The Best Action Movies of 2021

Looking for explosions? You came to the right place.

timothee chalamet in dune
Timothée Chalamet in 'Dune' | Warner Brothers
Timothée Chalamet in 'Dune' | Warner Brothers

Like any down-on-their luck hero, the action movie never gives up. As blockbuster films continue to get pushed further down the release calendar or punted to streaming with Hollywood formulating a plan to revive the theatrical distribution business, it's been tough to find big mainstream action hits to celebrate. The genre was in a weird space even before the pandemic, with superhero franchises and similar tentpoles sucking up most of the oxygen. But there are always new discoveries to make and new grizzled protagonists to praise.

These are the best twist-filled crime thrillers, time-loop beatdowns, and car-chase-filled blockbusters. If there's a movie that singes your eyebrows off with explosions, stuns you with wild fight choreography, or makes your stomach turn with unbearable tension, it belongs on this list. Here's what we've got.

Read more: The Best Movies of 2021

below zero

Release date: January 29, 2021
Cast: Javier Gutiérrez, Karra Elejalde, Isak Férriz, Luis Callejo
Director: Lluís Quílez
Prisoner transportation might be the task with the worst success-to-failure ratio in all of action movie-dom. Any time a group of incarcerated individuals get placed in a large vehicle (the more box-like and state-of-the-art the better), you can guarantee something unbearably tense is about to go down. Below Zero is a particularly gruesome example of what the "transfer-gone-wrong" genre has to offer, a close-quarters thriller that works best when it keeps its characters confined to the tightest possible space. From the first scene, the Spanish film's bleak and foreboding tone carries the action—centering on a police officer tasked with working alongside a new partner to oversee a "high-risk transfer" involving the deadly head of a Romanian gang across icy, barren terrain—even as the plot melts away to reveal a more conventional revenge movie slicked with brutal violence. 
Where to watch: Netflix (Watch the trailer

boss level

Boss Level

Release date: March 5, 2021
Cast: Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Michelle Yeoh 
Director: Joe Carnahan (The Grey)
Frank Grillo, a menacing scene-stealer in the MCU and a charming lead in scrappy thrillers like The Purge: Anarchy and Wheelman, has been underserved by the damaged modern action movie ecosystem. Boss Level, a brisk adventure that puts the buff actor in a Groundhog Day-like time loop trap where he fights off attackers and dies trying every day, is aware of Grillo's throwback star power, a strand of grizzled tough-guy charisma, and filmmaker Joe Carnahan, working from a script he co-wrote with Chris and Eddie Borey, wraps his lead in self-aware '80s and '90s nostalgia. Despite the quasi-futuristic setting, the music, the cartoonish villains, and the video game references all recall an earlier era where an actor like Grillo might have shined. The supporting cast ranges from over-qualified (Naomi Watts, Michelle Yeoh) to head-scratching (Mel Gibson, Rob Gronkowski), but this is the Grillo show all the way, an often silly yet convincing argument for his skills.
Where to watch: Hulu (Watch the trailer)

copshop movie
Open Road Films


Release date: September 17, 2021
Cast: Gerard Butler, Frank Grillo, Alexis Louder, Toby Huss
Director: Joe Carnahan (The Grey)
The classic siege movie gets an irreverent, self-aware tune-up here from director Joe Carnahan, who recruits his frequent collaborator Frank Grillo for a con-man role and brings a grizzled Gerard Butler aboard as a wry assassin. Grillo's Teddy Murretto, sporting a man-bun and snakeskin boots, is on the run from some bad guys and gets himself locked up in jail on purpose, and Butler's Bob Viddick, a variation on his loutish Den of Thieves character, shows up to finish the job. Trigger-happy rookie cop Valerie Young, played with warmth and nerve by Alexis Louder, is the only thing preventing the two from killing each other. Though some of the humor drifts into tiresome edgelord territory, Copshop moves with a pleasingly confident energy, taking time to set up side plots and let the tension build. When Carnahan finally lets the blood, guts, and bullets fly, it's worth the wait.
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

dune movie
Warner Brothers

Release date: October 22, 2021
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin
Director: Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049)
On a desert planet with valuable resources and a complicated past, a boy emerges who may have the power to change the course of history. For all the handwringing about the commercial potential of this big-budget version of Frank Herbert's 1965 science fiction novel, adapted before in a spectacularly strange fashion by David Lynch in 1984 and again in a more straightforward manner by the Sci Fi Channel in 2000, the most striking thing about Denis Villeneuve's pulverizing take on the material is how elegantly he lays out the pieces of the narrative, allowing the viewer to get caught up in the journey without shortchanging the adventure or jettisoning the bizarre elements. This is a big, swashbuckling epic, filled with explosions and surprise attacks, but it also succeeds by focusing on the intimacy of Timothée Chalamet's performance as Paul, the young heir to House Atreides. Unlike so many modern blockbusters, which often spiral out with attempts at Nolan-like narrative stacking or universe-saving attempts to close giant portals, the journey ends with a small-scale fight for Paul's future. The movie is so immersive precisely because every bit of backstory and speck of lore doesn't feel over-explained; besides, that would be impossible. It's the rare action movie that retains a sense of mystery.
Where to watch: In theaters or streaming on HBO Max (Watch the trailer)

Universal Pictures

Release date: June 25, 2021
Cast: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges
Director: Justin Lin (Fast and Furious 6)
After the bloated Fate of the Furious, which found the Fast franchise careening off the icy cliff of self-parody and into the freezing waters of self-indulgence, F9 serves as a necessary course correction courtesy of filmmaker Justin Lin, who helmed the best entry in the series with Fast Five and saved it from direct-to-DVD purgatory with Tokyo Drift. He's clearly doing some necessary tune-up work here, stripping the series for parts (say goodbye to The Rock and Jason Statham!) and futzing with the engine (say hello to some surprisingly compelling flashbacks to Dom's teenage years!). If you find these proudly melodramatic, unrepentantly goofy movies tedious, F9 will not be the one to win you over. The plot is mostly nonsense; John Cena is not a particularly compelling villain; the "comedy" bits stop the movie in its tracks. But, with Lin throwing everything he's got at the screen, F9 delivers the goods when it comes to the huge set-pieces, particularly any time a magnet is involved, and Diesel, rumbling with each line reading, remains a fascinating screen presence in these films, which still feel personal to him despite their ridiculous scale and unapologetic cheesiness.

Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

Universal Pictures

Release date: March 26, 2021
Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, RZA, Aleksei Serebryakov
Director: Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry)
This is a movie where Bob Odenkirk beats up a bunch of goons on a public bus and later dismantles a whole army of gangsters in a factory. Whether you're a fan of Odenkirk from Better Call Saul or Mr. Show, the prospect of seeing the mild-mannered 58-year-old go full John Wick in a movie written by John Wick writer Derek Kolstad is intriguing. Luckily, Nobody mostly delivers on the potential of its premise, stringing together brutal, bone-breaking fight scenes with a Bourne meets Death Wish meets Taken plot that moves from set piece to set piece. He may not move with the balletic grace of Keanu Reeves or growl with the Biblical anger of Liam Neeson, but Odenkirk brings a psychological intensity and a winning wryness to a part that a more conventional action hero might have simply slept-walk through. With John Wick: Chapter 4 now pushed to 2022, Nobody might be the most satisfying jolt of slick, mean mayhem you get from a major studio project this year.
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

one shot
Screen Media Films

One Shot

Release date: November 5
Cast: Scott Adkins, Ashley Greene, Ryan Phillippe, Emmanuel Imani
Director: James Nunn (The Marine 6: Close Quarters)
A DTV 1917 for the war on terror, this stunt-ey siege thriller, which plays out in "one-take" for its entire runtime, admirably takes formally audacious visual swings on what appears to be a tight, no-frills budget. There's a visceral urgency to the blocking and staging of the scenes of the movie's NAVY Seal hero, the reliably engaging action king Scott Adkins, navigating a black site prison as a team of machine-gun-wielding insurgents attempt to capture a prisoner who was previously scheduled to be transported to DC by the CIA. Though some of the exposition scenes early on are hampered by the demands of the one-take gimmick, particularly as premise gets established and the characters get introduced, the final two-thirds of the movie are grimly effective, delivering memorable images that blend video-game first-person shooter aesthetics with the rough-and-tumble immediacy of Adkins's best work in the fight genre. One Shot is exactly the type of adventurous experiment that the crowded world of OnDemand action could use more of.
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

riders of justice
Mongrel Media

Riders of Justice

Release date: May 14, 2021
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Lars Brygmann
Director: Anders Thomas Jensen (Men & Chicken)
The idea of Mads Mikkelsen, the menacing and captivating star of NBC's Hannibal and last year's Oscar-winner Another Round, getting his own Taken-like revenge vehicle is appealing enough. But Riders of Justice, a philosophically knotty and refreshingly contemplative Danish action thriller, is more than your average Neeson-esque revenge movie knock-off. Yes, Mikkelsen, sporting a gnarly beard and a shaved head, plays a stoic, violent man seeking to find the men responsible for killing his wife. Sure, there's plenty of suspense and twists and shoot-outs and even a deadly motorcycle gang. But director Anders Thomas Jensen, who also penned the script, finds room in this sprawling tale for bits of sharp comedy, most of it involving the team of stat-obsessed nerds who assist Mikkelsen's tough commando, and welcome detours into more metaphysical concerns surrounding ethics and randomness and chaos. As the plot digressions (and the bodies) pile up, Mikkelsen keeps the narrative humming with his unceasing intensity. 
Where to watch: Stream on Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)



Release date: March 5, 2021
Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Marilyn Lima, Michel Nabokoff, Martin Swabey 
Director: Julien Leclercq (The Bouncer)
At 80 minutes, Sentinelle is pared back to the bare essentials. The main character, an opioid-addicted French soldier (Olga Kurylenko) patrolling the waterfronts of Nice, moves through the movie with steely determination, seeking revenge for her sister after she's brutally attacked and raped by sleazy Russians. Though some of the fights can be a bit choppy, and elements of the plot strain credulity, the storytelling displays a admirable focus and sense of restraint. When the action arrives, it has a real impact. Director Julien Leclercq's previous movie The Bouncer, which put Jean-Claude Van Damme in a similarly bleak and unforgiving world, was even sharper, but Sentinelle continues to show the filmmaker's commitment to telling stories of violence and trauma with a sense of moral weight and emotional truth. 
Where to watch: Netflix (Watch the trailer)

without remorse
Amazon Studios

Without Remorse

Release date: April 30, 2021
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Guy Pearce
Director: Stefano Sollima (Sicario: Day of the Soldado)
Stefano Sollima, who co-created Amazon's unnerving drug trade drama ZeroZeroZero, knows how to squeeze tension out of a scene where a soldier moves through a dimly lit space with a gun. The broad strokes of the brutally efficient Tom Clancy adaptation Without Remorse—the killing off of a wife character with little screen time, the alliance shifting of potential allies and enemies within the deep-state, the mowing down of attackers during a late-night raid gone wrong—were already tired clichés when the author was covering them with techno-babble and right-wing politics and rolling them into his bestsellers. The pleasure here, which might look like a strange word to use in describing such an often nasty movie, is in the way Sollima carefully stages each sequence and the way Michael B. Jordan, playing Clancy's rouge Navy SEAL John Kelly, leans into each cold-blooded act of retaliation. Working together, they make each punch land.
Where to watch:Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer)

wrath of man

Wrath of Man

Release date: May 7, 2021
Cast: Jason Statham, Holt McCallany, Jeffrey Donovan, Josh Hartnett
Director: Guy Ritchie (The Gentlemen)
The latest Guy Ritchie crime movie has a dark soul, a foreboding tone, and an escalating sense of menace. Working in a similar self-consciously brooding register as the L.A. caper Den of Thieves, Wrath of Man strips Jason Statham of the audience-pleasing, wise-cracking charm that made him a bright-spot in the recent Fast and Furious movies. Instead, the frequent Ritchie collaborator plays a grieving mob boss who goes undercover as part of an armored truck security team in an effort to find the men who killed his son during a truck heist gone wrong. The revenge set-up is simple enough, giving a subdued Statham plenty of opportunities to look cool and swat away attackers (including, at one point, rapper Post Malone), and, at least for the first third, Ritchie hits all the familiar beats with a degree of hard-nosed style. The movie trips over its own plot in the middle, introducing too many characters and muddying the chronology, but it ends strong with a tense fire-fight that finds Ritchie staging one of the most thrilling action sequences of his long, strange career.
Where to watch: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

ethan hawke in zeroes and ones

Zeros and Ones

Release date: November 19
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Cristina Chiriac, Phil Neilson, Valerio Mastandrea
Director: Abel Ferrara (Siberia)
Is it "cheating" to include Zeroes and Ones on a list of action movies? Potentially, but let's stretch the definition a bit. The new movie from prolific filmmaker Abel Ferrara, the director behind gritty classics like King of New York and Bad Lieutenant, is much less straightforward than every other film on this list. For one thing, it's bookended with scenes of its star, Ethan Hawke, talking about his decision to make the film and what the project means to him; the plot, which follows a commando named JJ (Hawke) as he moves through the streets of Italy during a pandemic, only flirts with coherence; the digital images, shot by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, have a dark, smeared quality. This is a riveting, challenging work, one that weds some of Ferrara's pet themes (guilt, shame, the unknowability of the self) with the surreal, paranoid quality of the present moment. Bewildering and breathtaking, it's unlike anything else you'll see this year.
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.