No, it’s not really an “action film” in the Steven Seagal sense. It doesn’t have the set pieces, fistfights or chases that characterize the genre. But JC Chandor‘s gripping one-man-show, in which Robert Redford battles the elements and his sinking boat in the middle of the ocean with no means of communication, is, on another level, the purest action film on this whole list: all it is, from punchy beginning to harrowing, waterlogged end, is action. This can almost be to the detriment of the film as a classic entertainment piece: we get next to no characterization of the Redford character aside from him being essentially the personification of the will to survive, and there is no arc of change or growth to speak of. But Chandor more than makes up for it with his clinical, procedural attention to the minutiae of wave, rope and cleat, and some astonishing editing and scoring that amount to the viewer feeling as alone, stranded, weather beaten and breathless as our near-wordless hero.19. “Elite Squad” (2007)
The first fiction film for Brazilian documentarian Jose Padilha (whose “Robocop” remake was more interesting than it had a right to be, and whose “Narcos” comes to Netflix next month), “Elite Squad” is a tough-as-fuck cop movie that takes a look at the “favelas” from the other side of the law in Brazil, and more specifically the BOPE, the special-forces unit who essentially undertake urban warfare against the country’s citizens. Shot in an arresting but mostly clear hand-held manner, it’s as focused on the internal politics of the unit (led by the excellent Wagner Moura) as on shootouts, but each work neatly alongside each other, leading up to a gripping couple of hours that unsurprisingly made Padilha a hot property. Controversial at the time (it was condemned as fascistic by some, only for Costa-Gavras’ jury to give it the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival), it also led to a marginally inferior sequel a few years later.
A Jamie Foxx-starring remake is on the way in 2016, which makes this the perfect time to catch up on this terminally underseen French actioner from a few years back. Written and directed by Frederic Jardin (who surprisingly hasn’t been snapped up for blockbuster duty yet), “Sleepless Night” stars Tomer Sisley as a corrupt cop who rips off a drug deal, only for the dealer who owns the merchandise to kidnap his son to get it back, and for the coke to then disappear as well. Set almost entirely in a single location, a nightclub owned by the dealer, and deviously plotted, it’s got a killer momentum from the first scene and mixes a certain Michael Mann-ish vibe with brutal realism (the fights are positively vicious) that packs a punch. Add in a surprisingly well-realized father-son storyline, and you have one of the great overlooked genre pictures of the last few years.17. ”Ong Bak” (2003)
Complete with a daft plot involving a sacred icon stolen from a small village and the purehearted local sent into Bangkok’s seamy underbelly to retrieve it, “Ong Bak” won’t win any prizes for thematic complexity. But it serves a much higher purpose: it was the international audience’s solar-plexus introduction to the martial art of Muay Thai, and its foremost filmic practitioner Tony Jaa. The action sequences in this film, whether street brawls or successive one-on-one underground fights, are little short of revelatory, and Jaa is simply Bruce-Lee-beautiful to watch. Regular director Prachya Pinkaew serves his grace and atheticism perfectly —arguably, he’d do so even more in the “Ong-Bak” prequels and the “The Protector” series (“Where’s my elephant?”), but without “Ong-Bak,” none of that would have been possible. But don’t trust us on this —trust legendary MMA champion Anderson Silva, who first came to UFC attention by felling an opponent with an elbow strike he learned from Jaa in this very film.16. “Fast Five” (2011)
With “Furious 7“‘s insane box office performance ($1.5bn+, 5th highest grossing film of all time worldwide), it’s possible to see franchise high watermark “Fast Five” as somewhat quaint: aww, it only took $650m! But the Justin Lin film reinvented the “Fast and Furious” series by bringing it out of the street-racing ghetto and into the vehicular heist movie territory it now occupies. And female ciphers aside, it’s still the best installment, combining a buddy dynamic between series stalwart Vin Diesel and crucial new addition Dwayne Johnson (“I’m in, Toretto”) with a ludicrous plot whereby they literally drag an entire vault out of a building and go careening down city streets with it bumping along behind, magically only taking out the bad guys. If the sky is now the limit for this franchise (and maybe not even that after the plane-drop scene in “Furious 7”), it’s really due to the good-humored, testosterone-soaked nonsense repped first and best by “Fast Five.”