucking, and Netflix’s Kate brought plenty of firepower and fisticuffs to the game. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays retirement-bound assassin Kate, who develops a crisis of conscience after having to kill a yakuza boss in the presence of his child. She soon finds herself protecting the child of her target, Ani (Miku Martineau) while afflicted with a slow-acting poison in her bloodstream. Winstead really shows her capability in leading an action movie in Kate, and the film puts its anti-heroine through the trenches with harsh, visceral martial arts fights and gun battles. Kate also brings some genuine pathos to the title character’s story and her relationship with Ani as her last grasp for a life of normalcy she yearns for, but is too entrenched in the criminal underworld to achieve. On the basis of its ending, Kate is probably a one-and-done, but for 106 minutes of a war of assassins with one determined to get out to the other side, it delivers everything it promises.


Nobody


RZA Bob Odenkirk and Christopher Lloyd in Nobody

Like its unassuming anti-hero, Nobody strolled into theaters packing one of the biggest punches of the year. Bob Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, a seemingly average family man who hides a dark past and has to unleash his skills as an assassin when his old enemies catch up to him. Odenkirk trained for two years ahead of Nobody, and is arguably the break-out action hero 2021 as Hutch. Nobody‘s bus fight alone is worth the admission price, and there’s plenty more where that came from, including Hutch outfitting his office into a maze of deathtraps for the film’s showdown of Saw with an action movie twist. RZA and Christopher Lloyd also drop in as Hutch’s father and adoptive brother and wise-cracking comic relief, also setting up Nobody 2 in the closing minutes. With assassin movies more popular than ever, Nobody was on hand to show there’s room for more tales in the assassin action movie sub-genre with the grit of Bob Odenkirk’s performance and plenty of dark humor in its back pocket.


Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


Shang-Chi Bus

2021 had an abundance of superhero movies, though for the purposes of this list, comic book movies and action films run on two parallel but distinct tracks. Shang-Chi & the Legend of the Ten Rings had one foot in both camps, and is hands down one of the best martial arts flicks of the year. Simu Liu portrays Shang-Chi, a former assassin for the Ten Rings now seeking a normal life in the United States, only for the quest of his father Wenwu (Tony Leung) to resurrect his deceased wife to pull him back into action. Outside of a few Easter eggs and cameos, Shang-Chi mostly stands on its own as equal parts wuxia epic and Hong Kong action movie with the best fight scenes the MCU has ever offered. Jackie Chan Stunt Team member Brad Allan, who sadly passed away a few weeks before the film’s release, was part of the team orchestrating Shang-Chi‘s incredible action scenes, and the film stands as a posthumous vessel of his talents as a fight choreographer.


Army of the Dead


Zack Snyder went two for two in 2021. Following the release of the long-awaited Zack Snyder’s Justice League, he followed up with the gloriously fun and exhilarating action-horror-heist combo Army of the Dead on Netflix. With Las Vegas sealed off from the world after a zombie outbreak, a team of mercenaries led by Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward is tasked with pulling off a death-defying safe heist in a city now crawling with the undead. Army of the Dead throws new twists into the zombie genre with the rise of a more intelligent breed of zombies known as “Alphas,” with stunt pro Richard Cetrone giving a surprisingly emotional performance as the Alpha’s leader Zeus without a word of dialogue. Army of the Dead continues to be intensely examined in every aspect from its social commentary to the mysterious time loop Snyder has alluded to, and all of it is the cherry on top to one of summer 2021’s best popcorn flicks.


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Raging Fire


Raging Fire Donnie Yen pic

Acclaimed Hong Kong action filmmaker Benny Chan tragically passed away in August of 2020, and the posthumous release of his final movie Raging Fire shows how much he was still one of the best in the business. Donnie Yen plays Hong Kong cop Cheung Sung-bong, whose testimony in a police brutality case resulted in several of his friends on the force going behind bars. Upon their release, the former cops under the leadership of Yau Kong-ngo (Nicolas Tse) are determined to take their revenge on Cheung and all of Hong Kong.


For fans of the golden age of Hong Kong action movies in the ’80s and ’90s that Donnie Yen began his career in, Raging Fire was a nostalgic love letter to gun fu and cops with extreme martial arts skills that made Hong Kong the gold standard of action movies for a generation. Donnie Yen himself likened Raging Fire ahead of its release to Sha Po Lang and Flash Point, and the comparison is a well-deserved one with the film’s heart-racing stunts and incredible fight scenes. In addition to being one of 2021’s best action films, Raging Fire is also a time capsule of Hong Kong action movies distilled into two hours, as well as an emotional farewell to one of the filmmakers who helped give them their reputation.


One Shot


One Shot Scott Adkins pic

In a time when one-shot action scenes have begun graduating to one-shot action movies, who better than Scott Adkins to anchor one of the most viscerally amazing ones yet in James Nunn’s One Shot? Adkins portrays Jake Harris, a U.S. Navy SEAL tasked with transporting British national and suspected terrorist Amin Mansur (Waleed Elgadi) from a CIA prison, only for an insurgent group to arrive to apprehend him themselves as part of a plot to detonate a dirty bomb in Washington D.C. While never leaving the grounds of the military base, One Shot uses its small-scale setting to its minimalistic advantage and keeps viewers on their toes with a tension worthy of The Raid movies. It’s also doesn’t discard the perspective of Mansur and how the tragedy of his past has placed him in a situation in a way that’s hard not to empathize with.


The Scott Adkins movie also sees the actor change up his high-flying kicks and MMA combat for more down-and-dirty knife fighting and grappling sprinkled throughout bullets whizzing past his and every other major character’s heads at regular intervals. With a twenty-day shooting schedule and a pandemic to work around, James Nunn is the newest action director to watch out for after the gripping ride of explosions, knives, and unbroken camerawork that is One Shot.

Sanak


Sanak Vidyut Jammwal pic

Here’s a secret many in the Western world aren’t fully aware of: Bollywood makes some of the best action movies in the world, and one need look no further than the “Die Hard in a hospital” that is Sanak for proof. Vidyut Jammwal plays MMA trainer Vivann, arriving at a Mumbai hospital to pick up his wife Anshika (Rukmini Maitra) just as a terrorist group drops in to retrieve their leader in ICU recovery. Jackie Chan Stunt Team member Andy Long Nguyen serves as fight choreographer on Sanak, and the movie’s plentiful martial arts fights are a sight to behold. Indeed, Nguyen’s specific stunt background puts a distinctly Jackie Chan-inspired feel and a Donnie Yen-intensity to the action scenes.


Like Chan in his heyday, the fight choreography even puts the environment itself to work with physical therapy tools and medical equipment like an MRI into the equation. One seriously has to wonder why Hollywood has yet to give Jammwal, a life-long Kalaripayattu exponent, a call, as he is both a charismatic lead and beyond amazing as an action hero who could’ve easily been a natural fit for The Raid movies, so much so that one seriously has to wonder why Hollywood has yet to give him a call. Sanak can be streamed on Disney+ Hotstar and Hulu, and with its incredible Hong Kong-inspired action, Sanak is something every action fan should stream pronto.


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