In the latest instalment of our action A-Z, Tom Jolliffe offers up a selection of films from I to L…
Coming to a midpoint in our action A-Z, something becomes clear. I have seen way too many action films. Let’s face it, all you need is Die Hard repeated ad nauseam. That said, for carnage laden thrills, the action genre sets the pulse racing like few genres can. In my continued quest to deliver an eclectic mix of recommendations, I’ve once again juggled cult, big budget and low budget into this Eton Mess/tiffin mix of sweet, sweet ass kickery. So without further delay, because the timebomb is ticking, here are a selection of films beginning with I through L…
In The Line of Fire
At one time seen as something of a Clint Eastwood in action swansong, In The Line of Fire would inevitably not see Eastwood quietly ride into the sunset and holster his magnum just yet, but regardless, a year after saying goodbye to the Western in Unforgiven, Eastwood was once again front and center, the hero, the man of action. This thoroughly enjoyable Wolfgang Petersen thriller is efficiently put together, and makes suitable acknowledgement of Eastwood’s advancing years (around 62 at time of filming). In these days of Stallone kicking it at 75, and Harrison Ford about to unleash Indiana’s whip close to 80, that seems nothing. Indeed Eastwood would inevitably revisit action and thrillers beyond this, but this remains his last great one (Gran Torino was great, but maybe not quite in the action genre). A stellar cast, enjoyable intrigue and atypically fine villainy from John Malkovich make In The Line of Fire one of those great studio pot boiler action thrillers that they rarely seem to make now. Eastwood is also excellent, as close to fallible as he’d probably ever come in the genre to that point.
Absolutely ludicrous but oh so much fun. Invasion U.S.A, the pinnacle of Reagan-era, jingoistic, fantastical, machismo action sees Chuck Norris in his most ‘Chuck Norris’ film ever. Every meme, every ‘fact,’ largely stems from the image of undefeatable, perfect masculinity (let no one call it toxic. It’s too silly to be toxic), which probably exists in no small part due to this film. Director Joseph Zito has plenty of action cred having already directed Norris (Missing in Action), and he’d also direct Dolph Lundgren in the equally silly but brilliant, Red Scorpion. This is also packed with action. Masses of ‘splosions, ludicrous set pieces and one of the most irredeemably repugnant villains in history, brilliantly portrayed by Richard Lynch.
Donnie Yen had his first major international break with Iron Monkey, one of many Asian cinema classics which was championed by Quentin Tarantino, at a time when too few of these films were coming to Western attention. Produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Yeun Woo-Ping this has some of the best of the best from Hong Kong cinema behind it. Yen displays all his trademark talents as a Wuxia vigilante/Robin Hood. As you would expect, the fight sequences are stellar.
John Wick 3
The John Wick franchise did a magnificent job of building it’s own universe. Wick’s world of hitmen, subterfuge and odd traditions/customs gives it a distinct personality, whilst everyone’s favourite person, Keanu Reeves has shone, perhaps like never before as the titular badass. In the third film of the franchise, everything is cranked up to 11. The action is more eclectic, and it’s bigger. The Wickism’s are also cranked right up. There’s a stellar lineup of action ready co-stars to share the screen with Wick. Mark Dacascos is a great villain and then there’s a Raid double hit of Yayan Ruhian and Cepep Arif Rahman. As you’d expect there are some great face offs, as well as Wick’s patented blend of Gun-Fu. Elsewhere, Halle Berry drops by to kick all kinds of ass in a set piece that brings fighting dogs into the fray brilliantly. Groins will be chomped (by the dogs…not Keanu…).
Not to be confused with the classic U2 album, this is an action filled video spectacular starring Dolph Lundgren. The film came at a crossroads for Dolph. He’d just had something of a comeback hit with Universal Soldier, but at this point it only seemed to enforce the idea that he was more popular as a villain than the hero. He still had credit in the bank though, but so began a continuum of slightly troubled productions, inconsistent releases and the eventual confirmation that Dolph was great as a VHS draw, but not so much at the box office. Still, this was a period of slightly more ambitious productions and decent budgets including Men of War, The Shooter, Silent Trigger and Joshua Tree (Army of One in the US). A few of these still picked up theatrical runs across Europe and other territories, but Dolph couldn’t get a break in the US it seemed (not including his support turn in Johnny Mnemonic). Joshua Tree, directed by stunt royalty Vic Armstrong, is jam packed with action, that sees Lundgren in a John Woo-esque warehouse shootout, among a mass of car chases. The highlight of the vehicular chaos comes as 6ft5 Lundgren, crammed into a Ferrari, is chased by a Lambo driven by the late great George Segal (who chomps scenery and cigars with aplomb). It’s a little messy, with odd editing choices but a lot of fun and remains a fans favourite.
Roddy Piper never quite had the action man career he deserved. With charisma and some range that marked him well above his Wrestler turned actor contemporaries, he started with a bang with They Live. Sadly that cult classic didn’t hit straight away and neither did Hell Comes to Frogtown. So it was, and Piper would find himself in the straight to video world quickly, on production levels with the likes of Don Wilson and Billy Blanks. Still, he always had a good presence and among a lot of stinkers, made a few gems (Tough and Deadly one such example). Jungleground is one of the good ones, a hunted human film, crossed with Escape from New York. It’s well made, Piper is a strong presence and so gamely physical. This is something of an underrated gem and an all too rare 90’s action film befitting the late Piper’s talents.
Cop vs Assassin in the John Woo gaze. Of course this means a complexity and a mutual respect growing to an inevitable teaming. Chow Yun-Fat is the titular killer, crushed by guilt after one of his hits leaves collateral damage (with a singer left blind). Danny Lee is a hard bitten and obsessive cop on the trail of killers and gangsters. It’s one of Woo’s finest hours, with dramatic weight, hitting just the right notes of melodrama and then dragging us headlong into the vast array of double handed gun fights and inexplicably placed bird life. If you love classic Hong Kong cinema, or love action, The Killer is a must. It’s action with heart, with great acting and above all, stunningly beautiful set pieces.
King of The Kickboxers
This is a classic in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. A cop poses as a martial arts actor to try and expose a crime-ring who organise snuff films (killing off martial artists). Our cop is Loren Avedon, perennially underrated in the straight to video, martial arts arena. Our chief villain is Billy Blanks and then there’s the high kicking genius, Keith Cooke as the films Mr Miyagi who helps train Avedon to face Blanks. Among all the hammy acting and silly plotting the film is littered with fights and whereas some other ‘craptaculars’ have clumsy fights that add further to the laughs, this actually has some fantastic fight scenes. Rightfully, King of The Kickboxers for ironic, and legitimate reasons, has become a cult martial arts film.
Kiss of The Dragon
This is probably Jet Li’s finest hour in the West. It’s the film that makes best use of his abilities. Additionally, its Paris setting is a great backdrop to have Li taking on the baddies. Bridget Fonda provides the dramatic weight to counter Li’s stoicism, whilst Tchecky Karyo enjoys letting loose as the villain (as always). It’s got so many elements you’d expect from a script by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, and the film looks great too. Director Chris Nahon never quite kicked on after this, but did revisit the martial arts genre a few times (his recent film Lady Bloodfight is pretty underrated). As per normal with Li’s Hollywood ventures, Corey Yeun’s stunt team take care of the action. This time however, they’re well aided by a more appreciative director and an editor who knows how to cut them together. Li taking on a little/large sibling duo and a room full of martial artists, are particular highlights.
I do love a bit of Cynthia Rothrock. Her career trajectory in the US deserved far more, and leading roles, unshackled from a male co-star/partner, were disappointingly rare. Lady Dragon was one such rarity. This is Cynthia doing Kickboxer. She’s a cop tracking an international smuggler who killed her husband. After being left for dead she trains with a wizened old master (because there’s always one around) to attain enough skill to have her vengeance. Said villain is played by Rothrock long time collaborator, Richard Norton. He’s great as you’d expect whilst the film makes good use of Rothrock’s physical talents. She has done better (China O’Brien) but this does benefit from having one of the Kickboxer directors, David Worth, at the helm.
Last Man Standing
I’m going to cheat here because I couldn’t decide between two films with the same title. On the one hand we have Walter Hill’s punchy retelling of Yojimbo as Bruce Willis plays a hired gun who pits two rival factions against each other in the prohibition era. It’s over the top, very enjoyable and has Bruce Willis in fine fettle. Then on the other hand we’ve got PM Entertainment’s stunt fest starring Jeff Wincott, with some good support from Jonathan Banks no less. It’s one of PM’s finest with some genuinely great and imaginative set pieces. A couple get repurposed/ripped off for big budget Hollywood affairs, including a highway chase involving a trailing table that was lifted and reused in Lethal Weapon 4. The PM gift of bringing big scale stunts and pyrotechnics to low budget productions has never been matched since in the video world (sadly).
Lethal Weapon 2
Speaking of Lethal Weapon, the second instalment ups the action ante from the original, and still retains all its hard edges (that would gradually be ebbed away by the tamer third and fourth films). Lethal Weapon 2 sees Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) looking to take down a group of South African diplomats involved in an array of illegal activities but protected by diplomatic immunity. The racist diplomats from a pre-apartheid S.A are a particular grievance to Murtaugh as a proud black American. The film has great action, even if it doesn’t have the same dramatic weight as the first. The returning duo are great, Joe Pesci provides comic relief and Joss Ackland is a hiss worthy villain. Then there’s Patsy Kensit…ahh Patsy…be still my beating heart (and she’s starring in my next film I’m pleased to say). The set pieces in the film, particularly the uncut version, are superb (surfs up…).
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/