This piece is frequently updated as titles leave and join Netflix. *New additions are indicated with an asterisk.
Sometimes you just need to escape. You just want to watch things blow up or crash into each other, but it seems like Netflix is always trying to push a serious drama or docuseries on you. Just give me something that goes boom!
Well, we can help you with that. Here are the best choices you could make with a working Netflix subscription if you’re jonesing to see a great action movie.
Roland Emmerich, the modern King of the Disaster Blockbusters, delivered one of his most ridiculously over-the-top movies in this 2009 tale of the apocalypse foretold to come just three years later. A rockin’ ensemble elevates some admittedly thin material but no one comes to this for performance or character — it’s about the world blowing up real good, and the movie delivers exactly what it promises.
What happens when you give an action-crazed lunatic like Michael Bay the freedom of budget and running time of Netflix? This chaos, a movie that no one would call great — not even the people who made it — but that does certainly scratch an itch for B-movie insanity with an A-movie budget. The opening car chase alone almost plays like a parody of Bay’s past movies, and the film’s tongue-in-cheek nature is the best thing about it.
*Air Force One
Remember when Harrison Ford was the country’s (fictional) president? Revisit those crazy times with this great 1997 thriller in which Ford plays the world leader who is aboard the titular plane when it’s hijacked by a team led by Gary Oldman. It’s a reminder of a time when blockbusters weren’t the exclusive property of comic book fans.
The divisive Zack Snyder returns to the world of zombie action years after his breakthrough with a remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and the result is a bit of mindless undead fun. Dave Bautista stars as the leader of a ragtag group of former soldiers who are tasked with breaking into the zombie-overrun city of Las Vegas to retrieve millions in a safe under the city.
This two-part epic Indian period piece will give you nearly six hours of huge action set-pieces, hand-to-hand combat, gravity defying feats of daring-do, and vibrant musical numbers as it follows the saga of two mighty men at war for a kingdom. One is the humble but revered Shiv, and the other is the power-mad king, Bhallaladeva. As Shiv comes into powers he never knew he had, he will challenge the ruler and try to restore just balance to the kingdom, but along the way you’ll learn about the origins of each man and how they’re connected by destiny. The Fast Saga wishes it was this extravagantly thrilling.
Roger Donaldson directed Jason Statham to one of the best performances of his career in this heist movie based on the true story of the 1971 Baker Street robbery. Saffron Burrows plays a woman who is blackmailed into leading an operation to retrieve a safety deposit box that contains compromising photos of Princess Margaret, and she calls in Statham to lead the team to pull it off. Clever and character-driven in ways that Statham films aren’t often allowed to be, this is a unique movie in his filmography.
2010’s Skyline wasn’t exactly a film that anyone expected to get a sequel, let alone a good one. And yet this 2017 piece of lunacy is kind of an amazing B-movie, especially the final act that includes a couple of the guys from The Raid movies fighting aliens and other dudes. It’s an insane movie that mixes martial arts and an alien attack, and you kind of need to see it to believe it.
This submarine thriller made hardly a ripple (sorry) when it was released in 2014, but it’s a solid, old-fashioned action flick, featuring tense direction by Kevin Macdonald and a reliably strong lead performance from Jude Law. It’s the story of a submarine captain who is hired to search for a vessel that’s rumored to be loaded with gold. What could go wrong?
Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi masterpiece was notoriously derided when it was released but would go on to change the cinematic landscape. Harrison Ford stars as Rick Deckard in the beloved sci-fi noir, a film that changed the visual language of the genre and launched dozens of copycats. The original is still perfect, and this is the final cut edition of the film, the 2007 version that removes the voice-over, re-inserts the unicorn, and takes out the original happy ending.
If you want some non-stop, claustrophobic action stretched over two hours, BuyBust is a must watch. This Filipino film takes place almost entirely over the course of a single night in a labyrinthine neighborhood in Manila, where a team of cops have set up to ambush a drug lord — or so they think. There’s a mole in the unit, so the bad guys know they’re coming, and when the two sides collide the fed-up residents revolt against everyone bringing violence to their community. It’s paired down close quarters combat in an inescapable slum, and the hits feel so real your own body will start to hurt.
As No Time to Die has been delayed multiple times due to COVID, Netflix is here to satisfy your 007 needs with the first outing for Daniel Craig as the most famous movie spy of all time. This is easily one of the best Bond movies, a flick that redefined the character with more intense stakes and realistic action sequences. It’s a legitimately great movie, not just for what it did for its genre and the future of its legendary super spy.
The great artist RZA (Wu-Tang forever!) directed this 2020 action heist film that’s already starting to build something of a cult following, which should grow now that it’s on Netflix. It’s an old-fashioned action flick, embedding its well-directed thrills and characters with a nice dose of social commentary too. And it’s got a hell of a cast, including Shameik Moore, T.I., Wesley Snipes, Terrence Howard, and Ethan Hawke.
It’s not a traditional action film, but there are enough shoot-outs to qualify for this section. What began life as an old-fashioned treasure hunt movie became something very different when Spike Lee came on board to direct, but the essence of the original riff on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre holds it all together.
Giant sharks + charismatic actors = something worth watching. It’s been fun to watch this B-movie guilty pleasure build a following in the two decades since its release. It’s so popular still that there was a cheap sequel released just this year. It’s the story of genetically engineered sharks who attack people played by Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, LL Cool J, and Samuel L. Jackson, who has (spoiler!) one of the best death scenes in the history of action movies.
Ed Zwick (Glory) co-wrote and directed this true story starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell. Set during the Nazi occupation of Belarus, this is the tale of the Bielski partisans, a group that saved Jews in that part of the world during WWII. Intense and unforgettable, this is a chapter of world history that’s not often taught in class.
In a year when there were too many Netflix original movies every week to watch them all, one of the few true surprises was this wonderful family action film that further proves that Millie Bobby Brown is going to be a massive star. She plays the title character, the teenage sister of the famous Sherlock Holmes, who gets involved in a mystery of her own.
The plot may be overheated macho garbage, but there’s an 11-minute centerpiece sequence in this Chris Hemsworth vehicle involving a higher body count than most entire franchises that action fans simply need to see to believe. And then see it again.
Free Fire can be described very simply. It’s a gunfight movie. The setup is a black market arms deal that goes almost immediately awry, and no one has any choice but to try and kill their way out of the warehouse they’re stuck in. Co-written and directed by Ben Wheately, this British black comedy has a great ensemble cast that includes Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copely, and more. And remember, everyone was together so they could buy and sell weapons, which means no one is really running out of ways to kill people.
It appears the version of Wong Kar-wai’s brilliant action epic that’s on Netflix is the one that was heavily edited in the final days of Harvey Weinstein’s waning power, but it’s still good enough to make this list. The action choreography alone is breathtaking, and maybe watching this cut will encourage you to seek out the 123-minute Berlin cut (this one is 108) or the even longer one known as the “Chinese Cut,” which runs 130 minutes.
There’s a general rule about action movies that’s easy to follow. If something stars actor/stuntman/fight choreographer Iko Uwais, you should probably watch it. Co-directed by Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, Headshot is every bit as good as the more widely famous Indonesian fight films, The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2, which are actually directed by Gareth Evans, a Welshman. Uwais stars in each of those movies, and in Headshot he plays a man suffering from amnesia whose past comes violently chasing after him. The doctor who saved him becomes a target by association, leaving Uwais’s character no choice but to take down an entire criminal syndicate to protect them both.
Last year marked the tenth anniversary of one of Christopher Nolan’s best films, the story of a team of agents who can infiltrate dreams, led by Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s part heist movie, part Bond movie, and mostly something that only the director of The Prestige and Tenet could possibly make.
In a Valley of Violence
Ti West (The House of the Devil) wrote and directed this tight little Western that barely got released in theaters, so most Netflix subscribers probably haven’t seen it. Ethan Hawke stars in this wicked Western as a man who crosses paths with a sociopathic Marshal, played by John Travolta, and the great supporting cast includes Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gillan, James Ransone, and Toby Huss.
*In the Line of Fire
The great Wolfgang Petersen directed one of Clint Eastwood’s best films of the ‘90s in this blockbuster hit about a Secret Service agent who matches wits with a former CIA agent (played by John Malkovich) who is trying to assassinate the President of the United States. The tight thriller also stars Dylan McDermott, Gary Cole, and John Mahoney. It was such a hit that it landed three Oscar nominations, including the last one for Malkovich.
Ip Man Trilogy
Donnie Yen is a sacred name in the martial arts branch of cinema appreciation, and you can see why with three Ip Man films now available on Netflix. They tell the semi-true story of Ip Man, a legendary leader in the world of martial arts, who trained Bruce Lee. These are not traditional biopics or martial arts movies, working as a hybrid of period piece and action. 2018’s Master Z: Ip Man Legacy isn’t there yet, but hopefully soon.
Listen, any crazy B-movie with Nicolas Cage in the cast is probably going to make this list just as a guilty pleasure. And this one has Frank Grillo, Juju Chan, and Tony Jaa too. It’s not what most critics would call “good,” but it’s got just enough of that Cage energy to give his fans what they need.
Any Tony Scott movie is going to make this list. The late director made this 1991 action flick with the unforgettable opening scene in which a running back shoots players on the field at a football game. Trying to figure out exactly what happened brings in a P.I. played by Bruce Willis and a disgraced quarterback played by Damon Wayans. It’s goofy and a bit dated, but also a lot of fun at times.
Matthew Vaughn’s directorial debut is the film that really proved to people that Daniel Craig was smooth enough to be James Bond. Before he was 007, he was a character known only as XXXX in Layer Cake, the story of a London criminal who is trying to get out of the drug business and having great difficulty doing so. The low-budget flick was a massive hit on the arthouse circuit because it’s clever and oh-so-stylish.
Paul Haggis (Crash) wrote and directed this 2010 remake of the 2008 French thriller Anything for Her, about a normal man (Russell Crowe) who will do whatever it takes to get his wrongly convicted wife (Elizabeth Banks) out of prison. It’s far from perfect but it’s got a great cast that also includes Brian Dennehy, Olivia Wilde, Lennie James, Daniel Stern, Kevin Corrigan, and Liam Neeson.
Oh, look! It’s Iko Uwais again! But if for some reason you’re only going to watch one of his movies — instead of all of them, like we told you — let it be The Night Comes For Us. This time, though, Uwais is playing the heel to Joe Taslim’s hero. To be clear, both of them are professional killers. Taslim’s Ito is just the one who has a crisis of conscience, and when Ito tries to leave his life of crime behind he draws the fury of the entire criminal organization he betrayed. Headshot director Timo Tjahanto helms this one on his own, and it is one of the best fighting movies ever made. Relentless and brutal and at times even tender, The Night Comes For Us is virtuoso violence that makes even the most intense Chad Stahelski-action sequence feel tame. Maybe it’s because safety regulations are just different in Indonesia, but America could literally never.
Charlize Theron’s Andy initially seems like another in her long line of sleek action heroes: Steely, determined and not to be trifled with. But while Andy bears surface similarities to those past roles, in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of the Greg Rucka comic book Theron gets to be something much more fascination: A tormented god-like creature, an immortal who has spent centuries trying to save humanity but is beginning to wonder whether it was worth all the trouble. Theron draws you in, and keeps you hooked.
Sadly, Netflix does not have Gerard Butler’s entire Mike Banning trilogy available, but it does have the first of his Fallen series. Butler plays a former top secret service agent who used to lead the President’s protection detail, but has since been reassigned to a post at the Treasury. (Downgrade!) But Banning is called to the highest level of service once again after terrorists overtake the White House with President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) inside. At first there are multiple American agents on hand to fight back, but soon it’s up to Banning alone to protect the Commander in Chief — as only Gerard Butler can!
Rod Lurie’s latest turned around quickly from a limited theatrical and PVOD run in July to hitting Netflix in October, where it should do very, very well. It’s the story of the Battle of Kamdesh, one of the most brutal in the Afghanistan War, as the Taliban assaulted a poorly-placed base in the middle of a valley. Scott Eastwood, Orlando Bloom, and particularly Caleb Landry Jones are all good, but this is one of those technically impressive war films most of all, putting people in the middle of the nightmare of battle.
This felt like an attempt to pull Jason Statham from pure action like the Transporter films into something more dramatic, and it’s interesting on that level — even if it’s not a great movie. Adapted from the series by Donald Westlake, Statham plays a thief who is double-crossed by his crew, and he sets out for revenge. Jennifer Lopez co-stars.
Pedro Pascal is everywhere in early 2021, appearing in The Mandalorian on Disney+, Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max, and We Can Be Heroes on Netflix. Revisit one of his better indie films with this SXSW critical darling from 2018. Jay Duplass plays a father in this sci-fi film who lands on a planet to mine for gems with his daughter and encounter some dangerous strangers, including one played memorably by Pascal.
This South Korean film centers on a man whose entirely family was murdered, and who sets out for vengeance by getting himself sent to the prison island where their killers — and a whole lot of other killers — are being kept in isolation.
Based on Don Winslow’s novel of the same name, Savages is a 2012 Oliver Stone film that features the director’s trademark excess, but it fits the story here better than some of his other modern efforts. This tale of low-level weed dealers who get caught up in something much bigger and more dangerous than they’re prepared for stars Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, and John Travolta.
Somehow, people slept on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, despite it being one of the most clever comics adaptations around. Michael Cera stars as the titular Scott Pilgrim, who has fallen for the beguiling Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but must defeat every single one of her evil exes in battle before they can be together. The former flames have come together in a League, and Scott has to face them down like a series of videogame bosses before he can take on the final challenger. Raise your game, Pilgrim!
While their overall catalog has been diminishing, it’s certainly true that Netflix has been adding more projects from around the world, often quietly. Take this French thriller that landed on the service in March with almost no fanfare, brought to people’s attention through critics (like our own Bilge Ebiri). Olga Kurylenko stars in a film that Ebiri calls “John Wick on the Riviera.” Who doesn’t want to see that?
This stunning Chinese period drama comes from House of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou, and it concerns two kingdoms on the brink of conflict. When the petty ruler of Pei agrees to ship his sister off as a concubine to the mighty king of Yang, Pei’s commander, Ziyu, descents, but Ziyu has a secret (we won’t tell you!), and when it comes down to him battling Yang’s warrior ruler to protect Qingping from becoming a concubine and to take back control of the prized city Jingzhou, the fate of both kingdoms is thrown into upheaval. Shadow is a wuxia work of art.
J.D. Dillard co-wrote and directed this very unusual superhero movie about an average kid in Los Angeles who learns he may not be all that average. Jacob Latimore plays a street magician who gets caught up in a bad situation with a drug lord played by Dule Hill. It subverts expectations of the hero genre in clever ways.
Bong Joon-ho may have won the Oscar for Parasite, but he had a hit before that in his 2013 sci-fi action flick starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and John Hurt. It’s a brilliant allegory for society as a train has been divided into classes per car, and the peasants form a revolt. Visually striking and narratively ambitious, Snowpiercer is a film that only seems to grow in esteem with each passing year, especially now that Bong is a household name.
Roland Emmerich’s 1994 sci-fi action film with Kurt Russell and James Spader doesn’t get enough credit for launching a massive franchise that led to multiple TV series, a web series, books, video games, comic books, and even direct-to-DVD movies. It may not be as popular as it once was, but it’s worth revisiting the original movie that started such a worldwide phenomenon.
J.J. Abrams took the reins of one of the most influential franchises of all time and went back to the beginning, telling the origin story of how James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) joined the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Some of Abrams’s messing around with franchise histories has been controversial, but this is still an incredibly solid summer blockbuster, entertaining from beginning to end.
Paul Verhoeven directed this 1990 blockbuster that unleashed Arnold Schwarzenegger on a short story by Philip K. Dick called “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Ah-nuld plays a construction worker who becomes involved in a crazy power struggle on Mars…or does he? Verhoeven’s blend of social commentary and undeniable craft with action have allowed this to hold up better than most thirty-year-old action movies.
J.C. Chandor’s latest is a solid thriller with a phenomenal ensemble. Oscar Isaac leads a group of soldiers into an illegal job to rip off a notorious drug lord and, well, things don’t go as planned. Not only is everyone here excellent — especially, Ben Affleck, doing his best work since Gone Girl — but it’s the kind of tight action movie that Hollywood doesn’t really make that often anymore. It’s a lean, mean fighting machine.
This is kind of like a southeast Asian action all star team up. Thai martial arts icon Tony Jaa, Man of Tai Chi star Tiger Chen, and… wait for it… Indonesian phenom Iko Uwais team up to take down a group of mercenaries hired to kill a do-gooder billionaire heiress. Jaa, Chen, and Uwais each have their reasons for wanting to mess up the business of these bastard hitmen, and they’re all personal.
Universal Soldier: The Return
Remember when Jean-Claude Van Damme was on the top of the action world? Well, to be fair, this 1999 film came out long after JCVD’s peak, but it does feature an old-fashioned style of sci-fi/action that hints at why he used to be such a star. Technically, this is the fourth film in the Universal Soldier series after two made-for-TV movies, and it’s the last one released in theaters.
After the surprising turn that Liam Neeson took to become one of the world’s biggest action stars, he produced a great number of silly movies, including this guilty pleasure from his regular collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra (who also worked with Neeson on Non-Stop, Run All Night, and The Commuter). In a classic Hitchcockian set-up, Neeson plays a professor who wakes up after a four-day coma and sets out to reclaim what appears to be his stolen identity.
One of the biggest movies of the decade is a Chinese film that most people in the United States haven’t even seen. Making almost $700 million worldwide, this is the kind of blockbuster that the MCU sort of pushed out — a crazy, end-of-the-world disaster movie with a Roland Emmerich aesthetic and ridiculous special effects. It’s almost overwhelming in its onslaught of crazy, but sometimes you just want to see things go boom on a massive scale.
A more turned down affair than some of the bone shattering Indonesian films on this list and much more stark than the spectacle of an Indian musical action epic, Wheelman stars American knockaround workhorse Frank Grillo as a getaway driver who is double crossed during a robbery gone awry. With his daughter being threatened, Grillo’s character has to find out as fast as possible who betrayed him while staying in constant motion and getting in scrapes around the city of L.A.