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 2016—superhero movies excluded (they make an action movie list too easy).
Mel Gibson has only worked sporadically since he made some terribly racist comments in the mid-2000s, but movies like Blood Father remind us why he’s such a compelling on-screen presence. He’s got the dramatic depth to draw us in and he’s got the physicality to handle himself in the action scenes. Behind the camera, he’s even better. And while he didn’t direct Blood Father, instead only starring in it, it’s a reminder of how good he can be if he’s allowed to work.
In Blood Father, Gibson stars as the father of a teenager who is in some trouble with drug dealers. They want her, he wants to stop them from getting her. It’s simple, but it’s executed well and is a very solid and fun B-movie.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny
The first Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of the best martial arts movies that was shown in North American cinemas—admittedly, it’s picking from a relatively small sample size. Ang Lee’s film is gorgeous, tells a great story, and has wonderfully choreographed fight scenes. So when Netflix announced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, a sequel more than a decade and a half later, it was met with fair skepticism.
To be fair to those skeptics, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny doesn’t come very close to topping or even matching its predecessor. Comparing it to the first—and it has many plot threads that feel similar—does it no favors. But taken on its own merits, it’s a solid martial arts movie with a decent story and great fight scenes. It lacks the character depth and the gorgeousness from the first, but it’s good.
Green Room is a horror movie with some absolutely brutal action scenes—not a ton of them, mind, but it’s so good that I wanted to make sure it got an inclusion. Its plot sees a punk band get attacked by neo-Nazis after bearing witness to a murder at a club. They have to figure out how to escape and defend themselves. It’s a lot of fun, it has its moments of terror, and its action scenes are great. And it’s got Patrick Stewart playing the leader of the skinheads.
Mel Gibson got a mention earlier for Blood Father but he returns behind the camera for the first time in almost a decade with Hacksaw Ridge. This is a movie that is, ironically, about a pacifist in the army. He’s a medic who refuses to carry a gun due to his belief in the “Thou shalt not kill” commandment. But he sure witnesses a ton of warfare around him, and it’s … very violent. This is a graphic, bloody war film—I’ve heard it described as “war porn”—and it’s very good. It even got nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.
High-Rise is a high-concept movie about the residents in a tower block that’s separated by class and soon enough degenerates into class warfare. It’s a smart “message movie,” it looks great, and it’s got a wickedly dark sense of humor. Does it have a ton of action? Not really, but unless my memory has completely failed me, there’s enough to warrant an inclusion here—especially in its second half.
Ip Man 3
If you haven’t been watching the Ip Man movies, well, you’re probably not alone. They don’t get much play in North America, but they’re all good movies—even if they’ve been slowly bleeding quality since the first. They’re martial arts movies starring Donnie Yen and, honestly, that should be enough. Yen is so talented that you shouldn’t need more reason to check it out. As is the case with most martial arts movies, the fight scenes are the main reasons to check it out—but since it’s the third movie, you’ll also have an affinity for the character, assuming you watch the first two before this one.
The Bourne franchise may never get back to the heights it established with its initial trilogy, but Jason Bourne was a decent, if unspectacular, return for Matt Damon to the franchise. It’s like a light version of the first three movies—especially from a plot perspective—but the action is where the film shines. I’m more or less over the shaky-cam, quick-cut action scenes, but seeing the team that popularized it serves as a reminder of how effective it can be when done right.
Mr. Right is about a hitman who murders the people who hire him because, and I quote, “murder is wrong.” If that sounds like the type of quirky comedy you find enjoyable, then you should see Mr. Right immediately. It has some solid action scenes—as you’d expect given that it’s about a hitman—and it also has great quirky comedy and a solid love story. A triple threat, I guess.
The Nice Guys
The Nice Guys is one of 2016’s best movies overall. It’s a detective, comedy, action movie about two guys trying to investigate the disappearance of a teenager girl. Their rapport is great, what action we do get is strong, it’s really funny, and the mystery at its core is pretty good. It’s compelling story, and it makes great use of its 1970s setting.
Shane Black has quietly made a great career for himself, having previous directed Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Iron Man 3 and working as a writer in the ’80s and ’90s on movies like Lethal Weapon and Predator. He’s pretty underappreciated, I think.
Star Trek Beyond
While not a terribly large fan of the previous Star Trek reboot films, Star Trek Beyond worked well for me. It’s heavy on action and great special effects, it has enough character moments to be effective on that level, and it takes us in enough fun directions to keep us interested. The setup—the USS Enterprise crashes and many of its members are separated on a new-to-them planet—is solid and the execution is effective.