I am an action cinema buff. I’d like to make that clear from the get-go.
And as a result of being an avid fan of the genre, I get to watch all kinds of action movies which eventually led to me developing an action cinema taste of my own. Through repeated exposure towards silver screen violence, I have discovered that I prefer well-choreographed grounded action sequences over fiery screen-filling explosion set-pieces. From that explanation alone, it’s easy to deduce that I would have favored John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) over Transformers: The Last Knight (also 2017). If your guess is exactly that, allow me to inform you that you are right.
But then again, there’s always that gray area of guilty pleasures. Films that are known to be flawed, and yet they still manage to find love from their audiences. Watching them incites this feeling where you know deep down that this movie doesn’t deserve your attention since it did a bad job at attracting everyone else’s, and yet it does anyway. And in all honesty, that’s fine. This doesn’t only apply to action movies, it applies to all forms of entertainment.
Since we’re on the topic of action movies, I might as well bring up my guilty pleasure action movies. These action flicks aren’t exactly held in high regard (for good reasons) by most action cinema lovers. They have noticeable flaws, all of which I am aware of. And yet, I still can get genuine enjoyment out of them. Not even in a so-bad-it’s-good way, but authentic and unironic enjoyment. That being said, I completely understand why others deride these movies as they did.
So without further ado...
Hardcore Henry (2015)
My favorite movie on this list. Most likely because I’m a gamer and that the movie appeals to first-person shooter (FPS) gamers everywhere with its one-of-a-kind cinematography. In a way it’s a video game movie (or at least a movie that pays homage to video game elements), and I’m glad that it’s the first action movie to fully commit to the first-person perspective concept.
For those of you who don’t know, Hardcore Henry is shot entirely from a first-person perspective done through a special GoPro rig attached to multiple stuntmen playing the main character. It tells the story of the amnesiac Henry as he tries to rescue his wife from a telekinetic supervillain. It’s quite generic, really: bad guy has superpowers, good guy has pseudo-superpowers, the movie is brutally violent, and there’s some plot twists along the way. The story is nothing spectacular, but then again I wasn’t looking for anything of the sort.
None of my friends liked Hardcore Henry, and it’s easy to see why. The film’s action scenes can be taken as overly violent, the story is just there, and the characters aren’t very engaging. When all these elements fail to come together, the novel first-person perspective stops being entertaining and starts to become a gimmick, which is one of the main criticisms of the flick. Not to mention with Henry jumping and rolling about while the audience were forced to watch from his eyes, motion sickness is definitely an issue.
But for me, I loved almost every second of it. As I said earlier, part of my appreciation towards Hardcore Henry is the fact that it’s basically a 96-minute FPS movie. It’s like a DOOM movie without hell as the setting. The film has that carefree feel to its action sequences that’s fun to watch without going too over the top. Its stuntwork is remarkable with neat sequences that looked believable without feeling too reliant on CGI. As for the motion sickness, I don’t feel like puking after the ride is over. Maybe I’m more used to the action because I regularly engage with these kinds of frantic first-person movement in FPS games, I don’t know. But I get why people did feel like it.
Henry’s adventure got a lot of personality too, which is impressive considering its short runtime. His sidekick/employer Jimmy was impressively portrayed by Sharlto Copley, the film’s antagonist serves his detestable role very well, and even Henry himself has a little bit of nonchalantly boyish personality despite being a mute. This gleefully dark tone of the movie carries on towards the action sequences, and that’s why I like it so much despite knowing that this is one of the corniest experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
Also, the climax leading up to the ending was satisfying as hell. Most action movies these days didn’t end in a satisfying note due to anticlimactic finale or lackluster standoffs, but not this one. Not with that “Don’t Stop Me Now” song by Queen playing in the background.
Quantum of Solace (2008)
The highest-rated movie on this story according to Rotten Tomatoes, and yet one of the lowest among its modern peers. Then again with masterpieces like Casino Royale (2006) and Skyfall (2012), it’s no surprise that Quantum of Solace sticks out like a sore thumb among the Daniel Craig-led Bond movies.
Quantum of Solace is technically a direct sequel to Casino Royale, which follows Bond on a revenge plot against those responsible for the death of his lover Vesper Lynd in the previous film. Bond’s investigation led him to Bolivia and businessman Dominic Greene, who planned to seize control of the country’s water supply. The film’s stakes weren’t exactly super-satellites capable of shooting orbital laser strikes, but it’s quite menacing nonetheless.
This film was subject to a lot of criticism, but for me the easiest way to summarize them all is to say that it lacked class. Not to be confused with grittiness, because its predecessor Casino Royale was also gritty in tone yet classy in execution. On the other hand, Quantum of Solace had none of Casino Royale’s refined touches: its story is middling, its focus on violence over characters can be off-putting, and its shaky-cams are disorienting. I mean, come on. The camera cuts so much during Bond’s assault at Greene’s eco hotel, you’d think it was Matt Damon playing Bond instead of Daniel Craig.
Now to the bright side: I believe that Quantum of Solace was a great action flick. Head-spinning camerawork aside, I found the film’s action sequences to be superbly directed. It was fast, frantic, explosive, and nail-biting. Additionally, the movie’s cinematography was sharp when it wasn’t being chopped to pieces by its editing. Craig’s performance was also a plus (as it always has been), and Olga Kurylenko as Bond girl Camille Montes wasn’t half-bad either. And for what it’s worth, Quantum of Solace did something better than Spectre (2015) and to an extent, Skyfall: at least Bond’s final confrontation with the villain was satisfying.
But I suppose that’s where the problem lies: a great action flick, not a great Bond flick. All the elements that made Quantum of Solace would’ve made for a great film if it wasn’t attached to the Bond lore. And when it did, it lacked what made previous Bond movies great: class. That masterful execution and penchant for beauty is what made Casino Royale and Skyfall great, which Quantum of Solace lacked.
If anything, this Bond outing reminded me of License to Kill (1984), which also had a dark and gritty tone involving a revenge plot set in South America. The existence of both movies served as proof that no matter how sophisticated Bond fans would like their Bond adventures, there’s always room for a darker and more violent story for 007. And honestly, I believe it would’ve been more widely accepted if the execution was better.
XXX: The Return of Xander Cage (2017)
And now, the most over-the-top movie on this story. The moment I saw Vin Diesel skiing on a lush jungle mountainside on the trailer, I knew it: this movie was going to be a wild turn-off-your-brain ride.
The third XXX entry in the series, the story saw series protagonist Xander Cage being retconned from death to investigate the disappearance of a CIA superweapon called the “Pandora’s Box”. It’s formulaic and cliched, but let’s face it: after seeing that trailer, who in their right minds thought the movie should be taken seriously?
As expected from a blockbuster action movie starring Vin Diesel, the third XXX didn’t fare well with critics. Common criticism include an uninspired story, failure to innovate the action genre, and all in all, a mediocre entry in the saturated action genre. And to be fair, the movie deserved all the denunciation it got. Like I wrote earlier, the story is nothing special. If there’s a plot twist, it can only evoke a “so-what” reaction from the audience. The action sequences were very low-stakes with Xander Cage and his merry band of XXX members being on par with invincible super-soldiers. And even if there were stakes involved, there was that lack of believability. In conclusion, all style and no substance.
However, earlier I also wrote that the movie shouldn’t be taken seriously. Not in the sense that it should be ridiculed like The Room (2003), but no one should go into this flick and think, “this had better be the next John Wick”. It’s not supposed to be a thought-provoking experience anyway, so why treat it like so? You watch it, you get a cheap chuckle or two, you get to gawk at those physics-defying scenes, and then you’re done. No need to overthink it. And that principle obviously applies to this XXX entry. Instead of going the grounded route, The Return of Xander Cage amped the craziness to eleven with ridiculous sequences that can give physics professors seizures. I suppose that’s why I liked this movie: it doesn’t give a flying damn. And so what if the good guys are unkillable badasses? That is precisely the point: they look cool doing it and that’s why I like it so much.
Another thing that stood out for me are the cast of characters. Yes, they are one-dimensional and lack depth. But yes, they are all very entertaining to watch. Vin Diesel and Donnie Yen in particular sold their cheesy action hero roles remarkably well. As for the rest of the cast, I believe it doesn’t matter if they didn’t put out their best acting performances. The unhinged Torch, the sociable Nicks, the nerdy Becky, the snarky Wolff; notice I’m using single-words to describe the characters, but they all bring flavor to the film, regardless of how corny that flavor is. At the end of the day, The Return of Xander Cage is an old-school action movie in a modern setting complete with its indestructible heroes and expendable villains. There is no need for an Oscar-worthy performance here; we’re just here for that popcorn action goodness.
Also, Neymar. I’m a big football fan, and seeing Neymar in a major Hollywood blockbuster got me hooked to this film from the start. Probably one of the reasons I have a gigantic bias on this movie. If there’s a follow-up, they should definitely bring the Brazillian back. Maybe bring another footballer into the fold, like Eden Hazard? Not Cristiano Ronaldo mind you, since he will only get into acting after he retired from football, and I don’t see him retiring for the next five years. Also because he’s busy as all hell.
As you can probably tell, these action movies aren’t exactly getting praises because they fall under the ‘dumb action movies’ category. Not that I’m arguing against that, I believe that action movies can be smart be it on a technical or a storytelling level.
But I suppose that’s the beauty of action movies compared to other genres: they can get away with being dumb. Most film genres don’t have this luxury since they rely on a good plot to bring the movie together. No matter how good the performances are in a drama flick or how terrifying the scares are in a horror feature, the film suffers if the plot suffers.
In action movies however, you can always rely on a mind-boggling visual spectacle to distract you from an atrocious story. Sure your brain won’t like it, but your eyes do anyway. After all, it’s the reason we love action movie heroes like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, and Jean Claude van Damme. We don’t care if Arnold’s RPK machine gun in Commando (1985) has an infinite amount of bullets, we cared that he looked damn cool firing it at dozens of henchmen while trying to rescue his daughter.
At the end of the day, we all crave that one time we can turn off our brain while also having a good time and like it or not, dumb action movies can be a good source of just that.