The top 10 underappreciated action films of 2013

Top 10 Duncan Bowles 4 Dec 2013 - 06:45

Duncan salutes his personal choice of the 2013 action movies that deserved just a little more love...

This article contains spoilers for each of the films mentioned. Not necessarily big ones, but you might want to steer clear of The World's End entry if you've not seen that.

2013 has been a great year for action. We’ve had multiple comic book heroes fighting it out on the big screen, with Thor and Iron Man continuing Marvel’s run of great movies, the return of the R-rated antics of Kick-Ass and at long last an F-bomb loaded, bloody incarnation of The Wolverine (though it’s worth pointing out that the unrated edition in the UK only comes with the 3D version of the home release, a trend I hope doesn’t continue).

From a sci-fi angle, we’ve had robots fighting monsters in Pacific Rim and Matt Damon fighting the system in the melancholy triumph that was Elysium. There was also the long awaited return of Riddick, though it would seem not an entirely successful one, which is a shame.

Speaking of Vin Diesel, there’s also been the sixth entry from the Fast & Furious franchise with his co-star Dwayne Johnson apparently set on beating our own Jason Statham to the title of most productive action star, with G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Pain & Gain hitting big, while Snitch and Empire State were less successful. There were also a few surprise successes, such as Now You See Me (which features a fight scene that would make Gambit blush with jealousy) and even Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters pulling in decent worldwide takes.

Worldwide take is key too, which Aaron Eckhart summed up nicely when we spoke to him earlier in the year for another great slice of action, Olympus Has Fallen:

“Hollywood is no longer an American event. I mean as an actor you’re talking now about what international numbers are, you’re not talking about domestic numbers. This movie’s going to make what it makes in America, but really this movie’s going to make its money around the world. So it’s a real deal, we say, 'Will China allow this movie to be shown in its country, or how does it look if the bad guy’s this, that, or the other?' As the world gets smaller and there are more participants in the movie business… I mean these movies are funded by India, China, Russia so one of their stipulations is 'Uh-uh, we’re good guys.'"

He’s absolutely right, and many of the movies mentioned above and below have barely, if at all, covered their budgets from their domestic take in America. This would be less of a problem if the films' releases in other countries weren’t then affected by ‘bad’ US box office, which has led to a great summer blockbuster like White House Down being delayed and then slipped out when no one was looking.

In putting this list together, I’ve tried to draw attention to those movies that deserved to do far better than they did, weighing up negative backlash against the actual box office takings, then pitching those factors against the actual quality of the film, especially in terms of its action content. There’s never anything to be gained from instantly dismissing films, so if you have overlooked any of the below maybe you might be tempted to give them a look.

I’d also like to add that, knowing the love that Dredd gets from our readers, I had an overwhelming desire to place it in the top ten, just because no such list existed last year. Just know that we’ll always mention the beloved Dredd any chance we get.

10. 2 Guns

Production budget of $61m, worldwide gross of $132m

Hooray for 2 Guns. It’s quite possibly the most financially successful movie on this list, but still wasn’t as wildly successful as it deserved to be, only just covering its budget from the US take and then not making a great deal elsewhere, which is a great shame.

Any fan of buddy cop or team-up action movies should revel in the sheer comedy delight of watching Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg spitting one-liners out at a rate of knots, while shooting the hell out of all and sundry, including chickens. The sheer speed at which quotable lines fly off the screen gives Tarantino a run for his money, and every single one hits with superb comic timing.

Wahlberg plays his role as loveably idiotic, which is a shtick he now has down to a fine art and even stretched to the limit this year in Michael Bay’s divisive Pain & Gain, which caused some polar opinions here at Geek towers, though I would have included it on this list if its small budget hadn’t returned a sizeable profit. It’s been a mixed year for Wahlberg, though, as Broken City, which he also produced, really didn’t do well.

To take from the review of 2 Guns I wrote a few months ago, director Baltasar Kormákur deserves credit for putting together a film that manages to both stick to some classic genre conventions, while feeling utterly fresh and original. Kormákur takes influences from old gangster movies, to westerns and combines them into a beautifully shot and crafted movie.

Action highlight:  

With a kidnapped gangster (Edward James Olmos) bouncing around in the boot, Wahlberg is pursued across a dusty desert landscape by Washington, leading to a game of truck driving chicken. It’s exciting to watch, particularly the use of a wing mirror in a fist fight, but the reason I love the scene so much is that it sets up one of the movie's funniest scenes.

Wahlberg's excitable reaction, once they’ve finished scuffling, leads to his ‘together’ moment – it made me laugh in the trailer, made me laugh in the cinema and has just made me laugh again thinking about it. Comedy and action in perfect harmony.

9. Parker

Production budget of $35m, worldwide gross of $46m

By the time you read this, Statham’s Homefront will have had its opening weekend in the US, and if there’s any justice in the world, won’t be deserving of a place on this list as it manages to tick all the right boxes for anyone in the mood for a tight, tense and action-filled fix.

Of course, as we’ve coming to expect from the mighty Stath, it’s his third cinematic venture this year, with Parker providing the first and Hummingbird the second. It was a close call as to which of the those films to choose for this list, but arguably Hummingbird falls more into a dramatic thriller category.

Parker chooses to follow the action thriller route, with a fine opening scene leading to a bloody betrayal, but then falters like a few films on this list due to a tonal shift in the middle, where Statham’s titular character finds himself shown around houses by Jennifer Lopez for no apparent reason - or certainly not one that warrants so much screen time. Even though I reviewed Parker back at the start of the year, I’m still baffled by the casting of Lopez, and if it was done, as I suspected, to try and broaden the appeal of Stath’s movies to a larger audience, it didn’t work. And though I have nothing against her Lopez as an actress, there’s no point to her character.

Still, there’s fun to be had, as there’s enough left from the core plot to keep things fluid, and it’s great to see our man put in a charismatic turn in the lead role, as he really does keep things entertaining, and proves yet again why he’s consistently able to carry a big screen adventure.

With Homefront about to be unleashed, Statham’s managed to take his charming turn in Parker, combine some of the dramatics from Hummingbird and the head smashing antics from his best action movies, so here’s hoping it’s a success.

Action highlight: Statham proving that he's knife proof

I think deep down we all knew that Statham could take a knife and not blink, but in Parker’s rather fine one-on-one scrap, he takes the rather novel approach of letting himself get stabbed in the hand to avoid any serious injury. He’s just that tough.

In fact, the brutality of the fight really does help to support my theory that the original intention was to make Parker a much more gritty and dark film. There’s blood everywhere, and it induces the usual wince from seeing someone get hit by toilet porcelain, while the punches are shown to full effect before things take a topple over a balcony. It’s a standout moment in the movie, and it's a pity there wasn’t more scenes like this instead of all that house hunting.

8. R.I.P.D.

Production budget of $130m, worldwide gross of $64.6m

Poor Ryan Reynolds. I’ve loved and supported his career since he first charmed his way through Van Wilder: Party Liaison, yet it seems the big break has yet to happen. Certainly Reynolds has been in several high profile movies, but none have managed to reach the financial and critical heights that he so deserves, and each year I keep hoping his luck will change.

Ironically, for a man with such a handsome face, it’s the voice work he’s done for a couple of animated movies this year that have yielded the best box office rewards, with Turbo lifted by its non-domestic gross and the rather fantastic The Croods scoring big the world over, with nearly $600 million in the bank and a sequel confirmed.

When R.I.P.D was announced a while back, I immediately took an interest (and by interest I mean hassling Mr Brew for any and all coverage when it was released like a needy child), with the prospect of Reynolds joining an undead-hunting, supernatural police force ticking a lot of boxes for me. To add to that, the actors involved just made me even more excited, as Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon and even the legendary James ‘Lopan’ Hong (playing the alternate version of Reynolds’ character) made for one hell of an enticing prospect. Sadly, after the film tanked in the US, just like White House Down, it got buried and barely made cinemas in the UK.

The strange thing about R.I.P.D is that it’s really not that bad, and certainly not the total disaster that people seemed to brand it as. It certainly has its flaws, which mostly stem from the uneven tone that shifts events from the tragic (beautifully realised by Reynolds I might add), to the surreally inventive, to outdated flatulence jokes, all  by way of a Men In Black-style set up, but there’s still plenty to enjoy.

It's also a pity that even the great Jeff Bridges felt the need to have a pop at R.I.P.D recently, merely adding to the already rotten (no pun intended) reputation it had gained, when it was his character’s direction that seemed the most jarring. Ah well, it can sit alongside Green Lantern on my bookcase and I’ll be happy.

Action highlight: Watching James Hong shooting a banana in a city pursuit.

One of the more inspired visual gags in R.I.P.D is having real world avatars for the main protagonists, so that the living can’t recognise them. Jeff Bridges’ character therefore becomes Victoria’s secret model Marisa Miller and Reynolds’ becomes James Hong.

The two avatars are used to their full extent when chasing down a ‘deado’ in broad daylight, which entails some might fine car flipping and the rather fine sight of the blonde Miller bouncing off walls distracting any men in her path, while we get the comedy spectacle of seeing James Hong in pursuit of a bloated undead monster, while wielding a banana. Inspired.

7. Jack The Giant Slayer

Production budget of $195m, worldwide gross of $197.5m

Everything was in place to make Jack The Giant Slayer a success. Certainly, Warner Bros would agree, as they spent so much money bringing it to the screen, perhaps convinced that the tale of an everyday boy whisked off on a magical adventure would help to set them up with a future franchise in a post-Potter world. But as The Chronicles Of Narnia proved, even if you continue to make increasingly strong movies based on a well-known work of children’s fiction, there’s never any guarantee of success.

The success of TV shows like Once Upon A Time suggested an audience hunger for fairy tales, while Bryan Singer is an established and talented director who has proved on multiple occasions that he’s great at handling giant, visionary movies. Jack The Giant Slayer even boasted a fine cast, including such British stalwarts as Ian McShane and Ralph Brown, charming young leads Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson, and even Ewan McGregor channelling Obi Wan Kenobi, playing a classical knight instead of the Jedi kind.

To be fair, the film itself never quite sparks as it should, managing to sustain a level of fun without ever excelling at any of the areas it explores. The giants are disgusting, but only slightly disturbing when they could have been genuinely creepy, and at times it seems as though  their human chomping antics were cut at the last minute rather than shot in an intentionally child-friendly manner. The apparently expensive effects also shift from magnificent to slightly shonky, which might be less noticeable from lower budget fare, but tends to stick out in such a big movie, though the production design, as is always the case with Singer’s films, is first class.

There are chuckles to be had throughout, and events whip quickly from one to the next, making for a good Sunday afternoon’s entertainment. The retelling of such a classic tale is sure to find an audience in the long run, especially amongst families looking for such an honest and back-to-basics movie, free from the cynicism that runs rampant in contemporary movies.

Action highlight: Attack of the giants!

Jack The Giant Slayer gets stronger and better the longer it progresses, especially as the start is taken up with quite a lot of exposition, so when the second act closes with a mock end to the tale (children may be surprised, but adults less so) it leads to the thrilling finale in which all the best elements of the film finally spring to life.

There are some great shades of Lord Of The Rings during the end battle, with horseback riders being swatted insignificantly from their mounts and occasionally beheaded by way of a giant's mouth, all leading back to the castle where the majority of the action takes place.

McGregor’s knight stands shoulder to shoulder with king McShane during the castle siege, all beautifully lit and immersed in smoke and fire from the flaming moat they’ve torched to keep the giants at bay. Flaming trees are hurled effortlessly by giants as impromptu weapons, walls are smashed and the two young heroes face their own challenge from Fallon, the disturbing (and disturbed) leader of the aggressors.

6. Machete Kills

Production budget of $20m, worldwide gross of $15m

Now here was something I didn’t expect – a grindhouse sequel that manages to surpass its predecessor in every way. Admittedly, some action sequels are perfectly entertaining, even if they can’t all match the originals - most Die Hards (except this years’), Lethal Weapon 2, Predator 2, Expendables 2 and recently, the Fast And Furious sequels (especially Fast 5) all spring to mind.

The main difference with Machete Kills is that the first film wasn’t actually that great. It certainly ticked a lot of boxes for me, with the heady mix of seeing Seagal and Lohan in a movie filled with blood and gore, even going one step further by throwing in a bonus Don Johnson, yet somehow it never felt as exciting as the sum of its parts. When Machete Kills starts, there’s the distinct feeling of déjà vu, yet little by little, it builds into a very funny, inventive and entertaining adventure.

Fellow Den Of Geek writer, beard adorner, friend and Statham stealer, Matt Edwards, said in his fine review that it seemed a shame that Machete himself was slightly sidelined by the wealth of other crazy characters in the film, but for me that’s why it was such a joy. I love Danny Trejo, but what I love about his career is the vast number of memorable supporting characters he’s played, rather than the lead roles, so I felt vindicated that there was more screen time given to the likes of Amber Heard.

The longer Machete Kills runs for the better it gets, with each step proving more insanely over the top than the last, and there are enough hysterical moments to keep the momentum going. The Chameleon was a real standout for me (Walton Goggins should be in everything) and the sight of Mel Gibson in a landspeeder is an image I thought could have only sprung from my head. It’s great to see Gibson playing such a comically unhinged character again, and it’s fair to say that he really elevates the film as a whole with the delight at which he executes his lines.

Action highlight: Any use of the inside out gun.

It’s difficult to choose one standout scene in a film that consists or a near constant stream of action, as scenes zoom past so quickly there’s barely time to think before someone else has been beheaded. The body count is so high that there’s a cornucopia of carnage to choose from… Machete’s several novel uses of helicopter blades, Gibson with a blaster, the fight between Luz and Miss San Antonio, Lady Gaga in a car chase – the list goes on.

I think where Machete Kills takes things to the next level, quite literally, is when the more fantastical elements come in to play. After all, there’s only so many times death by a machete can delight before it borders on the repetitive, but of all the new weaponry showcased in the armoury, it’s the inside out gun that makes the biggest impact. It’s fairly self-explanatory, but I’ll leave it down to you to witness the splattery joy it brings to the screen.

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