Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: The best action movies of the last 10 years

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Liam Neeson in Taken 2, the disappointing sequel to 2008's enjoyable and violent original. Photo / Supplied
Liam Neeson in Taken 2, the disappointing sequel to 2008's enjoyable and violent original. Photo / Supplied

When I was growing up, action was a thing. A wonderful thing. It still exists in modern cinema, but it's been diluted by the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay and their crazy idea of "family friendly" action movies.

Simply put, action movies used to be badass, and now they aren't. Which makes it very thrilling when an action movie comes along and harkens back to that earlier, more visceral era. I definitely felt that when Taken was released in 2008. It was taut, efficient and very violent.

There was something gleeful about Taken that spoke to the kid in me that grew up on hardcore '80s action movies. It didn't have the piousness of the Bourne films, which great as they are, come across a bit too worthy to qualify as old school action films in my book.

Unfortunately, the sequel, Taken 2, is pants. It's as generic a follow-up as you could possibly imagine, and the action is shot with a Bourne-like flurry that makes it often impossible to discern what is occuring.

Plus the main henchman that Liam Neeson takes on at the end looks about as threatening as a school bus driver. Oh well.

Taken 2's release this week got me thinking about modern films that live up to a certain kind of action aesthetic.

Lets for the sake of brevity consider Commando, Die Hard, 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon to be the North, East, South and West points of the action compass.

What films from the last decade are carrying the torch of these timeless odes to awesomeness?

The first one that springs to mind is Peter Berg's 2003 film Welcome to the Jungle, aka The Rundown.

The film was designed as one of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's early starring vechicles, but it failed to find a large audience at the box office and Johnson spent the next few years making awful kiddie films. In Welcome to the Jungle, he heads down to the Amazon to retrieve a mobster's son (Seann William Scott), but gets mixed up with a local villain (Christopher Walken).

Welcome to the Jungle revels in the action tradition, and even includes a rare cameo from Arthur Q. Action himself, Arnold Schwazenegger, who wanders past Johnson's character early in the film and says "Have fun", as if Arnie was passing the action batton to his most natural successor then and there.

It's a great moment in a great film that deserved to be more widely seen.

In a pleasing turn of events, Johnson has made a bit of swing back towards old school action films recently with both the underrated (and frankly bonkers) Faster and of course last year's big hit Fast Five, which was pretty cool.

I was tempted to put Fast Five on this list, but the film in that franchise that I truly believe deserves to be here is 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious, directed by Oscar nominee John Singleton. There's something idiotically old school about 2F2F, especially in the banter between the leads and their antagonists.

Tyrese Gibson, who was brought in to fill the gap left by Vin Diesel, is very much at home in this world, and he never got enough credit for being so great here. I mean, just check out this moment.

Jason Statham is pretty much the only modern action star whose career isn't a holdover from an earlier era (The Rock counted himself out with all those kids films), and I love that he just keeps on churning 'em out year after year, like a bald British Don 'The Dragon' Wilson or something.

While the Transporter series has its moments, and this year's Safe was admirably mental, Statham's best two films are undoubtedly 2006's Crank and 2009's Crank: High Voltage, both written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who credit themselves simply as "Neveldine/Taylor".

The action sensibility that they put across in both Crank films speaks directly to what I am attempting to articulate in this column: They clearly grew up on old school action movies and their filmmaking style shows it.

Sylvester Stallone will go to his grave associated with action movies, and while I enjoyed this year's The Expendables 2, the film was far to self-congratulatory to count as a solid action movie. 2008's Rambo however, is definitely one of the best action movies of the last 10 years.

Rambo's uncompromising brutality got me quite excited for the first Expendables, but the all-star action jamboree came across as a damp squib. Lowered expectations and a better action budget helped the sequel impress, but it won't be going on any lists.

Writer/director Michael Davis announced his intentions with the title of his little-seen 2007 action throwback Shoot 'Em Up, and the film very much lives up to the promise.

Clive Owen plays a mysterious gunman who helps deliver a baby then resolves to protect it from a ruthless mobster, played with over-the-top revelry by Paul Giamatti. Davis is clearly a John Woo fan, and has a lot of fun with the shoot out scenes. The film's narrow focus probably didn't help it win over audiences, but it speaks directly to any hardcore action lovers.

2010's film adaptation of The A-Team wasn't particularly well-received, but I thought it projected a nicely old school action vibe, and had plenty of cool set-pieces.

Shane Black wrote the screenplays for some of the best action movies of all time (peerless efforts like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight), and while he had a much smaller budget to work with, his 2005 directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang focused a lot of what made those films work into a tighter story. It's a must-see for action fans.

It could be argued that the proliferation of the superhero movie helped push the old school action movie aside, which is why I've chosen not to highlight them here. But if I had to pick one from the past 10 years that qualified as a kick-ass action movie, I would say 2008's Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau.

The influences cited by Favreau (Robocop, Robocop 2) came through loud and clear in the finished product, which did some impressively creative things with action choreography. Then he made Iron Man 2 and that sucked. Shane Black is directing Iron Man 3. I'm very interested to see what he does with it.

Films like The Avengers and The Dark Knight are obviously big amazing films with big amazing action, but they don't hark back to the foundations of action the way the other films I've cited here do.

But if we allow some lateral interpretation of the term "action movie" for just one moment, I'd like to cite the 2004 Pixar wonder The Incredibles, which finally proved that a CGI action scene can actually sustain tension. I just wish the approach had been more influential. So far only Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon have lived up to the physical possiblities promised by The Incredibles.

The Bond films have often been perceived as the standard-bearer for any era's action movie, and while the Daniel Craig era has seen some decent action set-pieces, I find the Mission: Impossible films outclass them on all levels, especially action. And the two made within the past 10 years - III and Ghost Protocol - are the best.

Also on the global action thriller intrigue front, 2009's The International distinguished itself quite nicely and features an epic shoot-out for the ages set inside New York's iconic Guggenheim Museum.

Here are some other films from the last 10 years that aren't generally perceived as action movies, but which contain quite wonderful action set-pieces: 2003's Hulk; 2005's Sin City; 2006's Children of Men and Apocalypto; 2007's 300 and The Kingdom; 2008's Street Kings; 2009's Avatar and Star Trek; 2010's Inception and Kick-Ass.

2009's District 9 is my favourite film of the last 10 years, and the amazing action scenes are a large part of why.

Also I feel obligated to disclose that I have a secret affection for the first two Rush Hour movies.

Beverly Hills Cop remains one of my favourite movies, and I would pay good money to see Eddie Murphy reprise the role of Axel Foley in a fourth BHC movie. The idea has been tantalisingly mooted at several stages over the past few years, but it now appears Murphy has given up on another film and taken the idea to television. Blerg.

Speaking of disappointments, I got excited when Kevin Smith set out to make a Beverly Hills Cop-esque action throwback with the 2010 Bruce Willis/Tracy Morgan-starrer Cop Out, but holy stuff was that a giant turkey.

I detected hints of a similar affection for old school action comedies in Ron Shelton's poorly-received 2003 Harrison Ford/Josh Hartnett number Hollywood Homicide, but that also sucked overall.

2007's Mark Wahlberg action thriller Shooter had the potential to be a rad old school action throwback, especially considering it borrowed the plot of Commando wholesale, but the potential was never fulfilled.

So it hasn't been the best 10 years for the action film, but there are always exceptions and the sensibility remains bubbling away under the surface of Hollywood, awaiting its inevitable comeback. No doubt with a vengeance.

* Agree? Disagree? What do you think is the best action movie of the past 10 years? Do you mourn for old school action movies? Amped for Die Hard 5?

Follow Dominic Corry on Twitter.

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