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After two-plus years of pandemic stagnation, who's up for some nice, cathartic action and adventure? As we all scroll down the list of Netflix's action offerings in search of wide open spaces and bare-fisted adventure, here are our picks for the films most likely to get your juices flowing once more.
From Old West movies (and new visions thereof), to science fiction, to the most unexpected of buddy comedy road movies, this list of the best of Netflix's current action flicks will have something for everybody on your couch.
<i>Blade Runner 2049</i> (2017)
Denis Villeneuve has become the keeper of our sci-fi memories. His recent Dune erased the tinny taste of David Lynch's misbegotten version of Frank Herbert's beloved novel, while this earlier sequel to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner similarly expands upon its source material while allowing Villeneuve ample opportunity to knock our socks off, visually and otherwise. At nearly three hours, there's plenty of ruminative, gorgeous squalor for Ryan Gosling's replicant robot bounty hunter to explore, as Villeneuve (with a masterful assist from cinematographer Roger Deakins) takes us into the future's future, and out of the rain-drenched, neon chaos of Scott's dystopian Los Angeles.
Not that this Earth is any less dystopian, as Gosling braves the irradiated wastes in search of answers from predecessor Harrison Ford's Deckard. As the aging Ford and blankly handsome newer model Gosling square off, Blade Runner 2049 proves an evocative extrapolation of the original's questions about the nature of life and mortality. The action, when it comes, is excitingly brutal, with human and replicant alike being hurled through walls and taking Blade Runner's future noir violence into this brave but crumbling new world.
Of course, you can always make it a double feature, as Scott's 1982 original is also on Netflix. The director has been monkeying around with different versions of his sci-fi masterpiece movie pretty much since it was released, and this latest installment does not disappoint.
If you liked Blade Runner 2049, you might also enjoy: Akira (1988), streaming on Hulu.
<i>21 Bridges</i> (2019)
The loss of Chadwick Boseman (who died shockingly of colon cancer in 2020) robbed us of what were sure to be decades worth of award-winning performances from one of the most magnetic leading men of recent years. Boseman's versatility often saw him portraying heroes, both fictional and real, and while this above-average cop thriller didn't give him the same opportunities to stretch as films like 42, Black Panther, Marshall, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, it still showed what Boseman could do at the center of a Hollywood action drama.
When not in costume, Boseman's tortured detective here is something of a Batman figure, except that, as we see in his first scene in front of the NYPD's internal affairs investigators, he's made something of a habit of shooting down cop killers after the long ago death of his own policeman father. There's a queasy authoritarianism running through 21 Bridges as Boseman's antihero tramples some civil rights, all but promising J.K. Simmons' superior that he'll use his penchant for Justified-style lethal force to bring down a pair of murderers. (He also orders all of Manhattan to shut down to aid in his rampage, the city's 21 bridges of the title being blocked off to trap his prey.) Still, Boseman is a fine, thoughtful presence, his detective navigating the not-what-it-seems mystery behind the drug-related massacre in a way that at least muddies the Blue Lives Matter of it all.
If you liked 21 Bridges, you might also enjoy: The Batman (2022), streaming on HBO Max.
<i>Casino Royale</i> (2006)
With Daniel Craig having doffed the tux for the last time with 2021's fifth entry, No Time To Die, now's a fine time to revisit the actor's first outing as James Bond. A controversial pick at the time (when is a new Bond not?), Craig claimed his place as the indefatigable British secret agent in Casino Royale with all the confidence in the world.
This 21st official Bond movie (a sort-of reboot/sequel, according to the franchise's tortured timeline) seized upon a neophyte, rough-around-the-edges 007 as he first gains his infamous license to kill and seeks to thwart an all-time great Bond villain in Mads Mikkelsen's poker-playing Le Chiffre, and woo another all-timer in Eva Green's Vesper Lynd. Craig may have been a more no-nonsense, brutal Bond than predecessor Pierce Brosnan, but the venerable Bond franchise needs to be reenergized from time to time, and Craig's Bond maintained the series' momentum for five solid outings.
If you liked Casino Royale, you might also enjoy: Quantum of Solace (2008), streaming on Netflix.
<i>The Harder They Fall</i> (2021)
Though it suffers at times from Netflix's in-house mandate for too-clean disposable content, this stylish revisionist Western boasts an undeniably stacked and magnetic cast. Jonathan Majors cements his status as charismatic leading man as the raffish outlaw on a quest to hunt down those responsible for his requisite personal tragedy. Meanwhile, a characteristically hypnotic Idris Elba is the baddest man in the West, with a gang including the equally formidable likes of Regina King and LaKeith Stanfield.
Luckily, Majors has everyone from the great Delroy Lindo to Stanfield's Atlanta costar Zazie Beetz on his side, as The Harder They Fall presents an Old West populated by many of the greatest Black actors working today. While co-writer/director Jeymes Samuel (aka The Bullitt)'s script centers on the oft-ignored real figures of the Black West, his film is, at its thoroughly entertaining heart, a rip-roaring display of action setpieces and acting excellence. Style over substance? Sure. But The Harder They Fall has style to burn.
If you liked The Harder They Fall, you might also enjoy: Da 5 Bloods (2020), streaming on Netflix.
<i>Hunt for the Wilderpeople</i> (2016)
As he proved conclusively in his foray into the MCU, Taika Waititi is unparalleled at mixing and matching tones. Here, a shaggy adventure tale about a delinquent foster boy and a taciturn New Zealand loner becomes all at once hilarious, wry, and wrenching as the mismatched and reluctant duo find themselves on the run in the wilderness after a series of misfortunes and misunderstandings.
The great Sam Neill and Deadpool 2's Julian Dennison make a team for the ages, as the unlikely fugitives dodge cops, social workers, trigger happy hunters, and the occasional wild boar, all while Waititi parcels out the development of their inevitable, grudging bond with the deftest comic touch. An adventure in the wild bristling with tensely witty setpieces and anchored by two exceptional performances, the film is unendingly charming without ever crossing into unrealistically rosy territories.
If you liked Hunt for the Wilderpeople, you might also enjoy: Moonrise Kingdom (2012), streaming on HBO Max.
<i>Ip Man</i> (2008)
Eight years before Donnie Yen portrayed a stoically deadly warrior in Rogue One, the Hong Kong superstar played the titular martial arts master most famous for teaching Bruce Lee. Ip Man takes place long before that, though, with Yen's Wing Chun master reluctantly proving his superior skills against rival martial arts schools, and, eventually, the invading Japanese.
Playing loosely with the biography of the very real Ip Man, Wilson Yip's film is a jingoistic mix of anti-Japan sentiment and stunning action set pieces. Yen, already a global martial arts star, studied Wing Chun under fellow Hong Kong action star Sammo Hung, and makes the unassuming Ip Man a riveting blur of jackhammer punches and balletic movement whenever anyone proves unwise enough to disturb his quiet life. Roused by sadistic invaders to defend not just his county but his fighting style, Yen's master, at one point, demands 10 of the Japanese's best. You might guess the outcome, but the spectacle of Yen's real-life prowess will still knock you on your heels.
If you liked Ip Man, you might also enjoy: Kill Zone (2005), streaming on Tubi.
<i>The Professionals</i> (1966)
Writer-director Richard Brooks assembled an all-time cast for this men-on-a-mission Western, in which four grizzled experts accept a job to rescue an aged land baron's wife from a Mexican revolutionary turned bandit. Lee Marvin is the no-nonsense leader (of a dusty quartet rather than a dirty dozen), Burt Lancaster is the wild card explosives expert, Robert Ryan takes care of the horses, and Woody Strode is the tracker seeking to reclaim Claudia Cardinale from Jack Palance's desert stronghold.
Conrad L. Hall's cinematography is stellar at capturing the craggy terrain and the stars' even craggier faces as Marvin and Lancaster battle an entire army, while Brooks' script allows for a sly deconstruction of the genre's usual assumptions. And if the movie's nods toward the 1960s' burgeoning skepticism and rebelliousness (along with Cardinale and Palance playing Mexicans) are of their time, watching four Western all-stars do their thing is a bracing viewing experience.
If you liked The Professionals, you might also enjoy: The Wild Bunch (1969), available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
<i>The Hateful Eight</i> (2015)
It's telling of Quentin Tarantino's grandiose nature that he shot this bloody Western in extravagant 70mm (even requiring some theaters to install new projection equipment) for what is essentially a chamber drama. Almost entirely set in one snowbound indoor location, The Hateful Eight of the title are a passel of crooks, murderers, bounty hunters, and assorted shady types, all waiting out a storm while Kurt Russell's grizzled lawman guards his prisoner, the notorious Daisy Domergue (an amazing Jennifer Jason Leigh). This being a Tarantino film, there's a prankish relationship with the timeframe, point-of-view, and our expectations, but, essentially, the filmmaker's long-gestating and typically meticulous throwback Western is a bottle episode that could work just as well as a stage play.
Luckily, in addition to Tarantino's undeniable visual acumen, The Hateful Eight is populated with uniformly outstanding performers. Alongside Russell and Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson is a bounty hunter with secrets, Tim Roth is a British nobleman, Bruce Dern is a former Confederate General, Walton Goggins is the redneck who clashes with Jackson immediately, and Demián Bichir and Michael Madsen lurk around the periphery.
As ever, Tarantino's examination of racial tensions results in incessantly elaborate and profane slurs being hurled all over the enclosed set, an ever-present debate-starter as to the director's entitlement and maturity when it comes to such matters. And the film's horrifyingly bloody conclusion stretches for a significance it may not have earned. But along the way, The Hateful Eight, with its Ennio Morricone score and lovingly detailed film-fanatic sheen, is Tarantino at his most showy and virtuosic, his fine cast chewing the rough-hewn scenery with Tarantino-abetted aplomb.
If you liked The Hateful Eight, you might also enjoy: Django Unchained (2012), available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
<i>Zero Dark Thirty</i> (2012)
It's testament to director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal that people are still arguing about Zero Dark Thirty. Portraying one dogged CIA agent (Jessica Chastain) as she attempts to track down Osama bin Laden in the years after 9/11, the film was assailed upon release from all quarters, with conservatives calling its pre-election release a piece of pro-Obama propaganda, and others decrying what was perceived as an apologia for both the CIA and the use of torture in obtaining the information that eventually led to bin Laden's death in 2011.
Meanwhile, Zero Dark Thirty functions on its own terms as a thrilling, crackerjack procedural, with Chastain's oft-doubted investigator holding firm to her grim task of exacting vengeance for one of the most terrible days in American history. Indeed, it's Chastain's drawn and determined performance that powers the action as much as Bigelow's crisp world-hopping as the hunt stretches out for an entire decade. Seen on her first day at a CIA black site in Pakistan witnessing colleague Jason Clarke torturing an Al Qaeda associate with wenching brutality, Chastain's agent is repulsed, but determined that whatever information they glean is worth the damage to their souls—and America's.
That the film never shows that any useful information was ever obtained through torture is just one aspect of the film's relentless sweep of incident and grinding investigation. The final raid on bin Laden's fortified Pakistan compound that ends the film is all business, with little of the jingoistic excitement a less responsible film would deploy. It's gripping, bloody, and terrifyingly grimy, as Seal Team Six (soldier Chris Pratt's usual cheekiness) works through room after room in pursuit of their target, leaving collateral damage in their wake. In the end, Chastain's vindicated obsession, too, plays out in solitary, exhausted finality, her last scene a striking, silent portrait of the costs of what she, and her country, have become in pursuit of vengeance.
If you liked Zero Dark Thirty, you might also enjoy: The Hurt Locker (2008), streaming on Netflix.
<i>Dirty Harry</i> (1971)
As slickly entertaining as it is morally bankrupt, Don Siegel's smash hit police action film features a younger Clint Eastwood as "the good guy with a gun" of every NRA enthusiast's fantasies. Which makes sense, since Eastwood's San Francisco Inspector Harry Callahan's stacked-deck crusade against any and all restraint on gun-toting vigilantism is what spawned countless people's fantasies in the first place. As the one true, dedicated, and courageous cop in a legal establishment neutered by civil rights laws, police oversight, and all-around coddling of evildoers, Harry Callahan is the only man willing to put down his foot (and the hammer of his oversized service weapon) and just shoot some bad guys, due process be damned to liberal hell.
Siegel's direction of a script by married screenwriters Harry and R.M. Fink is worshipful of the police as a concept (the film opens with a solemn pan over the names of San Francisco cops killed on duty), while presenting Eastwood's Callahan as the only true cop worth a damn, as he pursues, brutalizes, and ultimately and extrajudicially guns down the cartoonishly evil serial killer stalking the city. Portrayed by Andrew Robinson as a veritable connoisseur of every conceivable perversion, sin, and legal loophole, the film's Zodiac-esque killer is slyly engineered to raise the hackles of law and order types who imagine that the legal process is designed by soft-headed lefty dupes.
Harry, however, is the city's lone savior, a handsome, incorruptible protector of women and children who could save us all with his shiny gun, if only those damned laws and politicians would let him off the chain. As skillfully made as Dirty Harry is, its success (along with the diminishing returns of its many sequels) turned Clint Eastwood's cop into an all-American superman whose influence (mirrored by Eastwood's own emergence as a conservative darling) spawned a lot more evil than Harry Callahan ever prevented, even if it is a classic.
If you liked Dirty Harry, you might also enjoy: Magnum Force (1973), available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.