A staple of film since the beginning of the action genre has churned out many classics over the years. From space-faring epics like Star Wars to secret agent thrillers like The Bourne series, it seems like the genre has something for everyone. Now there are dozens of movies like Kill Bill, Terminator and Die Hard that come up when discussing the best ever. But what about the other movies? The non-Mad Maxes of the world that often get overlooked?
They are the films that are never brought up for one reason or another. Whether it went up against a bigger movie, came out at the wrong time or just falls between the cracks, these underrated gems just aren't mentioned. That's why I am going to go over 10 Underrated Action Movies and give them their just due.
10. Forgotten Superhero Film: Blade II
While the original Blade is more remembered (a lot of that having to do with the opening scene, see below) I would argue that its sequel is the superior film. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, it has Blade team up with a group of vampires (including Ron Perlman and Donnie Yen) against a group of super vampires known as Reapers. As ridiculous as that sounds it works thanks to del Toro's excellent direction, fun action scenes and even some emotional stakes with Blade and vampire Nyssa. When you have Wesley Snipes straight up doing pro wrestling moves during a fight scene (a standing suplex to be specific) you know you have a winner!
Best Scene: The Underground Attack
Blade and the group of vampires head into the sewers to take out a nest of Reapers with UV-emitting grenades. What makes this stand out is how it's more than just an action scene. Not only is the action good, but the tensions within the group is handled perfectly. You never know if or when someone will turn on Blade. It's a fun scene and definitely a highlight of an already good movie.
9. Direct To Video Classic: Ninja 2: Shadow Of A Tear
It's easy to dismiss direct to video as the land of Steven Segal sequels and movies starring pro wrestlers. In case you don't know there is actually a pretty great action scene at the moment. Case in point, Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear. Starring Scott Adkins, it's a modern take on the '80s ninja movie with Casey (Adkins) needing to avenge his dead wife. What it lacks in originality it makes up for in stellar direction. His fourth film with Adkins, director Isaac Florentine shows a good understanding of action by having minimum cuts, good martial artists performing and capturing the action effectively. Never letting the limitations of the direct to video market effect it, Ninja 2 is just as good as its big screen competition.
Best Scene: Casey vs. Nakabara
Seeking revenge, Casey and Nakabara engage in some beautifully choreographed martial arts action that includes everything from hand-to-hand combat to old-school weapons. Even more impressively is how seamless the transition between the two styles is. It's the perfect capper to any throwback-style ninja movie.
8. Gerard Butler Proves He Is More Than Just King Leonidas In Law Abiding Citizen
It's easy to overlook Gerard Butler as an action star. Gaining fame with 300, he is mostly relegated to fun schlockier fare like London Has Fallen and Gods of Egypt nowadays. Before this though he starred in the often overlooked Law Abiding Citizen. A standard thriller on its surface, Law Abiding Citizen mixes an absurd plot and a nihilistic streak to make something that is oddly fun. Part Saw and part Silence of the Lambs 2009's Law Abiding Citizen is the rare vigilante movie that strives to be more than just another Death Wish clone, and is all the better for it.
Best Scene: Race Against Time
A life is on the line when Nick's (Butler) demands for nice meal in exchange for information are delayed by a disgruntled warden. Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) does a great job ratcheting up the tension cutting between Nick's calm and the scrambling search team. The scene is exactly what's need to show how Nick is not only brutal but also a cunning villain worthy of a Bond movie.
7. The Living Bugs Bunny Cartoon: Shoot 'Em Up
When it comes to action movies very few go over-the-top and do it right. Either they don't live up to the hype or they peak too early. Shoot 'Em Up, on the other hand, rides the fine line where it is ridiculous but not overbearing or feels like it is trying too hard. It wasn't until years later when I read a Remy Carreiro article and he pointed out why it is a giant cartoon. Instead of following normal action movie conventions it uses cartoon in logic and pacing. To paraphrase Remy, its Looney Tunes mixed with John Woo. Never taking itself it too seriously, it is a beautifully shot and a delightful bloody homage to childhood cartoons.
Best Scene: Free Fall Fight
Shoot 'Em Up is full of ridiculous gun fights from shots being fired during a sex scene to gunfire being exchanged while a woman gives birth. The best just might be one of the last shootouts of the movie though. Being held hostage by Hertz (a villainous Paul Giamatti) Mr. Smith's (Clive Owen) only means of escape is taking a parachute and jumping out of a plane. What proceeds is a mid-air gun fight that no other movie has matched. It's crazy, over-the-top and everything I love about Shoot 'Em Up.
6. One Of Marvel's First Movies The Punisher
While Jon Bernthal's is considered the definitive version of The Punisher for some he is hardly the first person to play the antihero. With movies in 2004 and 2008 it was actually Dolph Lundgren in 1989 to first portray Frank Castle. Considered by critics to be a generic '80s action movie, it's actually one of the more accurate comic book movies when it comes to its tone. Lundgren stars as Frank Castle and is waging his one-man war on crime. With the mob weakened by his efforts the Yakuza come in to fill the power vacuum with a seemingly endless ninjas. While the Punisher's origin is changed a bit (including the lack of skull logo on his chest) the whole thing feels like the '80s Mike Zeck-era version on the character. If you're a fan of pre-Ennis Punisher or '80s action in general The Punisher is worth tracking down.
Best Scene: Dojo Ambush
Teaming with an unlikely ally The Punisher has a shootout at the top of a skyscraper. Greeted by a group of samurai the two quickly dispatch the group before they can even unsheathe their swords. Making their way through the maze-like floor they take down henchmen easily through the paper walls. It's the perfect encapsulation of the movie as a whole.
5. Paul Walker's Best Movie Running Scared
While he became a big star with the Fast & Furious franchise Paul Walker's best action movie has nothing to do with car racing or Vin Diesel. Directed by Wayne Kramer, Running Scared stars Walker as Joey, a low-level mobster searching for a missing gun one treacherous night. What could have been a typical gangster movie is turned into this weird gangland-fairy tale thanks to Kramer's writing and the cinematography of Jim Whitaker. Despite its colorful palette the film has a gritty and stylish feel to it that elevates this trip through the darkest parts of New Jersey. It's a great, gripping movie and it's a shame Running Scared is just now gaining some traction.
Best Scene: Hockey Rink Shootout
Joey and the young Oleg meet boss Frankie at an empty hockey rink. Feeling betrayed, Frankie means to have the two killed before all hell breaks loose. The real star of this scene is cinematographer Jim Whitaker. Lit underneath black light, everything has an inverted color look except for the blood. It's a brutal, wonderfully shot scene that ties the whole movie together perfectly.
4. Walter Hill's Cult Classic Streets Of Fire
"A Rock & Roll Fable" Walter Hill's Streets of Fire stars Michael Paré as Tom Cody, a soldier of fortune looking for his girlfriend Ellen (Diane Lane) in a weird, time-displaced version of the '50s. With plans were for it to be the start of a trilogy and Hill's next big hit, it was expected to be huge. It flopped and it's easy to see why. A fairly average movie with OK action, a bare-bones story and some wooden acting, it just didn't capture the general audience. Maybe it's just the passing of time, but the film oddly works nowadays.
Fully embracing the "Rock & Roll Fable" concept, it mixes musical, action, drama and comedy elements better than it has any right to. While not technically a good movie it ends up being very fun. With a surprisingly good soundtrack and delightfully cheesy acting, Streets of Fire is the kind of unique, experimental craziness we just don't get anymore.
Best Scene: Bar Fight
Tom Cody is needs to rescue from a bar in an area called The Battery. This scene has it all, from explosions and bar fights to a leather-clad Willem Dafoe emerging from the fire. As much as this sounds like a fever dream it actually happens and Streets of Fire is all the better for it.
3. Salma Hayek's Grindhouse-esque Film Everly
With the popularity of single-location action like The Raid and Dredd I'm surprised how little buzz Everly has gotten. Starring Salma Hayek, she portrays a kidnapping victim who has to fight off hordes of killers in a single building. Despite its lower budget, director Joe Lynch keeps the tensions high with exciting action, unique set pieces and a little bit of grindhouse cinema insanity. With a commanding lead in Hayek and flashy direction from Lynch, it's a midnight-showing sensation waiting to happen.
Best Scene: Everly's Last Stand
Having faced a variety of gangs trying to get her and her mother assassinated, Everly has finally had enough. As a tactical team, she uses her wits to take out as many as she can, no matter how impossible it seems. What I like about this scene is how different it is. For the most part the film feels like a mix of exploitation and horror movies, all in director Joe Lynch's wheelhouse. What we get here is a thrilling and beautifully shot straight-up action scene. It would be a shame if Lynch doesn't get more work in the action genre.
2. Tony Scott's Disaster Film Unstoppable
Even though Denzel Washington's current output of old-man action movies can blend together at times one of the more unique entries is 2010's Unstoppable. Starring Washington and Chris Pine, the two are engineers who have to stop a speeding train. Playing like an old school disaster movie director Tony Scott elevates the film with his signature frenetic style. Even though it isn't the most creative of movies Unstoppable is a well-crafted movie making the most of its thrills.
Best Scene: Playing Chicken
On the same track as a runaway train, engineer Frank Barnes (Washington) and conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine) have to make it onto a repair in place track before the two trains collide. In all honesty this is a fairly basic scene, but it's Tony Scott's direction and expert handling of tension that make it the film's best scene.
1. The Classy Spy Movie Haywire
Despite critical acclaim and doing okay at the box office 2012's Haywire seems to have fallen into the ether. It's a shame because it holds up as a good spy thriller. Former MMA fighter Gina Carano stars as Mallory Kane, a black ops operative. Caught in the middle of a conspiracy, she has to travel around the world to expose it. What Carano lacks as an actress she makes up for by doing her own stunt work and convincingly playing a badass. A decent part of this is due to fight choreographer J.J. Perry. A fight coordinator for Warrior and The Expendables, he does a brilliant job of incorporating spontaneity and mixed martial arts into the fights. At no point does it feel out of place or forced like in some other films. Between the inspired choreography and Steven Soderbergh behind the lens, Haywire is a movie that really deserves rediscovering.
Best Scene: Betrayal
Returning to their hotel room an already suspicious Mallory (Carano) is attacked by her partner, MI6 agent Paul (Michael Fassbender). What proceeds is a vicious, no punches pulled fight between the two. Choreographer J.J. Perry is able to mix striking and grappling together in a way few can. All of which is shot by expert director Steven Soderbergh in clean, very focused shots. While other fights in the movie are good this is the perfect showcase for Gina Carano and her abilities.
Of course these are just a few underrated films in this beloved genre. No doubt there are enough to make several lists like this. I can only hope that these movies will get the recognition they deserve.