Monday, January 6, 2014

Heavy Action: 2013 in Review

Let's take a look back at every kick, punch and snappy one-liner.

Action movies are in kind of a weird place right now. There's a renaissance of sorts taking place, but it's one that's stuck in the past. The resurgence of action movies in the last few years owes a lot to the popularity of The Expendables franchise, a series of films I love on paper but have yet to really enjoy in practice. So for as much as it has been great to see Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Bruce Willis all back on the big screen in 2013 doing their '80s best, the creeping nostalgia of it all ends up limiting where the genre can go. If it isn't a throwback, an action movie has to pass itself off inside of some other genre -- superhero movies, science fiction, whatever. Hollywood seems insistent that pure action movies are a relic of the past, and to prove it they'll only give us films starring 65-year old men.

Yes, this was the year that marked Arnold Schwarzenegger's comeback to action movies after eight years as Governor of California and two bad cameos in the Expendables movies (plus one great cameo in The Rundown). Not only was the very enjoyable The Last Stand Arnold's first starring vehicle since Collateral Damage, it was also the American directorial debut of the great Kim Jee-woon. The movie has plenty of problems, but it's a perfect vehicle for Schwarzenegger's comeback.

Stallone made his own old-school action movie with Bullet to the Head, the long-awaited directorial return of Walter Hill. As a fan of the kinds of movies to which this was paying tribute and of Walter Hill's throwback style, I wanted to like this one way more than I did. There are some good scenes, at least one good performance and nice touches courtesy of Hill, but the movie doesn't work.
Even teaming up Schwarzenegger and Stallone didn't do the trick. Escape Plan (formerly The Tomb), a movie that on paper makes my #HeavyAction heart swell with excitement, failed to deliver on the 30+ years' worth of promise in a Schwarzenegger/Stallone buddy movie. The biggest problem is that there was very little action (#LittleAction), but also that the movie was boring and lifeless anytime Schwarzenegger wasn't on screen. Of all this year's theatrical action films, this one was the most disappointing.

And then there was Bruce Willis, rounding out the Holy Trinity of '80s action stars with A Good Day to Die Hard. Even if you weren't a fan of The Last Stand or Bullet to the Head, at least those movies were trying to do something sincere and affectionate towards classic action. A Good Day to Die Hard is a cynical exercise in smug, dickish destruction. John McClane is no longer a likable smartass, he's just an asshole. The dynamic with his kid sucks. The Russian setting adds nothing. The villain is the worst. The action is badly conceived, staged and photographed. The only way it could be further from Die Hard is if they recast Bruce Willis.

Jason Statham had three movies released in 2013, and none of them are classic Statham. His first, Parker, is another take on Donald Westlake's famous character (previously brought to screen in Point Blank and Payback, both of which are better movies) that, under the direction of Taylor Hackford, is a schizophrenic mess. His second movie, Redemption (aka Hummingbird), isn't really an action movie at all, but rather a crime drama. It's not bad and I like seeing Statham do different things, but don't be fooled that it's another Crank or Safe or Blitz or Schwing! or Barf. His third and final 2013 effort, Homefront, is probably the best of the three and is worth seeing as a Heavy Action fan if only because it was written by Sylvester Stallone. If they could have had Dolph Lundgren direct the damn thing it would have covered all the bases.
Speaking of Dolph, he also had three movies go directly to DVD in 2013. The first, The Package, casts Lundgren as the bad guy opposite Stone Cold Steve Austin. The movie is pretty excellent; Dolph is good as always, but this was really the first time I liked Steve Austin in a movie. It's the best thing he's made to date. Blood of Redemption (the kind of meaningless and generic title that gives DTV action a bad name), which co-stars Vinnie Jones, Robert Davi and Billy Zane, sucked. Finally, there was Ambushed, which had some cool Dolph vs. Randy Couture stuff (they're both cops) but not nearly enough of it. Stick with The Package.

Steven Seagal only put out one movie this year: Force of Execution (the kind of meaningless and generic title that gives DTV action an even worse name. Seriously, most DTV action movie title seemed generated by Mad Libs). It's another entry in his Southern Accent Series (the one that follows his "Russian" period), and except for his goatee is totally unremarkable. It's frustrating that while many of his contemporaries are doing more interesting work or finding ways to age into their careers, Seagal and director Keoni Waxman continues to lazily repeat themselves. It's especially sad every time I see Pistol Whipped pop up on TV, because that one made it seem like Seagal was going in a better direction.

2014 is looking pretty thin for theatrical action (that isn't masquerading as something else). Besides Schwarzenegger in Sabotage (which can't come out soon enough), we're really only getting The Expendables 3. Maybe this will be the one they get right? And just how many passes am I supposed to give this franchise just because I admire the intent and have affection for the actors?

There is, of course, one more 2014 action movie worth mentioning. It's the one against which everything else will be measured. I'll get to that.

Let's take one more look at the highs and lows in #HeavyAction this year.

Best Action Movie, Blockbuster Division
Fast and Furious 6

Best Action Movie, Foreign Division
Drug War
Best Action Movie, DTV Division
Ninja: Shadow of a Tear. No huge stunts. No CGI. Scott Adkins and Kane Kosugi are their own special effects. For pure hand-to-hand kickassery, there was no better movie in 2013.

Best Actor: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan. Technically, it's a supporting performance, but Schwarzenegger is so good that he elevates the entire movie. He gets to be funny (one commenter, JK47, correctly nominated Schwarzenegger smiling for the camera as one of the best moments of the year), he gets kick ass (not enough, but ok) and he gets one scene in which he screams and pleads with his torturers totally in German that's the best acting he's ever done.

Best Action Sequence:
The tank chase in Fast and Furious 6
The siege on the town in The Last Stand
The bar fight in Ninja: Shadow of a Tear
The final shootout in Drug War

Best Villain:
It's hard to beat Louis Koo in Drug War, but since that's technically more of a crime film I'll go with Jason Mamoa in Bullet to the Head. Like Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan, Mamoa is in a different, much better movie and his performance alone makes the movie worth seeing. Plus, you know, Ronan Dex. SGA represent.
Best Surprise
The Package

Worst Sequel:
A Good Day to Die Hard. Even if the character we once knew as John McClane hadn't been ruined, even if this wasn't the fifth sequel and a pale, pale imitation of the greatest action movie ever made, A Good Day to Die Hard would still be terrible. It's a bad movie, sequel or not. That it has the words Die Hard in the title make it unforgivable.

Worst New Action Star
Kellan Lutz, Java Heat. He's a less handsome, less charismatic Ryan Phillippe. How did this guy get  a spot in the new Expendables movie? And while we're talking about Java Heat, how is Mickey Rourke already back to doing his bad guy act from Double Team? Wasn't he nominated for an Oscar just a few years ago?
Worst Action Movie, Blockbuster Division
White House Down

Worst Action Movie, DTV Division
Tough one. I might have to go with Blood of Redemption, if only for all freeze-frame character introductions, the Usual Suspects plot twists and Billy Zane's face.  
Action Movies I've Already Forgotten:
2 Guns, Olympus Has Fallen, Dead Man Down

Action Movie I Can't Wait to Forget:
Machete Kills 

Action Movie I Still Haven't Seen:
Man of Tai Chi

Action Movie I Can't Wait to See in 2014
The Raid 2: Berandal. 2014 will go down as the year of The Raid 2.

Is it March yet?

What movies do you want to see covered in Heavy Action this year? Sound off in the comments below.


  1. This year, I would like to see you do a Charlie Sheen double feature for Heavy Action with a dose of Navy SEALS and Terminal Velocity. Since one skydiving movie was covered before (Drop Zone), I think the other one should have its due.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Leo. I've always planned to do Navy SEALS with Act of Valor, which I still haven't seen. But maybe I'll turn it into a Sheen double feature instead.

      I haven't seen Terminal Velocity in a long time, but I remember liking it. There was a great scene where two guys eat mints for a really long time.

    2. The classic Sheen/Gandolfini scene.

  2. My Heavy Action Wishlist

    1. The Hard Way
    2. The Transporter series(or just Transporter 2)
    3. The Rookie(the Clint Eastwood/Charlie Sheen team-up America didn't ask for!)

    1. All good picks. I'll make it happen. Thanks, Shannon!

  3. I'd really want "The Long Kiss Goodnight" to get the Heavy Action treatment because, well, Shane Black... need I say more? It's one of the few movies that have used Geena Davis' tall physicality to the benefit of the movie (can you guess the other? Hint: Renny Harlin also directed it). Plus, given he has turned into such a cartoon character recently ("Robocop" trailer, "Oldboy," etc.), I want to be reminded of a time Samuel L. Jackson as the foul-mouthed sidekick was something to look forward to.

    1. That's another one that's been on the back burner for a while. It was going to get the double-feature treatment with Point of No Return, but maybe I'll just give it its own column. Thanks for the suggestion!

  4. I've seen the majority of these and I think you summed up the action year really well. I haven't seen those Dolph movies, though. I can't keep up with him.

    I liked Bullet to the Head more than The Last Stand, but I think that's because I like Stallone a little bit more than Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger's movie has a more compelling story, but I like the darker tone of the Stallone film. And I think that John McClane parallels Bruce Willis in no longer being a likable smartass, but just an asshole now, which is really depressing. When did this happen? It's gotten to the point that I usually want to avoid movies he's in because he's so smug. Wasn't it earlier this year that he was talking about being really tired of making action movies? Then stop, Mr. Willis. If you're going to phone it in and you don't want to be there then we won't want to see you in them either.

    Also, I really like the two Expendables movies. I seem to be kind of on my own with those movies and the happiness they bring me. It's a simple happiness, but they work for me. Have you seen the director's cut of the first Expendables? I'm not saying it completely changes the movie, and I generally hate director's cuts, but it does offer some interesting alternates to the film that we saw theatrically. It's the one I watch now, as it seems to be Stallone's preferred cut.

    1. I have NOT seen the director's cut of Expendables, but now I feel like I need to (great, now this AND A Good Day to Die Hard?). I just rewatched Expendables 2, and there's a LOT to like in that movie. I just think the script is so terrible in places where it doesn't need to be, and Stallone and Statham appear to have been allowed to ad lib all of their dialogue and it's terrible. What kills it is all the jokey self-referential stuff, which is the WORST. And Chuck Norris, who defines "worst." But Van Damme is off-the-charts incredible as the villain, so I can always have fun with his stuff. I liked the movie more than I remember, but it's still a frustrating experience. Those things should be so great because we carry in such good will, but both times I feel like there are big problems getting in the way. In the first movie it was the direction, in the second it's the writing.

  5. I can't f'ing wait for The Raid 2 - the original sparked an unfortunately short-lived excitement for Heavy Action that I'd like to rekindle.

    Drug War sounds awesome - I just remembered it was one of your Netflix picks - I have brought great shame upon my family for not watching it yet!

    Great article Patrick - I'll use it as a guide going forward! Unfortunately I have no suggestions as you've covered all my faves I can think about.

  6. Patrick,

    I gotta disagree big time with White House Down being the Worst Action Movie - Blockbuster. #1 Worst Action movie this year, hands down was A Good Day to Die Hard. White House Down is one of my favorite action movies of the year (stay with me here). I know I am in the minority here - but White House Down to me seemed like a perfect homage even remake of Die Hard, so much so I kind of want to believe it was even intentionally meant to be that! Die Hard is the greatest action movie ever made, hands down. If you watch White House Down with that film in your head, you will see so many comparisons it's unreal. Just replace Holly Generro with the little girl and it's the same plot. Even Channing pops up in the kitchen fight scene wearing a wife beater out of nowhere! As I was typing this I decided to google "White House Down Die Hard" and this came up Pretty legit as it made me feel like I'm not the only one who thought this. White House Down is what GDTDH should have been.

    Also, I loved 2 guns and Dead Man Down. 2 guns is based on a graphic novel and I felt like it was. It was silly, over the top, overstylized and the plot was a mess, but I enjoyed every minute of it for some reason. Just felt fun as I had zero expectations.

    Dead Man Down was just a raw, evil spirited movie that reminded me of those kind of DTV movies from the 80's (none of which I can think of titles right now, of course).

    I definitely agree the Raid 2 is my most anticipated this year!
    To me, the Raid Redemption was the best action movie since Die Hard.

    1. Thanks, Chaybee. AGDTDH is definitely a worse movie than White House Down, but because it had already been named the "worst" something I wasn't going to name it twice. I had barely any expectations for AGDTDH because I haven't really liked the last three installments; for some reason, I had high hopes for White House Down and felt really, really disappointed by it. There's a good movie on paper -- as you say, Die Hard in the White House, Channing Tatum, Roland Emmerich doing his dopey thing. I just didn't think any of the movie worked and was constantly being undercut by some of the worst humor in an action movie in a long, long time. I just thought it was a total letdown, especially considering the money and resources they had. But I'm glad you liked it! We need more action movies!

      I didn't hate 2 Guns or Dead Man Down, I'm just struggling to remember anything about them.

  7. Hey Patrick,

    Totally makes sense. Whereas you had high expectations for WHD I had ZERO expectations therefore I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. I completely understand your stance now. And you are right - the humor was pretty awful.

    BTW- to answer the actual question you asked (sorry, I commented on the post and not the question) How bout giving Jeff Speakman's "The Perfect Weapon" the Heavy Action!? Completely slept on action flick.

    1. Yes! I finally have a copy and have NEVER SEEN IT, so it should be interesting. Thanks!

  8. Thanks for the shout out, Mr. Bromley.

    Like you mentioned in the Jingle All The Way podcast, Arnold is a good comedic actor in the right role. I'm also looking forward to Sabotage, but I’m kind of hoping The Twins’ sequel Triplets that Arnold mentioned in his Total Recall autobiography will get made and give Arnold another chance at comedy.

    The theatrical cut of AGDTDH gets my worst vote (blockbuster or sequel), but I maybe legally insane for saying I think the extended cut is OK. At least the extra footage makes the big chase sequence more coherent & they got rid of Lucy's ridiculous phone call during it.

    Can we somehow put Dredd on the best of 2013 list? Except for the 24 people who saw it in the theaters back in Sept 2012, almost all of us saw it in Jan. 2013 when it became available to rent or buy. Isn’t there some loophole we can exploit?

    “I had barely any expectations for AGDTDH because I haven't really liked the last three installments”

    So that means, you didn’t like Die Hard with a Vengeance (?).

    I want Die Hard with a Vegenance to get a heavy action treatment so Bromley can explain why he doesn’t like it. I wasn’t a big fan of the racial angle, but Samuel L. Jackson’s performance was energetic & he had great chemistry with Willis in the sidekick role. Jeremy Irons was awesome as Simon & I loved how his masterplan to target McClane as a diversion, made it believable that the same shit could happen to the same guy three times. The action was well staged & directed right from the beginning with the bombing. (If people are complaining about McClane surfing the dump truck as over the top, then I guess they had no problems with how “realistic” it was for McClane to jump off an exploding building with a fire hose to save his life in the original.) Unlike AGDTDH with Russia, McTiernan really used New York to have an effect on the story and give it its’ own atmosphere. Good acting, a great charismatic villain, a solid plot, & good action that we can tell what is happening on the screen, what more could you ask from an action flick?

    1. I have not yet seen the extended cut of AGDTDH, and now I'm angry with you because you have me convinced I need to. So THANKS A LOT.

      I know, I know -- I don't really like Die Hard with a Vengeance. I won't make a case that it's a bad movie. It's just not one I like much, mostly because to me it's not really Die Hard. I don't like pairing John McClane up with someone else. I don't like having him run all over the city. Those are just person preferences as to what a Die Hard movie "should" be. It's a fine version of the movie it is (not the sign-wearing scene...never the sign-wearing scene), but I don't like it as much as the first two. On the positive side, it is my third favorite Die Hard movie.

    2. I ask this without any snark because I'm 100% on board with your feelings regarding the franchise - it's just a DEEP, PHILOSOPHICAL PONDERANCE: Assuming that the formula perfected by the original and copied more-or-less successfully in the first sequel would inevitably go stale if they were to simply change the setting and villains every time, should they simply have stopped after two or should we be begrudgingly grateful for the more McClane we got? Or I guess a third option which throws out the initial assumption - should they have just keep pumping out the one guy/one place sequels, staleness be damned?

      I guess my hope for the franchise at this point would be that, now that we have three movies' distance from the first two, they return to that original formula for one last hurrah before they close it out.

    3. That's a great question. Making more sequels in the exact same vein as the original would have been a mistake, so I get why they felt like things needed to be opened up and changed for DHWAV (plus, Die Hard ripoffs had become their own genre at that point, meaning the sequels would have been competing with imitators of itself). I don't begrudge the movie its fans, it's just not for me. It's the last two sequels that I wish maybe hadn't been made, because I think they get it wrong AND are mostly bad movies (LFODH is not the worst, but also not very good).