Ah, action films. Its one of those genres where just when you think you’ve seen everything there is to see, at some point you see something that restores your faith in the universe. Constantly reinventing ways of presenting the same story has of course been one of Hollywood’s greatest strengths over the years, whether you’re talking about Action, Rom-Com, Horror, Sci-fi or virtually any other genre. For me although this means that certain constants are always there in these kind of films and naturally you know 99% of the time exactly how they are going to end, the fun of watching them is really all in the journey rather than the destination. There are also of course the hybrids, such as we now see with lots of the comic book movies where because of the nature of the source material and the need to keep things feeling fresh filmmakers are starting to blend different styles and using large scale, inventive action scenes to really sell them to mass audiences (think any of the Captain America films for instance).
So I’ve decided for this feature to try and focus on 5 of the most ‘undiscovered gems’ of the action genre. In other words, I’d like to put forward 5 film that I don’t really feel always got the recognition that they necessarily should and hopefully amongst these you’ll find at least 1 (and hopefully more) that you might want to give a try – and I will of course try and replicate this for some other genres.
So without any further ado, here they are:
1) The Raid (1 and 2)
A masterfully directed and choreographed duo of action adventures, the Raid series is absolutely phenomenal. Some of the sequences have to be seen to be believed and for me easily rank amongst the most searingly brutal but elegantly executed set pieces of all time. The stars of the show here are Iko Uwais (who plays the lead role of Rama, a cop with a serious talent for martial arts) and the welsh director Gareth Evans, along with a cast of extremely talented performers who are all virtual unknowns by hollywood standards.
The first film is more of a traditional Die Hard style scenario, with a number of policeman (including Rama) trapped in a building with a huge gang of armed criminals and the second is more of an undercover cop Infernal Affairs style thriller. Both films feature an amazing variety of bone crunching action, balletic but brutal choreography and a surprisingly memorable range of larger than life characters. Anyway, I could go on about this one all day. If you even vaguely like action, take a day off work, buy this (because you will want to watch it again) and watch it pronto.
2) Hard Boiled
Forget about Mission Impossible 2. At the peak of his career, there were none better than director John Woo when it came to directing action. Singlehandedly creating the so called ‘Heroic bloodshed’ genre in Hong Kong cinema, Woo has directed some of the all time great action flicks, most of which haven’t been seen by many of us in the west. Everyone has their favourites, with the Better Tomorrow series usually the one that most people more familiar with Woo’s work cite.
Woo’s trademark two handed gunplay focused heroes (personified in most of his most famous films by Chow Yun Fat, who many will know from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and unbelievably smooth tracking shots have created some of the most memorable action set pieces of all time. The reason I put Hardboiled on this list though (in addition to it being an amazing action film) is for probably the best of the lot, which features two characters shooting their way through a hospital, with Chow Yun Fat’s character (the hilariously named Tequila), even picking up a baby midway through one sequence. If it sounds too much, it kind of is, but in a good way!
3) Way of the Gun
This is actually again a less well known film from Christopher McQuarrie (of Mission Impossible fame directing wise and also Usual Suspects writing wise) starring Ryan Philippe and Benicio del Toro. The story follows two drifters that get in over the head by kidnapping the pregnant daughter of a very important man. Its a much more understated film than the two above, with more of a western feel to it and an extremely sombre tone throughout, with some great dramatic turns. The final shootout though, is absolutely brilliant, and worth watching for alone. To say any more would spoil the story but suffice it to say, this one is well worth a watch.
4) The Killer
One more John Woo classic sadly overlooked by western audiences, this film sees Chow Yun Fat at his very best, delivering a stellar performance as as mob assassin Jeffrey, trying to retire to look after a girl that he accidentally blinds whilst performing a job. Part pure action pic, part romance, part buddy cop film, The Killer is probably the most well rounded of all Woo’s big Hk films. As pure action pic it delivers in spades with several incredible shootouts, most notably the final Church showdown which is again shot with brutal grace and impeccable direction by Woo. This film is an absolute classic and a must see.
5) Leon: The Professional
One of only two films on my (admittedly) short list not from Asia, Leon is probably Luc Besson’s best work in my opinion. With a central trio of Jean Reno (Leon), Gary Oldman (agent Stansfield) and a very young Natalie Portman (Mathilda) this film not only delivers on the action front but also has some dramatic chops to go alongside the mayhem.
The story revolves around Leon, the titular assassin, who ends up taking in and teaching his trade to the 12 year old Mathilda, who is targeted by the corrupt agent Stansfield for her abusive family’s misdeeds. All the performances are stellar and the action is worth watching for alone, as Leon takes out targets with ruthless efficiency in some dazzling shot set pieces (including a fantastic final show down that I wont spoil here). Gary Oldman chews up scenery with relish, Jean Reno plays the understated Leon with carefully muted charisma and Natalie Portman gives an incredible performance as the strong willed Mathilda. A terrific film that not enough people have seen – if you are one of them, go watch it, you won’t regret it!