by Jordan Ruimy
“Mad Max: Fury Road” has single-handedly redefined what an action movie can do. George Miller worked on his baby for the better part of 30 years and his vision was finally unleashed on screens nationwide a few weekends ago to the ravest of rave reviews. Where does this “Mad Max” stack up with the others? I’m pretty sure it’s on par with, if not better than, 1982’s “The Road Warrior”, a film that changed the action movie game over 30 years ago. Will “Fury Road” be as indelibly treasured a decade or two from now? Time will tell, but the feminist angle – a kickass Charlize Theron – and chaotically edited action might be a sign of things to come with the genre (could be a good thing or it could be a bad thing). When the movie was done all I could think of was how all these young, hip, new superhero movie directors coming from the indie scene just got schooled on how an action movie should be made…all this by a 70-year-old filmmaker.
“Die Hard” changed the action genre almost 30 years ago; ever since then it has evolved in numerous, interesting ways, (mind you not all successful) but it’s given us a handful of great movies. “Fury Road” is only the latest addition to this ever-evolving genre. Where do we go from here? What will be the consequences of a post-“Fury Road” action world? As A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times, “Miller has reminded us that blockbusters have the potential to not only be art, but radically visionary – even the fourth in a series. What a lovely day, indeed.”
Here are ten movies — all released within the last 30 years — that tried to change the game, succeeded and made it a lovely day for blockbusters.
1) Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
James Cameron’s blistering sequel to the 1984 classic is much more of an action movie than its predecessor. Like many of the movies on this list, it first garnered mixed reviews before being re-evaluated years later as a masterpiece. Teaming up with Ah-nuld’s Terminator, a buffed up and kickass Linda Hamilton tries to stop the viscerally frightening T-1000, sent from the future to kill her troubled son John Connor. I remember being a teenager when it first came out and I had never seen action scenes staged quite like this before, nor had I ever witnessed special effects as inventively surreal and chaotic. I still haven’t. The special effects still hold up to this day and so does the beating heart that Cameron injects into his characters. It had everything the 21st century action film would strive for, yet none have come close to replicating this 1991 movie’s triumphant achievement.
2) Die Hard (1988)
Action movies are not the Academy’s thing and for good reason. They are – most of the time – loud, abrasive, dumbed down and ultimately artless films (“The Expendables” anybody?) but sometimes a movie like “Die Hard” goes beyond genre boundaries and achieves something special through sheer perfection of the craft. John McTiernan’s “Die Hard” isn’t high art, but it got the job done in high octane fashion and set the standard for what an action film should be like in the 21st century. It spawned numerous rip-offs in the 90’s and still does today, none of which have attained the excitement of McTiernan’s original. It is in fact not overblown to say that “Die Hard” set the standard for the perfect modern action movie.
3) The Matrix (1999)
The action movie was dying in 1999, Arnold was just not Arnold anymore, and there wasn’t a new action star to come and take over the throne. “The Matrix” is where the action movie went techno. Literally, it went beyond the technological and creative limits we thought were set for action. For better or for worse, “bullet time” reinvigorated the genre and shattered the clichés for a whole bunch of new ones to come. This is where the surreal got mixed into the action and canonized a whole bunch of copycats. Imagination and originality crept into the equation and signaled a whole new generation of mainstream filmmaking built on ideas as much as action. “The Matrix” was an inspiration for up and coming filmmakers and the countless camera tricks that were to come. Hell, even music videos changed their style because of it. The film was not just built on getting your pulse pounding, but also on getting your mind blown. Its Asian cinema-inspired leaps signaled the start of something new at the movies. Of note, another triumphant female heroine was introduced in the form of Carrie Ann Moss’ Trinity. The sequels disappointed, but we’ll always have the original.
4) The Killer (1989)
If you want to know where Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and even Johnnie To learned to fabricate their over-the-top violence, look no further than this 1989 John Woo classic. Starring Chow Yun-Fat as a lethal assassin who accepts one last hit in order to restore a young girl’s vision, this Chinese action movie’s influence was felt all over cinema and is justly called an important landmark in the genre. Just a year after its release, Luc Besson basically ripped it off for the excitingly entertaining “La Femme Nikita” and a few years later for his now classic “Leon: The Professional”. Much of the borrowing from Woo’s film is superficial—two-handed gunning, doves flying, near operatic kills – but it paved the way for the possibility of making bloody violence look artistically eloquent. Woo followed up with another classic, “Hard Boiled”, but to this day nothing in his career can top “The Killer”.
5) Aliens (1986)
“Aliens” taught us to never underestimate the stupidity of man. “Get away from her you bitch” exclaimed Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley at the climax of this 1986 sequel to “Alien”, a film that epitomized female power in a male dominated society. Like many of James Cameron’s other films, this featured a strong, kickass female lead. If the original movie veered more towards the horror genre, Cameron shifted the emphasis towards a more action packed screenplay with an abundance of quotability. When Vasquez gets asked by her peers, “are you a man?” she hilariously replies “no, are you?” The feminist undertones are present, but one cannot go without mentioning the action sequences that left the viewer without a heartbeat by the end of the film’s pulse pounding 146 minutes. To this day Ripley is still the set example for what a female action heroine should be.
6) Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
You can’t deny the sheer impact of Mad Max: Fury Road. Director George Miller’s Fourth installment of the film franchise is proof that not all blockbusters should be greeted with an indifferent shrug. If anything, this brutal action film is even more intense and exciting than its predecessors. With its nihilistic outlook on human nature and a nasty, in-your-face style, this is Miller’s triumph through and through. The amount of detail that he brings to every frame is as obsessively meticulous as any Wes Anderson picture I’ve seen, as is the editing by Margaret Sixel, which – as we stand – is most deserving of next year’s Film Editing Oscar. Edited at breakneck pace and staged with manic fury, Sixel is the unheralded hero here. The celebrated one is of course Miller who’s passion and vision comes through in every frame. The total control he must have had with this project to pull off what he did on screen is unheard of, which is good for him and great for us.
7) The Bourne Trilogy (2002-2007)
“The Bourne Identity” introduced movie-goers to a new type of action hero and a new style of action. Gone were the big-budget, explosion-laden, slick, special effects extravaganzas, in was a gritty template, naturalistic action sequences, and hand-held camera fight scenes. Our hero was no longer the cocky son of a gun trying to save the world; he was trying to save himself and find out who he was. Whatever you think of these movies you can’t possibly deny the impact it’s had on this decade’s action fare. Heck, even James Bond has been dubbed “James Bourne” by many. Liam Neeson was basically Jason Bourne in the “Taken” movies, ditto Keanu Reeves in last year’s “John Wick”, Angie Jolie in “Salt”, Tom Cruise in “Jack Reacher”. Hand to hand combat was replicated in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, and even Christopher Nolan used Bourne-esque moves in his “Dark Knight” trilogy.
8) The Fugitive (1993)
Another Best Picture nominee, this one stars Harrison Ford and is based on the popular 1960’s television series. Accused of a murder he did not commit, Ford’s John Kimble tries to find the one-armed man who killed his wife in order to clear his name. Fairly standard, but expertly done and a true classic of the genre. While Arnold, Stallone and JCVD were blowing stuff up and strutting their roided bodies on screen, Harrison Ford and “The Fugitive” knocked our socks off with wild stunts, Andrew Davis’ tight direction, and a believable story that had us invested in the characters. They really just don’t make them like they used to. Tommy Lee Jones won a Best Supporting Actor, besting out – huh – Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List? But that’s just a whole other story I won’t get into.
9) Predator (1987)
If there’s any genre that calls for the acceptance of guilty pleasures, it’s action. You probably have this 1987 classic starring Arnold Schwarzenegger to thank for that. Carl Weather and Jessie Ventura compliment Ah-nuld in this testosterone fuelled beast hunt in the Central American jungle. Not sold yet? At one point Bill Duke says “This shit makes Cambodia look like Kansas”. I can’t say the plot is rocket science, but there’s something incredibly exciting happening here – a feeling that we just checked our brains at the door and let this pop culture milestone whiplash us. All credit is given to director John McTiernan who, one year away from his “Die Hard” triumph, takes a B-movie level script and elevates into a classic of the genre. Not convinced yet? Just tell me a smile doesn’t appear on your face when Arnold, finally face to face with the hunter utters “You’re one ugly motherfucker.” Classic.
10) Speed (1994)
“There’s a bomb on the bus”, Dennis Hopper screams halfway through this tense 1994 action movie. No worries, a strong and determined Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves try to stop the devilish Hopper. Psychotic and scary as hell, Hopper brings real evil to the movie, determined to wipe out anything in his path. With shades of his gas-huffing Frank from “Blue Velvet”, mixed with his deranged Feck of “River’s Edge”, Hopper’s villainous Howard Payne owns every frame he’s in and leaves a mark on the film, even when not onscreen. It’s a profoundly disturbing portrait of a man gone haywire that set the bar for the audacity, insanity and level at which a mainstream movie villain can go. Just think about it, every movie villain since Payne has had the freedom to go to extremes that might not have been available without this movie.