2014: THE YEAR IN ACTION
Top 10 action movies of 2014
By Jedd Jong
Action movies kind of get a bad rap in high-brow film criticism circles and there’s a perception that film critics will turn up their noses at any movie in which stuff blows up, dismissing an action film outright as “brainless”. Sure, as with every year, 2014 has had its mediocre franchise movies (Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t make the cut for this list). But we’ve also had a good number of high-quality action blockbusters too. At F***, we believe there’s definitely such a thing as a “good” action movie, and not just films that are so dumb they’re enjoyable – though there’s a place for that too. On this list, there are a few films that have scored a 90% approval rating or higher over on review aggregating site Rotten Tomatoes, so let it not be said that movie critics as a whole are unable to appreciate the explodier things in life. Let’s get rollin’!
During the holiday season of 2013, the Keanu Reeves-starring 47 Ronin opened to a largely negative response. It was a historical fantasy mishmash that never quite gelled and Reeves looked out of his element in it. In this year’s John Wick, Reeves gets his mojo back in a big way. 47 Ronin was the inauspicious feature directorial debut of Carl Rinsch. John Wick is the first feature film directed by stunt performers/choreographers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch but it’s a slick, well-constructed affair complete with a colourful mini-mythology built in. There’s a “hitman hotel” called The Continental which is neutral ground and there’s a hitman bar where they all hang out when they’re off the clock! Keanu may not have a ton of range as an actor, but was there anyone who thought the dude from Bill & Ted could pull off playing a highly-trained, cold, lethal assassin? There’s also a pretty badass supporting cast, with Michael Nyqvist as the head of the Russian mob, Willem Dafoe as Wick’s fellow hitman and old friend and Ian McShane as the owner of The Continental. Practically no shaky-cam is a plus as well.
The King of All Monsters turned the big 6-0 this year and got a grand birthday bash in the form of his second proper Hollywood movie. Die-hard Godzilla fans have made no secret of their distaste for the 1998 Roland Emmerich-directed film, so there was a lot riding on this reboot. We at F*** love stories of “promoted fanboys” and Gareth Edwards, a monster movie fan as a kid and the director of the indie creature feature Monsters, landing the job of directing Godzilla ’14 is a great example of that. Sure, it isn’t exactly the best use of Bryan Cranston or Ken Watanabe (not to mention Oscar-calibre actresses Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins) but this one does get a good deal right. It manages to be respectful of the source material, taking the premise as seriously as possible while serving up lots of large-scale spectacle. Godzilla actually fighting other kaiju (the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, or MUTOs)? An Akula-class submarine regurgitated by a MUTO and stranded in the trees? An airport monorail action sequence? That glorious atomic-breath-down-the-MUTO’s-throat bit? Deserving of a celebratory roar in our book.
RUROUNI KENSHIN: TOKYO INERNO
This year, fans of the Rurouni Kenshin manga series were treated to the second and third instalments in the movie adaptation trilogy back-to-back, with Tokyo Inferno released in August and The Legend Ends in October. Live-action adaptations of manga and anime haven’t exactly had a sterling track record so the quality of the interpretation with this movie series did delight many fans of the source material. Our writer said “Kyoto Inferno is literally the best of both worlds: the stylised action and rousing storyline of a manga, and the star power and production values of a blockbuster movie.” The historically accurate period details and intricate, tightly-choreographed sword-fighting sequences created with minimal CGI assistance also added to the film’s appeal. Most adaptations of manga and anime are notorious for struggling to present their dense, complex plots to neophytes unfamiliar with the source material, but director Keishi Ohtomo was able to strike an adequate balance. If you’re not into the plot, there’s plenty of action to keep you entertained but if you’re a fan, it certainly caters to you too.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
While fans have generally been happy with how things are progressing at Marvel Studios, it’s a different story with the Marvel properties that still reside at other studios, like with Fox’s X-Men series. There’ve been highs (X2: X-Men United, X-Men: First Class) and lows (X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) so it is understandable that many were sceptical about X-Men: Days of Future Past. This era-spanning odyssey, taking place simultaneously in a post-apocalyptic future and in 1973, brings together much of the cast from the X-Men trilogy and their younger brethren from First Class. Adapted from the monumental 1981 comic book story arc of the same name, this is a “retroactive continuity” or “retcon” story, in effect wiping the slate clean so we can all move on from some of the spottier entries in the mutant filmography. However, this was a retcon done right, where it wasn’t too convenient or effortless to change everything. We also got Evan Peters as a gleefully scene-stealing Quicksilver, quelling fears of a poor portrayal based on the questionable character design.
Here’s a movie completely different from your run-of-the-mill action flick. This adaptation of Jacques Lob’s French graphic novel Le Transperceneige owes much of its unique feel to Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Kelly Masterson. A dystopian sci-fi fable, Snowpiercer is set aboard the eponymous train, perpetually circling an otherwise-uninhabited earth, stuck in a catastrophic ice age. Boasting a unique design sensibility, a talented cast, incisive, sometimes disturbing social commentary and intense, brutal action scenes, Snowpiercer was the “I’ve seen this really cool movie and you should too” flick of choice this summer. U.S. distributors The Weinstein Company insisted on cutting about 20 minutes of footage and adding voiceovers, but Bong refused to compromise. Bong was eventually successful in getting the original, uncut film released and even when the film was restricted to a limited release, the positive response was enough to win it a wider release. If there’s still anyone who thinks Chris Evans is nothing but a pretty boy, this is the movie to point them to.
EDGE OF TOMORROW
It’s a shame Edge of Tomorrow wasn’t a box office champ, because we sure were entertained. Adapted from the Japanese light novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the film meshes a Groundhog Day-style time loop with futuristic mech suits, an alien invasion and a D-Day-esque beachhead battle. It also gives us Tom Cruise putting aside some of his ego to amusing effect as a military PR guy with no combat experience plonked into the middle of battle, having to seek out a seasoned warrior played by Emily Blunt to guide him through his predicament and teach him the ropes. The action in this is truly exciting stuff, sufficiently different from the battles with alien invaders taking place in big cities we’ve seen in blockbusters past. It’s also always great to have a badass female character show the guy just how it’s done and while “Emily Blunt” isn’t the name that immediately comes to mind, she sure looked awesome in this movie be it slicing at Mimics with a giant sword forged from a helicopter blade or rising from a downward facing dog yoga position. Top all that off with a hilarious turn from Bill Paxton as a blowhard drill sergeant-type and you’ve got a howling good time.
THE RAID 2: BERANDAL
Action movie junkies went positively nuts over The Raid: Redemption, a badass film in which two SWAT officers face off against an apartment block full of deadly thugs. As such, there were high expectations associated with the sequel, expectations which The Raid 2: Berandal certainly met. It upped the ante when it came to the hyper-violent action spectacle when such a thing seemed impossible given all that happened in the first Raid. Iko Uwais returns as Rama, his opponents this time around including the trio of hired killers comprising “The Assassin”, “Hammer Girl” and her brother “Baseball Bat Man”. The film concludes with a virtuoso kitchen fight which took 10 days to film and comprises 196 shots. In order to shoot the car chase sequence, one of the cameramen was actually disguised as a car seat, passing the camera from the Director of Photography on one side of the car to a camera assistant on the other side to create a seamless shot through the car. Fans of this film are understandably weary of the upcoming Hollywood remake of The Raid, but apparently selling the rights for the remake was how director Gareth Evans was able to fund the sequel.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Marvel Studios has just announced their exciting Phase 3 line-up, but let’s take a moment to look back on just how amazing both entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2014 were. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is adapted from the story arc written by Ed Brubaker (who gets a cameo) in which a figure from Steve Rogers’ past returns in a new form to haunt him. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo set out to create a film which harkens back to the political conspiracy thrillers of the 70s, even managing to rope in Robert Redford. They definitely succeeded, creating a film which had just enough real-world resonance without compromising on the big-budget spectacle. It’s even more impressive considering this is the Russo Brothers’ first big studio action film, going from paintball battles in TV’s Community to super-soldiers duking it out as giant helicarriers fall out of the sky. The events in this film also upend the status-quo for the MCU at large and gave so-so TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the kick it needed. We also get introduced to Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, who is the current Captain America in the comics. The special features on the Blu-ray also teach us Mackie’s catchphrase, “Cut the check!” which we cannot stop saying.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
It’s kind of funny to think of it as such seeing as it’s a $170 million movie from a major studio, but Guardians of the Galaxy has an appealing underdog quality to it. It’s based on more obscure source material than its counterparts in the MCU, its most famous names voice CGI creations, it’s weird and woolly and some feared inaccessible but as it turns out, everyone loves this. Young or old, male or female, tree or raccoon, audiences fell in love with this “bunch of a-holes” in a big way, and at the time of writing, this is the highest-grossing movie of 2014. Director James Gunn crafted a spectacularly entertaining film populated with loveable oddball characters and packed with cosmic adventure, comedy and a heady dose of nostalgia in the form of Star-Lord’s precious mix-tape. Also inspiring was the physical transformation actor Chris Pratt, known for being the schlubby dude from Parks and Recreation, who inspired swoons with his chiselled bod and Han Solo-style roguish charm. There’s also just how genuinely moving this turned out to be; we doubt there’s another film that had you misty-eyed over the bond between a gun-toting raccoon and his tree friend.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
“Apes with guns” – sounds silly, doesn’t it? Well, director Matt Reeves and crew managed to take that and turn it into one of the most intelligent, riveting mainstream films of the year. 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes surprised many moviegoers by being a relevant, superbly-made reboot of the flagging Apes franchise, bringing it back from the misfire that was Tim Burton’s 2001 remake. The sequel skips ahead a decade, with Caesar leading a shrewdness of apes as the human population dwindles. Caesar forms a fragile alliance with the human Malcolm (Jason Clarke), but second-in-command Koba is none too happy about it. The clash of ideologies is presented compellingly, aided in no small measure by the impressive, hyper-realistic visual effects work by WETA Digital. Fox is pushing for Andy Serkis to be considered for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and if this awards bid is successful, history will be made. There’s no doubting the legitimacy of the performances Serkis, Toby Kebbell and the other performance capture actors turn in. And on top of all that, we get Gary Oldman as the leader of the human survivors! “Apes together strong!”