"Action movie" is an expansive term encapsulating a wide range of sub genres, as well as sub-sub genres.
For example, the Indiana Jones films are action and so is "Atomic Blonde," and those are two wildly different types of movies. What both movies have in common, however, is a penchant for delivering scene after scene of exhilarating and joyous to watch stunts, fight choreography, and the occasional explosion peppered in for good measure. Superheroes make action, so do giant monsters, and so does a highly-trained good guy wearily dispatching swarms of would-be assassins. It’s a big tent.
After a year of closed theaters and delayed releases, action fans entered 2021 clamoring for adrenaline rushes. Movie studios were ready, as they were locked, stocked, and barreled with new shoot ’em ups, superhero throw downs, sweeping sci-fi epics, a monster mash and so much more. For fans clamoring to see someone shooting guns or dropping a flurry of fisticuffs, here’s a list of the best action movies released in 2021.
"Zack Snyder’s Justice League"
In March of 2021, after years of rallying cries from fans calling upon Warner Bros. to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut, director Zack Snyder’s original vision (and then some) for the Justice League’s first live-action film made it to the screen.
Following the 2017 release of the Franken-movie that Joss Whedon oversaw after Snyder had to step down, no one knew what to expect from this new take on the original vision. The end results were strong, including more fleshed out story arcs for each member of the titular team and a villain with more relatable motivations — but the flick truly delivered in its action scenes.
To die-hard Snyder fans, impressive action sequences are no surprise, but for anybody who hadn’t seen his particular brand of artfully framed, gleefully ridiculous action in a while, "League" was a reminder of what the man does best.
His love for slow motion and broad storytelling combined to create action scenes that looked lifted directly from comic panels. Whether it was the Zeus duel with a younger Darkseid, Steppenwolf palming a warhead and tossing it away one-handed, or Flash turning back time, Snyder’s eye for action is singular.
"Godzilla vs. Kong"
What’s in a name? For fans of these particular monster franchises, the title promised a smackdown decades in the making.
The set up was simple: Godzilla attacks humans unprovoked, so humans call upon Kong to lead them to a source of energy that can defeat him. During the journey, the Terror of Tokyo (and once upon a time, Matthew Broderick) crosses paths with the eighth wonder of the world and they throw down to see who gets to be king of the monsters.
While the movie received mixed reviews, predominantly for some thin human storylines, critics have largely praised its Kong on Zilla action.
Director Adam Wingard’s previous movies, "You’re Next" and "The Guest," both featured impressive genre melting pots and effective action scenes. Wingard’s greatest success in "Godzilla vs. Kong" was finding the right balance between monster mash and fight scenes plotted out well enough to make every punch, bite, and nuclear breath blast count. Also, Kong wielded a battle axe during a beautifully fluorescent backlit throwdown in Hong Kong.
Some critics have taken issue with plotting or character development, but in this movie that’s just not the point. Like Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa once said, "Let them fight."
Action pictures, with their recognizable conventions, stock characters, and similar plot mechanics, can oftentimes feel upon release like a newly-erected diner. Fans know the menu, know what they like, and know what they’re not ordering.
So when a movie like "Nobody" comes along, any fan of the genre knows they’re in for a certain meal (or viewing experience). Produced by half of the "John Wick" brain trust (David Leitch) and starring funny man (and quietly brilliant actor) Bob Odenkirk, "Nobody" proved to be certifiably awesome.
Odenkirk opened eyes as a put-upon suburbanite stooge hiding a very, very particular set of skills. If the premise sounds familiar, it’s because it is.
However, "Nobody" brought such relish to what’s it was attempting, from performances to fight choreography to plot construction, that it stood out in the long line of middle-aged-men-punching-people franchises that came before it. Most of that success was due to Odenkirk — who, in a stroke of genius, played protagonist Hutch Mansell like a recovering addict who has gleefully broken sobriety, but with …. you know … violence.
Throw in a shotgun-wielding Christopher Lloyd and rifle-toting RZA as Hutch’s back-up, and action fans found a rare movie that transcended formula while simultaneously leaning into it.
"Shadow in the Cloud"
WW2 is having a bit of a genre moment. More than likely kicked off by the popularity of the "Call of Duty World at War" Nazi zombie hidden game, movies blending extreme war violence with even more intense sci/horror action have become a bit of a cottage industry in the past few years — think 2018’s "Overlord" or "The Outpost" franchise. What makes "Shadow in the Cloud" unique to this niche category (and other action movies released this year) is its perspective and focus on the women in the war effort.
"Shadow" told the story of Chloe Grace Moretz’s Flight Officer Maude Garret, and the confidential transport mission that had her hitching a ride on a B-52 bomber flying between South Pacific islands in Japanese occupied airspace.
The first half of the movie basically quarantined Moretz to the bottom turret of the plane. Her isolation in one of the worst places to be in an aircraft — outside and underneath it — paired with the sexist verbal abuse she received from the male crew over the radio, built a specific brand of suspense not often seen on the silver screen. But things got really crazy when spoiler-heavy details revealed themselves, allowing the movie to dive into some B-movie action that wouldn’t feel out of place in an understaffed theater from the ’80s. If you haven’t already, give this one a shot — it’s well worth a watch.
Based on the popular video game franchise, the new "Mortal Kombat" movie took some heat for its plotting and stretched world building efforts. However, one thing many critics agreed on was that the fight scenes were incredible.
The videogame’s continued popularity over the years is largely due to its high comedy depictions of extreme violence, combined with deep lore. While the movie may have fallen a bit short in the lore department, it did nail the style of fighting that has endeared fans to the franchise for so long. At one point, a character cuts someone in half with a buzz saw sombrero and says "flawless victory." It’s glorious.
Onscreen game-accurate fatalities are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a joke for game fans about the impossibly overpowered attack that is Liu Kang’s leg sweep, an amazing feudal Japan period piece cold open to set the stage for Sub Zero and Scorpion’s legendary rivalry, and a painfully accurate depiction of why Jax has metal arms.
"Mortal Kombat" remains unashamed in its intention to establish an extended universe based on the fighting games for Warner Bros. — if the quality of the fights remains at a proverbial eleven, bring on "Round 2."
The upcoming 2021 action movies we can’t wait to watch
Even with all of the great actioners released so far, there’s still more to come.
Fans have plenty to look forward to in 2021 including "Without Remorse," the just-released Tom Clancy adaptation starring Michael B. Jordan as an ex-Navy SEAL out to avenge his family’s murder. Later in the year, franchises go out punching with what (we assume) will be the final performances from their stars in iconic roles like Daniel Craig as Bond in "No Time to Die" and Scarlet Johannsen as the titular assassin in "Black Widow."
Also this year, James Gunn brings his R-rated absurdity to the much-anticipated "The Suicide Squad," with Margot Robbie reprising her role as Harley Quinn, Idris Elba joining the DCEU, and Sylvester Stallone voicing King Shark.
In addition, "F9" will put Vin Diesel and his on-screen "Furious" family back behind the wheel in June. Add in another attempt at adapting a "Dune" movie (this one directed by Denis Villeneuve) and a fourth "Matrix" film, and 2021 is shaping up to be an incredible year for action fans worldwide.