Now that we’ve gotten Westerns and Screenwriting and the Strange out of the way, let’s jump right into action movies. This is a genre that most people are deeply familiar with, and a genre that most people are willing to jump right into at the promise of pulsing suspense.
So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to assume that you’ve seen Die Hard, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and Minority Report and just go into (slightly) more obscure fare that you may have missed. I hope this is helpful to you. If it isn’t, tough mustard.
I was initially going to go through the decades like my other posts, posting maybe one or two from each ten year gap, but once I got to seven essential action movies before I even hit the eighties, I decided to just stop there and do what I can. There may be a post on 80’s actions films or older somewhere down the line, as I love those, too.
Here we go.
Point Break (1991)
“You ever pointed your gun in the air and screamed ‘AHHHH?” says Nick Frost’s action junkie in the Edgar Wright masterpiece Hot Fuzz. When I first saw that movie, I thought Wright was poking fun at Kathryn Bigelow’s (yes, THAT Kathryn Bigelow) surfer-undercover cop action-melodrama, but now that I’ve seen it again as an adult, I can’t help but love this movie. It might not be the work of a serious, Oscar-winning filmmaker, but it’s certainly the work of a director honing her craft into one of the most gifted suspense-filmmakers of our time. The style, the angles, the editing, everything comes together to make a strangely compelling movie out of a truly ridiculous concept.
Between Keanu Reeves’s stoic bro and Patrick Swayze’s way-too-serious-about-surfing gone criminal, some sort of magic happens in front of you. See it. And, just between you and me, this seems to be a movie that everybody knows about and openly makes fun of, but that few people have actually seen.
Most of you probably know of John Woo through his profoundly hilarious directing turn for Mission: Impossible 2 or his mediocre (at best) work on Windtalkers. But what some of you might not know is that at one time John Woo was one of the most respected action filmmakers in the world, and in his native China he cranked out masterpiece after masterpiece until the States got wise and killed his creative spirit just like British Imperialism did a hundred years before.
Let me put it this way, do you like action movies where a dude jumps through the air shooting two guns at one time? Do you like slow motion gunfights? Do you like operatic sequences where birds are flying and dirt is flying and people are screaming dramatic one-liners? Well, John Woo invented all of that. Before him, that didn’t happen. And Hard Boiled is John Woo at the top of his game, working at his creative peak with a budget that allowed him to go all out with his singular style. It’s a movie that has to be seen to be believed. If you’re an action movie fan, and you’ve never seen Hard Boiled, then what have you been watching all these years?
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
In the mid-nineties, Shane Black was the most sought-after screenwriter in the world. He was coming off the heels of Lethal Weapon, a movie he wrote when he was twenty-one years old, and he was cranking out solid screenplay after solid screenplay full of funny dialogue, cool chase sequences, manly men, and high-octane action.
Then he wrote Last Action Hero, and nobody wanted him. Just like that, his power was gone. So he decided to just do whatever. He wrote a movie about a woman for a director from Scandinavia named Renny Harlin, who was dating (and is now married to) a woman named Geena Davis. At the time, Davis was not much of an action star. She’d been in action movies, sure, but most of them had tanked. Her most popular movie, Thelma & Louise, directed by Ridley Scott, had done well critically and commercially, but it wasn’t really an action movie. In other words, Shane Black (who is now writing and directing Iron Man 3) had to go back to writing spec scripts for people who weren’t ’90’s Mel Gibson.
The Long Kiss Goodnight bombed, and it took several years for the dust to settle around Black’s career. But that’s not fair, because it’s also one of the most fun action movies of the nineties. It’s essentially The Bourne Identity with a female lead, Samuel L. Jackson, and a much lighter tone. What I’m telling you is that this movie is better than The Bourne Identity. Don’t believe me? Watch it.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Until recently I was under the impression that most people had seen Ang Lee’s powerful Wire-Fu drama about a man coming to terms with his own mortality, but it turns out that most people have only heard of this movie and only marginally understand what it’s about.
Most people make fun of it. For the name, for the Wire-Fu, for the artsy visuals, etc. That’s fine. But have you seen it? Because Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is only externally fruity. Its heart is one giant, meaty, awesome sack of action-packed goodness ready for the skillet. This movie actions so hard that you’ll have trouble processing the violence happening before your eyes. Between the set-pieces, the visual effects, the characterization, and the unbelievable martial arts prowess of the actors, you won’t even have time to make fun of their accents.
Yes, I know it’s a foreign film. But it’s also a bonafide action movie. Deal with it.
Chan-Wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy (2002-2007)
It’s three movies, but it’s not cheating. Chan-Wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy should be seen as one invincible unit of action heaven. Oldboy is probably the most famous of the trilogy (and arguably the only true action movie of the bunch), but don’t let that deter you from watching all three films. Between them, there is more emotion, action, brutality, catharsis, and excellent filmmaking than I can shake a stick at. And I’m awesome at shaking sticks.
Purchasing this trilogy is worth it for the famous hammer fight in Oldboy alone.
But trust me, this is revenge done right. Meaning it’s bloody, brutal, and sometimes excessively vicious. It’s not for the faint of heart. This is real action. That crazy Asian action that you don’t even understand.
13 Assassins (2010)
I know what you’re thinking, “Man, this guy really likes Asian movies.” And that’s true, I do like Asian movies, but the real truth of it all is that Asian movies do action really, really well. 90% of the things you like about American action movies (and horror, for that matter) were borrowed (read: stolen) from our brothers of the East. So if you’re really looking for great action, look toward the source. Just do it.
It might be safer to label 13 Assassins under “War Epic,” but it’s still an action movie at heart. Takishi Miike’s bloody revenge opus takes about ninety minutes to set up its one action set piece, but he makes it all worth it by delivering a following ninety minute action scene that has to be seen to be believed. This is one of the most suspenseful, shocking, bloody, and awesome battle scenes ever committed to celluloid.
Once you’ve finished the movie, you’ll be wondering why you ever thought you know anything about the genre. It’s that mind-blowing.
Finally, an action movie in English! Joe Wright (Anna Kerinina, Atonement) released this weirdly overlooked but totally buck-wild crazily good movie in early 2011 to very little fanfare due to a virtually nonexistent marketing campaign. And that’s a tragedy, because Hanna is the best action movie in years.
Ronan’s performance in the titular role is Oscar-worthy (but genre kept it from getting noticed. argh) and Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett’s supporting turns are equally excellent.
Surprisingly, the action isn’t quick cuts and weird close-ups of elbows. It’s shots with spatial reasoning and a sense of distance.
The soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers is also perfect for the setting. Full of whirrs and clicks and catchy harmonies. I just. I can’t even believe this movie. It’s so good. That’s my intellectual, analytical review of the movie. It’s SO good.
What are some of your favorite action movies?