A staple of film since the beginning the action genre has churned out many classics over the years. From space faring epics like Star Wars to secret agent thrillers like the Bourne series it seems like the genre has something for everyone. Now there are dozens of movies like Kill Bill, Terminator and Die Hard that come up when it comes to discussing the best ever. But what about the other movies? The non-Mad Maxes of the world that get overlooked? The films that are never brought up for one reason or another.12
Whether it went up against a bigger movie, came out at the wrong time or just falls between the cracks these underrated gems just aren’t mentioned. That’s why I am going to go over 10 Underrated Action Movies and give them their just due.
While the original Blade is more remembered (a lot of that having to do with the opening scene) I would argue that its sequel is the superior film. Directed by Guillermo del Toro it has Blade team up with a group of vampires (including Ron Perlman and Donnie Yen) against a group of super vampires. As ridiculous as that sounds it works thanks to del Toro’s excellent direction, fun fight scenes and even some emotional stakes with Blade and vampire Nyssa. When you have Wesley Snipes straight up doing pro wrestling moves during a fight scene (a standing suplex to be specific) you know you have a winner.
Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear
It’s easy to dismiss direct to video as the land of Steven Segal sequels and movies starring pro wrestlers. As it turns out there’s a pretty great action scene at the moment. Case in point, Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear. Starring Scott Adkins it’s a classic take on an 80’s ninja movie with Casey (Adkins) needing to avenge his dead wife. What it lacks in originality it makes up for in stellar direction. His fourth film with Adkins director Isaac Florentine shows a good understanding of action by having minimum cuts, having good martial artists and capturing the action in wide angles. Never letting the limitations of the direct to video label effect it, Ninja II is just as good as its big screen competition.
Law Abiding Citizen
It’s easy to overlook Gerard Butler as an action star. Gaining fame with 300 he is mostly relegated to fun schlockier fare like London Has Fallen and Gods of Egypt at the moment. Before this though he starred in the often overlooked Law Abiding Citizen. A standard thriller on its surface Law Abiding Citizen mixes an absurd plot and a nihilistic streak to make something that is oddly watchable. Part Saw and part Silence of the Lambs 2009’s Law Abiding Citizen is the rare vigilante movie that strives to be more than just another Death Wish clone.
Shoot ‘Em Up
When it comes to action movies very few go over-the-top and do it right. Either they don’t live up to the hype or they peak too early. Shoot ‘Em Up, on the other hand, rides the fine line where it is ridiculous but not overbearing or feels like it is trying too hard. It wasn’t until years later when I read a Remy Carreiro article and he pointed out why, it is a giant cartoon. Instead of following normal action movie conventions it is more like a cartoon in logic and pacing. To paraphrase Remy, its Looney Tunes mixed with John Woo. Combined it makes for a wild ride that more people should have seen. Never taking itself it too seriously it is a beautifully shot and a delightful bloody homage to childhood cartoons.
The Punisher (1989)
While Jon Bernthal’s is considered the definitive version of The Punisher for some he is hardly the first person to play the anti-hero. With movies in 2004 and 2008 it was actually Dolph Lundgren in 1989 to first portray Frank Castle. Considered by critics as more of a generic 80’s action movie it’s actually one of the more accurate comic book movies when it comes to its tone. Lundgren stars as Frank Castle and is waging his one man war on crime. With the mob weakened by his efforts the Yakuza come in to fill the power vacuum with a seemingly endless ninjas. While the Punisher’s origin is changed a bit (including the lack of skull logo on his chest) the whole thing feels like the 80’s Mike Zeck era version on the character. If you’re a fan of pre-Ennis Punisher or 80’s action in general The Punisher is worth tracking down.
While he became a big star with the Fast & Furious franchise Paul Walker’s best action movie has nothing to do with car racing or Vin Diesel. Directed by Wayne Kramer Running Scared stars Walker as Joey, a low level mobster searching for a missing gun one treacherous night. What could have been a typical gangster movie is turned into this weird gangland-fairy tale hybrid thanks to Kramer’s writing and the cinematography of Jim Whitaker. Despite its colorful palette the film has a gritty and stylish look to it that elevates this trip through the darkest parts of New Jersey. It’s a great, gripping movie and it’s a bummer Running Scared is just now gaining some traction.
Streets of Fire
“A Rock & Roll Fable” Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire starred Michael Pare as Tom Cody, a soldier of fortune looking for his girlfriend (Diane Lane) in some weird, time displaced version of the 50’s. With plans were for it to be the start of a trilogy and Hill’s pedigree it was expected to be a hit. It flopped and it’s easy to see why. A fairly average movie with okay action, a bare bones story and some wooden acting it just didn’t capture the general audience. Maybe it’s just the passing of time or without the high expectations but the film oddly works nowadays. Fully embracing the “Rock & Roll Fable” conceit it mixes musical, action, drama and comedy elements better than it has any right to. While not technically a good movie it ends up being very fun. With a surprisingly good soundtrack and delightfully cheesy acting Streets of Fire is the kind of unique, experimental craziness we just don’t get anymore.
With the popularity of single-location action like The Raid and Dredd I’m surprised how little buzz Everly has gotten. Starring Salma Hayek she portrays a kidnapping victim who has to fight off hordes of killers in a single room. Despite its lower budget director Joe Lynch keeps the tensions high with exciting action, unique set pieces and a little bit of grindhouse cinema insanity. With a commanding lead in Hayek and flashy direction from Lynch it’s a midnight showing sensation waiting to happen.
Even though Denzel Washington’s current output of old man action movies can blend together at times one of the more unique entries is 2010’s Unstoppable. Starring Washington and Chris Pines the two are engineers who have to stop a speeding train. Playing like an old school disaster movie director Tony Scott elevates the film with his signature frenetic style. Even though it isn’t the most creative of movies Unstoppable is a well-crafted movie making the most of its thrills.
Despite critical acclaim and doing okay at the box office 2012’s Haywire seems to have fallen into the ether. It’s a shame because it holds up as a good spy thriller. Former MMA fighter Gina Carano stars as Mallory Kane, a black ops operative. Caught in the middle of a conspiracy she has to travel around the world to expose it. What Carano lacks as an actress she makes up for by doing her own stunt work and convincingly playing a badass. A decent part of this is due to fight choreographer J. J. Perry. A fight coordinator for Warrior and The Expendables he does a brilliant job of incorporating spontaneity and mixed martial arts into the fights. At no point does it feel out of place or forced like some other films. Between the inspired choreography and Steven Soderbergh behind the lens Haywire is a movie that really deserves rediscovering.