Sunday, January 7, 2018

Top 30 Action Films of 2017

Although it might be a bit later than normal for us to post this list, 2017 was a robust year for action film making and we wanted to make sure we covered most of our bases before finalizing this list. Whether it was some of the unique foreign films that popped up with US releases, franchises that are continually going strong, or a few misunderstood gems, there were so many action films that deserves a bit of love and attention this year. As we have done since last year, we expanded our year end list to include 30 entries to cover more ground and give more light to some films that may have gone under the radar for action fans. Stream sites like Netflix are rearing their head in the game more and more, including one Netflix Original that made our top ten (!), and it makes the industry push for more unique and stronger entries.

As always, this film uses the United States of America release dates for its films so there might be a few films that were released previously in other territories that will make the list (including one of our top releases that finally found distribution.) So keep that in mind as you read through if you feel the list is including some older films.

Also, comments, messages, and emails are more than welcome from our readers! Blood Brothers has always been dedicated to spreading the good word of the cult cinema landscape and starting discussion about the quality of this often overlooked artform in cinema, so whether you feel we are right, wrong, or ill-informed we want to hear from you. Let us know what films we missed, what films we gave too much praise, or what films we should be giving more credit to than they are worth. Intelligent discussion is always welcome here.

So without further ado, here are our picks for Top 30 Action Films of 2017!

30. Master [dir. Cho Ui-Seok]

Master is a solid viewing experience and I can see why it’s one of the top grossing films in South Korea. The performances are all spot on, highlighted by a fun and entertaining performance from Kim Woo-bin and a subtle screen stealing performance from Jin Kyung, and the manner that director Choi-Ui-seok handles the pacing, tension, and explosive action set pieces is something to be admired. It’s a film that’s impressively executed on a script that felt like it needed to make more defined choices and perhaps be split into two films. The material is too dense and the manner that the film is split essentially in half, each with its own set of plotting, is odd. Perhaps with more viewings the film will feel more settled into what it is for me, but for now I have to admit I was slightly disappointed when I compare it to other South Korean thrillers. It’s still good and borders on great, but I expected phenomenal and that can a deal breaker.

29. Chasing the Dragon [dir. Wong Jing, Jason Kwan]

Chasing the Dragon is full of brilliant moments powered by some highly ranged performances, some emotionally charged plotting twists, and snapping action. Both Donnie Yen and Andy Lau are bringing their A-game in a film that’s a modern spin on the classic heroic bloodshed genre. It’s a bit too bad that the film as a whole struggles in developing a smooth and natural paced narrative in its ambitious attempts to cover so much ground with its story. For those willing to embrace Chasing the Dragon for its strengths and look beyond the issues of how its put together rather than the sequences themselves, it’s still going to be a strong contender for one of the more enjoyable films of the year. Although, it does get points for having a Donnie Yen versus Philip Ng fight sequence.

28. The Foreigner [dir. Martin Campbell]

The Foreigner is one of those films that features an impressive amount of talent in its ranks. Both Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan deliver nuanced and power house performances, director Martin Campbell ably mounts tension and dramatic key moments, and the action is top notch Chan meets European thriller flavors. Yet, its biggest hurdles are not so much in the execution but in trying to craft two kinds of films in one. On one hand, it's a fantastic revenge thriller anchored by a fantastic Jackie Chan performance. On the other hand, it's a tight political thriller anchored by a fantastic Brosnan performance about IRA tensions and the delicate nature of that situation. The two, however, do not meld as perfectly as one would hope. Perhaps in the novel form it works in a smoother manner, but here it tends to feel drawn out and too complicated for its own good at times and feels like different films from scene to scene and it hurts the film overall. Still, it's action and performances carry the film through most of the rough patches and it delivers on most of its promises. It just needed to make a decision on what kind of film it wanted to be instead of being two films.

27. Atomic Blonde [dir. David Leitch]

The brilliance behind the John Wick films is that there is simplicity to them that's wrapped in a lot of fun little details. This is what is inherently missing in Atomic Blonde. The style is jaw dropping visually, the performances are awesome, and the action is what one expects from 87 Eleven these days with a finale that soars. The problem is that the espionage plot with its plethora of red herrings, twists, and slides seems forced at times and often thin compared to the setting, style, and pace of the film. Still, Atomic Blonde is one helluva ride for action fans with enough entertainment, exploitation, and style to go around. It's a blast to watch visually and Theron owns as the titular character. It just doesn't quite reach the heights of the Wick films in its foundations. Action fans will definitely delight in its style though.

26. Bitcoin Heist [dir. Ham Tran]

The expectation going into the film may not have been sky high, but Bitcoin Heist pulls off a remarkably fun and exciting caper flick that uses its slick production values, smooth writing, and charismatic performances to maximum effect to deliver the thrills and laughs. It’s a massive surprise for the year when it comes to action thrillers and it’s the kind of film that shoots a flare into the sky to indicate that no one should write off the Vietnamese industry yet and that with the right artistic talent and backing they can go to bat with the big box office flicks of the other foreign markets. If you’re a fan of these kind of quirky heist thrillers, I cannot suggest Bitcoin Heist enough. It just may steal your heart.

25. The Lego Batman Movie [dir. Chris McKay]

After the success of The Lego Movie, it’s only natural that they would take the break out fan favorite of that movie and give him his own spin off. It also helps that it’s fuckin’ Batman. Littered with jokes galore, a bit of heart, and plenty of fun action sequences, The Lego Batman Movie works much better than it should have. The best part of this film though is how they created a parallel character arc between Joker and Batman. It’s almost a better Batman plot than most of the theatrical released live action movies.  Classic. I wish they would have had more things and jokes for the actual Batman villains instead of adding in all of the surprise ones at the end, but I digress. The film is meant to be semi-self-referential and it does its job there with plenty of laughs to go with it. Also, bonus points for the random Gymkata reference.

24. 24 Hours to Live [dir. Brian Smrz]

Using its B-movie concept about a hidden giant world-wide privatized military group and a hitman with a heart that is going to die in 24 hours, 24 Hours to Live should have been a trope riddled disaster. However, thanks to some fantastic performances anchored by Ethan Hawke and a script that is wickedly well paced and emotionally packed for its lead character, this film has no intention of being just another straight to home video forgettable affair. The action is solid and the thrills are plentiful which lift the film above its occasionally problematic script.

23. The Duelist [dir. Aleksey Mizgiryov]

Essentially, The Duelist is a genre thriller brimming with violence, dark character development, and a graphic novel inspired narrative that just so happens to look like a pristine award winning period piece drama. It's like the best of both worlds. The cinematography is stunning as is the design and recreation of late 1800s Russia, but the film never shies away from embracing its darker gimmicks and anti-heroic charms. It has a strange third act that is a tad anti-climactic in a manner and takes a few twists that seem nonchalant when they really are not, but still The Duelist impresses with its blending of genres and style. Definitely a gem for the year in 2017.

22. The Swindlers [dir. Jang Chang-won]

For fans of South Korean cinema, The Swindlers embraces its blockbuster spectacle and gimmicks and executes it with the strong concepts and thriller elements that fans have come to expect. It may not be a film to resonate years down the road with the continued success of the heist films, but the hooks and effective twists of its impressively layered script make it one of the most entertaining films of the year. The Swindlers takes the con man concept to new levels of delightful absurdity and it’s worth seeing just for that reason. South Korean cinema fans and those who love wink-wink thrillers will love what this film has to offer.

21. Free Fire [dir. Ben Wheatley]

I certainly read a lot of mixed things about Free Fire. Namely, that it is Ben Wheatley's weakest film no matter how fun and energetic it is. In a way, yes, that assessment seems to be true. Compared to some of this other material, Free Fire does not have the depth and symbolic meanings underneath its surface levels for cinephiles to analyze and discuss. It's very straight forward in how it presents itself and the big challenges that it faces are not in its complex characters or narrative like most of the director's films. Nope, it's challenge exists in being shot in almost real time, in essentially one location, as one extended shootout. If this is indeed the intent, then Wheatley and company certainly succeed. The film is a rip roaring fun time, using its bickering banter and wickedly violent gun battles to keep up the energy, while the dark humor truly makes it all feel more delightfully awkward that it might have in other hands. Say what you will about it not being like Wheatley's other films, but Free Fire hit a lot of sweet spots for a genre fan like myself and it gets massive credit for that.

20. Iron Protector [dir. Yue Song]

Iron Protector, for all of its silliness and flawed narrative flow, is still a riot to watch. The action is punchy, the nods to the cheesiness and style of 80s Hong Kong action and comedy are well executed, and the film has an energy and spirit that carries it through the rough patches. Iron Protector is a fun and spirited cinematic time that works as a love letter to past. Go in with the right expectations and you’re certain to come out with a huge smile on your face.

19. Thor: Ragnarok [dir. Taika Waititi]

The first two Thor films were, in my humble opinion, misfires in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Too often they felt like set up films for future entries, characters were plot progression points, and the blend of Shakespearean familial drama with space viking action didn’t always balance as well as one would want with the serious tones. Well, fear not, because Marvel acknowledges these issues and they have done some revamps on this series for the third entry. While still not a perfect film, Ragnarok is a blast to watch as it ditches almost all of its overly straight-faced elements for a wild, colorful ride of quips and strange characters/settings. It’s hardly a perfect film, as it still has some plotting that feels rushed or unfinished, but as far as fun blockbusters go this one is more than just entertaining. It shows that the Disney/Marvel machine isn’t always just a bad thing if they are willing to evolve.

18. Let the Corpses Tan [dirs. Helene Cattet, Bruno Forzani]

Directors Cattet and Forzani have already created their own cult following with their controversially artistic interpretations of modern giallo throwbacks, but their latest - a 70s Italian style action/western/horror hybrid called Let the Corpses Tan - might actually be their most user-friendly film to date. It still retains their extreme interpretation of Italian style with intense close ups, brightly colored washes, and lavish fantastical symbolic dream like visuals, yet the film has a more discernible plot than their previous endeavors while maintaining its brisk and entertaining pace. It's still quite abrasive at times with its vicious acts of violence, erotic tones, and exploitative moments, but it uses its artistic approach to give reason and meaning to most of them - even if its highly subjective to interpretation by its audience. Still, the directors remain some of the best provocative artists working in cinema currently and Let the Corpses Tan, for all of its wildly off beat moments, maintains the sense of artistic spin on a genre that too often is seen still as cult cinema exploitation.

17. Kong: Skull Island [dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts]

There are essentially two kinds of King Kong movies. You have the more serious adventure ones that mean to paint Kong as a kind of tragic figure who is betrayed by humanity which is represented by the original 30s version and Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. Then you have the silly Kong films, best represented by the Toho versions (King Kong vs Godzilla and King Kong Escapes) and to a lesser extent King Kong Lives. While the initial trailers made out the latest Kong film, the second in Legendary’s new expanded Monsterverse that includes 2014’s Godzilla, to be something more serious and drawing on plenty of Vietnam war imagery, this film is far more akin to the latter films than the previous. This is not a remake. This is not some kind of morality tale outside of the subtext. This is a giant monster film. This is pure kaiju cinema worship and it never takes a breather from its intent as being an entertaining popcorn flick. Don’t expect to be blown away by thoughtful characters, dynamic plotting, or even logical progression because that is not what Kong: Skull Island is about. This film is about big monster fights and giving the audience their money’s worth in outrageous entertainment. And I’m all for it.

16. Boyka: Undisputed 4 [dir. Todor Chapkanov]

Is there any better parallel to Boyka’s quest for personal redemption in becoming the most complete fighter in the world than the similar journey that the straight to home video action genre has gone through to be respected as its own art form? Boyka: Undisputed is further proof that the journey itself is a fascinating one, full of off the beaten path successes that rely on the basic foundations of strong characters, fantastic core execution, entertaining prospects, and hard work. On its own, this film is both massively entertaining and impressively heartfelt leading it to be the best of the series. I cannot recommend it enough. In the realm of great, underappreciated action classics, Boyka remains a champion and this fourth film is his title bout.

15. Spider-Man: Homecoming [dir. Jon Watts]

Third time’s a charm right? As the third version of Spider-Man that mainstream audiences have seen in recent memory (with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man being one of the films to truly kick off the box office obsession with superhero films back in 2002), Spider-Man: Homecoming had a lot of things that could have gone horrifically wrong with it. Could is meld the Sony and Disney/Marvel production concepts? Would audiences accept another new cast and “soft reboot” of the hero when both of the previous incarnations crashed and burned with fans and critics in some weird ways? Yet, as surprisingly unsurprising as it is, Homecoming is a remarkably good Spider-Man film that strikes a great balance and manages to fix so many of the issues that were bogging down the last series of films. It’s light-hearted, fun, and ultimately stripped down of the melodramatic densities that this figure had accrued over the last decade and a half. Enough so that it, even compared to other MCU properties, seems a bit refreshing if not occasionally too consumable. With a few flaws in tow, it’s hard not to appreciate the execution and intent of Homecoming for what it is and how it succeeds in that manner. Oh yeah, also Michael Keaton is gold.

14. Star Wars: The Last Jedi [dir. Rian Johnson]

The loud and very opinionated haters of this film have some valid points in the chances and stylistic choices made in The Last Jedi. Not all of it works. Some of the humor is hit or miss, there’s the fluff plot line for Finn and Rose, and a few other moments (no spoilers, people) that didn’t always work as well as it might have. Still, even with those in mind, The Last Jedi is an epic and unique entry into the Star Wars universe that deserves a lot of love too. The artistic merits of the visuals, the plays on the expectations of the formula, and the directorial voice all set it aside as one of the best of the series too. Repeated viewings will ultimately make the statement of whether or not this becomes the instant classic that fans either want it to be or despise it for trying to be. For now though, Star Wars: The Last Jedi remains one of the best of the franchise and I will staunchly stand by it.

13. God of War [dir. Gordon Chan]

I was certainly hesitant going into God of War that the combination of director, action, and cast would be almost too good to be true and that this film would somehow come out as a massive disappointment, but the film nails it. God of War is a commanding film that delivers heart, excitement, and entertainment wrapped in an epic historical setting that deserves to be praised. Fans of Hong Kong action and Chinese Mainland spectacle are both going to enjoy what God of War offers up. It’s massive action entertainment at its epic best. Not to mention it has one of the best fights of the year between Kurata and Zhao.

12. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 [dir. James Gunn]

Despite the flaws in its some of its shifting tone and writing flow, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 remains one of my favorite films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s because it still retains this sense of whimsical fun and world building without become a burden on its audience with unnecessary exposition. There are definitely a handful of surprises in store for fans in this film, along with some cliché ones that don’t benefit as much from the efficiency and balance as the original, and the films increased focus on visual energy and a strong villain make it a great addition to the original. The film may have more detractors than the first in the way of fans and critics, but color me ready for a lot more Guardians if the series remains this strong.

11. Blade of the Immortal [dir. Takashi Miike]

Quirky and vicious, Blade of the Immortal is still one of the more normal films from Takashi Miike. Even with that in mind, the film features things like immortal samurai, blood worms, and a scarred anti-hero with an awkward sense of humor. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the classic samurai work from Kenji Misumi from the 70s in its use of gimmicks and violence within a chanbara plot and that's a huge compliment. The relationship between our anti-hero and the young woman is fun and heartfelt, the villains are diabolical and over-the-top, and the style of the film is immense. It's not one of Miike's best, which is not necessarily a bad statement considering the range and immense quantity of his directorial output, but it's certainly one of his most fun films.

10. Wheelman [dir. Jeremy Rush]

Less is more. It's the key to a successful artistic endeavor like Wheelman. The film features Grillo as a hired driver for a robbery who is thrown into a tense situation when his handler tells him to drive off with the money and leave the thieves at the scene because they are going to kill him. The resulting "chase," with 90% of the conversations and dialogue of the film featuring Grillo on the phone while driving and avoiding other criminals, is insanely effective. The concept is basic. The execution is damn near flawless. It's pure tension, waiting for what the next phone call will bring, and it's anchored by a phenomenal performance from Grillo and a tight and vicious directorial style from Jeremy Rush. I was locked in gear with the film and belted in for the ride it was willing to take me on. Wheelman is a genre diamond for the year built on simple thrills and basic concepts, but sent soaring by its unique build and jaw-dropping execution.

09. Asura: The City of Madness [dir. Kim Sung-su]

After receiving a handful of recommendations for Asura: The City of Madness (does it need the subtitle? Does it?) I ended up picking up the film when it received a US release this year and threw it on my watching queue. Naturally, it took half a year for me to finally get around to the film, but I feel silly for putting it off for so long. Not only is Asura one of the best action films of the year, it’s one of the best films of the year...period. Asura is a film that takes the usual tropes of an anti-hero cop, one caught in a world where the police, criminals, and politicians are all held in place by thin threads, and gives it a well-executed and wickedly dark offbeat neo-noir spin.

08. Headshot [dir. The Mo Brothers]

If you took a Takashi Miike film, brimming with violence, off beat dark humor, and filled with outcasts, then jackknifed in an almost endless array of The Raid style martial arts action with a pinch of John Woo influenced gun fu...that's what you get with Headshot. It's a film built on B-action movie pieces, but it completely knows it and instead of trying to overcome them it embraces them for all of their brutal honesty. It spins and turns them into a barrage of jaw dropping violence, gore, and intensity that's slathered with enough quirky charm and screen devouring performances to get away with it. This is not a brilliant film, but Headshot is a film that knows what it is and delivers on all of its promises.

07. Wonder Woman [dir. Patty Jenkins]

Well, well, well, DCU. Looks like you did come to play. Wonder Woman is Warner Bros and DC finally getting their shit together with their superhero film franchise and delivering the best of what a big budget popcorn summer blockbuster has to offer. It's effective with its themes and intent, heartfelt with its characters, charming with its humor, and engaging with its action. Certainly, I have my small disagreements with some of moments, the modern-day bookends for example, but what it ultimately does is that it makes it all WORK for the larger self and that is the key to why this film is already earning so much praise. Gadot shines in the lead, balanced by strong chemistry with Chris Pine, and the manner that the film only grows in narrative momentum as it goes is an indicator at just how great Jenkins' is as a director. Truly, this reaches the upper echelon of superhero movies and I couldn't have enjoyed it more.

06. The Villainess [dir. Jung Byung-gil]

The Villainess, despite its intense hype, is not for everyone. However, the film does exist as a kind of love letter to action films new and old so action junkies will most certainly want to partake in what it has to offer. It's the gritty visual scope of modern Michael Mann through the style of John Wick meets Hardcore Henry, built on a narrative foundation that is the subtle character driven core of early Luc Besson flicks like La Femme Nikita and Leon with the sheer action outrageousness and creative force of John Woo. It's truly a kaleidoscope of action style, packaged in a manner that uses the Korean cinematic landscape simply as a launching pad for a more internationally flavored experience. It's not perfect, but the blend is ambitious and impeccably paced to deliver the thrills, kills, and bus spills that the hype is building up. By the end of the film, it leaves things open just enough with its darker tones and morally deep dark gray that one is not sure if they watched an origin story for one of modern cinema's most dynamic new super villains or the end game of one of its greatest heroines. And that's why this deserves to be seen.

05. John Wick: Chapter 2 [dir. Chad Stahelski]

The first John Wick topped my list the year it came out and the lofty expectations for the sequel certainly don’t play into its favor. Still, this larger, more brutal, and more layered approach is fantastic, allowing the sequel to explore the universe of John Wick while maintaining the focus on classic action set pieces and badass moments. Fans will be desperate for more as the film finally winds down in a slick homage to Enter the Dragon…just with a lot more suits and guns.

04. War for the Planet of the Apes [dir. Matt Reeves]

Matt Reeves finishes off the new Planet of the Apes trilogy on an impressive note. War for the Planet of the Apes is a film that follows up the previous entry in unique ways, not necessarily retreading grounds, but aware of what worked and what needed to be different to set the film aside. Once again, Andy Serkis as Caesar anchors the film in stunning manner and the surrounding events, themes, and franchise nods make it a robust film that works on multiple viewings.

03. The Age of Shadows [dir. Kim Jee-woon]

It’s not an end of the year list without at least one South Korean action thriller to make the top five of the year. In a year where so many great Korean films actually got US releases, The Age of Shadows marks perhaps the one film that truly had me completely unsure of how it was going to end. The vicious tension, the amazing light designs, and the roller coaster narrative make The Age of Shadows one of the most pulse pounding films of the year. Oh, did I mention the performances are some of the most impressive of the year too? Yeah, do yourself a favor and dig into this period film with the vigor that it was made with.

02. Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield [dir. Lu Yang]

The first Brotherhood of Blades was one of the top action films for the year it was released, yet it was still a surprise that this prequel would make it this high on this year’s list. Considering that an audience knows how this one is going to end (essentially) this film makes for a riveting watch as our anti-hero must deal with a vicious conspiracy and a star-crossed lovers romantic plot. The wuxia action is crisp and effective and the emotional resonance makes it an edge-of-your-seat thriller too. Easily one of the biggest surprises of the year.

01. Logan [dir. James Mangold]

By the time you reach this paragraph, you’ll have noticed that this list as a strange amount of comic book hero films on it. Yet, it’s Logan that tops this list because it’s not like the others. Not only is this film a remarkable cinematic adaption, but it’s the perfect ending for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and it does it with such a heartfelt script and stylistic approach (it’s a western!) that this will be a film that defines the 2010s and the comic book blockbuster age. It also might have been one of the few times I cried in the theater this year. 

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