The Swordsman | Photo: WellGo USA
A collection of crisp, imaginative brutality
This was a good year for action cinema. In 2020, many of the biggest movies were postponed or moved to streaming, while blockbuster productions were halted due to the COVID pandemic. And while the health crisis isn’t over, blockbusters came back in force in 2021: Four Marvel movies, Zack Snyder’s long-awaited Justice League cut, a Kong vs Godzilla showdown, new entries in world-famous franchises (F9, Mortal Kombat, Snake Eyes), and a few surprises in the mid-budget standalone ’90s actioner range, like Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man and Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse.
The year has been filled with ambitious, energetic, and exciting action films — indies and blockbusters alike — some of which contain scenes that will stay with you for a long time. Here is a list of 10 of the most accomplished, daring, or impressive action scenes of the year in alphabetical order, which you can check out right now on various streaming and VOD platforms.
The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill — scaffolding fight
Directed by Kan Eguchi
Image: Geek Pictures Shochiku
The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill isn’t the best film in this list, but it definitely has the best action scene: a 15-minute tour-de-force set in an apartment building and the massive scaffolding erected in front of it. The hero and the army of goons he faces travel in all directions (left, right, up, down) with mesmerizing agility and welcome brutality. Just like in the first film, the scene’s stakes lie in the way the filmmakers exploit the setting to create suspense and emotion. It’s a roller coaster of dodging sniper bullets and parkour moves executed mid-kick. More than the (decent) scaffolding fight scene from Shang-Chi;, it is a true testament to the film team’s dedication pushing a kind of believable and grounded spectacle to new heights. The first film, an adaptation of the eponymous manga simply called The Fable, came out in 2019 in Japan. Start with that one (it also contains dazzling action), and then watch its sequel, The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill.
The Fable and The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill are both available to stream on Netflix.
Hydra — the final fight
Direceted by Kensuke Sonomura
Hydra is a prime example of the independent Japanese film scene’s ability to create something truly unique with next to no resources. Longtime stuntman Kensuke Sonomura directed his first feature film in 2019, but it only reached international shores this year. A low-key, character-driven drama that plays heavily on atmosphere, Hydra contains sporadic action, but those two bursts of violence are immensely satisfying, as the built-up drama makes viewers care deeply about the outcome. The action choreography takes speed to new levels; there is no undercranking as far as I could tell, and yet my eyes could barely keep up. In a fight where each movement and each second counts, the tension builds up to untenable levels. Action and emotion combined to devastating effects. The film is a breezy 77 minutes long and doesn’t need to be longer. A short synthwave-filled, neon-drenched indie with two astounding fights? If you’re into this sort of thing, don’t miss out.
Hydra is available to stream on Hi-Yah! and rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu
Nobody — the bus fight
Directed by Ilya Naishuller
One of the biggest surprises of early 2021, Nobody treads familiar grounds story-wise, but Bob Odenkirk’s commitment impresses. The seasoned actor sought out the role to challenge himself and step out of his comfort zone. Mission accomplished: the action is lean and mean, thanks mostly to the involvement of the 87North (formerly 87Eleven) action stunt team, the driving force behind the John Wick franchise. To get up to speed, Odenkirk trained with none other than action legend Daniel Bernhardt, who plays one of the goons on the bus. That is the scene the team chose to put front and center for the film’s marketing campaign, and for good reason. Minutely planned and rehearsed, beautifully choreographed, and efficiently directed by Hardcore Henry filmmaker Ilya Naishuller, the scene emphasizes the protagonist’s pain and suffering, and playfully makes use of the environment and limitations inherent to small spaces. Clarity and legibility are constantly on the mind of the 87North team, and it pays off: no shaky-cam, no unnecessary cutting, just a by-the-book, old-fashioned, immensely striking fist fight. It’s always a good feeling when you get your money’s worth.
Nobody is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu
No Time To Die — opening chase
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
The Craig era comes to an end but this final chapter takes off at full throttle when James Bond is targeted by SPECTRE assassins while visiting Vesper Lynd’s tomb. The chase is fast-paced, tense, varied, and stimulating, making the protagonist go from running to riding a motorcycle, to using his signature weaponized Aston Martin. The scene is directed masterfully by Fukunaga, who delivers everything one could expect from a Bond action scene, from the gadgets to the stunts to the virtuoso camera work. Set in the Southern Italian city of Matera, which was never designed to accommodate car chases, the scene takes full advantage of the unusual topography — narrow cobblestone streets, slopes, hills, and stairs everywhere — to create a consistently surprising action choreography. It’s a beautiful example of a blockbuster making the effort to find real locations and design thrilling sequences to create a more tangible texture. It feels like good old-fashioned filmmaking in a crisp, polished modern veneer. Perhaps among the franchise’s best action scenes.
No Time to Die is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.
One Shot — the whole dang movie
Directed by James Nunn
The chosen scene is the whole film because One Shot is presented as a single unbroken shot. It’s not a real oner, of course — shooting an action film with gun fights and explosions as a true one-take would be irresponsibly dangerous — but the editing is seamless. The long takes work well in that they create a palpable sense of immersion for the viewer, while the camera never stays with one character only, switching focus between the soldiers, led by a perfect Scott Adkins, and the attacking terrorists who are trying to assassinate a prisoner of the US military. The script isn’t anything to write home about, but it allows director James Nunn to tell a self-contained story in a single location, and therefore to ensure his narrative approach makes sense. With experienced DTV movies action choreographer Tim Man as a guide, the team managed to create a varied flow of action over its 90-plus minute runtime. The result, despite a tiny $5 million budget, is a logistical triumph, with more ambition and hard work than many movies made with more money. As far as DTV action goes, it’s hard to recommend a more ambitious film this year.
One Shot is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu
The Paper Tigers — rooftop fight
Directed by Quoc Bao Tran
In a time when representation has become increasingly important, it is vital to support the artists whose voices deserve to be heard. Director Quoc Bao Tran had started developing The Paper Tigers, a very personal story influenced by he and his friends’ experiences, a decade ago. When Hollywood offered to bankroll the project on a $4 million budget on the condition that a white man should play the lead role, he said no and walked away. It took a few years to secure enough funds, but he eventually managed to make the film for about $1 million: a small-scale, charming story of friendship and adversity from the perspective of African and Asian Americans.
The heartfelt action comedy follows three middle-aged men, former martial arts students, who reunite to avenge the death of their master. The climax, which takes place on a Seattle rooftop, is the absolute proof that money is not the answer to everything: time, dedication, and care are other tools at a filmmaker’s disposal to craft engaging martial arts fights with an old-school feel and aesthetic. To say the film is highly recommended to action movie fans would be an understatement.
The Paper Tigers is available to stream on Netflix and rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu
Raging Fire — the shanty town raid
Directed by Benny Chan
You know Donnie Yen. And Yen remembers the golden days of Hong Kong action cinema, just like us. If I had to guess, he misses those days, too. With Raging Fire, Yen once again joins forces with master action director Kenji Tanigaki and legendary film director Benny Chan (who sadly passed away before he could finish post-production) to deliver a brutal, no-holds-barred, old-school Hong Kong actioner.
Among the best action films of the year, Raging Fire is a tightly paced crime thriller that pitches Yen against the splendidly grandiloquent Nicholas Tse, a former cop turned criminal hell-bent on taking his revenge. Of course, given the restrictive new censorship laws imposed on the Hong Kong industry by mainland China, the script can’t offer the same ambiguity as the classics from 30 years ago. Nevertheless, the team did a fantastic job crafting an efficient, pulse-pounding blockbuster that boasts multiple set pieces. If the climatic shootout and fight end the film on a very high note, the mid-film shanty town raid is a brilliant display of cinematic creativity when it comes to designing action in narrow environments. Yen’s action constantly reinvents itself through stimulating choreographic ideas.
Raging Fire is available to stream on Hi-Yah! or rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.
Space Sweepers — space battle
Directed by Jo Sung-hee
Korean cinema has nothing to prove, and this grand-scale space opera just confirms it once again. Reminiscent of the early 2000s anime Planetes, with a little bit of Cowboy Bebop added to the mix, this ambitious and technically accomplished space romp rivals Hollywood’s best in terms of visual effects and production design. Although the film can sometimes feel too melodramatic or reliant on well-trodden tropes, the sheer energy of the filmmaking and the charm of the main cast more than make up for it.
And what a treat the film keeps for the end: a full-on space battle the likes of which we had never seen outside American cinema. Ships of all sizes fill the screen and battle it out in dynamic and creative ways. The camp, pulpy, over-the-top approach to spectacle can appeal to casual movie viewers as well as life-long sci-fi enthusiasts. We’re never too far from the golden days of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories in terms of tone and atmosphere, and the ships’ designs are rich and varied.
Space Sweepers is available to stream on Netflix.
The Swordsman — Jang Hyuk vs. Joe Taslim
Directed by Choi Jae-hoon
You remember Joe Taslim from The Raid, The Night Comes For Us, and Mortal Kombat? Earlier this year he portrayed the antagonist in a fantastic South Korean movie starring a completely transformed and transfixing Jang Hyuk. Whether you click with the core story of a blinded swordsman out to save his daughter will inform your overall enjoyment of the film, but I can guarantee this: the action is top-notch, a throwback to classic and formidably well-made period action pieces.
Forget CGI-amplified fights and outrageous wire work — The Swordsman simply delivers brutal and crisp action scenes. The clean camerawork makes extensive use of the steadicam, following the performers with purpose and energy while the choreography consistently keeps the viewer on their toes, always finding new ways to renew the confrontations. Naturally, the final duel might very well be the scene that makes the most lasting impression: elaborate, classic filmmaking in the service of raw kinetic power.
The Swordsman is available to stream on Hi-YAH! and rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.
A Writer’s Odyssey — wuxia fantasy nightmare
Directed by Lu Yang
Image: CMC Pictures
If you’re into Asian action cinema, you might know Lu Yang as the director of the decently entertaining Brotherhood of Blades and its sequel. Well, the filmmaker outdid himself here, upping the ante dramatically and aiming much higher in terms of sheer spectacle.
A Writer’s Odyssey is an unbridled, grand-scale fantasy action film with a strong emotional core and just enough cheeky subversion to get past Chinese censors. The story is split between two worlds, and while the real-world plot is interesting enough, the film reaches astronomical heights when it enters the fantasy universe, culminating with several dizzyingly stimulating action sequences. That’s a lot of words just to say something is great, but given the current state of Chinese blockbusters, the very existence of this film is a small miracle in and of itself. Ultimately, everything works despite some weaknesses in the script and a couple of passable full CG shots. Just look at the fight between the sentient armor-weapon of the hero and a group of scoundrels: when was the last time a single fight was so imaginative, dynamic, and wonderfully weird? Tsui Hark would be proud.
A Writer’s Odyssey is available to stream on iQIYI
Photo: Jasin Boland/NETFLIX
There have been many more outstanding action scenes this year, so the list could go on: Mary Elisabeth Winstead did excellent work in Netflix’s Kate, Hwang Jung-min unleashed hell in Deliver Us From Evil, Guy Ritchie directed his best shootout in years in Wrath of Man, while legendary filmmakers Zhang Yimou and Ryoo Seung-wan delivered breathtaking set pieces in Cliff Walkers and Escape From Mogadishu, respectively.
Christmastime saw the release of two important action films, namely Matthew Vaughn’s The King’s Man and Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections. The former is the last film legendary martial artist and stunt choreographer Bradley James Allan worked on before passing away at the young age of 48. Allan was part of the Jackie Chan stunt team for a number of years before becoming an action director of his own. He worked regularly with Vaughn, Guillermo del Toro, and Edgar Wright, and choreographed the fights in Marvel’s Shang-Chi. He will be greatly missed.
The third Matrix sequel, while benefiting from the work of many talented action people, took an unexpected route and never reached the level of formalism and spectacle the previous installments are still remembered for.
So, what has 2021 shown us when it comes to action cinema? First of all, it has become clear that the quality of low-budget, independent action films has dramatically increased. Sure, Scott Adkins has been working in the higher echelons of the indie market for years (check out the Undisputed sequels *right now* if you’ve never seen them), but he has been joined in the spotlight by several other dedicated artists who give their absolute all to their craft, and manage to deliver films that can go toe to toe with big productions. Kensuke Sonomura, for instance, stands out as a singular voice who will no doubt accomplish great things (watch out for his work next year in Baby Assassins, One Percenter, and Bad City). Indie action filmmaking is where it’s at, it’s where artists and talented action performers/choreographers have the most freedom to give birth to their unique vision.
Secondly, the mid-budget actioners of yesteryear have been mostly replaced by smaller films produced or purchased by American streaming platforms, like The Harder They Fall or Xtremo. Not every action film needs to have too much money or almost no money at all: the middle ground used to be an exciting way to produce daring action movies with strong commercial potential. Of course, the Covid pandemic has accelerated the process. Theaters need blockbusters to survive, and the mega franchises tend to push out smaller films to the margins. But films like Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead that combine star power with talented filmmakers, and that cost about $20 million to make, unfortunately feel like relics of the past and struggle to meet their audience. Here’s to hoping Netflix, Amazon, and their competitors eventually fill this gap effectively with quality productions that would once have had a wide theatrical release.
Finally, one thing the digital era has greatly facilitated is foreign film distribution. Because let’s face it: for fans of action movies, Asian cinema is absolutely essential (it is essential for all types of films, really). Films like Raging Fire and The Swordsman are shown in cinemas thanks to the work of distributors like WellGo USA, and then are then added to Hi-YAH!, WellGo’s streaming platform dedicated to Asian action films. Meanwhile, Netflix has been on a buying streak in Japan, purchasing streaming rights to films like The Fable and HiGH&LOW, which would have otherwise never reached western shores. There remains many more foreign films that cannot be seen outside their home countries, but things are improving.
2022 has a lot of promising things in store for action fans. The return of Batman, The Raid director Gareth Evans, Baahubali’s S. S. Rajamouli, the Mission: Impossible franchise, and even Hong Kong masters like Soi Cheang and Corey Yuen. So, sit back, relax, and catch up on the action gems you might have missed this year. The next one could prove even more intense.