The action movie genre often evokes images of explosive gun battles, seemingly impossible car chases, bulging biceps and simple storylines. In reality the genre is much more nuanced, as the movies on the list illustrate; while pyrotechnics are plentiful, action films also pack an emotional punch.
Fortunately for those who enjoy the best of both worlds, #Netflix offers a treasure trove of the adrenaline inducing features. From Hollywood blockbusters to Japanese indie films, those who like their action in all shapes and sizes won’t be left disappointed.
So, here we go — check out our list of the 21 best action movies on Netflix.
21. ‘Cold War 2’ (2016)
Director: Longman Leung & Sunny Luk
Cast: Aaron Kwok, Tony Leung, Chow Yun-fat
Cold War 2 follows on from the huge action hit named — you guessed it — Cold War, a movie which became the most lucrative Hong Kong film of 2012 after making $115 million at the box office.
Like its predecessor, the tense fractions within The Hong Kong Police Force motivates the plot, but this time, two former enemies — Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) and M.B. Lee (Tony Leung Ka Fai) — are forced to work together.
As well as the extravagant gun battles and car chases, Cold War 2 manages to deliver a subtle, chess-like portrayal of politics within the police force, as well as a clever depiction of the balance of power.
20. ‘Tropic Thunder’ (2008)
Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr.
Comedy and action collide with explosive consequences in Tropic Thunder, a film within a film based on fictional events during the Vietnam War. As much as director Stiller and the A-list cast playfully toy with perception of over-bloated Hollywood egos — including Downey Jr. playing a white method actor portraying a black man and Tom Cruise in an iconic, hip-grooving cameo — Tropic Thunder also includes admirable action sequences.
19. ‘Déjà Vu’ (2006)
Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Jim Caviezel, Val Kilmer
Tony Scott directs a clever tale of time-travel and terrorism, fronted by one of action’s most illustrious performers, Denzel Washington, who oozes charisma as ATF agent Douglas Carlin. After dealing with a terrorist attack, Carlin is invited to join a mysterious detective unit that can bend time to look into the past.
Carlin is tasked with not only uncovering the cause of the explosion, but also protecting a woman he has fallen in love with, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), from being caught up in the attack in this engrossing mix of romance, sci-fi and action.
18. ‘Kill Ratio’ (2016)
Director: Paul Tanter
Cast: Tom Hopper, Amy Huberman, Nick Dunning
While Kill Ratio is more of a guilty pleasure than an all-out classic, this is an action film genre enthusiasts will enjoy. This is 86 minutes of B-movie indulgence in its purest form, telling the story of covert American operative James Henderson (Tom Hopper) who is trying to defend the president of a European country.
The dialogue is questionable, but there is enough to offer from Kill Ratio to keep viewers entertained with remnants of ’80s action cheese.
17. ‘Saving Mr. Wu’ (2015)
Director: Sheng Ding
Cast: Andy Lau, Liu Ye, Wu Ruofu and Wang Qianyuan
The Chinese thriller is unique in the sense that, not only does it depict a real life tale of a famous celebrity kidnapping, but that said celebrity, Wu Ruofu, actually stars in the film, in what assumedly must’ve been a cathartic reimagining of traumatic events.
Although the outcome is known (perhaps less for Western audiences) the pace and tenacity of the film make it a thrilling watch, rich in action and taut with tension.
16. ‘Babel’ (2006)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kōji Yakusho
Iñárritu is undeniably one of the greatest directors of a generation, and only the third person to win back-to-back Oscars for Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015). The 53-year-old’s “Death Trilogy” — consisting of Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and finally Babel — put the director on the map.
Nominated for seven Oscars, Babel tells the story of four interconnected and ultimately tragic stories, ranging from Mexico to Japan. It’s powerful and elegantly constructed by Iñárritu, illustrating how seemingly innocuous events can intertwine.
15. ‘Inside Man’ (2006)
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Spike Lee’s thriller unpicks the mystery of a “perfect” bank robbery, starting with a basic premise and expanding on it with unexpected twists and powerful chemistry between the leading cast.
Dalton Russell (Owen) is the Machiavellian mastermind responsible for the plan, while police detective Keith Frazier (Washington) attempts to negotiate the rescue of the hostages who are trapped inside the establishment.
Without giving much away, Inside Man is a high stakes masterpiece which is guaranteed to keep you guessing for the film’s entire duration.
14. ‘Mission: Impossible III’ (2006)
Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman
The Mission Impossible series is a reliable action franchise, fronted by Hollywood A-lister Tom Cruise, who relentlessly tackles the improbable as IMF agent Ethan Hunt. J.J. Abrams took a break from sci-fi to co-write and direct the 2006 movie, after Cruise himself asked him to take on the project. The addition of the esteemed director plus the highly talented Philip Seymour Hoffman as the main villain made this a highly energetic addition to the series.
Enjoyable, explosive and easy-to-watch, the third instalment of the franchise follows Hunt after he retires from the service. But come on, he was never going to stay out of action that long, was he?
13. ‘Gladiator’ (2000)
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed
Are you not entertained?! ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?! Well, if not, then what better film to entertain than the colossal epic, Gladiator.
Scott’s movie won numerous awards, including five Oscars, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an emotionally draining and visually stunning depiction of Maximus Decimus Meridius and his quest to avenge his father’s death, through the realm of gory gladiatorial conflict.
Never seen it? Seen it numerous times? Either way, there aren’t many tales of vengeance that strike the same chord.
12. ‘The Hunter’ (2011)
Director: Daniel Nettheim
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Frances O’Connor, Sam Neill
We’ve had a few blockbusters, so let’s turn our attention to some good action movies on Netflix you may not have heard of. First up is this Australian thriller, The Hunter, starring Willem Dafoe.
It’s essentially a hitman action flick with a twist; instead of hunting down a fellow human, Martin David (Dafoe) is tasked with hunting down the last remaining Tasmanian tiger, on behalf of a biotech company. Quirky in concept, aesthetically stimulating and ruthless in delivery, this is a worthy addition to any list, and one of the most underrated in the genre.
11. ‘A Hijacking’ (2012)
Director: Tobias Lindholm
Cast: Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling, Dar Salim
The beauty of Netflix is that it caters for anyone, and hidden gems are plentiful. A Hijacking is the perfect example; the low budget Danish thriller had a fairly low profile release, but it’s one of the most original and exciting action movies in recent years.
Set around, well, a hijacking of a ship, Lindholm’s thriller feels authentic and genuinely disturbing. Although the cast was made from a mix of professional and untrained actors, Game of Thrones fans will recognise Asbæk; he plays Euron Greyjoy in the hit TV series.
10. ‘Drug War’ (2012)
Director: Johnnie To
Cast: Louis Koo, Sun Honglei, Huang Yi, Wallace Chung
From Australia, to Denmark, to a joint Chinese/Hong Kong effort. Action truly knows no borders. Drug War tells the story of the fraught relationship between Police Captain Zhang (Honglei) and drug lord Timmy Choi (Koo). Think The Departed and Usual Suspects rolled into one.
While To’s flick isn’t the most energetic in terms of pure action, a compelling plot and interesting dynamic between the leads is enough to make it a film to remember. This is definitely a film to check out if you want a switch up from Hollywood.
9. ‘V For Vendetta’ (2006)
Director: James McTeigue
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman, Stephen Rea, John Hurt
Like fine wine, McTeigue’s anarchistic comic book adaptation has improved with age. It’s hard to believe the film is now a decade old; the themes are arguably more relevant now than back in 2006.
The dark vision of a future run by neo-fascists is adapted from a series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. The masked protagonist, V, attempts to instigate a revolution through the use of terrorist acts. Such is the impact of the film, V’s “Guy Fawkes” mask has since become part of popular culture, adopted by real-life revolutionary group, anonymous.
V for Vendetta? More like V for very good Netflix action movie. See what I did there?
8. ‘Beasts Of No Nation’ (2015)
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Cast: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Ama K. Abebrese, Kobina Amissa-Sam
Netflix has become a global powerhouse in the entertainment industry, but rather than rest on its laurels, the streaming service knows what encourages subscribers to login; quality content. For that reason alone, it’s produced some incredible original content, and Beasts of No Nation is up there with the best.
Written and directed by Fukunaga, and based on a novel of the same name from Uzodinma Iweala, the dogged depiction of child soldier Agu is both harrowing and mezmerizing. Driven forward by powerful performances, especially from Elba and teenager Attah, Beasts of No Nation is a film that Netflix subscribers cannot miss.
7. ’13 Assassins’ (2011)
Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Kōji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yūsuke Iseya, Ikki Sawamura
We often think of action movies are full of guns and explosions, but replace AK47’s with samurai swords and you get an altogether different, yet equally enthralling result. Miike’s flick — set in Japan in 1844 — is one of the finest samurai epics made.
In the film, a group of assassins (implied in the name) join forces to take on a suicide mission in the attempt to kill an evil lord. Visually stunning and as sharp as a samurai swords itself, 13 Assassins is a joy to watch.
6. ‘Lethal Weapon’ (1987)
Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey
It’d be criminal to omit the film that revolutionized not only the buddy cop genre but action movies as a whole. Gibson and Glover have a phenomenal amount of chemistry as two mismatched L.A.P.D detectives (Sergeants Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh) who uncover a drug-smuggling operation.
As well as witty interactions between the unpredictable Riggs and veteran Murtaugh, part of Lethal Weapon’s appeal lies in its breathtaking action sequences. Such was the success of the original, it spawned three sequels. The good news? The entire four film collection is available on Netflix, ready-to-view for a buddy cop binge.
5. ‘Battle Royale’ (2000)
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto, Masanobu Ando
The action-horror hybrid is breathtakingly brutal and uncompromising, and makes the Hunger Games look like a stroll in the park on a warm summer’s day. Often thought of as one of Japan’s best movies, Fukasaku pulls of an unforgettable masterpiece.
The premise is horrifyingly simple; a group of teenagers are trapped on a remote island and given instructions that they must fight to the death across a three-day period, with only one survivor. Armed with anything from crossbows to coat-hangers, the fight for survival results in a collection of grizzy and creative deaths.
4. ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn
Tarantino’s live-action debut is a cinematic masterpiece, and arguably the most successful independent film ever produced. As well as putting the often lauded and frequently controversial director on the map, it introduced the world to Tarantino’s hallmark violent storytelling.
It’s a compact story of six criminals who are recruited to carry out a diamond robbery, and the rising mix of panic and paranoia that escalates as things don’t go to plan. Running at 100 minutes and crammed with capricious dialogue and pop-culture references, it’s a film that is infinitely rewatchable.
3. ‘Scarface’ (1983)
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Say hello to a film which has become ingrained in popular culture. A film with more fucks (226) than a drunken Donald Trump rally. A film with one of the most quotable mobsters in cinema: Tony Montana.
The story of Montana’s rise from Cuban immigrant to millionaire drug lord is filled with profanity, copious amounts of cocaine and perpetual violence — for those reasons, it was initially received negative critical reviews. Since then, it has gained a reputation as one of the most highly regarded crime films of all time.
2. ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (1987)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Arliss Howard
Kubrick applied his creative genius to almost every genre. From captive horror with The Shining (1980), to the sci-fi exploration of existence itself in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or erotic drama with Eyes Wide Shut (1999), the director always delved into the darkest recesses of the human psyche.
Full Metal Jacket is much the same, exploring the psychological complexities of war. Split essentially into two parts, the first focusing on the boot camp build up (complete with Ermey’s potty-mouthed drill Sergeant Hartman) and the second the Vietnam War, the brilliance is subtle and significant.
1. ‘Gomorrah’ (2008)
Director: Matteo Garrone
Cast: Gianfelice Imparato, Salvatore Abbruzzese, Toni Servillo
Choosing the top spot for action movies of this calibre isn’t easy. But to help them along the way, some of the films of this list have had years to earn critical acclaim, or the might of Hollywood behind them. Gomorrah is a different beast entirely, made in Italy on a modest budget, but Garrone’s film holds its own amongst the best.
Five separate stories delicately weave together to form the brutal story of those affected by organized crime in Naples. The gritty depiction of the Mafia feels authentic and not polished or repackaged — so much so, Roberto Saviano, the author of the novel the film is based on, received death threats after the film’s release, and is still under protection.
For those who like their action restrained, realistic and devoid of hyperbole, Gomorrah could be just the film for you. Oh, and if you enjoy it, there’s even a spin-off TV series of the same name.
Are there any good action movies on Netflix that you would add to the list?