Movies are motion pictures and nothing defines that motion better than an action film. Action films combine great storytelling, jaw-dropping fight choreography, stunts, nibble camerawork, and exhilarating editing. At its best, an action film is an exquisite thing of beauty. I'm not talking about dramas that contain a scene or two of action but rather films fueled by their action and with action set pieces that can play like as dance -- even if the context for that dance is violent and bloody. Dance and action are all about kinetic energy and the body in motion, and therefore are perfectly suited to motion pictures. So a great action film offers not just an adrenaline rush but a breathtaking piece of cinematic poetry. The best of these also understand that action is not merely about speed, shakycam, and fast cuts but about doing what will best convey the action. Sometimes that is handheld camera and fast cuts, sometimes it's a static camera and one long take, and sometimes its slow motion.
So here are the action standouts from 2012. You will not find sputtering franchise entries like The Bourne Legacy (ho-hum), action stars stuck in a formula like Jason Statham in Safe (who's been playing the same reluctant hero to younger and younger female co-stars), or strictly comic entries like 21 Jump Street (which delivered far more fun than expected). This list attempts to highlight the best with an eye to diversity and to action that primarily involves people as opposed to just blowing a lot of stuff up. Please note that some of these contain spoilers.
1. 'The Raid: Redemption' (Indonesia)
There is no way a list of the best of 2012 cannot contain The Raid: Redemption. Made in 2011 but only unleashed on the U.S. in 2012 with a new soundtrack by Joseph Trapanese and Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda, The Raid is like crack cocaine for an action junkie. It is almost exclusively hand-to-hand combat featuring Pencak Silat, a style of martial arts not widely known in the West. The film is an adrenaline rush that kicks into high gear almost immediately and never slows down. One note, though, is that the best action films seem to come from whichever country is new at it and hasn't yet set up stunt men unions to protect those involved in the action. The Korean documentary Action Boys called attention to the dangers of an unregulated stunt industry. So I hope no one was injured on this amazing film because the action is truly spectacular and I want to be able to enjoy it fully.
Best action scene: The fight between Mad Dog and the two brothers at the end, it is guaranteed to exhaust you.
No American film better exemplified the action genre that Joss Whedon's The Avengers. Whedon is a self-confessed comic book geek and he knew exactly how to make a film to please comic book fans. He gets the characters right, the storytelling right, and the action right. We had all the back stories for the superheroes taken care of in previous films so The Avengers could just jump right into the action with little set up. Whedon was able to deliver massive action scenes but with a sense of what the human stakes are. He also allows each superhero to maintain his or her personality while engaged in battle. This may be the most perfect comic book movie ever.
Best action scene: Hulk flip flopping Loki like a sack of potatoes and dismissing him as a "puny god."
The last film in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy is not quite as satisfying as The Dark Knight but it is a solid conclusion to a great comic book adaptation. Tom Hardy makes an ominous and physically imposing villain. When he enters the frame, you worry about anything that might get in his way. This is a tale of rehabilitation and moving on, and I'd be happy to see a follow up film with Joseph Gordon-Levitt carrying on as Robin.
Best action scene: Batman and Bane going at it, although a more intense hand-to-hand combat scene would have been better.
This is another tale of rehabilitation. The third film in the rebooted James Bond franchise with Daniel Craig as 007 is the year's smartest and classiest action film. It doesn't have a lot of action but it is so well made and immerses us so cleverly in the world of Bond (both the Bond of the past and the Bond we hope to see in the future), that we are fully engaged in the story. Think of it as the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy of action films -- one that gets your brain working as well as the adrenaline pumping. The film focuses on a Bond on the mend but he has a couple of solid action scenes (one humorously involving a Komodo dragon and another in a quick shoot-out on the villain's secluded island). Craig is the grittiest, most physically buff Bond, and the one most rooted in real world violence. So it's nice to see an action film that acknowledges that there can be painful consequences to being involved in violent action.
Best action scene: Javier Bardem's Silva blowing a hole in the underground tunnel and just missing Bond. When Bond jokes that he hopes that wasn't for him Silva says, "No, but this is." And a train comes speeding through the bombed-out hole right at 007.
Here's an action film that's more about blood flow and gunplay. But director Quentin Tarantino has such a visual flair for violence that Django Unchained had to be included. The film draws inspiration from two genres: Italian spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation films of the '70s. The former is all about brutal violence and people set against landscapes, and the latter is about over the top style and African Americans defining their own genre. In an unexpected way, Tarantino may give us the most visceral sense of what slavery was like because he's willing to be politically incorrect and violent. But he successfully conveys how oppressive it must have been to be owned by someone else and treated as nothing more than property. But as he did in Inglorious Basterds by letting Jews settle their score with Hitler, Tarantino provides a revenge fantasy for a slave on a journey to freedom.
Best action scene: Jamie Foxx's Django in an epic shoot out featuring geysers of blood.
Since Jackie Chan and Jet Li have gotten older and been distracted by making American films where the insurance companies balk at them doing their own stunts, Donnie Yen has stepped up to become Asia's biggest action star. With films like Flashpoint, SPL, and the Ip Man saga, Yen has proven that he's more than capable of filling in the action void left by Chan and Li. Dragon, a period action film, is not one of Yen's best, but he's so good that even when a film doesn't highlight him in top form it's still superior to most of what comes out in the rest of the world.
Best action scene: Takeshi Kaneshiro's detective dissects a fight and has it "replayed" for us so we can see exactly what Yen's Liu does in a fight. What makes this fun is that Liu pretends to have no fighting skills at all at first and so what appeared to be accidents, prove to be Liu being an exceptional fighter.
Steven Soderbergh is not an action director and Haywire suffers for that. But it does give us a female action star who can genuinely kick ass. Gina Carano is considered a pioneer in women's MMA and she delivers a solid performance as well as a gritty sense of realistic action.
Best action scene: Carano taking on Michael Fassbender's character in a claustrophobic hotel room fight.
8. 'Dredd 3D'
I don't know why this film tanked at the box office but it deserved far better reception than it got. Karl Urban is great as the comic book character Dredd and he keeps in character by never removing his helmet (something the comics always adhered to). Director Peter Travis showed his flair for action with some nifty car chases in Vantage Point. In Dredd, he makes good use of 3D and delivers some video game style fun action sequences. Lena Headey is a nasty opponent, which always makes the action more fun. A vast improvement over the 1995 Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd, and Urban (with his Clint Eastwood-like voice and minimalism) is impressive.
Best action scene: Dredd taking on the corrupt judges sent after him.
This is not what you would conventionally consider an action film but violence drives all the main characters and the plot. Plus Andrew Dominik delivers the action in ways that feel innovative and that deserves mention. He may be heavy-handed in layering in a political message as he updates George V. Higgins' '70s novel to the 2008 elections, but he gives us a gritty sense of how mobsters run their business and how violence comes into play. He gives us wiseguys who break down and cry when they get a beating and he shows us how brutal gun violence really is.
Best action scene: Brad Pitt's hit on Ray Liotta in which in poetic slow motion we see exactly how destructive a single bullet can be. Beauty and horror all in a moment.
10. 'Act of Valor'
The acting in this film is as wooden as a plank but stunt men turned directors Mouse McCoy and Scott Waugh know their action. Working closely with real Navy SEALS, the filmmakers create a story based on real acts of valor. They worked with live ammo in some scenes and with the SEALS as actors/stuntmen. The result is a formulaic story, pedestrian filmmaking, and spectacular action. The directors and SEALS know how to convey what it really feels like to be in a tense situation. So action scenes are not all shakycam and fast cuts but sometimes slow steady shots that convey the tension of entering a location and simply not knowing what might lurk around any corner.
Best action scene: A gun boat shoot out with live ammo.
Honorable mention: The Expendables 2
How can a franchise that brings so many iconic action stars together be so uninspired and unimaginative? I mean to lose Jet Li after a single fight, and to reunite Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme and not have them exchange blows or even words... Well that's just absurd. But I have to give kudos to Sylvester Stallone for getting so many action cronies together in one film and creating a kind of Action Rat Pack sense of camaraderie. Expendables 3 is supposed to add in Jackie Chan and Nicolas Cage. Hopefully they can find a formula that fully exploits all the action talent gathered together in one place.
Best action performance: Guy Pearce in Lockout.
The film was unexceptional but Pearce's wisecracking action anti-hero who gets punched more then he punches was hilarious and endlessly entertaining.