This has been a great year for movies – but it has not been all that good for action movies.
In putting together this list of the year’s sixteen best action films I soon realized that to reach that magical number I’d have to include a few lesser examples – movies great or good that happen to only feature a small amount of memorable action – so instead of doing that I decided to just cap the list at twelve. And speaking of cap…
12. Captain America: Civil War
Action in CG-heavy films doesn’t typically impress as it’s essentially animated rather than crafted and earned, but the Russo brothers have proven themselves capable of delivering excitement and thrills with their more-grounded than usual Marvel films. The highlight here is the airport brawl between numerous superheroes, and while the fight choreography is solid the film’s ability to give each character their own moment to shine throughout the clash is an even more impressive achievement.
11. Asura: The City of Madness
South Korean cinema is always a reliable source for brutal action scenes, and while there were more stylized Korean releases this year (see above) this is the one that fully embraces their love of sharp objects. Plot turns and character work occupy the film’s first two-thirds before slash-filled fights paint the walls red.
10. Hardcore Henry
The inclusion of this first-person POV POS movie on this list in no way validates it as a good movie, but it still deserves praise for much of its action. From brutal gun/fist fights to thrilling parkour chases and vehicular carnage, the action is frequently impressive and exciting when it’s not being lost amid the POV.
9. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
As smarter people than myself have pointed out, this is the first Star Wars movie to address the fact that it’s about war. (Thank you Vox, I’m still laughing at this.) As such it’s fitting that the film delivers with action sequences both small (Donnie Yen kicking Stormtrooper ass) and large culminating in a third act centered on epic battlefield action.
8. The Jungle Book
Some might not consider this much of an action film, but I’d argue its photo-realistic CG in combination with some physical reality delivers several exciting and intense sequences. Some of the chases rival the action of real-world productions on both counts, and that’s an incredible achievement (especially coming from the director of Chef).
7. The Magnificent Seven
Westerns have slowly been making a comeback over the last few years, but while there have been several great ones they typically focus the action in small bursts. Antoine Fuqua’s having none of that here and instead unleashes a fun barrage of shoot-outs and stunts against an old-fashioned backdrop of cowboys and horses.
6. Hacksaw Ridge
Mel Gibson’s latest directorial effort didn’t catch on as well as it deserved, but fans of hard-hitting, R-rated war action will want to seek it out before it leaves theaters. After setting up its characters and stakes with a dramatic (and action-free) first half Gibson unleashes bloody hell across the battlefield of Okinawa with gore, grue, and giblets galore as men with guns, bombs, and flamethrowers meet each other head-on.
5. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Michael Bay leaves his toys at home and delivers the most modern war movie to make the list, and if you can avoid getting lost in the politics the reward is a terrific siege film pitting a few men against dozens. The characters are hard-hitting vets, and the action is thrilling. Sure you’ll have to mop your floor afterwards due to the testosterone leaking from your screen, but it’s a small price to pay.
After a series of roles in movies that failed to take full advantage of his mad skills (I’m looking at you Criminal, The Brothers Grimsby, and Doctor Strange), Scott Adkins finally gets to cut loose again in this low-profile, simply-plotted action picture. He’s a man on the run blah blah blah so what – he gets to participate in multiple, terrifically-choreographed/shot fight scenes that continually leave a smile on viewers’ faces.
This one’s something of a cheat as Yûji Shimomura’s film hasn’t actually found distribution in the US yet, but don’t let that stop you from seeking it out. The plot is denser than it needs to be, but even if you can’t follow along the near-constant presence of fight scenes, neck snaps, bone breaks, and deaths by fisting (a fancy way of saying “punching with unique style”) offers immense satisfaction for action-junkies. You’ll want to welcome Tak Sakaguchi (Versus) back into your life.
2. Ip Man 3
Why do people insist on bothering Donnie Yen? You think they’d learn, but happily for us they never ever do. Here he returns to the role of the legendary Master Ip and once again dispenses brutal beat-downs and bruisings in the name of honor and justice. And for those of you worried about Mike Tyson’s presence being no more than a gimmick, don’t worry – their fight is terrific.
1. Kill Zone 2
Making a sequel to a modern action classic is a risky move, especially when you do so in name only without any returning characters. Thankfully director Soi Cheang and stars Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, and Zhang Jin craft their own action gem here. Is the story convoluted and contrived? You bet. But who gives a flying spin-kick when you get incredible fights, gravity-defying action, and a ridiculously entertaining single-shot prison riot sequence. (And for those of you paying attention.. yes, this made my list last year too, but it was officially released in the US this year and the title was changed so just go with it.)
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