The Best Action Movies of 2019

Posted 2019/06/0180

  1. Polar

Released: January 25
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Katheryn Winnick, Matt Lucas
Director: Jonas Åkerlund (Lords of Chaos)
Why it’s worth watching: On the surface, this adaptation of a graphic novel about a globe-trotting hitman nicknamed Black Kaiser (Mikkelsen) looks like a John Wickclone, complete with absurdist world-building and balletic gun-fighting. But the actual tone of movie, which follows the Kaiser on the verge of his retirement from the murder business, is hyper-kinetic and more than a little sleazy. Instead of the stylized, craft cocktail veneer of Wick, director Jonas Åkerlund, who has directed music videos for artists like Madonna, Taylor Swift, and Maroon 5, pursues the garish chaos and screaming tastelessness of the Crank series. Not all of the provocations are effective — for example, the opening scene with Johnny Knoxville getting assassinated mid-blowjob will likely send squeamish viewers back to the Netflix homepage — but Mikkelsen gives a moving, soulful performance. Whether he’s instructing children on how to disembowel an enemy or dodging bullets in the nude during a log-cabin siege, Mikkelsen keeps the movie grounded, and, ultimately, makes it worth watching despite its flaws.

  1. Cold Pursuit

Released: February 8
Cast: Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, Emmy Rossum, Tom Bateman
Director: Hans Petter Moland (In Order of Disappearance)
Why it’s worth watching: More of a darkly comedic crime saga than a straightforward action-thriller in the mold of Taken, this Colorado-set revenge tale is centered around a snowplow driver named Nels Coxman (Neeson) who kills drug dealers and dumps their bodies in an icy river. He’s set on this violent, chilly path after the tragic death of his son Kyle, who suffers a heroin overdose despite Nels’ claims that Kyle was never “a druggie.” The various criminals Nels antagonizes, plus their low-life associates and a couple local cops, take up more screen time than you’d expect, giving the proceedings a rollicking, shaggy-dog ensemble vibe that can be an odd fit with Neeson’s angry dad schtick. (Neeson also made some horrifying comments during the film’s press tour, which make some the script’s crude attempts at “edgy” racist humor feel particularly misguided.) Though the film’s central revenge plot can be tedious, the margins of the story are filled with scraggly character actors like William Forsythe, some genuinely clever bits of dialogue, and a handful of inspired visual moments of whimsy. Overlong and undercooked, Cold Pursuit is not in the same league as The Commuter or Non-Stop, Neeson’s recent collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra, but it has a droll quality that shines through the piles of snow.

  1. Dragged Across Concrete

Released: March 22
Cast: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Michael Jai White
Director: S. Craig Zahler (Brawl in Cell Block 99)
Why it’s worth watching: The vivid title of this unapologetically provocative, occasionally ponderous cop epic serves as either a welcome mat or a warning sign depending on your tolerance for hard-boiled dialogue, shocking violence, and the screen presence of controversial star Mel Gibson. Playing Officer Brett Ridgeman, Gibson brings a weary stillness and a wounded pride to the role of a racist cop suspended for getting caught on video using excessive force on the job. Strapped for cash and looking to make one big score, Ridgeman and his younger partner Lurasetti (Vaughn) plan to steal money from a team of bank robbers, including a criminal (Kittles) just released from prison and looking to make life better for his family. The set-up is familiar, riffing on similar heists you’ve seen in noir films and in crime novels, but Zahler’s staging of the major sequences, like a prolonged gun battle near the end, can be gripping and his writing, particularly in the drawn-out stake-out scenes, can be pleasing to the ear. While Dragged Across Concrete lacks the punch of Brawl in Cell Block 99, his previous (and much stronger) collaboration with Vaughn, it’s clearly the work of an artist looking to expand his scope and willing to test his Audience’s patience.

  1. Triple Frontier

Released: March 13
Cast: Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund
Director: J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year)
Why it’s worth watching: Any movie that inspires you to listen to Metallica’s Ride the Lightning for a week after seeing it is doing something right. In addition to opening up with “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” this military heist thriller, which finds Affleck leading a team of ex-Special Forces hotshots on a mission to rob a drug dealer in the jungle, hits all the necessary action movie beats: There’s a “getting the gang back together” scene, a “are you in or are you out?” sequence, a “put the money down we gotta go” moment, and, sure, a “holy shit” helicopter crash in the mountains to show how much money Netflix was willing to shell out. So why does the movie feel underwhelming? Triple Frontier started life as another tactics-obsessed Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal project — one that nearly every famous male actor in Hollywood was rumored to star in at some point — but it was eventually taken over by Chandor, the helmer of the macho finance drama Margin Call and the sleepy ’70s crime riff A Most Violent Year, and he gives the material an occasionally ponderous touch. Caught between an ultra-tense Bigelow epic and a scrappier WWE Studios thrill ride, the movie never quite finds its footing, particularly in the second half. Still, those Metallica songs sound great.

  1. Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy

Released: April 12
Cast: Max Zhang, Dave Bautista, Liu Yan, Xing Yu
Director: Yuen Woo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny)
Why it’s worth watching: There’s a sequence in Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy, the latest entry in the massively entertaining series of martial arts films, where Michelle Yeoh, playing crime boss Tso Ngan Kwan, faces off against an attacker, and the whole movie gets a jolt of electricity. Yeoh’s part in the film is small, but hardly insignificant: She lends gravitas and kineticism to the proceedings. The larger narrative, which follows gifted fighter Cheung Tin Chi (Zhang) as he opens a grocery store and attempts to stay out of trouble, is packed with similar bursts of energy, hand-to-hand combat scenes that make the viewer gasp, laugh, and cheer at the physical grace and choreographed precision on display. Though it largely abandons the gestures towards actual history that defined the original Ip Man entries and doesn’t feature Donnie Yen, the stoic face of the series, Master Z has a welcome sense of humor, a winsome tone, and a mustache-sporting Dave Bautista wearing suits that struggle to contain his giant frame. What more do you want?

  1. The Bouncer

Released: January 11
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sveva Alvit, Sami Bouajila, Kaaris
Director: Julien Leclercq (The Crew)
Why it’s worth watching: When it comes to aging action stars from the ’80s and ’90s, it can be hard to know which of their new movies are truly worth watching and which ones you wouldn’t even pick up in a Blockbuster bargain bin. For example, the title and the poster for The Bouncer, a new crime thriller starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as the titular enforcer, are altogether unremarkable and don’t really give you an idea of how good this movie is. This is a smart, no-nonsense, character-based action movie featuring one of Van Damme’s finest broken-down, hollowed-out performances. The Bloodsport star plays Lukas, an ex-bodyguard turned nightclub tough guy who gets recruited by the cops to spy on his boss at a strip club. (He’s not a willing snitch: The government suspects the crime boss of being in charge of a counterfeiting ring and they squeeze Lukas, who takes care of his young daughter, into serving as their mole.) While the setup is basic neo-noir stuff, the execution here is top-notch, from the direction and writing to the performances and the fights, which are brutal and quick. With his gaunt face and expressive eyes, Van Damme is perfect as a man consistently pushed to the brink.

  1. Alita: Battle Angel

Released: February 14
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Mahershala Ali
Director: Robert Rodriguez (Sin City)
Why it’s worth watching: The first thing you notice are the large eyes, beckoning like portals to another dimension. Alita, a cyborg discovered in a junkyard by a possibly mad scientist consumed with grief over the death of his daughter, is played by the actress Rosa Salazar (Maze RunnerBird Box), but she’s brought to uncanny life via technology Alita producer and co-writer James Cameron developed for his alien environmental opus Avatar. (Cameron was originally going to direct Alita, but he got sidetracked by the world of the Na’vi.) Compared to Avatar, or other recent colorful acts of gonzo-world-building like Jupiter Ascending or Valerian: City of a Thousand PlanetsAlita: Battle Angel moves in fits and starts, occasionally struggling to merge Cameron’s hyper-earnest, ponderous sensibility with Rodriguez’s more garish, ironic approach. Still, when the movie connects, like in the ridiculous and kinetic “motorball” sequence, which finds Alita fending off brutish attackers in a violent, X-Games version of tag, it’s as exhilarating as this type of reality-altering, money-burning sci-fi blockbuster gets. Perhaps fitting for a story about a character’s complicated relationship to her own body, the movie takes time to feel comfortable in its own CG skin.

  1. Shadow

Released: May 3
Cast: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan
Director: Zhang Yimou (Hero)
Why it’s worth watching: In a city covered in gray clouds and besieged by constant rain, an umbrella can become your last line of defense against the elements. In Shadow, the latest visually stunning action epic from Hero and House of Flying Daggerswuxia master Zhang Yimou, parasols are more than helpful sun-blockers: They can be turned into deadly weapons, shooting boomerang-like blades of steel at oncoming attackers and transforming into protective sleds for traveling through the slick streets. These devices are one of many imaginative leaps made in telling this Shakespearean saga of palace intrigue, vengeance, and secret doppelgangers set in China’s Three Kingdoms period. Commander Yu (Deng) serves at the mercy of the cruel King Peiliang (Zheng), who rules like a petty and petulant teenager, but the brave Commander is actually a “shadow,” a body double recruited to serve as a potential replacement in a time of crisis. The “real” Commander Yu, also played by Deng, nurses a festering battle wound underground, training his double and scheming to overthrow the king. This is a martial arts epic where the dense plotting is as tricky as the often balletic fight scenes. The narrative does lose steam in stretches, but the brilliantly designed and impeccably edited action sequences are simply on another level. If the battle scenes in Game of Thrones left you frustrated, Shadow provides a thrilling alternative.

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  1. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

Released: January 18
Cast: James Badge Dale, Brian Geraghty, Patrick Fischler, Happy Anderson
Director: Henry Dunham
Why it’s worth watching: The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a movie that understands the value of restraint. After a mass shooting at a police funeral, a militia group in Michigan assembles at a warehouse to double-check the status of their massive stockpile of deadly weapons, including a batch of AR-15s. Turns out one of the guns is missing — the radio has confirmed that the shooter used an AR-15 — and only one of the men in the group could have grabbed it. Quickly, the Reservoir Dogs-like scenario spirals out into a simultaneously chatty and gripping whodunit with James Badge Dale’s gruff ex-cop Gannon interrogating his fellow conspiracy-minded associates, mostly played by brilliant character actors given room to flex here, in an effort to find the killer before the shooting can be pinned on the group as a whole. But can any of these shadowy figures be trusted? This isn’t an anthropological study of right-wing paranoia under Donald Trump or a treatise on white male rage in the age of InfoWars — the exact specifics of what all these guys believe and hope to achieve with their considerable firepower are kept vague — but Dunham, making his feature debut here, zeroes in on the personalities and attitudes of the men drawn to these fringe groups. He shows you what makes them tick. Then, he makes them squirm.

  1. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Released: May 17
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos
Director: Chad Stahelski (John Wick: Chapter 2)
Why it’s worth checking out: Whether he’s slamming an enemy in the face with a book in a library or dodging stray bullets while galloping down a Manhattan street on horseback, John Wick remains calm. The always-on-the-run assassin, returning for the third entry in this surprisingly resilient series, shows weakness, pain, and even vulnerability, but no weapon can puncture the armor of stillness Reeves brings to the role, and his performance is what makes these movies so gripping. The story is mostly silly — Wick has been declared “excommunicado” by the order of assassins he used to belong to and must seek out old allies across the globe — but Reeves and his collaborators, including series director Stahelski and the top-notch stunt team, never lose sight of the core elements that make Wick tick. Even as the mythology grows more complicated, the cast expands to introduce comically named characters like The Adjudicator (Billions break-out Asia Kate Dillon) or The Director (Angelica Huston), and the fights become even more elaborate, Reeves floats through the film. Even if some of the original’s underworld grit has been shined away, replaced with scuff-free comic-book opulence and whiskey commercial ambiance, the series stays committed to simple pleasures. Alongside Tom Cruise’s more outwardly stressed Ethan Hunt, Wick remains the best action hero Hollywood has to offer.

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