Movies: Ramp.ie’s Favourite Action Films Ever, Ever
Webster’s defines ‘action’ as ‘film genre that encourages the liberal snarfing of popcorn and gives the viewer a sweaty arse’, and we couldn’t agree more. Even those cinephiles whose shelves are groaning with Bergman, Kurosawa and Hitchcock titles have the grá for at least one hot action film stuffed to capacity with fight scenes, zippy one-liners, uber-evil cartoono-villains and slow-mo explosions. With the fifth installment of the Die Hard series screening in Irish cinemas now, we took the time out of our busy world-saving schedules to bring you our picks of the very best action films ever, many of which are pretty bloody terrible.
How often is it that two films of the same franchise help to define two entirely different genres? Pretty damn rare. While Ridley Scott’s initial entry Alien went and conquered horror science fiction, James Cameron’s sequel did away with much of the suspense and tension, opting for a more gung ho approach. It’s got everything a good action movie needs: explosions, one-liners, memorable set pieces, and a great enemy threat in the form of the Xenomorph. It also has the bonus of taking place in one of sci-fi’s flat out coolest universes. Oh, and let’s not forget that it had a child as part of the main cast who wasn’t infuriatingly irritating. No easy task. Not only did it establish Cameron as a major player in Hollywood, but it remains to this day the benchmark of action sci-fi, equalled by very few. Game over man, indeed.
Every time I sit down to watch Apocalypto, the 2006 action epic, I get a little bit sad. Not just because it represents one of the last meaningful directorial efforts from the now black-listed Mel Gibson, but also because the mere concept of such a film seems so alien in such a blockbuster-seeking industry. Set in the midst of a fading Mayan civilisation, Apocalypto follows Jaguar Paw; a young tribesman, who is put on a collision course with a large collective of Mayan people who are reaching out for a connection to God by offering human sacrifices. Gibson expertly creates an awe-inspiring world of thrilling action sequences, brutal violence and incredible production quality. In an effort to create an authentic and thrilling cinema experience, the film favoured jaw-dropping sets over CGI, and employed camera work which will still leave you wondering how did they do that? Epic in scale, deceptively deep in story and a non-stop action adventure; Apocalypto is one of those rare films that not only pushes the boundaries of the action genre, but also reminds me why I love films in the first place.
Ah, Commando. The greatest action movie ever made. Forget about your teams of people battling for one cause. Don’t even start thinking about supernatural beings. No need for government meetings and plans thought up by war experts. Not when you have Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to save his daughter from a crazy Aussie dude. You are never going to see a more manly action hero than this. It begins with him carrying a tree on his a shoulder. Let me repeat that: A Tree. On his shoulder.
He then begins an epic mission to retrieve his daughter rather than help a South American gang (It’s always them, isn’t it?) overthrow a government. I am not even going to get into the amount of baddies killed, the number of explosions, the amount of car chasing, camouflage application or bazooka firing that takes place, because all of this is second fiddle to the true star of the movie: the killer one liners.
No movie is better at one liners than Commando. Kill a guy on a plane and then put his hat over his face so nobody checks him on an eleven hour flight? Why wouldn’t you tell the air hostess not to interrupt him because he is ‘dead tired’? Drop a guy off a cliff after promising to kill him last and then get asked about his whereabouts? Of course you’re going to say you had to ‘let him go’. But my personal favourite: after slamming a giant piece of steam pipe through your arch nemesis’ stomach, you better believe you are telling him to ‘let off some steam, Bennett’.
On a little side note, a sequel was written but Schwarzenegger turned it down. It was reworked slightly and eventually became a little known action movie called Die Hard. ‘Nuff said.
Even within the stylistic parameters of action flicks, Con Air is fucking stupid. It is really fucking stupid. It’s got Nicolas Cage in, for a start, which automatically boosts the stupidity quotient, plus in Con Air he’s got receding shoulder-length hair, like a quiff that got blown off his forehead by the gale 7 force of the plot’s magnificent idiocy.
Army Ranger Cameron Poe is sentenced to seven years in a federal penitentiary because he’s just so awesome he totally kills assholes by accident. His debt to society paid, he’s flying toward his freedom when his prison plane is highjacked by his fellow convicts, who just so happen to be the crookedest of crooks. Can Poe work with good-guys-on-the-ground John Cusack (!) and Colm Meaney (!) whilst keeping up dastardly appearances with flying felons John Malkovich (!) and Steve Buscemi (!)? Of course he can; he’s gonna land the fucking plane on the Las Vegas strip just so he can bring a toy bunny home to his daughter. With ludicrous one-liners, slow-mo sauntering away from explosions, and a budget big enough to buy the time of respected actors who really should know better (and Nicolas Cage), Con Air is the epitome of dumb-as-shit action movies. And it is BRILLIANT.
Demolition Man has everything. An early nineties vision of the year 2032, massive explosions, character names like John Spartan, Simon Phoenix and Edgar Friendly, and three mysterious seashells that have inexplicably replaced toilet roll. When newly-defrosted Simon Phoenix escapes from cryo-prison and goes on his MurderDeathKill spree, soundtracked by utterly rad record scratch sounds, it’s impossible not to cheer when he says things like ‘Simon says…bleed!’ Of course, to catch an old-fashioned criminal, the police force of non-violent San Angeles need an old-fashioned cop. Enter John Spartan, the heavy-handed and sweary ‘Demolition Man’, who’s been thawed out to smash the place up, do a spot of knitting and save the day. Throw in Sandra Bullock as Lt. Lenina Huxley getting all the nineties slang completely wrong, references to President Schwarzenegger, self driving cars and a pair of sex helmets and you’ve got yourself one of the most fun action films ever made. Joy-joy feelings all round!
The original. The best. It’s an action movie that’s also a traditional holiday favourite. Twenty two people are massacred on-screen but then Bing Crosby starts singing and we feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
It gave us Alan Rickman. It made Bruce Willis a star. And it gave us John McClane, the everyman action hero. He’s just a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, he has no business fighting terrorists but he just doesn’t quit. McClane?! They can’t believe this guy!
Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho!
And McClane can get under the bad guys’ skin like no other. Being called a dickhead by John McClane has a sting that says, ‘I’m just an everyday American Joe but I’m smarter than you,’ and they hate that!
Heat is not an action movie in the traditional sense. It’s a morality tale by way of a cops-and-robbers power play. It features Al Pacino and Robert De Niro finally going face-to-face onscreen, and has a magnificent ensemble of actors filling small roles with presence and gravitas (Jon Voight, Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, William Fichtner, Danny Trejo, the list goes on). The pleasantly complex plot and the equally complex characters make us far more invested when, about half-way through the film, comes what is simply the greatest shootout committed to celluloid. For 10 minutes, the screen ripples with bullets bursting metal and glass in downtown Los Angeles. The cops battle the robbers, but in a strange way, we’re rooting for both. Action combined to emotional investment? All credit to writer-director Michael Mann; with Heat, he makes this unlikely combination work with style and intelligence to spare.
Not taking the feminist angle or anything, but it’s always nice to see women kicking ass in action films, and not just as a sidekick. And one of the most brilliant examples of a lady ass-kicker is Uma Thurman as the Bride in Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Action films where the same muscle-bound leading man pumps foreigners full of lead can get very boring. So when Kill Bill gave us a woman whose wedding was ruined by a bloodbath, taking revenge by way of Samurai sword, the action genre was revolutionised. Mixing together martial arts, action and spaghetti westerns, Kill Bill follows the Bride as she hunts down her former colleagues who tried to kill her on her wedding day. The sequel, Kill Bill 2, was equally brilliant, but less action-centred. It also doesn’t feature one of the best fight scenes of recent years, where the Bride takes on a psychotic teenage sadist with a chain whip. I’d like to see John McClane take on the Bride and see how that works out (which would probably be with McClane’s brain hanging out).
Illiterate Italian hitman adopts Padmé to save her from Gary Oldman channelling Captain Jack Sparrow on PCP. Leon has something for everyone.
Little orphan Matilda (Natalie Portman) opens the heart of Léon (Jean Reno) but also brings with her the wrath of crooked narcotics cop (Oldman) and half the New York armed response team, with ultraviolent overtures and a cracking score. Portman acts her little heart out as the tough heroine set on revenge for the early atrocity which sees her fleeing to the most unlikely protector. Her neighbour happens to be a contract killer; he calls himself a cleaner – he cleans up humans, permanently – but she is a mess he was not contracted for. They seek redemption through revenge, two characters striving for some sense of normality in two very damaged lives. Playing counterweight to the chances of a happy ending is Gary Oldman’s over-the-top bad cop, his most unhinged performance ever. I liked the film so much I called my son Leon.
Riggs and Murtaugh, like Batman and Robin, are constantly getting themselves into trouble, mostly due to Rigg’s cheeky chappy/suicidal attitude. The writing is a great blend of comedy and solemnity, and the movie hits home as you root for this most unlikely of pairings against an army of drug smugglers. Even if Murtaugh claims ‘I’m getting too old for this shit…’, know that you’re never too old for Lethal Weapon.
In 1999, the Wachowski brothers came along with a film so mind-bendingly good that 14 years later moviemakers are still copying it. It wasn’t about The Matrix being a cool-as-hell action movie (it was – all kung fu, exploding helicopters and bullet time) or that it was an engrossing story (it was – debating fate, technology and what it means to be human) but rather that when The Matrix came out it felt so new, so different, so important that it changed what people expected from action films.
The greatest criticism levelled against the movie is that its sequels weren’t as good, but the very fact that people are still disappointed by what came after it only proves how incredibly brilliant the original is. Thrilling, smart, and so utterly unique that it has often been copied but never equalled, The Matrix is the best action movie ever.
The Mission Impossibles (Missions Impossible?) are action for the galminded gal. Plenty of proper women like action movies, but Mission Impossible does it for those of who like a little action, a little romance, and a smattering of against-the-clock adventure. From that car chase with Thandie Newton to Mr Cruise’s admittedly impressive climb of Dubai’s highest building in his last outing (the ickle man on the tall building, awww), MI is always visually impressive.
What’s not to love about Predator? A squad of badass soldiers led by Arnold Schwarzenegger heads into hostile jungle territory to find some missing men, easily outgunning a small rebel army, and then getting picked off one by one by a mysterious alien hunter leading to a showdown between it and Arnie, and though Arnie wins, it’s only after going through Die Hard levels of punishment. It’s got explosions, guns, muscles, violence, kickass lines (‘Stick around!’, ‘I ain’t got time ta bleed!’, ‘GET TO DA CHOPPAH!’), more explosions, and a genuinely scary antagonist in the immaculately designed Predator, with his wristblades, plasma cannon and a cloaking device that looks good even today. The badass soldiers are fascinating to watch as the mental strain takes its toll on their confidence and camaraderie. And there’s no soppy love interest tosh getting in the way. It’s just kickass action in every respect!
The Rock is the perfect mash-up of action, humour, drama and fun that summer blockbusters of the 1990s made their forte. Every single line is punishingly awesome, whether it be mere trailer fodder (‘Your besht? Losers do their besht…’) or a mundane response to crashing one’s Ferrari (as mundane as that can be). Michael Bay’s direction, particularly of the action scenes, is more vivid and pure than any of his later films like The Island or Transformers, and his eye for a good shot is unleashed, reminiscent of all of John McTiernan’s works, though more Hunt for Red October than Predator. To top it off, the plot is a delicious combination of betraying one’s country to honour one’s friends, the extremes to which men will go under pressure, a single nerd overcoming a mountain of macho men to take home the prom queen, and sticking an oversized needle of eyedrops directly into your heart. Classic. We even find ourselves buried under that old Hitchcockian trope of rooting for the bad guys (Ed Harris and Sean Connery). To compound the raw action even more, Connery took the role of ex-SAS operative Mason after Arnold Schwarzenegger turned it down. That would arguably have been a little too much action. Simply awesome out of ten.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day, or ‘Clueless for boys’ (Lisa McInerney, 2013), was the Action 90s’ finest hour. Mixing the time-travel tomfoolery of the not-as-good-as-you-remember Terminator with some killer special effects (fortuitously aided in one scene by the fact that lead actress Linda Hamilton happens to have a twin sister), upgraded characterisation (hello, badass Sarah Connor) and the sweet sweet strains of The Good Guns N’ Roses Song That Wasn’t on Appetite for Destruction, T2 is a masterpiece of spectacle, plot and pacing. The repeated collisions of Robert Patrick’s ice-eyed shape-shifting killer with Arnie’s walking tank make for some thrilling scenes, but the real conflict plays out through the doubt and desperation of the clashing human characters. T2 is a film about the best and the worst of our future legacy coming back to fight for our souls. And even if that sounds too high-flown for you, you can’t deny that there’s no cooler way for a hero to introduce himself than ‘Come with me if you want to live’.
Can James Cameron do anything that isn’t the most expensive exercise in entertainment of its era? It seems not. Imagine my shock on reading that True Lies was released the same year as Speed – could there be two more different beasts sharing a genre? (Yes, undoubtedly there are, but just work with me here). True Lies just might be the swansong of the era of Planet Hollywood owning action movies, but my God, does it go out with a bang. True Lies never for a moment takes itself or life seriously. Arnie is a doofus by day, action hero by night and his bored wife is dragged unknowingly into his super-spy life. Spectacle stunts, horses and helos, racially-profiled villains and a big Austrian oak. The movie may also bear witness to the last time a mother was cast as an object of desire in an action movie. Proof that throwing money at something can make it better and so much fun.