The 10 Best International Action Movies of the Decade

Best International Action Movies of the Decade

(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)

Movies in general need a lot of different elements to go right for the end product to excel, but genre films typically require one above all else. Comedies should amuse/or make you laugh. Horror films should leave you unsettled, disturbed, and/or darkly delighted. And action movies should thrill audiences through their use of motion and impact. This past decade has been fantastic for films of all kinds, but it’s been especially rewarding for fans of action cinema.

Many of the decade’s big names in the genre are English-language endeavors belonging to franchises like John Wick, Mission: Impossible, and Mad Max, but for the best action movies – the ones that take the most advantage of both the strength and fragility of human bodies – you typically need to look overseas. Budgets are typically far smaller than their American counterparts, but that just means their efforts need to be more focused. Fewer big stunts and EF-heavy set-pieces, and better brawls, cool choreography, and stylish fights.

English-language action films are being celebrated elsewhere on this site, so I’m stoked to point attention towards the best action movies from non-English countries. Limiting it to just ten films representing an entire decade wasn’t easy – hence the additional fourteen honorable mentions at the bottom – but it did highlight something that might surprise some people (even though it really shouldn’t). When it comes to fight-heavy action movies, Asian countries are kicking everyone else’s ass. South Korea, Indonesia, China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia are responsible for delivering epic amounts of flying fists, calamitous kicks, nifty knife-work, and gratuitous gun play, and we’re all better off for it. Keep reading for a look at the 10 best non-English action movies of the decade!

Why Don't You Just Die Review

10. Why Don’t You Just Die! (2018, Russia)

Okay, I’m being a bit of a jerk here as this absolute gem of a film hasn’t technically been released in North America yet outside of a successful festival run, but it is coming to western shores in early 2020 courtesy of Arrow Video. If you’ve missed it just know that it should be a priority for you in the new year as it delivers exhilarating action beats in an atypical package. For one thing it’s Russian, and when’s the last time you had fun with one of their movies? (Don’t answer that because if even one of you responds with Philosophy of a Knife I’ll be forced to report you to the FBI.) For another? It’s a comedy that takes place almost entirely in one garishly decorated apartment.

The film follows a young man who’s told by his girlfriend that she was assaulted as a child by her father. She wishes him dead, and the honorable and outraged boyfriend wants to comply, but when he arrives at her parent’s apartment he discovers unexpected truths and *lots* of chaotic violence instead. I’m sure none of that sounds all that comedic, but good gravy does writer/director Kirill Sokolov mine big laughs and malicious smiles out of the bloody interactions between just five characters. Brutal fights, bloody clashes, power tools, guns, greed, and bad luck combine for one wildly thrilling ride, and the film ensures all of it is felt by viewers thanks to sharply energetic camerawork. It’s a blast, and while it doesn’t quite fit the mold of what most people consider to be action movies it most certainly delivers memorable action all the same.

9. The Man from Nowhere (2010, South Korea)

Just as The Villainess below channels notes of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990), The Man from Nowhere tips its hand more towards The Professional (1994) with its story about a solitary man forced by circumstance to take a young neighbor girl under his protection. He doesn’t train her to be a bad-ass killer, but he does do a lot of bad-ass killing in her name. Along the way, though, the film manages something most action movies don’t and that’s find room for some truly emotional beats between lead Won Bin and young Kim Sae-ron (who gives one of the best performances by a child you’ve ever seen in an action picture). There’s legit pain evident on Won’s face when the bad guy tosses him a jar with the little girl’s eyes in it… and it’s that rare unicorn of an action movie that will have you tearing up at the end.

But this is an action list, and The Man from Nowhere earns a spot here thanks to some slick set-pieces that don’t even really start in earnest until the halfway mark. We get some skirmishes and chases, but the film’s triumph is a finale that delivers a glorious fight between Won and a dozen henchmen that moves from guns to knives and straight into our hearts. The knife action here set a high bar that wouldn’t be matched for years (in 2014’s The Raid: Berandal to be precise), and the entire sequence remains an all-timer for its choreography, cruelty, and carnage.

8. Ip Man 2 (2010, Hong Kong)

There are lots of great action franchises out there, but one that doesn’t get nearly the love it deserves in the West is Ip Man. The first film premiered in 2008 while the fourth arrives at the end of this year, and there’s not a dud among them. All four are well worth seeing and highlight one of the great collaborations between filmmaker and star as director Wilson Yip and the always welcome Donnie Yen work their collective magic to bring a heightened but extremely respectful biographical tale to the screen. (The pair previously gifted action fans with other action masterpieces including SPL: Kill Zone (2005) and 2007’s Flash Point.)All four highlight the legendary Ip Man’s life, love, and reverence towards the art of Wing Chun and the importance of honor and self-confidence.

While the entire series is fantastic and picking a standout isn’t easy, I’ve landed on Ip Man 2 as being best representative of the series’ strengths. Set in the early 50s, the film focuses on Ip Man’s attempts to open his own martial arts school which sees him forced into numerous face-offs with competing masters and students. Highlights include an epic brawl involving dozens of men armed with cleavers as well as a beautifully captured fight between Yen and Sammo Hung atop a spinning table. The fights are fantastic and highlight Yen’s lighting fast style, but as with the others in the series it also devotes time to Ip Man’s relationship with his wife and their newborn son. Yen shifts effortlessly between intensity and warmth, and by the time the film ends with the arrival of a hopeful new student named Bruce Lee you’re going to be hard-pressed to resist immediately throwing on part three.

7. SPL II: A Time for Consequences (2015, Hong Kong)

While the Ip Man franchise offers a linear series following the same characters, the SPL films are more about themes and morality. Sha Po Lang is a collection of three stars in Chinese astrology that together determine the moral compass of a person resulting in actions good, bad, and in between. The trilogy opens with Kill Zone, closes with Paradox (2017), and features this stellar masterclass in action cinema smack dab in the middle. Some cast members return from the first film as different characters for a whole new story about bad choices, bloody consequences, and the fights necessary to reach salvation.

A Time for Consequences stars Wu Jing as an undercover cop who’s forced to join forces with a Thai prison guard played by Tony Jaa in a battle against a merciless crime boss and nasty organ harvesters. The film squeezes out buckets of contrived melodrama in between brawls, but rather than sink the film it works to give viewers breathing room between fight scenes. Wu and Jaa have a pair of clashes themselves before becoming reluctant partners, with one of the fights occurring during a massive prison riot captured in a single tracking shot. It’s a glorious blend of hard-hitting action, nearly seamless wire work, and an energetic camera, and it’s still not the film’s action highlight. That comes later when Wu and Jaa square off against the precision brilliance of Zhang Jin (whose Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy almost made the cut too).

blade of the immortal trailer

6. Blade of the Immortal (2017, Japan)

The legendary Takashi Miike’s filmography as director is currently hovering around ninety feature films, and while they may not all be winners it remains an impressive feat made even more so knowing that some of his best have arrived in the last few years. He hasn’t lost a step in the energy department either as is evidenced by this year’s jubilantly violent First Love – seriously, seek it out immediately – but for the purposes of this list there’s really no other option than his manga adaptation about an immortal samurai fighting evil one swing of his sword at a time.

The film tells a story in the very long life of Manji, a samurai cursed to walk the earth forever secure in the knowledge that the only cure for what ails him is fighting evil and protecting the innocent. He’s not happy about it, though, but while he complains and grunts every chance he gets he still stands up for what’s right. Lots of glorious carnage ensues, and Miike captures it all with an eye for kinetic beauty while also embracing the humor inherent in a character like Manji. He can’t die, but he can take a lot of damage, and happily for viewers it just pisses him off all the more. Miike’s made numerous period films offering a glimpse into Japan’s past, but none are as well put together, thrilling, and hilarious as this.

5. Plan B (2016, Germany)

That’s not a typo, and no, you’re not hallucinating – one of the decade’s best action films came out of Germany. It sadly has yet to find an official US release, but three years on the odds of that happening are probably slim to none. I’m not giving up on it, though, so it’s making the list! Odds are you won’t recognize the three action leads here (Can Aydin, Yoon Cha-lee, Phong Giang), but you’ve most definitely seen their work as they have healthy careers as stuntmen/fight doubles in blockbusters like Skyfall, John Wick: Chapter 3, Hobbs & Shaw, and more.

Here they play friends hoping to break into the movie stunt business, but when they mistake a real hostage situation for an audition they find themselves caught up in a world of gangsters, thieves, and killers throughout Berlin. It’s a low budget movie, but that never gets in the way of the action which sees all three dishing out and taking plenty of hits with style. The fight choreography is sharp, fast, and consistently athletic showcasing talents every bit as impressive as martial artists whose names you do know. The film is also pretty damn funny thanks to a fast-moving script and playful banter between them, but it’s the action that lands it a spot here. The trio made a second film (On the Ropes, 2018) that did get a US release, so here’s hoping Plan B doesn’t get forgotten.

4. The Raid: Redemption (2011, Indonesia)

Action films are rarely built on complicated stories as there’s no real need for – just get to the action! – but the simplicity of Gareth Evans’ game-changing action picture is still surprising. A group of cops have to work their way up a high-rise building to capture the crime boss on the top floor. That’s it. Simple, easy, and worthy of a one-sentence synopsis. Don’t let that one-note simplicity fool you, though, as this star-making turn for the great Iko Uwais is a blistering, bone-cracking, head-busting delight from the ground floor all the way to the penthouse… and back down again.

Evans and Uwais had previously collaborated on 2009’s perfectly solid Merantau, but both men reached new heights with The Raid delivering the kind of action masterpiece that really hadn’t been seen before. The film wisely introduces Uwais’ cop character at home with his wife and child before sending him into the tower of doom, so once he gets there and the violence unfolds we’re rooting for him with more enthusiasm than most action heroes muster. This was the first introduction for most viewers to the Indonesian martial arts style of silat, and it impresses out of the gate as Uwais uses it – along with guns, knives, broken doors, and more – to dispatch dozens of bad guys in glorious fashion. Breathers are spaced throughout, but the film is for the most part a near non-stop action ride filled with dizzying camera work, gruesome demises, and wickedly fast action. A US remake has been in the works for nearly seven years now, but don’t wait for it… just re-watch this gem instead.

3. The Villainess (2017, South Korea)

Okay, what I just said about action movies being simple? Well, I’ll use this opportunity to point out that as fantastic as South Korea’s action output is they’ve never met a plot they couldn’t make more convoluted. That’s not a criticism as Korean cinema’s use of complex genre stories and impeccably balanced tone are two of the many reasons why I love them so damn much, and The Villainess is a mesmerizing example of both those traits paired with an absolute stunner of an action movie.

The film opens with a first-person POV assault on a gangster’s hideout complete with gun play, sword shenanigans, and more before finally pulling back to reveal the woman behind the mayhem. Kim Ok-bin – perfection in Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (2009) – is on fire here as a woman out for revenge who shoots, slices, stabs, and crashes her way through every obstacle in her path. The action is stylish as all hell and includes a deliriously thrilling scene involving a motorcycle chase complete with sword fights. (Why yes, John Wick: Chapter 3 did borrow the idea.) The story jumps all over the place with flashbacks, dense character work, and a story involving a government-run school for assassins, but if you ever feel as if you’re being pushed away the action quickly returns to pull your ass back into the thick of it.

2. The Night Comes for Us (2018, Indonesia)

Timo Tjahjanto first appeared on the scene as one half of The Mo Brothers (alongside Kimo Stamboel) delivering a handful of mean, creepy horror films including the excellent “Safe Haven” short from V/H/S/2 (2013), but they’ve recently branched out into straight action too starting to some degree with 2014’s brutal Killers and including the solid Headshot in 2016. Tjahjanto went solo, though, for a pair of films in 2018, and while one returned to his horror roots the other imprinted his name into the action hall of fame right out of the gate.

The Night Comes for Us takes a simple enough plot involving a gangster who goes against orders to protect a young girl and turns it into over the top action perfection. You’ve seen this story before, but you’ve never seen it in such thrilling, bloody, electrifying, and glorious fashion as lead Joe Taslim faces off against all manner of gangsters, hit men, hit women, and other fools trying to go through him to reach the girl. Iko Uwais joins the fray as a bad guy, Julie Estelle chases her standout turn in the film below with another ass-kicker, and the action set-pieces run the near length of the movie. It’s relentless in the best possible way with terrifically choreographed fights, ridiculously chaotic gun fights, and more. You’ll hold your breath, clench your fists, and make involuntary noises with each successively brutal take-down, and you will love every minute of it.

1. The Raid 2: Berandal (2014, Indonesia)

I suppose there are some supposed action fans who don’t like Gareth Evans’ grander follow-up to his 2011 gem, but those aren’t people I care to know. This sequel was actually intended to be the first film, but as its scope grew the filmmakers felt it better just to make a smaller film instead. That movie’s success made this follow-up a no-brainer, and it’s a textbook example of how to do a sequel right – expand the story while delivering more of what people loved the first time around. To that end, the narrative here is richer and more complex, the cinematography is gorgeous and varied, and the action? Well it’s the best the decade has to offer.

Iko Uwais returns as the cop putting his life on the line for his country’s bigger picture, but rather than fight it out in a single building the action here moves from prison – we get a muddy and bloody yard fight and Uwais taking on a whole cell block – to subways, streets, bamboo forests, a fancy nightclub, a restaurant kitchen, and more. (That kitchen scene also delivers one of the greatest one on one fights of all-time.) Uwais is the lead and star fighter here, but the film also gifts audiences with the action chops of Cecep Arif Rahman, Yayan Ruhian, and Julie Estelle’s unforgettable Hammer Girl, in addition to a car chase sequence that impresses with some truly inventive camerawork. It’s action nirvana built on the bones of an epic gangster tale, and even multiple re-watches later it remains the best action movie of the decade.


Honorable mentions: The Yellow Sea (2010), Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013), Tokyo Tribe (2014), No Tears for the Dead (2014), Ip Man 3 (2015), Re:Born (2016), The Brink (2017), Confidential Assignment (2017), Jailbreak (2017), Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018), Revenger (2018), The Witch – Part 1: The Subversion (2018), Furie (2019)

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