Top 10 Action Movies of 2012
Den of Geek's ranking of the Top 10 movies of 2012 rated for their action and their action alone.
It was a good year for great action. Even aside from the usual dudes-in-capes and magical-elves subgenres, there was an awful lot of ass being kicked in cinemas in 2012. For a while there was the brief suggestion that the best work was coming from the less-expected places: overseas, maybe Thailand or even the world of direct-to-DVD action. But 2012 was a rainbow coalition of ass-beatings from every part of the world, from directors A-List and Z, in different languages and in two thousand theaters to VOD premieres. This year had something for everybody, but what was the best of the best? Read on to see the finest of the 2012 brawl-fest.
The heavy duty gunplay of DREDD 3D was a highlight for those who like their skull-cracking with a science fiction bent. Action epic FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE 3D was a fitful potential last hurrah for Jet Li and director Tsui Hark, while The RZA debuted as writer and director of his starring vehicle THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, proving he was a true student of the classic martial arts epics of yesteryear. Steampunk martial arts epic TAI CHI ZERO provided a solid genre mashup, while big studios had respectable multi-terrain action efforts with the dogfighting WWII movie RED TAILS and David Koepp’s little-seen bike messenger thriller PREMIM RUSH.
NOTE: We disqualified films with a heavy sci-fi slant, as well as pictures that can more distinctly be classified as “thrillers,” thereby leaving this category open for plausible real-world films that emphasize fisticuffs and specific oppositional physical conflict between characters.
NOTE 2: This list is specifically grading these films on a criteria weighed heavily towards how much action is in them and what the quality of action is. It is not a reflection of how interesting or challenging the films are as a whole.
10. THE THIEVES
Directed by Dong Hoon-Choi
Written by Dong Hoon-Choi & Lee Gi-Cheol
Den of Geek Action Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars
This Korean blockbuster quietly made its way to American shores, which is too bad: if you billed THE THIEVES as OCEAN’S 14 and claimed that Brad Pitt and Don Cheadle got facelifts and became more athletic, that would be an easy few million right off the bat. This heist actioner actually manages to pack several high stakes stunts in one film, thanks to a group of master thieves who are motivated by revenge for a fallen colleague. Each heist within the film (and there are several) has it’s own eye-popping gimmick, involving wall-climbing, multiple disguises and heavy-duty flirting between members of an extremely attractive cast. THE THIEVES is a lighthearted caper, but the thrills come so fast and so elaborately, that it works as one of the year’s most entertaining films from any country.
There are several highlights in THE THIEVES as it crosscuts between various criminals pulling assorted heists. But the final one, an all-terrain clash involving a rope-triggered race across buildings that ends in a foot chase through crowded highway traffic, keeps building in suspense even as the bits of tech are slowly stripped away.
9. GET THE GRINGO
Directed by Adrian Grunberg
Written by Mel Gibson & Adrian Gruenberg & Stacie Perskie
Den of Geek Action Rating: 4 Stars Out of 5
Dumped unceremoniously to VOD after star Mel Gibson was caught for the umpteenth time saying… unkind things (also bigoted, misogynist, anti-semitic, hateful, ignorant – but we digress), GET THE GRINGO is nonetheless a surprisingly enjoyable, grimy crime flick. Gibson stars as an unrepentant bank robber who flees from cops but ends up trapped in a Mexican prison instead. What he learns is that the prison is its own collection of sub-communities, policed by no one, where prisoners trade goods, drugs and guns, and everyone looks the other way as bodies hit the floor. GET THE GRINGO has the potential to be completely offensive (as does its star), but it never even approaches that temptation for two key reasons: one is that the inhabitants are all fully-realized personalities, even the criminals, and Gibson’s relationship with a streetwise boy feels emotionally accurate in it’s bristling aggression. And two is that Gibson, without any shame, plays his wayward criminal as a complete ass, a thug with few redeeming qualities (no, we’re not going to say anything – it should be assumed at this point): Gibson shot this picture a couple of years ago, right before his annually schedueld scandal, but it very much feels like a nutcase of an actor completely owning his own disturbing sociopathy. (BAM)
In a truly bizarre plot twist, Gibson is able to gain admittance to a specific building by getting on the phone and doing an absolutely ridiculous Clint Eastwood impersonation. Once he’s in, he doles out bloody, ridiculous justice, marking his territory by double fisting a couple of grenades. Like the rest of GET THE GRINGO it’s a sequence that makes absolutely no apologies for its absurdity.
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Robert Wade & Neil Purvis
Den of Geek Action Rating: 3 Stars Out of 5
James Bond gets an upgrade in SKYFALL and, while Oscar-winner Sam Mendes provides a distinctly artful interpretation of the character, there’s no doubt that the action aesthetics are still pretty securely in place. The days of Roger Moore squirming his way around barely-aimed bullets are gone: in the world of Daniel Craig, James Bond is a scrapper. Beginning with a customarily-exciting chase sequence that goes from foot to car to motorcycle to train, Bond eventually finds himself going toe-to-toe with the various henchmen of top baddie Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), shedding blood and sharing bullets alongside allies both old and new. SKYFALL isn’t the most violent of Bond films, but it feels like one of the tougher ones: while 007 continues to feel invincible, the injuries obviously leave scars, with Bond duty-bound to accept a slug with ease for Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
There’s nothing James Bond won’t do without a little swagger: after pulling off an absurd, elaborate stunt involving construction equipment getting him onto a train, he lands inside the cart, fixes his lapel and marches forward as if he were on his way to the beverage cart, completely ignoring the debris behind him or the fact that once again James Bond has just sent a smooch towards Death.
7. THE EXPENDABLES 2
Directed by Simon West
Writen by Richard Wenk & Sylvester Stallone
Den of Geek Action Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
Yes, it does seem like the EXPENDABLES films have yet to produce the “Ultimate Action Movie” that the premise deserves. But this time around, director Simon West managed to avoid the stilted romper-room quality of the first THE EXPENDABLES to present an honest-to-god action spectacular, one where each ass-kicker gets his own moment to shine. There are criticisms to be levied the film’s way; considering they are “expendable,” there’s not a whole lot of suspense as to whether these guys will make it out alive (R.I.P. new guy). As a result, the action approaches HOTS SHOTS! levels of ridiculousness, but at least it feels like all involved are in on the joke. And who cares about a tongue in cheek when this many bullets are being wasted in imaginative ways? THE EXPENDABLES 2 avoids being a boring shooting gallery by having moments where Terry Crews wisecracks or when Jason Statham goes toe-to-toe with Scott Adkins. But it’s hard to ignore the gravitas that emerges from fistfights between Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme. As their sculpted, steroidal physiques clash, it feels less like a decently-shot brawl and more like a thunderous battle between titans, where the iconography takes center stage in all its blood-soaked glory.
The Expendables band together to tackle what feels like an entire town of soldiers, each in their own colorful way: most memorable is Statham encountering the thugs in a church, brandishing his weaponry and growling, “I now pronounce you… MAN AND KNIFE” (OH MAN YOU GUYS). But the coup de grace is the final moment of this sequence, where the gang exhales after defeating every thug, until one absentmindedly walks around the corner. “Get ‘im!” Stallone needlessly shouts and he and his four teammates blast this poor extra from Central Casting into oblivion. It’s a moment that works twofold: meant to be a Zucker-style parody of the type of film it really is, it also works as far as these characters/actors and their own blood-sweat-and-tears dedication to straight out overkill.
6. THE RAID: REDEMPTION
Written and Directed By Gareth Evans
Den of Geek Action Rating: 3 Out of 5 Stars
One apartment complex. One cop. Hundreds of thugs. THE RAID: REDEMPTION is almost comically simplistic, trapping its super-skilled hero in a nearly unwinnable situation where each level features killers ready to dismember him, the proverbial fly in the ointment. What they didn’t count on was that our hero is a Silat master, ready and able to crack some skulls at a moment’s notice. Though the movie never transcends the depth of your favorite side-scrolling video game beat-em-up, THE RAID: REDEMPTION does ease you in with slow, methodical John Carpenter-meets-John Woo ramping up, before exploding in a fury of elbows and kneecaps, forcing more than a few extras to try and cheat death as they fall to their doom. Iko Uwais sadly isn’t even Jet Li in the charisma department,and the film weakens during an underwhelming denouement, but when THE RAID: REDEMPTION is “on,” there is no more violent, balls-to-the-wall actioner this year.
When our hero finds deranged henchman Mad Dog stringing up his brother, the sadistic villain errs on the side of showmanship, allowing the two of them to team up against him, and absorbing every brutal blow with a smile. It’s a sign of aggressive gamesmanship, one that reveals Mad Dog as a maniac who craves the attentions of a flurry of fists like an onslaught of kisses.
Written and Directed by Boaz Yakin
Den of Geek Action Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
After all this time, all the failed matchups, all the ill-fated Z-grade directors, teaming Jason Statham and writer/director Boaz Yakin proved to be the most solid formula. SAFE is Statham’s best action vehicle thus far, trapping the tough guy in a no-frills actioner that feels like a throwback to the 80’s, where every tough guy was a superman who got by on his overwhelming confidence and over-qualifications. In SAFE Statham is a cop fallen-from-grace who recovers from vagrancy by stumbling upon a much-treasured little girl. While he sees a chance for redemption in the child, he also sees the little girl as an opportunity to use her as a bargaining chip, pitting the Russian mafia against the Yakuza and then uniting them against the crooked cops who once took him down. Statham never breaks a sweat (he never does, really) but the pleasures of SAFE stem from the B-movie expediency that recalls an upgraded version of earlier Seagal pictures, as it takes us through an action superhero gaming a crooked system to his perfect ends.
Contemplating suicide, Statham instead finds a little girl desperate for help in the subway system, chased by a group of tough guys. He proceeds to meet the thugs in the train and dismantle them, one by one, until the final henchman, recalling the hero had previously revealed his profession, laughs, “The garbage collector?” Statham aims a gun at the man, and with cold precision, corrects him, “I didn’t collect the garbage. I disposed of it.” BLAM.
4. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Jonathan Nolan
Den of Geek Action Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars
All bets were off for director Christopher Nolan’s final trip to Gotham City in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. While he had set the table in two previous films by suggesting Batman was on a doomed mission, and that Gotham City was a place of malleable morality, in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES he takes us all to Gotham’s Ground Zero. The actions of supervillain Bane (Tom Hardy, superb) have turned Gotham into an island under his martial law and Batman has finally been broken, left for dead in a hole in the ground halfway across the world. While comic book enthusiasts praised Nolan’s verisimilitude in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and there were even serious critics banging the drum for Nolan’s comic book grand opera, there’s no doubting the training montage element of Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) story to rebuild his damaged body, to return to the city in a blaze of glory. As such, this is Batman’s last stand, punch by punch, injury by injury and every blow counts, up until the very last one. The politics in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES might not be extremely well thought-out and Nolan and company have a tendency to over-write nearly every big dramatic sequence. But THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is the film where Nolan delivers in scale, presenting a city torn apart by a uncivil war, with one man in a cape descending upon the city and assisting a quest for justice.
Hans Zimmer has been accused of over-scoring these films (the first two in union with James Newton Howard), and it’s impossible to not hear his big, brassy themes during several moments in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. But it’s extra chilling when Zimmer’s soundscape vanishes, as an over-the-hill Batman is trapped underground and forced to tango with the vicious Bane. Both combatants toss violent haymakers in each other’s direction and it’s shattering once the realization sets in that Batman is way out of his league. The beat down the Dark Knight receives is the character’s low point, but damned if he doesn’t give it his all, in the best-directed and most upsetting sequence of the three DARK KNIGHT films thus far.
3. WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW: SEEDIQ BALE
Written and Directed By Wei Te-Sheng
Den of Geek Action Rating: 5 Out of 5 Stars
While very few audiences in America caught this little-seen action epic from producer John Woo earlier this spring, even they weren’t getting the full picture that is WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW: SEEDIQ BALE. The stateside cut of this sprawling historical actioner ran roughly over two and a half hours long. The actual cut of WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW: SEEDIQ BALE, which screened at the New York Asian Film Festival, is an overwhelming four hour odyssey, one that doesn’t shy away from the tragedy within, but still manages to be a compelling genre picture all on its own. WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW: SEEDIQ BALE begins during the planned takeover of Taiwan by the Japanese, a victory of “civilized culture” over savagery. But this doesn’t take into account the Seediq Bale tribe, proud people who won’t accept this colonization, and are willing to go down in a flurry of violence to protect their society. While the Japanese are overwhelmingly armed, the tribes take the fight to them with stunning ferocity, and the non-actors who play the doomed survivors represent a startling collection of tough guy ass-kickers. WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW: SEEDIQ BALE is an important, untold segment of the historical record: it also happens to be almost non-stop incredible action.
Hard to pick one, since the film only increases in intensity as the Seediq Bale begin to diminish in numbers. That doesn’t stop them from increasing their savagery, however, and soon they’re collecting Japanese heads as trophies, a tribute to their gods who stubbornly won’t let them drop without an all-out fight.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Lem Dobbs
Den of Geek Action Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Audiences, meet Gina Carano, your new action superstar. In theory, that is: not many turned out for HAYWIRE earlier this year, even with golden boy Channing Tatum amongst the cast. Still, those who did go saw director Steven Soderbergh doing his best to launch Carano into the stratosphere with a stylish, old-school actioner about a spy who reacts to her burn notice with… just a little bit of “dissatisfaction.” There have been scores of action films where the lead was a martial artist and no one else remotely stood a chance. In HAYWIRE that invincible hero is a woman and Soderbergh is smart about laying on the role reversal. He allows Carano a chance to be bloodied and bowed, but our hero is otherwise unstoppable, as male assailants act surprised by her resilience. Beautiful and cocksure, Carano’s headstrong would-be Bourne is her own special effect in a series of standout brawls, taking her complaints up the chain of command one-elbow-at-a-time. HAYWIRE’s Carano may break a nail on her way up that chain, but she also breaks some skulls.
Carano and fellow agent Michael Fassbender are undercover, but she politely demurs to his flirtations. Once he takes her back to the hotel room, all bets are off and he attempts to take her down. But he fails to heed the suggestions of her superior, which is specifically to not think of her “as a woman” and she eventually, gruesomely dismantles him. The flirting, in “character,” is placed in a different light as they struggle and flail in their evening ballroom wear, until she subdues him between her legs. Poor guy never saw it coming.
1. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING
Directed by John Hyams
Written by John Hyams & Doug Magnuson & John Greenhaghl
Den of Geek Action Rating: 5 Stars Out of 5
What sort of implausibility is this? What series has two direct-to-cable sequels to a decent original film [UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992)], followed by not one, but two direct-to-DVD attempted reboots [UNIVERSAL SOLDIER II: BROTHERS IN ARMS (1998) and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: UNFINISHED BUSINESS (1998)] a terrible, “official,” theatrical sequel UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN (1999), a third “official” installment of the series, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION (2010) and finally one of the best films of the year? Perhaps it makes sense that UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING borrows very little from its predecessors, all four of them, including the most recent effort, since the implication is that this series is constantly restarting until it finally gets one right. Even then, the UNIVERSAL SOLDIER franchise is probably due to remain in flux forever. What’s surprising isn’t that the films have a new lead actor in Scott Adkins this time around, but that original hero Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), last seen given gravitas as a forever broken soldier in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION, has returned as something of the “bad guy.” What’s interesting is that, as UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING proceeds, it’s clear that Devereaux is soon going to be revealed as something more than a “bad guy,” but also something far less simple than what meets the eye. And UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING is the same, even if it’s dream-like storytelling gives way to the year’s more ferocious, unstoppable action sequences, using daredevil martial arts choreography to push the limits of the UniSol “narrative” to its ultimate extreme. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING is always changing, always evolving, but at the same time, director John Hyams understands how to make the steak sizzle and his genre subversion also allows him to provide exactly what the core audience came here for. Violent, hallucinatory, and completely badass, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING is easily the best action film of the year.
From the halfway point on, almost all of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING is an action highlight, though the best bit is probably when the film turns against brutish brawler Andrei Arlovski. Adkins soon learns that his skills go beyond simply defending himself and the two of them begin battling as a sporting goods store crumbles around them. With this self-awareness comes a stunning moment of action hero swagger, when a bowling ball is tossed Adkins’ way and a punch turns it to ash in mid-air. A brutal bat-fight follows, one of many delirious stand-up-and-cheer moments in a film that stands on the gas pedal at that point and doesn’t let go.