THE TEN BEST ACTION MOVIES OF 2015

January 5, 2016

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

LUCK OF THE DRAW: WILD CARD (2015)

February 10, 2015

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I take comfort in Jason Statham. For more than a decade now he has been taking his shirt off in modestly budgeted action movies, ones that usually open in the first quarter of the year. These are the months of low expectations for studios, in which they release films they don’t deem worthy of expensive marketing campaigns, usually made up of genre films of low birth. These are the months, and the films, where Statham has found his niche as a leading man (he has been in blockbusters in supporting parts, as in The Expendables franchise and the forthcoming Furious 7 and Spy). They are directed by journeymen with titles as blunt as their plots: Homefront, Redemption, Parker, Safe, and The Mechanic. They are all about lone men with particular sets of fibula cracking skills, though Statham has made simpler, lower-budgeted projects since his work with the operatic Luc Besson on The Transporter series (2002 – 2008) and the ADD-aggro Crank films (2006 – 2009). Since filming The Mechanic (2011) in New Orleans, Statham and his producing partner Steve Chasman have followed the tax credits, forming their movies around which city gave them the best deal to shoot. This economic incentive has made for atmospheric, enclosed action films that allows for such absurdities as shooting Philadelphia-for-New York City in Safe. Statham is asserting more control over his work, and his latest feature, Wild Card, is the first made for his own production company, SJ Pictures. Released day-and-date in late January on VOD and very limited theatrical, it seems to have already disappeared without a trace. But it’s a low key charmer, an episodic tour through the dregs of Las Vegas society (partly filmed in, yes, New Orleans) that’s less action movie than a downbeat character piece with brief flashes of violence to keep the fans happy.

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After remaking Michael Winner’s The Mechanic (1972) with Simon West and adapting the Donald Westlake novel Flashfire for his film Parker (directed by Taylor Hackford), Statham again shows his good taste by taking the 1986 Burt Reynolds film Heat as the source for Wild Card, with William Goldman adapting his own novel for the screenplay, as he did on the ’86 film. Showing a vulnerable streak first exhibited in Steven Knight’s Redemption, Statham plays a depressive loser with the improbable name of Nick Wild. Wild has the requisite special forces background of a Statham hero, but here he’s reduced to escorting callow dot commers around the casinos while vainly dreaming of a life in Corsica — a resort life fantasy that Statham acted out in The Transporter. Instead Wild is dragged into a number of small time nettles. There are two main plots. The first is his relationship with Cyrus Kinnick (Michael Angarano), a Fiji water drinking rich kid who hires Wild to ferry him around town. The other story concerns his young friend Holly (Dominik Garcia-Lorido), who was used and abused by mob boss offspring Danny DeMarco (Milo Ventimiglia). She implores Nick to help her get revenge, though the repercussions of attacking the DeMarco family would cause their exile from Vegas. Facing the end of everything he knows, Wild tries for one big score before cutting town. Nothing works as intended.

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Statham has become interested in chipping away at his persona. The opening of Wild Card is a typical Statham set-up, a brawl in a bar parking lot with a drunk tool begging for a smack in the face. Except it’s Statham who is the tool, and he does get smacked. It turns out to be a set-up so his friend can impress his girl (Sofia Vergara), but it’s an indication that Statham is ready to play around within the limitations of his brand. He is allowed to playact vulnerability, but hasn’t yet been allowed to fully follow through. In Redemption, written and directed by Steven Knight (Locke), Statham plays a Afghanistan war veteran turned homeless alcoholic who rebuilds his life with the help of a Polish nun. A dark, melancholic film that takes place almost entirely at night, it’s the closest thing to an art film that Statham has made, though it still has its share of fisticuffs. It barely got a stateside release, though Statham was enthusiastic about what the film allowed him to do. He told The Guardian that, “This is one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve had. Most of the scripts that land on my desk are stuff you read and go, ‘Is someone really gonna make this?’ It’s been a revelation.”  Later, he continues to chafe against the market niche he has built for himself:

The dilemma is that you have to do something that people want to see. So if you’ve got a story about a depressed doctor whose estranged wife doesn’t wanna be with him no more, and you put me in it, people aren’t gonna put money on the table. Whereas if you go, ‘All he does is get in the car, hit someone on the head, shoot someone in the fucking feet,’ then, yep, they’ll give you $20m. You can’t fault these people for wanting to make money. It’s show business. Ugh, I hate that word.

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While I don’t want to see Jason Statham start making domestic dramas, the way in which he is straining against the borders of his genre has become fascinating. Wild Card is unusually relaxed for a Statham film. The tempo is slow, the movie moving more on atmosphere than drama. It builds it’s own Vegas out of the New Orleans locations, a loop of marginal businesses that form the backbone of Nick Wild’s life. Director Simon West and DP Shelly Johnson have come up with a sun-drenched overexposed Vegas, one in which Wild has nowhere to hide. Wild’s office is a peeling  linoleum, fluorescent-lit tomb that he shares with a shady lawyer (a blink and you’ll miss him Jason Alexander) whom he treats with barely suppressed contempt. His escape is an All-American retro diner at which he drinks grapefruit juice and trades barbs with waitress Roxy (an appealingly grubby Anne Heche). His favorite casino is a worn out thinly carpeted  antique where he plays blackjack with dealer Hope Davis, who exhibits a entire backstories of emotion in the crinkle at the edge of a smile. These are Stathams we really haven’t seen before: grouchy office worker, shooting-the-shit gladhander, and depressive, melancholy addict. The film doesn’t push any of these facets very far, as there are intricate, impressive fight scenes to get to involving ashtrays and butter knives (choreographed by Cory Yuen – director of the first Transporter). The tension between the downbeat story and the pressure to get all the traditional Statham stuff in causes a seam to emerge in the film, it seems incomplete, almost at odds with itself. Wild Card is in no rush to get anywhere, content to let the various Stathams contradict each other, and let various plot strands disappear over the horizon. I was beguiled by its incompleteness.

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THE TOP TWELVE GENRE FILMS OF 2011

December 20, 2011

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As the carcasses of prestige pics get picked over by awards committees and prognosticators, I like to distract myself from this pointless posturing by watching movies featuring actual corpses. After last year’s rundown of genre flicks received a good response, I return to the bloody well again, this time with twelve of my favorite action/horror/exploitation items released in the past year. Sure to be ignored by your local film critics circle, they are works of grim resourcefulness and ingenuity, deserving of more attention. I look forward to your criticisms, insults and recommendations in the comments. My picks are presented in alphabetical order.

Attack the Block, directed by Joe Cornish

With his origins in sketch comedy (the British “Adam and Joe Show”), one would expect Joe Cornish’s debut alien invasion feature to be episodic and tongue-in-cheek. While laced with humor, Attack the Block is instead a sleekly designed chase film, as a wanna-be gang of teens defend their South London project from the alien hordes. It was shot at the dilapidated Heygate Estate (which is now undergoing demolition), whose brutalist, prison-like facade emphasizes the kids’ status as second-tier citizens, convicts even in their freedom. They roam the streets and halls, led by Moses (played with sensitive stoicism, and shades of Gary Cooper, by John Boyenga), harrassed by cops while they harass (and rob) outsiders, as if outlaws in their own Wild West, Moses facing his own kind of High Noon.

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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, directed by Tsui Hark

I devoted an entire post to this pulpy marvel back in April (read here), so I’ll be brief here. Suffice it to say that Hark combines martial arts, Sherlock Holmes and steampunk into one of the most deliriously entertaining films of the year. Reveling in the sheer joy of storytelling, it hearkens back to Poverty Row serials of the 30s and 40s, telescoping an entire season’s worth of incidents and cliffhangers into its 2 hour running time. And yes, the CGI looks fuzzy and second-rate, but for me, it only added to its ramshackle charm.

***

Fast Five, directed by Justin Lin

I had not seen any of the previous iterations of this revived testosterone oil slick of a franchise, attracted only by the presence of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who enlivens whatever material he swaggers into. He is, of course, a magnetic presence in this one, his Diplomatic Security Service agent growling out orders with a starved pit-bull intensity. But the bombastic world that Justin Lin inflates around him is equally compelling – especially the turbocharged action sequences which are both outrageous and rigorously designed, from the moving train car heist to the torn-out bank vaults which are chained to cars and used as wrecking balls. Justin Lin is one of the few Hollywood directors to have firm control of the modern action film aesthetic, his quick cuts and mobile camera managing to convey a coherent geography (if this is “chaos cinema”, I’ll take it!). Examine the extended, wall breaking fistfight between The Rock and Vin Diesel for a meaty example.

***

Insidious, directed by James Wan

Finding creative solutions to monetary restrictions led James Wan to make one of the most profitable movies of the year. Insidious was made for $1.5 million and has since earned $97 million worldwide (figures from BoxOfficeMojo). Building tension off of long takes, smoke machines and a record playing Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoeing Through the Tulips”, this is an elegant shocker that also has the gall to build defined characters. Patrick Wilson is a distant, condescending husband and father, Rose Byrne an artistically frustrated songwriter turned housewife. Wan and screenwriter Leigh Wannell use the couple’s bad faith and turn it into the stuff of nightmares — their mutual resentments manifesting in the form of a vengeful wraith who absconds with their child. The second-half dimension-folding freak-out fails to exert the same slow-burn creep of the haunted first, but it still houses more indelible scares than any other film this year.

***

I Saw the Devil, directed by Kim Jee-woon

A cat-and-mouse revenge thriller where the roles of hunter and prey are continually reversible. The sociopathic killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) and secret agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) engage in a pas-de-deux of sadism, each torturing the other in a game of gruesome one-upsmanship. Containing elements of fairy tales (a cannibal’s house reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel) and self-reflexive black humor, it attempts to encompass all forms of revenge narratives, seeming, as Dave Kehr wrote, to be “the natural endpoint in the revenge film cycle kicked back off by Tarantino.”

***

The Mechanic, directed by Simon West

The pick of the Statham platter this year (other options: Killer Elite and Blitz), this remake of the 1972 Michael Winner/Charles Bronson original is an effectively no-nonsense bruiser. Statham is upscale hitman Arthur Bishop, who takes on hard-headed Steve McKenna (Ben Foster) as an apprentice. Bishop is an ascetic aesthete, living in a gorgeous arts & crafts style cabin on the water, with a preference for high-necked cable-knit sweaters out of the J Crew for assassins catalog. McKenna is necessarily a bit of a drunk and a hothead, needing the guidance of Bishop’s meditative nowhere-man. Director Simon West, if not exactly a stylist, is at least efficient, and frames fight scenes of lucid brutality. Statham brings a coiled physicality and a reliably self-effacing charm, while Ben Foster continues his run of mannered, fastidiously manic performances, his McKenna exhibiting non-stop DTs. He pops off the screen with garrulous intensity, and he’s building a gallery of eccentrics worthy of the great character actors. He’s no M. Emmet Walsh yet, but he’s on his way.

***

Point Blank, directed by Fred Cavaye

A refreshingly brisk 84 minutes long, this breathless French thriller wastes no time on exposition and races headlong into a chase. Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) is a nurse in training who inadvertently interrupts the murder of a hood (Roschdy Zem) in the ER. Soon his wife gets kidnapped and he is forced to ally himself with Zem to save his wife and his reputation. They race through Paris city streets, with Cavaye’s camera following them in hurtling tracking shots. Structured as one epic sprint, there is no time to sketch in character detail or complicated plot maneuvers, so while there is no emotional investment here, it still packs quite a kick of adrenaline.

***

The Robber, directed by Benjamin Heisenberg

A resolutely anti-psychological heist film, it examines the daily routine of marathon runner and bank robber Johann Rettenberger with clinical detachment. The true story it is based on, of “Pump-Gun Ronnie”, a runner who also wore a Reagan mask during jobs, is more spectacular than what it is on screen. Heisenberg pares away any hint of backstory, forcing lead actor Andreas Lust to express everything through his sinewy body. Curling into himself, Lust rejects any outside help, even recoiling at the accidental touch of a stranger in a park. It is when he falls for his childhood friend Erika (Franziska Weisz) that he lets the outside world inside – which collapses his carefully manicured facades. Outside of this, it’s a terrifically staged action film, including an open air stunner in which Lust sprints from one bank robbery to another, weaving through hotel lobbies, parking garages and open fields – leaving the police huffing and puffing behind him. Using controlled handheld camera (no shaky cam here) in sinuous long takes, Heisenberg and DP Reinhold Vorschneider create one of the most propulsively exciting chase scenes of the year.

***

Stake Land, directed by Jim Mickle

My favorite vampire experience since Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It. So it’s been a while. Set in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by the pointy-toothed beasts, it’s part survivalist horror, part road movie, and anchored by a quietly charismatic performance by Nick Damici (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mickle). Damici plays “Mister”, a crusty self-sustaining loner who has built his life around a violent routine: rifle abandoned shops for food and dust a few blood suckers. He picks up Martin (Connor Paolo) along his desultory journeys, the lone survivor of a slaughtered family. Mentoring Martin in the ways of survival and vamp-killing, Mister gains a purpose outside of himself, and is determined to ferry Martin to “New Eden”, a supposed safe zone in Canada. Mickle shoots the film in a dusky low-light, as if in a perennial twilight, where danger lurks in every unexplored nook and cranny, from vamps to the fundamentalist cult which worships them. With haunting makeup and creature design, these are not the dapper vampires du jour, but demons in decaying bodies, oozing goopy fluids which can only be replaced by fresh blood. It’s a genuinely unique vision – and one that aids the film’s subtle allegory of American intellectual decline (it’s no coincidence the promised land is in Canada).

***

Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Following up the cold precision of his ace horror flick Orphan, Serra again churns out a film of with strong compositional lines and an entertainingly ridiculous scenario. What stands out this time is his tactile sense of place, a multi-cultural Berlin of five-star hotels and seedy flop-houses. It’s a huge improvement on its model, Taken, the previous Liam Neeson Euro-sploitation outing, which was directed by Pierre Morel. While that film took place in a world of Eastern-European stereotypes and chopped its action sequences to bits, here the city still seethes with racial tension (a taxi dispatcher blames the city’s perceived decline on immigrants), but Neeson is assisted in his quest by a Bosnian cab driver (played convincingly by Diane Kruger) and her African immigrant pal named Biko (a nod to South African activist Steve Biko, played by Clint Dyer). As with Orphan, its actions sequences are concise bits of legible brutality . Bruno Ganz steals the movie as a proud former Stasi member who aids Neeson in his quest for identity. In what is surely to be one of the finest scenes of the year, Frank Langella swings by to cradle Ganz in his arms, as they discuss how to die with dignity.

***

The Ward, directed by John Carpenter

The unjustly derided return to the big screen for John Carpenter, who shows his talent for slow-burn scares is as sharp as ever. Working with a hacky script, Carpenter turns this story of a haunted insane asylum into an experiment in visual repetition, evoking the ritualized circular movements of these girls’ daily lives. An example of form triumphing over content. You can read my full thoughts in my post from June.

***

The Yellow Sea, directed by Na Hong-jin

Na Hong-jin’s follow up to The Chaser, is an operatic bloodbath about a poor Chinese immigrant in Korea, trying to find the wife who abandoned him years ago. There are no guns in this movie – everyone gets stabbed or bludgeoned by an axe-handle– and there are some epic battles here. With South Korea’s highly restrictive gun ownership laws, even the underworld has trouble obtaining firearms. Without shoot-outs, each death becomes more personal, because you have to get close and smell the sweat of your opponent before taking their life. It is a ritual bloodletting to rid the world of the infection of humanity.

Honorable Mentions: Drive AngryWreckedBurke & Hare (which I wrote about here).