The Underappreciated Action Movies of 2014

One man seeks to defend some of the lesser-appreciated action movies of last year. Er, on with the flame suit then. He'll need it.

Warning – this article contains spoilers

If there’s one constant action fans can now rely on for some large scale, blockbusting action it’s Marvel Studios. Outputting multiple films a year means there will always a steady fix, and 2014 in particular saw new directions for their unique brand of spectacle, from the comedy slapstick in space opera Guardians Of The Galaxy, to the superbly orchestrated punch ups in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Both of those films ranked as personal favourites for the year and took a ton of money at the box office, as did their fellow comic book alumni X-Men: Days of Future Past, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Transformers 4: Please Mr Bay stop making more and go back to military based action.

2014 also saw one Gareth from this side of the pond strike out with a hit, when the Mr Edwards re-launch of Godzilla fared well, though sadly despite Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2 gaining massive amounts of critical acclaim it didn’t overflow the coffers theatrically.

Curiously, several films I expected to make this article were more successful than I realised, which is always a nice thing to discover. Movies such as the naval battle fuelled, 3D sex fight lunacy of 300: Rise of an Empire, the equally bonkers and entertainingly Akira-esque Lucy (now where’s the damn Black Widow movie?) and Denzel Washington channelling the duel powers of Kevin McCallister and Jason Vorhees in the mega-gory glory of The Equalizer all pulled in decent worldwide takes.

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In putting this list together, I’ve tried to weigh up negative backlash against the actual box office profit and then pitch 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. The movies featured were given a marketing budget for a cinematic release, so any DTV gems won’t feature here I’m afraid.

I’m always happy to defend the merits of B-movie action, ever since I realised some decades ago that those films I’d loved the most in any given year were never likely to make a critically appraised list. I’ve still never forgiven Barry Norman for putting Dolph Lundgren’s legendary intergalactic drug war flick Dark Angel on his ‘turkeys of the year’ list back in 1990, which I’m sure we can all agree is a stone cold classic.

Just missing out on the top ten is The Expendables 3 ($90m budget to $206m worldwide gross), as while the film remains fun (and it’s borderline impossible to write a film list without including our beloved Statham) it gets penalised for experimenting with the classification and new blood, while removing any trace of the red stuff. Also the incredibly promising Sabotage (budget of $35m, worldwide gross of $17.5m) that turned into one of the biggest flops of last year, despite a great director (David Ayer), cast (Arnie, Sam Worthington, Josh Holloway) and a premise that somehow delivered an uneven balance of action, nasty murders and black comedy. It’s still worth a watch, but was fundamentally flawed by basing a mystery around such unlikeable characters that you have no personal investment in. So without further ado, let’s get stuck into what did make my personal cut of 2014’s underrated action movies.

10. Dracula Untold 

(This entry contains spoilers)

Production budget of $70m, worldwide gross of $215.5m

Dracula Untold’s worldwide take wasn’t too bad in the end, but whether it was enough to warrant a sequel remains to be seen. It’s mostly for that reason that it needs to be on this list, as it’s more than deserving of a follow up. Like any origin story, while it remains entertaining in its own right, its where the story could go from Untold’s final scene that seemed so promising, as we see Vlad in a modern day setting, encountering his reincarnated true love, while the suited monster in the guise of Charles Dance stalks him from the distance.

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One of Dracula Untold’s greatest assets is that it constantly avoids many of the predictable conventions that are expected of a vampire film, especially in its focus on dramatic anguish and loss, alongside some spectacular action. Its visual identity also remains a constant presence and succeeds in lifting Dracula above the monotony that usually accompanies CGI-based horror films, where large scale destruction is now quite the norm. There’s a real sense of thought put into what is and isn’t seen, especially when it comes to the violence.

If there was one reservation we had before seeing Dracula Untold, it was that it carried the dreaded PG-13 certificate in a film that is supposed to follow the story of one man’s affinity for impaling people on stakes and tearing them apart with his teeth. The lack of blood doesn’t go unnoticed, but the stylistic approach to the material means that each moment of violence has been considered and represented with some thought, rather than the usual choppy editing. Bodies are seen in silhouette dangling atop wooden spikes and the film’s more action-focused set pieces see a flurry of supernatural movement replace conventional limb lopping.

Both Evans and Cooper do get a rather finely choreographed face off against each other though, combining silver, stakes and swords in an exciting encounter, though Untold’s standout action set-piece comes from Vlad facing off against a thousand men on his own that sees his new found powers and bat-fuelled fighting prowess rolled out in a fine style.

The talk surrounding Universal’s attempts to start world building with its classic monsters means there’s all kinds of crossover potential, especially with the Mummy reboot in the works. Here’s hoping we get a chance to see what future instalments hold, as the solid first step taken by Dracula Untold makes for a sometimes surprisingly unconventional and emotive night’s entertainment.

9. A Walk Among The Tombstones

Production budget of $28m, worldwide gross of $53m

Well, this wasn’t the film I was expecting. Quietly creeping out at the end of last year, after star Liam Neeson had already scored a hit in the form of the gloriously 90s B-movie joy of Non-Stop ($50m budget, worldwide gross of $222.8m) it was safe to assume it would follow in the footsteps of his recent action driven thrillers. Not so however, as A Walk Among The Tombstones feels more like a 70s-set crime drama along the lines of Zodiac or Summer Of Sam, even though it takes place in 1999.

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What makes that setting work so well is that it allows Neeson’s private investigator the chance to indulge in some old-fashioned detective work, as both mobile phones and the internet were still relatively new forms of communication/information, and ones that his character eschews out of principle. It’s slightly frightening that the late 90s can now be used a period setting, but it’s a clever choice as the only real aesthetic details that have changed are technological.

In our review of Taken 3 we lamented how Neeson looked bored of the whole affair, but there’s a real sense of investment in his performance in Tombstones, no doubt relishing the change of pace as much as most viewers will. He’s ably surrounded by a fine supporting cast, most of whom play utter miscreants, and the escalating career of Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens sees him add another fine character role to his CV (it’s also a nice coincidence that his former co-star, Michelle Dockery, appeared alongside Neeson last year in the aforementioned Non-Stop).

A Walk Among The Tombstones would rank higher on the list for all of its merits, but since the action side turned out to be deceptively light, I think sitting it here seems about right. If you don’t know anything about it, I won’t divulge any plot details here as you might end up being as pleasantly surprised as I was and as luck would have it, it’s released this week in the UK on disc.

8. Hercules

Production budget of $100m, worldwide gross of $243m

One of the main purposes of this list is to be open minded and to search for positivity and entertainment in films that were never really likely to garner heaps of critical praise, so it’s with that very ethos in mind that I dismissed all personal bias to include a film by Brett Ratner. To be fair, he’s always been quite adept at providing unchallenging fun from time to time (I have a lot of time for The Family Man and After The Sunset) and Hercules looked set to follow in that tradition.

Thankfully it does and with a lot more wit, blood and style than expected. It’s a B-movie in the very best sense, with our man Dwayne Johnson donning outlandishly over the top garb (I’m going to try and encourage my fellow Den of Geek writers to adorn giant lion skin cowls at any future events) and using his immense physicality and charm to breeze through the short runtime and exhilarating battle scenes. At one point he even throws a whole horse (that’s right, a horse) with a rider atop and you can’t help but laugh with glee.

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In fact there’s plenty of chance for Mr Johnson to throw something big around like it was a stuffed toy, especially other warriors into a variety of objects. The first big battle against an army of colourfully painted bald men with beards is probably the finest moment though. It suddenly ramps up the blood letting and gives Hercules and his fine band of mercenary miscreants a chance to show off their unique fighting styles. There’s also the small matter of Ian McShane’s novel approach to levelling the battle field, though more than that I won’t say.

Hercules also boasts a great cast around the former Rock, that can’t help but elevate the material. There can never be enough Rufus Sewell on the big screen, especially when bearded and lewd; there are also fellow Brits John Hurt, Joseph Fiennes and of course McShane, who always gives such delightfully natural and relaxed performances that you often wonder if he was even supposed to be on set – his foresight into his own death also provides a great ongoing gag.

The script also cleverly twists the legend of Hercules into something entirely more real and the approach is surprisingly strong throughout, rather than a just a fickle novelty. As a classics geek it was nice to see a literal angle to ancient warfare – Homer for example always wrote about how warriors were possessed by the gods when fighting, which merely equated to fighting well, rather than actual possession. There are also a couple of especially knowing puns that re-enforce a love for the material and raised a good chuckle from me, though Achilles based jokes are probably a niche market. Maybe I should get my coat.

7. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Production budget of $60m, worldwide gross of $135.5m

It seems poor Jack Ryan just couldn’t recapture his past success, even when Hollywood seems to be caught in an endless cycle of rebooting with fresh new faces, and after the likes of Jason Bourne led the way into new era of spy thrillers with a believably human ‘everyman’ at the core.

The Sum of All Fears back in 2002 scored well financially, yet perhaps due to an average critical response didn’t manage to score a sequel, even if it did have a ballsy ending in its corner. More’s the pity that we never got a second chance to see Affleck grow into the role of Ryan, as all the films to date have been good, solid action thrillers with endless re-watchability and much like Bond have all been enjoyable no matter who was in the driving seat.

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Sadly, history now looks set to repeat itself, with Chris Pine unlikely to get a second shot at playing the role, despite his success at leading the new wave of Star Trek films to acclaim. That Shadow Recruit didn’t soar isn’t anyone’s fault though, as the film remains a fun romp with the usual mix of thrills and great performances, even if not much of the content lingers several months after seeing the film.

It could well be down to origin story fatigue, as it weighs so heavily on everything from this to The Amazing Spider-Man and wastes so much screen time that expectation can’t help but be shifted to the next film. At least with a franchise sequel the action can start immediately and we don’t wait half the film for the hero to find their moment of ascension – though it’s a false investment if there is no follow up. It’s a telling sign that Shadow Recruit’s tensest scene, for a film that was marketed as an action thriller, involved a dinner between Kenneth Branagh and Keira Knightley.

Still, at least there’s an awesome moment for Kevin Costner to kick some ass and that always deserves praise.

Perhaps it’s time to buck the trend with Jack Ryan and go back to the roots with a more mature leading man, who can effortlessly imbue the role with the gruff charisma that made Harrison Ford such a good fit. Jon Hamm anyone?

6. The November Man

Production budget of $15m, worldwide gross of $32.5m

Confidence in The November Man’s success before its release seems to have acted like a jinx. Before any of us had even seen the film there was talk that a sequel was already in production, confirmed by its star Pierce Brosnan during his interview circuit in the States, and then the film sank without a trace.

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It’s no secret that I’m a rather substantial Brosnan fan, so the prospect of getting a new franchise that would see him back to violent espionage made me excited to say the least. Yet months after the US theatrical and subsequent home release, the rest of the world seems to have been left dangling after such a limited international release that you’d have been hard pressed to see it. It makes you realise the validity of unleashing a film simultaneously worldwide, as box office success should no longer be based on the domestic (US) take of a film – most films on this list have been reliant on every other country to even come close to a profit.

Either way The November Man is a cracking little film, slickly executed and surprisingly bloodthirsty, especially in our PG-13 heavy climate, which makes for a refreshingly adult take on the nasty world of spies and political conspiracies. It’s also great to see a bright colour palette and sheen to such a film, when so many modestly budgeted thrillers are endlessly desaturated to hide any short comings, and all have some kind of need to portray other countries as threatening through weather and colour alone.

Brosnan, reunited with his Dante’s Peak director Roger Donaldson, still possesses all the requisite skills needed to make a believable bad ass and it’s great to see how different he can still make each of his spy incarnations, from the sleazy bastard in The Tailor of Panama to the tragic mess in The Matador. Here he plays a cold blooded killer, free of the charm and quips that made him such a great Bond, who’s embroiled in the hunt for a woman that every side wants to get to first. The November Man hurtles by at speed, with guns ablaze and enough depth to the plot to make it a worthy addition to this list and a great night’s entertainment.

5. Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For

Production budget of $65m (allegedly), worldwide gross of $39.4m

It seems that when it comes to making a sequel, there either has to be a substantial gap of nearly two decades for it to work, or it has to follow immediately. If you look at films like Die Hard, Rambo, and Rocky they were all successfully returned to the big screen, as enough time had passed to allow for the age of those characters to play a core part in the narrative and for audiences to approach them with fresh eyes, or welcome a much loved and missed part of movie lore back into their lives.

Bad Boys 2, like Sin City 2, saw its follow up happen after the odd cooling period of just under a decade, and while the Midas touch of Michael Bay saw the second Bad Boys film take a truckload of cash at the box office, it felt awkward and mistimed, as if that moment had passed. Unfortunately while A Dame To Kill For felt like a stronger sequel than the Smith and Lawrence vehicle, the much delayed release meant that even fans of the original had given up waiting and moved on, and the financial ramifications were dire.

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The first Sin City felt so fresh and of the moment that its visual style was imitated endlessly across all forms of media, and so many of its stars and talent were either in their prime or making victorious comebacks. It’s a film I love, but in the intervening years even I had lost the enthusiasm for a follow up and felt frustrated that Robert Rodriguez seemed to focus his efforts into random and less successful projects, so wrote off any chance of it happening.

Thankfully, when the time came to return to Sin City I thoroughly enjoyed the familiar sleaze and outlandish violence; mere minutes into the film and it’s like no time has passed at all – the music, the characters, the black and white figures cut with splashes of colour, the sex and the violence are all back with a vengeance. However, it would appear that I was in the absolute minority when it came to praising the sequel, which isn’t unfamiliar territory to be fair.

Hopefully it will find a second life in people’s homes, where the whiskey soaked indulgence can be enjoyed in the company of friends and alcohol as befits the decadent joys of Sin City, but I think it’s safe to assume there won’t be a third. Now where’s that sequel to Predators Mr Rodriguez?

4. Need For Speed

Production budget of $66m, worldwide gross of $203m

The last Fast And Furious movie took a total of $788 million at the worldwide box office. That’s a hefty amount of pocket change for a franchise that started out with three films that could all be described as average at best (though I have a soft spot for 2 Fast 2 Furious); even Vin Diesel jumped ship after only one entry. Yet out of that jumbled beginning it’s managed to buck all trends and make parts four, five and six the best ones in the series yet – Fast Five in particular proving to be one of the strongest action movies of the last decade.

Need For Speed, then, seemed perfectly timed to come at a time when car based action was lucrative and its leading man was fresh from the huge success of one Breaking Bad, but its numbers just didn’t reach the heights they deserved.

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Without doubt the single best element in Need For Speed is that it’s full of fantastic car chases and races, which might sound like stating the obvious, but so many other films based on racing or pursuit seem to spend most of their screen time on two feet, not the four wheels promised (don’t get me started on how sad the Cage version of Gone In Sixty Seconds made me). What’s more, the way the vehicular action is filmed is just superb, using wide shots and dash mounted cameras to add a real sense of thrill to them, and it refrains from using the horrific jump cut editing that seems to plague most modern day car chases – fast edits do not equate to excitement.

I could kiss former stuntman turned director Scott Waugh for shooting the majority of his action scenes in camera. And even the in-car conversations look mostly free from the usual and obvious green screen backgrounds. There’s a reverence from his practical background about how the stunt work is treated, the way the cars are driven and also how terrifyingly they can be destroyed that makes the set pieces stand apart from anything I was expecting from such a film.

Need For Speed is also a great amount of fun from start to finish, adding a light touch to the comedy that sits within the more dramatic elements, all of which are buoyed by the solid cast – many of whom don’t get the recognition they deserve. The film also contains a little role for Michael Keaton, which is always a bonus as a little Keaton goes a long way and it’s yet another reason to show a little love to Need For Speed. More please.

3. The Amazing Spider-Man 2

(This entry contains spoilers)

Production budget of $255m, worldwide gross of $708m

Recently Andrew Garfield spoke about the negative reactions to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and how he had to stop reading them, as it was starting to impact on his own feelings about the film. He stated he “was a bit taken aback by the response,” that he was “proud of a lot it,” and that he “got to work in deep scenes you don’t usually see in comic book movies.”

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It made me quite sad to read that statement when he has every reason to be proud as, for me personally (and many of my Den Of Geek colleagues vehemently disagree), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the best depiction of the beloved web slinger we’ve ever had on the big screen. While at least two thirds of the Sam Raimi trilogy remain utterly entertaining, they all suffered from a strange lack of Spidey puns, which considering how much of a core part of the character they are made for an easily missed opportunity. There was also the matter of constant de-masking, which really did grate by the end of the trilogy.

Within minutes of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 starting it was an absolute joy to finally be treated to an endless barrage of quipping, as Spider-Man chases down ‘the man who would be Rhino’ and that pitch perfect level of one-liners not only served the character in the best way possible throughout the film, but also made the inevitable tragedy that follows even more upsetting. Winding up super villains with his endless jibes and tomfoolery have always been nailed in cartoon adaptations, but always seemed to evade Hollywood’s take, but finally we have a film that does the loquacious loon justice. Hell, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 even gives poor Spidey a cold, which is exactly the kind of human failings that make him such a vulnerable character.

Which is why, whether you realised that Gwen Stacy’s death was at hand or not (hat’s off to the rug pulling that set up false hope), the sheer power with which it was executed made it quite possibly the harshest and bravest on screen deaths in a major blockbuster ever depicted – Lois Lane in the original Christopher Reeve Superman was utterly disturbing, but immediately undone.

Of course, a large part of the emotional heft was down to the superb chemistry set up by Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone over the past two films, which made every interaction between them, no matter how small, a joy to behold. Superhero movies at their best should always be able to move deftly between thrills, humour, drama, comic book action and heartbreak – The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is no exception and its merits deserve more recognition.

Even the criticism that it contained too many villains seems an easy and unfounded way of putting it down. I’m happy to admit that the first images and footage of Electro had me worried, but contextually his ascent from downtrodden stalker to super charged villain worked and that’s all down to Jamie Foxx’s performance, rather than any effects work. Aside from Electro there was obviously Harry Osborn’s transformation, but that dynamic was a much more human depiction that was more relevant to Peter Parker the man, rather than the hero, so the interference with Electro’s screen time felt balanced.

Sure, there was Paul Giamatti’s Aleksei Sytsevich/Rhino bookending the film, but that kept the number of villains in check (who knows how people will deal with The Sinister Six) and served as a gentle introduction for further development in the next Spidey film. We don’t even know whether the exo-suited Rhino will be the finite rendition of the character, as there’s every chance he could be fused/mutated into it, yet even that caused controversy. It could just be me, but there seems to be a profound lack of patience in geekdom these days.

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You might well wonder why The Amazing Spider-Man 2 places so highly on the list when the numbers above look relatively healthy, but the total after the marketing budget was subtracted means that Sony have seemingly left plans for the third film up in the air since the box office take fell below expectations. There have been recent rumors that it might happen, but it seems a terrible shame that it isn’t a certainty. Regardless of how varying reactions have been to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it seems fairly unanimous that Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Peter Parker and his alter ego are spot on, and the work that’s been started to build a cinematic world is something that deserves to see further exploration.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing I’d love more than to see Garfield’s Spider-Man swing into the Marvel cinematic universe and join The Avengers on an adventure, but while the legalities of that are worked out there needs to be an Amazing Spider-Man 3 to fully round out the films into a trilogy, especially after the powerful ending to part two that so perfectly set up the next instalment. And besides, we can’t very well have a new silver screen Spidey saga end without the return of J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson now, can we?

2. Edge Of Tomorrow

Production budget of $178m, worldwide gross of $369m

There’s been much talk of why the critically favoured Tom Cruise sci-fi flick failed to ignite the box office, but regardless of the financial outcomes there’s one great upside to that outcome – there won’t be a sequel. Hollywood has and always will be notorious when it comes to milking a property dry, but in the current climate of reboots and remakes, Edge Of Tomorrow stands out as exactly the kind of film that will remain untouched by greedy hands, and will grow larger in reputation the more people see it.

While we can all curse that a brilliantly executed and unique piece of movie making wasn’t as successful as, say, Michael Bay’s Dinobot travesty (how could they not talk, that’s the whole damn joy of them?) Edge Of Tomorrow is now out there and we should count ourselves lucky it exists at all. One of director Doug Liman’s greatest attributes is that he’s always foraging into new territory and giving himself a greater challenge to do something new; after all, when he took on The Bourne Identity he only had a couple of (great) indie films to his name and the resultant franchise that spawned has been immense.

Edge Of Tomorrow might easily be pigeonholed as Groundhog Day with guns, but the whole movie feels original and fresh, especially the darkly humorous relationship between Cruise’s Cage and the always excellent Emily Blunt’s Rita (rightly awarded a Critics’ Choice gong for the role) and her propensity to shoot and stab him at the drop of a hat. What’s impressive, though, is that in spite of the short repetition of time the two of them interact, there’s a strong sense of development for both, made more difficult by their immediately bad first impressions – babbling coward and battery stealing bitch.

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A hectic year made this a late discovery for me and one that had already been encumbered by the expectations from a steadily swelling word of mouth campaign that triumphed its virtues and started its evolution into a cult classic. As it turns out the praise was well deserved, and even for those who aren’t the biggest Cruise fans, there’s a great deal of fun in watching him playing against type and, like Lucy (mentioned above), it really does beggar belief that we aren’t getting more female led action vehicles.

1. The Raid 2

Production budget unknown, worldwide gross of $6,566,916m

I couldn’t find details of the actual production budget, but there’s no excusing the fact that a film of the calibre of The Raid 2 making below seven million at the box office is criminal – the sooner the world learns how to tolerate subtitles, the better. That’s not a random accusation either, as I remember working in a music/video store back when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was released on DVD, and dealing with endless questions from the general public about whether the disc contained a dubbed version – no dub, no sale. That’s the social equivalent of asking for a film where Statham doesn’t swear or punch anything, and it tends to bring out the desire to do both of those things in me.

Back when I was a teenager, the discovery of Hong Kong cinema and the heroic bloodshed subgenre that was executed so perfectly by the likes of Mr John Woo completely redefined action movies for me, as the level at which the set pieces were filmed and choreographed was on an entirely new level to the western movies I held so dearly. The sheer thrill and excitement of seeing Hard Boiled for the first time has rarely been recaptured in the decades since, but every now and then a gem appears out of nowhere that genuinely proves to be jaw dropping. Gareth Evans’ The Raid was most definitely one such film.

As claustrophobically compelling as his debut was, there were some that argued the story was a little light on plot (I wasn’t one of them), but nonetheless The Raid 2 appears to have taken that criticism on board, and Evans has used the success of his original to craft an incredible follow up, that manages to frame each shot with an artistic beauty that matches the sheer exhilaration of its brutality on a much larger scale. Thankfully the addition of new locales doesn’t dissolve any of the first films’ intensity, but instead allows for even more ingenious use of the surroundings, adding a sense of awe as to how many of the battles were carried out. 

There’s always an existential power to any tale that sees a hero’s life ruined for several years, and watching Rama’s plight you can’t help but get personally invested; it’s that emotional hook that lends an extra dimension to the action. The beauty of watching Iko Uwais as a lead in such a physical performance is that, much like Jet Li, his natural demeanour exudes a kind of innocence and passivity, an attribute that that makes the transformation to brutal killing machine even more effective and powerful.

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Explosive doesn’t actually seem a strong enough word to describe the fighting that takes place throughout the film, with the shocking impact of some encounters making even my desensitised action junkie demeanour gasp in amazement. It’s worth avoiding any details or trailers for the film, just to retain a naïve viewing experience to give events their full impact.

There simply aren’t enough superlatives to hurl at The Raid 2, so for any fan of action, epic crime drama, or off the chart violence that has yet to discover the delights within Evan’s world, might I suggest picking up both movies at the next possible opportunity? You really won’t be disappointed.