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The Best Action Movies Of 2021

"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."

Nobody

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.

Mortal Kombat

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."

F9

The "Fast and the Furious" movies aren't just about car chases. They aren't just about wild stunts. They aren't just about muscled-up dudes punching each other. Okay, sure, they are about those things, but at the end of the day, they're really about family. That's especially true in "F9," when everybody's favorite street racer/action hero, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), learns that he's gonna have to butt heads with his estranged brother, Jakob (John Cena). And as a result, we get a whole lot of car chases, wild stunts, and muscled-up dudes punching each other.

Seriously though, "F9" is one of the best installments in a truly wild and incredible franchise. It hails the return of Justin Lin, the director who reinvigorated the series with "Tokyo Drift" and created a new direction for the franchise with parts 4, 5, and 6. Here, the filmmaker expertly blends the melodrama with the spectacle. In addition to the sibling rivalry and the romance between Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), a UFC champion shows up to do battle! We get the return of multiple beloved (and hated) characters! And Roman and Tej boldly go where no "Fast and Furious" characters have gone before! If you're looking for a fun, fast-paced, and heartfelt time at the movies, "F9" is the perfect action film for you.

Army of the Dead

Cinematically speaking, 2021 has been a fantastic year for Zack Snyder. In addition to wowing critics and fans alike with his unadulterated take on "Justice League," the man gave Dave Bautista a machine gun, sent him to Sin City, and had him shoot down a whole bunch of zombies. That right there is the textbook definition of "peak action cinema."

"Army of the Dead" takes place in a world where zombies have been confined to Las Vegas. The undead shuffle through casinos, rambling past slot machines, poker tables, and a vault filled with $200 million. And as you might imagine, there are some very powerful people who want that money back, so zombie-killing veteran Scott Ward (Bautista) is hired to assemble a team of mercenaries to make their way into Vegas and retrieve the cash. If they succeed? It's the ultimate jackpot — we're talking enough money to change lives, and Scott definitely needs the cash these days.

Of course, the situation is complicated because the government plans on nuking Vegas pretty soon. Things get even more complicated when Scott's estranged daughter (Ella Purnell) tags along. And things get even more complicated when it turns out ... uh ... these are intelligent zombies, complete with armor, battle plans, and an undead attack tiger. Seriously, do we need to say anymore? Come for the intense zombie action and "Ocean's Eleven"-style shenanigans, stay for Tig Notaro's cigar-chomping helicopter pilot and Matthias Schweighofer's hilarious safe-cracker.

Black Widow

It took way too long for Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) to get her own movie — she had to die before she could go solo, for crying out loud — but now that "Black Widow" is here, it turns out the final result was definitely worth the wait. The Marvel action flick works as a prequel, picking up right after the airport battle of "Captain America: Civil War." After betraying Team Tony and letting Steve Rogers escape, Natasha is on the run, trying to lay low and figure out her post-Avengers life.

But when the super spy crosses paths with her adoptive sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), she realizes it's time to take care of some unfinished business. Namely, the Red Room — the notorious organization that forced Natasha into a life of murder and espionage — is still running, still abducting girls, and now, it's using chemical agents to brainwash women into becoming killers. However, if Natasha is going to take down the Red Room, she'll have to reunite with her adopted parents, Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), which means there's going to be a whole lot of family drama along with all the explosions.

The final product is a movie about what it means to come from a fractured family, and it's also a surprisingly thoughtful look at guilt, as Natasha is still struggling to wipe all that red from her ledger. In addition to the deep themes and impressive action scenes, Johansson gives a fantastic performance, bolstered by a hilariously goofy Harbour and a charmingly snarky Pugh. We're sad to say goodbye to Natasha Romanoff, but (real-life Disney drama aside) at least Marvel is sending her off in style.

The Suicide Squad

Let's be honest ... the original "Suicide Squad" was pretty terrible. It has a lousy 26% critical score over on Rotten Tomatoes, and even the audience score is a lackluster 59% — the lowest in the DCEU so far. So why is the sequel, "The Suicide Squad," any different? The magic of James Gunn, baby. The director who made us fall in love with a talking raccoon and a dancing tree was the perfect guy to shepherd this ragtag band of antiheroes to success, and in this 2021 action flick, Gunn injects DC's greatest antiheroes with a heavy dose of quippy, crazy, gory fun.

Of course, Gunn hasn't totally forgotten about the original film, as he's brought over some of the best characters from the first installment — Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman). But he also introduces us to a whole new rogues' gallery, including Idris Elba's Bloodsport, John Cena's Peacemaker, Daniela Melchior's Ratcatcher, and David Dastmalchian's Polka Dot Man. And, oh yeah, Sylvester Stallone shows up as a talking, man-eating shark.

As for the plot, the titular squad is sent down to a South American island to stop a nefarious scheme called "Project Starfish." And yes, that's exactly what it sounds like. (Unless you think like Peacemaker, and then, no, it's not what it sounds like.) By the time it's all said and done, we've got a "Dirty Dozen"-style war movie with plenty of gags, plenty of guts, and a near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes score. Oh, and Michael Rooker with long blond hair and Sean Gunn doing mo-cap as a murderous weasel. Sign us up for "The Suicide Squad Part III," please.

Gunpowder Milkshake

When you think about modern-day action stars, you might think about Keanu Reeves, Vin Diesel, or Dwayne Johnson. But what about Karen Gillan? She's Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ruby Roundhouse in the "Jumanji" franchise, and she even sliced up a few robots as Old Amy in "Doctor Who." And in "Gunpowder Milkshake," Gillan truly proves her action star bona fides, going full-John Wick on all the foolish gangsters who get in her way.

Directed by Navot Papushado ("Big Bad Wolves"), this action thriller finds Gillan playing Sam, an assassin working for a mysterious organization called the Firm. But when a dangerous mission goes south, Sam decides to turn on the Firm and protect an 8-year-old girl (Chloe Colemaan), drawing the wrath of her employers. If she's going to survive the coming storm, she'll have to rely on all her assassin skills ... and also team up with her pistol-packing mom (Lena Headey) and her underworld contacts (Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino). Too bad her mom abandoned her years ago, making this movie part action flick, part mother-daughter drama.

If you love the worldbuilding of the "John Wick" franchise, then "Gunpowder Milkshake" is definitely up your alley. Plus, it features some of the craziest action scenes you'll see all year, including one truly unique car chase. Most importantly, "Gunpowder Milkshake" shines a spotlight on the ladies, with women supporting women as they batter down bad guys and mow down hit men. With its crazy colors and madcap violence, "Gunpowder Milkshake" is a real sweet treat.

Boss Level

It's a tale as old as time ... or at least as old as 1993. Somebody finds themselves trapped in the same day, and no matter what happens — if they go to sleep or if they die — they wake right back up on the very same morning and repeat the same 24 hours all over again. We've seen this play out in "Groundhog Day," "Russian Doll," "Happy Death Day," and "Palm Springs." But we've never seen this plot quite so action-packed as it is in "Boss Level."

Starring the world's most underrated action star, Frank Grillo ("Wheelman," the MCU, the "Purge" series), "Boss Level" finds Roy Pulver (Grillo) stuck in a particularly painful time loop. Every day, he gets murdered. No matter what he does, he wakes up and then — bam — he's dead. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with Mr. Pulver, and he sets out to crack some skulls, evade his imminent death, and figure out how he got trapped in this crazy day ... and hopefully, how he can get out. With direction by Joe Carnahan ("Narc," "The Grey") and co-starring action legend Mel Gibson, "Boss Level" is a fun spin and a familiar premise, and seriously, Hollywood, please put Frank Grillo in more stuff.

Wrath of Man

Who are the greatest actor-director combos of all time? Well, you've got Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, John Ford and John Wayne, and Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. But you know what actor-director combo deserves more love? The dynamic duo of Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham. These guys made "Revolver," they made "Snatch," they made "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." And in 2021, they treated us all to "Wrath of Man."

Boasting a 66% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes (and a whopping 90% audience score), "Wrath of Man" finds Jason Statham as Patrick Hill, a security guard who keeps crooks from knocking off armored trucks. He's the new guy on the job, but he's surprisingly good at it ... like a little too good. In fact, H seems to invite trouble, and whenever heavily armored thieves show up, he proceeds to go all Terminator on these punks. Naturally, H's co-workers begin to suspect there's more to this rookie than meets the eye, and soon enough, we learn that H has motivations beyond just earning paycheck. With Holt McCallany and Josh Hartnett, "Wrath of Man" is absolutely filled with gunfire, and Statham is at his action star best here.