We are neck-deep into the superhero-movie era, the time when films about men and women in capes, literal or metaphorical, are dominant at the box office. But this is also a sneakily great time for another genre: old-school, grounded, punch-you-in-the-face action movies. Globally, two of this year’s five highest-grossing movies — China’s Wolf Warrior II and our own The Fate of the Furious — come from the genre. And around the world, action filmmakers are pulling ideas and images and stars from one another.
We’re more and more likely to see South Korean stars show up in American movies, or American actors fighting homegrown stars in Chinese movies. There have even been some pan-global collaborations, like the misbegotten Matt Damon vehicle The Great Wall. The long, unbroken tracking-shot fight scene — whether genuine or accomplished through digital illusion — has come into vogue in Asian cinema, while Hollywood movies are still drawing on the operatic gunfights that John Woo helped pioneer in Hong Kong. Fight scenes continue to get better and better, especially as the hectic, choppy editing that Hollywood loved in the last decade falls further and further out of favor. These days, great action movies are coming from Asia, Europe, and the American straight-to-VOD circuit. And more and more often, they’re coming from big Hollywood studios. Here’s our list of the best that 2017 had to offer.
10. The Foreigner
Director Martin Campbell has rebooted the James Bond franchise twice — with Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye and with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale — and he’s made it meaner and grittier both times. Now he’s done the same thing with a different cultural institution: the Jackie Chan movie. In The Foreigner, Campbell strips away the virtuosic slapstick that made Chan a screen icon, throwing him instead into they ash-gray skies and violent diplomatic betrayals of the Bourne and Taken movies. The result: a story about warring factions of radical Irish Catholic separatists that also has kung fu fights where guys jump around on wires. Chan, now 63, still gets to be an action hero. He slides down drainpipes, sets First Blood–style deep-woods booby traps, and fights a knife-wielding commando by putting two sticks up his sleeves. But as the grieving, vengeful father of a daughter killed in a London bombing, he also puts in a soulful and shattered performance. We’ve spent decades watching Chan injure himself in end-credits blooper reels. Here, he brings a different kind of vulnerability.
9. The Villainess
This batshit South Korean murder party peaks early. A catsuited assassin is making her getaway on a motorcycle, and a crew of black-suited goons gives chase. She drives into an abandoned tunnel, lit in sickly neon-green, and then proceeds to have a high-speed sword fight with her pursuers. I can’t possibly stress this enough: This is a combination motorcycle chase–sword fight. And thanks in part to digital trickery, it’s made to look like one continuous shot. Storywise, the movie is an unashamed rip-off of La Femme Nikita, with a generous side helping of Kill Bill, and it’s a little heavy on maudlin melodrama. But when it gets into its flashy, bloody set pieces — a bus crash that turns into a massive fistfight, a first-person-shooter-style POV brawl in which our heroine kills countless enemies — it finds a wild brilliance.
8. Blade of the Immortal
For his 100th movie, the Japanese madman director Takashi Miike is back on familiar ground: The samurai movie, his homeland’s rough equivalent to the Western. But where past Miike samurai movies like Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai and the 2010 masterpiece 13 Assassins have carried a mythic weight, Blade of the Immortal is more of a giddy, cackling bloodbath. A malevolent Takuya Kimura stars as Manji, a ronin warrior unable to die. (Even when he loses a limb, the magical CGI worms in Manji’s blood find a way to reattach it.) A young girl hires Manji to avenge her murdered family, and he accepts, partly out of boredom and partly because she reminds him of his dead sister. By the time the movie’s over, he’s killed more than 200 anonymous foes, many of them going out in showers of arterial spray. Adapting a long-running manga comic, Miike brings a crackling, sadistic energy, his camera lingering only when it’s time to take in fields of dead bodies and a single figure standing over them.
7. The Fate of the Furious
Our most magical, unlikely blockbuster series — the one that started out as street-racing teenspoiltation and became a global juggernaut — finds a way to crank up its silliness even further. The movie sorely misses the Zenlike, vaguely Keanu-esque charisma of the late Paul Walker, but it makes up for it with sheer endorphin-rush spectacle. A fleet of driverless cars pours down from a rooftop like rain. A muscle car, chased by a heat-seeking missile, plays chicken with a nuclear submarine. The Rock gets blasted with rubber bullets, and he responds by flexing and screaming and then by headbutting a helmeted riot cop. As ever, the Fast movies pay tribute to action-movie history, adding Charlize Theron and Clint Eastwood’s kid to the mix, naming major characters the Shaw Brothers, and echoing John Woo’s Hard Boiled by having Jason Statham coo to a baby while in the midst of a shootout. And sure, it made no narrative sense for Statham, a former villain and mass murderer who killed crowd favorite Han a couple of movies ago, to join the good-guy team without much pushback. But do you really want to root against Jason Statham forever?
6. Atomic Blonde
Charlize Theron hasn’t made many action movies, but between her roles in Mad Max: Fury Road and this, she’s already an all-time great. Atomic Blonde gives Theron chances to be a larger-than-life movie star. Walking into an East Berlin nightclub, bathed in blue and pink light, she exudes glamor and icy self-possession. But John Wick codirector David Leitch also throws her headlong into bruising and elaborate fight scenes where she shines. Theron stabs one guy in the neck with a stiletto and swings off an apartment balcony from a rope wrapped around another’s throat. And in a centerpiece worthy of The Raid: Redemption, she shoots and stabs and kicks and chokes her way through a battalion of goons. In what’s made to look like a single camera shot, she starts out in an apartment stairwell and eventually spills out into the street, bloody and battered but still standing. Meanwhile, James McAvoy oozes sweaty dirtbag swagger, the ’80s synthpop soundtrack twinkles and throbs, and the byzantine plot contorts itself in about a dozen different directions. Does it always make sense? No. But when was the last time a spy movie was this much fun?
5. Brawl in Cell Block 99
If you saw Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler’s 2015 directorial debut, then you saw a man-eating cave mutant chop a cowboy in half, and you might have some idea what to expect here. Zahler’s latest flashes back to the grindhouse cinema of the ’70s, but it’s both more brutally methodical and more gleefully disgusting in its visceral violence. Playing a drug-dealing convict who’s fighting to rescue his kidnapped and pregnant wife, Vince Vaughn somehow embodies both Gary Cooper and Jason Voorhees. He’s a calm, righteous, unflappable family man who’s also a lumbering, indestructible death machine. After so many years of Vaughn playing charming, sleazy motormouths, it’s amazing to see him snapping arms and ripping off faces in unflinching action sequences. But it’s even more amazing to see the warmth and protectiveness in his eyes when he talks to his wife. It’s a harsh, simple, deeply satisfying movie, and its ending might leave you breathless.
4. Wolf Warrior II
In the first scene of this Chinese blockbuster, star and director Wu Jing dives off the deck of a cargo ship and gets into an underwater kung fu fight with a crew of attacking pirates. The movie is all glorious patriotic excess — a sort of decades-late Chinese answer to Rambo: First Blood Part II. It’s the sort of movie where a tank flips upside down and the jacked and grizzled character actor Frank Grillo, playing a bloodthirsty American mercenary named Big Daddy, crawls out to snarl, “I guess the Chinese military ain’t as lame as I thought!” As a movie star, Wu Jing’s got all the balletic grace of ’90s Jackie Chan with none of the silliness. He depicts himself as someone who’s great at soccer and drinking contests and fighting his way out of civil wars in an unnamed African country. Like the American movies it emulates, Wolf Warrior II draws its foreigner characters as broadly and simply as possible, but at least our hero is as concerned as saving African citizens as he is with rescuing the Chinese nationals trapped in the war. The movie has done ridiculous business, earning nearly $900 million at the box office, almost all of it in Asia. It’s pure propaganda, but it’s awesome propaganda, and why should America have a monopoly on that?
3. Baby Driver
After spending an entire career making giddy and self-aware comedies, director Edgar Wright has made a giddy and self-aware action movie, and he’s made it look, feel, and move like a musical. Like Walter Hill’s moody and existential neo-noir classic The Driver, Baby Driver’s obvious inspiration, Wright’s movie tells of a foxy blond getaway driver making his way through a criminal underworld. But where The Driver was all darkness and quiet, Baby Driver bursts with light and color and music. It’s a stylish live-action cartoon, every scene set to the beat of the tunes on the impeccably selected soundtrack. Wright had the idea for a car chase set to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosions’ funky guitar-stomp “Bellbottoms” more than 20 years ago. And he didn’t just make that scene; he made a whole movie around it. He’s built a cast full of fun-to-watch movie stars and given them room to cut loose with their barely drawn characters. And at the heart of it, he’s slapped together a romance that’s much more affecting than it, by rights, should be.
Superhero movies and action flicks are, at least to my mind, two parallel but entirely different genres. Superhero movies are about the impossible: bodies soaring through the air, cities crumbling, alien invasions that don’t interrupt movie-star banter. Action movies, even the Fast & Furious movies, are more grounded and physical. Ideally, when someone gets punched in an action movie, it should look like it hurts, and that almost never happens in superhero movies. But every so often, a movie like Blade or Dredd or Punisher: War Zone will bridge the gap between the worlds. In making a swan song for the X-Man that Hugh Jackman’s been playing for the past 17 years, James Mangold has given visceral life to the Wolverine that comic book characters have always known.
Mangold has built a fully realized future world that, as in the original Mad Max, is teetering on the edge of total apocalypse. Jackman, whose Wolverine has flashed Clint Eastwood grit, finds a way to convey deep regret and weariness without compromising his grumbling badassery. And as the young X-23, Dafne Keen shows a feral intensity that starts out awesome and becomes moving. With its deliberate pacing and its gorgeous, sun-dappled cinematography, the movie takes its time, feeling more like a road movie or a Western than a superhero flick. And the set pieces — the Fury Road–style chase scene, the Charles Xavier world-freezing seizure, the assault on the farmhouse, the final berserker-rage kill blitz — are both brutal and inventive. It’s a tribute to its genres — both of them.
1. John Wick: Chapter 2
John Wick had an elegant simplicity: Russian gangsters had killed a legendary retired hitman’s dog, so he was coming to kill every last one of them. The movie hinted at a hidden world of assassins, with its own codes and customs. But it was really about one man’s unquenchable thirst for revenge. The sequel paints on a bigger canvas, showing an underground society that exists around the world and that it’s way bigger than anyone could’ve imagined. (Late in the movie, we learn that basically every person living in New York is a professional killer.) It’s bigger, nastier, and more ridiculous than its predecessor — which is exactly what it needs to be.
Keanu Reeves, one of the all-time great action stars, moves with lethal and purposeful beauty, like a panther. He performs MMA takedowns in the middle of gunfights. He inflicts mortal wounds, warning his enemies that they’ll survive only if they leave the knives in their guts. If he runs out of bullets mid-shootout, he throws his empty gun at a goon’s head and then uses the goon’s own gun to shoot him. And director Chad Stahelski, Reeves’s stunt double in The Matrix, comes up with more elaborate and memorable ways for him to use this deadly skill: a wild sprint through a Roman catacomb, a silencer-aided gunfire exchange on a crowded subway platform, a driving scene where he slides around corners and slams his foes into walls. John Wick: Chapter 2 is a triumph of vivid, absurd genre filmmaking and a testament to what this stupid, beautiful art form can be when it’s at its best.
Honorable mentions: Headshot, Savage Dog, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Boyka: Undisputed, Bushwick, Wheelman, xXx: Return of Xander Cage.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum, and he writes the action-movie column A History of Violence for The A.V. Club. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.