In Review

Best action films of 2021

Top movies include Dune, No Time to Die, and The Suicide Squad



The body is 60% water, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph, but by the time the credits rolled on Dune at the screening I attended, I reckon the audience was “90% goosebump”. This new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s cult 1965 novel, by the director Denis Villeneuve, is “science-fiction at its most majestic, unsettling and enveloping”. The film is set in the year 10191, and an unseen emperor has set his underlings the task of mining the rare but strategically vital commodity of “spice” on a hostile, sand-covered planet. Until recently, the extraction was entrusted to the house of Harkonnen, led by the monstrous levitating Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård). Now, it has been handed to the rival house of Atreides, whose “sullen heir” (an “ideally cast” Timothée Chalamet) has been groomed since birth by his mother (Rebecca Ferguson, also excellent) for her religious order’s own mysterious purposes. Cue much scheming, and some truly masterful action set pieces.

Herbert’s novel has been so influential, the film (the first part in a planned trilogy) may seem “deceptively derivative”, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. But what keeps it new is Villeneuve’s “astonishing visual sensibility”. Ornithopters flit around “like dragonflies”; vast spaceships “glint in the mist”; and the giant sandworms – unconvincing in David Lynch’s flawed 1984 adaptation – are spectacular, splashing through the dunes like “eels through water”. I’m afraid I found the worms “a hoot”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. And I wouldn’t call this “sprawling” epic a masterpiece; but it is “a heck of a spectacle”, with “fabulous cinematography and a soaring Hans Zimmer score”. Two tips: “mug up” on the plot before you go; and catch it on the biggest screen available.


No Time to Die

In a world without Covid-19, Daniel Craig would have retired as James Bond 18 months ago, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Instead, he’s been “on furlough”, while wave upon wave of the virus has sloshed around the world. But 007 finally returned to the big screen, and it was worth the wait. No Time to Die is an “extravagantly satisfying” last chapter to the Craig era, “which throws almost everything there is left to throw at 007 – including, in a twist of teeth-clenching pertinence, a man-made virus” that threatens to overrun the globe. The lethal “goo” has been pilfered by SPECTRE, and it falls to Bond to come out of retirement to retrieve it. In some respects, we’re in familiar territory: the film has all the usual “ritualistic retracings of images and ideas from Bond adventures past”; and director Cary Joji Fukunaga has created some truly dazzling action sequences. But there are departures too: it is less dour than others in the Craig years and some of it is very funny, with a humour that feels both British and contemporary. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s script polish has “yielded the desired result”. 

Craig’s swansong is “better than good”, said Kevin Maher in The Times: “it’s magnificent”. A “moving portrait of an antiquated hero facing his obsolescence”, the film is full of heart and it has real “emotional bite”; but all this is wrapped up in a fantastic “back to basics” narrative. Gone is the nonsense about shadowy crime syndicates that marred previous instalments. Instead, our villain is a “charmingly old-fashioned homicidal megalomaniac” (Rami Malek). The supporting cast is “flawless”: special mention should go to Ana de Armas as a novice agent named Paloma, who proves, in one of the most innovative scenes in the series, that the “Bond girl” era is over. And then there is Craig himself – a “towering, charismatic presence from opening frame to closing shot”. 

He is so brilliant in this film, he outshines “everything around him”, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. His Bond “contains an ocean of battered emotions trying to reach the surface”; his “granite-carved features” crumple in just the right way, at just the right moments. Craig is also a “consummate action star”, and the film is at its thrilling best when Fukunaga “is given the freedom to match that energy”. Ultimately, though, No Time to Die is “strangely anticlimactic”. The radical moments are “fleeting”; what is left is standard “spy nonsense”. It feels like it’s all been pulled together “to give Craig his last hoorah” – but what a hoorah that is. He bows out with “grace and style”, and “a reminder that he gave Bond a soul”.


The Suicide Squad

Released in 2016, the original Suicide Squad was “an absolute mess of a superhero film”, but just five years on, Warner Bros. has made a new version of the niche DC series, and it’s a triumph, said Ed Potton in The Times. It has a new writer-director in James Gunn, but the story set-up is essentially the same – a black-ops team of minor supervillains is plucked from prison to conduct a “foolhardy” mission for the US government. Margot Robbie reprises her role as “squeaky-voiced psychopath” Harley Quinn, but the team is now led by Idris Elba’s has-been assassin Bloodsport, and raucous comedy is introduced by other newcomers, including Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior) with her army of vermin, and Nanaue, a man-cumshark voiced by Sylvester Stallone. 


Godzilla vs. Kong

The first three instalments in Warner Brothers’ Godzilla/King Kong franchise were “gloomy” and “incoherent”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. But “fourth time appears to be the charm”: the latest “giant beastie movie” is “suitably camp” and pretty exciting, too. The plot is silly, but does its main job – bringing King Kong and Godzilla face to face – well enough: the result is a series of “catastrophic city-levelling donnybrooks” between the two titular creatures. In the earlier films, both beasts had become protectors of humanity, but now Godzilla attacks the headquarters of a mysterious robotics company, Apex Industries – and Kong is recruited to help protect his human friends, initially by leading a mission to the centre of the Earth in order to tap into a formidable source of power. The film is “remarkably handsome”, and the human characters “propel things along” nicely, said Benjamin Lee in The Guardian. Most affecting is Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a little girl whose bond with Kong almost gives the film a “heart”. 


Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

We’re always being told that the latest superhero movie is a stand-out of the genre – but this new one from the Marvel canon really is a “blast”, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. The Canadian martial artist Simu Liu – Marvel’s first Asian film lead – plays Shaun, a genial San Francisco parking valet whose friendship with co-worker Katy (the actress and rapper Awkwafina) creates some sparky slacker comedy in the opening scenes. Then, a crew of tough guys corner the pair on a bus, and we discover that Shaun is really ShangChi, the estranged son of The Mandarin (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a 1,000-year-old Chinese warlord bent on stealing Shang-Chi’s magic pendant. Fearing his father has evil plans for the world, Shang-Chi flies to Macau to join his long-lost sister (Meng’er Zhang) and reclusive aunt (Michelle Yeoh) in an effort to thwart him.


Black Widow

The latest Marvel superhero film is a “spy romp” starring Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, a character often “reduced to sassy cartwheels in catsuits” in previous outings, said Kevin Maher in The Times. In a plot that owes more to James Bond (or Austin Powers) than Iron Man, she is reunited with her estranged little sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), a fellow graduate of the Red Room, a Russian academy for training brainwashed female assassins. Yelena has been deprogrammed and plans to free the other girls with her sister’s help. To do so, they must take down the evil General Dreykov, a “Blofeld wannabe” played by Ray Winstone with a “conspicuous Moscow-via-Cape-Town-via-Enfield accent”. Luckily, they have the help of their adoptive parents, scientist Melina (Rachel Weisz) and former spy Alexei (David Harbour). 


Army of the Dead

He made his debut in 2004 with a high-octane remake of George A. Romero’s zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, and his recent, four-hour cut of Justice League was spectacular, but Army of the Dead is director Zack Snyder’s most “cinematic” blockbuster yet, said Kevin Maher in The Times. In this gory and “giddily entertaining” mash-up of the zombie and heist genres, an outbreak of the zombie plague in Las Vegas has been contained, and the city walled off. But a shadowy tycoon (Hiroyuki Sanada) has $200m locked in a vault there, and hires a “fractious” band of mercenaries, led by man-mountain Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), to retrieve it. Mayhem ensues, all “cleverly orchestrated”, with an impending nuclear strike to add to the “countdown pressure”. 


Love and Monsters

With “splattery” visual effects and a “silly but satisfying” hero’s journey, this post-apocalyptic romp is “a daffily lightweight throwback to the teen action-adventures of the 1980s and ’90s”, said Jessica Kiang in Variety. Dylan O’Brien – “liberated from the dourness” of the Maze Runner films, for which he has amassed a huge teen fanbase – is our protagonist, Joel. Seven years ago, humanity used all its nuclear weapons to break up a killer comet, saving the planet but releasing so much radiation in the process that the world’s creepy-crawlies turned into human-eating monsters. In the resulting chaos, most people were killed, including Joel’s parents, and he was separated from his sweetheart, Aimee (Jessica Henwick). Now he learns that she is living just 85 miles away from his underground colony – and he decides to make the “kamikaze” journey to find her. 


Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Released in 2017, the original Justice League was “one of cinema’s great catastrophes”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. The DC superhero blockbuster’s first director, Zack Snyder, pulled out during post-production following a personal tragedy, and his replacement, Joss Whedon, then reshot large chunks. The result was a critical and box office disaster. But three years later, DC Films capitulated to a campaign by fans demanding that Snyder be allowed to finish his version, and gave him $70m to do it (on top of the original $300m budget). The gamble has paid off. His film runs for over four hours – twice the length of Whedon’s – but it is “an extraordinary cinematic landmark, and a comic-book epic like no other”. The plot holes have been eliminated, along with the “godawful banter”, and, crucially, he has given the film some much-needed emotional depth.


Raya and the Last Dragon

The heroine of this “sizzlingly enjoyable” animation is in many respects a traditional Disney princess, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph – but hand her a sword and she’ll show you some moves that would make Rapunzel’s hair stand on end. Orphaned martial arts expert Raya has the task of restoring harmony to the kingdom of Kumandra, whose people have been divided by an ancient curse. To do this she enlists the help of a dragon called Sisu, among other animal allies. They’re charming enough, but it’s the Southeast Asian kingdom itself – a beautiful and “teemingly strange” world of temple cities and bamboo forests – that really bursts with personality and colour. Driving the plot is Raya’s rivalry with another princess, Namaari, who shifts from standard villain to something more enigmatic. This is “a feast of a film”. 



The French writer-director Charlène Favier’s “astounding” debut starts out as a classic sports movie in the Rocky mould – then “morphs into something far more sinister”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. A promising but petulant 15-year-old skier Lyz (Noée Abita), neglected by her parents, is taken on by “no-nonsense” coach Fred (Jérémie Renier). Under his tutelage, the lonely girl’s talent blossoms, and there is talk of Olympic selection. Then, midway through the film, at an elite ski camp in the French Alps, Fred starts systematically to abuse his teenage charge. At this point, your stomach drops, said Jessica Kiang in Variety: you “realise that of course this was the story” this “difficult” film “was going to tell, and almost feel foolish for holding out the hope that” it would go any other way. The warning signs, after all, were all there. From early on, Fred “has been grooming Lyz, manipulating her insecurities, her gratitude and her naivety” to fuel her dependency, while slowly crossing the boundaries of physical intimacy. But the depressing familiarity of the film’s trajectory makes it no less compelling. 



Greenland is the latest in a recent string of action movies starring the Scottish actor Gerard Butler, but this one is without the “jingoistic bombast” of predecessors such as Olympus Has Fallen, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. Instead, this deliberately low-key disaster film is “laced with a palpable sense of fear”. Butler plays an Atlanta-based engineer, John Garrity, who – when asteroids start pounding Earth – must get himself and his family to a US government bunker near the North Pole. But with his estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and diabetic son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), he gets caught up in the social chaos that inevitably unfolds: traffic jams, failing phone signals and trips to the chemist for Nathan’s medication all become panic-inducing matters of life and death. 


The Mitchells vs. the Machines

The plot of this animated film is unhindered by convention, said Ben Travis in Empire: in other words, it’s “nuts”. The Mitchells are a dysfunctional nuclear family struggling to connect with each other in the world of modern technology. As daughter Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) prepares to leave for film school, her father (Danny McBride) realises how distanced they’ve become. His solution is to turn her journey into a family road trip – which is then derailed by a robot apocalypse. With the rest of the world’s population enslaved by an Alexa-like AI (Olivia Colman), it’s left to the Mitchells to save humanity. Marrying dynamic visuals with a script that’s “as funny as hell”, the award-winning producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller show themselves to be “light years” ahead of the competition. 



Brazilian musician and YouTuber Joe Penna made his directorial debut in 2018 with Arctic, an excellent wilderness survival story – and Stowaway, his second film, is “just as intricate and immersive”, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the London Evening Standard. In the near future, three astronauts – seasoned commander Marina (Toni Collette), upbeat medic Zoe (Anna Kendrick) and nerdy botanist David (Daniel Dae Kim) – set off on a mission to Mars, where they are going to lay the ground-work for a colony. All goes well until Marina finds an accidental stowaway, Michael (Shamier Anderson), a young engineer who was injured and knocked unconscious during launch prep. It transpires that, owing to a malfunction, there is only enough oxygen for three people to survive – meaning that unless the crew find a practical solution, one of them will have to be sacrificed, or all will die. 



Science is thin on the ground in this post-apocalyptic road movie, but sentiment lies “inches thick”, said Jeannette Catsoulis in The New York Times. The film, streaming on Apple TV+, is set ten years after a solar flare. The ozone has melted and the planet now resembles an “irradiated dust bowl”, yet hunkered in an underground lab is Finch (Tom Hanks), a robotics engineer who has turned his workplace into a bunker.

Finch is not exactly original, said Kevin Maher in The Times, yet there is a strain of melancholy infusing every scene that makes the film a bit more than the sum of its parts. Hanks’s protagonist is a “mass of contradictions” – heroic yet cowardly, circumspect yet impulsive – but above all, he is a man facing up to his own mortality. When he teaches the robot to play fetch with his dog after he’s gone, it is frankly heartbreaking.


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