While 2021 wasn’t quite “business as usual” at the movies, it was a step in that direction. The best part about that was whether you watched movies in theaters or not, studios actually released the movies they’d been sitting on for a year. Blockbuster action movies were just the sort of cinematic offerings that studios wanted to release in theaters, so we got a lot of them this year.
Action is what so many of us are looking for when we watch movies on those massive screens, and we got a lot of just what we were looking for. It was not a disappointing year for action fans, so here are the best action movies of 2021.
10. Raya And The Last Dragon
Action-focused animation is usually the purview of Japanese anime, and rarely is it the subject of feature films at all in the West, but Disney upped its game in 2021 with Raya and the Last Dragon. While the movie had all those elements we expect from “Disney movies,” like princesses on a journey of self discovery and fun comic relief sidekicks, this one also brought the absolute best action scenes ever created by Disney. Special care was taken to make the martial arts work on the screen, and the result is a movie that is both a great animated film and a great piece of action cinema.
9. Space Sweepers
One of the great benefits of streaming services and the broadening of where movies are available is that we are now getting access to films we might have missed otherwise. Most people probably wouldn’t give the Korean science fiction adventure Space Sweepers much of a thought in most situations, but if you see this one in your Netflix recommendations, give it a try. It’s as thrilling an outer space adventure as any domestic sci-fi blockbuster.
8. Spider-Man: No Way Home
Spider-Man: No Way Home is one of the best movies of 2021 overall. If there’s a reason it’s not higher on this list, it’s simply that the movie’s action isn’t the main reason the movie is so good. Having said that, the action is nothing to sneeze at. Watching Tom Holland take on some of the best comic book movie villains ever was brilliant. And that finale, when everything really comes together and we see something we never even dreamed of seeing on the big screen, is just brilliant.
7. Boss Level
Boss Level borrowed its title from video games, and while its plot doesn’t use games in the same way as something like Free Guy, the time loop movie is all about remembering patterns in order to progress, just like playing a video game. In fact, games do actually play a part. Frank Grillo and Joe Carnahan combine efforts again for a fun action-adventure story that where lots of people die lots of different times in lots of different and creative ways. Even Mel Gibson gets killed more than once, so that’s something.
Once upon a time, we were going to get a John Wick movie in 2021, and while that didn’t happen, we did get a few action movies that owed more than a little to the Keanu Reeves-led franchise. The best of them, unsurprisingly, came from Derek Kolstad, the creator of the John Wick franchise. Bob Odenkirk doesn’t exactly look like Keanu, but he was no less perfect in Nobody. The action was just as fast and brutal.
One gets the distinct impression that with every new Fast & Furious movie, the first question asked is, “How will we top the action in the last film?” In this case, the answers were, in no particular order: cars swinging on ropes like Tarzan, sending Pontiacs into space and playing with electromagnets. Was any of it remotely sane? No, but it was all a hell of a lot of fun. How will Fast & Furious 10 top all that? No idea, but we can’t wait to find out.
4. The Suicide Squad
James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad opens with an absolutely massive action sequence that ends with a big pile of dead bodies, and from there, things get really crazy. From massive comic book action set pieces to close-quarters, visceral and bloody brawls, whatever your particular taste in action, this movie has it. The Suicide Squad is perhaps the best pure action movie of any of DC’s modern releases.
3. Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings
2021 was a massive return for the Marvel Cinematic Universe with four new entries on the big screen alone. They covered a wide variety of genres and styles, but without question, the best action movie of them all was Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Marvel’s no stranger to great action, but we’ve never seen a martial arts movie from the franchise, making Shang-Chi’s something fresh and new for the MCU. It’s beautifully choreographed in a way that makes the fight scenes not only exciting, but lovely to look at.
2. No Time To Die
Daniel Craig’s final adventure as James Bond was a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. Whether involved in a gun battle or a car chase, No Time To Die brought some of the best action in the history of the James Bond franchise. To be fair, James Bond had some help this time around, Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch did their part to the up the action as well. When it is time for James Bond to return, the new guy will have a tough act to follow.
1. Raging Fire
The world lost one of the great action filmmakers in 2020 when Benny Chan unexpectedly died of cancer. We have his great work in Hong Kong action cinema left to remember him by, and this year, we got one final entry: a collaboration between him and the great Donnie Yen in Raging Fire. While the movie’s plot and characters may be less than original, what the movie lacks in depth it more than makes up for in action. Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse are in top form in a movie any fan of martial arts cinema, or just action in general, needs to see.
2021 was a solid action movie year. If you missed any of these, I highly recommend checking them out at your next opportunity. You might not have much time as 2022 is shaping up to be another great year, and you’ll need time to watch all those great action movies as well.
CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.