Tom Jolliffe with ten underrated action films that deserve more love…
Kicking, punching, gunfights, explosions and one liners. The action genre encompasses many of the most excessive and visceral elements cinema can deliver. As such, perhaps it is a little undervalued as a genre from those with a more critical eye. Indeed it can be common to see thin plots, characters with no arc or two dimensional performances. Sometimes the genre gets it right though. There are the cream of the crop, forever held in high regard like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Raiders of the Lost Ark for example.
There have been plenty of underrated action films over the years. Maybe this is a mixture of things – that they just didn’t click with audiences initially, or they didn’t find a wide audience. There are some that should be held in a little higher regard among genre enthusiasts. We’re not talking Die Hard level of course, but still, some need a little more love. Here are ten that pop into my brain right now:
Essentially an American riff on Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, this enjoyable action film with plenty of fun and nice moments of character sees the late great Rutger Hauer in superb form as the blinded Vietnam vet who has to take an old comrades son across country to find his father.
The film has good comedy (never overplayed), fantastic action sequences and the road movie format feels fresh given the blind Hauer and tag-along kid format. All leading to a thrilling and to be fair, impeccably choreographed finale that includes Hauer facing off in a sword fight against Sho Kosugi. I suppose for obvious reasons people remember Hauer more for Blade Runner or The Hitcher, likewise is stellar 80’s and early 90’s action work is occasionally overlooked (see also Wanted: Dead or Alive and Split Second).
Marked For Death
People have been a little blown away by three sets of fighting styles in this century of action. For a time everyone was obsessed with the M.A. shown in Taken, in the Bourne franchise and later in the John Wick franchise. Additionally many ripped off the filming styles of Taken and Bourne (the tight shooting, quick camera and cutting). Often to poor effect of course. More recently, everyone wants to be like Wick, with the Judo throws, the longer takes and wider shots.
It may seem strange to think, but back in the early 90’s, Steven Seagal hit action cinema like a cannonball. He did an opening four films that may have felt a little interchangeable, but the fight sequences had a gritty, authentic and efficient brutality that we’d almost never seen (least not quite so clearly by a practitioner doing it all himself). Nice wide shots, moves of swift and telling impact. People weren’t exchanging 2-3 minutes of punch and kicks before a knockdown. Seagal was either deflecting attacks by using an opponents momentum and/or striking to knock down in one or two moves. Yet cinematically, whilst it wasn’t balletic and pretty, it was visceral and brutal.
Marked For Death, or those other earlier works, had a little mystical twist that was nicely and savagely debunked by the end of the film. Seagal was always effective in the range he showed back then. Granted he never seemed to seek improvement or extend himself as an actor, but in his Andrew Davis duo (Nico and Under Siege) in particular he was actually charismatically stoic. Here he gets some good cast to play off like Keith David and Basil Wallace makes a fantastic and memorable villain as Screwface.
Under Siege has always been Seagal’s iconic film but it didn’t have a lot in it of what actually made Seagal a big deal breaking out, and of course he was probably too overshadowed by Gary Busey and Tommy Lee Jones. The action in Marked For Death has some real gems though not least Seagal taking on two crooks in a jewellery store and a latter capture escape as he takes on three goons attacking him simultaneously (you know, not doing the one at a time thing).
Long before discussions of a live action Akira, or recent manga adaptations like Alita: Battle Angel and Ghost in the Shell, there was a brief sprinkle of interest in the mid 90’s. Fist of the North Star with Gary Daniels wasn’t great and had a few release issues. Crying Freeman however was really good and had a particularly telling release issue. For a variety of reasons it bypassed release entirely in the US. A key market and it hurt the films lasting legacy (particularly for an audience that would have taken to it).
Starring Mark Dacascos, it’s a beautifully shot, impeccably crafted action fantasy. The film has an operatic quality, a little like Conan the Barbarian in that so much of the characterisation is played without dialogue, particularly the love story. The role suited the enigmatic and emotional depth of Dacascos as a performer, whilst also utilising his physical prowess and almost balletic grace. From somersaulting off huts, climbing up and standing atop doors to spiralling through the swords of swiping villains, he does it beautifully, but he’s also filmed beautifully by Christophe Gans.
Gans, with a strong and clear homage to John Woo, also went as far as bringing on Woo’s frequent HK editor, David Wu. Beneath all this too is an amazing score from Patrick O’Hearn. Actually one of the finest synth scores of the era. It had all those quiet nods to Tangerine Dream whilst feeling unique and updated for that time. The music still holds up and gives the whole film a dream-like quality.
It seemed for a while that this Jean-Claude Van Damme classic just wasn’t quite getting the love. It wasn’t as iconic as his bread and butter fight orientated films like Bloodsport. It wasn’t as widely appreciated as Timecop or Universal Soldier (both of which spawned an array of follow ons and/or rumoured reboots). Hard Target more recently spawned a sequel (with Scott Adkins) but still, the original, which introduced John Woo to Hollywood, took the hunted human format and nailed a vastly enjoyable, action packed extravaganza.
As a human story, those Woo subtleties weren’t as expertly utilised as Hard Boiled or The Killer by any means, but the touches were still there. It was quite new for Van Damme, who is sort of okay here, even if still in his slightly awkward era. Physically of course he was majestic and combined with Woo, does what he does best. The engaging hunting and pursuit of JCVD keeps the film going and it’s also aided by a particularly brilliant double act of villains with Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo. The carnage levels here are astonishing and probably as close as anything has come, post Hard Boiled for sheer gun-play insanity (shot the delightfully old school and practical way).
When people think of Sam Peckinpah, they tend to think of The Wild Bunch first, and perhaps even some of his cultier films like Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, ahead of this. Likewise with star man Steve McQueen the association is more commonly with The Great Escape, or with Bullitt. The Getaway is a fantastic anti-hero chase film. King of cool, McQueen is superb. Completely charismatic. Is it as good as Bullitt? Perhaps not, but that film gets entirely the credit it deserves.
There are great set pieces throughout. McQueen himself is an image of cool and among the car based action there’s a magnificent Hotel shootout. There’s such a stamp of action lineage in this, not just with Peckinpah and McQueen, but a script by Walter Hill who would soon establish himself as a great (and underappreciated) action specialist.
As more time passes, the love for this grows. The more I watch it, the more I can’t help but feel it might be my favourite John Carpenter film. No, it’s not as good as The Thing, or Halloween overall, but much like Big Trouble In Little China (which was battling They Live for its placing here) it’s a great concept absolutely impeccably delivered.
Roddy Piper as an action hero was undervalued too. He had a lot of charisma. Whilst Hulk Hogan as an example was also establishing himself as a movie star, the difference was Piper actually had more of a natural gift for acting. He may not have been Brando, but he was better than he got credit for, and honestly he was as good an actor as Dwayne Johnson has proven to be.
They Live just didn’t hit big enough, early enough, making Piper’s mainstream movie run short-lived. As a straight to video performer he’d end up reliable, and also showing the occasional gift for comedy (particularly in some TV cameos). This film is brilliant though. Such a cool concept and as an action film it really delivers, not least the infamous alley way brawl.
One of the most stellar, visceral and exciting action films of the 80’s, with palm sweating tension, Oscar nominated central performances and a final shot for the ages. This had one thing working against it initially as a legacy piece, and that was the Cannon label. It’s like telling a clothes snob that pair of Gucci-like shoes they’re wearing are actually made by Primark. There was a real snobbery toward Cannon from the industry and even some sections of audience. To an extent their good films often got a little buried as far as appreciation.
The train action sequences are magnificent but what really drives the film are magnificent performances from Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay and John P Ryan. The regard for the film has gone up in recent times and possibly stands as Cannon’s crowning glory. It should be held in higher regard among some of it’s 80’s action contemporaries.
I need some Brandon Lee in the list. Now The Crow is much loved and it’s iconic. Lee showed limitless promise but I feel its legacy and love is wide and worthy. Lets step back though and consider his earlier work. They may have lacked the heart and all round artistry of The Crow, but Lee did a couple of brilliant action films. Showdown In Little Tokyo is great fun. Rapid Fire however, gives Lee centre stage and a little more depth.
Rapid Fire was a really excellent star vehicle. It came right in that era of slightly grittier action films with the likes of Seagal. Lee exuded charisma and easy going charm. He could act, he was great with the one liners. He was able to really display his gifts as a physical performer too. The film has great fight scenes, good action and fantastically cheesy soundtrack and some fine, scenery chewing support from Powers Boothe and Nick Mancuso.
Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock and Rob Schneider (okay, forget that one…no okay, Rob’s alright)… Demolition Man blends high concept ideas, irreverent humour, great action and playful excess in a way that maybe didn’t catch on in 1993, but seems to be very popular nowadays. It’s almost Marvel-esque.
Stallone has fun as the frozen in time cop stepping out into a Utopian world of liberal PC behaviour, carefully controlled and where toilet paper is replaced by three sea shells. His fun is nothing compared to the time Wesley Snipes is having. He approaches his villainous turn with such revelry that you can’t help but begin to admire Simon Phoenix. Great action, a lot of humour, among the sillier future conceits (all done with a wink and a nod) there’s some interesting ideas too and Sandra Bullock is also excellent.
16 Blocks was something of an old hat idea, but I always felt this one had a lot of heart, and interesting turn of pace at the time for Bruce Willis, playing a little older than he was and with an interesting element in having him play of Mos Def too.
The idea is simple, Willis must get a key witness 16 blocks across town to testify against dirty cops who are tracking them both. Willis is old, ill and a drunkard (in this film I mean…). It’s all handled with efficient skill by Richard Donner an action veteran. Willis gives a great performance. David Morse is a suitably slimy villain and Mos Def is likeable. It was old school certainly, but it’s enjoyable and because it was old school and traditional, it has dated better than a lot of routine films of the time (lost in stylistic tendencies which have become outdated).
Which action films do you think are underrated? 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.