The Ultimate Winter Action Movie Round-up

The Grey (2011) winter action

As the days grow shorter and the nights colder, watching a special set of action films that embrace the winter season feels in order, each taking advantage of its seasonal setting to offer commentary on the state of the leads, thematic drama, or even show off how setting dictates the action onscreen.p

Find here a roundup of winter action films to get audiences into a cold, wintery mood while embracing the high-octane at the same time.

1. The Grey

The Grey (2011)
Image Credit: Open Road Films.

Liam Neeson racked up several late-career blockbuster hits after successfully reinventing his onscreen persona with his role in the Pierre Morel/Luc Besson vehicle Taken back in 2008. In The Grey, Neeson blends both his previous dramatic persona with his new action-leanings in a cold, stark survival thriller as an oil field sharpshooter stranded with his colleagues in the Alaskan wilderness.

Pursued by a wild pack of grey wolves, the group must band together to survive. The relentless chase and philosophical nature of the script call to mind Jack London’s famous wilderness novels, and the oppressive winter action crafts a sense of harshness in the icy setting. 

2. Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer Movie (2013)
Image Credit: RADiUS/TWC.

Before Bong Joon-Ho netted a series of Academy Awards for Parasite, he had already made an impact on the American film scene with this apocalyptic winter action film. Snowpiercer follows the last vestiges of humanity aboard the titular Snowpiercer train, constantly circling the globe after an attempt at climate engineering backfires catastrophically and creates a new ice age.

With the train divided into a social hierarchy between the affluent and poor, a rebellion breaks out among the oppressed masses to take over the train. With gritty crowded action scenes, coupled with the same biting social commentary prevalent in Joon-Ho’s filmography, Snowpiercer is just as cold and harsh as the icy landscape that constantly whizzes by in the background.

3. The Revenant

The Revenant Movie (2015)
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Inspired by the incredible experiences of the American frontiersman Hugh Glass, The Revenant acts as a revenge story and a winter action-packed survival thriller. Leonardo DiCaprio, in a performance that finally netted him an Academy Award for Best Actor, stars as the 1820s fur trapper mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by one of his duplicitous partners.

Glass’s tenacity and thirst for vengeance see him navigate a harsh snow-crusted landscape, eluding Arikara war parties and rival French fur trappers. Directed impeccably by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant’s production was just as tenacious as the story onscreen, mirroring the same harshness of the landscape and determination the real Hugh Glass no doubt went through.

4. Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger Movie (1993)
Image Credit: TriStar Pictures.

Often seen as Sylvester Stallone’s 1990s comeback feature, Cliffhanger took the John McTiernan-style of action filmmaking prevalent at the time and set it in the snowy-tipped peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

Stallone portrays an expert mountain climber, previously traumatized from a botched rescue operation, as he finds himself embroiled in a US treasury heist masterminded by an unhinged ex-operative. Cliffhanger takes advantage of its setting, with colossal avalanches, shootouts in ice caves, and a memorable villainous performance by John Lithgow punctuating its winter action. Though lost in the shuffle between Stallone’s more memorable roles, Cliffhanger remains a thrilling winter action spectacle.

5. The Long Kiss Goodnight

The Long Kiss Goodnight
Image Credit: New Line Cinema.

Shane Black always had an affinity for classic noir set-ups, channeling the works of Raymond Chandler in crafting characters and throwing them into action blockbusters. He often juxtaposes those hardened crime stories with winter settings, often around the Christmas holiday, as a means of letting his characters reassess their lives and counterpointing the main narrative. He had already explored the idea with the acclaimed Lethal Weapon, but his ‘Black-isms’ reached their pinnacle in The Long Kiss Goodnight.

Following an amnesiac schoolteacher as she teams up with a private detective to piece together her past, Black’s talent for witty wordplay, strong characterization, and meticulous action set-pieces quickly make themselves apparent. An oft-overlooked addition, especially compared to the aforementioned Lethal Weapon and the latter The Nice Guys, The Long Kiss Goodnight retains a devoted following for its emphasis on winter action.

6. Enemy at the Gates

Enemy at the Gates Movie (2001)
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Of the many Second World War projects made in the success of Saving Private Ryan, none have been quite as nail-bitingly tense as the sniper duels that punctuate Enemy at the Gates. Set amidst the winter-ravaged city ruins of Stalingrad in late 1942, the film follows the semi-fictional exploits of the legendary Soviet ace sniper Vasily Zaitsev, portrayed in the film by a war-torn Jude Law.

In addition to the portrayal of Zaitsev’s duel with the mythical Major Erwin König, a love triangle figures into the landscape between the sniper, his commissar best friend, and a beautiful militia private. Eschewing the more traditional winter action trappings, Enemy at the Gates nevertheless captures the oppressive chill that hung over Stalingrad in some of the fiercest military fighting ever seen. The atmosphere alone guarantees the film’s position as a winter action drama.

7. Hanna

Hanna Movie (2011)
Image Credit: Alex Bailey/Focus Features.

The first wild departure for the previously drama-focused director Joe Wright, Hanna blended winter action-thriller sensibilities with the dark undertones often found in the original European fairy tales.

Hanna follows the titular teenage assassin, raised by her ex-CIA father to combat the forces sent out to destroy them both against the harsh Norwegian snowscape, the streets of Morocco, and the black forests of Germany. Though the winter landscape is confined only within the Norwegian portion of the film, Hanna remains a taut thriller that carries its cold atmosphere throughout and serves as a welcome showcase of Saoirse Ronan’s versatility as an actress.

8. The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight Movie (2015)
Image Credit: The Weinstein Company.

Quentin Tarantino, in the latter half of his career, has focused closely on deep-character work while still retaining the snappy wit and violence that had punctuated his breakthrough hits Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The beginning of that shift arrives in Inglourious Basterds but comes to full fruition in his second western, The Hateful Eight.

Paying homage in equal parts to Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and 1960s TV westerns, The Hateful Eight follows the events surrounding eight strangers holed up in a blizzard-swept lodge in 1877 Wyoming. As much a mystery thriller as it is a shoot-em-up western, frequent Tarantino collaborator Samuel L. Jackson shines in the lead role of Major Marquis Warren while the direction punctuates the harsh weather slowly settling in. The ensemble cast alone, including standouts Jennifer Jason Leigh and Walton Goggins, ensures The Hateful Eight is prime winter action material.

9. In Order of Disappearance

In Order of Disappearance Movie (2014)
Image Credit: Nordisk Film.

Taking a brief look away from the American film industry, one can find this snowy revenge action movie from Norway, In Order of Disappearance. The film features a rare action lead role for Stellan Skarsgård as a snowplow driver driven to vengeance after his son’s death from a drug overdose, becoming a quasi-Punisher to dispense justice to a drug gang.

In Order of Disappearance has a healthy dose of dark humor in its icy veins, paying homage to the Coen Brothers' exploits in Fargo between the fierce shootouts and fist fights. The film would be remade in English as Cold Pursuit, starring Liam Neeson in the Skarsgård role, and overseen by the original’s director. Yet In Order of Disappearance deserves far more credit over its American cousin simply down to its Norwegian sensibilities amidst winter action carnage.

10. Eight Below

Eight Below (2006)
Image Credit: CHRIS LARGE/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution & Winking Productions GmbH.

One of Paul Walker’s rare non-Fast and Furious leading roles, Eight Below followed the story of a tenacious sleigh dog guide fighting to rescue his beloved dogs left behind in freezing Antarctic conditions.

Taking inspiration from a real-life Japanese expedition, the film gives equal footing to Walker’s guide and the titular eight dogs as they survive the snowy wilderness, imagining what the dogs endured as they struggled for months awaiting their owner’s swift return. Though the humans don’t go through the familiar winter action film beats as one would hope, the dog performers and stunt work choreographed for them more than makeup for this slight shortcoming.

11. Runaway Train

Runaway-Train-1985
Image Credit: The Cannon Group, Inc.

What would happen if one combined an unproduced Akira Kurosawa screenplay, Golan-Globus Productions, and a young Jon Voight? This unlikely mix would produce Runaway Train, a high-rolling action-thriller set against the freezing Alaskan landscape. Voight portrays a prison convict who, with partner Eric Roberts, intends to escape via rail only to be trapped aboard a runaway train when the lead engineer dies.

The movie portrays efforts to stop the train with nail-biting tenacity, particularly with the harsh, snow-pelted winds crashing against the train. The stunt work on display recalls the latter runaway train thriller Unstoppable and the film would greatly inspire the development of Speed a decade later. A hidden gem among the more infamous B-movie fairs that the Cannon Group distributed, Runaway Train more than earns a watch.

12. Die Hard 2

Die Hard 2 Movie (1990)
Image Credit: Home Box Office.

A follow-up to the astronomical critical/commercial success of John McTiernan’s Die Hard was an inevitability and while Die Hard 2 doesn't get as much love as revered as its predecessor, it still stands out for its commitment to larger scale and portrayal of the blizzard-swept Virginia landscape.

Taking place exactly two years after the first film, Bruce Willis’s John McClane once again gets dragged into another high-stakes plot, now revolving around a disgruntled US general and an imprisoned drug-dealing dictator. Instead of the skyscraper heights of Nakatomi Plaza, McClane fights through the snow-covered Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., creating a more desperate, isolating atmosphere compared to the original Die Hard. Often called the black sheep of the franchise for repeating major beats, Die Hard 2 remains committed to its tone and delivers fun, early ‘90s winter action against its winter backdrop.

Author: Carl Cottingham

Title: Freelance Writer

Expertise: Anime, Film, Television, Comics

Bio:

Carl Cottingham is a knowledgeable freelance entertainment writer who has contributed to Unwinnable Monthy and calls New York City home. He has previously worked with Northern Lights Agency and Left Productions. His central focus has been crystalized around film, world history, pop culture, and animation.