Tom Jolliffe picks one underrated gem from ten of the best action stars of all time…
Ah the misunderstood masterpiece. The underappreciated gem. Some films just take a while to get the attention they fully deserve. When it comes to the primo action stars one might argue the ranking list. However, whilst considering the best action stars of all time, I’ve instead picked out an underrated gem from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Wesley Snipes, Jackie Chan, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, Scott Adkins and First Lady of Action, Cynthia Rothrock.
Synonymous with such films as Terminator, Rocky and Die Hard, these stars have plenty of films which didn’t quite get the love they deserved. Here are ten underrated gems from each:
Jackie Chan – Crime Story
For Jackie Chan, his iconic blend of action, physical stunts and comedy have been adored for over 40 years, in such iconic classics as Police Story, Project A, Drunken Master and during his transition to the US market in Rush Hour. Back in 1993, Chan did a slightly more serious take on the crime action thriller with Crime Story. Co-directed with Kirk Wong, Crime Story has the usual Chan intricacy you expect in high-energy fight scenes. It has the jaw-dropping stunts you expect too, but also a bit more of a grounding in reality.
Crime Story has been gifted some great High-Def transfers to give it a new lease of life and it looks suitably glorious. It’s really, really well shot, with great cinematography, and the pyrotechnics and practical work are also impressive. This approaches the most Woo/Lam style of action that Chan has ever done. It’s not often remembered in an era of Police Story sequels, and that first big US break with Rumble in the Bronx, but it should be.
SEE ALSO: The Essential Jackie Chan Movies
Sylvester Stallone – Demolition Man
Stallone has quite a few overlooked nuggets in his career. I have a soft spot for his much-maligned Judge Dredd and I dig Lock Up, which almost no one remembers, and Daylight is a great disaster movie but Demolition Man should have been huge upon release. It should have been loved.
For some it was, but it’s taken until the last decade for people to fully appreciate how acerbic and disturbingly prescient Demolition Man was. The blend of action and comedy, with running gags about sea shells and the outlawing of swearing, is ahead of its time. Now, this kind of irreverence is high fashion, but Demolition Man has it packaged in a film with the superior gifts of old-school practical action filmmaking.
Steven Seagal – On Deadly Ground
Okay, hear me out… it’s ludicrous but this still has things going for it. When Seagal, hot off the success of Under Siege was given carte blanche to direct and star in a film, he went suitably hog wild. The results were poor box office and savaging reviews, whilst Seagal’s message of ecological awareness was laughed out of the theatres. Nearly 30 years on, with the results of global warming clear for all to see, it might be argued he had a point.
Still, On Deadly Ground is a film that has Michael Caine as its villain. It has Joan Chen who was a wonderful presence in the action genre throughout the 90s, before sadly disappearing out of mainstream view. Then there’s a Basil Poledouris score, which whilst far from his A game, is still better than most can bring to the table. The action scenes are also good and the production values and locales are impressive. The long-winded, pompous speeches and self-aggrandizing demeanour of Forest Taft (Seagal) also provide some unintentional humour. Indeed, “what does it take to change the essence of a man?”
Wesley Snipes – Rising Sun
The 90s were a great era for potboilers. I loved that era of thrillers, filled to the brim with espionage, intrigue, twists and often big lapses in logic. Wesley Snipes had a couple of underrated action thrillers, including Murder at 1600, but Rising Sun is one that really is way better than it’s ever remembered as being (by the few who do).
Firstly you’ve got Snipes teaming up with Sean Connery as a Japanese expert who must assist an investigation into a murder committed in a large Japanese corporation (just as a US merger is being discussed). You have corporate intrigue, cultural clashes, Yakuza elements, and some action. Snipes is good, and Connery is brilliantly magnetic without even having to break out of third gear. The cast is then filled with great character actors like Harvey Keitel, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Tia Carrere (schwiiiiiinnnnnggg). Director Philip Kaufman certainly knows potboilers, as does author turned screenwriter, the legendary Michael Crichton.
Cynthia Rothrock – Sworn to Justice
Cynthia Rothrock has certainly kicked all kinds of ass. She’s had some big Hong Kong hits like Police Assassins, Millionaires Express and Righting Wrongs, whilst her popularity on video was typified by sequels for films like China O’Brien, Lady Dragon, the Tiger Claws trilogy and Rage and Honor. One film which often gets a little overlooked is Sworn to Justice. It has potboiler elements as Janna (Rothrock) hunts for her sister’s killers. Through the tragedy, she develops a kind of psychic sense which helps her to uncover who is responsible and where to find them. Saves doing detective work I suppose.
Sworn to Justice is silly, but it’s fun. Rothrock gives one of her strongest performances, and really accentuates her feminine wiles here, in a way she rarely did in her career. There are sex scenes and she performs a kata in a negligee for good measure. Some nice action aside the film is also bolstered by a fine supporting cast of Mako, Brad Dourif, Tony Lo Bianco and Kurt McKinney. It surprises me this didn’t get added to her collection of films with a sequel. The scope was there.
Arnold Schwarzenegger – Last Action Hero
Arnold Brownschweiger (Schwarzenegger…gesundheit) has a few underappreciated gems on his CV. In his post-Governator days, The Last Stand is way above anything else he’s done and a really rock solid little action film, whilst Eraser was almost a last great 80s-style action film. I’ll also long maintain that the three R’s – Running Man, Red Heat and Raw Deal – were also underrated. However, the primo Ahnuld selection for being undervalued is Last Action Hero. It’s an absolute hodge-podge of brilliant ideas messily slapped together as the mass of writers and drafts clash and cohesion almost falls by the wayside. Despite that, you still get some of the Shane Black wit come through in the script, you still get brilliant McTiernan craft in the action scenes, you get Schwarzenegger superbly sending himself up, and so does it matter there are so many different random things thrown around (a cartoon cat, an array of cameos)?
Additionally the villains roster of F. Murray Abraham (“you killed Mozart…” “Mo Zart?”), Tom Noonan, Anthony Quinn and the sublime Charles Dance provide lots of laughs. Austin O’Brien as the Arnie super fan dragged into the latest Arnold film (Slater 4) isn’t nearly as annoying as people made out. The film cost a fortune to make, didn’t make nearly as much as hoped and was battered by critics, but it’s actually really good and you know what? Messy it might be, but it’s a coherent masterclass in structure compared to most MCU films. Narrative structure and tonal consistency are so old-fashioned.
Dolph Lundgren at the height of his VHS era pull, stars in a film directed by Russell Mulcahy, fresh off a series of underperforming theatrical releases such as Ricochet, The Real McCoy and The Shadow. Dolph is pictured on the artwork with a massive sniper rifle, promising plenty of carnage. What is delivered is a surprisingly esoteric psychological thriller, largely confined to one building (aside from flashbacks), with only four central characters.
There’s plenty of simplicity to the main plot, where the shooter and his spotter await a target they’re to take out from the confines of their isolated tower building. They have a complicated relationship from the previous job and Lundgren is edgy and paranoid after a career of killing people for faceless overlords. If it were made today it might have been directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, or perhaps made by Robert Eggers and Robert Pattinson for A24. The film still has an odd friction between loftier artistic sensibilities and delivering a Lundgren action vehicle. Despite the inconsistencies, it’s still pretty interesting when it works.
Jean-Claude Van Damme – Maximum Risk
At the height of Van Damme’s popularity, he went on a scouting trip to Hong Kong and came back with John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, three of the most legendary action directors in the HK film industry. His Hark films effectively began the irreparable derailing of his cinema career (finished off by a first Universal Soldier sequel), but prior to that, his first with Ringo Lam had all the elements in place to be a success… except his audience. For whatever reason, a lack of a tournament fighting format or high concept meant that fans didn’t quite take to Maximum Risk, which played a little more like a Euro-thriller.
Van Damme is a cop in France who attends a murder scene, finding a twin he never knew existed. He takes on the identity of his brother and investigates in his bros native New York. He enters a world of Russian Mafia, corrupt FBI agents and more, but it’s all impeccably put together. Lam’s film not only gets one of Van Damme’s first really honed performances but the action is very grounded, with great foot and car chases, shootouts and hard-hitting fight scenes. Van Damme has three great duals with the huge Stefanos Miltsakikis, culminating in the best elevator fight scene put to film. I don’t know why JC fans don’t hold it in higher regard, but many of the die-hard fans seem to idolise the formula which made him famous with films like Bloodsport, Kickboxer and Lionheart.
Scott Adkins – Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
You might claim this could be a selection for Lundgren and Van Damme, however, both have smaller though significant parts in the film. This was a big step out of the comfort zone of Scott Adkins in John Hyams’ dark, twisted and cerebral masterwork. Adkins, known for his physical feats and jaw-dropping martial arts moves was surging in popularity thanks to Boyka and an array of martial arts-infused action films. Day of Reckoning effectively retcons a franchise that has become something of an unexpectedly long-running series. If Hyams shook the tree in Regeneration, he chopped it down, carved a pipe from it and went PCP wild to conjure this nightmarish melting pot of influences.
From Noe, to Kubrick, Lynch, Refn and Cronenberg by way of Gareth Evans, this is a fusion of horror, thriller, mystery and action with a barely connected strand to the original film. It was bound to alienate fans and audiences alike, just as much as it might allure cinephiles with a taste for the strange and compellingly unique. Opening existential questions whilst delivering furious fight scenes, Hyams’s film caught the high of some high-end publications and proved more popular with them than the die-hard fans of the comparatively goofy and comical original. It was Adkins’s best performance right up until he did Avengement.
Bruce Willis – 16 Blocks
All an ageing detective has to do is transport a criminal witness to trial across 16 blocks. What he has to deal with, is corrupt colleagues hunting him and his client. In an era starting a slow decline to video hell (perhaps more understandable after more recent knowledge), Bruce Willis delivered the odd standout. Looper got the love it certainly deserved, but 16 Blocks, despite its comparative simplicity, was sadly lacking in appreciation.
16 Blocks is an old-school, simple action thriller which sees Willis play a fallible character, physically ill-equipped for a race against time and certain death with the law turned against him, all whilst having to protect an affable con (Mos Def). Directed by the late Richard Donner, it’s got that pedigree behind it which shows on camera. It’s not lavish, or flash, with simple yet effective cinematography. However, it’s well-paced and Willis injects his role with stoic pathos.
Charles Bronson – 10 to Midnight
It’s fair to say Charles Bronson’s career trajectory was on the way down by the time he became a Cannon stalwart. Still, he had some gems during that era. The Death Wish sequels have certainly been more iconic, even if for their ridiculousness, but 10 to Midnight is a rock solid, very engaging action thriller with Bronson playing a world-weary Detective tracking a sexually perverse serial killer with a penchant for killing his victims whilst nude. It has classic lines and Bronson having a bit more fun than he did in some other routine Cannon thrillers.
What are some underrated films from legendary action stars? 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 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/