The 5 best action movies from 2021

The first rule of action film fight club is don’t overstay your welcome.

There’s nothing worse than a simple format and setup becoming overextended, losing the luxury of patience with the viewers or losing them completely to their phones. What’s the sign of a good movie? One where all the phones are cold and untouched. The best of 2021 was already dispensed at KSDK, so let’s get on with the best action films of last year. Yes, it’s officially weird to think that 2021 is toast. But it was also mostly gross, so let’s blow it up with some bullets and dynamite.

I’ve been called an action critic since 2013 when a handful of fellow critics thought it was all I reviewed for the now-retired film-addict.com. What they didn’t get was that I was mostly the only guy writing reviews. So I had to see everything, and that became a thing for some. “The Raid 2” screening featured five people and I was one of them, so if the bald head fits, I guess. Then again, my favorite film of all time is Michael Mann’s “Heat,” which just celebrated its 26th year of distribution.

Here are some lean and mean, and recent, action flicks. Starting with a…

“Nobody”

Universal Pictures

The great thing about Ilya Naishuller’s movie was that it was what I expected, and also NOT what I expected. Bob Odenkirk stepped out of the “Saul” shadow with this lead role from the mind of “John Wick,” working out with stuntman extraordinaire Daniel Bernhardt. The Switzerland native had a small part in the movie, playing a thug who catches some much-needed vengeance from Odenkirk’s Hutch during a thrilling bus sequence.

It was the supremely-choreographed bus fight that this film took off, but it was the precise skillset behind the setup that made “Nobody” stick with me. The interactions between Hutch and his dad (Christopher Lloyd enjoying a comeback year), or the highly sophisticated villain (Aleksey Serebryakov). The radio chats between Hutch and his brother-in-law (The RZA) were poignant and well-written. The tongue-in-cheek humor, fast pace (92 minutes!), and satisfying ending made this one easy to please… multiple times.

Rule #2 of Action Film Fight Club: Every great action flick must be rewatchable. “Nobody” passes the test.

“Wrath of Man”

Guy Ritchie stepped out of his own comfort zone (Quentin Tarantino-turned-British grifter/gangster world) and into an elite action arena with this Jan. 2020 banger. It’s arguably Jason Statham’s best action role (his Rick from “Spy” is still my fave), playing a man hellbent on revenge in the most unorthodox-yet thorough-manner possible. But it’s the deep roster of this film’s cast that makes this thriller versatile and rewarding.

MGM

Jeffrey Donovan, Scott Eastwood, Laz Alonso (“The Boys), Andy Garcia, Josh Hartnett, Raul Castillo, Deobia Oparei, Niamh Algar, and Chris Reilly. Holt McCallany and Eddie Marsan are terrific in vital roles. The movie’s structure is ingenious and kicks everything up a notch. The aesthetic is cold-blooded morose theater, but there is occasional humor. The action sequence at the end brought back “Heat” bank heist vibes.

“The Protege”

Credit Martin Campbell for making compelling action movies. “Casino Royale” was a big reason for Daniel Craig’s long tenure as James Bond. But the swagger in this summer delight was the screenplay from Richard Wenk. The couple drops of scotch in Campbell’s hard-hitting gin martini of an action blast was the fight choreography. If you had “Maggie Q fighting Michael Keaton in knockdown fashion” on your bingo card last year, turn it the fuck in.

Lionsgate

Coming in at an hour and 49 beating minutes, “The Protege” also featured some of Samuel L. Jackson’s best work in years. He wasn’t wearing a prosthetic or speaking differently. Just a juicier role than he has been accustomed to lately. But when Mrs. Q and Keaton share the screen, this one hits a high note.

“Riders of Justice”

When it comes to Mads Mikkelsen acting in a Danish film, the odds are the film will be pretty good. “Riders” fits the bill and manages to surprise as well. Released internationally in 2020 and across America last year, it follows a soldier who is forced to come home after his wife is killed in a train crash. His daughter, also wounded in the same incident, finds her father fractured from war–a conflict brewed abroad and at home. When a mathematics geek (who was also on the train) and his co-workers show up with evidence it wasn’t exactly a train “accident” like it’s being described on the news, but a planned terrorist attack, the movie takes off.

Nordisk Film

A key ingredient in a breakneck film like this is a sense of humor. “Riders of Justice” has a potent one, introducing laughs during dicey plot sequences. Anders Thomas Jensen has written several Mikkelsen roles, but this one is a particularly sinister one. Sporting a shaved head with a full gray beard, the exceptional actor carries scenes of all moods and tempos. He’s the real deal, and so is this movie.

“Copshop”

Joe Carnahan may have been unhappy with this theatrical cut of his latest film–a vice grip shootout inside a police station–but I left quite pleased. Gerald Butler and Frank Grillo were fine in the lead roles, but it was Alexis Louder and Toby Huss who stole this show. The story of a con man (Grillo) being cornered by a hitman (Butler) inside a couple jail cells, with a badge (Louder) and another hired gun (Huss) stuck in between.

Briarcliff Entertainment/Open Road Films

This one had testosterone and bravado to spare, peeling tires all over a simple setup with much aplomb. Lean and mean running time and a thrilling send-off. If Carno Joe didn’t like this particular cut, I can only imagine how wild and entertaining his preferred one would be.

Before I go, don’t forget about these other quality action films or scenes from the past year: 

~the final fight between Adam Driver and Matt Damon in Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel.”

~the underground restaurant fight club in Michael Saroski’s “Pig.”

~Taylor Sheridan’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead.”

~Most of the action scenes in “No Time to Die.”

~The finale of “A Quiet Place Part Two.”

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