Ranking the best and most ultimate modern Russian action movies!
Russia and the Soviet Union have a glorious history of filmmaking, but action movies were not part of it for a long time. Since the 2000s Russia has built up a noticeable catalog of genre flicks, so it’s about time that we honor them with a Top 10 here at the Ultimate Action Movie Club.
I have the feeling – and I mean this in the best possible sense – that because of a 30-year head start for US action flicks, many Russian productions have a charming old-school vibe to them, that has disappeared from most American action blockbusters these days. And in addition to kicking serious ass, they also give “outsiders” the opportunity of a glimpse into Russian society and history.
In this list, we’ve only considered films that are more or less easily accessible to audiences outside Russia, and all of them are available on at least one of the usual streaming services, or on DVD/Blu-Ray. So let’s have a look at what Mother Russia has in store for action movie fans!
10) The Blackout (2019)
Stories and films about a mysterious zone popping up in our world are a recurring element in Science Fiction, and Russia was the birthplace of some of the best works of this sub-genre, with prime examples being the novel Roadside Picnic and the movie Stalker. The Blackout continues the Russian tradition of “zone” movies, and upgrades it into a spectacular action flick.
Moscow suddenly loses contact with almost the entire world. Electricity and communications have ceased except for a small area around the city, and the fate of people outside it is unknown. The soldiers Oleg and Yura join a reconnaissance mission into the dead zone, but nothing can prepare them for the terrors lurking in the darkness.
The Blackout is a straightforward affair, and scavenges its plot from many classic Science Fiction movies. The film has an intense and dark atmosphere, with a well done buildup of tension that frequently erupts into violent action. Viewers are treated with a staccato of gunfire, explosions and blood, parts of it almost feel like a war movie. The Blackout is an explosive action thriller, and should be a good time for every action movie fan.
9) Furious (2017)
A small group of soldiers that heroically defends their city against an overwhelming enemy, with plenty of bloody slow-motion sword-fighting action? This sounds like a straight-up copy of 300, but Furious has enough going for it to not make it a mere clone.
The film is based on a fictionalized medieval account of the siege of the Russian city of Ryazan by the Mongols. Kolovrat is a member of the Ryazan city guard, and one day a massive Mongol army lays siege to his beloved city. Kolovrat and a band of loyal heroes go on a desperate quest to find a way to defeat their enemy and save the city.
Just like 300, Furious heavily distorts its historical template, and turns it into a violent tale of heroism. It also manages to embed its action sequences into a fantasy-like adventure. Epic battles in the snow take turns with a mystical journey through forests and mountains, with some Russian folklore thrown into the mix. And a thumping heavy metal soundtrack (composed by System of a Down band leader Serj Tankian) is always a good choice for bloody sword action. Furious is a skillfully crafted fantasy epic with great visuals and top notch medieval mayhem.
8) Wolfhound (2006)
Before modern Fantasy, there were fairy tales, and the former Soviet Union can pride itself with producing many great entries to this genre. Wolfhound does not deny its roots, and successfully mixes Slavic folklore and mythology with Western Fantasy in the vein of Conan The Barbarian and Lord of the Rings. Based on a popular fantasy novel, the film takes us on a classic quest through a medieval world inhabited by bandits, demons and sorcerers.
A kids’ village is raided by the army of an evil warlord, and everyone including his parents is killed. Many years later, the child has become the mighty warrior Wolfhound. He goes on a mission to escort a princess to her bridegroom-to-be, and during the dangerous journey, Wolfhound learns that a greater destiny awaits him.
Wolfhound’s quest takes us past gloomy castles, misty marshes and savage tribes. Swords clash, monsters are slain, and every five minutes there’s a new adversary for Wolfhound to fight, or innocents who need to be saved. The film is a high-profile production with beautifully crafted medieval villages, and a striking cinematography of the Eastern European wilderness. Wolfhound is a charming old-school romp, and a must-watch for fans of epic Fantasy.
7) Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007)
Genghis Khan was the ruler of the largest contiguous empire to ever exist on Earth, and this iconic figure of human history finally received a proper cinematic treatment. Mongol tells the story of his life from childhood until he became ruler of all Mongol tribes.
As a child, Temujin (his name before he became Khan) sees his father getting killed by poison. Soon after, his village is raided by his own tribe. Temujin is abducted by his father’s former lieutenant Targutai, but manages to escape. He becomes a grown man, is enslaved again, manages to escape again, and marries his betrothed. After their wedding night, she is abducted by Targutai. What a story, and this is only the beginning of the film!
Mongol mixes politics, romance and war, but it’s not your average medieval drama, there’s no place for the usual hokum and waffling in this laconic masterpiece. The epic cinematography of the endless and majestic Mongolian steppe creates dream-like pictures of a place that is as distant geographically as much as spiritually from the Western world.
The film also features plenty of great moments for action fans, with bloody skirmishes and large-scale battles. Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan is a perfect history epic with an incredible atmosphere and spectacular cinematography.
6) Newsmakers (2009)
A well-done remake is not the worst thing that can happen to a film, and Newsmakers turns out to be a thrilling adaptation of Johnnie To’s Breaking News. Crime is running rampant in Moscow, and the chief of police decides to turn a planned manhunt into a reality TV show. During the operation, a gang of robbers gets trapped in an apartment complex and takes some hostages. PR officer Verbitskaya wants to exploit the siege for the production, but her big moment is seriously hampered by a squad of police detectives who have some personal beef with the criminals.
Newsmakers does not show us the prettiest corners of Moscow, and creates a gritty and realistic setting. There is plenty of social commentary in the film, and it also works as a satire on the endless hunger of TV stations for new formats, no matter how stupid. The action is seamlessly integrated into the story, and has a brutal realism reminiscent of genre classics like Heat. The shootouts are incredibly intense, and are filmed impressively with a calm camera work that captures the mayhem in all its bloody details. Newsmakers is a hard-boiled action thriller with an interesting story, great characters and insane action sequences.
5) Dark Planet (2009) / Dark Planet: Rebellion (2009)
The brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are for Russian Science Fiction literature what Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick are for the US branch. Dark Planet is based on their novel The Inhabited Island, and director Fyodor Bondarchuk turned the 1969 classic into a spectacular blockbuster movie.
Space explorer Maxim Kammerer crashes his spaceship on planet Saraksh. He makes contact with the locals and integrates quickly into the society of the country Fatherland, which is in a constant state of war with his neighbors. Maxim tries to intervene to change things for the better, but his actions have grave consequences.
Dark Planet tells a story with an epic length of 3.5 hours split into two separate movies. There’s a lot of food for thought about the human condition in its facets in it, but it is far from being a dry philosophical treatise. Maxim visits an impressive variety of large set pieces in this colorful but dystopic world, and the action scenes are also pretty awesome.
Tank battles, car chases and martial arts duels may seem a bit out of place in an otherwise thoughtful Science Fiction film, but it all fits together nicely, and the action certainly helps to keep up the pace. Dark Planet is an excellent example of a modern and action-packed Science Fiction film done right.
Watch the full movies free on Tubi:
4) Legend No. 17 (2013)
Sports dramas can just be as exciting as action movies when they are able to tell a gripping story mixed with adrenaline-charged sequences of athletic competition. Legend No. 17 is a biopic of Soviet hockey legend Valeri Kharlamov. The film follows his life from the humble beginnings in a bush-league team up to his rise to fame in the national hockey powerhouse CSKA Moscow.
Friendship, love and tragedy, Kharlamov’s life appears to be prime material for an epic sports movie. The film also gives us a glimpse into the daily life and troubles of people in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s, and vividly illustrates some of the absurdities of the political system at the time. There are some great moments of hockey action throughout the movie, but the absolute highlight are the last 30 minutes which are devoted to the first match of the legendary Summit Series between the USSR and Canada in 1972.
You’ll think you’re watching an action movie, with high-speed pursuits and violent clashes between the Russian and Canadian players, and the camera always in the middle of all the mayhem. Sports action doesn’t get much better than Legend No. 17., and the film is right up there with genre classics like the Rocky saga.
3) Night Watch (2004) / Day Watch (2006)
Timur Bekmambetov jump-started Russian action cinema all by himself with his Night Watch and Day Watch films, that gave us an exciting blend of action, fantasy and horror. Supernatural beings, the Others, live unperceived among humans. A fragile truce has been instated between the forces of the Light and the Dark after centuries of war. Anton is a clairvoyant on the side of the Light who discovers a prophecy that may shift the balance of power forever.
Bekmambetov succeeded in creating an engaging plot, interesting characters, and the gritty setting of winterly modern-day Moscow where sorcerers, vampires and demons lurk around every corner. The first part can be considered an overture to some extent that introduces us to the characters and the mythology. The second part is all about the ultimate showdown between the Dark and the Light, and a lot more action-packed.
Supernatural beings going against each other in an urban environment is the cause of plenty of mayhem, such as cars driving up skyscrapers, magically supercharged elevators, and a big finale that is just crazy beyond belief. Rarely we come across a movie these days that is has tons of action, a captivating plot, and great characters. Night Watch and Day Watch have it all.
Watch Night Watch and Day Watch on YouTube movies here:
2) The Scythian (2018)
The Scythian continued the trend of first-class historical and fantasy movies from Russia, and turned out to be the most spectacular Russian entry to the genre so far. Lutobor is a loyal servant of the Russian king. He becomes entrapped in a conspiracy, and needs to flee from his land to rescue his family from the grip of the seemingly savage tribe of the Scythians. Together with honor-bound Scythian warrior Marten, he takes up the long and dangerous journey through the steppe.
One man’s quest through dangerous territory is an archetypal plot, and The Scythian is a fairly straightforward movie in that sense. What sets it apart is its atmosphere, cinematography and stunningly intense action sequences. The film shows us a barren, but beautiful world, and almost every shot uses the vast open spaces of the Crimean steppe as a backdrop.
The world of The Scythian is filled with violence and tragedy, and almost every man is a warrior or bandit. The fights are exciting to watch, and perfectly choreographed and filmed. The violence goes over the top quite a few times, and the action scenes have a raw and almost intimidating intensity. The Scythian is lifted to greatness by tons of brutal action, a unique setting, and a cruel, but enchanting world.
1) Hardcore Henry (2015)
Many action films these days feel like video games due to their excessive use of CGI, but only Hardcore Henry can claim to be the real McCoy. Just when one thought originality is dead in the action genre, director Ilya Naishuller landed a slam dunk and created the ultimate first-person action movie.
Henry awakes in a secret lab, and realizes he is a cyborg. A mysterious supervillain tries to capture him, and a relentless hunt ensues. The story doesn’t really matter, even though it’s not as stupid as it may sound. Hardcore Henry goes for pure madness, and the camera attached to Henry’s forehead will make you experience action sequences from a spectacular and sometimes nausea-inducing perspective.
The film delivers non-stop action, it’s showdown after showdown with grenades and bullets flying left and right. Hardcore Henry has a bodycount that makes Stallone’s 2008 Rambo look like a PG-13 movie. Every new confrontation is more violent and explosive, and the finale is an appropriate climax that cranks up the mayhem just when you thought it couldn’t get any more insane. With Hardcore Henry, Ilya Naishuller created the best Russian action movie, and one of the best genre flicks of the 21st century.
Watch Hardcore Henry on YouTube movies here: