The 10 Best Action Movies of 2022Movies Lists best of 2022
A rare year for straight-up action, some of the year’s biggest movies were also those that exploded, that raced, that seared our eyeballs with spectacle. From James Cameron’s long-awaited return to Pandora to the unexpected crossover smash that saw Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem kick ass while on each other’s shoulders, there has been a blissful return to excess at the movies. Tom Cruise and Michael Bay are featured on this list, so, what else could we be focusing on? Of course, there is an underbelly to that excess—a reason why bombast’s brash simplicity was favored over nuance. As the powers that be try their damnedest to convince us that everything is finally alright (be that with COVID, police brutality, censorship, military overreach, or economic downturns), it is a comfort to be taken to the rebellious amusement park. Revolution and safety don’t normally go together, but at the cinema, we see fantasies of fighting back where the dangers can’t touch us. But, if we let them, they can still inspire us—or provoke us.
Here are the 10 best action movies of 2022:
10. All Quiet on the Western Front
There are now three major screen adaptations of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. The first two were grim reflections of the wars of their time, and remain fascinating not just for their treatment of Remarque’s work, but for viewing them in the context of the time in which they were made: Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film landed in the precise middle of the two World Wars that forever reshaped Europe; Delbert Mann’s 1979 television adaptation inescapably called back to the Vietnam War. Edward Berger’s new adaptation, distributed by Netflix, is unique among these in that it’s actually a German-language and German-led production. Despite their clear dedication to paint a universalist picture of the futility and inhumanity of modern war, the previous productions were, on some level, putting an American spin on this tale. Berger (born in then-West Germany in 1970) is not. It’s therefore somewhat perplexing that this adaptation ditches a lot of the particulars of the novel, widens its perspective characters to include top German brass, elides characters and even changes the particulars of major plot points to tell what amounts to an almost completely different story—one with a wider scope. By virtue of including two other characters, it makes an attempt to go beyond the trenches and indict the inhumanity of the people whose words cause wars. It’s wild, compared to the mostly faithful adaptations of the past. It also, inescapably, feels as if it’s more of a war film than the others, with more action scenes and necessarily less of an examination of the effect of war on the individual soldier. It’s a completely different perspective that is exceptionally well-shot and directed and raises its voice about Germany’s part of culpability for the war. It’s therefore profoundly frustrating that All Quiet on the Western Front, at times, bucks against Remarque’s thesis. It is, nonetheless, the first All Quiet on the Western Front adaptation in wide release that we’ve got from an actual German perspective. As we grow more and more distant from the war to end all wars, that kind of reappraisal becomes even more important. —Kenneth Lowe
Carter is the proverbial nonstop action thrill ride that every blockbuster claims to be. When Scorsese compared Marvel favorably to theme park attractions, this is the experience he should have been talking about. Directed by Jung Byung-gil, this action movie stars Joo Won as Carter, a mysterious amnesiac that, depending on who you believe, works for either the CIA or the DPRK military. The main technical gimmicks are the utilization of drones for an artificially endless one-shot and a running clock like High Noon. My first thought was of Hardcore Henry, a first-person sci-fi action film also about an amnesiac. Carter is a bit more grounded, despite a zombie-adjacent infection arising out of Korea’s demilitarized zone, spurring the plot as he must rescue and transport a research scientist’s daughter whose blood contains a natural resistance to the infection. There’s an impressively persistent use of drone footage for immersion and fluidity of motion in chase scenes, of which there are several. Carter is a beautiful dance of violence that pauses, but does not stop, for exposition and revelation. I found myself expelling the yelps, laughs and expletives that usually accompany a roller coaster for two nearly-uninterrupted hours. A few of the coolest action scenes I’ve seen this year are in this film: Carter hacks through a bathhouse mob of Yakuza with their own bladed weapons. Carter creates comedic beats solely through the occasional absurdity and suddenness of its frequently brutal violence. Further, a surprise American star that delighted me in their appearance clearly has a great time chewing scenery when they show up. (The light flickers when they yell in an abandoned mall’s haunted house. This movie is wonderful.)—Kevin Fox, Jr.
If Ambulance, Michael Bay’s 15th feature currently basking in a gleeful critical reappraisal of Bay’s canon, feels as entelechial as Bad Boys II, it can only be because Bay has found himself in the absolute best time to be Bay. Though an ensemble of Angelenos fills out the film as it barrels to pretty much the only conclusion it could have, Ambulance is about as tidy as a Michael Bay film can get. Within ten minutes we’re deep in Ambulance: Strapped for money to pay his wife’s escalating medical bills, let alone care for their infant son, Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) agrees to join his adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal, always a joy to behold) on one last big score, a bank heist that goes inevitably wrong. Subsequently, they shoot a cop (Jackson White) and commandeer the cop’s ambulance, also occupied by the “best” EMT in L.A., Cam Thompson (Eiza González)—just one more embittered soul in the grand gray tapestry that is the City of Angels. As Danny loses control and Will more and more accepts his fate as the offspring of a fabled bank-robbing psychopath, their bank robber father spoken of in hushed tones and unbelievable stories, the entire militarized might of the LAPD descends upon the stolen ambulance, led by Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt), a man who festishizes the police enough that Bay doesn’t have to. Even when FBI Agent Clark (Keir O’Donnell) gets involved, he’s only invited into Monroe’s inner circle because he went to college with Danny. Bad Boys and the fever dream of Bad Boys II are about how Michael Bay thinks that cops must be psychopaths in order to confront a modern psychopathic world. In Ambulance, as much as his vision of the LAPD comprises sophisticated surveillance and world-killing artillery to rival the most elite military power of the U.S. government—making sure it all looks really fucking cool—he also makes sure to interrupt an especially destructive chase sequence (as he once had Martin Lawrence declare the events happening on screen obligatory and nothing else) among so many especially destructive chase sequences, to have Monroe’s left hand, Lieutenant Dhazghig (Olivia Stambouliah), tell him how many tax dollars they’re annihilating. Later, many, many police officers die in explosions and hails of gunfire, bodies indiscriminately everywhere. One detects glee in these scenes, as if Bay’s countering Monroe’s dismissal of so many flagrantly abused tax dollars by blowing up half the LAPD in a spectacle that practically demands applause. Maybe Michael Bay no longer sees the utility in unleashing psychopathic cops on a psychopathic world, but maybe he never did. In Bay’s L.A., there are no sides, no good guys and bad guys, just a person who “saves my life” or doesn’t—just people with holes punched into their bodies and people without. This is Bay’s distinction between the “haves” and “have nots”: People who have mortal trauma and people who don’t. The film’s disposable blue collar Italian lump, Randazzo (Randazzo Marc), puts it simply: “L.A. drivers! They’re all mamalukes.” Behold this urban wasteland of struggling mamalukes—it teems with more style than we’ll ever deserve.—Dom Sinacola
7. The Northman
Forged in flame and fury, Robert Eggers’ The Northman is an exquisite tale of violent vengeance that takes no prisoners. Co-written by Eggers and Icelandic poet Sjón (who also recently co-wrote A24’s Icelandic creature feature Lamb), the film is ever-arresting and steeped in the director’s long-standing penchant for period accuracy. Visually stunning and painstakingly choreographed, The Northman perfectly measures up to its epic expectations. The legend chronicled in The Northman feels totally fresh, and at the same time quite familiar. King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) is slain by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who in turn takes the deceased ruler’s throne and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) for his own. Before succumbing to fratricide, Aurvandill names his young son Amleth (Oscar Novak) as his successor, making him an immediate next target for his uncle’s blade. Narrowly evading capture, Amleth rows a wooden boat over the choppy waters of coastal Ireland, tearfully chanting his new life’s mission: “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” Years later, Amleth (played by a muscular yet uniquely unassuming Alexander Skarsgård) has distinguished himself as a ruthless warrior among a clan of Viking berserkers, donning bear pelts and pillaging a series of villages in a furious stupor. The Northman is an accessible, captivating Viking epic teeming with the discordant, tandem force of human brutality and fated connection. Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that the film feels noticeably less Eggers-like in execution compared to his preceding works. It boasts a much bigger ensemble, seemingly at the expense of fewer unbroken takes and less atmospheric dread. In the same vein, it eschews the filmmaker’s interest in New England folktales, though The Northman does incorporate Eggers’ fascination with forestry and ocean tides. However, The Northman melds the best of Eggers’ established style—impressive performances, precise historical touchstones, hypnotizing folklore—with the newfound promise of rousing, extended action sequences. The result is consistently entertaining, often shocking and imbued with a scholarly focus. It would be totally unsurprising if this were deemed by audiences as Eggers’ definitive opus. For those already enamored with the director’s previous efforts, The Northman might not feel as revelatory as The Witch or as dynamic at The Lighthouse. What the film lacks in Eggers’ filmic ideals, though, it more than makes up for in its untouchable status as a fast-paced yet fastidious Viking revenge tale. The Northman is totally unrivaled by existing epics—and perhaps even by those that are undoubtedly still to come, likely inspired by the scrupulous vision of a filmmaker in his prime.—Natalia Keogan
Filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg’s Predator prequel Prey succeeds by daring to embrace what prior sequels did not: Simplicity. The basics of Predator cinema boil down to skull trophies and rival combat, but most of all, the thrill of an uninterrupted hunt. With brutal ease, writer Patrick Aison translates Predator codes to hunter-gatherer dichotomies in Native American cultures. There’s nothing scarier than the laws of natural hierarchies on display in their most elemental forms, and that’s what Prey recognizes with menacing regard. Trachtenberg understands what Predator fans crave, and executes without mercy. Set in the Northern Great Plains of 1719, Prey pits a Predator challenging any species’ alphas—wolves, bears, people—against a Comanche tribe. Taabe (Dakota Beavers) leads other boys on hunts while his sister Naru (Amber Midthunder) practices her deadliest skills in secrecy. She’s dismissed by most for her gender, but not by Taabe. Naru’s chance to defeat a lion (thanks to Taabe) and earn her warrior’s rite of passage fails when a Predator’s alien technology distracts from afar—which no one believes. Only Naru can protect her family and tribespeople from the unknown Yautja threat since no one will listen, which will be the warrior-wannabe’s ultimate test. Prey is inarguably the best Predator since the original. The film gets so much right, paying homage to John McTiernan’s 1987 masterwork—through cigars and direct quotes that it’ll have fans hooting—and adding Indigenous representation with real cultural strength. Trachtenberg and Aison keep things simple, and that’s the special sauce. The performances are tough-as-nails, action sequences absurdly gory and intensity streamlined like a high velocity arrow. By going back to beginnings, Prey sheds pounds of franchise dead weight for a leaner, meaner Predator prequel with all the spine-tearing, one-liner-spouting gladiatorial conquest that fans desire—computer-generated or not. —Matt Donato
Not quite four years since Mission: Impossible—Fallout and much of Tom Cruise’s purpose remains the same—if it hasn’t exactly grown in religious fervor. In Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to Tony Scott’s 1986 original, Cruise is Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a man trapped in the past, refusing to advance his career as resolutely as he refuses to do much of anything besides continue to prove he’s the greatest pilot in the world—a title the film never forgets to remind the audience that Maverick earned long ago—and mourn his best friend, Goose (Anthony Edwards), who died 35 years ago in an accident for which Maverick still feels responsible. Tom Cruise is also, simply, “Tom Cruise,” the only notable show business scion left to throw his body into mind-numbing danger to prove that it can be done, to show a younger generation that this is what movies can be, what superstars can do. Must do. The more modern action films teem with synthetic bodies bursting apart at the synthetic seams, the more Tom Cruise builds his films as alters upon which to splay his beautiful sacrificed flesh. To that end, Joseph Kosinski is the precisely correct director to steer Cruise’s legacy sequel. As was the case with Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, Maverick seems to exist to justify its existence, to update an IP that seems to only work in the past. For Top Gun this means translating Scott’s vision of sweat-drenched beach volleyball and unmitigated military spectacle into a soberer IMAX adventure, moving from the halcyon days of Reagan’s America to a world with no more need of a man like Maverick. “The future’s coming, and you’re not in it,” he’s told; every one of his superior officers appears to have no patience for him left. One can’t help but imagine that every new Tom Cruise vehicle is a way for him to reckon with that. Kosinski’s dogfights are pristine, incredible feats of filmmaking, economical and orbiting around recognizable space, but given to occasional, inexplicable shocks of pure chaos. Then quickly cohering again. If Scott’s action was a melange of motion never meant to fully cohere, keeping the American dream just that, then Kosinski is dedicated to allowing the audience a way into the experience. With his regular cinematographer Claudio Miranda, he revels in symmetry to keep the audience tethered. A wide glimpse of a dogfight in total, resembling a beach scene earlier, so suddenly appeared silently in the vast theater and unlike anything I’d ever really seen before, I gasped.—Dom Sinacola
When cartographers allowed their senses of imagination and self-preservation to fill the unexplored regions of their maps, they used to warn of creatures like lions, elephants and walruses. Creatures beyond understanding, with teeth and trunks and tusks easy to caricature into danger. But we mostly remember that when you sail to the faded edge of knowledge, there be dragons. The Sea Beast deftly hones this ancient human fear into a sharpened spear tip, striking at ignorance. Its swashbuckling adventure navigates a sea filled with massive critters sure to whet kids’ appetites for piracy, Godzilla films and exciting animation. The first movie from longtime Disney story staple Chris Williams after leaving the House of Mouse for Netflix, The Sea Beast is, to paraphrase Jared Harris’ Ahab-like Captain Crow, all piss and vinegar. That the film even alludes to the phrase, and drops a few other lightly-salted lines you might expect from some seasoned sea dogs, is indicative of its separation from the sanitized juggernaut. It looks violence in the eye; it isn’t afraid to make its threats real. All rightfully so. Telling a tall tale of hunters—mercenary crews funded by a colonialist crown to take out the kaijus populating the ocean—wouldn’t be right without at least a little edge. Our way into the world, the young Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), has experienced its dangerous realities firsthand: Her parents went down with a ship, leaving her as one of dozens of hunter orphans. But that hasn’t stopped her from lionizing her martyred family (something explicitly encouraged by the monarchy) and seeking her own glory. Stowing away on Crow’s ship, the Inevitable, she and the capable Jacob (Karl Urban) find themselves confronting the legendary ambitions they’ve built up in their own heads. Williams and co-writer Nell Benjamin immediately drop us into the Inevitable’s quest to take out Crow’s toothy and horned Red Whale, dubbed the Red Bluster, with total confidence that there’s no time like maritime. As our eyes roll and pitch across the impressively realistic waves and our ears try to follow the meticulously detailed helmsmanship, the hunting scenes ensnare us like the catch of the day. We understand the hierarchy of the diverse crew, the honor code among hunters, the tactics needed to take down imposing creatures that look like Toho turned their greatest hits into Pokémon. It’s savvy and respectful writing, put into legible action by Williams’ skilled hand, that trusts in its setting and subject matter to be inherently cool, and in its audience to greedily follow along. By the time the lances are flying, the cannons are firing and the creatures are dying—or are they?—you’re as deeply hooked as any dad watching Master and Commander. A delightful new-school deconstruction of old-school Romantic adventure that never compromises on the lushness of setting, color and emotion inherent in the latter, The Sea Beast rises to the front of Netflix’s animated offerings like a high tide.—Jacob Oller
Avatar: The Way of Water is a promise—like the titular Way as described by a beatific, finned Na’vi fish-people princess, the film connects all things: the past and the future; cinema as a generational ideal and one film’s world-uniting box office reality; James Cameron’s megalomania and his justification for Being Like That; one audience member and another audience member on the other side of the world; one archetypal cliché and another archetypal cliché; dreams and waking life. Avatar’s sequel can be nothing less than a delivery on everything Cameron has said, hyperbolic or not, he would deliver. What’s less clear is exactly what Cameron’s intending to deliver. The Way of Water’s story is a bare bones lesson in appealing to as many worldwide markets as possible, the continuation of the adventures of Bostonian Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, who’s spent the past decade trying not to sound like an outback chimney sweep) as he raises a Na’vi family with like-warrior-minded Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña, screaming from inside her golden prison) and realizes that Earthlings aren’t going to stop colonizing Pandora just because they had their shit kicked in a lifetime ago. The Way of Water’s true achievement is that it looks like nothing else but the first Avatar, unparalleled in detail and scale, a devouring enterprise all to itself. Watching The Way of Water can at times feel astonishing, as if the brain gapes at the sheer amount of physical data present in every frame, incapable of consuming it, but longing to keep up. We believe that this film will redefine box office success because Cameron presents it—making the absolute most of high frame rates, 3-D, and IMAX, normalizing their use, acclimating our brains in ways Ang Lee could only wish—as the next evolutionary step in modern blockbuster filmmaking. This is immersion for its own sake, moviegoing as experience vaunted to the next level, breathtaking in its completely unironic scope. After so many hours in Pandora, untroubled by complicated plot or esoteric myths, caring for this world comes easy. As do the tears. The body reacts as the brain flails. Avatar has consumed James Cameron; it is his everything now, the vehicle for every story he wants to tell, and every story anyone may want to tell—the all-consuming world he’s created is such a lushly resourced aesthetic wonder that anything can be mapped onto its ever-expanding ecosystems. Pandora is a toolbox and ready-made symbol. No film will ever be this beautiful in my lifetime, at least until the next Avatar.—Dom Sinacola
A Telugu epic rivaling even the over-the-top antics of writer/director S. S. Rajamouli’s previous massive blockbusters (the two Baahubali films), RRR’s endearingly repetitive and simple title reflects a three-hour romp through Indian colonial history filled with the primal pleasures of brotherhood and balls. Almost cartoonishly political, its story of star-crossed besties Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) is one focused on shallow contrasts masking bone-deep similarities. Based on two superheroicized revolutionaries—ones that never, but should have, saved a child by simultaneously bungeeing a tethered motorcycle and horse over opposite sides of a bridge—the at-odds heroes represent the rural and urban poles opposing the British colonizers. Caricatures of the urbane heartthrob and the noble backwoods beast, the two embodiments of cultural pride battle CG beasts, ridiculous Brits and each other—though you can’t help but hope they end up holding each other tight. (They do squats while riding each other piggyback. C’mon.) Their back-and-forth, glisteningly homoerotic friendship walks a taut narrative tightrope, but with the movie’s maximalist filmmaking as its balancing rod. A phenomenally thrumming and amusingly worded soundtrack accompanies some of the year’s most bombastic action sequences and charming dance scenes without mussing a single mustache hair. The two beefy and hyper-masculine leads span silent comedy, musical song-and-dance prowess and elegant fight choreography as the kind of do-it-all stars we just don’t get in the U.S. anymore. As their morally turbulent path rages against the pure evil of the cruel white oppressors, any doubt that RRR is a modern myth fades deep into the shadows of the jungle. Overflowing with symbols, political shorthand and stereotypes of all kinds, RRR rises, roars and revolts with raw cinematic power—and enough fascinating density to warrant watching and discussing over and over again.—Jacob Oller
It’s been more than a decade since Romain Gavras filled his raw music video for “No Church in the Wild” with Molotovs, stolen police horses and dropkicked riot shields—visual motifs of protest heroics—and the only thing that’s changed is our familiarity with the aftermath. The rage behind these images still burns, but we know the cold comfort left behind when the embers are finally stomped out. Yet, the only thing to do is light the blaze again, which Gavras does in the riveting, vital Athena. A war epic between the people and the state, it sprints through a grassroots resistance movement like a brushfire: Blinding, dangerous, all-consuming. The warzone is Athena, a French housing project, where tragedy has assembled a community, grown from a family. Idir, 13 and the youngest of four brothers—Karim (Sami Slimane), Abdel (Dali Benssalah) and Moktar (Ouassini Embarek)—has been beaten to death by police. Someone recorded it on their phone. But we find this out in sprinkled bits of exposition, blown to confetti and wafting through the smoke-filled air. Our immediate attention is on Karim, leading a tracksuited pack of neighbors and like-minded young people, raiding a police station. The opening scene, the first of many incredible feats of planning, camerawork and drone operation, will make you vibrate through your seat. Gavras shoots long tracking shots like caffeine straight into your eyes: Painfully energizing. Athena’s opening is one of the year’s best, a piece of relentless, fist-pumping, jaw-clenching, goosebumping action that doesn’t stop until you’re fully radicalized. It’s then that you start peering through the style, seeing how it mirrors the personalities of its perspective characters. There’s a reason Athena feels like a heart attack in motion. There’s pain and panic. Your heart rate isn’t spiking just from the rush. But until we realize that, Karim and his crew star in a sweeping, large-scale epic—a modern 1917 where the horrifying euphoria of war has come home. Athena isn’t here for subtlety. It’s here to blow the drums out of your ears, the lids off your eyes, the lead from your shoes. With shots that start at “un-fucking-believable” and rocket towards “im-fucking-possible,” its grandiose vision aims to define an international symbol of modernity: Protest As War. Benssalah and Slimane, more political gradients than people, guide us along the mythmaking until we’ve fully grasped the absurdity of Athena being both the God of wisdom and war. But, as Frank Ocean sings in “No Church in the Wild,” what’s a God to a nonbeliever? Athena burns bright and fast, searing its unforgettable battle cry into the screen over just 99 minutes. Its idealistic action will stay with you for far longer.—Jacob Oller