It’s the time of year in which the classic debate rages amongst film buffs: what is Die Hard: an action film or a Christmas film, or both? Well I for one am sick of hearing it. Yet it has got me thinking about action movies. In an era populated by Tony Starks and Spider-Men, it can be wrongfully thought of as a genre mastered by Hollywood. In fact arguably its a genre that in the U.S. has been in decline for a while.
After not much contemplation whatsoever, I realized most of my favorite action flicks come from abroad. Sit back and enjoy our top 10 list of the best non-Hollywood action movies.
Hard Boiled (1992) — Hong Kong
I Saw the Devil (2010) — South Korea
Elite Squad (2007) — Brazil
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) — Italy
The Raid 2 (2014) — Indonesia
Hero – (2002) — China
Mad Max 2 (1981) — Australia
Ghajini (2008) — India
#10: Banileue 13 (2004) — France
With a thread bear narrative and little depth to its occasional attempts at political commentary, Banileue 13 is all about the action. It operates fundamentally as a showcase for the French sport Parkour, in much the same way Ong Bak (see further down) did for Muay Thai. It even follows the Tony Jaa formula, starring renowned parkourist and founder of the sport David Belle in a lead role. The film’s plot is devilishly constructed to highlight a dazzling mix of fight scenes and street running. In a distant future France, Leito has 24 hours save Paris from nuclear destruction while attempting to rescue his sister, who’s been kidnaped by a gang inside the city. Dumb but endlessly fun, Banileue 13 is an action-thriller undeniably impressive for its often-breath-taking stunt work.
#9: The Killer (1989) — Hong Kong
Blood soaked and bombastic, The Killer is as influential as it is awesome. John Woo’s breakout film (in the west at least) packs the film with uber amounts of violence and 1001 bullets. It’s plot is hardly groundbreaking, following a Triad hitman with plans to retire. However, after blinding a nightclub singer during a shootout, he decides to pull of one final job to pay for her expensive surgery. A double cross or so later, he is being pursued by a horde of bad guys and the action really starts. If you’re a fan of gun shootouts, this one is for you. Woo’s trademark slow motion permeates the fight scenes, with a body count higher than the Hong Kong skyline. With enough style to counteract the craziness of its set pieces, The Killer stands out as one of Hong Kong cinema’s greatest ever action offerings.
#8: The Way of the Dragon (1972) — Hong Kong
While Enter the Dragon (1973), a Hong Kong-U.S. co-production, easily became Bruce Lee’s biggest film, the previous year’s The Way of the Dragon was no small success. It earned around $5 million in North America and is considered one of the most important early martial art movies to circulate internationally. Lee stars as Tang Lang, a quiet man sent by his family to Rome from Hong King, in order to help the restaurant of relatives that are being harassed by a local mob. Filled with a litany of bizarre characters and stranger humor, Lee dispatches enemies with graceful ease you can’t help but be mesmerized by. Best of all is a final climatic fight against Karate champion Chuck Norris staged where else but the Colosseum itself in what many consider to be one of the best martial art combats in film history.
#7: Run Lola Run (1998) — Germany
A young woman has 20 minutes and needs to come up with 100,000 Deutsche Marks or her boyfriend loses his life. German picture Run Lola Run’s narrative is based on a simple premise, yet succeeds effortlessly in delivering one of the greatest action films of the 2000s. Written and directed by Tom Twyker, we are presented with three different outcomes of the film’s premise, each unfolding at a frantic pace, alongside an unstoppable techno soundtrack. Pop punk and brimming with an existential atmosphere, Run Lola Run is utterly engrossing from start to finish. Throughout main character Lola, played flawlessly by Franka Potente, pounds Berlin’s pavements in desperation to save her lover, all the while a victim to the volatility of the universe. A fascinating rumination on free will and chance, Run Lola Run is as fun as it is clever.
#6: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2003) — China
Chinese action-epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon become an unlikely smash at the US box office. An all-out martial-arts feast for the senses, Crouching Tiger blends complexity, beauty and incredible action all at once. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) is an aging swords master. When he decides to retire, his famous sword “Green Destiny” is stolen, beginning a riveting quest to get it back from the evil that killed his former master. Yun-fat and Michelle Yoh provide immensely graceful performances in the lead roles as brilliant complex characters. Equally the visuals leave a stunned imprint on the viewer. Yet it’s the action that is the real prize. Director Ang Lee’s use of wire work and breathless choreography demonstrates that great action can also mean great art.
#5: Oldboy (2003) – South Korea
Now a cult classic, Oldboy won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film festival. Directed and co-written by Park Chan-wook, the film itself is based on a Japanese manga. It serves as yet another action film that combines several generic elements. Shades of tragedy, thriller and noir all intertwined to deliver a truly soul-crushingly dark film. A man is imprisoned for 15 years in a room not too different from one in a rundown hotel. He is groomed during fits of unconsciousness, fed by food tray with access to the outside world only by a television which is how he learns his fate as a wrongfully wanted man. One day he is freed. Yet this is no ordinary revenge thriller. Oldboy examines the extremities of human emotion and anguish in ways few American films ever dare to. A sadistic masterpiece, the action is unapologetically violent, yet entirely necessary.
#4: Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003) — Thailand
When people think of the martial arts movie, they think of Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. They think of kung fu and karate. Essentially, they think of Southeast Asia. Ong Bak bucked that trend in a big way. Now an international martial arts phenomenon, star Tony Jaa plays a country bumpkin trained in Muay Thai who travels to Bangkok to retrieve the head of a sacred statue stolen by thieves. Riding on a wave of good publicity regarding its stunt and fight scenes, it became a worldwide hit. Tony Jaa’s showcasing of Muay Thai provided refreshing for action fans unfamiliar with Thailand’s national sport. Despite its simple plot, Ong Bak is landmark for its incredible lack of wire work alone. However the precedent it set for culturally diverse martial arts in globally contexts is its most important legacy.
#3: Leon: The Professional (1994) — France
Despite its New York setting, Leon is European art house brilliance. An English language, French action thriller directed by Luc Besson, it blends style with action effortlessly. The film hinges on the odd-couple relationship of the titular mob man and a 12-year-old girl Mathilda. When Mathilda’s whole family is killed during a drug raid, Leon takes her in rather reluctantly. The artistry of the film’s violence keeps it from being a cheap play on a tired formula. This blend of flawless style is complimented by a string of inspired performances. Reno, Portman and a lusciously villainous Garry Oldman all aid Leon with the reputation it has cultivated as one of the most beloved action films of all time. It is unpretentious, while exploitative, visceral yet tasteful and, above all, captivating.
#2: Battle Royale (2000) — Japan
Without a doubt Battle Royale wins the title for the most influential action film of all time. Directed Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku, Battle Royale is based on a novel of the same name. Yet the movie has inspired countless remakes and repackagings in pop culture, including the The Hunger Games book and film franchises, numerous comics and mangas and more recently video games including a little game called Fortnite or something — it has an enormous legacy.
In a near future Japan, a class of Japanese high school students are taken to a remote island. It soon becomes clear this is no field trip. They are forced systematically to fight it out to the death until there is one single victor. Based on real societal fears regarding generational attitudes during the 1990s, the narrative shocked U.S. distributors to the point it wasn’t released in any theatrical capacity in the US until 2011. The youth-oriented violence, though undoubtedly shocking, places the audiences in a fascinating position: what would you do?
#1: The Raid (2011) — Indonesia
Few films are ever exactly what their title sells them to be. The Raid is. An out-of-nowhere Indonesian powerhouse of global action cinema, The Raid is the latest in East Asia’s global action coming-of-age. Like Ong Bak in 2003, The Raid was met with acclaim by western critics due to its aversion to Hollywood. It showcases real martial artists in lead roles. The feature martial art Pencak Silat is depicted as lethal yet with a degree of realism attached to it.
A special ops force is sent into a Jakarta tower block controlled by a drug kingpin. When the top boss promises rewards to residents who kill any cops, all-out carnage ensures. And it’s beautiful. Main character Rama (Iko Uwais) uses Silat as his only survival method in a blood bath of mayhem. The violence in this film is prolific yet Welsh director Gareth Evans crafts it with an artful eye. Bearing in mind that this is just part 1 of a bloody Jakarta crime saga, somehow the sequel is both bigger and somehow more violent. The original film however is impossible to beat. Its claustrophobic setting of a rundown flats stained with blood will make it an iconic piece of action cinema for years to come.
Thank you for reading! What are your best non-Hollywood action films? Comment down below!
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