2014: The Year In Action

For F*** Magazine

Top 10 action movies of 2014
By Jedd Jong
Action movies kind of get a bad rap in high-brow film criticism circles and there’s a perception that film critics will turn up their noses at any movie in which stuff blows up, dismissing an action film outright as “brainless”. Sure, as with every year, 2014 has had its mediocre franchise movies (Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t make the cut for this list). But we’ve also had a good number of high-quality action blockbusters too. At F***, we believe there’s definitely such a thing as a “good” action movie, and not just films that are so dumb they’re enjoyable – though there’s a place for that too. On this list, there are a few films that have scored a 90% approval rating or higher over on review aggregating site Rotten Tomatoes, so let it not be said that movie critics as a whole are unable to appreciate the explodier things in life. Let’s get rollin’!

During the holiday season of 2013, the Keanu Reeves-starring 47 Roninopened to a largely negative response. It was a historical fantasy mishmash that never quite gelled and Reeves looked out of his element in it. In this year’s John Wick, Reeves gets his mojo back in a big way. 47 Ronin was the inauspicious feature directorial debut of Carl Rinsch. John Wick is the first feature film directed by stunt performers/choreographers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch but it’s a slick, well-constructed affair complete with a colourful mini-mythology built in. There’s a “hitman hotel” called The Continental which is neutral ground and there’s a hitman bar where they all hang out when they’re off the clock! Keanu may not have a ton of range as an actor, but was there anyone who thought the dude from Bill & Ted could pull off playing a highly-trained, cold, lethal assassin? There’s also a pretty badass supporting cast, with Michael Nyqvist as the head of the Russian mob, Willem Dafoe as Wick’s fellow hitman and old friend and Ian McShane as the owner of The Continental. Practically no shaky-cam is a plus as well.

The King of All Monsters turned the big 6-0 this year and got a grand birthday bash in the form of his second proper Hollywood movie. Die-hard Godzillafans have made no secret of their distaste for the 1998 Roland Emmerich-directed film, so there was a lot riding on this reboot. We at F*** love stories of “promoted fanboys” and Gareth Edwards, a monster movie fan as a kid and the director of the indie creature feature Monsters, landing the job of directing Godzilla ’14 is a great example of that. Sure, it isn’t exactly the best use of Bryan Cranston or Ken Watanabe (not to mention Oscar-calibre actresses Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins) but this one does get a good deal right. It manages to be respectful of the source material, taking the premise as seriously as possible while serving up lots of large-scale spectacle. Godzilla actually fighting other kaiju(the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, or MUTOs)? An Akula-class submarine regurgitated by a MUTO and stranded in the trees? An airport monorail action sequence? That glorious atomic-breath-down-the-MUTO’s-throat bit? Deserving of a celebratory roar in our book.

This year, fans of the Rurouni Kenshin manga series were treated to the second and third instalments in the movie adaptation trilogy back-to-back, with Tokyo Infernoreleased in August and The Legend Endsin October. Live-action adaptations of manga and anime haven’t exactly had a sterling track record so the quality of the interpretation with this movie series did delight many fans of the source material. Our writer said “Kyoto Inferno is literally the best of both worlds: the stylised action and rousing storyline of a manga, and the star power and production values of a blockbuster movie.” The historically accurate period details and intricate, tightly-choreographed sword-fighting sequences created with minimal CGI assistance also added to the film’s appeal. Most adaptations of manga and anime are notorious for struggling to present their dense, complex plots to neophytes unfamiliar with the source material, but director Keishi Ohtomo was able to strike an adequate balance. If you’re not into the plot, there’s plenty of action to keep you entertained but if you’re a fan, it certainly caters to you too.

While fans have generally been happy with how things are progressing at Marvel Studios, it’s a different story with the Marvel properties that still reside at other studios, like with Fox’s X-Men series. There’ve been highs (X2: X-Men United, X-Men: First Class) and lows (X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) so it is understandable that many were sceptical about X-Men: Days of Future Past. This era-spanning odyssey, taking place simultaneously in a post-apocalyptic future and in 1973, brings together much of the cast from the X-Men trilogy and their younger brethren from First Class. Adapted from the monumental 1981 comic book story arc of the same name, this is a “retroactive continuity” or “retcon” story, in effect wiping the slate clean so we can all move on from some of the spottier entries in the mutant filmography. However, this was a retcon done right, where it wasn’t too convenient or effortless to change everything. We also got Evan Peters as a gleefully scene-stealing Quicksilver, quelling fears of a poor portrayal based on the questionable character design.

Here’s a movie completely different from your run-of-the-mill action flick. This adaptation of Jacques Lob’s French graphic novel Le Transperceneige owes much of its unique feel to Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Kelly Masterson. A dystopian sci-fi fable, Snowpiercer is set aboard the eponymous train, perpetually circling an otherwise-uninhabited earth, stuck in a catastrophic ice age. Boasting a unique design sensibility, a talented cast, incisive, sometimes disturbing social commentary and intense, brutal action scenes, Snowpiercer was the “I’ve seen this really cool movie and you should too” flick of choice this summer. U.S. distributors The Weinstein Company insisted on cutting about 20 minutes of footage and adding voiceovers, but Bong refused to compromise. Bong was eventually successful in getting the original, uncut film released and even when the film was restricted to a limited release, the positive response was enough to win it a wider release. If there’s still anyone who thinks Chris Evans is nothing but a pretty boy, this is the movie to point them to.

It’s a shame Edge of Tomorrow wasn’t a box office champ, because we sure were entertained. Adapted from the Japanese light novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the film meshes a Groundhog Day-style time loop with futuristic mech suits, an alien invasion and a D-Day-esque beachhead battle. It also gives us Tom Cruise putting aside some of his ego to amusing effect as a military PR guy with no combat experience plonked into the middle of battle, having to seek out a seasoned warrior played by Emily Blunt to guide him through his predicament and teach him the ropes. The action in this is truly exciting stuff, sufficiently different from the battles with alien invaders taking place in big cities we’ve seen in blockbusters past. It’s also always great to have a badass female character show the guy just how it’s done and while “Emily Blunt” isn’t the name that immediately comes to mind, she sure looked awesome in this movie be it slicing at Mimics with a giant sword forged from a helicopter blade or rising from a downward facing dog yoga position. Top all that off with a hilarious turn from Bill Paxton as a blowhard drill sergeant-type and you’ve got a howling good time.

Action movie junkies went positively nuts over The Raid: Redemption, a badass film in which two SWAT officers face off against an apartment block full of deadly thugs. As such, there were high expectations associated with the sequel, expectations which The Raid 2: Berandal certainly met. It upped the ante when it came to the hyper-violent action spectacle when such a thing seemed impossible given all that happened in the first Raid. Iko Uwais returns as Rama, his opponents this time around including the trio of hired killers comprising “The Assassin”, “Hammer Girl” and her brother “Baseball Bat Man”. The film concludes with a virtuoso kitchen fight which took 10 days to film and comprises 196 shots. In order to shoot the car chase sequence, one of the cameramen was actually disguised as a car seat, passing the camera from the Director of Photography on one side of the car to a camera assistant on the other side to create a seamless shot through the car. Fans of this film are understandably weary of the upcoming Hollywood remake of The Raid, but apparently selling the rights for the remake was how director Gareth Evans was able to fund the sequel.

Marvel Studios has just announced their exciting Phase 3 line-up, but let’s take a moment to look back on just how amazing both entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2014 were. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is adapted from the story arc written by Ed Brubaker (who gets a cameo) in which a figure from Steve Rogers’ past returns in a new form to haunt him. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo set out to create a film which harkens back to the political conspiracy thrillers of the 70s, even managing to rope in Robert Redford. They definitely succeeded, creating a film which had just enough real-world resonance without compromising on the big-budget spectacle. It’s even more impressive considering this is the Russo Brothers’ first big studio action film, going from paintball battles in TV’s Community to super-soldiers duking it out as giant helicarriers fall out of the sky. The events in this film also upend the status-quo for the MCU at large and gave so-so TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the kick it needed. We also get introduced to Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, who is the current Captain America in the comics. The special features on the Blu-ray also teach us Mackie’s catchphrase, “Cut the check!” which we cannot stop saying.

It’s kind of funny to think of it as such seeing as it’s a $170 million movie from a major studio, but Guardians of the Galaxy has an appealing underdog quality to it. It’s based on more obscure source material than its counterparts in the MCU, its most famous names voice CGI creations, it’s weird and woolly and some feared inaccessible but as it turns out, everyone loves this. Young or old, male or female, tree or raccoon, audiences fell in love with this “bunch of a-holes” in a big way, and at the time of writing, this is the highest-grossing movie of 2014. Director James Gunn crafted a spectacularly entertaining film populated with loveable oddball characters and packed with cosmic adventure, comedy and a heady dose of nostalgia in the form of Star-Lord’s precious mix-tape. Also inspiring was the physical transformation actor Chris Pratt, known for being the schlubby dude from Parks and Recreation, who inspired swoons with his chiselled bod and Han Solo-style roguish charm. There’s also just how genuinely moving this turned out to be; we doubt there’s another film that had you misty-eyed over the bond between a gun-toting raccoon and his tree friend.
“Apes with guns” – sounds silly, doesn’t it? Well, director Matt Reeves and crew managed to take that and turn it into one of the most intelligent, riveting mainstream films of the year. 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apessurprised many moviegoers by being a relevant, superbly-made reboot of the flagging Apes franchise, bringing it back from the misfire that was Tim Burton’s 2001 remake. The sequel skips ahead a decade, with Caesar leading a shrewdness of apes as the human population dwindles. Caesar forms a fragile alliance with the human Malcolm (Jason Clarke), but second-in-command Koba is none too happy about it. The clash of ideologies is presented compellingly, aided in no small measure by the impressive, hyper-realistic visual effects work by WETA Digital. Fox is pushing for Andy Serkis to be considered for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and if this awards bid is successful, history will be made. There’s no doubting the legitimacy of the performances Serkis, Toby Kebbell and the other performance capture actors turn in. And on top of all that, we get Gary Oldman as the leader of the human survivors! “Apes together strong!”

STGCC 2014: Interview with David Mack

For The Shortbox

By Jedd Jong 9/9/14

David Mack was in Singapore for the Singapore Toy Games and Comics Convention and The Shortbox was able to sit down and chat with the artist/writer. This year, he celebrates the 20th anniversary of his creation Kabuki and will be doing the covers for the Fight Club sequel comic book series, written by Chuck Palahniuk with interior art by Cameron Stewart. Mack also discusses the stylish end credits sequence of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for which he did the art. 

What was your impression of Fight Club after first seeing the movie or reading the novel?

I saw it in 1999 on a Friday night, I went home and immediately did big drawings of it. I was so fascinated with that movie and there were actually a couple of lines in the film that were very similar to the lines I wrote in Kabuki. I remember turning to my girlfriend at the time going “I love how this guy writes, he writes like how I try to write.” I was so connected to the movie that the next day, Saturday, I went and saw it again, like two days in a row. Every time I saw it, I saw new things about it, I just really appreciated it, the metaphor of the movie. I saw it in the theatre twice and I’ve seen it a lot on DVD, I’ll just put it on while I’m working.

I was so connected to the movie, I was like “who is this guy?” I found out it was based on a book and I found all the other books that he’d done at that time, Invisible Monsters, and I was travelling through Europe, reading all his books on the train. I was really fascinated by the story so I wrote Chuck Palahniuk in the mail and told him I connected to his stuff and that I do some work too and he wrote back and told me to send him certain things that I did. At the time, 2006, there was a documentary film about my work called Alchemy of Artand I sent that to him also and he wrote back and he really liked it and he had this idea some day of getting together different creators from different mediums and doing some kind of, in his words, “tour bus” to sort of show people that they have their own responsibility to create their own culture.

I published that letter he wrote to me in the back of the Kabuki book. He sent his phone number in the letter and said “next time you’re in Portland, come meet up with me” and so every time I was in Portland, I would meet up with Chuck. I was usually staying at Brian Bendis’ house in Portland. Brian and I would stay up all night, go to sleep at like 7 in the morning, so Brian would wake up at noon and I would go “oh, I’m going to have lunch with Chuck Palahniuk, I’m coming back” and I would come back but he never would meet Chuck. He thought that maybe I was making it up, that Chuck was my Tyler Durden. But then I would have these lunches with Chuck that were so inspiring. He would come back and say “I’ve been writing all day long, in a trance, fugue state writing so much” and we’d talk about our ideas and the creative process.
Even early on, Chuck had a real curiousity about comic books and graphic novels and storytelling, he asked me lots of questions. Early on, the Daredevil: End of Days story had just come out in the last couple of years, 2006, 2007, Brian and I were writing it together. We had such great conversations and I invited him back to Brian’s house. He asked “what are you doing” and I said “I’m writing down our entire conversation”. I had this idea to do like an illustrated version of our conversation, it would be very fun to make it more abstract, move it around, the entire conversation was about ideas, how to make ideas real, he was asking questions about something I was working on and vice versa. And so, I just had this connection with him, every time we were in Portland we would meet up. Scott Allie, the editor-in-chief at Dark Horse, he told me that they were announcing a Fight Club sequel and he said “tell him to contact me, consider us as publisher.” I think Chuck probably chose to go with Dark Horse because they’re around Portland, where he is.

For the Winter Soldier end credits that you did, how much access did you have to information or material of the film and what was the process of coming up with that like?

It’s an interesting story, the origin of the Winter Soldier project because I did a design festival last year in Barcelona called OFFF Fest, mostly it’s digital designers and artists so I was really the only guy there that doesn’t use digital but I still gave a presentation and spoke there. I met a lot of other interesting photographers and designers there, we would see the sights and visit Barcelona together. One was this woman named Erin Sarofsky who has her own design studio and then last November, I think right around Thanksgiving, she sent me a text and said she had worked with the directors of Captain America[Joe and Anthony Russo] on something else before and now they were doing this film. They said that they already had a whole bunch of Marvel-approved design studios who were submitting pitches but she knew these directors so they were offering her a pitch too. She said “we’re going to send in five or six pitches, if you want to submit a pitch of your own, we’ll show it also and then we can collaborate on it.”

And so, that Thanksgiving I was leaving on a trip to Fiji and this would be like a 12 hour flight. She needed the pitch for it immediately, so on the 12 hour flight to Fiji I did all kinds of drawings of ideas for it. I talked to her on the phone and she had just seen the film with the directors so she gave me a sense of what kind of film it was. Based on that, we both mentioned Saul Bass, this iconic artist and designer who’s done stuff for Scorsese, Hitchcock, Kubrick; an incredible designer that we’re both inspired by and also I suggested to her that I was very inspired and influenced by Jim Steranko for the art of it and he had done Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain Americaso it would be a great homage to his comic book work as well.

And so we discussed like the look, we were both thinking black and white, stark qualities to the artwork and then on that plane trip, I stayed up the whole time drawing, it was a very enjoyable plane trip and then on the beach, I was inking it all, I would take a photo of it and email her the photos. I had half a coconut shell with my ink in it and there were all these mongooses running around. I had a backpack with my food and the mongooses would come up to my backpack with my art supplies and I would feed them breadcrumbs on the beach, you know, drawing Captain America. I took the photo, emailed it to her and she pieced it together, the sequence, she did all the typography and how it would all fit together, finessed it. She called back in a couple of days and I was on this island without much connection to anybody but she updated me and said we got the job, of all the different pitches they had, they chose the one that I sent. So that was great. And then there are some of those drawings in the original pitch that made it through to the final images in the film.

She works at a design studio in Chicago so they flew me out to Chicago in December and I worked at their studios in Chicago. There was a lot of security, like the Marvel guys came to the studio and said “in order for us to give you this job, we have all kinds of different security measures”. All kinds of security on our hard drive, a secure room with locks…they spent a lot of expenses to make their facility approved under the standards of Marvel. And then Marvel would send me all of the details, like all of the behind-the-scenes footage of Captain America, photographs that they had taken of all the equipment and all the actors. But it was all like super double-encrypted emails, it was a big hassle but it was so secure the way they worked. I had done certain things without having that reference so I had to redraw a lot of it so it was the exact hardware and tech from the film. So I just did that in Chicago, I was doing all the drawing and she was pinning them up onto the wall and like putting it in different orders and doing all the type. She had a whole team of animators all in the same room on the computers so they scanned in my drawings as soon as I finished it, they vectorised it and made it all three-dimensional and were moving it around.

Did you get to meet any of the actors from the film?

I met Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie, yeah. I was in Chicago two weeks ago at the Wizard World show and they were there and I was talking about how I did the drawings for them. Also, the Falcon, Sam Wilson, in Daredevil: End of Days, he’s the president in the Marvel universe so I mentioned that to them.

Shocker Toys did an action figure of Kabuki and they are kind of controversial; several 
independent comics creators have spoken out about working with them. What was your experience with Geoff Beckett and Shocker toys like?

Um, I don’t know that much about any of that controversy stuff, I had done like a series of action figures with Moore Creations, Clayburn Moore sculpted some amazing action figures, some Kabuki masks, he’s offering brand new masks and yeah, the Shocker people did a Kabuki action figure, it had more joints and stuff, but I felt like I didn’t really feel like we were working that close together. When I worked with Clay Moore, he would send me like every stage of the process and we discussed it, I would send him drawings from it, I approved every stage of it with Clay and the other people. I’m still working with Clay on some new stuff too, he’s working on new Kabuki statues and masks now.

Did David Fincher have anything to say about the new Fight Club comic?

Not a word. I don’t think he said anything. Hopefully, it will be such a great, awesome book that he kind of can’t resist doing a sequel based on our sequel. It’s pretty exciting though, when I was reading the script, all the dialogue written in the script I felt was so accurate and so dead-on to the characters that we’re familiar with, that were in the original book and the film. After you hear them talking in the film, you can’t help but hear the film voices reading everything.