2018 had action so good, it needed 15 slots
This is my favorite post to write every year. I’m fulfilled when living and breathing action cinema in a way I’ll probably never understand. And if there’s even a hint of a chance that some of you might discover these titles here and get as much joy from them as I have? There’s no greater thrill to be found as the Cinapse site runner.
It helps that, like in 2017 before it, this year was an absolutely stellar one for pure action cinema. It is my ongoing stance that AAA Hollywood films such as those from the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been accepted by the wider world as “action movies”. But they don’t really fit my bill, and they’ll be weighed differently when it comes to my own rankings of the best action cinema of the year. This list is about what I personally love, what represents action cinema at its most pure, and what could most use a spotlight shown upon it.
Note that when I’ve written about the title at Cinapse, you can click the titles to read my full review. And I’ve written about a fair amount of these at length this year. So, without further ado, here are the very best action films the world had to offer in 2018!
Unexpectedly, this gloriously over the top remake of the similarly titled blacksploitation classic surpasses the original in my estimation. With the stakes more amped up, the action and villainy on display more cartoonish, and some pointed and satisfying Black Lives Matter commentary throughout, this became an unheralded gem of 2018 superhero cinema (as Youngblood Priest is portrayed here as more or less a street superhero).
While occasionally shaggy enough to find itself towards the bottom of this year’s list (still an honor among this great company), there’s just SO MUCH action in BuyBust. And some of it is truly great. I think the best elements of BuyBust are the female lead (Anne Curtis), the male sidekick (Brandon Vera), the cultural indictments of The Philippines (which I really didn’t catch until listening to the filmmakers talk about it), and the fact that the sheer scale of this production really announced The Philippines as a new hub for action cinema that we need to keep our eyes on.
13: DEN OF THIEVES
This came VERY early in 2018, and I haven’t revisited it since. However, Den Of Thieves gave me Gutter Heat: a movie I never knew I needed. Gerry Butler swaggers, Pablo Schreiber roids, and Ice Cube, Jr. chills. The action set pieces and character clashes are legitimately great, even if their trappings are trashy. And in the end the movie twists and turns and winks at you that it was taking you on a unique ride through the sewers the whole time. Will revisit and see any/all sequels.
12: THE PREDATOR
It’s somewhat odd when a movie can simultaneously disappoint you AND thrill you and still end up in a top 15 list. Was Shane Black and Fred Dekker’s film obviously compromised and mired in studio shenanigans? Very clearly, yes. But it’s still better than Predators was, and you guys know it. The Predator is gleefully R-rated, revels in 1980s tropes, offers a laugh a minute, and swings for the fences. It unravels in the end, but I had a huge smile on my face throughout, was putty in Black and Dekker’s hands, and will revisit regularly.
Hated by many for its questionable and fanciful political scenario portraying a mixture of radical Islamic terrorism and the US southern border, my read on the film placed the USA as the clear villains here, and I felt it was ballsy in its nihilism. Writer Taylor Sheridan is one of my favorite working American screenwriters at the moment and director Stefano Sollima made something truly nasty to follow up one of the greatest movies of the 2000s. And together they made an action film. Sure, it’s an action film that is terrifying in its implications and makes you feel sullied for being entertained by it, but any movie evoking awe and asking us to question the awful terror of our “military might” deserves consideration in my book.
10: FINAL SCORE
We’re in the top ten now, everyone, and I’m thrilled to have a Dave Bautista vehicle explode onto this list. Die Hard In A Soccer Stadium knows EXACTLY what it is and takes full advantage of its formula to deliver one of the very best Die Hard clones we’ve gotten in the last decade plus. Filming on location in a stadium slated for demolition, Final Score uses its location to maximum effect to bring us an old school good time at the movies. A couple great motorcycle chases/stunts, a fantastic leading man turn by Bautista, and a fight wherein a guy gets his face melted in a kitchen fryer? A movie that gives us all of these things deserves a spot on this list without any question.
Speaking of Dave Bautista, he was one of the best parts of the last Kickboxer film, surname Vengeance. But as his villainous Tong Po was defeated last time, he’s nowhere to be found in Retaliation. I had my doubts as lead Alain Moussi was the weakest link of Vengeance. However, Moussi exploded out of the gates here with Retaliation, complete with a weird dance number that called back to Van Damme’s first film in the series. Retaliation 100% delivers the goods. It’s weird, it lets both Van Damme AND Mike Tyson be quirky older trainers to Moussi’s character, and the final 40 minutes or so are just one single epic battle with Game Of Thrones’ The Mountain. This movie rules. Easily the second best Kickboxer film (and I’ve now seen 6 out of 7 of these things).
8: ACCIDENT MAN
It feels great to welcome my man Scott Adkins back to my action top 10. The hardest working man in action cinema takes on writing and producing roles here on top of starring, and Adkins certainly thrives in those roles. Painfully British, casually funny, and brimming with hard-R comic book violence, Accident Man is everything Adkins fans hoped it would be, and elevates Adkins himself to a bit of a triple threat as a filmmaker… something that brings me incomparable joy as the unofficial president of the Scott Adkins fan club. But the ensemble here cannot be ignored either, with luminaries like Michael Jai White, Amy Johnston, Ray Stevenson, Ray Park, and even David Paymer (?) doing excellent work, this feels like an empowered Scott Adkins happy to share the spotlight with other amazing talent to bring the best screen version of his beloved Accident Man comics to the screen that he possibly could.
I’m a forever John Woo fan, and he’s objectively one of the all time greatest action filmmakers. Hell, one could make a convincing case that he is the greatest of all time. With this year’s Manhunt coming to Netflix and returning Woo to his “heroic bloodshed” roots, the smile on my face was unassailable throughout the runtime. International female assassins, a horse ranch gun battle, a cop and criminal engaged in a constant chase in which they ultimately bond and become brothers in bloodshed? Oh, and add in doves and heightened melodrama and every possible Woo-ism in the book? Manhunt was a home video highlight of the year and sparked a grand Woo rewatch for me that I’m still enjoying today.
The uncontested winner of the most surprising and left field action film of the year… I wasn’t ready for Molly. I haven’t heard many others from the action community embracing or championing this weird little post-apocalyptic female-fronted fight film, so I will be Molly’s hype man. Coming to us from The Netherlands via Artsploitation Films, Molly is a totally different kind of action hero. She’s got some supernatural powers she doesn’t understand and can’t quite control, but mostly she’s a scrapper and a survivor. The budget limitations are clear, but that just endears me all the more as this team delivers unique action sequences complete with tons of long takes. (The final 30 minutes are a giant siege sequence edited to look like one single shot). Molly brims with ideas and it all builds a rad post-apocalyptic world with a uniquely female point of view. Do not sleep on Molly.
We’re in the top 5 now, and Upgrade earns its place here and then some. Leigh Whannell is having a blast bringing us this melange of Cronenberg, Cameron, and Jackie Chan. Logan Marshall Green delivers a star making physical performance as a paralyzed man becoming a fisticuffs genius due to a futuristic operating system being installed in his body. Camera and performer work seamlessly together to deliver some of 2018’s most thrilling and uniquely stylized fights. Add to that a fun futuristic plot complete with body horror elements and you’ve got exactly the punk rock techno action thriller that Whannell dreamed he could deliver. Upgrade brings the goods and will have a long shelf life.
Whereas I had been highly anticipating Accident Man for years, The Debt Collector (Scott Adkins’ second appearance in this year’s top ten) took me completely by surprise. Sure, Adkins’ ongoing collaboration with writer/director Jesse V. Johnson has been an ascending ladder of action excellence for both parties (Savage Dog & Accident Man immediately prior to this), but this movie had the disadvantage of a dubious trailer that didn’t do the final product any kind of justice. I went in nervous, with gritted teeth, and came out blown away by a 1970s-style crime film and buddy comedy with excellent action and a dramatic wallop. It’s also worth noting that B-action staple Louis Mandylor turns in a game changing co-lead performance perfectly balancing out Adkins for a shockingly effective tough guy buddy dynamic. A major work of 2018 action cinema, the Adkins/Johnson collaboration is becoming one of the most important relationships in modern action cinema.
3: CREED II
[The Rocky/Creed films are arguably more melodrama than action film, but as Stallone is the reigning king of action cinema, its roots and DNA are quintessential action cinema]. The primary discourse about Creed II was inescapable: Is it as good as Creed? Well… no. No it isn’t as good as that absolute miracle of a movie that became the second best film in a forty year old franchise that has truly become our greatest silver screen American mythology. But as chapter eight in our American mythology, Creed II absolutely rules. It continues to hand the reins of the underdog hero to the endlessly charismatic Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, it continues to give voice to African American creators and talent, and it updates Rocky IV in such a way as to make that film retroactively more filled with pathos. Dolph Lundgren turns in a quietly devastating supporting performance as Ivan Drago and Stallone indulges in his most Stallone-like tendencies but comes out swinging with an absolutely spectacular new round in the franchise with the most fire burning in its belly.
2: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT
An absolute game changer, Fallout could easily have been #1 this year, and it’s such a different beast than my number one pick, in my mind they’re kind of both #1. Fallout is a specific beast: a big budget, AAA, PG-13, 6th film in a studio franchise, star-driven property. Tom Cruise is in the unique position of being able to produce and star in a series in which he can push the limits of what is possible for action set pieces. ONLY Tom Cruise can do this kind of thing because he risks his own skin doing skydives, leaping off of buildings, and piloting helicopters… but he has the star power to justify the risks and expenses therein. It’s a unique kind of thrill you can’t get anywhere else and Fallout (in referencing and welcoming all the previous installments into the narrative) manages to pay homage to the series that has come before it and deliver multiple action set pieces that rank among action cinema’s all-time great sequences. In my opinion, this should cap the series, with Ethan Hunt going out on top and forever being our supernatural protector.
The gnarliest action film in the history of the medium, Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes For Us edged out Fallout for me for a couple of simple reasons. One: This is pure, distilled action cinema. Two: I’ve always argued that the human stakes of fight films are the undying and eternal appeal of action cinema. We’re watching human beings do inconceivable things with their physical bodies through raw talent and in conjunction with a filmmaking team. So while there are no set pieces here that rival the helicopters in Fallout, the fleshy, bloody, meaty stakes of The Night Comes For Us are more pure in my mind (if still heightened and elevated to allow for gallons of cartoon blood to exit our heroes with little consequence). What The Night Comes For Us delivers is the most pure fight film of 2018, and one of the most singular experiences of the year. Homaging John Woo while embracing the bloody horror elements Tjahjanto is best known for, this film brings “heroic bloodshed” to a new level [of wetness]. I screamed aloud so many times in my two watches of this movie. There are kills and injuries here so shocking that you could conceivably FORGET half a dozen of them that would have been the most jaw dropping kill in another movie. That thrill alone is noteworthy, but meaningless unless done with panache. And The Night Comes For Us captures incredible fight choreography, excellent set piece direction, escalating stakes, and characters and story you care JUST enough about to take you from one insane fight to the next. It’s the most entertained I have been in 2018. Period. And it’s the best action film of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Aquaman & Braven (Jason Momoa is a rising mega star), Hotel Artemis, The Marvel Movies Of 2018 (they’re great and didn’t need to be highlighted here), and Stu Bennett’s I Am Vengeance (also a rising star with great potential).
And I’m Out.