The Best Action Movies of 2019
2019 was a heck of a year for butt-kicking, wasn’t it? While not everything worked – we got new installments in the long-running Terminator and Rambo franchises, and those didn’t work either as action or movie (but we had some real bangers, eyyyy). And while I wasn’t able to watch everything I’d have liked (college life is hard, y’all) I’d like to think that this list includes some of 2019’s greatest bangers (eyyyyy).
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
I’d argue that Keanu Reeves is the greatest American action star currently working today. He’s not one of those Taken-type people, who settles for getting away with not being able to do any action via shaky-cam. John Wick is the best current action franchise operating today because it doesn’t skimp on the action. Previously, that title was held by the Fast and the Furious films, which reached their zenith with 2011’s Fast Five, a movie that came out when the Transformers series was choking out big studio action. Fast Five had clear action, practical stunts, and a great sense of how and where to blend the ridiculous with the sensible. In recent years, however, that’s kind of flipped; The Fate of the Furious was a heap of mess, and last year’s Hobbs and Shaw wasn’t much better. That film was too ridiculous (the villain is basically the Borg from Star Trek). Relying too heavily on CGI-assisted stunts, rendering all the action completely weightless. This, on the other hand, is full of practical stunt work that still packs a punch, and while one might argue that the mythology gets a bit too convoluted this time around, it cannot be denied that when the shooting and stabbing starts, there’s nothing like it elsewhere in American action cinema. It’s been argued before, but the thing about the John Wick films is that they’re essentially the action cinema version of classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain or an American in Paris – there’s a plot and there’s dialog, and they’re good and even great at times, but at the end of the day, they’re just an excuse to string together a series of thrilling kinetic sequences starring ultra-skilled performers. In a very real way, Keanu Reeves is the Gene Kelly of shooting people in the face.
Scott Adkins, reigning king of DTV (direct-to-video) action, re-teams with director Jesse V. Johnson for the best film the two of them have made yet. In this he plays a man named Cain, a guy set up by his slimy brother and sent to prison, where he has to fight his way out to exact revenge; revenge that involves a lot of punches, kicks, and elbows to the face. Cain Burgess is one of the better original characters to come from the DTV cannon, and the surprisingly springy script gives Adkins ample opportunity to flex his acting muscles as well as his real ones. If you’re a fan of Guy Ritchie’s blokey gangster flicks, but wished they had a bit more jujitsu in them, then this is for you.
If I describe the plot, I’ll make it sound a lot like Taken, if Taken starred a Vietnamese woman. Rest assured, it’s even more awesome than I just made it sound. It’s got some extraordinary cinematography, with harsh neon colors, and the action is shaky while still being clean. Ngô Thanh Vân, who you may remember as Rose’s sister from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The one who sacrifices herself in the beginning initiates the movie playing a character we’re initially not supposed to like very much; she’s an ex-gangster and current debt collector, with a strained relationship with her daughter. She loves her, yes, but her parenting mostly consists of trying to toughen her up for the real world, and it’s…well, it’s not working. Her daughter, on the other hand, sees her mom’s bloody knuckles at the end of the day, and she’s old enough to know she wants no part of that business. Unfortunately, she’s soon dragged into it in a big way; while at a market, Mai is kidnapped by organ harvesters (it’s always organ harvesters in these movies, isn’t it?) forcing her mother to give chase, right back into the big city and into her old life. Can one woman truly take down an entire criminal syndicate…? Yes, if literally any other action movie is to be believed.
Sometimes you hear a premise and you think, “Oh man, where has this been all my life.” Iceman has such a premise. Set 5000 years ago the film sees a Neolithic man whose entire tribe is killed by savages and follows him as he seeks revenge. It’s a Taken style revenge thriller, except with bows, arrows, and rocks instead of guns and martial arts. Count me in. The whole film is spoken in a long-dead language, with no subtitles, for maximum immersion. And it WORKS; more than anything, Iceman proves that the language of cinema is universal, and the language of badbuttery is all-encompassing.
Shadow comes to us from Zhang Yimou, the genius behind Hero. I want to bring that up, because as anyone who’s seen the movie knows, Hero is quite possibly the most beautiful movie ever made. That film is a series of fights between Jet Li’s Nameless and The King, each one set to its own color palette. Red, yellow, blue, green, white, and grey, and each fight is pure eye-candy. I mention it as an interesting point of comparison because this film is almost entirely colorless. It’s not exactly black-and-white, but it’s almost there. The film still looks beautiful (the cinematography, set design, and shot composition is on-point as ever) but in this kind of grey, creepy, foggy way. This is a damp, dank movie; it’s like it has the energy of a thunderstorm or a cold misty morning. Basically, it’s about these two kingdoms warring over a city and they’ve set up this duel between their two respective best fighters in kind of a “winner-take-all” situation. The plot’s more complicated than that (there’s a Parent Trap-style case of body-doubles, there’s a kind of subliminal love triangle thing going on) but we’ve basically got this movie where there’s this fight on the horizon. And when the fight comes…oh man.
Alita: Battle Angel
Robert Rodriguez returns in fine form, proving once and for all that he’s still got some of that Desperado magic left in him. It doesn’t do any of that awful Marvel stuff where every time there’s a fistfight, the camera cuts a thousand times. Punches are thrown and received in the same shot, which you somehow don’t see that much anymore. And the futuristic spatial mapping was on point; I got enough of a sense of the layout of this future world that, when they exited the motorball arena and went into the city, I knew more or less where everyone was in relation to each other. I could see everything pretty clearly, which, for a CGI-effects heavy extravaganza, is pretty rare. I don’t think this is a perfect movie – the plot is a tad overstuffed, and while I appreciated how coherent it all ended up being, as a non-anime fan, I could tell that there were some shortcuts in the animation process. But in the moment the film works wonderfully, due in no small part to Rodriguez finally remembering his roots.