Trying to define "action movie" can yield several different answers, but we like to think of the genre as run-and-gun, fist-to-fist escapism that stands the test of time and occasionally comes with tinges of comedy or sci-fi. Think more Predator than Small Soldiers (sorry, Small Soldiers). The very best of the best rank as some of the greatest movies of all time, but there's plenty of reliably diverting high-octane fare available on Netflix at any given time. Here's our favorites on Netflix right now.
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The first Ant-Man was a rambunctious and clever take on the familiar Marvel origin story, introducing audiences to shrinking superhero dad Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and his extended family of friends and reluctant crime-fighters. The sequel is an even funnier and sillier refinement of the first chapter, ditching some of the heavier elements and going all-in on the gags. Though other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been filled with sitcom-ish banter, this is the first one that really plays like a proper comedy. (It recalls Ghostbusters in the way it combines special effects and irreverence.) Rudd has a way of putting an absurd spin on even the most mundane lines, Michael Peña again steals every scene he's in, and director Peyton Reed approaches the pint-sized action beats with the goal of upending viewer expectations. Luckily, it's the rare blockbuster with charming human moments that doesn't feel the need to overcompensate with scenes of mass destruction or constantly apologize for its modest scale.
Batman Begins (2005)
Hot take: Christopher Nolan's first base jump into the Batman universe is even better than 2008's acclaimed The Dark Knight. Squarely focused on Bruce Wayne -- an orphaned boy, a troubled youth, a reluctant millionaire, a hero teetering on the edge of villainy -- the verismo popcorn movie stripped away the cartoon pizazz of previous entries and not only revived Caped Crusader's darkest moment, but exacerbated it with the moral manipulation of Ra's Al Ghul and the psychedelic nightmares of The Scarecrow. Every movie mimicked Nolan's "dark, gritty" reinvention. No movie lives up to Batman Begins' grandeur.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
It's hard to tell the actors apart in Black Hawk Down: They're all dressed in military fatigues, often with helmets and goggles that obscure their faces; there's dust everywhere; and yelling is the preferred method of communication. To say that Ridley Scott's chronicle of a 1993 US military raid in Mogadishu doesn't cohere isn't exactly a negative critique. It's a part of the movie's frenzied, discombobulating aesthetic. Faces blur. The soundtrack pummels you with gunfire. Helicopters whirl overhead. It's experiential, the type of movie that's tough to shake -- even on a puny computer screen.
Creed director Ryan Coogler's take on superhero-dom is both pleasing and probing, while still making space for Soundcloud jokes, rhino battles, and spicy takes on imperialism in Black Panther, one of the best movies of 2018. The central ideological conflict between the new Wakandan king, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), and the American revolutionary, Killmonger (Jordan), has been seen before in the pages of history books and comics, but it's never been given this type of unparalleled, eye-popping, brain-scrambling, heart-pounding blockbuster treatment, especially in the MCU.
As you probably know, Ang Lee's beloved period martial arts flick isn't just the gripping story of a sought-after blade. The 2000 release also earned critical acclaim for its panoramic backgrounds, dance-like swordplay, and genre-bending pace. If you have yet to submit yourself to the jaw-dropping experience that is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it's time.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Not all superhero films are action movies, but The Dark Knight, with its Heat-inspired opening robbery, truck-flipping car chase, and Batman-as-NSA-watchdog high-rise fight, certainly qualifies. Critics have rightly dinged Christopher Nolan's incoherent editing and glaring plot holes, but the Inception director is a master of narrative stacking, layering stories to create a sense of frenzied tension. The Dark Knight is a brilliant Jenga tower of suspense. With Heath Ledger's iconic Joker performance at its center, the movie grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Quentin Tarantino has something to say about race, violence, and American life, and it's going to ruffle feathers. Like Django Unchained, the writer-director reflects modern times on the Old West, but with more scalpel-sliced dialogue, profane poetry, and gore. Stewed from bits of Agatha Christie, David Mamet, and Sam Peckinpah, The Hateful Eight traps a cast of blowhards (including Samuel L. Jackson as a Civil War veteran, Kurt Russell as a bounty hunter known as "The Hangman," and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a psychopathic gang member) in a blizzard-enveloped supply station. Tarantino ups the tension by shooting his suffocating space in "glorious 70mm." Treachery and moral compromise never looked so good.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
Shaun of the Dead spoofers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg set their sights on bumbling police officers trying to solve a murder in a small English town. The duo watched countless buddy-cop flicks to fully satirize the genre, and it paid off, with laughably bad chase sequences and uproarious slapstick gags. They prove how much fun action movies can be when they lighten up a little (OK, a lot). Remember: It's not murder, it's ketchup.
Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to nab Best Director at the Oscars for her Best Picture-winning drama, that today seems all but forgotten. If you didn't catch The Hurt Locker a decade ago (and few did -- the movie only made about $17 million at the box office), stream this heart-pounding examination of a explosive disposal specialist (Jeremy Renner) who brushes against death during the Iraq War time and time again, but finds himself drawn to the ecstasy of bomb diffusion, even after being reunited with his family.
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.
Miami Vice (2006)
For this remake of the popular '80s TV series, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx take on the roles of Crockett and Tubbs, respectively, but the mood has changed. Writer and director Michael Mann, an executive producer on the original show, approaches the material with the tactical focus he brought to his crime epic Heat, but he also shoots the film digitally, giving the Florida locations and Cuban detours a dazzling smeared look. Mix yourself a mojito and enjoy.
National Treasure (2004)
It's no Mandy, but Natty Treasure is Nic Cage at his ironic peak as a historical cryptographer (and, let's be real, conspiracy theorist) in this clue-filled jaunt to save the Declaration of Independence from his treasure hunting rival (played by a very blonde Sean Bean) by preemptively stealing it. It's not necessarily a good movie, per se, with its convenient coincidences, absurd dialogue, and sheer implausibility, but nearly 15 years on, it's an even more perfect satire of goofy pro-America word salad, even if director John Turteltaub didn't intend it. If you're unconvinced National Treasure is worth your precious time, Nic Cage saying, "I'm gonna steal the Declaration of Independence" should do it.
The Netflix original Okja poses an interesting ethical question: If your beloved super pig gets kidnapped by a corporate food giant, would you join a group of rouge animal rights activists to see that your pet gets home safe? It’s certainly not the most conventional plot, but because of that, the film about one girl’s journey to save her affectionate hippo-looking pig from mass consumption is a truly insane, high-stakes rescue mission. At times it may feel like propaganda for veganism, but the film, featuring a star-studded cast of Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and others, is absolutely ridiculous and over the top, leaving your heart pounding as you sit at the edge of your seat, dying to see this pig flee to safety.
Polar is a very fun, very ridiculous, and very violent movie starring Mads Mikkelsen as a hitman nicknamed the Black Kaiser. In the film directed by Swedish filmmaker Jonas Akerlund (based on Victor Santos’ graphic novel series of the same name), the Black Kaiser thinks he’s just about ready to retire from his high-intensity assassination lifestyle -- until he learns there’s a group hunting down his associates, and he’s next on their hit list. Polar doesn't fancy itself particularly highbrow entertainment; instead, it's a comically bloody hitman movie where every action set piece is more over-the-top than the last, but that’s what makes it so great.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Steven Spielberg shows his work at every step of his action masterpiece. Indiana Jones' first adventure is like a comic book, flipped through at 24 panels a second. Nazis drag our hero along Cairo's dusty streets, strongmen (and a whirling propeller) threaten to squash him to pulp in the fisticuffs of a lifetime, and a megaton boulder chases him through a cobwebbed labyrinth. Not once through it all does Spielberg slip in a throwaway cut or zig when he should zag just to disorient us. Raiders is immaculate, each angle worth printing out and hanging on the wall. After you're done with it, dive right into Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, both on Netflix.
Road House (1989)
Patrick Swayze playing a martial arts master and professional "cooler" at a sleazy bar? Yes, Road House is a peak example of incredible '80s trash filmmaking, featuring prime Swayze as a crime-fighting bouncer in one of the most fun good-bad movies ever. Like the The Double Deuce itself, this classic is completely lawless, which means you can fire it up on Netflix 10 times in a row without a hint of guilty conscience.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
This interpretation of the Victorian-era favorites Holmes and Watson is led by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, and enhanced by director Guy Ritchie's excesses. The combination works, because it turns the period piece into a bona fide Hollywood action hit. The lavish production and big-budget action sequences may not have been what Arthur Conan Doyle had in mind when he created the characters, but as the detective duo embarks on an occult-ish investigation of a missing serial killer, the film imbues the sleuthing story with adrenaline-pumping energy. There are clues and intrigue, and thrilling scenes that play like Mission: Impossible set in the 1800s.
Did people go overboard in praising Snowpiercer when it came out? Maybe. But it's important to remember that the movie arrived in the sweaty dog days of summer, hitting critics and sci-fi lovers like a welcome blast of icy water from a hose. The film's simple, almost video game-like plot -- get to the front of the train, or die trying -- allowed visionary South Korean director Bong Joon-ho to fill the screen with excitement, absurdity, and radical politics. Chris Evans never looked more alive, Tilda Swinton never stole more scenes, and mainstream blockbuster filmmaking never felt so tepid in comparison. Come on, ride the train!
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Perhaps the best (and funniest) movie in the Thor trilogy, this Marvel film directed by Taika Waititi follows the Norse god (Chris Hemsworth) as he races against the clock to put a stop to the impending chaos of the prophesied Ragnarok caused by the emerging villain Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Mistress of Darkness. Pulling heavily from the comic books, this standalone superhero story is packed with developed material, tons of jokes and brothers' banter between Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and all of the godly Thor fighting sequences set to Led Zeppelin you could possibly hope for.
Filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning writer behindThe Usual Suspectsand the two most recent gravity-defying entries in the Mission: Impossible series, directs an outstanding ensemble cast in this action-thriller. The burly squad of ex-military commandos pulled together by Oscar Isaac's Santiago Garcia, a private contractor overseeing deadly drug enforcement operations in Colombia, is a ragtag team of action movie archetypes: There's the sad, real-estate-selling divorced dad who looks like he'd rather be vaping (Ben Affleck); the noble, buff warrior stuck giving rote speeches about his past glories (Charlie Hunnam); the taciturn, hat-wearing helicopter pilot the filmmakers didn't bother outfitting with a backstory (Pedro Pascal); and the other dude (Garrett Hedlund) who does amateur MMA fights. Together, they decide to rob a drug kingpin hiding out in the South American jungle, but obviously things don't always go according to plan.
The Wave (2016)
Roar Uthaug -- great action director name or best action director name? -- takes the time to embolden his main characters, a loving family of four in a small Norwegian village battling against a fjord-enabled tidal wave, and capture Norway's rolling beauty. Then the mayhem starts. When the townsfolk realize their fate, and only have 10 minutes to evacuate, The Wave capsizes tranquility with 100 tons of liquid devastation. Not since Titanic has underwater photography looked so terrifying. Like its actors, we are in the tank for The Wave.
V for Vendetta (2005)
Remember, remember, the fifth of November -- and a buzzed Natalie Portman -- with James McTeigue's tyrannical thriller, which comes at a very appropriate time and has aged just fine, thank you very much.
Van Helsing (2004)
If you’ve got a thing for Hollywood horror classics like Dracula and Frankenstein, Van Helsing is the contemporary answer for you -- and it’s even more action-packed than the old films it draws from. Here, Hugh Jackman plays Van Helsing, a monster hunter sent to Translyvania to see the demise of Dracula, who has been conjuring up a dark plan with the help of Dr. Frankenstein. While it leans into the fantastical realm, the film's got some serious monster slaying by way of impressive 20th-century guns and swords, and it’s a haunting, violent reimagining of the fate of these eerie characters.