There is, to put it in the most elegant way possible, a stinkload of great action movies to watch on Stan. Here are the 25 best, picked by critic Luke Buckmaster.
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The apotheosis of music video-cum-feature filmmaker Alex Proyas’ coolness came with the arrival of his second feature: a goth-punk revenge fantasy set in a Gotham City-on-acid metropolis. A makeup-caked and trench coat wearing Brandon Lee (who tragically died during an on-set accident) returns from the dead to avenge his killers. Style trumps substance, turning what could have been a cut-rate B movie into a nightmarishly beautiful headtrip.
So much style, so much flair. Nobody has ever, or will ever make westerns like Sergio Leone. Clint Eastwood’s iconic “Man with No Name” chomped on his first cigar in the Italian auteur’s watershed 1974 production, about a gunfighter who thrusts himself into the politics of a Mexican village beset by rival gangs. Ennio Morricone’s gooseflesh-raising score adds in no small measure to the film’s escalating intensity.
More style, more flair. Leone follows outlaws caught up in the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, one of whom periodically enunciates the film’s alternate title: “Duck, you sucker!” Leone’s stop-start style runs the gamut visually, from long shots of large scale battle tableaus to extreme close-ups of eyeballs, nostrils, moustaches. You catch your breath and savour the film’s beauty—before it changes gears and slaps you in the face.
Action movie? Horror movie? Social commentary about the dangers of visiting dive bars? Robert Rodriguez’s Tarantino-penned midnight movie conforms to no one genre, that’s for damn sure. What begins as an on-the-run kidnap drama flicks switches when George Clooney, Tarantino, Juliette Lewis and co. arrive at said dive bar, which attracts the kind of patrons you expect from a place called The Titty Twister. Splatterific mayhem sues.
“You expect me to talk?” “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to DIE!” Expect all you like, Mr Goldfinger: you should have used a gun to kill 007 rather than that elaborate death machine. Sean Connery’s third outing in the Bond tux (concealed underneath a wetsuit, in this instance) marks one of the franchise’s high points, loaded with weird spectacle and memeable situations.
Steve McQueen’s motorcycle jump is the most famous moment in a film that says much more about action cinema—i.e. slow burn versus spectacle, patience versus payoff—then it does about war. McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and others play Allied prisoners who break out of a Nazi detention camp. It’s long but satisfying.
Joe Carnahan’s survival-in-the-wilderness film was marketed as an action-packaged Liam Neeson vehicle—but it’s much more than that. A plane crash leaves a bunch of men (including Neeson) stranded in icy Canadian no man’s land. Horrible creatures attack and people die, but this magnificent movie is fundamentally a rumination on masculinity, delving into topics (such as suicidal ideation) not often explored in multiplex movies. Especially not ones featuring tough guys taping broken glass to their knuckles.
Guillermo del Toro’s first two Hellboy movies are more distinct, idiosyncratic and thoughtful than the vast majority of superhero movies. A makeup-caked, tomato-red Ron Perlman stars as a human-like half-demon who is actually one of the good guys, working for an elite team to save humankind from a various terrible threats. The production and set design is out of this world.
A soviet submarine is heading for the US coast and the yanks aren’t happy, believing the defecting commander (Sean Connery) wants to start World War III. If you haven’t seen this 1990 classic it’s pretty much what you think: lots of flashing dials and sweaty men in confined spaces pushing buttons. But the film escalates tension cleverly; those walls keep closing in, as characters scramble to make important decisions in the heat of the moment.
Filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone understood the simple trick of adding industrial fans to blow things around on set, creating movement and intensifying mise-en-scene. This idea is taken to insane new levels in director Rob Cohen’s highly under-rated spectacle, in which pretty much everything blows around pretty much all of the time. The action revolves around robbers who—you guessed it—stage a heist during a hurricane.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq-set war film has a rare kind of panic-inducing energy. If you’re a chronic nail biter, expect to gnaw your fingers off. Bigelow focuses on an elite team of bomb diffusers (including Jeremy Renner) and builds a volatile atmosphere, juxtaposing extreme loudness with unsettling quietude.
The energy of the first Indy sequel doesn’t let up for more than 20 glorious minutes, marking one of action cinema’s best paced intros—starting with poison drinking at a Chinese restaurant and culminating in navigating rapids in a Hilalyan river. The adventuring archeologist now has a sidekick (Quan Ke Huy) and a love interest, memorably played by Kate Capshaw.
“Did I need a knife in Siberia?” That is the showstopping line in Jack Reacher, hissed by a very creepy, very shit-eating Werner Herzog, playing a former political prisoner cum villain. Tom Cruise is leading man, in fine form as a quick-thinking tough guy thrust into a tangled plotline involving crimes, conspiracies and creepy old Herzog. Generic but rewarding.
Uma Thurman, such a terrific presence in one of her vintage roles, made good on her pledge: she killed Bill. Tarantino delivers heavy action and violent purges offset by long, rambling, pop culture-referencing monologues. The auteur is clearly high on the genre fumes he’s inhaling—from chopsocky movies to spaghetti westerns. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Volume two is superior to volume one.
An influential film in the genre of the hardboiled assassin pic, Anne Parillaud is a force to be reckoned with (or avoided at all costs), playing a violent and psychotic drug addict who the government trains up to be an elite killer. Parillaud’s face-pelting presence comes on like a clap of thunder, a roar from the gods, a devil in a black dress.
In 1979 Mel Gibson stomped down the highway for the first time as Max Rockatansky—and action cinema was never quite the same. Given the subsequent Mad Max films, George Miller’s hell-raising debut is now an origins story, detailing the Road Warrior’s tragic baptism by fire. The film has lost none of its dark magic; watching it is like sticking your head out the window of a fast moving car.
The pace of George Miller’s third Mad Max sequel is beyond frenetic: a sonic-speed symphony of combustion that roars out of the gates and never slows down. Tom Hardy defies expectations, bringing Max Rockatanksy into the 21st century. But Charlie Theron steals the show as Imperator Furiosa, spearheading a story about the world’s greatest u-turn.
The Wachowski siblings’ sci-fi blockbuster needs no introduction; labels like “classic” do not come close to doing it justice. Keanu Reeves snapped out of ordinary life to fulfill a Christ-like call to arms, taking on the gods of the computer program dictating our lives. The ‘bullet time’ sequences inspired countless copies, although attempting to trace the impact of this film is folly. A genuine phenomenon.
In his first and only Bond performance, Australian George Lazenby takes on a Manchurian Candidate style brainwashing plot intended to spread bacteriological warfare across the world. Beginning with Bond saving a woman from suicide and culminating with the murder of 007’s wife, returning him to singledom forevermore, Peter Hunt’s film acheives a melancholic power unmatched in the 007verse.
The year 1987 marked the beginning of a particularly good run from Paul Verhoeven: Robocop then Total Recall then Basic Instinct. Peter Weller plays a slain police officer resurrected as the titular cyborg, prompting a blamfest of action scenes that still feel fresh. The satirical elements have even more currency today, given society is further down the line of artificial intelligence and robotic engineering.
A train whizzing around a dystopian, climate change-devastated future world becomes a vehicle for class allegory in Bong Joon-ho’s grunt-packed English language debut. Instead of extreme inequality being represented in vertical spatial arrangements (like in Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis) it’s horizontal, with Chris Evans—relegated to the impoverished back of the train—mounting an uprising and violently pushing forward to the front.
The funniest superhero movie of all time explores a connection rarely made in this genre, between vigilantism and mental illness. An outrageously entertaining Rainn Wilson—accompanied by an equally outrageous Ellen Page—embarks on a mission to “shut up crime” after his wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a sleazy drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Super delights in offering no moral assurances of any kind—even that good and evil exist in the first place.
Recruiting Arnold Schwarzenegger to play an emotionless cyborg was a stroke of genius, insulating the beefy star from allegations of being wooden. He/it is sent from the future to kill a young woman (Linda Hamilton) who will give birth to a post-apocalyptic hero. James Cameron’s cold-blooded direction cranks the tension to 11, wringing scope, wit and big ideas from a monster movie premise.
Kevin Costner plays a young treasury agent battling to end Al Capone’s reign of terror in Prohibition-era Chicago. Brian DePalma’s well-staged action scenes include a train station-set homage to Battleship Potemkin‘s famous Odessa Steps sequence. A lot of blokey talent come together in fine form—including David Mamet as screenwriter, Ennio Morricone as composer and a cast including Coster, Sean Connery, Robert DeNiro and Andy Garcia.
Zack Snyder’s terrific adaptation of the seminal graphic novel contains the best scene from any superhero movie or TV show ever made: an exhilarating five-and-a-half-minute opening montage set to the tune of The Times They Are A-Changin’. Former superheroes are mysteriously dropping dead and this, naturally, is inked to a diabolical plot to take over the world.