Ah, action movies. They’re the popcorn movies that drive people in droves to the cinema—at least, in theory. “Shut off your brain and watch people shoot and punch other people for 90 minutes,” many of them advertise. Of course, the good action movies give you more than that. They’ll deliver memorable characters or throw ideas at you. Or, some of them just do the “pure action” thing at such a high level of quality that you can’t help but be appreciative.
Here are the top action movies of 2017—superhero movies excluded (they’ve got their own list).
Atomic Blonde is a spy thriller that stars Charlize Theron who has to locate a list of double agents that’s circulating in Berlin right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. If the list gets out, lots of agents die. It gets more complicated and twisty than that, but that’s the gist of it.
Atomic Blonde has what might be the action scene of the year, which is a one-take-looking (it has hidden edits but looks like it’s one take) staircase fight scene that’s eight minutes long and looks absolutely grueling for everyone involved. It’s so impressive that you’ll want to rewind the film wand watch it again. There’s other action in the film, too, and it’s a pretty solid watch overall, but that one scene will linger in many viewers’ minds for a long time.
Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver has some fantastic car scenes—the likes of which you don’t often get to see, in large part because most car movies have so many cuts that you only get a vague idea of what’s going on. He does one better, choreographing many of the scenes to synchronize with the film’s soundtrack. It’s a lot of fun, it’s pretty funny, the soundtrack is great, and it’s so well made that you’ll want to give it a hug.
Dunkirk might admittedly be stretching the definition of “action film,” but almost all war movies have enough action in them to be classified as such, at least as far as I’m concerned. This one is set during the evacuation of Dunkirk in WWII, showcasing three perspectives—from the land, the air, and the sea—all set over different amounts of time. It’s a clever conceit.
Christopher Nolan directed Dunkirk, which should be enough to get you to watch it right there and then. He’s a great director and Dunkirk is a very good movie. It drops you right into these scenarios and really aims to immerse you. It isn’t exploitative, which it could have been—it’s a PG-13 war movie—and it has some truly stunning moments.
The Fate of the Furious
Somewhere along the way, the Fast and Furious franchise became a viable series of action movies. It was around part 5, when The Rock showed up. The focus has become less on cars and more on being semi-superheroes who use cars as the primary tool to accomplish tasks. They also repeat “family” a lot, which is sometimes annoying but at least gives the franchise a theme.
They also get to do crazy stunts. It’s detached itself from reality for the most part, but that means you get to see things that are impossible—and if that’s not a reason to go to the movies, I don’t know what is. The Fate of the Furious is the eighth of these, and it’s a lot of fun—just know what to expect.
Free Fire is set almost exclusively in one location and primarily involves people shooting at other people. Somehow, it remains compelling for most of its brief running time. Its characters are interesting and get in a lot of good lines of dialogue, there are some inventive ways to keep the shooting fresh, and it’s surprisingly funny. It’s very simple in premise and execution, but it’s effective.
John Wick: Chapter 2
The first John Wick movie came out of relative nowhere in 2014. It looked like one of those direct-to-video movies that older (read: 40+) stars do for a paycheck or if they’re bored, but it somehow made it into theaters. It is great. It has some of the best action of its year, reminded us how much fun Keanu Reeves can be, and left us wanting more.
We got more with John Wick: Chapter 2, and it didn’t disappoint. While it might have missed out on a bit of the emotion heft of its predecessor, it made up for it with fantastic action sequences and a relentless pace. It also contained a reunion between two Matrix stars, and that was pretty sweet.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle
Much like the first John Wick movie, the first Kingsman movie was a delightful surprise of a movie that looked like it didn’t have much of a shot at being good. It surprised us with its humor, its stylistic action, and its endearing characters—as well as its satirization of spy movies.
Its sequel disappointed some people, but I wasn’t among them. Despite being a little bit too long, it provides us with a great villain, a lot of fun characters, the same great action, and more than a few laughs. It also probably has the best non-actor celebrity cameo of 2017.
Set in an office building which has a convenient outbreak of a “do whatever you want” virus, Mayhem follows a disgruntled employee and a declined customer as they work their way up to the boss that screwed them over. It’s funny, creative, has a message, and it’s very violent. Joe Lynch directed Mayhem, and along with Everly—a movie most people slept on—has proven himself a very good action director.
War for the Planet of the Apes
The final movie in the most recent Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes is a more-than-fitting conclusion. It has more ape vs. human warfare, this time pitting Caesar, the main ape, against a villain played by Woody Harrelson, who plays the leader of a paramilitary organization designed to ensure humans remain the dominant species on the planet.
This one doesn’t have quite as much action as many of the movies on this list, but what it does have is solid, its emotionally compelling, it has great performances, and the special effects to create the apes are something else.
xXx: Return of Xander Cage
I love the goofy fun that comes with xXx: Return of Xander Cage. It’s a silly action movie that doesn’t even come close to taking itself seriously, and stars a team of extreme athletes hired by the government to take down another team of extreme athletes all over a magical MacGuffin that can blow up satellites and use them as missiles.
Its action is really good and it has a solid cast of international stars. It really wants to be the next Fast and Furious movie—but without cars—given how hard it pushes its “family is important” theme, but if that’s what Vin Diesel’s career becomes, I can think of worse things.