January 5, 2016

Since their inception the movies have been obsessed with fists hitting faces. In the testing phases of Edison’s Kinetograph in 1891, W.K.L. Dickson shot footage of sparring boxers, cementing the sweet science as one of cinema’s enduring subjects. Though the medium matured, its audience (myself included) did not, and the appetite to watch performers sacrifice their bodies for our amusement has never abated. For a century filmmakers have been trying to capture the perfect punch in action movies, whether it’s in globetrotting blockbusters with CGI blood spurts or no-budget brawlers with practical squibs. There were plenty of worthy  efforts in 2015, and since it’s list-making season, below you’ll find my top ten action movies of the last year.


10. (tie) No Escape  (directed by John Erick Dowdle) and Survivor (directed by James McTeigue)

Pierce Brosnan has entered his dissolute character actor phase, and it is glorious. The first glimpse of it was in John Boorman’s Tailor of Panama (2001), in which he took the piss out of his James Bond character by playing this secret agent as a lazy, decadent fool. As he transitions out of leading roles and into the background, his characters get more seedy. In the critically reviled No Escape, Brosnan has a small part as a sex tourist in Hawaiian shirt and puka shell necklace (or so it seems) who helps Owen Wilson and Lake Bell spirit their family to safety after there is a violent revolution in an unnamed Asian city. The movie is bluntly effective, as when the parents have to engage in some kid-tossing off of rooftops, or when Wilson has to learn to kill a man with an office lamp. Brosnan is the reason for seeing it though, with his oily, self-destructive swagger and perpetual five o’clock shadow, he is something like James Bond after his fifth stint in rehab. It’s a character going through the motions of heroism because it’s what is expected, but all he really wants to do is embrace the death he’s been courting his whole life.

Survivor is preposterous nonsense, but it’s MY kind of preposterous nonsense. Brosnan is a shadowy mad bomber called “The Watchmaker” who wears those tiny jeweler eyeglass things and occasionally has a mustache. If that wasn’t enough, he’s being chased by U.S. immigration official Milla Jovovich, who spends most of the movie panting in exhaustion. She is framed-up as being an inside woman for a terrorist group, and is in turn chased around London and NYC by Brits and Yanks alike. Cast also includes Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett (!), Robert Forster (!!) and in his final performance (as a maniacal Romanian “pharmaceutical gases” scientist), Roger Rees.



9. Close Range, directed by Isaac Florentine

The latest collaboration of DTV dynamos Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins is a simple showcase for Adkins’ ability to kick people very hard. Adkins is an ex-soldier and an ex-con whose niece is kidnapped by a Mexican drug lord. So Adkins does what he must, in a series of fights beautifully choreographed by Jeremy Marinas of 87Eleven Action Design. You can read my full review of the film here.



8. Redeemer, directed by Ernesto Díaz Espinoza

This Chilean revenge drama is straightforward pulp, superbly executed. It stars Marko Zaror as the eponymous avenger, a haunted man in a hoodie trying to expunge his past sins. He focuses his redeeming powers against an American Bro drug lord (a very funny Noah Segan), and a specter from his past known only as “The Scorpion”.  Zaror is a physical freak (he is Adkins’ main opponent in Undisputed 3), and the fight sequences are very technical MMA-based grappling that proceeds at a slower speed than most fight films. This deliberate pace really allows you to see the development of the attacks and counter-attacks, making the film a reliable tension and release machine.


Wild Card Movie (4)

7. Wild Card, directed by Simon West

A laid back Jason Statham product that is a remake of Burt Reynolds’ Heat. This one debuted on VOD in January and swiftly disappeared without a trace. But it finds Statham playing around with his persona, trying on different poses that never quite stick: grouchy office worker, shooting-the-shit gladhander, and depressive, melancholy addict. When he snaps back into Statham the cannonball, the fight scenes are choreographed by the great Corey Yuen (The Transporter), and they do inventive, violent things with ashtrays and butter knives. I also wrote about this one at length over here.



6. Blackhat, directed by Michael Mann

An impressionistic smear of our hyper-connected age, with gunfights. Leonine Australian hunk Chris Hemsworth makes for an unconvincing hacker, but this is a movie in which the small details seem absurd but the grand gestures are entirely, overwhelmingly convincing. Hemsworth is an imprisoned hacker who is sprung loose to help the U.S. feds track down a cybercrime network around the world. As Hemsworth moves from city to city, country to country, the borders seem to blur along with Mann’s woozy images.



5. SPL2: A Time for Consequences, directed by Soi Cheang

This won’t be released in the U.S. until later this year (by Well Go USA), but it has been out everywhere in Asia and has screened in festivals throughout 2015. SPL2 is a sequel to SPL (2005, aka Kill Zone), although it bears no relation to the original. The main protagonists Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung are nowhere to be found, here replaced by Tony Jaa and Wu Jing. Wu Jing is an undercover police officer in deep cover inside a Thai prison, while Jaa is a guard at the prison. Both of them get entangled in the illicit organ trafficking operation of Louis Koo. This is an anxious film wracked with paranoia, and director Soi Cheang (of the Milkyway productions Accident and Motorway) sustains a tone of barely contained hysteria. People are profitable bloodbags for Louis Koo, and the movie continually emphasizes the brute limitations of the human body.



4. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher McQuarrie

This is the slickest entry on the list, a sinuous series of set-pieces that never bogs down in exposition. Tom Cruise gets stranger and more robotic each year, but the Mission: Impossible series keeps improving. I was particularly impressed with the assassination games during the opera, a complex minuet of overlapping POVs that provides one of the many tense standoffs between Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson, the MI5 agent whose motivations are at cross-purposes with the Impossible Missions Force. Ferguson slinks away with the movie, her lithe athleticism perfect for the film’s clockwork mechanisms.



3. Run All Night, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

A chase film between two old men sapped of energy. Ed Harris and Liam Neeson play two buddies from NYC’s Westie gang who turn against each other because of the sins of their children. That is, Neeson’s son has murdered Harris’ son. Due to the personal codes of conduct buried in their genes, they must hunt the other down. Neither seems to relish it. Let’s call it a reluctant revenge film. So they trudge through the outer boroughs looking for a kill, and on the way pass through all their old haunts, which are also on their way out. It provides everything it’s title implies: speed, exhaustion and darkness. I went longer on this film over here.



2. The Taking of Tiger Mountain, directed by Tsui Hark

This Chinese epic has grandly orchestrated ski fights and tiger battles, while the framing story deftly deals with the slipperiness of historical truths. It’s about a Communist army unit who infiltrates a bandit gang and brings them down from within, an old-school adventure told with wit and feeling. But the framing story does much to question the propagandistic value of the film inside. It’s a complex, hugely entertaining film that was a massive hit in China and deserves a larger audience stateside. I would recommend reading Grady Hendrix’s highly informative article for further context.



1. Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller

To Godard’s quote that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, I would add that you should also include a double-necked flame-throwing guitar.


March 17, 2015


Run All Night is a movie about tired men forced into motion. Ed Harris and Liam Neeson are happiest when sitting down, but their violent past conspires against their leisure, pitting them against each other in a fleet, melancholy NYC thriller. In theaters now, it is the third collaboration between director Jaume Collet-Serra and Neeson (following Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014)), and they have proven to be ideal, adaptive collaborators. Unknown was adventurous in its Berlin location-shooting and experiments in POV. DP Flavio Labiano shot with a 35mm and Super 16mm camera locked side-by-side, a prism redirecting the same image to both cameras. They underexposed and force-processed the 16mm, creating a “broken but beautiful, dreamy kind of image” that they could use for Neeson’s amnesiac perspective. On Non-Stop they traded location challenges for the constraints of shooting on a single set — the interior of a plane making an international flight. Since it was an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, Labiano used tilt-shift lenses that would localize focus on individuals that Neeson was investigating. The story of Run All Night is less tied to Neeson’s perspective, so it is Collet-Serra’s most expansive, open-air production yet. With DP Martin Ruhe, Collet-Serra isolates Neeson and Joel Kinnaman, playing his son, in high angle establishing shots and CGI transitions that sweep through most of the five boroughs. Run All Night is a city movie, but it’s more about the old NYC that Harris and Neeson carry in their heads than the current metropolis, passing them by.


In Brad Ingelsby’s script Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, a former hitman for the Westie gang once led by Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Jimmy tries to drown out his past with booze, and has long since become estranged from his ex-boxer/limo driver son Mike (Joel Kinnaman). Jimmy has become a punchline for the remnants of Shawn’s gang, who now hang out at a decrepit Irish Pub called The Abbey, remembering better days. Mike is reduced to playing a soused Santa at Maguire’s Christmas party to keep himself in cigarettes and porn money. But Shawn’s deadbeat son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) gets enmeshed with a track-suited group of Albanian heroin pushers, leading to a gruesome confrontation that Mike witnesses. Soon Mike is the target of Shawn’s whole operation, and the only person who can keep him alive is Jimmy. The cops, the Maguire gang, and an independent killer (Common) are all after Conlon blood. Mike has to bury his resentments against his deadbeat dad long enough to help him survive.


As in the underseen  A Walk Among the Tombstones, Neeson has perfected a weary urbanite stroll, his shoulders a little rounded as if expecting shit to be dumped on him. Again an alcoholic (as in Walk and Non-Stop), society has pushed him farther to the edges of society. He lives in an unheated apartment next to an elevated train, warming himself by the glow of the Rangers-Devils game on the TV, the progress of which marks off the time of the movie.  Ed Harris, who was acting in eight Broadway shows a week in between shooting, looks even more exhausted and cadaverous, his character rendered moot in modern NYC. Early on he complains that he used to lend money for people to buy a butcher shop, and now that shop is an Applebee’s. There is no neighborhood left, shrunken down to his bar, The Abbey, and his few aging, paunchy friends (including friendly character actor face Bruce McGill). Shawn feels increasingly irrelevant, and spends most of the film reminiscing about what used to be. When circumstances turn him against Jimmy in a battle neither will likely survive, it feels like the two old friends are doing each other a favor. The Neeson-Harris tete-a-tetes are thrilling sequences of underplaying, as decades of friendship are eviscerated in a few words over cocktails.


For a director of disreputable genre pieces, Collet-Serra has attracted an extraordinary run of actors since he was forced to direct Paris Hilton in the still pretty good House of Wax (2005) remake. Aside from Neeson, Orphan featured Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga, Unknown had Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella, Non-Stop cast Julianne Moore and, in a small pre-Oscar part, Lupita Nyong’o. For despite all of the flash of his action filmmaking, his features are very patient, actorly films. They all build slowly, paying attention to the slightest of character details regardless of the outrageousness of the scenario. Orphan is extraordinary in this regard – it is as much a story of a bourgeois marital breakdown as it is a tiny person slasher movie. Sarsgaard and Farmiga give a master class in passive-aggressive sniping and upper middle class liberal self-absorption.

While Run All Night is the most character-driven of Collet-Serra’s films since Orphan, it still delivers a series of exhilarating action sequences. There is a Mike-Danny footrace through back alleys that hurtles along as the camera is pulled back on a cable. Then there’s a white-knuckle car chase through the streets of Brooklyn that manages to maintain match cuts as a cop car hurtles into a deli facade. And the centerpiece is a multi-part mini-movie in a housing project. It begins as a search for Mike’s boxing pupil “Legs” (Aubrey Joseph), a tightly edited montage of door-pounding and rejection. Then it transitions into an escape, as the police converge on the site, the father and son looking through a way out as they maneuver through the bank of stairwells. The final stage is a brutal fight between the hired assassin and Jimmy, held in a burning apartment. Flaming table legs are the weapon of choice as they two men thwomp each other into submission.


Early on Dirk Westervelt’s editing style feels disruptive and disorienting. His cuts occur a few beats before you expect them to, creating a jagged rhythm. It’s unusual, but as the feature progressed I stopped noticing these awkward beats. I’d have to watch it again to determine whether the editing scheme changes, or if I simply got used to the offbeat cutting. In any case, it ceased to be an issue as the story hurtled along and I was subsumed in this amalgamated NYC. The Abbey, in which the penultimate shootout begins, is cobbled together from exteriors taken from Jamaica Avenue and Woodside, Queens, while the interior was shot in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It is a composite city, situated so a subway is always rumbling overhead, moving forward to connect the various nodes of the story.

These nodes converge into at least one ending too many, but Run All Night provides everything it’s title implies: speed, exhaustion and darkness. Jaume Collet-Serra continues to prove himself as a resourceful genre problem-solver, adapting his technique to the demands of the story. While I would be satisfied with an endless string of Collet-Serra/Neeson collaborations, it would be fascinating to see what this elusive, chameleonic director can do with other subjects. He recently told Entertainment Weekly that “I would like to do a movie with every genre. To me, that would be the complete career—do a comedy, musical. Why not?” Make it happen, Hollywood.