What makes a great action movie?
It could be the fight choreography and blocking, viscerally bringing the viewer in on every blow. It could be the stunt work, awing the audience with gravity-defying leaps and tricks. It could be the effects work, with massive explosions or sickening bone breaks. It could be a tense narrative that explodes into frenetic action.
In many cases, it’s all of the above (or at least a combination of a few). And for all the movies below, it’s a guaranteed good time. Here are our favorite action movies currently streaming, and where you can watch them. Our latest update added In the Line of Duty IV.
Editor’s pick: Fist of the Condor
Run time: 1h 20m
Director: Ernesto Díaz Espinoza
Cast: Marko Zaror, Eyal Meyer
Where to watch: Hi-Yah!, free with a library card on Hoopla, or to rent
A loving ode to the old-school martial arts movies of the 1960s and ’70s, the Chilean duo of director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza and star Marko Zaror delivered a sleeper candidate for one of the year’s best movies with this one.
Zaror and Espinoza have made plenty of movies together before, but Fist of the Condor is a new height for them. Zaror, a former stuntman for Dwayne Johnson who regularly features in excellent direct-to-video action movies, has his star rising after having a significant role in John Wick: Chapter 4. Fans of that franchise would do well to seek out this movie for a glimpse back to some of the origins of the martial arts movie.
Zaror plays a pair of twins (he also choreographed the movie’s terrific fight scenes — he’s a busy man) who are at odds over a book that will teach them the Fist of the Condor, an ancient, gravity-defying martial art. He’s great in both roles, but the movie really excels as a feast for the senses. It’s not just the fights, though. Espinoza and cinematographers Nicolás Ibieta and Benjamín Luna Vaccarezza make the most of the gorgeous landscape of Chile, and Claudio Rocco’s driving, propulsive score clearly draws inspiration from the work of Ennio Morricone.
Fist of the Condor is one of the best of a stellar crop of 2023 action movies. But what makes it stand out is how confident it is in shying away from modern action trends and returning to the genre’s roots, combining influences of Bruce Lee and Sergio Leone to great effect. —Pete Volk
In the Line of Duty IV
Run time: 1h 34m
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Cast: Cynthia Khan, Donnie Yen, Michael Wong
Where to watch: Tubi, The Roku Channel, Plex, Freevee, Crackle, or to rent
One of the absolute classics of the golden age of Hong Kong action cinema, In the Line of Duty IV teams up a young Donnie Yen with the peerless Cynthia Khan in an action- and stunt-filled roller coaster from legendary choreographer and director Yuen Woo-ping.
Technically a part of the Yes Madam series (which features all-time Michelle Yeoh action bangers Royal Warriors and Yes, Madam!), In the Line of Duty IV reprises Cynthia Khan’s Inspector Rachel Yeung character from In the Line of Duty III. But you do not need to watch the others in the series to get the magnificence of In the Line of Duty IV.
Inspector Yeung is assisting the Seattle Police Department in a drug smuggling operation when things go wrong, and an officer is killed by the CIA agents secretly doing the drug smuggling. When the wrong man is framed for murder and escapes to Hong Kong, Yeung and Seattle PD officer Donnie Yen (played, of course, by Donnie Yen) chase him down and attempt to find the truth.
In the Line of Duty IV has a more coherent plot than many of the other Hong Kong action movies of this era, but it’s all there to support the outstanding stunts and fights. Yen was in his 20s when he filmed the movie, and his legendary speed is on full display here, but it’s Khan who really steals the show. A terrific lead in many action movies of the era, Khan took her stage name from two of her idols: Yes, Madam! co-stars Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Yeoh (who was credited as Michelle Khan at the time). She brings a determination and fearlessness to the role and her stunts, including a jaw-dropping sequence on top of a moving ambulance.
The list of phenomenal fights in this movie is nearly endless, but I want to shout out the rooftop fight scene between Yen and American martial artist Michael Woods. The two met because Woods trained at Yen’s mother’s martial arts school in the Boston area, and they went on to star in many movies together.
There’s a new excellent box set out from 88 Films, but luckily the movie is also streaming for free on many FAST (free ad-supported streaming television) services for your viewing pleasure. —PV
The Man From Nowhere
Run time: 1h 59m
Director: Lee Jeong-beom
Cast: Won Bin, Kim Sae-ron
Where to watch: Prime, Peacock, Mubi, Freevee, Tubi, Pluto TV, Plex, or free with a library card on Kanopy
This action thriller plays out like a leaner, less, well, problematic version of Léon: The Professional, albeit with a karambit-wielding antagonist à la Cecep Arif Rahman’s character in The Raid 2 in lieu of a Gary Oldman crooked-cop analog.
Won Bin (Mother) stars as Cha Tae-sik, a widower and pawn shop proprietor who befriends So-mi (Kim Sae-ron), a young girl who lives in the same apartment building with her go-go dancing, opium-addicted mother. When So-mi is abducted by gangsters as part of a ploy to recover a missing packet of drugs, Tae-sik finds himself ensnared in a feud between two warring criminal organizations as he embarks on a dogged one-man mission to bring her back home. Won Bin is cooler than the other side of the pillow, offering up a convincing and compelling portrayal of a man dusting off his skill for surgically incapacitating his opponents with brutal aptitude and single-minded focus. This was his final film before entering retirement, and honestly, who could blame him? The Man From Nowhere is a modern classic and a must-see for any savvy action movie fan. —Toussaint Egan
The Night Comes for Us
Run time: 2h 1m
Director: Timo Tjahjanto
Cast: Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle
Where to watch: Netflix
Horror and action are closer siblings than they appear to be. Both genres are committed to externalizing the internal conflicts of their characters, in finding sensational and dynamic visual ways to depict what their characters lack the words to say. They’re also genres that, at their most effective, really know how to make something look extremely painful.
The Night Comes for Us is acclaimed Indonesian horror director Timo Tjahjanto’s action opus, a brutal and violent masterpiece that follows Ito, a South East Asian Triad member that turns his back on criminal fraternity in order to save a little girl’s life. Under Tjahjanto’s direction, a familiar premise develops into an unforgettable film, as Tjahjanto presides over some of the most brutal fights on film and slowly marches the protagonist to damnation. —Joshua Rivera
Run time: 2h 17m
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy
Where to watch: Peacock
In The Northman, a guy leaps into the air, catches a spear thrown at him, and in one fluid motion, throws it right back with such casual precision that makes it one of the coolest and funniest scenes of the year. The rest of the film, about a Viking’s long quest for revenge against the uncle that betrayed his clan, killed his father, and kidnapped his mother, is layered in different ways. Shifting between folk horror, twisted family drama, and testosterone-drenched action, The Northman is director Robert Eggers’ version of a popcorn movie, bringing the discomfort of his abrasive period pieces to a muscular brawl of a film. It could’ve just been the movie that climaxes with a naked sword fight on a volcano to be a winner; that it’s so much more makes it a triumph. —JR
SPL 2: A Time for Consequences
Run time: 2h
Director: Cheang Pou-soi
Cast: Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, Simon Yam
Where to watch: Peacock, Hi-Yah!, Plex, Pluto TV, orTubi
I’m a big fan of martial arts movies, and I often get asked where someone new who is interested should start. It often depends on what mood you’re in — there’s a big gap between the joys of Jackie Chan’s stunt-based action comedies and the bone-crunching thrillers of something like The Night Comes for Us — but I always end up coming back to SPL 2: A Time for Consequences as a movie pretty much everyone could enjoy.
Kit (Wu) is a cop who has gone undercover to infiltrate a crime syndicate that is running a sinister kidnapping-for-organ-harvesting scheme. When Kit’s cover is blown, he is sent to a prison in Thailand, whose warden (Zhang Jin) is in league with the syndicate. The prison portion of the movie includes multiple jaw-dropping fights between Kit, the warden, and prison guard Chatchai (Jaa).
A crime thriller with hints of a medical drama, it features a superstar cast of action legends like Jaa, Jing, and Max Zhang. The first movie in the series, Kill Zone, stars Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung and also rules, but this one is not really related, so you don’t have to watch it first if you don’t want to. —PV
Run time: 1h 56m
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai
Where to watch: Freevee, Plex, Pluto TV, Crackle, Tubi, Vudu, or free with a library card on Kanopy and Hoopla
No one in the world makes more beautiful action movies than Zhang Yimou. And his wuxia movies are breathless displays of cinematic excellence.
Rich on political intrigue and gorgeous contrast in colors, Shadow (while in color) makes great use of black-and-white imagery. It’s also got one of the coolest cinematic weapons of the century — the umbrella you see above, which is made up of blades. I implore you to watch this movie, one of the best of the century and a feast for the senses. —PV
Run time: 1h 40m
Director: Choi Jae-hoon
Cast: Jang Hyuk, Kim Hyun-soo, Joe Taslim
Where to watch: Peacock, Tubi, Pluto TV, Freevee, Vudu
This period action drama centers on Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk), the best swordsman in the Joseon dynasty of Korea and bodyguard to King Gwanghaegun. After being blinded in a coup attempt, Tae-yul flees with Tae-ok (Kim Hyun-soo), the king’s last surviving child, to raise her in the mountains out of harm’s way. When Tae-ok is inadvertently abducted by Gurutai (Joe Taslim), a member of the Qing dynasty, as part of a feud between him and the local vassal, Tae-yul takes up his sword one last time to cut a bloody swath through her captors and secure her freedom.
The first half is admittedly on the slower side, doling out exposition between Tae-yul and the other key players of the story, including Min Seung-ho (Jung Man-sik), the Joseon general responsible for wounding Tae-yul and killing Gwanghaegun. That takes a turn in the last half of the film, however, when Tae-yul proceeds to expertly cut down his adversaries with ruthless efficiency combined with balletic grace and agility. The courtyard battle against a troop of armed infantrymen, as well as the final duel between Tae-yul and Gurutai, are spectacular examples of action direction. If you’re looking for an engrossing and creative martial arts action drama, The Swordsman certainly fits the bill. —TE
The Paper Tigers
Run time: 1h 48m
Director: Bao Tran (Tran Quoc Bao)
Cast: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins
Where to watch: Tubi, or free with a library card on Kanopy and Hoopla
One of the best action films on Netflix is also surprisingly conservative with its action. A story about three former martial arts students reunited when their master is murdered, The Paper Tigers’ first stroke of genius is resisting the grim revenge story the audience might expect from this. Instead, writer/director Bao Tran (Tran Quoc Bao)’s film is a comedy, where the central trio of fighters are middle-aged, washed up, and barely able to pull off half of the moves they did when they were younger.
The cast of zeroes thus established, The Paper Tigers is less a grim revenge fable than it is a heartfelt story about coming to terms with growing older and drifting apart, one in which the scenes where its protagonists can’t fight as well as they used to are as fun to watch as other films’ displays of proficiency. This also means The Paper Tigers, with wit and charm, also becomes wonderfully tense: Eventually, they’re going to have to stop bumbling and fight like they mean it. When the time comes, can they? —JR
Wheels on Meals
Run time: 1h 44m
Director: Sammo Hung
Cast: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao
Where to watch: Freevee, Pluto, and Plex
There are a lot of reasons to love Wheels on Meals. It’s a stellar entry from a period of time where childhood friends Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao were at the heights of their martial arts comedy movie powers. It’s a genuinely funny buddy comedy with plenty of wacky hijinks. But one reason reigns supreme: The fights between Jackie Chan and Benny Urquidez in this movie are arguably the best ever put on film.
First, a little background on the legendary Urquidez. One of the greatest kickboxers of all time, he was a hugely influential fighter who helped popularize martial arts in the United States. He’s trained a number of Hollywood stars as fighters (Patrick Swayze for his role in Road House, and he’s also John Cusack’s kickboxing trainer and fought across him in Grosse Pointe Blank). But at this point in Urquidez’s career, he was much closer to his time as a legend of the ring than his time as a legend of action movies. Jackie Chan brought him in for his second film role (his debut was in Robert Clouse’s Force: Five with some great fellow cinematic kickers in Joe Lewis, Richard Norton, and Bong Soo Han) because the burgeoning Hong Kong star wanted a challenge. If you listen to Urquidez talk about filming this movie in his interview with Scott Adkins (and you should), they basically really went at it in this movie, because Jackie wanted to prove himself against one of the best fighters in the world. That shows on the screen in some of the most exhilarating fight sequences ever filmed.
If Wheels on Meals was just the one fight between Jackie and Benny — Dayenu, it would have been enough. Thankfully the whole movie is just as much of a blessing. —PV