Written by J.T. Johnson
Welcome to Genre Picks! Every once in awhile, I plan on stepping in here and giving you some recommendations for a certain film genre. These are not definitive lists nor or they even ranked. These are just some recommendations from a list that I’ve curated over time. It may not be the only time I visit a certain genre, either.
For example, I have picked 20 action films that I think any action junkie will enjoy. However, I might come back to the genre in the future with even more films. For this list, I just tried to pick some pure action entertainment. Films that were built around huge set pieces and major action stars of the day. Explosions, stunts and cliche plots of two dimensional villains is the name of the game here!
Let’s get started. Lights! Camera! ACTION!
1979’s “Alien” is a straight up horror film designed to test your nerves around every corner. In 1986’s “Aliens”, writer and director James Cameron turned the film into a straight up action flick. Even the film’s tagline, “THIS TIME IT’S WAR”, evokes a more action-packed tone.
It is helped by the badass actress that is Sigourney Weaver, returning to her signature role as Ellen Ripley. This time, she takes a group of soldiers to the planet where she originally encountered the alien. There are colonists there now and the space marines are sent on a rescue mission, but the only survivor is a resourceful young girl named Newt!
The movie still has plenty of horror elements and could belong to that genre as well. Yet, with frantic gunfights and a climactic battle with the alien Queen, it fits snugly into the action genre as well.
I’m not the biggest fan of director Michael Bay, but he made two films in the 1990s that I really enjoy to this day. “Bad Boys” is one of those films as it teams up Will Smith and Martin Lawrence for a buddy cop film that is superior to most other imitators. Smith and Lawrence play Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, two friends who became partners on the police force and genuinely love one another.
After a witness to a murder is targeted, the boys must take down an evil drug lord and his goons. The film doesn’t do anything to add to the buddy cop formula, but it does show off Bay’s over-the-top action set pieces that actually work in this film’s favor. The movie is built to appeal to our baser instincts… and I’m totally fine with that.
BEVERLY HILLS COP
A film worthy of its star, “Beverly Hills Cop” showcased Eddie Murphy at his best on the big screen. The movie tells the story of Axel Foley, a cop from Detroit that gets involved in a case that takes him to Beverly Hills. Once there, the more pompous and inexperienced cops give him just about as much grief as the criminals he’s chasing.
The comedy genius of Murphy is on full display, of course. In addition to that, Murphy turned out to be a pretty good action star to boot. The movie spawned two sequels, but the original is still the best and a genuine classic for ‘80s action films.
Nicholas Cage has a questionable Southern accent as Cameron Poe, but that is part of the charm of “Con-Air”, a movie about a man who is being released from prison. The only problem is that he’s been put on a plane filled with the country’s worst criminals and they have decided to take over the plane in order to make a daring escape. While none of the actors really like to talk about this film, both John Cusack and John Malkovich also give pretty awesome performances, especially Malkovich as Cyrus “The Virus”.
This is one of the biggest examples of 1990s action films that was more about creating huge set pieces rather than actually making you think about anything. Walk in, turn off your brain and have a good time. Walking the tightrope of mindless fun doesn’t always work, but “Con-Air” pulls it off thanks to the power of Cage.
Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock star in this over-the-top futuristic film where a supposed utopia has taken over and every restaurant is Taco Bell. The movie is a satirical look at the “1984” themes of a seemingly perfect government with a sinister hidden agenda. The movie also happens to be a fun action flick in which action star Stallone takes on fellow star Wesley Snipes in a no holds barred extravaganza!
Bullock also shows off her early talents as one of our greatest leading ladies. In addition to the film’s leads, it is also filled with great supporting actors such as Denis Leary as the leader of an underground resistance called Edgar Friendly. The movie is just pure fun but it also has a surprisingly relevant message.
The Christmas film (YES, IT IS!) that put Bruce Willis on the map in a big way. “Die Hard” follows the unlucky Officer John McClane as he attempts to reconnect with his wife at her office Christmas party. Unfortunately, a group of terrorists led by Alan Rickman’s charismatic yet always sinister Hans Gruber take over the building.
John is the only one that manages to sneak away and he works his way through Nakatomi Plaza taking out the terrorists, often one at a time. He also does it with a black sense of humor that the series has become known for, including his famous catch-phrase, “Yippie ki yay, mother fucker!”
Action director John Woo gives us one unique film in which our good guy, Sean Archer (John Travolta), switches faces with our bad guy, Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage). This means that both Travolta and Cage get to be the primary protagonist and antagonist in addition to taking on each other’s mannerisms after the switch. The two leads give strong performances in this rather impossible plot that nevertheless entertains.
The action sequences are classic Woo with each character duel-wielding pistols and plenty of slow motion shots… Oh! The doves! You can never forget to mention the inevitable scene in which doves will appear as a part of Woo’s classic trademarks.
Travolta and Cage can both play great good guys and bad guys. Here, they get to do both!
Keanu Reeves kick starts another brilliant action film series with plenty of hand-to-hand combat and shootouts. Reeves plays John Wick, a man who starts to go after members of the Russian mafia after they kill his dog, the last gift from his late wife. What they don’t know is that John used to be a member of a secret society of assassins and was considered the best in the business.
The movie pretty much resurrected Reeves’ career and is one of the most solid action films that I’ve seen in quite some time. It proves that the lone man against the world formula is far from dead if put in the right hands.
Writer Shane Black and director Richard Donner gave us “Lethal Weapon” in 1987. Donner also did the smartest thing in the world by pairing up Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as both the suicidal Martin Riggs and the “about to retire” Roger Murtaugh. Like “Die Hard”, this film defined 1980s action films and also led the way for plenty of imitators, especially the cop film with the lead that’s about to retire and the one that’s crazy.
As usual, Black sets this film at Christmas, so also like “Die Hard”, this could make for a great holiday film for any action buff!
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
After staying in development hell for what seemed like an eternity, director George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” exploded onto screens much to the delight of all the action junkies in the audience. It also told a surprisingly feminist story about a group of women that rise up against their oppressor in order to escape to a better world. They are helped along by Tom Hardy’s quiet yet resourceful Mad Max.
The movie has a beating heart at the center of it along with amazing set pieces that will make you question how none of the people on the stunt team got hurt. Miller may or may not make another sequel in the Mad Max series, but if he doesn’t, this is one hell of a film to ride off with into the sunset!
The Wachowskis ended up writing the quintessential cyerpunk film with “The Matrix”. In it, a young hacker named Neo (Keanu Reeves) discovers that humanity is actually plugged into a massive virtual reality ran by machines who are using us as batteries. Once awake in the real world, Neo learns that he might be the One, a human that is prophesied to save all of humanity from the machines.
Being that this film is set in a virtual world, the characters learn that they can do extraordinary things in a matter of seconds, including being trained in Kung-Fu. The climactic lobby shootout near the end of the film is still one of the most breathtaking moments committed to film but the movie contains enough action from start to finish to satisfy everyone in the audience.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
There is no truer adventure film than director Steven Spielberg and story creator George Lucas’ “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. It is a genuine tribute to the 1930s serials of old and it also stars Harrison Ford as archeologist Indiana Jones, which is probably his most famous role. The film is a genuine adventure film with only one objective: pure escapism.
The movie contains the memorable boulder scene as Indy tries to escape from a deadly tomb. It also contains the famous Ark of the Covenant and the film’s final shot is one of the most parodied in pop culture. Lucas, Spielberg and Ford would continue the series, but they never quite reached the amazing levels of Indy’s first adventure.
Ultimately, kids ended up loving RoboCop, the half-man, half-machine cyborg fighting crime in future Detroit. However, the first movie is actually a violent commentary on corporate takeovers and violent crime in America in the 1980s. Peter Weller brilliantly plays Alex Murphy, a cop that is brutally gunned down and turned into the film’s titular hero.
Meanwhile, a corporation named Omni Consumer Products (OCP) has taken over Detroit’s police forces and after cutting back their funding, a strike looms even though crime runs rampant in the city. This is all part of a plan to turn Detroit into a utopia using OCP’s latest urban weapons, including a massive machine known as ED-209.
The movie is filled with as much brutal violence as it does action sequences, so just remember that while kids love this character, this is most definitely a film for adults.
We’ve now reached the second Michael Bay film that I actually like. The movie stars Nick Cage as a chemist who must stop a group of terrorists on Alcatraz from unleashing a violent nerve gas. He is helped along by a former British spy and inmate of the Rock that actually escaped, played amazingly by Sean Connery.
Connery and Cage end up having way more chemistry together than they have any right to have and the action is pretty awesome from beginning to end. It does contain the over-the-top direction that Bay would be derided for later on, but like in “Bad Boys”, his direction works more in the film’s favor than against it.
This is perhaps one of my favorite action films of all time due to its purity. The plot is simple as officer Jack Traven (Keanue Reeves) has to stop a bomb on a bus. The only catch is that if the bus goes below 50 mph, then the bomb will go off.
The movie starts with a thrilling action sequence involving an elevator before switching to the bus. Jack must thwart the evil machinations of the film’s bomber and primary antagonist, Howard Payne. Not only does Reeves do a great job as Jack, Sandra Bullock is great as Annie Porter, one of the passengers who ends up having to drive the bus.
The chemistry between Reeves and Bullock is real and they are fun to watch together. Meanwhile, Howard is played exquisitely by Dennis Hopper, an actor that was also known as one of America’s greatest film villains.
Liam Neeson has made quite the career for himself in the action genre and it is all because of this 2008 film from producer Luc Besson. The film sees a retired government operative going after sex slavers that have abducted his daughter. His “I will find you” speech has gone down in the pop culture lexicon and has been parodied and referenced several times.
Thankfully, he makes good on his promise as he begins to kill his way through the criminal underground in order to find his daughter. The movie spawned two sequels and a television series, but more importantly it showed what a badass Neeson is as an action star. I have plenty of things to say against the sequels, but this one is still solid action entertainment!
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY
“The Terminator” from 1984 is a fantastic neo-noir action film that introduced us to the directing talents of James Cameron. However, it was “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” where the director really got to let loose with his best film ever. This time, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a reprogrammed Terminator that is sent back to protect John Connor, the future leader of the Resistance that will take down the machines once and for all.
Linda Hamilton returns as the battle scarred and institutionalized mother Sarah Connor, but soon she is reunited with her son. Hot on their trail is the liquid metal Terminator known famously as the T-1000. In addition to this, the trio decides to turn the tables on Skynet and they soon set out to prevent the A.I.’s creation by going after Cyberdyne in the film’s climactic and explosive finale.
Cameron would go on to dominate the box office with the films “Titanic” and “Avatar”, but for me, “Judgement Day” remains his masterpiece and it is still one of the best action films ever made!
Before Cameron would move on to sinking boats and environmentally friendly alien worlds, he did have one more badass action film up his sleeves. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, the movie tells the story of a spy who keeps his work hidden from his wife. When she learns about his profession, some comedy hijinks ensue along with the solid action.
Schwarzenegger and Curtis have amazing chemistry with one another that makes the film’s wild premise work. It also helps that Schwarzenegger is joined by comedic actor Tom Arnold as his partner in crime who provides more than enough comic relief. This is a more low-tech film for Cameron and it may actually surprise people to even remember that he was the man behind this film, but it is further proof that Cameron is one of the more talented directors out there and he especially excels when it comes to making solid action films!