2014: The Year In Action

For F*** Magazine

Text:
2014: THE YEAR IN ACTION
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’!
JOHN WICK

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.
GODZILLA

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.
RUROUNI KENSHIN: TOKYO INERNO

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.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

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.
SNOWPIERCER

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.
EDGE OF TOMORROW

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.
THE RAID 2: BERANDAL

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.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER


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.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY


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.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
“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!”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

For F*** Magazine

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Director : Matt Reeves
Cast : Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary
Genre : Sci-Fi, Action
Opens : 10 July 2014
Rating : TBA 
Running time: 132 mins
Three years on from the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this reviewer is still impressed with how effective, intelligent, innovative and just plain good that reboot was. In this sequel, set ten years after the events of Rise, earth’s human population has dwindled at an alarming rate in the wake of a devastating “Simian flu” pandemic. Caesar the chimpanzee (Serkis) leads a flourishing shrewdness of apes, including his son Blue Eyes (Thurston) and his aggressive advisor Koba (Kebbell). The human remnant sequestered in what remains of San Francisco is headed by military man Dreyfus (Oldman). Malcolm (Clarke), one of the survivors in Dreyfus’ camp, forges a fragile alliance with Caesar in order to gain access to a hydroelectric dam to generate power for the human settlement. Caesar grows to accept Malcolm, his wife Ellie (Russell) and their son Alexander (Smit-McPhee). However, having been severely mistreated by humans while in captivity, Koba strongly disapproves of this arrangement and incites an explosive conflict between the apes and the humans.

            Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sees Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame taking over the director’s chair from Rupert Wyatt, working from a screenplay by Rise scribes Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, with Mark Bomback. This is everything a good sequel should be, furthering the plot in a logical and intriguing direction without slavishly re-treading the story beats of its predecessor and without trying to be superficially “bigger and better” in terms of bombastic spectacle. Equal storytelling attention is given to the apes and the humans and the audience is fully able to buy into this world and accept each player in this story, be they human or computer-generated ape, as legitimate, well-formed characters. There’s a whole lot of meaningful character development going on and admirably enough, much of the conflict is derived from the characters’ individual nature instead of contrived circumstances. Despite the ten year time skip, there is still very strong connective tissue linking Dawnto Rise, building on the emotions generated from Caesar’s early years as depicted in the previous film.  

            Of course, credit has to be given to visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri of Weta Digital. The many artists and technicians involved give vivid life to the performance capture work of actors like Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, applying their expressions and physicality to intricately-crafted CGI apes. The interaction between the apes amongst themselves, the apes and the environment and the apes and the live-action human actors is seamless. As impressive as the animation in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, it is stepped up here, to the point that the film’s opening shot is a tight close-up of Caesar’s eyes – those eyes lifelike and actually acting. Serkis, Kebbell, Thurston and the other actors portraying the key apes all deserve praise for essaying these figures with such nuanced physicality, but the visual effects wizards carrying that baton to the finish line should be duly recognised as well. In Dawn, great acting and great effects go hand-in-paw to create not just creatures, but honest-to-goodness characters.

            The human cast is our way in, and Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee are all convincing as the members of the family central to the story. The terseness between Malcolm and Caesar that eventually gives way to mutual respect and understanding but is always threatened by both apes and humans is played exceedingly well by both Clarke and Serkis. Gary Oldman’s role is not as big as the promotional material would have you believe, but he brings a heart-wrenching humanity to Dreyfus in addition to his signature explosive scenery-chewing (delivered in just the right amounts).

            1968’s Planet of the Apes was a landmark achievement for being an entertaining film that also pushed the boundaries of filmmaking technique (particularly in terms of special effects makeup) and was very thought-provoking. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is commendably similar in all those regards. There’s always been a silliness inherent in the premise, but following Rise, Dawn continues to effectively mitigate that. The film is unflinchingly brutal, even disturbing when it has to be but also articulates genuine emotion. It can be construed as anti-gun, interesting considering that the star of the original Planet of the Apes, the late Charlton Heston, was the president of the National Rifle Association. However, that is not where the focus lies – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, like Risebefore it, is a true character piece. Many summer blockbusters are touted as “character pieces” and that fools no one, but here is a film that intelligently and compellingly comments on prejudice and war while delivering the action flick goods and visual effects spectacle. A fine antidote to Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Summary: A new day is dawning, as the revitalised Planet of the Apes franchise marches onwards in just the right direction.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong