I have developed into being a big fan of action movies. I love seeing well-choreographed fight scenes, intelligent and interesting characters, great timing with comedy, music, drama, and action, and seeing how a genre that has been considered dumb or brainless can elevate above those stereotypes into something great. I will go through a mix of obscure and well-known movies.
Die Hard (1988): Arguably the best action movie ever. This movie is nearly two and a half hours long, and I will watch it whenever it is on TV. Not only is the story well-paced with great acting, but I love that almost everyone in the film, no matter the size of their role, is memorable, and gets a good moment. From the very beginning, with the man on the plane telling John McClane a method of relaxing after a trip, to the very end, where a dirtbag reporter who blew Holly’s cover gets righteously punched out by her, everyone stands out in some way. You have Ellis the obnoxious yuppie; the two Johnson FBI agents; the black computer whiz; Argyle the limo driver; Sgt. Al Powell as the only cop on John’s side; the Asian henchman who steals a candy bar; the loudmouth police chief who can’t make a right move; the German henchmen with long hair and kickboxing moves; John's wife Holly, who takes charge as leader of the hostages; Mr. Takagi, and many others. Alan Rickman’s screen career was solidified with his debut film role as Hans Gruber, and is one of the best villains of all time. He doesn’t even have a high body count (he only kills two people himself, and his henchmen kill two others), but he is intelligent, cool under pressure, and is funny in an incidental way.
I love the little moments of comedy sprinkled around. John in the air vent, mocking his wife “Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs . . .”; Alan Rickman saying “Ho Ho Ho”; the exchange about Vietnam between the two Johnson FBI agents; "He could be a fucking bartender for all we know!”; Ellis’annoying laugh; in relation to a body that fell out of the window: “Who knows, probably some stockbroker, got depressed”; John being denied on his 911 call and being told the line is only for emergencies: “No fucking shit lady, do I sound like I’m ordering a pizza?!” “Oh my God, the quarterback is TOAST!”; and so much more.
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996): Such an excellent action film, written by Shane Black of Lethal Weapon fame and directed by Renny Harlin. Geena Davis starred as Charly Baltimore, an assassin who suffered amnesia, and who previously thought she was Samantha Caine, all-American housewife and mother. While she lives her life, she had hired private investigators to find out who she was before had amnesia, with little success. Enter Samuel L. Jackson, a down on his luck private investigator who helps her uncover her past as she, due to another accident, finds out she has incredible skills in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat. From then on, it’s insane action scenes as she squares off against her former lover, who is plotting with the C.I.A. to stage a bombing and blame it on Islamic terrorists. While Davis had starred in the bomb Cutthroat Island (also directed by her then-husband Renny Harlin) as a heroic pirate, in this film she showed more depth in playing an action heroine and did some incredible scenes, mainly a pivotal one where she holds her breath underwater during a water torture scene and remembers more of her past.
Davis played her dual role convincingly as the sweet housewife and the cold and ruthless fighter. Jackson did well playing against type as a nervous sidekick who is way in over his head with all of this. Craig Bierko was also fantastic as the villain. The film has had an influence in hip-hop, mainly being the name of a song by The Notorious B.I.G. for his album Life After Death, and rapper Tiffany Lane uses the moniker Charli Baltimore after the heroine.
Since this film, Geena Davis hasn’t acted as much, working to promote gender equality in children’s entertainment and promote positive female characters. I’m happy that she is acting as a hero for young girls, as she was in The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991): Brandon Lee and Dolph Lundgren were martial artists who showed a lot of charisma and intelligence in their action films. I have already reviewed Brandon Lee’s Rapid Fire and Dolph Lundgren’s I Come in Peace, so I won’t repeat it. They teamed up together for this buddy cop/martial arts action movie where they fight to bust the Yakuza in the Little Tokyo part of Los Angeles. Directed by Mark E. Lester, the cops, as usual, clash with each other from the beginning. Chris Kenner (Lundgren) was raised in Japan, where he has a lifelong respect for ancient Japanese culture and conducts himself as thus, disliking American culture. Johnny Murata (Brandon Lee) is of Japanese and white ancestry, and was raised in America, and he doesn’t have any interest in Japanese culture. They are paired to fight the Yakuza due to Kenner being fluent in Japanese and both being skilled fighters. The Yakuza chapter is led by Funekei Yoshida (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who is a ruthless kingpin that is also very reverent of ancient Japanese culture, using his sword to execute victims. He rules Little Tokyo, terrorizing other gangs, and forcing control of small Japanese-owned stores. Kenner and Murata, however, are very street-smart, and often find a way around Yoshida’s plans to attack him and his crew.
The film is clichéd and predictable, but so much fun to watch. It’s best to watch it for the charismatic leads, the awesome fight scenes, and the relish in which Tagawa plays the villain (he has made a career out of playing villains, in Mortal Kombat, Kickboxer 2: The Road Back, Picture Bride, and many others). Other recognizable actors include Tia Carrere as the love interest for Kenner, and Toshishiro Obata, who many would recognize as the leader of the Foot Clan in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie. I highly recommend this film to watch, if only for one of the most “what the hell?” moments I’ve ever seen in a movie:
Face/Off (1997): Like Die Hard, I will watch this movie whenever it is on. For anyone who doesn’t know the plot, the movie is about FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) and terrorist Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage), who are sworn enemies after Troy killed Archer’s son, aiming for him. Archer captures and nearly kills Troy in a fight, leaving him in a coma. But Troy had planned a bombing somewhere in a major public space in L.A., and Archer has to find out where the bomb is. So, due to some scientists’ experiment, Archer undergoes a face transplant operation with Troy, including changing his voice, to get instated into the prison where Troy’s brother Pollux is at, in order to learn the location of the bomb. So now Nicholas Cage is playing Sean Archer, and after Castor Troy wakes up, has his face replaced with Sean Archer’s, and kills the scientists. John Travolta is now playing Castor Troy. Both actors give excellent performances playing dual roles, and being completely convincing in both.
The film is staged magnificently, thanks to the talent of John Woo as director. The film features many of his well-known trademarks: gun fu, doves, Mexican standoffs, long dark trench coats waving in the wind, and battles in a church. The film shares a resemble to Woo's 1992 action masterpiece Hard Boiled, in which Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung play cop and criminal who share a love/hate relationship. A memorable scene in the film was the hospital shootout scene, both for storyline, technical flair (pacing between slow motion and regular speed, all shot in one take, the room being re-arranged by crew members to appear as a different floor while the heroes are in an elevator ), and dangerous stunt work. In Face/Off, try to count how many times the full names of Castor Troy or Sean Archer are said. If you try a drinking game, you'll be passed out before the film ends. On another note, whenever I take a plane and have to walk out to the plane, I always wanted to enter like this (skip to 1:20)
Unleashed (2005) In 2005, I felt like seeing an action movie, and figured this would be dumb fun. I was completely wrong. Jet Li was fantastic in this film, not just as a martial artist, but as a dramatic actor as well. This film surprised me at how touching it was, and how it used martial arts not just as a weapon of defense, but as the evolution of a character. Directed by Louis Leterrier, Unleashed is about a young man named Danny who is literally treated like an attack dog by a British loan shark (Bob Hoskins) He was raised by them, and has the mentality of both a child and an abused dog. He wears a collar, and only when it is taken off does he uses his violent fighting skills against men who owe the gangster money. He cannot think far beyond what he is trained to do. But when the collar is on, Danny is subservient and quiet. Through circumstances, Danny meets a blind piano tuner named Sam (Morgan Freeman) who treats him with kindness and invites him to live with him and his stepdaughter Victoria. Danny learns how to socialize and to live as a human in the regular world, and Jet Li played this role with a lot of tenderness and sensitivity. The scenes of him confusing words like “sweet” to describe ice cream or a kiss are nice, and while I had heard of Jet Li casually from Lethal Weapon 4, this was the first time I’d ever seen one of his movies. Morgan Freeman is relaxed in his role, and brings a lot of warmth to Sam. Naturally, the gangsters want Danny back, and it is a battle between staying with this safe family and avoiding capture to be turned into an attack dog again. I don’t even watch this film for the fight scenes, because they aren’t heroic fight scenes, they’re more like dog fight scenes, more brutal and exploitative, which was the point. I watch it for the scenes of Danny with his new family, and re-discovering the world in all of its joys and splendors. I highly recommend this film.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie (1990) I saw this when I was seven years old in the theater, and I thought it was amazing. I loved how the film made New York City look so dirty and grimy, how rough around the edges it was, how obviously low-budget it was (despite having the talents of the Muppet Workshop for the turtle heads), and how it was a kids’ movie that wasn’t afraid to put violence and mild cursing into it. I had a serious crush on Elias Koteas on this film, he was the first movie actor I ever found sexy/attractive. I won’t go over the plot, almost everyone knows who the Turtles are. It also had my other future movie crush in it, too, Sam Rockwell, as a young punk leading kids around the underground playground where delinquent teens hang out at, with video arcades, billiards, cigarettes, beer, and ninja training. It was just an excellent movie to see as a kid, and once every few years, I will still watch it and enjoy my nostalgia.
Blade (1998) Blade has been credited in popularizing the comic-to-movie boom of the 2000s, and I definitely agree. What is great about it is that Blade was an obscure character, who looked more like a pimp circa the blaxploitation era, and the film turned him into an intelligent and stoic fighter. A lot of credit goes to the writer David S. Goyer, who wanted to make Blade a serious character, not a spoof like how New Line Cinema wanted. He turned Blade into a respectable action hero, and brought to the screen one of the few black comic book superheroes that has been seen in mainstream films. Credit also goes to Wesley Snipes. Not only for his iconic performance, but because Blade is very close to his heart, and a lot of the instincts and characterizations of the role are from him. Snipes is a highly trained martial artist, with black belts in Shotokan karate and Hapkido, and is skilled in kung fu, weaponry, capoeira, and Brazilian ju-jitsu. The film itself, while dated in some parts due to special effects and 1990s techno music, still stands out as a masterpiece. I love Kris Kristofferson as Whistler. He has a great sense of humor, treats Blade like his son, has great hair and a killer look, and can hold his own in a fight. Similarly, I liked N’Bushe Wright as Dr. Karen Jenson, an intelligent woman who acts as the audience’s POV, and is never turned into a romantic interest for Blade. And I was surprised by how well Stephen Dorff did in this film. Normally he looks like a spoiled punk to me, but that worked great for him in this film. Deacon Frost, in this film, is a annoying little ass who wants to control the vampires, and has a preposterous plan for doing so (See Daywalkers if you’d like to see how Frost’s plan would have worked in reality). He has some really funny moments, especially one where he mocks Blade’s fighting style with his swords and turns and such. Donal Logue was excellent as Quinn, one of Frost’s minions. He constantly gets maimed in the movie, and his growing frustration was hilarious.
I also recommend Blade II, and it’s a toss-up as to which film I think is better. I am a big fan of both films. Blade is a great introduction, has memorable characters, and awesome fight scenes. Blade II umps the ante, with having super-vampires who feed on both humans and vampires, and Blade needing to work with a team instead of alone. That film's strong cast included Leonor Varela, Ron Perlman, and Donnie Yen, and was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who has a nerdy passion for comic books and horror stories. For Blade Trinity, I like to pretend it never happened, though Ryan Reynolds had some good comic moments in it. It was just a mess that needed a better director and a more interesting storyline. I don’t blame Wesley Snipes for refusing to participate fairly on-set or only appearing for his close-ups, it really didn’t do the series justice. Hopefully now that he’s released from prison and will be in the next Expendables movie, the audience will get to see him return to fine form.
Death Proof (2007): This film was directed by Quentin Tarantino, and was one half of the film Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror being the other half. A tribute to low-budget grindhouse movies of the 1970s, Death Proof has gorgeous women, fast cars, shootouts, great music, and is a fun throwback to the old B-movies that Tarantino obviously loves (and in some cases, rips off of). The plot focuses on a serial killer named Stuntman Mike (an excellent Kurt Russell), who gets off on killing women with his stunt car, in which he is protected from damage. He does this to a group of women who had been partying in a bar for hours, and their deaths are blamed on their alcohol intake, while Mike, being sober, gets off scot-free. But he meets his match when he tries the same thing on a group of much stronger women, two of which are trained stuntwomen who can handle guns, cars, and fights. Tarantino specifically wrote one role for a stuntwoman he worked with, Zoe Bell, who doubled for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (and for Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess). He had her play herself, and she is incredibly natural and fun to watch. The car chase scene, which goes on for nearly 20 minutes, is incredible to watch, both in Bell’s fearlessness in riding on top of the car hood, and the amount of terror the scene generates. The film’s second half is incredibly satisfying to watch Stuntman Mike get his comeuppance and be out-matched by these steely women.
Maniac Cop 2 (1990): I caught this movie on TV last year, and was blown away by how dark and gritty this low-budget action movie is. Directed by William Lustig and written by Larry Cohen (who wrote the awesome 80’s horror comedy The Stuff), Maniac Cop 2 continues on the story of a serial killer who poses as a police officer, and survived his death at the end of the first movie. This film stars Robert Davi as Det. Sean McKinney, and his partner Susan Riley, played by Claudia Christian of Babylon 5 fame. They go through the dark and mean streets of New York to catch this killer, but keep missing him as he strikes again and again. The film, from its title and premise, would seem like an awful film, but it is very well-written, genuinely scary in a realistic way (especially given the time when New York was at its heights of crime) and Davi and Christian are excellent leads in the film. One of the standout scenes in the film is where Susan is handcuffed to the steering wheel of a runaway car, outside of the car door, and is being dragged alongside the car as it veers out of control on a highway. She must get herself inside the car to control it, but could easily be dragged for miles and be killed. It is one of the most inventive action scenes I’ve ever seen, and kudos to the stunt coordinator, stuntwoman, and Claudia Christian for pulling this scene off:
Blood and Bone (2009) This martial arts film, directed by Ben Ramsey and written by Michael Andrews, is a low-budget direct-to-DVD action movie starring Michael Jai White as an ex-convict named Bone who does organized street fights in order to get money for revenge for a fellow inmate’s incarceration and death. The film has echoes of Hard Times and Lionheart regarding a drifter doing organized street fights for cash, and while the plotline isn’t original, the fight scenes are fantastic. What is great about them is that the scenes are shown in all their glory, with the camera pulled back, shot in one take, and no special effects or camera tricks. White is an exceptional martial artist, and the scenes highlight his talents, especially a set-up for him to fight several guys in a role as the camera pulls back, finishing in a quadruple kick, and landing right in front of the camera, at 1:25.
The acting is good from White, who has the talent and looks for a leading man action star, but I was also pleasantly surprised by Eamonn Walker, who played the villain James, an eloquent crime boss who is an expert swordsman, and a fearful individual. As the film progresses, James’ debonair attitude slowly disintegrates as he becomes more angry and unhinged, and it becomes his downfall. He lets anger get the best of him, whereas Bone is more calm and composed throughout the fights. There are some faults with the film. The music can sound very cheap at times, the audience never finds out why Bone was in prison, and Dante Basco can be a little annoying as a loud-mouth sidekick of Bone’s. But otherwise, it is a fantastic martial arts film, one which can easily be found on Youtube or Netflix.