The top 10 underappreciated action films of 2013
Duncan salutes his personal choice of the 2013 action movies that deserved just a little more love...
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5. Kick-Ass 2
Production budget of $28m, worldwide gross of $59.5m
It seemed apt to follow Machete Kills with another brutal sequel, and while Kick-Ass 2 doesn’t quite better the first film, I don’t think anyone ever expected it to. Kick-Ass' power came from its originality and no-holds-barred attitude towards violence and language, all thanks to its independent funding. Put all that together, and you have a near perfect comic book movie.
I have to admit, I was ever so slightly terrified that Kick-Ass 2 would be a let-down in some way, especially after some decidedly middling reviews, but I loved every single second of it. Having invested in the first film so heavily, I avoided the comics for fear of spoiling its events, and it really paid off, as there are so many shocking events that the film still managed to knock me sideways a few times. The twist on the traditional Mean Girls high school tale was especially great, and I could have watched an entire film based just on that.
There’s a real sense of believability to the escalating events, and it’s fair to say that the majority of the film is carried on the diminutive shoulders of Chloë Grace Moretz, who already proved to be an actress ahead of her years in the original, and here, she's quite simply excellent. Her character of Mindy/Hit-Girl has the most interesting journey, which would never have worked in the hands of a lesser actress, with too many highlights to name here (I wouldn’t want to spoil anything) but her ninja try-outs might be one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of great performances, and it was especially fun watching John Leguizamo playing such a straight role in an otherwise flamboyant flick. In fact, it’s the charisma and likeability of the stars that give real heft to the emotional core at the heart of Kick-Ass 2. There will always be plenty of easy chances to focus on the violence in such a film (hello Daily Mail), of which there’s enough to sate anyone’s bloodlust, but the violence itself wouldn’t have any impact without an investment in the characters, and that’s what really stands out in Kick-Ass 2 – character.
If you haven’t seen it yet for whatever reason, it’s out next week on DVD.
Action highlight: The first team outing of Justice Forever.
There’s a palpable sense of excitement when Dave Lizewski finds a place amongst the Justice Forever team, as it’s formed directly because of his actions for the very best of reasons. The eclectic mix of heroes have all been brought together by (mostly) tragic circumstances, so they’re immediately people you can root for, and as with Dave in part one, they’re so ordinary that it’s easy to relate to them.
Again, I’ll avoid specifics, but when they finally interrupt a poker game on a first mission of justice, you can’t help but flinch at the possibility that events are about to go terribly, terribly wrong, especially with no proof of how their revered leader, Colonel Stars and Stripes (an excellent Jim Carrey) will actually handle himself. The resultant fight, though, is thrilling on every level, and a glorious set up for what follows. “Watch the birdy!”
4. The Last Stand
Production budget of $45m, worldwide gross of $45m
Sadly, it’s been a disappointing year for the beloved action icons of the 80s. We won’t speak of Bruce Willis here, as it’s just plain upsetting that he’s decided to give up on making an effort with anything to do with his career. Sylvester Stallone’s Bullet To The Head barely made a dent at the box office, but hopefully the money it did make covered the cost of the axe fight, as that really was a highlight in an otherwise formulaic and dry movie.
The joyous teaming of Sly and Arnie in Escape Plan (full review here) has at least proved more successful in terms of its take outside of the US, having crossed the $100 million mark, though it makes me a little sad when I think back to how easily both stars could accrue that number domestically and in their own standalone movies.
On the upside though, we got a total return to form from the great Austrian Oak, with Schwarzenegger recently giving a superbly comic turn in Escape Plan, after he started the year with The Last Stand, a movie I chose for this list as, out of all the movies mentioned above, it’s the most solidly entertaining of the bunch and stands up incredibly well to repeat viewings.
The real triumph of The Last Stand comes from its knowing humour that punctuates the R-rated violence and action, while cleverly leaving the emotional and dramatic content to Arnie’s fellow cast members, most notably Jaimie Alexander. There’s a lot of great character actors in the cast (Luis Guzman, Peter Stormare and Forest Whitaker to name a few) but Alexander, an actress who’d already made a noticeable impact in Thor, proved as adept at carrying pathos as she was a big sniper rifle.
Action highlight: Watching Arnie behind a gatling gun for the first time in decades.
Schwarzenegger and heavy weapons have an illustrious and joyous history. James Cameron’s Terminator 2 still stands out (alongside Commando) as the most ingenious and downright cool use of weaponry; there was the one-handed spin of the shotgun, the smoke grenade launcher to the rear and of course the gatling gun that decimated the police force's squad cars.
Like many aspects of The Last Stand, from the swearing to the punching, there was a lot of enjoyment to be taken from watching Arnie back on the big screen and doing what he does best, so when we finally got to see him wielding some heavy arms again, it was a moment of sheer action junkie delight. As if the spectacle alone wasn’t enough, the set piece was further enhanced by the over-the-top decimation of the bad guys, sending a superb comedy spike through the splattery bloodshed. Bravo.
3. The World’s End
Production budget of $20m, worldwide gross of $46m
Yes it might have made just over double its budget, so perhaps it shouldn’t feature so highly on this list, but I did mention that quality would play a factor in the ranking, and a film like The World’s End deserves to reap as much financial reward and success as possible because, to put it bluntly, it’s brilliant.
Like many fellow geeks, I’ve followed the exploits of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost since their Spaced days, and the beauty of their work has always been the ability to tap into popular culture and spread references throughout their own work in such a way that it feels as if you’re the only one in on the joke, that the level of referential asides couldn’t possibly be understood on the same level by anyone else, and that alone really makes each project they’ve done feel special and unique in its own way.
There’s also the believability they manage to bring to such insane scenarios that really makes the films work, whether it was the hungover walk through the first stage of a zombie apocalypse, dealing with graphically destructive deaths in a small town, or the prospect of global invasion while drunk, the characters always deal with things in a way that seem so natural, you can’t help but get drawn in. Like the previous two chapters in the Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End is that superb blend of comedy, tragedy and action, which it deftly switches between in a heartbeat, making for a wholly satisfying and original movie.
It also gains an extra gold star for casting the two best parts of Die Another Day, as the Bond appreciation is as much of a delight in TWE as it was watching the mighty Timothy Dalton in Hot Fuzz.
Action highlight: The revelatory scuffle in the gents.
It’s quite hard to describe exactly how amazing the first fight scene is without giving anything away, but the shock revelation that sets it in motion really is a true WTF moment. The action that follows is some of the most superb and cleverly choreographed I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. If it was just a normal fist fight, it would deserve high praise for the absolute clarity with which it unfolds, but with the added effects element (which must have proved to be more than a little time consuming) the skill involved is mind blowing.
It’s one of the most thrilling and visceral punch ups in recent cinema, leaving your jaw utterly dropped until the last moment. And even more impressive is that it’s all filmed as one almost continuous shot - easily one of the best fight scenes of all time, and quite possibly my favourite film of the year. You’ll never look at pub fights in the same light again.
2. White House Down
Production budget of $150m, worldwide gross of $205m
I was torn whether to put White House Down at the top of this list, as it’s just a slightly tighter and more slickly put together action flick, but decided against it as it didn’t have quite so much negative pre-conception to deal with before its release. If anything, it seemed as though people were ready for a prime cut of Channing Tatum saving the day, especially after he’d proved to be such a rising success at the box office with 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike.
White House Down even had a director, Roland Emmerich, known for making billions of dollars worldwide with blockbusters such as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, yet somehow the stars refused to align, and WHD just didn’t hit a home run domestically, leading to a late cinematic release for the rest of the world and a reduced advertising budget that seemed to give up even acknowledging there was a decent film to be promoted.
What’s most frustrating about the whole situation is that WHD is a great action movie, and one that absolutely deserved to be a runaway success. The teaming of Tatum and Jamie Foxx provided all the buddy chemistry, with Foxx providing some fine deadpan moments in his straight role as the leader of the free world and Tatum proving as charismatic as usual and a fine John McClane in waiting, especially in a year when the real McClane’s outing was just plain awful.
It does often seem to be the case that when two similar movies collide in the same year (Armageddon vs Deep Impact, Dante’s Peak vs Volcano, The Thomas Crown Affair vs Entrapment, umm, Drop Zone vs Terminal Velocity?) that one will triumph above the other. It’s always been a strange phenomenon, as if audiences simply don’t have enough room in their hearts for two films with the same plot within a 12 month time frame.
In the case of White House Down, it was pipped to the post by Olympus Has Fallen, a much more violent and gritty depiction of a White House invasion, so despite sharing a pitch, there didn’t seem much reason why they had to do the same with an audience. I loved them both, and I'm rubbing my hands at the prospect of watching a double bill at home. It’s just a terrible shame that WHD didn’t make enough money to spring into a franchise. At least there’ll be more from Mr Butler in London Has Fallen, and next year we’ll get another fix of action comedy from Tatum in 21 Jump Street 2.
Action highlight: The car chase across the White House lawn.
Quips, explosions and a white vest are synonymous with top of the line action, and WHD carried on the tradition in a grand style. Just over half way through, both Foxx and Tatum find themselves trying to flee the White House in the Presidential limo, while being assaulted by escort vehicles mounted with, you’ve guessed it, gatling guns once more. The scene represents everything that’s great about the film, with the overblown spectacle all taking place with tongue firmly in cheek, and it never manages to be anything less than exciting.
And as if the car flipping joy wasn’t enough, there’s also RPGs vs tanks, zombies, the line “Can you not hit me in the head with a rocket while I’m trying to drive!” and James Woods. Immense stuff.
1. The Lone Ranger
Production budget of $215m, worldwide gross of $260m
Just before The Lone Ranger’s cinematic release, I was overcome by the need to write an article politely asking the world at large to leave the poor film alone. I couldn’t recall such an overwhelming desire for a film to fail this side of the water-based antics of Titanic and Waterworld (though I’m sure there have been some), with everyone queuing up to destroy a film that set out to merely put a slightly left-of-centre spin on a classic pop icon, while championing practical stunts and effects over CGI.
There’s always a certain hostility towards blockbusters once reports of escalating budgets get smeared all over the press, with people gathering to throw stones at an entirely unknown product, in this case sometimes based on nothing more than Johnny Depp wearing a dead bird on his head, which as it turned out was a vital part of his character’s story arc.
Don’t get me wrong, there are always going to be films that trigger an impulsive need to comment, especially when the property involves a remake (I’m looking at you RoboCop) but The Lone Ranger wasn’t sacrosanct in any way, and if the directorial teaming of Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp had proved anything, it was that people were still flocking in droves to see their continued adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow in The Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise.
As it turned out, The Lone Ranger was a cracking, funny, slightly gruesome and surreal movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. It chose to take the blockbuster template and sidestep the conventions at every possible moment, so that slapstick comedy could lead to brutal killing, where Tonto isn’t just a sidekick but a genuinely traumatised figure of tragedy, and the eponymous hero spends most of the film being useless. As is the case with all the films above, there’s a second life to be had on home release, where the comfort of a sofa will help to ease the rather excessive runtime, but it’s a great shame that the financial loss won’t lead to further adventures on the big screen, as I’d have been first in line.
Action highlight: The William Tell Overture train chase.
There’s nothing like a steam train chase finale, just ask Back To The Future Part III. By the time the fanfare kicks the action into gear, you’ve completely forgotten its association with The Lone Ranger, which makes the moment even more exciting. What follows is a beautifully executed work of thrilling choreography and comical pratfalls in the true spirit of the West, which Verbinski had already shown such a deft hand at in the near-perfect Rango. You can even re-enact it using Lego.
The scene represents everything that’s great about The Lone Ranger, and will hopefully delight a whole new audience now it's on disc. Go on, you know you want to....
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