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May 2, 2007 |

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | May 2, 2007 |

Today’s Guide celebrates a few things, namely the anniversary of our now all-pervasive, Internet-saturated, Pulitzer Prize-winning, globe-dominating Guide to What’s Good for You, which we kicked off a year ago with The 10 Worst Blockbusters of All Time. And as we did prior to last summer’s opening salvo, Mission: Impossible III, we are again celebrating the opening of blockbuster season by compiling a Guide that’s seasonally appropriate. Granted, action flicks are not necessarily the genre for which we are known here at Pajiba, but we are not immune to a quality film that prioritizes the three Bs (blood, bullets, and disemBowelment) over everything else.

The list was compiled as such: Each of us ranked our top 20 action films of all time, and the top 15 vote-getters comprised our list, with only one caveat: no comic-book films (saved for a future Guide, perhaps). The biggest impediment in creating this list was trying to define what exactly we’d characterize as an action flick. As the votes began to come in, however, a definition became apparent when I asked Seth why the hell Back to the Future wasn’t on his list. He offered this response, with the subtle eloquence we’ve come to know and love from the TV Whore: “To my mind, action flicks are guns and violence and high-adrenaline and things that grab and twist my nuts. Flicks that, when I walk out of the theater, make me want to be a spy or an assassin, drive fast cars, fly faster planes, or just plain hurt people. And that ain’t Back to the Future.”

So, without further do (and with apologies to our ovarian sistren), here are the Top 15 Nut Twisters of all time.

Afterward, please make sure to use the comments section below to burn us in effigy for leaving off your favorite, bawl us out for including some ridiculous travesty of a movie that has no fucking business belonging on a list like this, and belittle us for failing to grasp your keen understanding for the art of shit-kicking and carefully planned explosives. — DR

Commando.jpg15. Commando (1985) — Ignore the low placement on this list — Commando is easily the zenith atop a mound of action garbage, the fun and colossally stupid cheese of the 1980s. This ’80s trash seemed to have a vague sense of itself as such — brutal interludes punctuating a plot that makes just enough sense to occur in sequence; brief, silly nods toward character development; and a connoisseur’s delight in military armament. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix (!), the toughest soldier in history, on a mission to reclaim his kidnapped daughter (a pre-silicone Alyssa Milano) and annihilate the ex-comrades and evil Latin dictator who perpetrated the crime. In the first scene, the camera lingers on Schwarzenegger as he totes around an entire tree (uh, phallus anyone?), as well as the chainsaw that felled it. Back in his bodybuilding prime, Ah-nuld was a sculptor’s vision of masculinity — truly, every limb and sinew on him bulges like a Christmas sausage. Added to this mix is an unending string of yet more phallic weaponry — axes, pitchforks, huge knives, machine guns, shotguns, and finally, an enormous, steam-spouting pipe (seriously … phallus) — that Matrix uses to dispatch the oh-so-deserving bad guys. Before the credits roll, he’s killed over 80 people, often with an accompanying zinger, a macabre-yet-righteous finale: “Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last? I lied.Commando is the apex, the pinnacle of the mindless, masculine mania that ran rampant 20 years ago, before descending into self-parody — a remorselessly bloody opera of explosions and screaming men that takes itself completely seriously while vaguely aware of just how ridiculous it must seem. Indeed, Commando is the best possible kind of stupid. — Phillip Stephens

speed.jpg14. Speed (1994) — Admittedly, when it was released, Speed was rightfully described as Die Hard on a bus, but there was something about the flick that kept me in theaters for the entire summer of 1994, re-watching it with all the enthusiasm an 18-year-old could muster. It didn’t matter that Keanu Reeves couldn’t act; it didn’t matter that Sandra Bullock never wore a bikini; and it didn’t matter that, unlike most action flicks, this one had something like 47 endings before screeching to a grinding halt outside a subway tunnel (how dumb was that?). What mattered was that it was energetic as hell and that once the action began, it didn’t simmer down until Dennis Hopper was mincemeat and Keanu was delivering the requisite Hollywood kiss to seal the deal. The conceit was mind-bogglingly simple: A crazy insane bomber, Howard Payne (the scene-stealing Hopper), has rigged a city bus so that once it reaches 50 mph a bomb is activated; if the bus slows down below 55 mph, it will be triggered. Keanu is a SWAT team member tasked with figuring out how to keep the bus from exploding, and Sandy is the whiny passenger who takes the wheel after the bus driver has been shot. Most of the lines are dumb as hell (“Pop quiz, hotshot!”), the action sequences are preposterous, and the story is barely existent, but the damn thing moved with such propulsive momentum that you barely even noticed. And I still have a difficult time coming to terms with the death of Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) — it seemed unfathomable at the time that a good guy in an action film might be killed off. But, overall, I think that maximum enjoyment of Speed requires that you abide by the words of Howard Payne: “DO NOT attempt to grow a brain!” — Dustin Rowles

layercake.jpg13. Layer Cake (2004) — Layer Cake was released a few years after Guy Ritchie had made a trend of frenetic, hyper-stylized, convoluted British crime capers, but it’s the best of the bunch. Before he was Bond, Daniel Craig played an unnamed cocaine trafficker here, and he’s perfect for the role, dealing with double- and triple-crosses, rolling around with Sienna Miller to “Gimme Shelter” by the Stones, and generally being about 10,000 times cooler than you, me, or anyone else. The movie’s saturated colors and judiciously assembled soundtrack are a big part of its appeal (in addition to the Stones, we’re treated to Duran Duran, The Cult, and a brilliant use of Joe Cocker’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” over the final scene and closing credits). But those sugary elements are built on a solid foundation of turns from several strong character actors — Colm Meaney, George Harris, and Michael Gambon. As Eddie Temple, the most rarefied of crime bosses, Gambon doesn’t appear until nearly an hour into the movie, but he steals it. In a movie full of lifetime thieves, that’s quite a feat. — John Williams

killer.JPG12. The Killer (1989) — Slow-motion shots of people ducking and dodging bullets from every direction, stylish long coats and dark sunglasses, dudes firing guns from each hand while falling backwards or flying sideways through the air — you can thank John Woo for making these as rote and commonplace as they now are. While Woo’s American movies leave a lot to be desired, many would argue that his best Hong Kong film is also one of the most complete action movies ever. The Killer, while ostensibly about a hitman taking one last job and the authorities’ attempt to track him down, is really about ethics and morals and the blurred line between antagonist and protagonist — unlike most action movies that came before it, The Killer has no clearly defined white-hat hero and black-hat villain. In fact, the movie’s “bad guy” gets a hero’s tragic ending while the “good guy” gets the right to remain silent. But The Killer didn’t just advance the form of action movie themes, it also helped advance the style of action movies themselves. It has all the typical John Woo “gun-fu” elements — the things I mentioned above, plus Mexican standoffs, white doves, and an absolute orgasm of bullets. But there are also things you still don’t see very often in action films: tranquil scenes where nothing happens, with a soundtrack song cueing up while the film allows characters to simply be; or the inter-cutting of different scenes, jumping back and forth from the dialogue of one to the violent bloodshed of the other. Plus, The Killer pairs Woo up with his muse, Chow Yun Fat. Few are better than Fat at playing a gun-toting bad-ass, and this movie would be worth its mustard just for Fat’s performance. But it has that orgasm of bullets, too. — Seth Freilich

kill%20bill.jpg11. Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2 (2003 and 2004) —There are many points of divergence between my personal esthetic and Quentin Tarantino’s, but one point on which we’d surely agree is that there are few things in life more exciting than watching a tough woman kick ass. We’d also agree that Uma Thurman’s distinctive beauty and long-limbed elegance make her a particularly fascinating woman to watch kicking ass. Finally, we’d agree that there’s nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve, that turning every moment of your film into a complex game of guess-the-homage is the ultimate film-geek turn-on, a cinematic reach-around by which the filmmaker rewards the obsessive moviegoer for neglecting his or her real life in favor of all those hours spent in the dark. Volume 2 is definitely a weaker entry — when Tarantino slows down for long stretches of exposition, he loses the momentum developed in his kinesthetic, gorgeously choreographed (by Yuen Wo Ping) action sequences — but the two volumes together form a towering achievement, a testament to the magpie’s art that filmmaking is. — Jeremy C. Fox

mr_and_mrs_smith.jpg10. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) — This action-comedy doubles as an intimate and literal battle of the sexes, with a love story beneath the chemistry-laden veneer. Director Doug Liman fluidly choreographs the dance between John (Brad Pitt) and Jane Smith (Angelina Jolie), who are parties to a stagnant marriage and paid assassins without knowledge of the other’s actual career. He thinks she runs an IT agency, and she believes he’s in construction management. Just when we start to wonder how these incredibly sexy people cannot keep from banging each other every night, their respective bosses hire them to take each other out. John and Jane’s emotional distance is not unlike that of many married couples, but their main problem is their inability to reveal how much they really have in common. Once their joint realization hits, a bit of near-mortal combat gets the sexual juices flowing again. The movie’s thrilling cinematography and rapid pace is peppered with foreshadowing dance references and a clever musical score that lead to a martini-fueled tango, in which they frisk each other for weaponry. Once Jane’s hand lingers a bit and receives this acknowledgment, “That’s all John, sweetheart,” the frenetic pace increases until the audience is carried over the threshold of the Smith marital home for the drag-down, knockout fight of fists, guns, knives, and words. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a cynical yet brutally honest take on marriage between two death dealers who are surprisingly human. Not even high-paid, globetrotting assassins are immune from the difficulty of maintaining a relationship when reality sets in. — Agent Bedhead

professional.jpg9. The Professional (1994) — Luc Besson is a more proficient writer than director, but it’s when he helms his own material that he unleashes his full frenetic potential, as seen in the modern action classics La Femme Nikita and The Professional, known internationally as Leon. The Professional is ostensibly a story about a hitman (Jean Reno) who takes in a young girl whose family is slaughtered in a botched drug deal, but the sexual subtext goes a lot further. As the 12-year-old Mathilda, Natalie Portman, in her first feature film, is surprisingly adept at balancing the role’s requisite emotional insecurities and sexual curiosities. But it’s not as if she’s the only one flirting with the murky gray area between pedophilia and not; when she remarks that Leon has a “cute name,” he chokes on his drink and is visibly flustered. It’s not quite that he wants to screw her; rather, he’s responding in some way to her developing sexuality while also making the first genuine connection with another person in his life, and the combined effect is overwhelming. When he helps Mathilda escape during the final battle, their parting is as emotional as that of two lovers; every time I see it, I keep expecting him to kiss her. Besson’s emotional story is balanced with some blistering action sequences, whether it’s Leon slicing up a room full of generic bad guys or the film’s main villain, Gary Oldman’s Stansfield, going indescribably nuts. Oldman is way, way over the top here, even for Oldman, but it works in the context of the film’s larger melodrama. “Death is whimsical today,” Oldman utters at one point, and he’s right. Besson’s film is only infrequently violent, but when that violence comes, there’s a dark boisterousness to it all. It’s fantastic. — Daniel Carlson

desperado.jpg8. Desperado (1995) — Robert Rodriguez’s first major release, Desperado, begins it ass-kicking awesomeness with a Steve Buscemi-delivered speech in a small Mexican dive bar, recounting the mythic tale of El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), a mysterious bandito with a guitar case full of weaponry, who takes out an entire bar single-handedly, presaging what is soon to come. Desperado is a simple story about one man’s need to avenge the murder of his lover, or, you know, “an eye for an eye and all that stuff.” It’s a blood-soaked story told with charismatic bravado, a wild stylistic flair, and maybe the coolest gunplay in any flick ever made without the name Woo attached. There’s almost no substance to Desperado, a loose, bigger-budget remake of Rodriguez’s debut feature, El Mariachi with 30 more minutes of violence and little else, but Rodriguez’s style — derived from Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, Sam Raimi, and a catalogue of B-movies, all synthesized into a ferocious display of trigger squeezing — more than makes up for the absence of plot. There is the occasional lull between gun fights, but God bless those bullets, distributed with a machine-gun rat-a-tat-tat of hipster one-liners, dazzling eye-popping stunts and ejaculating pyrotechnics, climaxing in one incredible George Thorogoodish sequence involving a rocket-launching guitar case. And if that doesn’t do it for you, Salma Hayek’s backside (making its first appearance in a Hollywood film) should keep you otherwise preoccupied, you woman-objectifying bastards. — DR

lethalweapon.jpeg7. Lethal Weapon (1987) — This classic buddy-cop film contains surprising depth of plot and character, as well as the obligatory shootouts, chases, and high body-count. This film tosses macho stereotypes out with the hardboiled bathwater when we first meet Detective Riggs (Mel Gibson) sobbing over a wedding photo, a beer in one hand and a gun in the other. Riggs is a severely depressed widower who is reassigned to the homicide squad and partnered up with the unwitting Detective Murtaugh (Danny Glover), a family man with everything to live for. The storyline runs from a seemingly cut-and-dried prostitute suicide to something much more convoluted and sinister. As a Vietnam vet, ex-Special Forces sniper, and registered “lethal weapon,” Riggs proves himself to be an asset when the two detectives are confronted with ex-CIA trained killers leading an underground drug syndicate. Soon, a genuine rapport develops between Riggs and Murtaugh, and their differing attitudes on life and death act as a study in contrasts. Their witty, tough-talking dialogue also lends a comedic undercurrent to the drama. Despite Riggs’ depression and suicidal tendencies, his healthy sense of black humor keeps him running, and his flashing eyes, waving gun, and ubiquitous bare chest are precariously balanced by his vulnerability. The reprehensible Gary Busey makes a rare great performance as a lean, mean, drug-smuggling henchman. Director Richard Donner maintains a fast-paced, stylish, and arguably classy thriller that shows real men can break down and cry and smoke, drink, and take a leak at the same time. — AB

bourneidentity.jpg6. The Bourne Identity (2002) — Though I have absolutely no qualms with the list we’ve created here, I have to admit that my personal favorite action flick of all time is this one, which glides by not necessarily on zippy one-liners and special effects but on an actual storyline that could’ve worked, to some degree, without the brilliant action elements. Based on a 1980 novel by Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity merges the Tom Clancy espionage flick, the Ronin car chases, the sophistication of a ’60s spy thriller, the sheen of art-house fare, the total hotness of Franka Potente, and the kinetic stoicism of Jason freakin’ Bourne, portrayed by an actor who can actually act. The plot focuses on Bourne (Matt Damon), who is pulled out of the ocean by a French fishing boat with two bullet holes in his back and no memory. He spends the rest of the film travelling through Europe trying to figure out his own identity while his employer, the CIA, attempts to track him down and kill him. Sure, the plot seems more complicated than it actually is, and it’s not quite as smart as it wants you to believe, but there is a plot, which is a lot more than can be said for most action flicks. Moreover, The Bourne Identity introduced, in Matt Damon, the modern action hero: Part nerd, part geek, and total fucking badass (and he’s only three feet tall!). Even better, Doug Liman (who also gave us our number 10, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) manages to create an action film that is just as much about character as it is about its high-energy action sequences. — DR

aliens.jpg5. Aliens (1986) — Aliens is frequently listed as one of the best sequels ever made, and it deserves a place on that honor roll. Still, it’s difficult for even the best sci-fi to age well, and this movie is entertaining now for a variety of reasons, not all of them intentional. Fifty-seven years after she escaped imminent doom at the end of the first story, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is sent back to eradicate the renewed alien threat on a planet now colonized by human workers and their families. As an exercise in unbearable tension, Aliens is tough to beat. Weaver is a dignified, driven heroine, and even though many of the special effects look dated, the overall mood benefits from the feeling that not every shot was filmed in front of a blue screen (I’m looking at you, George Lucas). It also features one of the all-time classic shots, when the aliens are discovered closing in on Ripley’s crew from above. Perhaps lucky more than anything else, Aliens is also blessed with faults that still manage to add entertainment value. There’s the hilariously over-the-top Bill Paxton as panicky Hudson (“Game over, man!”), who acts like any average Joe would if faced with extinction at the hands (and slimy mechanical jaws) of vicious aliens. Then there’s the tense but funny finale, in which Ripley, looking like a cross between a Transformer and a construction site, stares down the mama alien and screams, “Get away from her, you bitch!” Mama doesn’t comply, of course, and go-time ensues. Aliens also significantly raised director James Cameron’s profile and sent him on his way to titanic fame. Hey, a movie can’t be perfect. — JW

matrix.jpg4. The Matrix (1999) — Before the crashing disappointment of The Matrix 2 and the agonizing despair of The Matrix 3, before the hundreds of rip-offs and spoofs, before the seclusion and rumors of transsexuality, the Wachowskis were just a couple of moviemaking brothers and The Matrix was just the most exciting, stimulating, visually inventive action movie of the late ’90s. From Carrie-Anne Moss’ stunning opening fight/chase scene (And those famous last words: “I think we can handle one little girl.”), it was clear that this was like no movie we’d ever seen before, yet there have been few entries in the genre since that haven’t borrowed elements from The Matrix. All of the films on this list have been influential in some way, but few can claim responsibility for a comparable paradigm-shift. If only the Wachowskis had been able to maintain the promise shown here in the sequels (or even left this film as a stand-alone, open-ended story), this would probably be higher on the list. It’s been four years, and we still haven’t entirely washed the sour taste of those sequels out of our mouths. — JCF

raidersofthelostark.jpg3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) — Is there anything I can tell you about Raiders that you don’t already know? Dr. Indiana Jones is one of the best action film heroes ever, and I suspect almost every man of my generation desperately dreamt of being an adventuresome archeologist at some point, all because of this flick. Raiders also has great villains, with Jones not only facing off against his arch-nemesis, Dr. Belloq, but fighting the Nazis. There’s a “love interest,” Indiana’s former flame Marion, who isn’t just a damsel in distress but a sharp-edged gal capable of drinking much bigger men under the table and also throwing a solid punch. And of course there is scene after scene of great action, from the opening adventure culminating with the iconic big boulder chase (and the “Simpsons” parody of that scene remains one of the best parodies ever), to the barroom showdown, to Indy’s easy and silent duel with the crazy Egyptian swordsman, to a great truck chase, to the final opening of the Ark of the Covenant, complete with ghosts and face melting (!). But, of course, Raiders is much more than just action sequences thinly tacked together — it’s a well-crafted story of an immensely likeable hero involved in his Earth-shatteringly important race to find the all-powerful Ark, and it’s an engaging, adventurous tale that holds up quite independent of the guns and fists and whatnot. Raiders works as well as it does because everyone delivers — from Harrison Ford’s performance to Steven Spielberg’s direction to John Williams’ score, you rarely see any movie (let alone an action flick) with so many greats stepping up at the same time with all cylinders firing. Which is why Raiders isn’t just a great action film, but a great film, period. As Indy himself says, “I’m talking about folklore.” — SF

terminator2.jpg2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) — Before greater success inevitably drove him into mediocrity (as with George Lucas), James Cameron was one of the very few directors who could accomplish the same result with an overlarge budget that he could with a minuscule one, doing so by creating character-driven, emotional adrenaline-fests. Fresh from his string of sci-fi successes (including Aliens — number five above) Cameron made another homerun sequel in Terminator 2. His recipe for these super-sequels is deceptively simple — take the best elements of the original idea and magnify them by 1,000. The resultant film was a bloated, though unpretentious, labor of love — a mammoth action film in which everyone participating cared more about the final product than personal stakes or money. Cameron didn’t waste a penny of his then-enormous budget of $100 million; he packed the film with unbelievable stunts, explosions, special effects, car chases, and gunplay. And yet somehow he was still able to anchor his muscular trappings to emotional meaning — from the familial exchange of the Connors to the surprisingly poignant Schwarzenegger as an emotionless (?) machine, to the disturbing questions raised about artificial intelligence, time travel, and nuclear war, Cameron makes everything work for the story. T2 was and remains a rare blockbuster whose heart and head match the scale of its visual awe, but the latter alone is plenty impressive. — PS

diehard.jpg1. Die Hard (1988) — I almost don’t know what more can be written about Die Hard, my personal favorite action movie of all time. Its impact on the genre can’t be overestimated; very few films become so ensconced in the pop consciousness that their titles actually become descriptors of an entire genre (Groundhog Day is another). Die Hard actually created a whole subset of modern action films, pitting a lone antihero trapped in a building/plane/ship/bus/whatever against a group of hardened terrorists with automatic weapons. Director John McTiernan is at the top of his game here, and along with d.p. Jan de Bont, McTiernan propels the action at full-throttle, but always somehow feasible, levels. McTiernan was a master at late-’80s and early-’90s action flicks, helming Predator, Die Hard, and The Hunt for Red October in a heady three-year period. The trio charts an arc moving toward a more realistic type of action film, transitioning from the absurdist heights of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the jungle to Alec Baldwin beating the bad guys by just being a really good problem-solver. Considered as the middle part of that triptych, Die Hard is the perfect blend of realistic drama — John McClane and his wife are separated and hate each other pretty much the entire movie — and slick, glistening action, as McClane blasts his way through a dozen German bad guys before chucking Alan Rickman off the roof. It helps that Bruce Willis was born to play John McClane, the happy rule-breaker that’s since become a genre standby. Die Hard is fast, funny, energetic, and even beautifully scored by Michael Kamen (whose recurring use of “Ode to Joy” would be echoed years later when he wove “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” through the soundtrack of Die Hard With a Vengeance, a criminally underrated sequel). What else is there to say? “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.” Music to my ears. — DC

Guides | May 2, 2007 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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