Shit year for planet earth, but some strong action films
There’s no getting around it: 2020 was a shit year. It sucked for me, it almost certainly had low points for you, and planet earth in general suffered mightily under the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other setbacks and challenges. Therefore, most of us probably consumed and/or experienced the vast majority of our action cinema at home, and perhaps alone, as opposed to in a crowded theater or together with a bunch of friends. Studios held back all kinds of major tentpole properties.
With blockbusters deferred, how did action cinema fare? Well, as this is my world, and my list, I tend to leave out the four quadrant mega pictures because they need no more spotlight than their $100 million marketing campaigns have likely already bought them. I’m here to bring you the best of the best in action cinema, and that filtered through my lens tends to leave out the generic and/or discussed to death blockbusters in favor of either more PURE action cinema or stuff that likely comes in under the radar and needs what little boost I may be able to provide.
I’ve been doing these for a while now (see links to past Top 10 lists below), and voraciously taking in as much action cinema as humanly possible since long before that. I’m therefore able to start discerning some themes from year to year. And honestly, 2020 really wasn’t the strongest year for action as a whole. Nor was 2019. That said, there’s some incredibly strong, diverse, and face-melting action that hit this past year, and it comes from all over the world. Please feel free to let me know what I missed, what I nailed, where I’m completely off base, or what I’ve inspired you to check out. Cinapse is all about film discovery and discussion, and I’d love nothing more than for a few of you out there to see and love something because I recommended it. Links abound throughout this piece to writing done at Cinapse about these films. Click, enjoy, and share if you’re so inclined!
Solid Middle Tier Picks
15: Enter The Fat Dragon
14: Legacy Of Lies
13: John Henry
12: My Spy
Top 10 Action Films of 2020
10: GREYHOUND / NEWS OF THE WORLD
It’s not often that Tom Hanks is going to make my Top 10 Action Films list, so dammit, I made the space for him this year. Twice. Many will roll their eyes at this inclusion, but they do so at their peril. Perhaps more war film than action film, Greyhound nonetheless invites close comparisons to Mad Mad: Fury Road in that it is a sustained, fat-free, non-stop chase sequence from first blood to final frame. With little dialog beyond what’s immediately required for our heroes to live through a coordinated attack from German U-boats, Greyhound features incredible attention to detail and creates an edge of your seat experience unlike most anything else in 2020. News Of The World, clearly a thinking man’s western and one of the best overall films of 2020, equally deserves consideration on this list. Paul Greengrass has made an indelible impact on the action cinema landscape with his Bourne films and here he crafts an incredibly strong example of the action film’s ancestor: the tough guy western. So while it’s not a traditional action film, per se, the battle sequence where Hanks’ character must team up with his young ward [who is somewhat wild after losing her German family to Native Americans and then losing the Native family that raised her after that] to fend off villains who want to own the young girl is one of the great action set pieces of the year. Needing cunning, brains, and improvisation, our heroes best the villains ingeniously, forever bonding the leads and evoking John McLane’s “two bullets” finales as well.
No, it’s not as good as Train To Busan. And yes, it’s okay to be tired of zombies. I hear you. I’ve been there too. But when zombies are just one ingredient in the recipe of a kickass “men on a mission” movie that sets out to have a ton of fun and also take inspiration from Mad Mad: Fury Road… I’m here for it. [Yes, this is already the second time I’m referencing Fury Road. We’re living in a post-Fury Road world now, which is befitting for a film which so profoundly changed the game that nothing will ever be the same after]. I recommend essentially divorcing Peninsula from Train To Busan almost entirely. If you can do this, what you’ll find is a compelling, fast, physics-free (you love it in the Fast/Furious movies so don’t pretend to hate it here) zombie action apocalypse melodrama with charming little kids drifting their armored SUVs into hordes of undead… and maybe you’ll feel your pulse quicken just a tad.
8: EARTH AND BLOOD
French Writer/Director Julien LeClercq (The Crew, The Bouncer) is cranking out some of the toughest, bleakest, quietest action films on earth. The same is true of Jeremie Guez, who co-wrote this film and The Bouncer with LeClerq and who has written and directed such quiet tough guy dramas as A Bluebird In My Heart and Brothers By Blood [which looks great but I haven’t seen yet]. Earth and Blood capitalizes on a remarkable set of strengths to become one of the year’s best action films. First, it stars the absolutely always compelling Sami Bouajila. If you don’t know him… seek him out. Second, it kind of capitalizes on this adult/hard-R Home Alone craze that is sweeping cinema these days and which I seem to never tire of. Like The Aggression Scale, Skyfall, Rambo V, and Becky before it, Earth And Blood will culminate in an angry group of criminals trying to take down our hero on his own turf where he knows the terrain and has some tricks up his sleeve. Your mileage may vary on this trope, but it works like gangbusters here primarily because the film is far more grounded in reality than many of the others I referenced. Lastly: Earth and Blood takes advantage of a little platform called Netflix, where it just appeared one day to my delight and made itself available to most of the planet for easy consumption.
I almost have nothing to really add to the miracle that is the existence of Beyond Skyline and Skylines. This is a trilogy of films you kind of can’t believe exists. The sequel films both have more ambition and swinging for the fences scope than most Marvel films on probably a tenth of the budgets. And while Beyond Skylines easily belonged on action film lists with leads like Frank Grillo and Iko Uwais, filmmaker Liam O’Donnell cuts a little deeper in Skylines, shining a spotlight on underappreciated action legend Daniel Bernhardt. And he hangs the lead on an up and coming female star in The 100’s Lindsey Morgan. Skylines is batshit. In all the best ways. It never buckles under the weight of its ambition by relying on its refreshing weirdness, sense of humor, mixture of practical and digital effects, and unabashed sci-fi-ness. Action fans need to support this franchise as its roots in action culture run deep and the series probably has quite a few more entries in its tank.
Weirdly the only film on this entire list I saw in a real movie theater, Underwater was an absolute breath of fresh air for me. If I recall correctly, it may also have been one of the final films I caught using my MoviePass card (RIP to a real one). Kristen Stewart absolutely compels as a Sandra-Bullock-in-Gravity level survivor in a lean, mean 95 minute sci-fi action thriller that most closely resembles The Abyss by way of Lovecraft. Coming from a filmmaker on very few radars (William Eubank), with aces production value on par with the biggest of blockbusters, I just couldn’t wipe the shit-eating grin off my face from start to finish. It feels like a huge budget blockbuster, but with a much more intimate focus. Great costumes, awesome set design, sick creatures… Underwater is just plain cool.
Here he is, folks… my main man Scott Adkins in the 2020 Top 5. It’s well documented that I’m an enormous fan of Adkins, and when he’s working with writer/director Jesse V. Johnson? All the better. Adkins was BUSY in 2020, cranking out 5 films, firing up his own YouTube show, and making appearances on an excellent podcast all about his career. And while none of his films this year could top last year’s Avengement, Debt Collectors was a worthy sequel to what is possibly his very best film: The Debt Collector. This burgeoning franchise let’s Adkins be funny, get in grimy street fights, and engage in verbal banter with Louis Mandylor in his best-yet attempts at the buddy action genre. This sequel resurrects not only the heroes, but also the drama, laughs, and bruises of the first film. A brawl between our low level anti-heroes that rivals the length of the infamous They Live alley brawl MIGHT be a main reason this places as high as it does.
For a good portion of 2020, this film was sitting pretty comfortably in my number one spot. I’m quite aware that I looked upon this giant action extravaganza with much more fondness than most of the viewing audience. Arguments I heard against the film were that it was too over the top with its action and too stripped down with its narrative. Those are exactly the arguments I would make FOR the film! Sometimes I need an anti-hero to be just BARELY redeemed by a precocious kid. Sometimes I need a “barely even a good guy” protagonist (Chris Hemsworth more than holding his own outside the Marvel safe zone) go toe to toe with a villain that we come to respect for his abilities (Randeep Hooda in the film’s most standout role). And sometimes I need a career stunt professional to be handed the keys to the kingdom and absolutely hit a bases loaded home run with clean, breathtaking, ultraviolet action set pieces for the ages. Sam Hargrave, you have proven yourself most worthy. Let’s hope you’ve got a long and storied directorial career ahead of you after this monster hit.
3: GANGS OF LONDON
It’s my list and I don’t care if it’s cheating to include a television show. It’s a television show helmed by one of the most exciting names in action cinema to emerge in my lifetime: The one and only Gareth Evans. Here Evans trains his camera on London after making his name in Indonesia. But this isn’t a “white guy karate” show. No, Gangs Of London is an engrossing, diverse, complex gangster drama featuring some of the very best action set pieces across any medium this year. There’s a siege sequence on a farm that… well… you’ll know it when you see it, but it might just be the greatest action sequence of this entire year. But Evan’s signature frenetic action (as boundary pushing as ever) might not have been enough to get a tv show this high on my list. What DOES bring it this high is how totally successful it is as a gangster drama. I was engrossed in the world building and complex family tree from the earliest moments. Joe Cole’s Wallace crime family is rocked by the death of his father Finn (Colm Meaney), and a Game Of Thrones style fallout ensues with a power vacuum, international intrigue, and gangs from Africa to the Middle East all vying for dominance. 2020 breakout star Sope Dirisu plays the lead here, an up and coming Wallace family enforcer named Elliot who early on beats down a dozen geezers in a pub with nothing but a dart. Come for the absolutely face melting action, stay for the infinite well of intrigue.
Perhaps the most “slept on” film in my list, Samurai Marathon surprises and delights at every turn. And with modern action cinema owing as much, if not more, to samurai films as it does westerns, it’s more than fitting that Samurai Marathon has a home in this action film list. It’s 1855 and the Americans have arrived in Japan. A local lord, fearing his lazy samurai class are too undisciplined to face this new threat, institutes a grueling marathon to prepare his men for a new era. But when this is misinterpreted by the Emperor as potential insurrection, soldiers are dispatched to take out the marathon runners. Intrigue, heroism, and dammit… even ninjas come into play. It’s a stunning, thrilling, remarkable adventure with a hook unlike any other samurai film I’ve ever seen. Oddly, it’s directed by Bernard Rose (Candyman) and GORGEOUSLY scored by 3-time Oscar nominee Philip Glass. If you aren’t absolutely thrilled by the climax of this marathon, I’ll swallow my action card. Oh, and star Takeru Satoh is about as dashingly handsome as they come.
Dare I say… Number 1 with a bullet? Sometimes, a film just comes out of absolute left field and knocks you square on your ass. Perhaps the only film this year that had me up off the couch cheering and pumping my fists, Lost Bullet is a rare cinematic action treat indeed. Appearing out of nowhere on Netflix one day, I was quite taken by the trailer and pulled the trigger on what looked like a moderately budgeted French response to the Fast & Furious films. What I got was that, yes, but also so much more. Everything about Lost Bullet feels like loving homage to what has come before (from the tough guy ’70s to The Transporter to Dom & the Fambly), but also ferociously new, and announcing first time director Guillaume Pierret to the world. Starring stunt performer turned instant leading man to watch Alban Lenoir as Lino, we’re on the edge of our seat as our unlucky street rat of a hero runs a desperate race to clear his name while being hunted by the corrupt cops who killed his mentor and the only man who would give Lino a second chance. Gifted with the talents of the A-Team, Lino can soup up any vehicle, and he’ll need to use this and every trick in his repertoire to prove his name and outrun the dirty cops. There are practical car chases in Lost Bullet that rival anything Hollywood can crank out with 10x the budget. There’s hand to hand fight sequences here that pay homage to Jackie Chan by rivaling the master with their excellence (don’t miss that police station escape sequence). And there’s this Mad Max (OG this time, not so much Fury Road) vibe of a small auto shop run by a few cops who need to soup up their vehicles to compete with the sophisticated criminals on the road. Lino careens through this movie by the skin of his teeth and Pierret explodes onto the scene with the confidence of a seasoned master of action. Yes, it’s possible that this is the action film of the year in my estimation precisely because of how hard this previously unknown-to-me team of filmmakers threw down the gauntlet. But check it out for yourself and tell me if you don’t find your pulse quickening or a temptation to cheer even though you’re alone in your living room. It’s an unqualified banger that announces a thrilling new team of action auteurs to keep an eye on.
And I’m Out