In the the final instalment of our action A-Z, Tom Jolliffe presents a selection of action movies beginning with W-Z…
After a brief October hiatus, the A-Z of action returns. There’s not enough room in the month of horror for all those ‘splosions and cheesy one liners. It’s been a long journey, covering a gamut of films from big budget to low budget bottom shelf video specials but we’ve finally come to the end. The bad guy we thought was dead is still alive. Time to finish the job. So without further ado, spin your nunchakus, pull out your crossbow and limber up for those high kicks. Here is the W to Z of action:
Wanted: Dead or Alive
In the mid to late 80’s, Rutger Hauer had firmly established himself as an enthralling antagonist with films like Blade Runner, Nighthawks and The Hitcher. The intense charisma and playful enigma made him such an effortlessly scene stealing and engaging villain. The trouble is, when you’re that good you’re typecast.
Hauer seemed to make a concerted effort to branch into heroism. The results were mixed, though there have been plenty of excellent cult efforts. Wanted: Dead or Alive isn’t Blind Fury good, and it was certainly more popular on video than in cinemas, but it’s a well constructed action film with Hauer in fine form. Opposing him is Gene Simmons of Kiss fame who seemed to have a reasonable run back in the day playing slimeball villains. There’s a sense Hauer is too good for this (but he was too good for all but a handful of his films in truth), but this kind of gives this an edge over other generic action of the era. There are some good set pieces here as burnout Hauer chases the international terrorist played by Simmons.
Walter Hill’s big breakout as a director has a brilliantly simple concept. A City split by rival gangs. One of those gangs have to make their way across the City to get back to their turf, through several hostile districts. With a pretty non-stop pace, brilliantly conceived action and some great performances (notably James Remar, David Patrick Kelly and Michael Beck), this has shades of Escape From New York (which came a couple of years after). It’s no surprise this is such a cult film. Perhaps surprisingly it hasn’t had a sequel or been rebooted (despite years of rumours). It did however, have a video game in more recent times from Rockstar Games (GTA). Walter Hill had previously worked with Sam Peckinpah (he wrote The Getaway), and indeed, it definitely seemed to effect his approach to action editing.
This title has popped up a few times over the years, but this movie is a solid action entry from Gary Daniels with a few points of interest. For one, Daniels is on good form performing his requisite fight scenes with aplomb as he takes down a triad drug dealer who is putting out a new designer drug on the streets. Said villain is played by the ever reliable, Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa (whose right hand man is Ron Yuan). One interesting aspect is the female lead played by Julia Nickson. She’s a great actress anyway, but perennially video action films don’t give much in the way of characterisation for female characters. This film gives her some interesting arcs and complexity and she’s excellent. This film isn’t often talked about as one of Daniels’ more iconic works, but it’s one of his most all round solid.
X2: X-Men United
It feels like a long, long time ago. At the time, X2, which was a big step up from the opening swing of X-Men in 2000, felt like the first comic book film that you could argue as being legitimately great. Raimi’s first Spidey was a suitable warm up to the more perfected Spider-Man 2. X2 likewise, just delivered the material more assuredly than Bryan Singer’s first film. The film sensibly also focused very heavily on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. This one still holds up very well. There are great set pieces and honestly, none of the following films across the sprawling franchise and spinoffs have been quite as good, bar James Mangold’s Logan.
This is a straight to video Sci-Fi action starring Stephen Baldwin. Before you run for the hills, let me elaborate. We have Kyle Maclachlan too, and Kim Coates. The plot rings similar to Brandon Cronenberg’s recent cult horror, Possessor. You can essentially use another persons body as your Avatar, taking control of them. Our protagonist signs up to a body swap service with someone at another City he needs to be in. So far so Sci-Fi, but trouble arises when he switches bodies with a terrorist, who then fails to switch back. It’s enjoyable high-concept hokum, engagingly put together. The youngest Baldwin bro was always better than much of the drek he was relegated to (you could say the same about Billy and Daniel) by this point, and he’s good here, clearly revelling in the Face/Off-lite element of this post Matrix wave rider.
Maybe I’m just running out of ideas for films beginning with X, but XXX is kind of fun. Vin Diesel was at the height of his star power, becoming a headlining action hero for a generation seemingly replacing Arnold and co. This was very much on trend with a fascination for counter culture and extreme sports, alongside a Nu metal soundtrack and plenty of attitude. Diesel plays an extreme sport fan, at the very beginnings of viral stardom. He ends up being employed as a special agent and the inconceivable nature of the film adds an extra goofy charm. It lacks subtlety, right down to the cheesy use of Xander’s heroic theme, but Rob Cohen is at his best in putting together big set pieces with wild abandon. Diesel has a certain charm, even if he seemed too old at the time to be a glorified skateboard punk (let’s not even mention the sequel, which saw Diesel playing Xander again in his 50’s). A snowboard escape from an avalanche and dirt bike escape from a drug complex are deliriously silly.
An early Hollywood, East meets West collision of culture that surprisingly hasn’t aged terribly. Here, tough guy of yesteryear, Robert Mitchum stars as a private eye with previous in Japan. He’s up on the culture and the ways and goes over to investigate the disappearance of a friends daughter, running afoul of the Yakuza along the way. The film looks great, has some memorable action scenes and very strong performances from Mitchum and Ken Takakura, never resorting to making perpetual jokes about the Asian characters and culture and putting Takakura’s character on equal footing with his American counterpart (for the most part).
In the wake of a contemporary action film boom in Hong Kong, inspired by the revolutionary new action created by Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yeun Biao, there was also a concerted push to launch female action heroines to rival the male counterparts. In Yes Madam (also known as Police Assassins) we had two. Michelle Yeoh, trained in ballet, made her leading action debut here as a policewoman, partnered with a western cop. Said westerner would initially become the bigger star, taking the HK action scene by storm for several years. Cynthia Rothrock was something of a revelation, beginning a very solid run of great high kicking action films. Yes Madam, directed by Corey Yeun (who has famously had a long association with Jet Li, and designed the Transporter action too) is a kick ass action film with the ladies taking names. Highlights include a fight with veteran villain, Dick Wei (who was notorious for injuring co-stars and stunt men in a number of films…ask Cynthia!).
One of Akira Kurosawa’s most influential and iconic action movies. A wandering Samurai plays two warring factions of a village against each other, leading to bloody and brutal consequences. The story has been remoulded in Western cinema many times, including A Fistful of Dollars (Clint Eastwood), Last Man Standing (Bruce Willis) and Desert Heat (Van Damme). Kurosawa’s film, starring Toshiro Mifune (of course), is a masterclass in action. Mifune is commanding, the set pieces are beautifully paced, shot and cut and it’s certainly one of Kurosawa’s more lithe action films. It’s a masterpiece.
A long running series of films about the blind swordsman began in 1962 with The Tale of Zatoichi. A series of 26 films certainly proved the character was hugely popular. I’ve only seen a handful I must say, and I’m going to be sacrilegious here. My favourite is the Takeshi Kitano remake. As a big Kitano fan, his iconic style is well in evidence (both in front and behind the camera). It might not be one of his best works, and seemed a surprising choice in 2003, but the film has many of his trademarks, not least brutal violence. It’s also as eclectic and broad as you’d expect from a master infiltrator or quirk into violent genre cinema.
This action and stunt extravaganza was an eye catching special in the halcyon days of the video shop. The T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick was front and centre on the cover art, holding a big gun, with a big explosion surrounding him. The film lives up to the cover art with plenty of guns and plenty of explosions. It’s the kind of film PM entertainment did so brilliantly well back in the day with their gleeful approach to cinematic stunts and carnage. This also marked something of a kick off point for a run spanning 1994-1997 where the company seemed to be doing very grandiose video action projects, with a crazy amount of on screen chaos. The star power of Patrick at the time really seemed to propel them to a new level.
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain
Tsui Hark ranks as one of HK cinemas most legendary directors. Alongside John Woo and Ringo Lam, he made a name for himself with plenty of contemporary action films (often gangster). Whilst Woo had his particular style, and Ringo Lam his, Tsui was perhaps the most extravagant in his use of colour, the camera and his editing choices. Incredibly dynamic to the point of being dizzying at times. Zu is famously a film which heavily inspired John Carpenters Big Trouble in Little China. It’s dazzling, imaginative and bristling with energy. Hark is almost restrained by future standards (certainly with the camera movement) but it’s still glorious with brilliant set pieces. Yeun Biao is the big name here and is (As always) an amiable hero.
That brings a close to the final segment in our action A-Z. What is your favourite action film beginning with W-Z? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
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 here.