A great year for redemptive action
Another year, another sampling of the freshest action cinema the planet had to offer. My lists tend to eschew four quadrant blockbusters which neither need the attention nor, in my estimation, are quite pure-blooded action films. It’s also worth noting that the United States of America isn’t the only place creating movies, and generally is far from the best place creating action cinema. While I’ll occasionally let a major/American blockbuster slip into the ranks, I’m generally here to recommend what I believe to be both the best of the best in action cinema, and some “off the beaten path” choices that I hope will open new eyes or encourage some cinematic exploration into corners hitherto unknown.
Let me know what you think about these picks either here on the post or on social media. What did I miss? Where am I way off base? I’d love to engage with you on this.
Below you’ll find trailers for all the films in the top 10. I’ll also link if either myself or another Cinapse contributor covered the film. You’ll also find a helpful link for where you can watch the film if you’d like to check it out for yourself.
The Spine Of Night, Blood Red Sky, Sentinelle, Burn Out, Kate, Hell Hath No Fury, Bruised, Boss Level
Top 10 Action Films of 2021
10: RAGING FIRE (Click for full review)
The last film of producer/director Benny Chan, and somewhat of a last hurrah for the heroic bloodshed subgenre of Hong Kong cinema’s golden era (which is likely at its end as mainland China imposes censorship on the HK industry), Raging Fire is a symbolic victory… but also a genuine one. Broad, sweeping, melodramatic, and iconic, Raging Fire is dope in its own right, and a worthy symbol of the end of an era. From Heat-style urban shoot-outs to fisticuffs on the church altar, Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse square off against one another in operatic form, and I defy you not to be entertained.
9: COPSHOP (Click for full review)
With one of the most outstanding ensemble casts of the year, headed up by the introduction of star Alexis Louder, in one of the most breakout performances of the year, Copshop is a pleasant surprise on virtually every level. Sure, it’s marketed on the names of Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo, and those two are phenomenal here. But this is Louder’s show, and I challenge you not to fall in love with her character and her performance here. Writer/director Joe Carnahan is extremely hit or miss for me, and this hits big. There are laughs, twists/turns, incredibly executed shoot-outs and show-downs, and the ever-popular trope of smart people displaying exceptional competence at their jobs. It’s just that sometimes those jobs are “psychotic hitmen”.
8: WITHOUT REMORSE
The son of famed Italian genre director Sergio Sollima, Stefano Sollima specializes in a kind of grimy, cynical, political vengeance cinema. Between this film, Sicario 2, and crime series Gomorrah (which I haven’t personally seen, but gather the vibe is similar), Stefano appears willing to both depict graphic and stylized and entertaining violence, and then to rub our noses in the consequences of that violence. I have this weird capacity to absolutely love both action cinema that revels in peace, forgiveness, redemption, etc… and I can’t deny a love for action that is just plain miserable, gritty, and endlessly cynical. I’m not quite sure why I love both approaches, but Without Remorse further elevates super star Michael B. Jordan and places him into this new Amazon Tom Clancy Dad-Action-verse and I absolutely can’t wait to take this ride all the way to the end. What shocks me most about Without Remorse is how hard Amazon allowed Sollima to go with what, if released in theaters, would absolutely have become a sanded down four quadrant tentpole. Bring on the hard-R Clancy-verse with Jordan in the lead and Sollima at the helm.
Where to watch Without Remorse: Prime Video
Dumb name, GREAT action film. You know, you just don’t expect to see a top notch yakuza film emerge from… Spain? If I’m being honest I’ve absolutely never heard of really anyone involved in this project. But Netflix nonetheless blessed us in the United States with this release this year, and I’ll be paying attention to these creators from now on. Star Teo Garcia has this brooding/brawler look to him and yet he brings incredible grace and dexterity to his action sequences. He’s got a bit of the LOOK of elder JCVD while demonstrating the grace of motion of a younger JCVD. Director Daniel Benmayor is also one to watch as the iconography of this film is truly special. Xtreme is among the closest in style and substance this year on my list to a true “heroic bloodshed” film. Taking a page from the greatest Yakuza films and sprinkling in more than a heaping helping of John Woo/Hong Kong-style spice, Xtreme is heightened, fantastical, and stylized to the hilt. The result is a whole lot of fun.
Where to watch Xtreme: Netflix
6: HYDRA (Click for full review)
With Hydra, it’s all about the fight scenes. Yes, there’s a compelling drama at the core, and yes, the action is somewhat few and far between. But when this filmmaking team shows you what they’ve got, it’s honestly something you’ve never seen before. And by the year of our lord 2021… how many times can you really say you’re seeing something you’ve never seen before? This kind of high speed grappling choreography that Hydra brings to the table yields my favorite one-on-one hand-to-hand fight of the year. It’s also got a great electronic score and frankly, Hydra feels like something fresh coming out of Japan, hopefully heralding more to come from this team.
5: ONE SHOT (Click for full review)
Another year, another Scott Adkins film in the action top 10. Look, this wasn’t the only film Scott Adkins had to offer in 2021 (but will be the only one on this list), and I promise you, I’m not just a shill for the guy. It’s just that Scott Adkins is consistently, year over year, starring in projects that are among the very best action cinema has to offer. Not every project is a banger, and often even when Scott Adkins is the best part of a movie, that doesn’t mean he can save it. But One Shot is something special. A film shot to look like a single take (and comprised of ultimately very few total shots), One Shot executes on that single take premise with precision and grace, while also telling a thrilling and claustrophobic story. Adkins’ elite unit of soldiers are tasked with a simple prisoner transport and are instead present when all hell breaks loose as a terrorist cell attempts to free the very same prisoner. Loaded with tactical action and brimming with a surprising amount of character reveals and well-choreographed action beats caught in camera amidst long takes, director James Nunn and star Adkins combine forces to make the case that their collaboration might even rival Adkins’ collaborations with other famed action directors like Isaac Florentine and Jesse V. Johnson.
4: THE SWORDSMAN (Click for full review)
“That child is my nation”
A South Korean riff on Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman, The Swordsman dropped in the US in January of 2021 and remained high on my list throughout the year. Loaded to the brim with sweeping sword battles (topped only by the films in my number one slot), The Swordsman provides that unique kind of satisfaction that can only come from a hero on a noble cause who must overcome a progressively worsening handicap. Top all that off with a swaggering, mustache-twirling villain played by none other than Joe Taslim, and you’ve got the trappings of a great action film. I’m a sucker for “chanbara” cinema, and bringing a South Korean flavor to that time-honored tradition just made for one of my absolute favorite action offerings last year.
3: OLD HENRY
“Who are you, Pa?”
No one is quite ready for the answer to that question in one of the most stunning surprises of 2021, the Tim Blake Nelson starring vehicle Old Henry. Here’s a film in which the case is made and closed for Tim Blake Nelson: Action Hero and Leading Man. Nelson, traditionally a character actor who elevates every project he’s in, absolutely commands the screen as a farmer with a past and a teenaged son he’s bound and determined to protect from that past. But when a bleeding and unconscious man shows up at their farm, Henry and his son are pulled into a shitstorm on par with any of the greatest and most traditional American westerns. Coming out of nowhere (from writer/director Potsy Ponciroli) and absolutely honoring the tradition of the western while bringing a modern twist that has to be seen to be believed, Old Henry was among the most satisfying filmgoing experiences of the year for me and I watched the damn thing on my laptop. Fans of traditional westerns, or lovers of the “secret badass” subgenre should absolutely seek out Old Henry for some of the rawest thrills of the year.
2: RIDERS OF JUSTICE
Impossible to market, and improbable to even call it an action movie, Riders Of Justice is nonetheless one of 2021’s very finest films overall, but undoubtedly deserves a place of esteem among 2021’s action elite. Non-traditional at best, Riders Of Justice (from Denmark’s Anders Thomas Jensen) tells a tale of vengeance as Mads Mikkelsen’s highly trained commando teams up with a bunch of science nerds to exact vengeance on a motorcycle gang that accidentally killed his wife when they carried out a bombing assassination on the subway. What’s incredible is that everything in the above trailer IS in the movie, and what action is found here is brutal, exacting, and excellently captured. But the comedy, and the profound humanity that makes this film one of the best of the year is almost absent from the trailer, and truly can’t be captured without simply watching this thing. Mikkelsen’s relationship with his daughter, and the journey these nerds go on with this father/daughter duo never strikes a false note throughout and strips these characters down to their cores. Exploring loss, the futility of vengeance, the desperate need to belong, and taking the piss out of the strong/silent/efficient male killer commando, Riders Of Vengeance is darkly hilarious, thrilling, and strikes deep at our culture of violence, offering an alternative in the form of vulnerability and radical, familial acceptance.
1: RUROUNI KENSHIN: THE FINAL / RUROUNI KENSHIN: THE BEGINNING (Click for full reviews)
One of the most rewarding and enjoyable cinematic adventures I have undertaken in a long while, 2021 was the year in which I was introduced to Kenshin and his merry family of misfits. These two films in particular, bookends to a trilogy already completed years ago, are film adaptations of an anime series that I’ll almost certainly never watch. But let me tell you, Actionites, if you’ve never gone down the Rurouni Kenshin road, there are five of this era’s finest action films just sitting there waiting for you; beckoning you to join them on their epic, emotional, silly, and thematically potent quest. Kenshin is essentially the baddest swordsman to ever live, and a combination of performance, choreography, and stellar wire work ensure that star Takeru Satoh does indeed convince you of his all-time status. But there’s a twist. Kenshin has vowed to never kill again. He’s forged a symbolic “reverse blade” that is perhaps my favorite action cinema premise since Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman. How can Kenshin forge and protect his found family, and rise to save his country, all while suffering the extremely high cost of radical peace? This high cost of peace, the sacrifices required to build and protect a family, the urgent need for sweeping action set pieces to be among the greatest ever filmed while also having a hero that only tags fools with the blunt side of his sword? It’s literally all here and aside from some extremely wacky anime tropes, questionable hairstyles, etc, that are a little hard for me to swallow, this is a near flawless 5 film epic that must be experienced to be believed.
Where to watch Rurouni Kenshin: Netflix
And I’m Out.