For decades, action movies ran Hollywood. They were critically derided populist money-movers—the productions that kept the studio lights on. These days, superhero movies, the flashier and sillier and nerdier stepchild of action movies, play that role. Action movies are an afterthought.
Four of 2018’s highest-grossing movies were superhero movies. Meanwhile, with one major exception, all of the grand global action franchises—Fast & Furious, John Wick, Wolf Warrior—took 2018 off. Gareth Evans, the Welsh director whose Indonesian fight flicks The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 are among the decade’s best, moved back to the U.K. and made a Netflix horror movie. There wasn’t any big import from South Korea or Thailand or Japan that caught the eyes of genre fans out here in the west.
And yet action cinema still produced plenty of greatness in 2018. Many of the year’s best action movies weren’t just action movies; they were also horror movies and tense ’70s-style thrillers and sci-fi thought-experiments and bleak comedies. 2018 turned out to be a year of violent hybrid B-movies—movies that didn’t reach a wide mainstream audience and, to be honest, didn’t even try. Directors took advantage of small budgets, direct-to-VOD releases, and content-hungry streaming services to make some delirious two-fisted tales. Here’s the best that 2018 had to offer.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Hong Kong deity John Woo reinvented the gunfight with his dizzy, operatic, over-the-top bullet bacchanals. After those movies established him, Woo spent a few years as a big-budget Hollywood filmmaker, and then he returned home and made historical movies, like the stunning two-part 2008 epic Red Cliff. Manhunt is Woo’s first contemporary Hong Kong action flick since 1992’s god-level Hard Boiled. It’s a confusing movie, edited chaotically and plotted incoherently—something about a Chinese lawyer and a Japanese detective who hate each other but are forced to work together to battle an army of motorcycle assassins. But the gunfights are a gloriously nostalgic trip through Woo’s greatest hits: the slo-mo blood-spatters, the bodies flying ecstatically through the air, the doves. Manhunt is a remake of a Japanese movie from 1976, but when it’s at its best, it’s pure Woo.
9. Kickboxer: Retaliation
The original 1989 Kickboxer is canonical Jean-Claude Van Damme: An unashamedly cheesy Muay Thai underdog story that steadfastly refuses to get old even if it was practically a beat-for-beat remake of the previous Van Damme classic Bloodsport. Kickboxer spawned three straight-to-video sequels, and Van Damme didn’t appear in any of them. Last year, however, Van Damme did return for the direct-to-VOD reboot Kickboxer: Vengeance. This time, Van Damme wasn’t the hero. Instead, he flexed his hard-won late-in-life acting chops, playing a blind teacher to the Gabonese stuntman Alain Moussi. Moussi is basically a mannequin who kicks, but he kicks really well. And the sequel Kickboxer: Retaliation surrounds Moussi and Van Damme with more people who we’re happy to see in a cheap action movie. As the villain, B-movie OG Christopher Lambert sneers and preens and flashes a sword. As the final-fight heavy, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, the Mountain from Game of Thrones, comes off as a human boulder. And Mike Tyson, of all possible people, plays a wise prison mentor. That’s a stretch, but when a movie is essentially a series of loosely threaded-together training sequences, dobwe really care whether nobody involved can act? The fights are great, which is, of course, what matters.
8. Final Score
This was the year that the Rock was supposed to revive the time-honored Die Hard format with Skyscraper. It didn’t happen. That movie turned out to be a lifeless slog. But another former WWE champion did manage to make a tight, tense Die Hard ripoff on a considerably smaller budget. The Dave Bautista vehicle Final Score isn’t even the first Die Hard clone to take place at a sporting event; that would be the gloriously ludicrous hockey-themed 1995 Van Damme joint Sudden Death. Unlike that movie, Final Score sadly does not feature a scene in which the hero has to pose as one of the athletes and where he makes a crucial play. But Final Score does have an indoor motorcycle chase, a kitchen punch-up with a scalp-tatted giant, and a surprisingly soulful Bautista performance that anchors the entire thing. Bautista is a traumatized veteran who has a few hours to save his dead comrade’s kid, and an entire British soccer stadium full of fans, from a dedicated cell of terrorists from a fictional Balkan state. The bad guys are a bit too generic, and the movie forces the extremely Irish Pierce Brosnan and the extremely British Ray Stevenson to attempt Eastern European accents, which is not ideal. But Final Score does manage to ground its ridiculous conceit in a portrait of one man’s pain. And in Bautista, it’s got a guy who can take it.
7. Accident Man
In mainstream cinema, the lantern-jawed British martial artist Scott Adkins is an occasional stuntman or bit-part bad guy. But in the world of low-budget action movies, Adkins is a longstanding pillar—a reliable source of transcendent ass-beatings for at least the past decade. Accident Man, an adaptation of a U.K. comic book from the ’90s, is Adkins’s passion project. He cowrote and produced the movie, and his regular collaborator Jesse V. Johnson directed it. And Adkins clearly has a blast with the movie. He’s Mike Fallon, elite hitman and sardonic hard-boiled narrator. He orchestrates elaborate killings with bored professionalism, but when someone kills his ex, he has to kill all of his peers in the elite-hitman underground society that the movie gleefully depicts. That means Adkins gets in nasty, fun fights with former Spawn Michael Jai White, former Darth Maul Ray Park, former Punisher Ray Stevenson, and Amy Johnston, who hasn’t played any franchise characters but who starred in a great 2016 kumite movie called Lady Bloodfight. She and Adkins have the best fight in Accident Man, and she’s a joy to watch. Look out for her.
Jason Momoa is a glowering muscle-slab who also seems like a fun weirdo, and he is thus exactly the kind of guy around whom you want to build a tough, propulsive, no-frills old-school action movie. Momoa doesn’t look like an everyman, but he’s fully capable of carrying himself as one. And honestly, he makes more sense as a rugged dad protecting his family than he does as a nautical superhero. In Braven, he’s Joe Braven, a sensitive logger who finds out that a bloodthirsty drug-smuggling gang has hid its stash in his isolated, snowbound cabin. They aren’t just going to let Joe Braven and his family hand over the drugs and walk out of there. So instead, Braven has to use anything he can—fists, axes, hot pokers, four-wheelers—to protect his clan. Veteran character actors Garret Dillahunt, Braven’s speechifying drug-lord adversary, and Stephen Lang, Braven’s Alzheimer’s-suffering tough-guy father, get to savor the scenery they’re chewing. But in the starring role, Momoa shows a glowing macho sensitivity that holds the whole movie together. Hollywood isn’t going to want Momoa to make too many down-market crowd-pleasers like this one—not when he could be headlining CGI-heavy franchises—but I hope he does it anyway.
Overlord is a strange beast: A Dirty Dozen–style World War II men-on-a-mission adventure that’s been welded to a Re-Animator-esque splatter-farce. It’s not a comedy, exactly, but you might laugh pretty hard while watching it. And if you have fun when Indiana Jones punches Nazis in the face, wait until you see these guys stuffing live grenades into Nazis’ mouths. The movie’s star is Jovan Adepo, of Fences and The Leftovers fame, and he radiates a gentle decency in situations where gentle decency could get you killed. But the real discovery is Wyatt Russell, Kurt’s son. Wyatt has been a likable, shaggy presence in movies and on TV for a couple of years, but Overlord is the moment when he shows that he can be just as charismatic and forbidding and dangerous as his father. If you’re going into battle against Third Reich mad scientists and the superpowered zombies that they’ve created, you want a guy like that on your side.
Another cross-pollination: A slick and sadistic near-future vision shot through with over-the-top brutality, Upgrade plays out like a long, violent, elaborate episode of Black Mirror. It’s one of 2018’s most unsettling sci-fi movies and one of its bleakest comedies, and it’s also got some of the nastiest fight scenes. A grieving, paralyzed widower gets an experimental computer chip implanted in his spine, and he learns that this chip can help him walk, do martial arts, and get revenge against the lowlives who killed his wife. Writer-director Leigh Whannell got his start writing horror movies, and he brings the same sense of creeping wrongness to Upgrade that he did to the Insidious movies. Logan Marshall-Green, the movie’s star, is mostly known for looking a whole lot like Tom Hardy. But here, he makes a better version of the Venom story than Hardy managed. Marshall-Green turns out to be a deft physical comedian, his body doing unspeakable things to bad guys while his face shows a look of blank incomprehension. And when he lands a couple of those death blows, you might find yourself hooting out loud.
Mandy director and cowriter Panos Cosmatos is the force behind Beyond the Black Rainbow, a retro-stoner headfuck of a horror movie. He is also the son of George P. Cosmatos, director of the ’80s trash-action classics Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra. With Mandy, Panos has applied his own aesthetic to the gleaming over-the-top ridiculousness of his father’s Stallone movies. It’s an intense art-film meditation on the ’70s grindhouse style, and it gets gnarly, especially when the chainsaws get to revving. A resurgent Nicolas Cage displays all of his sides: the sensitive Method actor, the resolute action hero, the braying madman. Mandy doesn’t start out as an action movie; it’s an agonizing, horrifying tale of a backwoods cult (and their demonic biker assistants) who descend upon a loving couple and bring hell with them. But when Cage goes into revenge mode, the movie reaches some kind of delirious, uncanny new level. Painted head-to-toe in ash and blood, Cage stops being human and transforms instead into a walking death-god. Don’t see this movie sober, but by all means, see it.
2. The Night Comes for Us
Writer-director Timo Tjahjanto has a history making truly disturbing horror movies, and while his The Night Comes for Us isn’t horror, it revels in gore just as much as Dead Alive or The Evil Dead. Terrible things happen to bodies in this one. Bones pop. Faces explode. Dicks get torn to shreds. The Raid stars Joe Taslim and Iko Uwais, the latter of whom choreographed the incredible fights, make deadly weapons out of meathooks and pool balls and anything else that might be within reach. One extremely mean lady kills people with a razor-wire yo-yo. Another takes a moment before a fight to walk over to a cross that’s hanging on a wall and to flip it upside-down. A little girl stabs a dude to death. It’s a lot.
Last year, Tjahjanto made his action-movie debut with Headshot, which also starred Iko Uwais and which set new standards for action-movie violence. I didn’t think I’d ever see anything more brutal than that, but with The Night Comes for Us, Tjahjanto has made his own movie look like Kung Fu Panda. In Tjahjanto’s latest grand-guignol Jakarta-underworld spectacle, characters fight and fight and fight, gritting their teeth and laughing through stab wounds, staying on their feet much longer than any actual human would remain alive. It’s an exhausting, exhilarating experience of a movie, a festival of death that could leave you feeling more alive. Tjahjanto has said that he wants The Night Comes for Us to be the first movie in a trilogy. Can you imagine how gnarly it’s going to get by the time he finishes it?
1. Mission: Impossible — Fallout
Tom Cruise is one of the most celebrated actors in the history of cinema—a beautifully chiseled icon whose unchanging features immediately evoke decades of classic movie memories. He is also 56 years old. So how did it come to this? How did Tom Cruise become the movies’ leading daredevil?
That title used to belong to Jackie Chan. When Cruise was lip-syncing Bob Seger and humping his parents’ couch, Chan was fighting on hot coals and falling from clock towers. These days, Chan mostly seems content to make Chinese-blockbuster kids’ slapstick comedies, and he was making that transition long before he hit Cruise’s current age. Cruise, meanwhile, has seemingly given up all hope of ever winning that Oscar. Instead, he continues to put his own life on the line for our entertainment.
In Fallout, the sixth and maybe-best Mission: Impossible movie, Cruise dangles from cliffs, hurls himself off of rooftops, and plummets from an airplane that’s five miles up. He drives a motorcycle the wrong way through Paris traffic. He repeatedly fights the famously mustached Henry Cavill, a man who looks like he pulls up sequoia stumps with his teeth. To make this movie, Tom Cruise learned how to fly a helicopter only so that he could come so close to crashing that helicopter. Cruise—not Ethan Hunt, but actual real-life Tom Cruise—should’ve died at least 15 times while making this movie. Instead, he’s probably already got people dreaming up even more ridiculous shit that he can do next time.
Fallout is mass-culture moviemaking of the highest order, a brisk and funny and occasionally soulful globetrotting adventure that hammers our moviegoing pleasure-centers over and over again. And those stunts add a whole other level to those thrills. We are watching one of the biggest stars in cinematic history risk his own neck, again and again, for us. That’s entertainment!
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum, and he writes the action-movie column “A History of Violence” for The A.V. Club. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.