Only more recently, in my view, have filmmakers coupled clever and intelligent story lines with action scenes whose cinematic engagement packs the same visceral punch as the physical conflicts they depict. So, I have become an aficionado of action movies fairly late in the game. And by “action movie,” I mean those stories of derring-do, those somewhat pulpy parables where men and women of great physical skill draw upon their best resources to defeat an impending evil. I do not pretend to be a connoisseur — after all, I'm sure that I have seen relatively few Asian or occidental action movies compared to those who seek them out and live on a steady diet of rifles and roundhouse kicks. But of those that I have seen, these are my favorites...
Directed by Akira Kurosawa (Japan, 1954)
Really more than a mere “action movie,” this tale of seven masterless rônin — who defy the class distinctions of feudal Japan to rescue a peasant village — brims over with keen human insight. The story sensitively explores how the adventure disrupts the lives of both the warriors and the villagers, all of whom are drawn as fully dimensional characters. But the film’s fervid action scenes hold the sprawling story together. Epic in the best sense of the word.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa (Japan, 1961)
Another major work by that Shakespeare of the chambara (and of virtually every other kind of film he directed), Akira Kurosawa. A wandering rônin comes to a small town ruled by two feuding crime families, and he sets them against each other. The story is cunningly clever and complex, matched by the swift precision of the swordfight scenes. As the “bodyguard” of the title, Toshirô Mifune has never been more charismatic. Later remade as the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and the gangster picture Last Man Standing (1996).
Directed by George Miller (Australia/USA, 1981)
Running at a lean 91 minutes, this parable of post-apocalyptic road rage is a no-nonsense story of easily identifiable good guys and bad guys. In a world after nuclear holocaust, an outsider tries to save a village preyed on by marauders. The plot isn’t especially complex, and the characters are little more than action-movie archetypes. But the tautness of the story and the adrenaline-pumping impact of the car-chase scenes thrive on their own. The movie that made an international star of Mel Gibson.
Directed by Tsui Hark (Hong Kong, 1986)
I may be a little prejudiced because this was the first of the “New Wave” Hong Kong action films that I saw, but I still think it’s the best of the bunch. The story is a bit comic-bookish — a ragtag team of republican revolutionaries in post-imperial China struggles against corrupt warlords and an evil gang boss — but it also touches on some surprisingly complex subjects: political commitment, family loyalty, female empowerment, and even transvestism. Director Tsui skillfully balances electrifying action with genuinely hilarious humor, all of which leads to a rousing climax. Pulpy, playful, and unpretentiously profound all at the same time.
Directed by Ang Lee (Taiwan/ China/USA, 2000)
Okay, so everybody already knows about this critically lauded and surprisingly popular “martial-arthouse” movie. But it has also garnered more than its fair share of hostile comments. Many have argued that it’s not particularly original and that its action scenes pale in comparison to the Hong Kong wuxia movies of the 1960s and ’70s. But Crouching Tiger can boast much better developed characters, a carefully cultivated story, and effective performances by the cast. In addition to having visceral, vibrantly staged fight scenes, this film has soul.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven (USA, 1987)
The notorious Dutch director’s Hollywood debut not only possesses some gut-wrenching action, a strong story line, and weighty themes of identity and individuality, but the movie is also a very witty political satire. A policeman is brutally killed in the line of duty but resurrected as a crime-fighting android. The man-machine is supposed to have no personality, but the policeman’s memory comes back and discovers high crimes committed by the company that revived him. In addition to its heart-pounding shoot-’em-up scenes, the movie is an incisive meditation on the loss of humanity in a corporate culture. To quote one of the film's bad guys after he has just demolished a building with a munitions-grade firearm, “I like it!”
Directed by Ching Siu-Tung (Hong Kong, 1989)
An underappreciated gem from Hong Kong, this swordplay adventure tells a genuinely touching story of a guardsman to China's first emperor who awakens in the 20th century and believes that he’s found his lost love. The mythic narrative and Ching’s deft handling of the martial mayhem would automatically make this movie worth watching, but the film’s real standout is its off-kilter casting. Not only is the dual-role female lead played by dramatic diva Gong Li, but the action hero is played by her then-significant other and art-film director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers). Just imagine Ingmar Bergman playing John Wayne, and you’ll get an idea of how bizarre the casting is. Still, Zhang makes an effective leading man, and the stars’ off-screen auras never interfere with the gripping story.
Directed by Stanley Tong (Hong Kong, 1993)
Michelle Yeoh reprises her comeback role as Inspector Yang, the by-the-book Chinese policewoman she created in Tong’s Police Story III: Supercop, opposite Jackie Chan. In this superb spin-off, Inspector Yang is summoned to Hong Kong to catch a gang of master thieves, only to learn that the gang is headed by her fiancé (Iron Monkey’s Yu Rong-Guang). Yang’s struggle between her feelings and her duties gives the air-tight story a surprising and effective emotional depth. And the action scenes pack an equally powerful punch. The dubbed and edited version available on video in the U.S. under the title Supercop 2 does no great damage to the original and actually better helps to convey the characters’ emotions to an English-speaking audience.
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak (USA, 2000)
Wherefore art thou Romeo? Valid complaints that Jet Li’s “Romeo” ends the movie as more of a platonic pal to his Juliet — and the dehumanizing stereotype of an Asian parent having his own child murdered — have unfortunately overshadowed this film’s strengths. The plot is plausible, intriguing, and easy to follow. The action scenes wallop the eye. And the characters display more emotional depth than the typical pulp-action archetypes. Jet Li’s first Hollywood starring vehicle remains a hard act to follow.
Directed by Ching Siu-Tung and Raymond Lee (Hong Kong, 1993)
No movie list is complete without something from the category of weird and whacked out. In this spin-off to 1992’s supernatural swashbuckler Swordsman II, the very feminine Brigitte Lin of Peking Opera Blues goes tranny again by reprising her role as Asia the Invincible, a man who gained magical powers by having himself castrated. Gender is bent past the breaking point as Lin’s ruthless and destructive sorcerer moves easily between male and female identities. The uncertainty of Asia’s sexual identity suggests a similar uncertainty of Hong Kong’s national identity on the eve of its hand-over to China. And this gives the explosive mayhem at the movie’s end an insurgent edge: the cataclysmic climax implies both national anxiety in the face of totalitarian takeover and a fiery display of defiance. Deliciously delirious — and a bit ludicrous in places — but with an urgent undertone of political rebellion.
Directed by Feng Xiaogang (China/Hong Kong, 2006)
A retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet transposed to tenth-century China, but with a twist — the usurping emperor’s queen (Crouching Tiger’s Zhang Ziyi) is also the prince’s beloved. In other words, imagine Hamlet if Claudius took over the Danish throne and married Ophelia instead of Gertrude. The complexity of the plot and characters matches the sumptuousness of the art direction. The fictional figures of the story are as intricate as those in any drama (which the film aspires to be, hence its less action-oriented alternate title), but the heightened conventions of the kung-fu film — gravity-defying combatants, superhuman swordplay — suffuse the narrative as well. A resplendent combination of high drama and populist entertainment uncommon in occidental cinema.