Back in what already seems like the Stone Age, Netflix had the market cornered when it came to streaming shows and movies, making it a one-stop destination for wasting away the weekends without ever needing to put on pants. Now in this grand future, not only are there more streaming services vying for your attention, there are too many streaming services offering pretty much everything under the sun. Now, the anxiety over what to watch is so real that you may end up giving up and wasting away that pant-less weekend staring at the ceiling.
Luckily, I’m here to help end your turmoil. As with our recent “Best Of” on Netflix lists, I will be looking at some of the best and brightest (and perhaps bloodiest, goofiest, horniest, and scariest) available on another major streaming platform – HBO Max. Sporting shows from the premium cable service and a massive catalog of Warner Bros. movies (and more), there’s no shortage of modern hits and cinema classics at your fingertips. But you may be asking questions like, “Where to start?” “What genre?” “Do I need pants for this one?” How about you ask yourself this Q: “Am I in the mood for blood, carnage, manic energy, or all of the above?”
Regardless of how you answer I have the list that will satisfy all your needs, because this go-around, I will be giving you a list of the very best action films currently available on HBO Max. Picking from such a varied genre wasn’t easy, and I had to start by deciding to not include certain movies that would fall into it. Ultimately what that meant was cutting huge franchise movies from the list – namely any DC or superhero films, as well as the many Godzilla/MonsterVerse movies and The Matrix series. The same goes for Mad Max: Fury Road, a crown jewel of the HBO Max lineup, and considering all the deserved praise it received and has continued to receive for the last few years, can afford to sit one list out. All of those films will stay off the list given the amount of exposure they already get on the regular, and in the name of making room for some more terrific, classic entries that deserve to be discovered, re-discovered, watched, re-watched, and spark conversations of their own.
Some you may have seen, some you may have not, but either way, your action dance card will have a lot of titles on it to help you make the hours fly by in a storm of bullets, blood, high-strangeness, and homoerotic bonding.
*Note: As of this writing, these movies are currently streaming on HBO Max, but as is the nature of these services, could be taken off at the leisure of the company in the future. We will stay on changes as best we can, and will swap out titles to reflect those changes, and keep things fresh in the process.*
Escape From New York
John Carpenter’s Escape From New York paints a gritty, suspenseful portrait of New York City that now houses nothing but criminals…that also happens to be weird as all hell. One minute Kurt Russell’s stoic, grizzled Snake Plisken is navigating the destroyed streets of Manhattan, only to walk in on a colorful, almost demented vaudeville show with a bouncy Ernest Borgnine enjoying every minute. Therein lies part of the genius of Carpenter’s excellent 1981 sci-fi action film, and how he’s able to balance constantly tense, brooding atmosphere with danger around every corner, and the absurdity that comes with the inmates running the asylum. The other stroke of genius comes in the form of Russell in a performance for the ages as Plisken, the man with no time for authority and dialogue that can’t be spoken in a low growl. Pairs nicely with other Carpenter classics of the period (Halloween, The Thing, etc.), and is a must-see offering in HBO’s current action catalog.
Before he was crafting the visionary action flicks Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Baby Driver, Edgar Wright crafted this loving homage to all things bombastic action with the buddy cop action-comedy, Hot Fuzz. Starring Simon Pegg (also co-writer with Wright) as a straight-laced super cop and Nick Frost as his bumbling, endearing partner, Fuzz is not only riotously funny, but features numerous action set pieces that both pay tribute to the action movies that inspired it, but also stand alongside them in terms of adrenaline-pumping mayhem and violence. What makes it even more special beyond the laugh-a-minute sense of humor and the cheer-worthy action is the warm, sweet story of friendship brimming between Nicholas Angel and Danny Butterman, living to the best ideals of the “buddy” in the buddy-cop genre.
Perhaps you’ve heard the name, possibly knowing it as a huge inspiration on Quentin Tarantino, a love you can see that love oozing in numerous frames across his Kill Bill movies. But now that’s it’s available at the click of a button, now is the time, if you haven’t already (and definitely again if you have) to watch the Japanese classic, Lady Snowblood. This tale of revenge from Toho centers on Yuki (an intensely magnetic Meiko Kaji), a woman born from her mother for the sole purpose of hunting down and killing the people who killed her husband and son and assaulted her. Training from a young age in the art of sword, stealth, and barrel-riding, Yuki is a master of the sword and slices and dices like nobody’s business, resulting in the kind of blood geysers Tarantino would later so lovingly pay homage to. Featuring some often-stunning cinematography (Masaaki Hirao), director Toshiya Fujita’s samurai action flick is also a captivating tragedy as much a samurai action flick, making it a standout selection of HBO Max’s current action slate.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Director Robert Rodriguez famously came on the map by scraping together enough cash and resources to make El Mariachi, which was followed by the Antonio Banderas/Selma Hayek action flick Desperado. Concluding his “Mexico Trilogy”, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Rodriguez calls back to the likes of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but with his own blend of pulpy thrills and incredibly over-the-top action. In the opening minutes alone, Banderas as El Mariachi blows away a room of thugs with submachine guns and a gun worked into his slick guitar – with Hayek’s Carolina finishing the job with some knife play. It’s not a perfect movie, and Rodriguez’s attempt to recall the great spaghetti westerns doesn’t always pan out, but it more than makes up for it with uniquely absurd action and series of great performances, including from Johnny Depp right before Jack Sparrow turned him into a box office behemoth.
Point Break (1991)
Wild, melodramatic, homoerotic, and undeniably awesome, there’s a reason why Hot Fuzz’s Danny Butterman has such an affinity for Point Break. At the core of the cop flick starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze is the genuinely engaging bond between the former’s Johnny Utah (one of the top action protagonist names) and Swayze’s Bodhi that – perhaps more than some righteous action direction from pre-Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow – makes it such a classic of the male bonding testosterone flicks.
Jackie Chan’s road to becoming a household name is paved with broken bones, blood, sweat, and one or destroyed townships. In his directorial effort Police Story, in which he’s also the leading man, Chan pulls out all the stops and crafts one wild action scene after another. Just watching the earliest scenes, involving a police raid that turns into a full-blown shanty town gunfight, resulting in a mind-boggling chase with a double-decker bus – all done practically and Chan tossing himself into his own stunts – and there’s no denying why this cop flick is a classic of the genre. The story isn’t quite so strong, but Chan more than makes up for it with his undeniable showmanship, and the dedication from him and his team to make every set piece and fight as crazy (and crazy dangerous) as possible.
The Road Warrior
While I purposely left this film’s higher-grossing, more-lauded younger sibling off the list, I wasn’t quite able to justify leaving George Miller’s second, equally sensational entry in the Mad Max series off the list. Hell, there be some folks out there who love Fury Road but have yet to travel back to Miller’s initial trilogy to see where the post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland got its beginning. Whether you’re in that group or already an avid fan of Miller’s series, there is never not a good time to press “Play” on this absolutely masterful execution of mayhem. A completely gonzo experience from top to bottom, filled with gnarly costume and makeup work, feral children, Gibson’s excellent work as Max, one of the best dog companions in cinematic history and no shortage of mind-melting action. Miller did exactly what a sequel of this kind should do by expanding on the characters and layers of this metal-as-hell wasteland and cranking up the juice on everything else – without diluting a single bit in the process. This is mandatory action viewing and if you have yet to cross it off your list, HBO Max has effectively taken away any excuses you think you have.
What’s better than having one Keanu Reeves action movie on the list? Having TWO Keanu Reeves action movies on the list. And just like you can’t talk about action in the 90s without Point Break, you can’t do it without Jan de Bont’s 1994 hit, Speed. Just like the bus that’s rigged to blow, Speed puts the pedal to the metal on the action to dizzying levels and never lets go for a second. Pretty much the definition of an “intense thrill-ride” there is something so pure and exciting about Speed that has made it a masterwork of the genre that’s stood the test of time. The premise is simple enough, but with each new layer that’s peeled off adding to the mounting intensity, with a colorful villain in Dennis Hopper’s Howard Payne (“Pop quiz, hotshot!”) calling the shots. There’s never a bad time to revisit this purest of action flicks, and it may change forever how to travel on public transportation. Shame can’t be said for the sequel and cruise ships.
Making a name for himself on the budding indie scene of the 90s with Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, director David O. Russell burst into the mainstream with his stylish, hilarious, intelligent and constantly fleet-of-foot Three Kings. An action flick, a war movie that puts the Gulf War under a lens, and a heist saga all wrapped up into one, the movie could’ve easily been a bit of a messy disaster (and based on some behind-the-scenes drama, it may have appeared like it was shaping up to be). But it’s the furthest thing, with Russell mastering the varying tones with a frantic visual language that compliments the fast jokes and wild action – while leaving breathing room to explore the nature of the war in Iraq and the main character’s relationship with it, with George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze turning in some fantastic work.
A samurai action movie, a crime drama, and an inspiration for later, classic Westerns (Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars), Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is a masterwork in a legendary filmography filled with them. It’s doesn’t have the epic nature of his Seven Samurai but this tale of a ronin (the incomparable Toshiro Mifune) caught between two warring gangs and deciding to cleverly pit them against each other makes the most of its simplicity with humor, technical mastery, fast-and-loose swordplay and the enigmatic work of Mifune as the sly and composed “Kuwabatake Sanjuro.” An undeniable classic that’s gone on to inspire filmmakers and genres since its 1961 release, Yojimbo is a must-see and more available than ever now that it’s streaming on HBO Max, and will certainly make you wonder if there’s been anyone else to walk the Earth who was as cool as Mifune was.
Still want more action? Check out our Best Action Movies on Netflix article to double your queue!