By Steve Guntli
We’re in the midst of something of an action movie renaissance. Occasionally dismissed as the most vapid of movie genres, the new generation of action directors are putting a greater emphasis on craftsmanship and skill and less on headache-inducing editing and empty spectacle. Here are three of the best recent examples.
Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
The “rehabilitated badass drawn back into a life of violence” trope has been around at least as long as the action movie itself, but it gets a startling new life with the exceptional “John Wick.”
Keanu Reeves is legitimately great as the title character, a former assassin who left his old life behind and is now happily married. When his wife dies of an illness, Wick is left feeling lost, until he receives one last gift from his late love: a small beagle puppy named Daisy.
Unfortunately, violence seems to follow Wick, and a run-in with an entitled young punk (Alfie Allen, from “Game of Thrones”) results in Wick being violently assaulted and his puppy killed. Focused on revenge, Wick learns the man who attacked him is the son of the local Russian mafia don (Michael Nyqvist), and he begins a bloody crusade against those who wronged him.
“John Wick” sets itself apart from its ilk through sheer craftsmanship. The characters are well crafted and their actions are invested in emotional stakes. There’s also a remarkable bit of fantastical world-building going on just beneath the surface: the world of assassins in which Wick works has a complex hierarchical structure, with their own laws, ethics and forms of currency, but we never get more than just a tantalizing glimpse of this shadow world. The action is blisteringly fast and elegant, with Wick wielding his guns like a surgeon as he mows down waves of enemies. It’s thrilling to watch.
“The Raid: Redemption”
Directed by Gareth Evans
This Indonesian import has turned the world of action cinema upside down, and did it by sticking to the basics: light on plot, high on tension and filled with relentless, high-caliber action.
The film begins with an elite squad of Jakarta police raiding an apartment tower controlled by a ruthless drug kingpin. The operation is meticulously planned, but the warlord is ready for them, and soon the police are caught in a deadly ambush. Their numbers dwindling and the situation looking grim, it’s up to martial artist Rama (Iko Uwais) to fight his way to the penthouse and take down the big boss.
Many movies purport to feature wall-to-wall action, but “The Raid” may be the closest a film has ever gotten to actually living up to that promise.
The claustrophobic setting and overwhelming odds keep the tension jacked up to 11, and the hyper-athletic, brilliantly choreographed fight scenes that will keep you glued to the screen. The way these fighters move and incorporate elements from their surroundings into the fight scenes recalls the early work of Jackie Chan, only far more brutal and fast-paced. You may find yourself panting by the time you reach the end.
“Captain America: Civil War”
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo
You’ve probably never heard of this tiny independent film, but it’s well worth seeking out. Kidding, of course; Marvel’s “Captain America” is the biggest movie in the world right now, and almost impossible to escape. It’s also one of the most impeccably crafted feature films in any genre, ever, and ironclad proof that Marvel’s extended universe just gets better as it gets bigger.
Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), long-time friends and fellow Avengers, find themselves at an impasse when faced with the prospect of government regulation.
Stark feels guilty for all the collateral damage his super-heroics have caused over the years, and submits to a new law that would give the UN oversight over Avenger activities; Rogers feels this is just a way to shift the responsibility, and chafes at the idea of being on a government leash. That’s the basic outline of the conflict, but things get much deeper and more complicated as Avengers old and new struggle to find where their allegiances lie.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo deserve all the credit in the world for taking what could have been a bloated, incomprehensible mess and making a laser-focused, completely satisfying motion picture that easily ranks among Marvel’s best.
The film has more than a dozen principal characters, but each of them gets a satisfying character arc. There are several subplots and more than a dozen international locations, but the filmmakers never skimp on the action. The film tackles some of the most thoughtful and mature themes any Marvel movie has yet attempted, but it never loses its sense of fun.
As a piece of blockbuster action filmmaker, it’s nearly perfect, and it may be the first truly great superhero movie, period.
“The Raid” and “John Wick” can be found through the Blaine Library or the streaming service of your choice. “Captain America: Civil War” is in theaters everywhere.