One of the best years for action in recent memory
2022 is one of the most invigorating years for action cinema in recent memory; providing a frankly massive amount of inspiration for what the future of action cinema could be. This was a year of international excitement, with some of the very best action films hailing from all around the globe. It was a year for weirdness, with some of the very best action incorporated into dramas, comedies, sci-fi films, and more.
My lists tend to highlight potentially hidden gems or smaller films or international releases over mainstream studio releases or superhero stuff… but this year some of the very biggest movies simply couldn’t be ignored. And I’ll go ahead and state very clearly that Everything Everywhere All At Once is my favorite film of 2022 overall, AND it features some incredible action sequences… but I just couldn’t wrap my brain around considering it an “action film” and went ahead and left it off this list.
Cinapse is all about discovery, so this post is designed to make it as easy as possible for you to find these movies and check them out for yourself. Click for trailers, links to where you can see them, and links to writing about them at Cinapse!
Solid Picks / Hidden Gems
15: Bad City — This may or may not have actually gotten a US release but if not keep an eye on this badass yakuza street brawling epic.
14: Nope — I view Nope as Jordan Peele’s take on a Spielbergian Action/Adventure film and I love it as such.
13: Day Shift — Legendary action designer and stuntman J.J. “Loco” Perry gets a crack at directing an action film and not only nails it but also casts Scott Adkins? Yes please.
12: As Good As Dead — Michael Jai White is still one of the best in the action cinema game and here he both writes and stars and you can tell he put heart into this low budget badassery.
11: The Lair– I know some are pretty hot and cold on Neil Marshall but I thought The Lair was a blast and a real return to form for Marshall.
Top 10 Action Films of 2022
10: THE WOMAN KING
There can be no doubt that action cinema, my most beloved genre, often follows formulas and templates. This isn’t something to be ashamed of, or to hide, but rather something to celebrate when something comes along and plays all those notes with a new energy and flavor. The Woman King feels like a Shaw Brothers Shaolin Temple film meets a highly satisfying revisionist history epic ala Braveheart or The Patriot… only it’s entirely Black women as the heroic warriors. A 65 year old Viola Davis shames Liam Neeson and all other Dad Action heroes with her powerful and moving transformation into an action star. Gina Prince-Bythewood (director) and Lashanna Lynch (supporting actress) both finally clicked for me here as stars to watch out for. The Woman King satisfies an audience hungry for action and does so from the vital perspective of Black women.
“You look like melted Ben Affleck”. Without action cinema godsend Scott Adkins, there’s frankly no way I’m even here writing about action movies and leaning into my love for them this past decade or so. The best of his generation, Adkins is at the peak of his powers here co-writing, producing, and starring in this sequel to the comic book adaptation. Adkins always works hard to prove himself to his fans, but it’s rare when he’s got this much creative control in a project and he does not squander the opportunity here with countless wonderfully executed fight sequences from choreographer (and co-star) Andy Long. The jokes mostly fire, the action pops, and there’s a sweetness at the heart of this one that surpasses the first.
The end product of any given Michael Bay film may or may not fully click with me, but I’ve always adored his aesthetics. Ambulance manages to be one of the best films of Michael Bay’s formidable career and employs the greatest action ever committed to film to date utilizing drone photography (Roberto De Angelis is the cinematographer here). That it takes those incredible aesthetics and also brings some of the most jaw dropping action moments of the year and THEN layers incredible performances from its leads and meaningful character and emotion from them as well? There’s no doubt Ambulance is an incredible achievement that deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Hell, it’s also angry at our healthcare system in a gloriously righteous way as a cherry on top.
7: THE BIG 4
I have to confess I arrived quite late to the Timo Tjahjanto party. His earlier horror films weren’t of enormous interest to me and so when The Night Comes For Us hit and became my favorite action film of that year by a country mile, I had to reevaluate my take on Timo. The Big 4 is Timo’s love letter to the action/comedies of Hong Kong’s golden age, mixed with his own unique Indonesian flair. The result is technical on screen hand to hand combat brilliance mixed with sophomoric humor that hits far more often than it misses. The finale cements The Big 4 as one of the year’s absolute best action films and the roll out on Netflix exposes a ton of Indonesian talent to a worldwide audience. Beyond the fart jokes and the gore gags, however, The Big 4 also enamors us to its characters to such a degree that a sequel would be most welcome. The childish potty humor works SO much better when the technical brilliance of all the action sequences astound with such seeming ease. Timo is a wildman who should not be underestimated.
6: THE PRINCESS
Honestly some of the most pure fun I had with any movie all year long, The Princess comes from action royalty in the form of duo director (Le-Van Kiet) and star (Veronica Ngo) of Vietnam. Their previous collaboration Furie was one of the great action films of 2019 and here Ngo serves as the mentor figure to the titular Princess played by Joey King in an absolute breakout role as an anachronistic ass-kicker who must fight her way from the top of a tower down to the bottom. It’s the simplest of premises executed with the most style and fun possibly imaginable. King transforms into an action star right before our eyes and Kiet delivers some of the most gleeful action set pieces of the year, and, like others from this list, uses a worldwide streaming platform (Hulu this time) to reach likely the most massive audience of his career thus far. This feels like career best work from Kiet and King and I hope it opens the door for more from them in this same mode.
5: LOST BULLET 2
My hands down number one action film of 2020 was French director Guillaume Pierret’s debut feature Lost Bullet. So it brings me great pleasure to share that this sequel continues the franchise in a grand way, broadening the scope of the story and characters while still bringing vehicular mayhem, hand to hand combat, and shoot-outs to die for. This franchise allows for a broad array of my favorite kinds of action and packages them in these “all killer, no filler” 90 minute features that are honestly filled with sexy people (stars Alban Lenoir and Stefi Celma frankly sizzle) doing badass things. The French have, for decades, been crafting some of my favorite action cinema in the world, and Pierret has just exploded out of the barrel with this duo of knockout films that frankly put the Fast/Furious franchise to shame with their practical brilliance.
Where to watch Lost Bullet 2
There’s almost nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said. The event movie of 2022 that shattered all box office expectations and captured the heart of the nation, Top Gun: Maverick surpassed every goal and hope its entire team and studio could have possibly had for it. Not a “pure” action film in the tradition of many of the others on this list, Top Gun: Maverick nevertheless belongs here in my opinion because of the sheer purity of its execution. Joining the ranks of the very greatest “on a mission” movies ever made, Joseph Kosinski and Tom Cruise simply surpassed anyone’s hopes in their breathtaking execution of capturing the rush of top speed flight in camera. There aren’t martial arts fights or gun ballet here, but the singular thrills Top Gun: Maverick affords us action junkies absolutely cannot be found anywhere else.
3: AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER
King James Cameron does not miss. Look, I want my Top 10 Action lists to be a place of recommendation and discovery where I shine a spotlight on hidden gems and international fare, etc. It’s not my fault, however, that both Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar 2 are just THAT good that they simply have to place this high on my list. Much like Maverick, The Way Of Water provided me an absolutely singular theatrical experience on the grandest scale ever conceived. There’s simply nothing like it anywhere. But James Cameron is a master action director and that cannot be forgotten. The entire final hour of this film is a grand action set piece that’s directed with such commanding clarity of vision and filled with such visual spectacle there’s simply no denying this is one of the greatest action films of the year.
Obviously Prey was widely well received by fans of the Predator franchise, with many calling it the best entry in the series since the very first film. For me personally, Prey is simply a revelation. Director (and co-writer) Dan Trachtenberg came up with a pitch for a new kind of Predator movie that is the stuff of my dreams. Everything about the approach to Prey works for me, from the focus on a Native tribe, to a coming of age story for a young female warrior, to a big picture concept of dropping our beloved movie monster into a wholly new time and place on Earth. So yes, the angle, the pitch, the core idea… it just spoke to me in that “this is the kind of stuff I’ve dreamed about and fan-written in my head for years” kind of way. But then there’s the execution. This fucking movie is a rip-roaring adventure, a clever character exploration, a ruthless and brutal action film, and a grandiose sci-fi concept that gloriously re-sets a franchise and connects to its roots at the same time. This life-long Predator fan is more excited about this franchise now than I can ever remember being, and Amber Midthunder and Dakota Beavers simply exploded onto the screen as new action heroes to watch closely. Prey is a bases loaded home run that I will forever treasure.
Sitting alone in a theater watching RRR and crying uncontrollably from sheer cinematic joy was probably my most holy experience of 2022. There were times when I found myself weeping and I couldn’t even entirely identify why except… the purity of the joy and thrills and grandiosity of this movie. I understand that quite a few fellow white film critics have potentially tokenized RRR, but I don’t believe I must count myself among those. I’m absolutely no expert on Indian cinema, but I’ve allowed the incredible action filmmaking chops of that formidable film industry into my life in the last several years and believe such films as RRR Director S.S. Rajamouli’s previous epics the Bahubali films are also among the very best made in my lifetime. Stars like Tiger Schroff and Vidyut Jamwal are action heroes I follow on the regular and consider to be among some of the most exciting in the world. So I’m not here to tell you RRR is the best action film of the year because it’s cute or because it’ll gain me some kind of weird cred. I’m here to tell you that, in a year featuring Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way Of Water, absolutely nothing felt as grand, sweeping, epic, and wholly satisfying as this masterpiece. Sure, some of the purity of the dancing and the male bonding and the grandiose visual effects fire on all cylinders for me BECAUSE of their exoticism and the techniques and tropes employed in the Indian industry that I’m not quite as familiar with. But I am here to say that the world simply needed this infusion of epic friendship, righteous revenge, and anti-colonial rage this year. Ram and Behm form one of the greatest “buddy cop” action duos in cinema history and after 3 hours of RRR you’ll be both completely spent and desperate for more. RRR is one of the most purely satisfying films ever made. Brace yourself.
And I’m Out.