Subscription streaming services require digging to discover their full value. For example, while I’ve been prepping for IndieWire’s Best Action Films of the 21st Century (coming later this week), I was pleasantly surprised to find how many quality action films were available on Netflix — including works by a number of non-American auteurs. From martial arts to gangster shoot ’em ups to comedy-action films, here are eight highly original, well crafted, director-driven pieces of entertainment that could serve as a welcome alternative this summer when your local cineplex feels like a boring rerun.
“Shaolin Soccer” (2001)
Stephen Chow’s films (“Kung Fu Hustle”) are a wonderful and loony mix of comedy and action that have an infectious spirit. For this film the actor/writer/director adds a sports movie to the mix, which might sound bizarre, but once seeing it you’ll wonder why no one has made a martial arts soccer film before. Chow plays a Shaolin warrior who has become a street cleaner because there isn’t much use for his services. With the goal of showing society the benefits of martial arts, he forms of soccer team where they use the skills to kick the ball so hard it turns into flames and jump so high that the film becomes more “Crouching Tiger” than ESPN.
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Director Zhang Yimou quite literally elevates the wuxia film, as martial art stars Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi are virtually weightless in some of the most gorgeous fight scenes committed to film. Yimou’s direction is inspired. The action is clean and allows a pure appreciation of the artistry. The films stunning natural backdrops, filmed with incredibly vivid color by War Kong-wai’s regular DP Christopher Doyle, only add to that appreciation. While the film lacks some of the grit and immediacy of his other films, it offers an understanding of these warriors’ motivations, along with their sacrifice, that emotionally resonate with the viewer.
It is time to become familiar with the work of Johnnie To. The Hong Kong producer and director has made over 50 films this century, having directed 36 himself since his career started in 1980. These aren’t quick B-movies either, but slickly made genre films with a distinct and original voice. His sense of movement and staging has a Spielberg-like exactness with a lyrical flair all his own. “Three” is considered a minor Johnnie To film, in the sense that it is a chamber piece set in a hospital and not on the scale of “Vengeance” or “Exiled.” Yet it’s a great introduction to the filmmaker as “Three” becomes a formal exercise in mounting tension as it builds toward a not-to-be missed climax.
“The Legend of Drunken Master” (1994)
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What’s so fun about this film and the original “Drunken Master” from 1978 is how they reveal Jackie Chan’s range. His incredible body control isn’t simply for stunts and fights, but for comedic expression in the vein of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. In his first martial arts film in over 15 years, Chan returns to the character who needs to get drunk to uncork his unique fighting powers. This film’s special blend of slapstick and incredible acrobatic fighting and stunts is one of the greatest joys in all of cinema.
“The Good, The Bad, The Weird” (2008)
South Korean director Kim Jee-woon is a visual stylist with incredible sense of how to make action scenes pop, while imbuing each frame with his quirky sensibility. Inspired by Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” the story is about three characters chasing treasure in 1930s Manchuria. The film is full-throttle non-stop, with fantastic action set pieces involving a a train, motorcycle, horses, a heist, and more.
The unique fighting ability of Iko Uwais, star of “The Raid,” is the main attraction here, but his brutal style is not for the faint of heart. This Indonesian bloodbath features longer set pieces with high body counts that are a showcase for a performer many believe is the next great martial arts film star.
“Hot Fuzz” (2007)
As we count the days to Edgar Wright’s next film, “Baby Driver,” it might be a good time to revisit the action-comedy goodness of “Hot Fuzz.” Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is the best cop in London, so good he’s making other cops look bad and they ship him off to a post in a sleepy English village. While the action in “Hot Fuzz” is couched in the comedic premise of an overly intense cop in a very laid-back town, that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious filmmaking. Wright isn’t here for a cheap laugh or thrill. A devoted cinephile, the comedy-genre world is a playground for him to put his unique spin on his favorite conventions and is an all-out celebration of what makes movies both fun and cool. There’s also sincerity in Wright’s films and “Hot Fuzz” is a totally engaging buddy cop movie between Pegg and Nick Frost’s characters.
“Old Boy” (2003)
Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) had 15 years of his life stolen from him in mysterious fashion; now that he’s scraped his way to freedom, his sole purpose is to uncover the truth and seek revenge. The great Park Chan-wook’s (“The Handmaiden”) film is more neo-noir thriller than action film, but in the scenes where Choi Min-sik’s character gets his revenge the results are some of the boldest, most exciting filmed action scenes in recent memory. “Old Boy” won the Grand Prix when it premiered in competition at Cannes and ever since then the South Korean director has consistently been delivering some of the more beautiful, unique and let’s be honest, fun, movies of the century. If you haven’t discovered this essential auteur, “Old Boy” is a great place to start.
Other great action on Netflix: “Escape From New York,” “Bad Boys II,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” “Hellboy,” “IP Man,” “Turbo Kid,” “Red Cliff,” and “The Assassin.”