Trying to define an action movie can yield several different answers -- maybe you remember our crack at describing the underrated action movie. But here at Thrillist, we like to think of the genre as run-and-gun, fist-to-fist escapism, the kind that stands the test of time and occasionally comes with tinges of comedy or sci-fi. (Think more Predator than Small Soldiers, though -- sorry, Small Soldiers.) Below, Netflix's best high-octane offerings available right now.
Ridley Scott's Oscar-winning period piece will send you back several, several centuries to ancient Rome, where you'll watch the rage-filled Maximus (Russell Crowe), a peerless general turned gladiator, fight to avenge the savage murders of his family and emperor. Though this sword-and-sandal epic's 20th anniversary is near, it still plays as an impressive feat of story and spectacle. With measured pace, no dearth of bone-crushing battle sequences, and an Über-twisted Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator tops this list as one of your most well-rounded and potent options.
The Fast and The Furious (2001)
With the eighth entry in the series arriving in theaters this April, there's never been a better time to return to the starting line. While the later films emphasize increasingly implausible stunts like dropping cars out of planes, director Rob Cohen's NOS-powered original is a comparably stripped-down Point Break riff. What makes it work is Diesel's lunk-headed star-power, the late Paul Walker's laid-back charm, and some gripping Road Warrior-style heist sequences. If you live your life a quarter mile at a time -- or just have a thing for Corona -- this is where it all began.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Director John Carpenter owned a certain corner of '80s genre films. Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Prince of Darkness, and They Live are all essential documents. Big Trouble in Little China, his rollicking adventure film starring Kurt Russell, is more of a bizarre, ambitious attempt to wrap a bunch of his idiosyncratic interests (serialized adventure stories, monster horror films, kung-fu cinema, Howard Hawks-style romantic comedy) into one sprawling artistic statement. Sadly, it flopped, but its brilliant action scenes (and possibly problematic, stereotype-driven comedy) will live forever.
Blade II (2002)
It's difficult to picture a movie like Blade II being made in today's Marvel Cinematic Universe. From its vampiric rave aesthetic to the icky effects, Guillermo del Toro's bloodbath of a sequel has only grown more impressive with the passage of time. Wesley Snipes, decked out in his Oakleys and leather trench coat, gives one of his most badass performances as the heroic daywalker, stalking vamps and tossing off one-liners with an effortlessly cool demeanor. This is slick, corporate-approved entertainment with gonzo, cult-film soul.
The Guest (2014)
After writer-director Adam Wingard notched a semi-sleeper horror hit with 2011's You're Next, he'd earned a certain degree of goodwill among genre faithful and, apparently, with studio brass. How else to explain distribution for his atypical thriller The Guest through Time Warner subsidiary Picturehouse? Headlined by soon-to-be megastar Dan Stevens and kindred flick It Follows' lead scream queen Maika Monroe, The Guest introduces itself as a subtextual impostor drama, abruptly spins through a blender of '80s teen tropes, and ultimately reveals its true identity as an expertly self-conscious straight-to-video shoot 'em up, before finally circling back on itself with a well-earned wink. To say anymore about the hell that Stevens' "David" unleashes on a small New Mexico town would not only spoil the fun, but possibly get you killed.
Top Gun (1986)
To put it bluntly, Top Gun is cheesy as hell. But there are elements to recommend: Tom Cruise is the weirdly charming actor you know and love, Kelly McGillis is a worthy romantic counterpart, Val Kilmer snaps his way through all his scenes, late director Tony Scott lends his signature music-video touch, and (very old spoiler alert!) I still cry a little bit when Goose dies. It might be manipulative, and "Danger Zone" has certainly inspired a lot of horrific karaoke moments, but 30 years later it still has the power to... wait for it... take our breath away. You disagree? Let’s settle this on the volleyball court.
Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear (2013)
Scott Adkins is a name you need to know. A trained martial artist and regular Jean-Claude Van Damme adversary, Adkins is the kind of charismatic fighter who would be huge if it were 1991, but delivers the goods in VOD genre movies and small blockbuster roles (see: The Bourne Ultimatum). Ninja 2 is his current masterpiece, a revenge movie where every scene is an excuse to fight. Fists, swords, barbed-wire flails -- you name it, Ninja 2 has it. And unlike JCVD, Adkins makes the down moments not just bearable but believable. He's a talent who can act with punches and words.
If some movies on this list feel like action junk food, this South Korean treasure is your gourmet helping of pan-roasted Brussels sprouts with crisp prosciutto: at its higher-brow heart is an espionage-style spin on Japan's war-era occupation of Korea. But Choi Dong-hoon's period piece also comes topped with political intrigue, an intricate frame story, a twisting assassination plot, no dearth of double crosses, and, of course, flashes of good ol' fashioned shoot-outs. All of that yields a complex-yet-satisfying yarn about deceit and comeuppance in 1930s Seoul and Shanghai.
Tokyo Tribe (2015)
This crazed action movie stages the rap battle to end all rap battles. If Anchorman's anchor melee took place in a futuristic Japanese metropolis, doubled down on the weapons and kung-fu moves, and relied on shit-talking, percussive rhymes to do the talking, it would look a little like Sion Sono's gluttonous epic. Tokyo Tribe is all about the obscene, commenting on class issues and penis length all in one breath. The action is dazzling and the left turns, constant and outrageous, wring your brain for every ounce of logical juice. One does not watch Tokyo Tribe so much as submit to it.
Jarhead 2: Field of Fire (2014)
Yes, they really made a direct-to-video sequel to Jake Gyllenhaal's wartime malaise movie. And yes, it's solid. While rah-rah patriotic-man-on-a-mission movies are making a comeback, Jarhead 2 is the rare gem that's reverent toward our armed forces, action-packed, and devoid of any jingoistic dog-whistling. The movie follows a mixed band of Marines and Afghan National Army soldiers tasked with freeing a female Afghan activist from Taliban control. Cheap, Jean-Claude Van Damme-style action drivel this is not.
The Ip Man movies
There aren't many biopics that also pass for decent action movies. Somehow, Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen and director Wilson Yip have made three separate movies based on the life of Chinese martial arts master Yip Kai-man, who famously trained Bruce Lee -- all three of the flicks are on Netflix, plus an unrelated Herman Yau entry (Ip Man: The Final Fight). What's their trick to keeping this series fresh? Play fast and loose with the facts, up the melodrama with each film, and, when in doubt, cast Mike Tyson as an evil property developer. The third movie in the series isn't necessarily the best -- that's probably still the first film -- but the fights are incredible, and Yen's portrayal of the aging master still has the power to draw a few tears from even the most grizzled tough guy.
This gritty swords-and-sandals action movie, loosely based on the massacre of the Ninth Legion in 117 AD, came and went from theaters. If only star Michael Fassbender were a little more famous, director Neil Marshall already had Game of Thrones credits to his name, or Quantum of Solace, which featured Centurion's female lead Olga Kurylenko in her first acting role, had made an impression, audiences would have flocked to it. Oh well. Now people can catch up with this vicious, battle-heavy slice of history at home.
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