Perhaps in an age of superhero tentpoles needing to make a billion dollars just to turn a profit, assembling a list of the best action movies of the year could amount to little more than high-fiving corporate hegemony and completely forgetting that a Sigur Ros song is in Aquaman. (By the way: A Sigur Ros song is in Aquaman.)
Still, someone needs to stand tall against the wave of dreck that continues to pretend that serious, salient (sublime even) action filmmaking is a given when guns and Mark Wahlberg are involved, to cry out into the darkness, “No, Den of Thieves is not a good action movie, let alone a good heist movie,” or, “Just because Iko Uwais choreographed fight scenes for Mile 22 doesn’t mean they’re filmed with any sense of space or style.” That is us, Paste Movies writers, saying those things, crying those hot takes, expecting better of Gerard Butler, staring back at Deadpool when he stares at us. So here we go: Let’s break some fourth walls, ankles and box office records—together.
Director: James Wan
Paying environmental catastrophe lip service is an expected thematic conceit for movies in 2018, but no one (hypothetically) wants to pay to sit in a damp two hours and 20 minutes of guilt when every film in this Universe to come before was either suffocatingly grim or unfairly tasked with shouldering the entire weight of Hollywood’s misogyny. All Wan had to do was deliver a blisteringly colorful spectacle. Aquaman is dumb and loud and really dumb and too long and dumb but also wonderfully creative and shameless; it’s both the superhero film we need, and the one we deserve.
The plot, as is the case in almost every DCEU entry, is as bloated as it is messy and predictable, a whale carcass washed up on shore sliced in half by Atlantean plasma lasers during a Two Towers-league battle with an army of crab people. Those action scenes, though. Revolutionary at best, innovative at worst, Wan and his team have taken what Justice League incapably worked around—talking/interacting/fighting/living underwater—and transformed that obstacle into a marvelous strength, using the omnidirectional freedom of subterranean saltwater violence to make up for the “everyone is flying” bullshit of Zack Snyder’s wet dreams while never abandoning the unique physics (limitations) of all that wetness. A late film battle scene between Orm’s hordes and the aforementioned talking crustaceans is astounding: a feat of design and imagination for which James Wan should understand that this is most likely why he’s on this Earth. Likewise, while the surface scenarios featuring Arthur and Mera searching for a lost trident that holds the key to saving the world just add needless fat to an already drowning runtime, one rooftop, wall-obliterating sequence shines, a demonstration of Wan’s formidable grip on action grammar, pushing long takes and swooping crane shots to establish a seamless, real-time geography for Mera (Amber Heard), Arthur (Jason Momoa) and Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to just wreck each other’s day. Bell towers explode; the living rooms and privacy of more than two Sicilian grandmothers are violated. Granted, the scene exists for its own sake, devoid of narrative stakes and sense, but that’s hardly ever been a valid argument against any contemporary studio movie anyway. If Justice League was a self-aware course correction, then Aquaman is course correction as business model, a denial of much of what Snyder established, leaning hard into Momoa’s charm and Wan’s old-school fantasy proclivities. May Martha bless us, everyone. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: David Leitch
Deadpool 2 is at its best when it cheerfully doesn’t give a shit. The more it cared, the less I did. Likewise, Ryan Reynolds is an actor who is simultaneously full of shit and completely aware he’s full of shit, which, as harnessed by Deadpool, gives us superhero movie that sits outside itself, cheerfully tweaking itself in the nose. I’m not sure I need Deadpool to constantly be killing people to enjoy him; I think I’d enjoy Reynolds’ interpretation of Deadpool even if he were hosting a game show, or playing in a chess tournament. He’s welcome entertainment and company for two hours, no matter what, probably more. In turn, the movie never stops leaping around and jumping for your attention, in a way that’s more winning and affable than it probably should be. A lot of this is Reynolds, but the expanded cast brings plenty to the table as well. Zazie Beetz of Atlanta is certainly the standout of the X-Force crew, as a mutant whose talent is “being lucky,” which doesn’t sound like a superpower but certainly feels like one when you see it in action. (It might actually be the best superpower.) Rob Delaney has a delightful small role as the least gifted but most relatable member of X-Force. And Josh Brolin as Cable gives the film an added gravitas that it doesn’t necessarily need but certainly doesn’t hurt. But this is Reynolds’ show: He is grandmaster and main event of this circus, all by himself. —Will Leitch / Full Review
Director: Leigh Whannell
Lovers of high-concept, low-budget sci-fi cinema would have been perfectly content were Upgrade not much more than a narratively streamlined, giddily hyper-violent vigilante revenge fantasy, sort of a Death Wish: Cyberpunk Edition. Turns out it’s also sophisticated enough to leave the audience with some intriguing questions about how much power we can give artificial intelligence before it decides that we’re a nuisance, taking full control. Of course, the premise of AI as existential threat is the bedrock for plenty of science fiction, with the most recent example in Alex Garland’s great Ex Machina. With Upgrade, we get a Cliff’s Notes version of this concept, examined in an understandably superficial but original way, and we get to watch a bad guy’s head split in half. That’s the textbook definition of a win-win. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has proven to be an efficient genre storyteller, having been the Bernie Taupin to James Wan’s Elton John, writing for Wan’s Saw and Insidious franchises, even directing the third Insidious. Here, he pushes the limits of his hard-R confines when it comes to painting the walls with the gooey crimson stuff. As the writer of three Saw movies, Whannell spent a good chunk of his professional life coming up with increasingly messed up ways to off people, and he demonstrates that expertise here. It’s always fun to see an action flick with full-blown horror gore, especially when said gore is achieved through practical effects and top-notch choreography. With Upgrade, he confirms he’s a formidable voice in modern b-movies. —Oktay Ege Kozak / Full Review
Director: Peyton Reed
Admittedly, in the past decade superpowers have been as reliable a source of the “action” in action movies as a certain thickly accented, Austria-born bodybuilder named Arnold was in the 1980s. But with all due respect to vibranium shields, high-tech suits of armor and Uru hammers, few things provide the pure “action fuel” of the shrinking/enlarging Pym particles in Ant-Man and the Wasp. “Normal” fight scenes become a yo-yo-ing spectacle of kinetic uncertainty. Trucks become skateboards. Pez dispensers become major plot developments. And it all contributes to the fun and spectacle any good action film demands. Of course, there’s much more going on in the MCU’s second film revolving about Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas)—the continued development of the Quantum Realm, some welcome rebalancing of screen time to give Lilly’s Wasp her dues, etc.—but in terms of action that keeps the viewer delighted and excited, Ant-Man and the Wasp provides some of the year’s best. —Michael Burgin
Director: Timo Tjahjanto
While Gareth Evans confounded fans of The Raid movies by giving them a British folk horror film (but a darn good one) this year, Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us scratches that Indonesian ultra-violent action itch. Furiously. Then stabs a shard of cow femur through it. Come for the violence, The Night Comes for Us bids you—and, also, stay for the violence. Finally, leave because of the violence. If that sounds grueling, don’t worry, it is. You could say it’s part of the point, but that might be projecting good intentions on a film that seems to care little for what’s paving the highway to hell. It’s got pedal to metal and headed right down the gullet of the abyss.
It’s also got the best choreographed and constructed combat sequences of the year, and plenty of them, and they actually get better as the film goes along. There’s a scene where Joe Taslim’s anti-hero protagonist takes on a team inside a van, the film using the confines to compress the bone-crushing, like an action compactor. Other scenes are expansive in their controlled chaos and cartoonish blood-letting, like Streets of Rage levels, come to all-too-vivid life: the butcher shop level, the car garage level and a really cool later level where you play as a dope alternate character and take on a deadly sub-boss duo who have specialized weapons and styles and—no, seriously, this movie is a videogame. You’ll forget you weren’t playing it, so intensely will you feel a part of its brutality and so tapped out you’ll feel once you beat the final boss, who happens to be The Raid-star Iko Uwais with a box-cutter. It’s exceptionally painful and it goes on forever.
Despite a storyline that’s basically just an excuse for emotional involvement (Taslim’s character is trying to protect a cute little girl from the Triad and has a lost-brotherhood bit with Uwais’s character) and, more than that, an easy way to set up action scenes on top of action scenes, there’s something about the conclusion of The Night Comes For Us that still strikes some sort of nerve of pathos, despite being mostly unearned in any traditional dramatic sense. Take it as a testament to the raw power of the visceral: A certain breed of cinematic action—as if by laws of physics—demands a reaction. —Chad Betz
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Avengers: Infinity War is epic in a way that has been often aspired to but never fully grasped when it comes to the translation from comic book panel to the Big Screen. It’s what happens when moviemakers take their source material seriously, eschewing unnecessary melodrama even as they fully embrace the grandeur, the sheer spectacle, of it all. (And if there’s one lesson Disney has learned, it’s that if you focus on the viewer experience, the product lines will take care of themselves.) For every frenetic fight scene in Avengers: Infinity War—and there are plenty of them—there are myriad character interactions and emotional beats the audience has been prepped for by the previous films (okay, maybe not 2008’s The Incredible Hulk). As a result, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have ample room to riff and play as characters meet for the first time or see each other again. Some of the interactions are easy to anticipate (if no less enjoyable)—the immediate ego clash between Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange and Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, for example—but our familiarity with these characters adds resonance to nearly every scene and every line, as the vestiges and ripples of emotional arcs laid down in the last decade’s worth of movies bolster even the smallest moment. —Michael Burgin / Full Review
Director: Brad Bird
Incredibles 2 starts right where the first film ended, with the costumed Family Parr reacting to the arrival of the Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Their scuffle with the villain gains the attention of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk)—or more precisely, allows Deavor and his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), to gain the attention of the Parrs. The siblings want to bring supers back into the light, using Winston’s salesmanship and Evelyn’s tech to sway public opinion back to the pro-super side. To do so, they want to enlist Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as the tip of the spear in their charm offensive, leaving Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) on the sidelines for now. (She tends to fight crime in a manner that results in less property damage than her husband, after all.) This sets up a second act that’s firmly by the numbers in terms of story development—watch the husband try to succeed as a stay-at-home dad!—yet no less enjoyable. Bob’s attempts to handle teen romance, Jack-Jack’s manifestation of powers and, horror of horrors, “new” math will strike a chord with any mom or dad who has ever felt overwhelmed by the simple, devastating challenges of parenthood. (The family interactions, one strength among many with the first film, remain a delight in the sequel.) Meanwhile, we get to watch Elastigirl in action, as she encounters, foils and matches wits with the film’s mysterious villain, Screenslaver. As in the first film, watching Helen Parr do the hero thing is also quite the delight—she’s resourceful, tough and, above all, a professional. Watching Elastigirl operate almost makes one feel sorry for the criminals. Delving more into the plot would do the film a disservice—suffice to say both villainous and family challenges are faced, and it takes a village, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and Edna Mode (Bird) to emerge victorious. Whether you enjoy Incredibles 2 as much as the original will likely depend on your opinion of the latter, but regardless, you’ll be happy both exist. And in today’s sequel-saturated environment, that is practically a superheroic achievement in itself. —Michael Burgin / Full Review
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
There are, rarely, films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where ingredients, execution and imagination all come together in a manner that’s engaging, surprising and, most of all, fun. Directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey, writer-director Rodney Rothman, and writer Phil Lord have made a film that lives up to all the adjectives one associates with Marvel’s iconic wallcrawler. Amazing. Spectacular. Superior. (Even “Friendly” and “Neighborhood” fit.) Along the way, Into the Spider-Verse shoulders the immense Spider-Man mythos like it’s a half-empty backpack on its way to providing Miles Morales with one of the most textured, loving origin stories in the superhero genre. Plenty of action films with much less complicated plots and fewer characters to juggle have failed, but this one spins order from the potential chaos using some comic-inspired narrative devices that seamlessly embed the needed exposition into the story. It also provides simultaneous master classes in genre filmmaking. Have you been wondering how best to intersperse humor into a storyline crowded with action and heavy emotional arcs? Start here. Do you need to bring together a diverse collection of characters, nimbly move them (together and separately) from setting to setting and band them together in a way that the audience doesn’t question? Take notes. Do you have an outlandish, fantastical concept that you need to communicate to the viewers (and characters) without bogging down the rest of the story? This is one way to do it. Would you like to make an instant contemporary animated classic? Look (and listen). —Michael Burgin / Full Review
Director: Ryan Coogler
Black Panther might be the first MCU film that could claim to most clearly be an expression of a particular director’s voice. We shouldn’t go so far as to call it auteurist, because it’s still a Disney movie and (perhaps ironically) a part of that monopolizing Empire—i.e., eat the rich—but Black Panther’s action scenes, especially, feel one with Coogler’s oeuvre. Look only to an early scene in a South Korean casino, in which T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurire) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) plan to intercept a deal between Klaue and everyone’s favorite CIA milquetoast, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, lovable) for a vibranium-filled artifact which Klaue stole from some colonizer-run museum with Killmonger’s help. We’re introduced to Klaue through the surprising spryness of his violence—Andy Serkis, too, freed from mocap, is still an amazing presence, even as a gangster shitbag—and Coogler gets on his wavelength, carving out the geography of the casino in long tracking shots, much like he convinced us to love stained, shitty-seeming Philadelphia gyms in Creed by helping us to comprehend the many crevices and corners of each hole in the wall. When the casino brawl breaks out into the streets, morphing into a death-defying car chase (slow motion thankfully kept to a minimum), we feel as if we know exactly what these characters—and this wonderful director—are capable of. His vision for Wakanda—shot by recent Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison as an Afrofuturist paradise—rightly draws its inspiration from an omnibus of natural sources, just the a casino scene affords Morrison the chance to go full Deakins (James Bond references all over this thing), imagining the world of the MCU as Steven Soderbergh might have scoped out Traffic, developing a fully sensual visual language to define the many locations of this world-hopping adventure without resorting to sterile maps or facile borders. If T’Challa’s whole narrative arc concerns the need for him to realize the importance of bringing Wakanda into our globalized world, of revealing its riches to a world that probably doesn’t deserve them, then the vastness of that world, the many different kinds of people who populate it, must be felt in all of its ungraspable diversity. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
At some point midway through Mission: Impossible – Fallout—the sixth entry in the franchise and director Christopher McQuarrie’s unprecedented second go at helming one of these beasts—CIA brute Austin Walker (Henry Cavill) asks his superior, CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett), how many times she thinks Übermensch Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) will put up with his country screwing him over before he snaps. Walker’s question is rhetorical, intended to convince Sloane that Hunt is actually John Lark, the alias of a shadowy conspirator planning to buy stolen plutonium whom he and Hunt also happen to be chasing, but the question is better put before Cruise, the film’s bright, shining star. It’s a question that hangs over this dependably mind-blowing action flick more obviously than any installment to come before: How long can 56-year-old Cruise keep doing this before he, truly and irrevocably, snaps? Fallout never offers an answer, most likely because Cruise won’t have one until his body just completely gives out, answering for him by default. Fallout shows no real signs of that happening any time soon. What it does show is a kind of blockbuster intuition for what makes our enormous action brands—from Fast and the Furious to the MCU—thrive, behind only Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol as the best of the now 22-year endeavor. Where Bird leaned into the franchise as a literalization of its title, redefining the series by balancing the absurdity of what Cruise was impossibly doing (the Burj Khalifa scene is one of the greatest action sequences ever) with the awe of bearing witness to what a human person could accomplish if devoid of all Thetans, McQuarrie considers the two pretty much the same thing. The only reaction worthy of such absurdity is awe—and the only American tentpole films worth our awe anymore are those deemed Mission: Impossible. It’s all so goddamned beautiful. I love these movies. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review