5. “Kill Bill” (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2)
There was a sense, after his first three films, that Tarantino was an American who had seen all the great Asian action movies – being able borrow from their coolness of style and nifty story devices – but that he didn’t possess a fraction of the filmmaking chops of the directors he admired. “Kill Bill” quickly put an end to that conversation.
Originally conceived as a single film before being split into two volumes thanks to a total running time of more than four hours, “Kill Bill” proved that Quentin Tarantino had serious martial arts directing talent to go along with his distinct taste for raw violence and endlessly entertaining action. Starring Uma Thurman as the Bride (aka Black Mamba), an assassin seeking revenge against the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad of which she herself was once a member, the two films follow Thurman as she tackles her to-kill list one by one, until she finds herself fighting dozens of henchmen at the same time, armed with just her samurai sword. The elaborate fight scenes rival those of any contemporary martial arts film, particularly the showdown with a 17-year-old girl whose weapon of choice, the Meteor Hammer, is a spiked ball on a chain. The four-hour affair is a bloody spectacle so epic in scope that it deserves to be seen as a complete whole. –GW
4. “The Raid”
Sony Pictures Classics
Few breakout hits like Gareth Evans’ “The Raid” come with quite so many broken bones. A ball-busting, body-bruising banger of a film, “The Raid” boasts the kind of action set pieces that most filmmakers dream of pulling off. Evans, however, fills his entire 2011 film to the brim with such pieces, building out his story like the most visceral and vibrant video game ever conceived. The crossover festival hit introduced scores of audiences to the punch-packing power of the Indonesian martial art of pencak silat and reasserted the dominance of marital arts in general when it comes to delivering original action offerings. –KE
3. “Miami Vice” (2006)
With the possible exception of Kathryn Bigelow, no director working today can externalize intensity and the pressure characters feel quite like Michael Mann. Brought together with the cool, slickness of the “Miami Vice” world Mann first established on network television in the 80s, the combination is like a perfectly salted, dark chocolate dessert. When the film was released, it was mocked for trying to be too cool – with Jamie Foxx and Colin Ferrell’s public personas it was easier to write the film off as egotistical excess. The visually-striking film was also seen as product of Mann’s emphasis of style over substance.
What people missed is its incredible colors, nighttime digital textures and dream-like movement. More than something pretty to look at, they conjure up the characters’ state of mind and the sort of hyper-reality in which all of Mann’s characters exist. Thematically, the film is a beautiful extension of Mann’s career-long examination of his characters’ obsession with their work and the human toll (made clearer in the director’s cut) it takes. Whereas Mann gets applauded for a similar approach in a film about a tobacco whistleblower (“The Insider”) or biopic about Muhammad Ali (“Ali”), what people failed to realize is that — freed from the boundaries of realism — “Miami Vice” is one of the purest, most enjoyable expressions of Mann’s vision. –CO
2. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)
The combinations behind this film seemed a bad idea – a director known for drama making a wuxia film with a Western audience in mind, considerable stars (Yun-Fat Chow, Michelle Yeah, Ziyi Zhang) learning Mandarin and doing all their own stunts, which would be accompanied by music from cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It all just seemed like too much. But director Ang Lee and co-writer/producer James Schamus brought everything together by approaching the film like an American musical. The emotional undercurrents of the characters and their conflicts are beautifully expressed in lavish action numbers that are simultaneously visceral, stunningly beautiful and emotionally powerful. The payoff was equally considerable, as the movie picked up 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, on its way to becoming the the highest-grossing foreign language film in American history. More importantly, its success opened the doors for Americans to start catching up on all the great Asian action films they had been missing. -CO
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
While making animation films, George Miller was liberated from practical constraints and able to put the camera exactly where he wanted it. Then, somehow, at the age of 75 he went to the desert to attempt the same thing (complete with 40 setups per scene), producing a live-action, high-speed, post-apocalyptic chase film. And he got a studio to pick up the $150 million tab. The film’s mere existence feels like a miracle. The action scenes themselves are dense and lightning-fast, but so perfectly orchestrated they never disappoint. Miller also doesn’t shy away from over-the-top flourishes like a flame-shooting guitar player, proving that even a serious action director can have fun with his material.
But underneath it all, there’s a dark soul to this film that feels more profound with each viewing. Much has been made about whether the film is indeed a feminist statement, or an exploitive work, given the preponderance of beautiful, captive women in torn costumes. Yet from this clear portrayal of subjugation emerges Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Miller’s greatest character, who takes the film over from Max and, with her sneakily not-so-helpless crew of chained women, aims to save the world from a hellish dystopia created by brutish men. It’s a world that initially feels somewhat ironic –a detached showcase for Miller’s considerable action chops – before transitioning into a profound quest for survival. Rarely in the young history of movies has a filmmaker reached quiet this high and somehow hit his mark. -CO
Honorable Mentions: “13 Assassins,” “Apocalypto,” “The Avengers,” “Bad Boys 2,” “Blade II,” “Blood and Bone,” “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” “Crank: High Voltage,” “Deadpool,” “District B13,” “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within,” “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” “Hanna,” “Hot Fuzz,” “House Of Flying Daggers,” “Ip Man,” “Kick Ass,” “The Man From Nowhere,” “The Raid 2,” “Red Cliff,” “Shaolin Soccer,” “Skyfall,” “Taken,” “Unleashed,” “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?,” “Wonder Woman.”