Today, we live in a surreal world in which an endless amount of movies, TV shows and web series are available at our finger tips. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime allow people to pick what they want to watch, and watch it whenever they want. YouTube opens the gate even further, placing a treasure trove movie trailers, music videos, full-length projects, reviews and much more within arm’s reach. And the phones in our pockets can create flicks — like 2015’s Tangerine — that can compete with major studio projects.
Needless to say, in such an environment there are inevitably going to be quite a few movies we have never heard of, let alone watched. And some of those movies that fly under the radar are actually pretty good.
This list focuses squarely on the action genre, delving into some of the deeper cuts and hopefully delivering some interesting picks. From franchises that were on the downslope to foreign pictures that didn’t have huge North American distribution, these are some of the finest action movies that, for a variety of reasons, it’s likely you didn’t know existed. So with that, please sit back, strap in, and enjoy Screen Rant’s 12 Best Action Movies You’ve Never Heard Of…
12 Strange Days (1995)
A futuristic tale about Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), a hustler who deals in virtual reality experiences, Strange Days got a lot of things wrong about the future, but was nonetheless a great action flick. It portrays a declining society, wherein the masses’ only escape from the misery of impoverished, crime-ridden city life is through virtual reality escapism. The mini-discs that Lenny hocks contain the past emotional lives and experiences of an assortment of people, available to anyone at the right price. One day, per usual, he indulges in his supply, but on this tape he finds a murder of a prostitute. A former cop, Lenny conscience forces him to pursue the killer who made the tape, and he enlists formidable bodyguard Mace (Angela Bassett) to partner with him. What they uncover is a vast conspiracy, which pulls them in dangerously.
Strange Days is a great film, a cult favorite like the rest of this list. It never got the mainstream appreciation of its contemporaries, nor did it blow away every critic (though Roger Ebert was a prominent exception). It’s a fun thrill ride though, and Fiennes and Bassett are endlessly fun to follow on-screen. Director Kathryn Bigelow would go on to gain more critical acceptance with her films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.
11 Mesrine (2008)
Divided into two chapters — Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 — each of these films depicts a different part of the life of Jacques Mesrine, a notorious French criminal who had a penchant for seemingly every kind of violence and deception.
Killer Instinct chronicles the rise of Mesrine: his return home after being a soldier in the Algerian War, flings with "straight" work, and an eventual descent into a life of crime. We see him take part in robberies both in France and abroad, until he is captured by authorities and sent to jail. There, Mesrine garners new skills, and he escapes. What follows in the ‘60s is a string of robberies, prison breakouts, and even murders. At one point, Mesrine and an accomplice in Canada actually attempt to break in to prison to catalyze a mass escape.
Public Enemy #1 shows the peak of Mesrine’s peculiar fame in French news and culture, and chronicles his swift demise. After kidnapping a judge at gunpoint to escape court, Mesrine is found and placed in La Sante, a maximum-security prison considered to be escape proof. And you can guess what happens. After a couple more years of crime, the resourceful gangster meets his fate. Well-known actor and critical darling Vincent Cassell lives up to his reputation here, too, delivering a spectacular performance that rivals any in a biographical setting.
10 Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)
Considered by many to be the best film in its franchise, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning contains a surprising amount of depth and technical talent. Before, the Universal Soldier series was flagging. The first film of the series — which came out in 1992 — was moderately successful at the box office, and helped to bolster the careers of star Jean-Claude Van Damme and director Roland Emmerich, but wasn’t particularly good. And it’s 1999 sequel was quite a bit worse. Thankfully, in 2009, director John Hyams took over the series and started setting it on the right course, bringing back to life the tale about revitalized experimental super soldiers.
But it was not until Day of Reckoning that the franchise found its center, which is too bad, because after two decades of schlock, most movie-goers just weren’t going to give this series another chance.
The film is great, with some of the better action scenes you can find, and a surreal tone that makes the B-movie feel almost Lynchian in parts. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren both return to their roles, albeit this time in supporting roles. Newcomer Scott Adkins is the star of the show, putting on display considerable martial arts talent.
9 The Guest (2014)
Most of you know Dan Stevens from his turn as Matthew Crawley in the enormously popular British period drama Downton Abbey. So it’s kind of strange seeing him do a complete about-face from playing a sweet and debonair chap to acting like an unhinged nutcase in 2014’s The Guest. But that’s not the main reason why people haven’t heard of it: Mostly, it’s the fact that this film played in less than twenty theaters when it was released in the U.S.
But it is a fun, well-made movie. Stevens stars as charismatic-but-wild David Collins, a man who shows up one day at the door of a family, telling them that he’s a veteran and a friend of their son who recently died at war. The family takes him in, and he soon he ingratiates himself comfortably within the family structure. He protects the daughter at house parties, teaches the younger son some self-defense tactics, and generally consoles the parents. But eventual, dangerous forces come for him and the family realizes that he’s not who he says he is.
For such a clichéd story, The Guest pulls this off with aplomb, thanks in large part to adept direction and Stevens’s performance.
8 Mountain Patrol: Kekexili (2004)
Despite the mass exodus happening these days throughout media towards digital streaming services, the majority of full-length movie projects are still produced through the studio system. These big Hollywood films benefit from vast production and marketing budgets, as well as a prodigious distribution chain. And so that makes Mountain Patrol: Kekexili a kind of bittersweet choice here. It is one of the prettiest films you’ll ever see — that is, if you can find a way to see it.
While is was mostly funded by Hollywood sources, including Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros., Kekexili did not get much North American moviegoing attention. But throughout China, Japan, and throughout the globe, it took home prizes for best director, best film, and more.
The movie revolves around a Beijing reporter, Ga (Zhang Lei), who is sent to Tibet to report on the death of a park ranger. As he spends time with the patrols and gathering information, Ga discovers the important struggle the team has undergone in trying to protect the Tibetan Antelope from poachers.
The cinematography is excellent, as is the direction and acting (what’s more: they’re all amateur actors). This one is worth seeking out.
7 Drug War (2012)
Chinese films don’t get a lot of love here in the west, and it’s too bad. Beyond the language barrier and subtitles, films like Drug War demonstrate how few excuses we really have in keeping such a narrow scope with our media.
That’s because, put simply, Drug War is a great movie. Yet another cop thriller on a list that seems to be full of them, the story here revolves around a hardened police captain, Zhang (Sun Honglei), who enlists the help of an arrested drug boss (Louis Koo) to help the Hong Kong police take down an elaborate drug smuggling network.
The movie is shot in a very matter-of-fact style, with action being more of a welcome surprise than the tedious norm. The script is airtight, and all of the main actors (Honglei especially) electrify the screen.
6 Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2011)
On the face of it, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within seems like yet another entirely missable action film for us to just flip past on Netflix. But that assumption would be a shame, because there’s a lot of vitality and grit packed within its two hours.
Made by a Brazilian team in Rio de Janeiro, The Enemy Within has even drawn comparisons to the Baltimore-based TV series The Wire. And although the HBO behemoth is on a different level when it comes to writing and character development, one can see some thematic similarities between the two. Both focus on cops and criminals. Both delve into social issues like class and politics, drawing larger connections than most care or are equipped to. And Enemy Within has a level of realism to it that makes it wonderful to watch.
The film begins with a hostage crisis, with society’s worst criminals staging a riot in jail and taking guards against their wills. But problem is, they had help from one of them. The Enemy Within is great, from the acting, to the realistic dialogue, to even the set design.
5 13 Assassins (2010)
Akira Kurosawa is the indisputable king when it comes to making samurai movies, revolutionizing the genre with 1954’s epic Seven Samurai. And no director has come closer to matching the art or technical acumen of the master than Takashi Miike with his film 13 Assassins.
Despite the fact that Miike’s picture — at a paltry two hours long — is only half the span of Kurosawa’s masterpiece, there are quite a few similarities. The clearest is in the films’ central gists: A select clique of elite samurai are pulled out of more peaceful times to protect villagers from a huge belligerent force.
Take note that Miike’s film is quite violent, but the action sequences are some of the best-made of any film in recent years. And the motivations of the characters are all clear thanks to time being allotted for such important components. It’s essential viewing for any action fan, or anyone just looking for a cool samurai movie.
4 Hard Boiled (1992)
Director John Woo is probably best known for helming the 1997 cheesefest Face/Off. But beneath the ‘face’ of it — performances by Nicolas Cage and John Travolta that could break even the most rugged ham-o-meter — there is actually a technically competent action film.
So it should come as no surprise that years earlier, before he was putting Nicolas Cage in magnetic boots and asking him to act like John Travolta acting like Nicolas Cage, John Woo was putting together more sensibly cast, hard-nosed action films in Hong Kong movie industry. And of those earlier projects, 1992’s Hard Boiled was one of his greatest. A film about a detective called Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) who goes after a gang that had killed his partner, it features more gunplay than it would seem imaginable in a film, as well as some pretty nifty technical feats. For instance, there is an exciting scene wherein Tequila and a comrade storm a hospital full of baddies, which starts off with a three-minute tracking shot that uses no cuts and little effects.
Upon release, Hard Boiled was a major hit at the Hong Kong box office, and it helped to catapult Chow Yun-Fat to stardom. But it has yet to get the attention it deserves stateside.
3 Heist (2001)
Not to be confused with the unrelated and inferior 2015 movie of the same name, 2001’s Heist was written and directed by playwright David Mamet. Heist pairs Gene Hackman and the woefully underutilized Delroy Lindo as Joe and Bobby, a crack team of robbers who plan methodically for every job and, with the help of their assistant Pinky (Ricky Jay), expertly dispatch of any obstacle that gets in their way.
Aging and tired, they tell their fence, Bergman (Danny DeVito) that they’re calling it quits. But an angered Bergman withholds their last payout until they complete one last job. The risk is very high on this one, not to mention the fact that the distrusting Bergman sends along his nephew (Sam Rockwell) as insurance. Mamet’s Rebecca Pidgeon co-stars as Joe’s mysterious spouse.
Mamet knocked this one out of the park, giving us hardboiled main characters, great action, and some of the best dialogue in the biz.
2 Oldboy (2003)
A man is imprisoned in a secret facility for fifteen years for reasons unknown to him. As he stays locked alone in the motel-like environs for ages, he wiles away his time watching television, working out, and slowly losing his grip on reality. He mulls over who he could have slighted so seriously to deserve such a fate, and can think of no one. Eventually with little sanity left and nothing to live for if life continues as such, he starts wittling his way through a wall behind his bed with a metal chopstick. It takes him seven years to but he finally reaches the outside world. Once out, a links up with a mysterious young woman, and together they attempt to track down the mastermind behind his imprisonment.
Oldboy is a fantastic film out of South Korea, and director Park Chan-wook rightfully gained cult status with it, perfectly indulging revenge and mystery themes while also keeping the main character Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) grounded and likable.
Spike Lee directed a 2013 remake, starring James Brolin, but it couldn't capture the same magic.
1 Ronin (1998)
In the 1960s, John Frankenheimer directed a string of important films that helped define the action and suspense genres — movies like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and the Formula One epic Grand Prix (1966). He also made some questionable decisions: Frankenheimer was who the studios tapped to resuscitate the production of 1996’s infamous The Island of Dr. Moreau after the original director had been fired.
Somewhere on that spectrum of cultural import lies Ronin. An utterly excellent and sorely underseen gem, Ronin is the story of a group of ex-government intelligence agents hired by a shadowy group to retrieve a briefcase with valuable contents. The briefcase is, of course, heavily guarded by baddies — it’s handcuffed to one’s wrist — and so the hired men must try everything they can to get it. Ronin is an action flick as smart as they come, with arresting dialogue by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet, brilliant direction from Frankenheimer, and a dream cast in Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, and Jonathan Pryce.
Any other underrated action movies that belong on this list? Let us know in the comments!