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Thrillers & Action & Adventure
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy revitalized superhero films, and though Batman Begins is certainly the worst of the three, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. The gritty action film tells Batman’s origin story and initial beginnings like other films before it, however, it delves into the character’s motives and psyche with an unparalleled sense of depth. It’s more centered on a solitary Christian Bale and his tragic relationships with those around him, and less so on the high-tech gadgets and gizmos that have come to define past installments in the franchise. The redefined focus works wonders for the film, however, and helps set the stage for all that follows. Superheros are rarely as human.
Whether your refer to it as The Way of the Dragon or its U.S. title, Bruce Lee’s iconic film is mainstay in the realm of kung-fu flicks. The action-comedy traces Tang Lung’s path from Hong Kong to Rome as the martial arts master works to make quick work of a gang of knife-wielding mobsters at the beckoning of a feeble restaurateur. The plot certainly isn’t the best, but the articulate fight sequences are stupendous and the film remains the only one in which Lee dons double nunchuks. And who would have guessed Chuck Norris would be that hairy without his shirt?
Steve McQueen died before his time, but that didn’t stop him from starring in one of the greatest World War II capers to ever be captured on film. Based on Paul Brickhill’s experience and that of his peers while held captive in a German POW camp, the WWII epic revolves around their audacious plan to escape the prison via a network of crude tunnels jetting beneath the complex into the nearby woods. McQueen’s performance, which is an amalgam of at least two pilots, remains the standout, but there’s no denying the authentic German locale and nimble script didn’t help the film achieve universal acclaim. Hell, even the troubled 1986 video game of the same name received fantastic reviews…
Jake Gyllenhaal has done exemplary work in the past — take Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain, for instance— but nothing quite compares to his eerie performance as TV stringer Louis “Lou” Bloom in Nightcrawler. The modern thriller, a resounding success of first-time director Dan Gilroy, follows an amateur journalist and former thief as he trolls the mean streets of Los Angeles looking for heinous accidents and crimes to capture on film. Gilroy’s script and vision is both dark and thought-provoking, however, it’s Gyllenhaal’s twisted charisma and his sordid actions as he navigates the lucrative business that truly bring the film to the forefront of recent, neo-noir films.
Paul Newman and Robert Redford lead a gang of outlaws in this Wild West classic. It has everything you could want from an action movie: gun fights, knife fights, fist fights, and of course, mustaches. The film is loosely based on actual events, following the two seasoned train robbers after a heist goes wrong and they flee to Bolivia in order to avoid the posse pursuing them. It’s widely regarded as one of the first buddy films, leaving a legacy for many movies to follow in suit.
Kill Bill is, quite simply, Tarantino’s gritty two-part tale of revenge. After being shot and left for dead by her employer (David Carradine) and other members of her squad, a deadly assassin known merely as “The Bride” (Uma Thurman) sets out to kill her ex-colleagues. The film is undeniably violent, brimming with homages to old-school martial arts films, spaghetti westerns, and Japanese anime, yet done with a style and non-linear story that’s incredibly captivating and utterly unique.
Nicholas Cage is an actor some love to hate, but Lord of War remains proof he’s got more up his sleeve than most would suspect. It’s the story of a two-bit, Ukrainian immigrant that goes from small-time to the big leagues when he becomes the world’s leading arms dealer. Ethan Hawke, Jared Leto, and Bridget Moynahan round out the cast in the form of Interpol agents and family, though, it’s Cage who manages to give the bleak film its character. If it reads like a political satire concerned with international gun trafficking, that’s because it is — one that doubles as an intelligent examination of the cost of war. Protagonist Yuri Orlov is even loosely based on factual criminals such as Sarkis Soghanalian, subsequently furthering the film’s air of realism.
Rambo: First Blood is not a film to be trifled with — even if it doesn’t really have much of a plot. The iconic film remains one of the most influential action flicks of all time, revolving around battered Vietnam vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) and his standoff with aggressive sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy). The bulk of the film features a melange of cops hellbent on stalking Stallone through the rugged forests of the Pacific Northwest, yet the action is still so over-the-top and classic you can almost simply overlook its lack of character complexity. And what other film on our roundup lists a rat wrangler and the craftsman responsible for Rambo’s exotic knife in the closing credits? That alone should be more than enough.
Once Upon a Time in the West is the direct result of the late Sergio Leone trying to retire from the same genre that made him an international icon in the mid-’60s. It’s a spaghetti western at heart, one pertaining to unyielding gunslinger named Frank (Henry Fonda) and the western expansion of the railroad, but it also represents a notable shifts from Leone’s earlier work. Nonetheless, its profound influence on filmmakers like Tarantino and Scorsese cannot be overstated, nor can its subtle irony or the ample references to previous western films and literature.
Silence of the Lambs was the sleeper hit of 1991. It stars the insatiable Anthony Hopkins as the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lector, along with Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee who ventures into a maximum-security asylum to pick his brain in an effort to catch a rampant serial killer on the loose. The film bridges a gap between psychological thrillers and the full-blown horror genre, owing mostly to Hopkins and Foster’s sterling performances. Calling it, or the novel on which it is based, anything short of creepy would be an understatement.
Adapted from William Goldman’s novel of the same name, Marathon Man is more than just an escapist film starring Dustin Hoffman as the likable “Babe” Levy. It’s a tour-de-force thriller that whirls around a student who gets catapulted into a deadly game with a Nazi fugitive, one who also happens to have disturbing affinity for torture. The great Laurence Olivier portrays Dr. Christian Szell with a twisted zeal, and despite the films heavy censorship, there’s still plenty of graphic moments worthy of a cringe (i.e. the unforgettable torture scene with Levy’s teeth).
Spike Lee should have never remade the South Korean Oldboy, especially with Josh Brolin as the lead role. The 2003 iteration of the neo-noir film is still a standout, based on a manga and anchored in bloody, operatic anguish. In the film, Choi Min-sik plays a business man who’s drugged, imprisoned, and tortured for 15 years before seeking revenge on his captors. It’s a statement, violent and maddening, with unforgettable scenes and thought-provoking climax. There’s a reason Quentin Tarantino praised the film at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.
The sequel to Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and the first featuring Harrison Ford as C.I.A. operative Jack Ryan, the film follows the virtuous agent as he navigates a international terror network in the aftermath of a spoiled assassination attempt on a member of the British royal family. Clancy disowned the film upon its release and many have criticized it for straying to far from the book, but the riveting tension and Ford’s solid performance still make it worth mentioning in the same breadth of Star Wars — which is actually saying quite a bit.
Enemy at the Gates has it’s faults, but the film is exemplary if you focus on its historical significance and overlook the whole romance aspect of it all. The title is taken from William Craig’s nonfiction book of the same name, and though the film is more considered a work of fiction, it still loosely examines a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse between Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsey (Jude Law) and renowned Nazi sharpshooter Erwin König (Ed Harris). Both actors give commendable performances, as does the young Gabriel Thomson, but the film’s allure simply lies in the game of wits and wills played out amid the blasted ruins of Stalingrad — everything else is just there to tie the scenes together.
The second film in the original Jason Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Supremacy yet again finds Damon’s Bourne utilizing his special set of assassin skills to get out of a series of sticky situations. This time around, someone frames Bourne for a botched CIA operation and inadvertently kills his wife, sending the amnesic former operative on the hunt for even more answers. Joan Allen, Brian Cox, and Julia Stiles join Damon in this action packed sequel which owns the rare distinction of being as good, if not better, than its original film. You won’t find as much intense action anywhere else and for what it’s worth, Damon is at the top of his game.