Beginning life as a trailer in the Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse, Machete in some ways surpasses its beginnings. Intentionally lurid, it’s a tribute to Grindhouse films but also manages to stand on its own, not as a pastiche but as a deliberately campy action film.
Machete follows Danny Trejo as the title character, a Federale who is hired to assassinate a Texas senator … and is then betrayed and left for dead. Of course, he survives and goes out after his former boss.
The film makes use of a formidable cast: Trejo is great fun, but he’s got Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Robert de Niro, Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin and, yes, Lindsay Lohan as a nun backing him up. The intentional campiness, the extreme violence and lines like ‘Machete don’t text’ keep the film from becoming too serious, too bloody or too … weird. It bends genre as only Rodriguez can, and really gets away with murder. Deliberately excessive, tongues reside firmly in cheeks here. I never thought I’d say this, but Lindsay Lohan was pretty cool.
99. Mr. and Mrs. Smith
For most people, discovering their spouse is a secret agent would come as quite a shock, but when it turns out you’re a secret agent as well, and their assignment is to kill you, well, that makes for an awesome action flick.
Of course, the film is driven by some great chemistry from the now perpetually engaged Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but the action sequences are as sharp as they are sexy. It’s a great love movie crossover, answering the question of what happens when love gets lethal in a way no normal romantic film could handle.
Director Doug Liman took what he learned working on Bourne and applied it to this film to provide a high adrenaline action extravaganza, one that is worthy of a spot on this list.
This 2010 action comedy was essentially an agreeably absurd, feature-length excuse to hand Helen Mirren a machine gun, but, if you think about it, there’s nothing really wrong with that.
RED follows a group of former black-ops CIA agents, designated Retired and Extremely Dangerous, who are forced back into action after their names land on a government hit list. Aside from Mirren, RED boasts such big-name stars such as Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Richard Dreyfuss, and Mary Louise Parker.
It nothing else, the film deserves some serious credit for balancing great action sequences with a light, playful tone and absolutely killer dialogue, and for starting the most unlikely action franchise in Hollywood today.
Taken as an action movie, RED isn’t perfect. But taken as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to old-school shoot-em-ups, starring a group of Hollywood veterans who are in on the joke, RED is pretty darn satisfying, and absolutely deserves a place on this list.
97. Tears of the Sun
Tears of the Sun holds a special place in my heart, as it was actually the first R-rated film I went to on my own, despite not being 17.
Following the fad at the time, the film tells the story of an elite Navy SEAL team traveling to Nigeria during a civil war in order to rescue a U.S. citizen doctor before she is caught in the cross fire. The “lives of many for the chance to save one” theme was re-popularized with Saving Private Ryan a few years earlier and it carries through here.
The team is faced with an endless jungle, not knowing who might be friend or foe, and facing atrocities of ruthless warlords who are masters at murder and torture. One scene in particular, in which the women had their breasts cut off with a machete to prevent them from feeding future children still sticks with me to this day.
Although not the deepest or most original plot, Tears of the Sun keeps me on my toes throughout and reminded me that action doesn’t have to glorify war and violence to get its point across.
96. Patriot Games
Visceral and intense, this second film featuring Tom Clancy’s CIA Analyst Jack Ryan finds him foiling by happenstance an assassination attempt on British royalty, and as a result finding himself the target of Sean Bean’s personal vendetta over his brother felled in the melee.
Now played by Harrison Ford (having taken over from The Hunt for Red October’s Alec Baldwin), Jack faces a relentless, organized, well-supported foe the likes of which give his own considerable CIA resources a run for their money ~ and one having every intention of unleashing hell not only on Jack, but upon all he holds dear (Bean’s the closest thing to the Terminator that one’s likely to find in human form).
It’s a riveting, relentless debate sparked by international intrigue and politics packed with dazzling technology, but distilling powerfully into the unrestrained mortal combat of two individuals for the ultimate, most personal cause.
95. Clear and Present Danger
After being ensconced in the small, combustible worlds of submarines and personal vendettas (The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games, respectively), this time we meet Tom Clancy’s CIA Analyst Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) amid the sprawling intra and intermural machinations between a Mexican drug cartel and the highest levels of American government.
Upon discovering the unauthorized, amoral operation underway (via an award-worthy sequence that will leave you dazed), Jack sets about disrupting it ~ to the puppetmasters’ great chagrin (and Henry Czerny’s deliciously seething, “You are ssssuch a Boy Scout”).
The factions have already demonstrated admirable prowess with missile and military, now it’s time to see who can outsmart whom (as well as neutralize Ryan and his annoying new cohorts). Alternatively explosive and calculating, furious and chilling, nerve-jangling and passionate, callous and noble, this is an action film for the ages.
94. Hot Fuzz
Much like the rom-zom-com that Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost teamed-up on previously, Hot Fuzz isn’t one movie so much as three different ones stuffed together.
First, it’s a dry British comedy, then a small town murder mystery, and finally, a completely off the chain tribute to some of the greatest (ironically or otherwise) action movies ever made, from Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, to Point Break and Bad Boys II.
Starting with a classic oddball pairing of Pegg as the hard-nosed, by-the-book supercop Nicholas Angel, and Frost as his bumbling partner with something to prove, Hot Fuzz cheekily takes its time contrasting real world police work, and the utter insanity of how it’s portrayed in the movies.
Then, in its last act, the film makes reference and reverence to its new reality, leaving the paperwork back at the police station, and unleashing a spectacle that’s no mere cover band tribute to the classics. Nick and Danny taking on an entire township is inventive, funny, and just a whole lot of fun, all without sacrificing the film’s carefully modulated characters and tone by being unnecessarily violent.
True to their geek roots, Wright and company didn’t set out to make a cool action movie, just one that showed how much they love the genre as a whole, and in the process, staked their claim in the hallowed halls of hallow-points and hellacious action.
93. Bad Boys
Can you believe that this movie was originally pitched as a project for Saturday Night Live pair John Lovitz and Dana Carvey instead of Martin Lawrence and Will Smith? That’s just one of the many hiccups that took Bad Boys on the course of being a pseudo-cop spoof starring two SNL vets called “Bulletproof Hearts” to being the action/comedy breakthrough hit that gave both Will Smith and Michael Bay long and prosperous careers.
The story is simply about two Miami narcotics detectives whose good time hanging out and shooting the breeze is interrupted by the $100 million in cocaine they confiscated being stolen from evidence lock-up. But really, story doesn’t matter because with his first film, Bay had already perfected his patented blend of cinematographic and editorial quirks. You’ve got the quick cuts, the odd angles, and the persistent need for everything to look cool constantly.
As numerous critics at the time pointed out, Bad Boys was kind of formulaic, but if Bay got one thing right, it was recognizing the chemistry and comedic timing of his leads. Smith and Lawrence performed many of their scenes improvising their dialogue, something that Bay encouraged on set and worked on with the two actors. The charm was enough to win movies audiences, and the non-stop action and Bay’s energetic, pinball style fostered from his years working in music videos overcame any complaints that Bad Boys was just another buddy cop movie. And while Bay’s style hasn’t won much love from critics, it has, however, been integrated into the next generation of action filmmakers.
Find you and kill you, he will. For Liam Neeson’s role in Luc Besson’s unremitting thriller is one that has cemented itself in popular culture since 2008. Originally released straight to DVD, Taken is a lean and mean action film that wears its overzealous heart on its ex-CIA sleeve. Neeson plays a gruff, somewhat distant father to the innocent Kim, who is kidnapped while vacationing in Paris by Albanian sex traffickers.
It’s at this pivotal, show-stopping point that Taken sheds the shackles of sense and logic and instead morphs into a genre hit. It’s a balls-to-the-wall viewing experience that hurtles along at break-neck speed, and, courtesy of the ruthless protagonist, breaks a few necks along the way, too.
An unlikely action hero was born in Neeson and, given its financial success, so was a half-hearted sequel. Nevertheless, Taken remains a true beacon of action goodness in a post-Bourne movie landscape and you’d be hard-pressed to find a film so relentlessly entertaining.
91. The Running Man
You can do one of two things when watching 1987’s The Running Man. If you fancy, you can marvel at its prescient satire, a 90-minute prophetic encapsulation of the violence and voyeurism of culture to come. If you’re like me, you’re more likely to enjoy it for what it is: Big Dumb Awesome.
Arnie spends most of The Running Man running in various guises (and as a man), making the transition from Arnie With A Beard to Arnie In A Yellow Jumpsuit with the sort of grace unexpected in a man who advises you to leave room for his fist in your stomach so he can rip out your goddamn spine. Perhaps the unsung hero of the film is one-liner king Steven E. de Souza, whose grubby pawprints are over a lot more of your favourite action movies than you might ever realize (plus Street Fighter).
Maybe the best reason, though, to watch The Running Man is Jesse Ventura. Yes, Arnie’s Predator co-star steals just about every scene he’s in, not through his considerable pro-wrestling-developed acting prowess though, but by sporting the very best blazer/sweater/‘tache combination ever witnessed.
Along the way, Arnie, Maria Conchita Alonso and Yaphet Kotto, who I ALWAYS forget is in the film, fight for their lives against the public vote and learn something about themselves in the process. Coupled with Commando, it makes for one half of possibly the greatest double bill of conscience-free action cinema imaginable. It really is amongst the finest of human creative output and if you disagree then I guess we just can’t be buds any more.
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