2017 has been a bit of a transitional year when it comes to the action genre. As expected the summer was full of the kind of big, tent pole films audiences have come to expect during the middle of the year. Interestingly some of the bigger franchises such as The Mummy and Transformers weren’t the surefire hits most were expecting. Meanwhile original fare such as Atomic Blonde and Baby Driver did better than expected. Even most exciting is the increasing number of female-led action franchises. Long-gestating projects like Wonder Woman and Kong: Skull Island being hits upon release. Even male-led movies like Logan and Thor: Ragnarok saw star-making performances from their female supporting cast.
With the year a bit transitional in nature it has led to a variety in not only stories and roles but in the types of action. In any given month you could get everything from Spider-Man soaring through New York City to a World War II battle orchestrated by Christopher Nolan. Even less critically acclaimed movies like Ghost in the Shell had some killer action scenes. So, before we look at the best action movies of the year here are some of the best individual action scenes of the year.
10. ‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’- Crashing the Party
After years hiding out Xander Cage is found by the C.I.A. Initially unwilling to work for them he returns when he discovers that his mentor Gibbons has been killed by a mysterious group of assassins led by Xian. Realizing Xian’s group are after the mysterious Pandora’s Box, Cage forms a crew of his own to take down these rogue members of the xXx program.
The xXx series has always been the Mission: Impossible to the Fast & Furious‘s James Bond. The Fast series may be bigger but xXx was always more focused on having fun action set pieces. And even though The Return of Xander Cage is full of them the most enjoyable happens near the beginning. Tracking the terrorists to an uncharted island Russian soldiers invade looking for the film’s McGuffin, the Pandora’s box. What follows is Ruby Rose sniping the soldiers, international superstar Tony Jaa teaming up with UFC fighter Michael Bisping and concludes with Vin Diesel chasing Donnie Yen on motorbikes that turn into jet skis. It’s as ludicrous as it sounds which is exactly why it comes in at #10.
9. ‘Ghost in the Shell’- First Mission
In a futuristic Japan where most humans have technological augmentations the Major (Scarlett Johansson) leads an elite counter terrorism unit. Saved from a horrific crash the cybernetic Major is the perfect person to stop the increasing amount of technology based terrorism. In pursuit of the mysterious Kuze, Major learns something that will shatter her perception of what’s real and what’s not. Based on the ground-breaking anime the American remake tries to maintain the original’s themes of identity and self.
When it comes to the long-gestating Ghost in the Shell most press was negative for this anime adaption. From the awkward pacing to the white washing controversy the movie seemed to be taking it from every angle. The one positive thing everyone could agree on is that the film is gorgeous. Directed by Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) critics praised the film’s aesthetic. A pitch perfect adaption of its source material it looks like the cyberpunk anime brought to life. There’s no better proof of this than the opening action scene. As a deal for illegal cyber enhancements is going down both parties are attacked by enhanced soldiers and their spider-like robots. A feast visually it’s one of the coolest looking scenes in this uneven production.
8. ‘The Great Wall’- Protecting The Wall
Attacked in the dead of night European mercenaries William and Pero seek gun powder and refuge behind China’s Great Wall. Initially thought of as hostiles the two are taken as prisoners before witnessing wave after wave of monsters attack the architectural wonder.
Another film mired in Asian-representation controversy was the Matt Damon vehicle The Great Wall. Directed by Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) it has been accused of whitewashing and using the white savior narrative. And while there’s certainly room for debate the one thing that can’t be denied it that it has some fun action scenes. Perhaps the most exciting being our first good look at the monsters attacking the Great Wall. With a simple concept Yimou crafts a beautiful scene that mixes bright, solid color with acrobatic action. Mixing Zhang Yimou’s usual visual flair with US production values, this scene is a perfect example of how great The Great Wall could have been.
7. ‘Logan’- Berserker Rage
It’s 2029 and it has been years since mutants have made themselves known. No longer the next step in human evolution mutants have nearly gone extinct and at the center of this is Logan, the former Wolverine. Living in exile as a driver for hire where he takes care of fellow mutants Caliban and Professor X. His quiet life is interrupted when a mysterious woman approaches him with an important task, protect a quiet girl named Laura. Pursued by the evil Transigen corporation this makeshift family are forced to go on the run.
There have been plenty of cool Wolverine fight scenes over the years. Whether it’s on a speeding bullet train in The Wolverine or protecting the X-Mansion in X2, Wolverine tends to have a show stealing action set piece in the X-Men movies. And while the X2 scene has been considered the gold standard the Berserker Rage segment in Logan has topped it. When Logan overdoses on a serum that enhances his abilities unleashes a fury we have never seen. Pumped full adrenaline Logan lets loose like never before when he rips and tears his way through soldiers. Even cooler is seeing him teaming up with his clone/daughter Laura with the two working in perfect harmony. Logan may get acclaim for the acting and the finality it displays but we shouldn’t forget the stellar action it has on display.
6. ‘Kong: Skull Island’- Attack of the Skull Crawlers
As the Vietnam War comes to an end scientists Bill Randa and Houston Brooks from the Monarch organization make a startling discovery. Beyond a never-ending storm is an undiscovered island. With tracker James Conrad, photographer Mason Weaver and a group of soldiers led by Colonel Preston Packard what they think is a scientific expedition becomes a fight for survival. And Kong, the giant ape, is the least of their worries.
Who would have thought that the best scene in the latest Kong film wouldn’t involve the big guy? As our heroes look for the lost soldier Chapman they find themselves in a mass grave. Trekking across the valley they are attacked by the monstrous Skull Crushers. What proceeds is some top-notch monster carnage. While the soldiers try everything in their arsenal the reptilian skull crushers tear through them like they’re wet paper. They retreat only after the use of poisonous gas (in a beautiful slow-motion shot) and luck.
5. ‘Headshot’- Police Station Massacre
Waking up on the shore of the beach a mysterious man is taken to a nearby hospital. Due to a serious head wound he has no memory of who he is or how he got there. Nursed to health by his nurse, Ailin, who names the stranger Ishmael. Unfortunately, the two soon learn not only who attacked Ishmael but his dangerous past with the mobster Lee.
Taken in by Interpol agents, Ishmael is handcuffed to a table when Lee’s killers attack the police station looking for him. With all of the police officers killed Ishmael has to face several deadly assassins at once. What ensues is some of the most impressive displays of martial arts of the year. Incorporating firearms, we see Ishmael take on attacker after attacker before going hand-to-hand with a former friend. Brutal and gritty this is one fight scene you won’t soon forget.
4. ‘Thor: Ragnarok’- Contest of Champions
Since the battle of Sokovia, Thor has been exploring the cosmos searching for the Infinity Stones. When he returns to Asgard he learns that not only has Loki taken over but that Hela, the Asgardian goddess of death, has returned. Immediately outmatched Mjonir is destroyed and Thor is exiled to the planet Sakaar. Forced to fight to the death the God of Thunder has to figure out how to return to Asgard before it’s destroyed.
Leading up to Thor: Ragnarok one of the big selling points was a gladiatorial battle between Thor and The Incredible Hulk. Thankfully I can report that it lives up to all fanboy expectations. Similar to the jabs thrown in the first Avengers movie, Hulk and Thor’s fight is a perfect blend of giant, over-the-top brawling and jokes. For time The Hulk tosses Thor across the stadium we get a bit of the God of Thunder trying to calm The Hulk down ala Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron. A perfect encapsulation what makes Ragnarok so fun it’s far and away the best Marvel Studios action scene of the year.
3. ‘Atomic Blonde’- Going Down
As the Berlin Wall is set to come down an MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton, is sent deep into Cold War Germany. She is sent into the war-torn nation to take down a dangerous espionage ring that has killed another agent. Working with Berlin station chief David Percival the two search for a microfilm with the name of every British spy. KGB agents hot on her trail Broughton is in a race against time with the Western intelligence community on the line.
When it comes to action movies one of the most impressive things a fan can see is a tracking shot. Filmed to look like one continuous shot it is not only entertaining but one of the most technically impressive things an audience can see. The only major film to feature this was Atomic Blonde and it was one of the best. Starting outside of an elevator it features Charlize Theron’s spy fighting a seemingly endless horde of henchmen. What follows is nearly 10 minutes of brutal, bone crunching action. An explosive mix of firearms and hand-to-hand combat it’s the closest America has gotten to matching action from overseas in years.
2. ‘The Villainess’- The Motorcycle Chase
Trained since birth, assassin Sook-hee is one of the deadliest women in all of Asia. When her lover is murdered she begins a new life working for a South Korean intelligence agency. Promised a normal life after 10 years, Sook-hee is put through rigorous training before being sent out on missions. Things seem to be going well for Sook-hee before revelations about her past comes back to haunt her.
While China may be the biggest name in Asian action cinema, South Korea has quietly emerged as one of the continent’s most exciting countries. And while movies like Oldboy and Snowpiercer are classics when it comes to pure action The Villainess is the best in years. Mixing Kill Bill with the reckless abandon of Asian action it has some of the most hard-hitting action of the year. The most notable being the film’s big motorcycle chase. With a hyperkinetic filming style Sook-hee is in a chase that mixed high octane motorcycle stunts with sword fighting. One of the most exhilarating and original scenes of the year it’s a must see for any fans of action movies.
1. ‘Wonder Woman’- No Man’s Land
Diana, the princes of the Amazons, has been raised to be compassionate and a warrior since birth. Her world is changed when pilot Steve Trevor crash lands on the island of Themyscira. When Steve alerts the secluded paradise of World War I Diana volunteers to escort Trevor back to England. Lured into the heart of The Great War, Diana is determined to battle Ares, the god of war.
While a film effecting people emotionally isn’t unheard of it isn’t common either. For the most part movies, particularly summer fare, are seen as more of a way to get away. There was something different about Wonder Woman though. Whether it was the movie’s more lighthearted tone or Wonder Woman being the first huge female superhero movie it connected with audiences in a way rarely seen and it all culminates with the No Man’s Land scene. Defying the wishes of Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman crosses No Man’s Land alone and liberates the small town of Veld. From a technical standpoint it is flawless. A perfect melding of typical fighting with over-the-top super heroics. It would have been great in any other movie. But what made it truly great was the reaction. Audiences across the nation raved about the scene. Social media was flooded with stories of cheering and crying in the theater. And when an action scene can elicit so much emotion it has to be ranked as the best of the year.