Action movies tend to be about delivering spectacle, often through exciting fight scenes, crazy stunts, or over-the-top violence. With this understandably comes high budgets, especially in the world of Hollywood, where many of the biggest blockbuster movies that cost upwards of $100-200 million are action-heavy. Action scenes seem to sell tickets, and so action movies naturally attract high budgets.
However, that’s not to say that mountains of money are needed for an action movie to deliver the goods. With the costs of decent filming equipment and editing software required for digital effects becoming more affordable and widespread in the past decade or two, there have been a number of impressive and exciting low-budget action movies released within the last 10 or so years. The following eight are some of the most notable ones, and all were made for less than $5 million… which is tiny compared to the almost $200 million it costs to make the average MCUmovie, for example.
Upgrade (2018) – $3 million budget
Upgrade blends action, science-fiction, and even some mild horror elements into an ambitious and entertaining movie that does wonders with just a $3 million budget. It’s a revenge movie with a twist – the man seeking revenge has been “upgraded” by a mysterious tech company that gives his body enhanced strength and reflexes, though the newfound skills aren’t without their consequences…
The premise is outlandish, but it works well enough, and the movie manages to strike an appropriate tone where it doesn’t take itself too seriously, nor ever slows down to the point where it feels tedious. The main character’s enhanced abilities also make for some really inventive (and quite gory) action scenes, which end up being the most memorable sequences in Upgrade.
The Raid (2011) – $1.1 million budget & The Raid 2 (2014) – $4.5 million budget
The Raid and The Raid 2 are both excellent examples of what can be done with great stunt work, impressive fight choreography, and a lack of fear when it comes to depicting action scenes as visceral and brutal. The Raid is the simplest and the cheaper of the two, with a story set almost entirely in one location about a group of police officers needing to fight their way out of an apartment block run by (and filled with) gang members, who are told by their leader to leave no one alive.
The Raid 2 quadruples the budget, but the scale and scope of the movie are increased at least tenfold in comparison to the first. There are more locations, larger-scale fight scenes, more striking visuals, and more variety in the action (this one even has a car chase!) It also has a more complex crime/gangster plotline that’s serviceable enough, but the action is really what it’s all about, and it’s probably even better than the first in that regard. While it was more expensive, it still does so much with a relatively small budget, and definitely doesn’t feel like a movie made for less than $5 million while you’re watching it. It’s a shame there probably won’t be a third Raid movie, but at least we’ll always have the first two, which remain shining examples of how to do great action on a smaller budget.
Oboe With a Shotgun (2011) – $3 million budget
Oboe With a Shotgun started as a fake movie trailer that was included in the (incredibly violent) double feature known as grind house (2007), a project by filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Thanks to the trailer’s popularity, it was made into its own movie, starring Rutger Hauer as the titular hobo with a shotgun, who becomes a vigilante that stands up against the crime and corruption that run rampant in his nightmarish, borderline post-apocalyptic city.
It’s a simple premise done in an intentionally gratuitous and sleazy grindhouse style. As such, it likely won’t appeal to everyone, but for anyone who likes on-screen ultra-violence done with a very small budget, Oboe With a Shotgun should prove to be right up their alley.
Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010) – $85.00 budget
That “$85 budget” above is not a typo. Who Killed Captain Alex? was allegedly made for that much money, produced and created by Wakaliwood, which is an ultra-low-budget film studio in Uganda. The movie may claim to be about finding out who killed a police captain after a violent gunfight, but it’s really just an excuse to have over-the-top action, crazy characters, and a breakneck pace, all pulled off by a group of people who clearly had fun making it.
It ends up a very enjoyable and charming watch, and making any kind of action movie with so little money has to be applauded. Who Killed Captain Alex? is the most well-known Wakaliwood production released so far, but Bad Black also deserves some love. It was made six years later, and is even zanier, less predictable, and arguably more entertaining than Wakaliwood’s biggest hit.
Red State (2011) – $4 million budget
Red State is a pretty unusual film, at least when compared to the films that director Kevin Smith had made in the years before its release. He was (and likely still is) best known for the workplace comedies Clerks and Clerk’s 2but the genre-busting Red State shows that he’s not too bad at directing films with horror, action, and thriller elements.
There’s a good deal of tension and unpredictability to Red State which makes describing the plot difficult, and even implying there are action/thriller sequences could debatably be giving away too much. But it remains a compelling and fascinating movie when looked at alongside Smith’s other works, and even if it can be a strangely paced and jarringly unnerving watch, it has a lot to offer, and does a great deal with a budget of just $4 million.
Hardcore Henry (2015) – $2 million budget
Hardcore Henry is an almost comically straightforward adrenaline rush of an action movie. It’s about a robotically-enhanced super-soldier (Henry) and his charismatic, goofball sidekick fighting through an army of mercenaries to save Henry’s wife from an over-the-top antagonist. It has one unique gimmick, though: the whole movie takes place in first-person, so the viewer sees everything from Henry’s perspective.
This makes Hardcore Henry a movie that’s not great for those who get motion sickness easily, but anyone else will find this to be an enjoyable, visually dynamic (if somewhat repetitive) ride. There are so many action set pieces and special effects that it’s amazing the whole film apparently cost just $2 million, as the fight scenes, shootouts, car chases, and stunts are almost non-stop for its entire 97-minute runtime.
Killer Bean Forever (2008) – less than $1 million budget
Killer Bean Forever is an animated action movie about a world full of talking, living, and breathing coffee beans. It follows an assassin bean who hunts a bean crime boss while being targeted by bean police and bean mercenaries, leading to plenty of action scenes where beans shoot at, punch, and kick each other.
All that’s known about the budget is that it was no more than $1 million, and while it doesn’t look like an expensive animated movie, it was pretty much all done by one person: Jeff Lew. He worked on the film for several years, and when looking at the film’s credits, it’s amazing how Lew did just about everything (writing, directing, producing, animating, editing, the music, and equally much of the voice acting). For showing how a single person can make an animated action movie that runs for almost one-and-a-half hours, Killer Bean Forever is a noteworthy low-budget action film that has earned its cult following.
NEXT: Essential Action Movies Every Serious Film Fan Should See