People like to watch asses get kicked. As effete and cultured as we like to proclaim ourselves, as much as we pooh-pooh the uncultured drooling masses of the great unwashed who toss fistfuls of cash to watch things go explodey, there’s a kernel within us all that loves our bread and circus. I don’t know what portion of the brain revels in watching someone’s else portion of the brain get spattered against an elevator by a sniper’s bullet, but I love that little bastard. And I loves to keep him well-watered with the blood of the unworthy.
It was a decent decade for the ol’ ultra-violence. (A decade we choose to recognize as 2000-2009. Which means that Fight Club is NOT on the list, asshole who keeps mentioning it.) PG-13 suddenly got harder, and it wasn’t an automatic guarantee of pussiosity. For every big dumb stupid Bey-splosion masturblasted in cinemascope, there were plenty of quality fighting flicks by an ever-more impressive scope of badasses. The big roid monkeys got turned into comic relief, and we returned to sleek, unassuming tough guys who were kicking the shit out of bad guys with everything including the motherfucking kitchen sink. Martial arts became an art again. Most importantly, and what’s properly represented in my particular list, action became fun again. While I’m a massive proponent of blood, it’s finally refreshing to see people returning to bloodsport. A good action flick should have the crowd groaning and hooting like a fucking bare-knuckle boxing match or muddy football field.
The heroes of yore suddenly found themselves eligible for Medicare, but still beating ass with their walkers and unnaturally tautened skin. The spy movie got souped up, and directors finally remembered how to film car chases again. As with all these lists, the hard part was carving it down to ten. We’ve got a comic book adaptation list, and we’ve got a sci-fi list, and so I lost a few of my picks to those genres, but I’ve whittled it down to what whet my fancy. While I managed to banish the Bay and everything with Viggo Mortensen for some bizarre reason, when the dust cleared there was no Arnie and no Bruce Willis. Since action tends to be a guilty pleasure, I accept the fact that some people don’t dig on the same junk food as I do. You don’t like it? I’ll be waiting out back in the ring of fire with my wrists wrapped in barbed wire and broken glass.
10. Quantum of Solace (2008): Daniel Craig’s Bond is an expensive, unpredictable super-weapon, and as with a nuclear missile or a biological WMD, nasty collateral consequences nearly always occur when he is deployed. He burns through assets at an alarming rate, leaves a shocking wake of dead bodies, and kills with a near-psychopathic affect. At one point, after defeating an assassin in hand-to-hand combat on a balcony, Bond dispassionately knifes the man in a major artery and calmly holds him down while he bleeds out, all the while peering over the railing, expressionless, to ensure that no one has seen him. Quantum may not be the reality of government espionage, but its ruthless examination of the type of person required to do it provides the critical foundation that has rendered Bond relevant again. It’s an enjoyable film that is true enough to the new Bond spirit to give hope for more meaningful entries in the future. — Ted Boynton
9. Hot Fuzz (2007): Shaun of the Dead is arguably the best zombie movie you will ever see, because it attacks its subject with such love and verve that it’s almost impossible not to smile. The jokes come as fast as the gore (and there is plenty of both), but the film never feels like a parody or a spoof; rather, it’s both a horror film and a comedy, in equal and loving measure. Director Edgar Wright, who co-wrote the 2004 film with star Simon Pegg, never let the movie slip too far into either genre, and he also never insulted the intelligence of the audience, insisting instead that the viewer keep up with the dialogue as well as the action and willingly enter a fresh new cinematic world. Wright, Pegg, and co-star Nick Frost continue that grand tradition with Hot Fuzz, a gleeful, frenetic, blood-soaked, hilarious love letter to the swaggering action films of the past 20 years, and the result is, well, awesome. If it’s not as streamlined as its predecessor, that’s more a fault of the genre and its inherent complexities than any downfall of the creative team. The principals involved infuse Hot Fuzz with the same brand of joy they brought to Shaun of the Dead, crafting a film that is thoroughly an action film as well as completely comedic. And, like I said, it’s awesome. — Daniel Carlson
8. Rambo (2008): It’s been ages since I’ve felt so dirty about being so well-entertained. Let’s get that fact on the table and shine an LED beam on it: Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo retread succeeds, as far as tension, action and violence go (there’s not much to say about its utter cardboard of a story and cardboard characters). You’ll get your fix of synthetic exuberance — the audience I was with blasted into wild, guilt-free applause when the credits rolled on a movie that flew by on PCP-dusted wings. But the audience also had a high concentration of drunken manchildren on the lam from their inglorious little suburban lives, who entered the theater chanting Ram-BO! Ram-BO! in beer-fogged, dog-happy fraternities. Take that for what it’s worth. Take also the fact that I quite like First Blood, and I think it holds up well; I appreciate its gritty, naturalist feel, which Stallone managed to recreate in the franchise’s latest version, as director, co-writer and star. In fact, I’ll even dare the waters and go on record with the following: I think Stallone’s 2008 Rambo is the best Rambo since First Blood, despite its narrative and technical flaws, and an ideological naivete so appalling, it’s all I can do to sit here and admit to being completely swept up by the thing. — Ranylt Richildis
7. Ong Bak 2 (2008): Asskicking should be a ballet. A beautiful confluence of body blows and flailing limbs and flipping bodies. It should have all the grace and dynamics of a breakdancing routine — only instead of beats getting broke there should be flying knees shattering collarbones. Tony Jaa is a human fireworks display. Ong Bak 2 barely has a cohesive story: something about a prince reclaiming his birthright from pirates, whatever. It’s basically two solid hours of Jaa kicking the shit out of an endless supply of cloth-clad assailants. There are so many bad guys, that at one point during the 45 minute finale, the audience I was with actually started laughing. Jaa does all his own stunts — there’s no wire work or CGI behind his flips and dives. At one point, Jaa uses an elephant to take out his enemies — cartwheeling off the tusks, swinging off the trunk, and then backflipping off the elephant’s head. It has no logic in the film — it’s just purely amazing. It’s the best example of how martial arts can actually be an art. — Brian Prisco
6. The Transporter (2002): The entire purpose of the Transporter is for Jason Statham to take off his shirt and fuck up Eurotrash. The movie is pretty useless whenever Statham isn’t shooting at anyone or zooming around in a high-octane action sequence. Neither Transporter film is particularly of high-quality in terms of plot or logic, but they excel in the necessary category of mind-numbingly fun action sequences. For pondering over glasses of brandy and cigars in the smoking lounge or even lattes amidst the laptop clatter of “writers” in the local coffee shop, it may curdle the fine cheese of conversation. But for lying half-passed out on your couch while the afternoon rays of the cruel sun play Simon on your frontal lobe, accept no substitutes. — Brian Prisco
5. Gladiator (2000): Revenge flicks are always good for some solid action. And Gladiator is a sprawling, glorious, shove you in the chest, spit in your face, kick dirt in your eye brawl of one man seeking vengeance. It’s also technically a prison flick, with the same anger seeking justice from the unjust jailer as The Longest Yard, Cool Hand Luke, or The Shawshank Redemption. Maximus (Russell Crowe) is forced to battle for the edification of the masses and the pleasure of the craven, hairlipped emperor (Joaquin Phoenix) who was responsible for the death of his wife and child. And fight he does. One on one, in massive sweaty groups, even with animals (giving new meaning to a tiger uppercut) — it’s an psychosexual orgy of violence and bloodshed. Dripped with the gore and viscera of his vanquished foes, Maximus taunts, “Are you not amused?” And we are, especially when we get to see his sniveling wretched enemy get taken down. — Brian Prisco
4. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007): The Bourne Ultimatum kicks. ass. The Bourne Ultimatum doesn’t disappoint. It’s not only what you expect, but what you want: A pint-sized shit-kicking machine who delivers the goods and thinks before he shit-kicks. And, unbelievably, there’s just as much joy in watching that thought process work as there is in the carnage it unleashes. Better still: The Bourne Ultimatum is the antithesis to big, bloated action spectacles. This is not a swollen and distended trailer bursting at the navel with a snazzy marketing title, like Bourne on the Fourth of July or Bourne Free ; it’s an honest to God action flick with enough adrenaline coursing through it to burst the capillaries in your eyeballs. Paul Greengrass somehow reinvents the novelty of Jason Bourne, and his documentary-style handheld camera work is less machine-gun and more economical, more focused, and even more riveting, giving Ultimatum a pubic-hair ripping intensity. There’s not a second spared — each scene, each movement is geared toward moving the action and the story along. Greengrass seems to proudly wear a sandwich board that loudly exclaims: “Real Directors Don’t Play Footsie with the Storyline.” No sir. They infuse the action into the story, instead of building the plot around action sequences. There are no anthemic catchphrases or interrupted “Yippee Ki Yay, Mother Kabloeys” here. Greengrass doesn’t have time for that bullshit — it’d get in the way of the propulsive momentum of his film. — Dustin Rowles
3. Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2 (2003, 2004): As many of you are no doubt aware, both those who have and those who haven’t watched Kill Bill, the story is, at its most basic, a revenge tale. The saga begins with a stark black and white image of the Bride’s (Uma Thuman) battered and beaten face as we hear the voice of the off-screen Bill (David Carradine), who relays to the pregnant Bride a simple statement: “Do you find me sadistic? … No Kiddo, at this moment, this is me at my most masochistic.” The films’ revenge plot finds its main source of existence in the aestheticization of violence. We watch as the various characters slice off one another’s limbs with samurai swords, gauge out one another’s eyeballs, turn each other into human Pez machines, shoot one another with shotguns and, in one case, utilize the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.” Tarantino delivers this violence in an over-the-top, cartoonish fashion (sometimes literally, as is the case with O-Ren Ishii’s background) by pumping up the gore, flipping to black and white, and using backlit silhouettes. — Drew Morton
2. Red Cliff (2008): With Red Cliff, John Woo was able to embrace the emptiness and gently layer it with character without ever reducing the size or scope of his epic battle scenes. Red Cliff tells the story of a single pivotal battle in the historic Three Kingdoms period of early China. With an $80 million dollar price tag, it’s the largest film that’s ever been created in China, and it shows. It is a tremendous, enormous, gargantuan film that never once feels bloated or lethargic. Woo’s battle scenes work on at least four levels at all times, creating some of the most violently beautiful warfare ever captured on film. But it’s between the battles that Woo infuses the smaller scenes with humor, pathos, and intensity that make the film outstanding. He doesn’t just create characters; he literally breathes life into legends. And while my ignorant ass had trouble keeping the names straight, you don’t forget the characters. Sure, at times, the dialogue feels a little too proclamatory, but these mouths are where proclamations were born. Some of these men are still worshiped as gods in China today. For the epic scope of the battle scenes alone, Woo created one of the greatest war movies to date, but with his careful and wonderful portrayal of the legends of the Three Kingdoms, he generated a masterpiece. — Brian Prisco
1. Black Hawk Down (2001): War is hell. So it’s an impressive task to write a dynamic and thrilling war movie about a war we lost. Based on the true events of a failed raid on Somalian warlords in the 1990s, Black Hawk Down in a powerful, horrifying glance at how America fucked up. There are no heroes, there are no victories, there are no roughnecks raising a war-torn stars and stripes over a smoky battlefield. What was supposed to be a couple of kids loving the smell of napalm in the morning to the charge of Welcome to the Jungle got a welcome call that scarred them for life. The first part of the film introduces us to the men who Ridley Scott will demolish over the course of the next hour or so. There’s no stupid love angle, no patriotic speeches. People fucking die, horribly. Oftentimes, cinema glorifies war, but in this, we see just how awful and harrowing a battlefield can be. It’s even more astounding that as effective an anti-war movie it is, it still manages to accentuate the entire Team America: World Police bravado before shredding it with dirty bombs. — Brian Prisco