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We are closing in on the top spot for the HeadStuff Film writers’ Best Action Movies of the past decade. If you haven’t caught our picks for #25 to #11 check them out here. Let’s jump back in with our Top Ten.
When I mentioned that Karl Urban would be high up on the list of actors of the decade for me, my brother pointed out that I’m basing it exclusively on his performances in Dredd and Bones in the Star Trek franchise. I had to admit that maybe that’s not quite enough to base a decade’s worth of acting on. But on the other hand, who else could put on such an impressive performance with just their lower face?
In a decade of impressive (and admittedly some not-so-impressive) tower block movies, Dredd remains memorable for impressive action and concepts – Slo Mo, the illicit substance which the violent drug cartels in Mega City exist to manufacture and circulate, has one of the most innovative side-effects around, and certainly provides some of the most interesting visual aesthetics. It also has a brilliant villain in the shape of Lena Headey’s drug lord Ma-Ma (come to think of it, Headey is also high on my list of actors of the decade. Coincidence?).
Immensely entertaining with a devilish streak of irony, it’s telling that Dredd is found on multiple lists of the decade. Indeed, if it weren’t for the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015, perhaps Dredd would be considered the sci-fi action film of the past ten years. That might be a bold claim to make, but like Dredd I take no prisoners (I also execute justice in a hellish future-scape and have a cool helmet). Sarah Cullen
9. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
For 22 years, Tom Cruise quietly but confidently plugged away at the Mission: Impossible franchise, yielding deceptively great spy adventures (with only one true clanger in the bunch – John Woo’s laughably bad M:I-2) never often enough to have the series imprint definitively in the minds of filmgoers. After two rollercoaster marriages and the (ahem) fallout from a number of disastrous incidents of Scientology-charged eccentricity, Cruise increased his output in the 2010s, producing a whopping three Mission: Impossible films. Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation are both delightful (Rogue Nation is basically the Bond movie Spectre except it’s good) but neither are anywhere near the alarmingly brilliant Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the greatest action movie I’ve ever seen.
Breakneck stunts are now a trademark of the Tom Cruise brand and nothing is as breath-taking as seeing him do a real HALO jump. But it doesn’t end there – cutthroat motorbike sequences, a jaw-dropping rooftop chase and the sight of Cruise (pursued by Henry Cavill’s literal moustache-twirling villain) falling out of a helicopter and landing on another one (minutes before nearly falling off a cliff) make for an action adventure above and beyond any CGI cartoon offered by rival studios. Rob Ó Conchúir
8. John Wick
John Wick is a little rougher than its younger siblings but that’s part of its charm. It has a montage set to a Marilyn Manson song sure but it also has Willem Dafoe playing wonderfully against type. Old man action was really making a comeback when the decade began. Liam Neeson set the ball rolling with Taken in 2008 and older cinematic heavyweights like Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas and Al Pacino all had their own vehicles but it was Keanu Reeves who took the ball and ran with it. After the death of his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan) former hitman John Wick receives a post-mortem gift from her, a puppy named Daisy. When Russian gangsters led by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) break into his home, steal his car and kill his dog John Wick goes on the warpath.
John Wick really kicks into high gear when he breaks through his basement floor to reveal a stash of guns and gold coins used in the criminal underworld. He is literally digging up his past. From there Reeves snaps necks, slits throats and gut-shots an army of Russian goons. The key to John Wick across its three, soon to be four, film universe is how interesting its non-action scenes are. The criminal underworld of New York seemingly operates at the beck and call of Winston (Ian McShane), the general manager of the Continental Hotel. Even gangsters like Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) must bow to the rules that govern this world. Not John Wick though because although he’s not exactly the bogeyman he is the one you send to kill the fucking bogeyman. Andrew Carroll
7. John Wick: Chapter 2
The John Wick series isn’t the biggest action franchise of this decade – that title probably goes to The Fast and the Furious – but it’s certainly the best. In a decade where mainstream cinema increasingly pandered to massive blockbuster fare it was good to see Keanu Reeves once again pick up his guns and go hell for leather against dozens of grunts onscreen. The first John Wick was a little rough around the edges but the action was of a quality rarely seen in the west. John Wick: Chapter 2 was impeccable. Fresh from his grudge match with the Russian mob John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself up against the mafia after a power play by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) sees him caught in the middle.
There’s a part in John Wick: Chapter 2 where after shooting his way through ancient Roman catacombs John Wick attempts to shoot a goon. His shotgun clicks empty and so, ever the improvisor, John pins the man to a wall with the shotgun, reloads and shoots him in the chest. It’s the little details that make John Wick: Chapter 2 so good. A good sequel stretches the world its predecessor built; a great sequel deepens that world. Whether it’s the fact that every other person in New York is an assassin or that the city’s homeless work as spies for the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) Chapter 2 always finds new ways to make its world resonate. Detail helps but the dedication to the core aesthetics of the series from lighting to Chad Stahelski’s direction to the masterful fight choreography make John Wick: Chapter 2 the sequel the original and audiences deserved. Andrew Carroll
The film which catapulted Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton to a whole new level of fame, the pair play estranged brothers. Despite going down different paths in life, both wind up competing in a mixed martial arts tournament where the winner will receive $5 million.
The fighting scenes where muscled men pummel each other mercilessly feel as brutal as anything in the Rocky series. That said, Warrior is about more than just visceral thrills. As the movie builds to the brothers’ showdown against each other, one realises that through the violent catharsis of the sport, the two are fighting to purge their resentment for each other and shared past trauma – the latter related to their upbringing with their abusive alcoholic father (Nick Nolte in peak bad dad mode). It’s this which elevates Warrior above many of its contemporaries, making it a movie where you can pump your fist in the air for the sibling you want to win yet also shed a tear at the redemptive conclusion. Stephen Porzio
A long time ago, two young men named Leigh Whannell and James Wan created a small horror movie titled Saw. That film went on to become one of the highest grossing horror films of all time. After continued success for both men and a number of smash hits to their name, in 2018 Leigh Whannell knocked it out of the park again, by himself this time. Enter Upgrade.
Upgrade is like Whannell loved RoboCop, The Terminator and Ghost In The Shell so much he decided to mix them all together into an astoundingly cohesive and impressive sci-fi action horror that stunned audiences around the world. A simplistic tale of revenge twists and turns into something which feels entirely new, at the same time providing action set-pieces which give The Raid and John Wick franchises a run for their money.
Logan Marshall-Green’s performance is a career best with the Prometheus actor revelling in Upgrade’s comedic genius sprinkled among its vicious and ruthlessly violent action sequences. Yet, the real star is the scene stealing Stem, the film’s version of Skynet. If Robocop and The Terminator get you pumped, then you need to see Upgrade. In fact, just stop whatever you are doing now and watch it immediately. John Hogan
4. Bone Tomahawk
It takes a while to get to the tomahawking in S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk. One of the best makers of underseen genre fare this decade (also one of the best pulp novelists) Zahler went all out on his debut film. In the 1890s Buddy (David Arquette) a thief, escapes from a cannibalistic Native American clan and is arrested in the town of Bright Hope. That night the cannibals kidnap Buddy, a Deputy and the woman nursing Buddy’s wounds Samantha (Lilli Simmons), wife of injured foreman Arthur (Patrick Wilson). Together with Sherriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), local gentleman John Brooder (Mathew Fox) and Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) Arthur sets off on a rescue mission to the cannibals’ home in the Valley of the Starving Men.
Bone Tomahawk is a very funny movie but even Deputy Chicory’s musings can’t stop the creeping unease that comes with every sunset and distant whistle. Zahler’s monstrous villains when they finally appear are daubed in white paint and communicate by whistling through bones in their throat. Their weapons are also made of bones and they deal out hell with them. Bone Tomahawk might just be one of the bloodiest films this decade going by its final scene. But the lead up to that blood and guts climax is what makes the film so frightening. Long before violence is ever dished out in Bone Tomahawk its implication lies over the empty prairie, on the bones Bright Hope was built and in the bone-white isolation of the Valley of the Starving Men. Andrew Carroll
Drive offered something different in action terms. There was little build-up to elaborately staged action set pieces interspersed with exposition delivery. Instead Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir homage to 1970s L.A. and pop music was something of a romantic fairy tale. It’s dreamlike golden hour cinematography and Cliff Martinez’s gorgeously sinister score gave it the feeling of a pop song you never want to end. Driver (Ryan Gosling) gets caught up in the life of Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her criminal husband Standard (Oscar Isaac). After a robbery gone wrong leaves Standard dead Driver finds himself protecting Irene from Jewish mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman).
Drive’s song-of-the-summer music video quality is occasionally interrupted by moments of horrifyingly brutal violence. A slick car chase transitions to a chaotic, blood soaked hotel room raid where Driver shoves a steel pole into a man’s throat. Bernie puts a fork into a guy’s eye as he eats. Towards the end of the film however the film’s romantic sensibilities and Refn’s violent tendencies come together. Driver and Irene only kiss once in Drive but it’s shot and acted with incredible passion. The kerb stomping Driver gives to the hitman seconds later is also passionate but in a wholly different way. Drive is a meeting of two modes, the brutal and the beautiful and it’s something which Refn has struggled to recapture ever since. Andrew Carroll
2. The Raid
Watching action movies can be a bore to some people. To its critics it’s a medium devoted to violence with barely a hint of plot or character. To its fans the genre bears a closer resemblance to the art of dance. At times structured and formal. At others haphazard and chaotic. Styles flow in and out of each other weaving an experimental web of bodies flying through the air. This is where the magic of action filmmaking happens. The narrative is built on the bodies of the performers at once hitting and not hitting each other. It’s brutal violence for the sake of art. It’s poetry written in blood and broken bones. It’s The Raid.
Rama (Iko Uwais) is a rookie cop in Jakarta, Indonesia taking part in a raid on the towering headquarters of a vicious mob boss. Rama must fight his way up, arrest the mob boss and rescue any of his surviving comrades on the way down. That’s about it. The Raid looks like it was made in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. It has the blue-grey colour scheme of all straight-to-DVD action and all of its villain characters are dressed in filthy tracksuits. But despite its oppressively dark atmosphere The Raid brought a shining light to the action genre. Welsh director Gareth Evans chose the Eastern sensibility of a smooth shooting style over the choppy editing and shaky cam of other Western directors. The Raid was no box office smash but it laid the path for some of the biggest action franchises this decade. Andrew Carroll
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
There is no other film that makes you feel like the metal caught between the hammer and the anvil. There is no other film that feels like adrenaline is being mainlined into your aorta. There is no other film that feels like a fever dream composed of fire and thunder, oil and chrome, blood and bone, spray paint and guzzoline, warmth and love. Mad Max: Fury Road is a desperate howl dredged up from the bottom of our lungs and aimed at an uncertain future dominated by nuclear winds, painted tyrants and their skeleton entourages. It’s a bug-shit crazy ride out of a black pit and into the light beyond. It’s a goddamn miracle movie.
From George Miller the director of the original Mad Max trilogy as well as Happy Feet came a vision uniquely his own but funded by one of the biggest studios in the world. Miller replaced Mel Gibson with Tom Hardy, strapped a garden fork to his face for the first half of the film and made women, including Imperator Furiosa (action all-timer Charlize Theron), the focus of his fiery apocalypse story. He conjured up explosions and nightmarish cars built of spikes and buzz saws. He hired an army of stuntmen, acrobats, pro-wrestlers and a former bank robber to play the Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) war boys. Mad Max: Fury Road conquered 2015’s box office and steamrolled the technical awards at the Oscars winning six out of ten nominations. But more than that it felt like a vision drawn from a not-too distant future. A vision of war and death yes but also a vision of hope, of love and of family. Andrew Carroll