So, it’s the summer season… and we all know what that means: sweet or salted to go with your blockbuster fodder? Now is the oft lambasted time in the cinematic year where it’s argued that creativity is tossed in favour of humongous tent pole releases, ones which help the studios prop up smaller releases elsewhere throughout the year, but which are often…well, crap.
There is a grain of truth in this (did the entire crew of Pirates 4 have a braincell to rub between them?) but, as Jaws proved when it changed the face of the multiplex way back in 1975, it’s perfectly possible for a disposable piece of genre entertainment to be made WELL, to be made with a sense of ARTISTRY. Note the capitals: below are the top eleven (yes, 11) action movies which are made… erm, well…
1. Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)
The godfather of the modern action movie did what only a handful of flicks (let alone action flicks) do: define a whole genre, and influence the next generation to come. Of course, none of the movies that followed managed to bottle Die Hard’s magical essence, namely privileging character, wit and an audience’s intelligence alongside the blistering, claustrophobic shootouts and fistfights. Throughout, there’s a real dynamism and charge between two radically different opponents: Bruce Willis’ uncouth but sharp-as-a-tack New York outsider cop, John McClane, and Alan Rickman’s delightfully suave but very dangerous terrorist, Hans Gruber, who has commandeered Willis’ wife’s LA tower block in order to rob the joint.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
Truthfully, has any popcorn summer movie ever proved as straightforwardly entertaining as Raiders? Revelling in its strictly unambitious, pulpy origins, alchemist Spielberg was somehow able to rise above the material, crafting a terrific rollercoaster in every sense of the word, where every piece of the puzzle, from the production values to the inspired casting (Harrison Ford’s weary, believable hero) came together to form cinematic gold. Two hours rarely flies as quickly as when taking our first journey with Indiana Jones, propelled by possibly the finest theme of celebrated composer John Williams’ career: the Raider’s March. Da da da daaaa, da da daaaa…
3. First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)
Possibly the first action movie, post-Jaws, to deal with a political agenda, namely that of war vet John Rambo’s (Sly Stallone) inability to fit in with contemporary society, something that sees him pursued across a mountain by sleazy hick cops, First Blood has more than enough brains to go with the brawn. In fact, it probably has more of the former than of the latter, the violence coming in sparing, controlled bursts in comparison to the more explicit Vietnam subtext stemming from David Morrell’s source novel. Lean; mean; and visceral, it boasts a physical quality as taut as Stallone’s biceps, something which the increasingly cartoonish sequels would fore-go.
4. The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
If Die Hard is the heart of the action movie, the soul can be traced much further back, all the way back to feudal Japan, and Kurosawa’s masterpiece. Drawing inspiration from the westerns of John Ford (and, in turn, spawning The Magnificent Seven), Samurai takes the viewer on an extraordinarily beautiful journey, single handedly creating elements of the action movie that would be repeated in future (buddy comedy; battle scenes) but with a breathtakingly moral, humane centre. It’s a long old haul at nearly three hours but by the end, your patience is not only rewarded; your movie-going life is enriched.
5. Lethal Weapon 2 (Richard Donner, 1989)
The original lit the dynamite under the tired buddy movie formula (adding some refreshing racial wrinkles in the process), but it was arguably in Lethal Weapon 2 that the franchise found its true voice. Less violent certainly than the first but with a sense of intrigue and compassion well beyond installments 3 and 4, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover here hone an almost preternatural chemistry, two actors so comfortable both in their characters and in each other’s company. Of course, there’s also rollicking action (including a terrific decapitation by surfboard) and those truly despicable, parking ticket-dodging Sarf African villains in the shape of Joss Ackland and Derrick O’Connor.
6. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991)
No action list would be complete without at least one entry from the modern master of the mega-budget, James Cameron. What’s remarkable about T2 is how relevant it seems; far from a cash-cow sequel, it’s instead the work of a brilliant director grabbing his own franchise with both hands, ladling on the money, the star power (Arnie was never more iconic), the effects (still extraordinary after all these years) and the pathos, moving his own creation into genuinely poignant, humane areas. Along with the raptors in Jurassic Park and bullet-time in The Matrix, the liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick) was truly a watershed moment in the development of intelligent, effects-led blockbusters
7. North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
It was intended as a spot of light relief after the head-spinning complexity and gut-churning psychological torment of Vertigo (1958). But then… this is Hitchcock doing light relief, so it’s not exactly going to be throwaway, is it? Indeed, Hitch practically invented (or at least, made more commercial) the sub-genre of ‘the man on the run’, although they were never done with as much wit, flair and charm as here, Cary Grant’s dashing Roger O Thornhill (‘The O stands for nothing’) on the lam after being mistaken for a spy, and falling in love with Eva Marie Saint. Always keenly aware of the ridiculousness of his leading man’s predicament, Hitch’s tongue practically bursts from his cheek, but it’s done with that consummate professionalism we expect (and the crop duster and Mt Rushmore sequences are two of the most audacious action scenes, ever).
8. Predator (John McTiernan, 1987)
When does a B-movie become something truly great? When it’s Predator of course! Fusing a testosterone-laden cast of tough-nuts, led by Arnie, with tangibly humid, claustrophobic jungle settings and the (then) latest in CGI effects to denote the viewpoint of a terrifying, invisible enemy, Predator’s atmosphere hasn’t been topped since. Of course, it’s really a masterpiece because of how brave it is in the latter stages, stripping our hero of his weapons entirely (which of his other efforts have done that?) and forcing him to take on Stan Winston’s unforgettable monster Heart of Darkness style, propelled by a terrific score from Alan Silvestri that is akin to the heartbeat of the jungle itself.
9. The African Queen (John Huston, 1951)
Way back in ’51, John Huston’s bold decision to shoot on location in Africa for his now classic Bogart-Hepburn double act resulted in multiple bouts of malaria and dysentery. Whatever the hardships though, they were clearly worth it: proof that a bit of dedication plus a lot of star wattage will reward an audience tenfold. An early progenitor of the now standard bickering buddy movie, The African Queen is always most entertaining when playing to its stars strengths: Bogart, grizzled and grumpy (and Oscar winning), Hepburn prim, proper and intellectually shrewd.
10. The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007)
Furiously casting off the tired shackles of CGI idiocy in favour of the documentary, verite style on which he made his name, Paul Greengrass doesn’t just bring greater relevance to the action movie with the (so far) last in the Bourne trilogy; he implodes it from within, crafting a jittery, adrenaline charged world where you’re never too far from a CCTV camera poking in your face, or Matt Damon’s amnesiac spy charging across the world as if the devil were at his heels. Enormously exciting; politically astute, and excellently cast, this is the benchmark for the modern action flick.
11. The Matrix (Larry and Andy Wachowski, 1999)
Sorry, what was that other major sci-fi released in 1999? The Phantom Menace you say? Well, in comparison to the Wachowski brothers’ revolutionary blend of millennium paranoia, ground-breaking bullet-time effects and a myriad of Biblical and cod-philosophical references, we weren’t having any of it, George Lucas. *This* was what audiences were demanding from their action cinema at the end of the decade; that the fledgling filmmakers were able to pull it off with such aplomb however is still a marvel today. Even star Keanu Reeves’ wardrobe door approach to emoting works a treat in mirroring our reaction to the spectacle. But have the brothers followed up on their potential? Have they, heck.
• Are these your top 11? Comments below, please