2021 hasn’t exactly been the best year for movie release, let alone action movies. Still there has still been the odd gem that has managed to shine its way through amongst the disappointments. While it may be harder this year than previous years to pick my favorite action movies, there’s still been enough quality to make up a top ten list of the best actioners of 2021.
10. Extreme a.k.a Xtremo
I didn’t go into Extreme expecting much. A Spanish action film released to Netflix didn’t exactly raise my expectations, especially when I checked what other films director Daniel Benmayor had worked on. Finding out he was behind the lacklustre Tracers (2015), a decidedly inferior action vehicle for Twilight’s (2008) Taylor Lautner didn’t exactly raise my enthusiasm.
Luckily within the first 10 minutes my hesitations began to disappear as I was treated to some well crafted shootouts that played like a mix of John Wick (2014) and classic John Woo.
Now Extreme wouldn’t be classified as an action classic, with its paper thin characters and threadbare plot putting any stead to that. What it does have in its favour is almost non stop action, with Extreme featuring a mixture of hand to hand combat and gunplay.
The action is suitably violent and even manages to include some unexpected elements. I have to say, I’ve never seen a car chair’s headrest used in such a way, with leading man Teo Garcia taking out multiple opponents with the unlikely weapon.
Garcia is also one to look out for, an unconventional leading man but 100% a badass with him giving his all in his action scenes. Another plus is the stunning Andrea Duro who assists Garcia on his quest for vengeance, with her getting her own fair share of the film’s action scenes.
You could never say Kate is the most original film in terms of storytelling, with the old take on the main character being poisoned and having 24 hours to find out who murdered them being used countless times throughout the years.
Still, like all films it is more in how the story is told and it is here that Kate excels. Jam packed with terrific action scenes (minus the comical car chase) and sports a terrific turn from leading lady Mary Elizabeth Winstead that fully cements her action credentials.
Taking full advantage of its R rating, Kate has no shortage of bloodletting as Winstead cust through the Japanese underworld in order to track down who double crossed her. There are minor issues along the way such as Woody Harrelson being mostly wasted in a small supporting role but Kate was so much fun I didn’t really have time to care.
8. Wrath of Man
Wrath of Man won’t be to everyone’s liking, as being directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Jason Statham brings with it a number of expectations.
Harkening back to the down and dirty thrillers of the 1970’s, Wrath of Man exceeded my expectations due to Guy Ritchie deciding to tone down his usual style, with hardly any of the fancy camera work and witty dialogue that has come to make up the majority of his filmography since making his feature debut with Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998).
Based loosely on French thriller Le Convoyeur (2004), Wrath of Man is one remake that manages to improve on the original with Ritchie and co-writers Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies injecting a number of new elements to make this take on the story seem fresh.
Featuring one of Statham’s most cold blooded characters yet, there is just enough action here to keep his fans satisfied, although there is clearly less in the way of fight scenes than some of his more popular action movies.
Clearly I liked Wrath of Man more than others as it didn’t fare as well as Ritchie’s previous The Gentlemen (2019). Don’t let this put you off as Wrath of Man still has a lot to recommend, being tailor made for those more akin to the gritty 70’s thrillers like The French Connection (1971) or Charley Varrick (1973).
7. A Writer’s Odyssey
Chinese fantasy films can be very hit or miss these days. Not everything can harken back to the glory days of Zu Warriors (1982) or Chinese Ghost Story (1987) I suppose, but most of what is coming these days is extremely sub par with poor acting and even poorer special effects.
I had originally seen a trailer for Ly Yang’s A Writer’s Odyssey which had me intrigued, but I knew not to get my hopes up. Luckily the film exceeded my expectations and then some.
Taking a plot that involves a father searching for his daughter, whom he believes was taken by human traffickers, the film begins to develop into an action fantasy, almost like an adult take on The Neverending Story (1984).
While it could be said it goes slightly off the rails in the third act, for the most part A Writer’s Odyssey is a solid mixture of action and fantasy that is filled with wonderful performances from the likes of Lei Jiayin and Yang Mi as well as being visually stunning.
Unlike the majority of Chinese produced fantasy films the CGI is of a high quality with director Ly Yang creating a fully realized world that meshes well with the more normal everyday settings where much of the story takes place.
6. The King’s Man
I wasn’t sure what to expect from The King’s Man. The trailers looked promising, but after its release was put back countless times I actually lost track of it. Also, judging by the trailers I wasn’t sure how much this prequel would tie in with the first two films in the franchise, and while I did enjoy Kingsmen: The Golden Circle (2017) it paled in comparison to the original.
So the real question was, how did The King’s Man stack up when put up against what came before? I was glad to see that it was a major improvement on the sequel, and with this story being a prequel it wasn’t tied down trying to emulate what came before.
In many respects, The King’s Man feels separate from the main franchise, being a much more serious affair. Gone are the more ridiculous, comedic aspects and replaced with something more real. Sure, the plot still takes flights of fancy, and like the first two films it has its fair share of over the top action but for the most part The King’s Man is played straight.
Ralph Fiennes takes over where Colin Firth left off, taking the place of the unlikely action hero. I say unlikely more based on his previous roles rather than his work here, as he is very inch the action hero and brings an overall sense of class and quality to the film that a lesser actor would have failed to do.
Not as action packed as the first two films it still contains a healthy collection of action sequences, with a handful of beautifully choreographed fight scenes courtesy of the late Brad Allan who worked as the film’s action director.
Perhaps my enjoyment was also based on the fact I watched it in the same week as two of the worst films of the year, with The King’s Man thankfully being the antidote I required.
5. Rurouni Kenshin: The Final
Rurouni Kenshin: The Final was one of my most anticipated films of the year. Being a big fan of the original trilogy I was surprised when it was announced a further two films were coming, as I thought 2014’s The Legend Ends would be it for the live action franchise.
Now, part 4 isn’t the best the series has to offer but it still includes everything fans love about the franchise, with Takeru Satoh as well as a host of familiar faces returning to their iconic roles in order to bring the franchise to a definitive close.
As expected the fight scenes are still beautifully choreographed, with a variety of sword styles featured throughout. Once again Kenji Tanigaki proves to be one of the best fight choreographers in the business, with The Final easily containing some of the best fight scenes of 2021. The action is pushed to the extreme, with director Keishi Ōtomo giving the overall film a terrific energy, something he has brought to every entry in the franchise.
I should also give a notable mention to the fifth and final part of the franchise, Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning (2021), which works as a prequel to the franchise, depicting Kenshin’s origins when he was still known as the assassin “Hitokiri Battōsai”. Although it is more subdued than the preceding four films, with an air of dread always in the air, it still contains a number of standout action scenes that turn out to be the most violent of the series.
With all films now streaming on Netflix, there’s no real reason now for Western audiences to have not seen the Rurouni Kenshin series.
4. Shang Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings
After a string of somewhat disappointing blockbusters, Shang Chi felt like a breath of fresh air. Sure it followed the tried and true MCU formula but there were enough deviations from the norm to make it appear fresh.
Shang Chi also stands out as being the first MCU solo vehicle to feature an Asian lead. Simu Liu makes a fantastic debut but the film is ultimately stolen by the mighty Tony Leung Chiu-wai, giving a multi-layered performance as main villain Wenwu aka the Mandarin.
Featuring a mixture of expertly choreographed fight scenes, solid performances and state of the art CGI, Shang Chi is a stand out amongst the majority of films in the MCU and even if the finale does end up overdoing it on the CGI, it still isn’t enough to derail Shang Chi as being one of the best action films of the year.
3. Riders of Justice
Now I may be cheating slightly by including this as technically it is from 2020. Still, as it didn’t get a release stateside until 2021 I thought it was okay to squeeze it in there.
Taking a basic revenge plot but turning it on its head, Riders of Justice finds Mads Mikkelsen’s Markus on the search for the terrorists responsible for the death of his wife and many others in a train bombing. With help he quickly finds that there is a conspiracy at foot to who was involved. Or is there?
While Riders of Justice isn’t a full blown action movie, with it quickly shifting between genres, at one minute being a revenge thriller before moving onto absurdist comedy, it still has enough quality fight scenes and shootouts to qualify.
Additionally, director Anders Thomas Jensen perfectly straddles the mixtures of tone throughout with this multi-genre approach to filmmaking, with nothing ever feeling out of place.
Add into the mix another award worthy performance from the charismatic Mads Mikkelsen which is bolstered with fine support from the likes of Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Andrea Heick Gadeberg as well as Lars Brygmann and you’re onto a definite winner. One not to be missed.
2. Spider-Man: No Way Home
While some may argue that Spider-Man: No Way Home is pure fan service, when it is this much fun I don’t really care. No Way Home wasn’t only the best solo adventure yet for everyone’s favourite web slinger but possibly in the top five of the most enjoyable films yet to come from the MCU.
It contains everything and more to keep fans entertained, with jaw dropping action scenes, humour and a lot of heart. The fact that it also brings a number of old familiar faces back into the fold that just adds to the overall excitement.
In fact, No Way Home was so good that it almost made me forget about the complete disappointments Black Widow and Eternals turned out to be, with it thankfully putting the MCU back on track before the end of 2021.
1. Raging Fire
Anyone that knows me won’t be surprised to see that Raging Fire is at the top of my list. In a year of disappointments this is one film that thankfully delivered. Containing everything that I have come to expect from action master Benny Chan, being filled to the brim with quality fight scenes, shootouts and some overly emotional acting.
Harking back to the great Hong Kong cop movies of the 80’s and 90’s like Tiger Cage (1988) and Chan’s own Big Bullet (1996), Raging Fire is an action movie lover’s dream, combining everything that made those movies great filtered through a more modern sheen although Chan makes sure to still keep that gritty hyper realistic HK movie feel.
It was a somewhat bittersweet affair, with it being Chan’s final film before his untimely death but it proved to be a most fitting swansong. As well as featuring everything HK movie fans had come to expect from Benny Chan, it also had Donnie Yen once again gracing the screen in all his glory, for an action film that could almost rank alongside his classic SPL aka Killzone (2005).
While the odd bit of sub par CGI mars the finished product, on a purely visceral level you will struggle to find a finer action film this year.
I know I said that 2021 may not have been the greatest year for movie release but it would appear that 10 might not be enough to list everything that impressed me this year. Below are some notable mentions, films that for the most part entertained but were just pipped to the post of appearing in my top ten. They are in no particular order.
The Suicide Squad
With memorable performances, some laugh out loud dialogue and the most blood soaked action yet to feature in the DCEU, The Suicide Squad proved to be a major improvement on David Ayer’s original.
I had stated in my review that it was exactly what the DCEU needed, giving the franchise a much needed kick in the ass. A gloriously violent adventure filtered through director James Gunn’s sensibilities, it was exactly the film I was expecting it to be.
If anything, it made it clear that this is the direction Warner Brothers should be taking the DCEU in, rather than targeting the PG-13 crowd.
Bob Odenkirk made for one of the most surprising action heroes of 2021, giving a surprising and dedicated performance in Nobody. One of the most crowd pleasing film of the year, Nobody proved the guy most known as Saul Goodman could be turned into a believable action star.
Odenkirk gives the role his all, spending over two years training to prepare for the role and carrying out the majority of the film’s action himself. Sharing many of the same team as John Wick, Nobody very much fits into that same world. Although it is a standalone adventure I could certainly see the worlds of each film combined with them both sharing many similarities. Any fan of John Wick owes it to themselves to give Nobody a try if they haven’t done so already.
I gave One Shot quite high marks upon its release, more than some films that may appear in my top ten list. This was primarily down to the massive undertaking that Director James Nunn carried out in the making of One Shot, with him making an extremely impressive action movie with limited resources, all with the added challenge of shooting the film in one seemingly unedited take, an element many other viewers and reviewers don’t even seem to take into consideration.
Is One Shot perfect? No. But this doesn’t negate its accomplishments. It also once again gave us a chance to see martial arts superstar Scott Adkins in action, something that has been somewhat lacking in 2021.
Hell Hath No Fury
Another cracker from director Jesse V. Johnson and a film that is infinitely superior to a good number of larger budget fare this year. Hell Hath No Fury has Johnson firing on all cylinders and clearly proves yet again that he should be working on larger scale productions.
It almost made my top ten mark as it features everything that is needed in an action film with fine performances, interesting character work and a general air of excitement during the film’s well done action scenes.
Director Zhang Yimou’s return to the action genre after Shadow (2018) is as expected a visually stunning feature filled with action and suspense. The plot is somewhat convoluted and it could be argued that it borders on propaganda, but for all this Yimou weaves his disparate threads superbly making for another in a long line of expertly helmed action movies.
It is one film that I would perhaps recommend watching more than once in order to take everything in as the plot and characters do require close attention. Even still, either way you will be treated to one of the most visually stunning action thrillers of the year, one that may even get noticed come awards time as it is China’s official entry to the 2022 Oscars.
2021’s Biggest Disappointments
For every good film released in 2021 it seemed five failures followed in its wake. Some of these releases were expected to be poor from the get go, but there were others that appeared like they were going to deliver but would ultimately turn out to be disappointments. Below are my major standouts of what were the most disappointing films of the year, at least by my criteria.
No Time to Die
Considering the length of time that it took to reach the screen and taking into consideration that it was Daniel Craig’s swansong to the role of James Bond, No Time to Die really should have been better. There are moments during the film that are so distinctively Bond-like where there are others that are so far removed from what makes the Bond franchise great, you wonder what the filmmakers were smoking.
Now, many have celebrated this deviation from formula, but in many regards it would seem that many of them were never fans of Bond before Craig’s iteration. Craig is as expected wonderful in the role although in certain scenes it would appear he isn’t portraying Bond, as this take on the character is so far removed from everything that has come before. The inclusion of multiple writers actually gives the impression of an almost schizophrenic take on the character with Bond changing his persona from scene to scene.
Thankfully there are a number of well crafted action scenes that are the norm for the series at this point in time but these aren’t enough to cover my overall disappointment. While I gave it a 3.5 mark in my review, it really should have been higher and in retrospect I suspect I would not be so generous in my rating.
Marvel released two of its best films this year. Both Spider-Man: No Way Home and Shang Chi exceeded expectations. Thank god they did, as Marvel didn’t get off to the greatest start in regards to their cinematic output. Black Widow was highly anticipated by fans, with Scarlett Johansson finally getting her own solo starring vehicle in the MCU.
Sadly the film turned out to be less the sum of its parts. Director Cate Shortland gets things off to a good start, with some well staged action but the film quickly descends into mediocrity, with the inclusion of one of the poorest MCU villains yet, who comes in the shape of the completely wasted Ray Winstone who certainly deserves better.
The film does get some things right, with the welcome presence of David Harbor as the Red Guardian, almost stealing the film from his co-stars, but even then they make decisions regarding his character that don’t make for a truly satisfying experience.
While worth watching, the only thing that makes Black Widow essential viewing is where it sits in the overall MCU. If this was a standalone feature I think many would give it a pass or be less forgiving of its shortcomings.
It was a toss up between Black Widow and Eternals of which I would include in this section, but ultimately I went with Black Widow simply as I didn’t have any expectations for the Eternals and due to that, wasn’t disappointed.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City
I was already hesitant when the initial announcement came that the Resident Evil movie series was to be rebooted. While the producers had stated that this reboot would closely resemble the games, I had already heard this before when Paul W.S. Anderson had worked his so-called magic on the franchise.
Still, with the release of some production stills that closely resembled the game, I began to be optimistic. This optimism was heightened when I heard director Johannes Roberts speaking on The Movie That Made Me podcast about how heavily influenced he was by John Carpenter and 80’s horror. These were all music to my ears, so my big question is what the hell went wrong?
Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City is a mess of a film with very little in its favour. With some of the poorest dialogue of the series and being woefully miscast, Roberts take on the franchise manages to even be worse than Anderson’s. At least his films had some degree of fun, with Welcome to Racoon City having very little in the way of memorable action scenes.
It doesn’t help that Roberts, who also wrote the film, takes the game’s most iconic characters and takes away everything that made them so memorable. The worst offender is Leon Kennedy (Avan Jogia). While in the game series he is probably one of the most badass characters around, almost like their John Wick, here he has become the comic relief.
It seems he is merely made an idiot for Kaya Scodelario’s Claire to appear superior. This is an unnecessary inclusion in a film that already has an abundance of them and something the games never had to do in order for their female heroes to stand out.
The Matrix Resurrections
I really thought Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City would turn out to be the worst theatrical release of 2021, but I was so very wrong. Who would have thought the sequel to one of the most beloved and trailblazing action movies of the 20th century would turn out so bad.
While I thought a 4th trip into The Matrix was unnecessary I was still willing to go along for the ride. If nothing else there would at least be some good action included. Wrong.
I don’t know how The Matrix Resurrections turned out so badly, with it feeling like an awful regurgitation of the original film but with everything that made that film good removed. The decision to move away from the finely choreographed martial arts of the first three films was ill advised. Honestly, I have seen better fights in the playground when at school. At least those fights felt real. At no point in Resurrections did anything feel like it mattered with everyone merely going through the motions.
Sure it was great to see Keanu Reeves back as Neo and in the little bits of action he was given he looked great, but it seems Lana Wachowski has gone to great lengths this time around to negate his importance to the overall narrative. And let’s be honest, was anyone really wanting this or would they rather see John Wick Chapter 4? I know what my answer is.