If you go back through my “Best Action Films of the Year” lists for the last few years, you will see that I do have a slight bias towards Asian cinema in the genre. While many people have voiced their disagreements with me on including too many films from those countries, I truly believe that their industry has a better understanding of the art form of an action film. This year, however, those people that let me know I cater too much to that style are going to pissed. Simply put, the Asian countries dominated the genre this year. Europe and Hollywood most certainly dropped the ball when it comes to the better action films of the year – particularly when it comes to being the best of the best. So take that into considering when going into this list.
Outside of that note, 2016 had some great action films although none of them quite stood out against the pack like Mad Max: Fury Road or John Wick did in the last couple of years. There are plenty of mainstream goodies to be had here, but as always I love to throw in a few ‘black sheep’ entries that will surely get me some hate mail and snide comments from all over the interwebz. As that goes, here is my disclaimer that this list is purely based on my opinion of the best action films that came out this year and we are open to hear about what you guys think we missed or gave too high of a ranking for. This is 2016, I hold no delusions that the internet will voice its opinion over a list like this one. So feel free to shed some blood in the comments section, send us an email, post on our Facebook wall, or Tweet us.
*Note: some releases may have come out in years previous, but this list is crafted based on films that received their official North American debut in 2016 via theatrical screening, VOD, or home video. Thanks.*
30. Captain America: Civil War
The third Captain America film and umpteenth Marvel Cinematic Universe flick had the issue of running up against some very serious hype and being based on one of the greatest story arcs in comic book history. While the film itself is flawed in its writing, featuring another half dashed throw away villain like Marvel seems to enjoy crafting, it is pretty damn entertaining and runs on just being a charming film overall. It can’t touch the heights reached by the political thriller tones of the last Cap film, but it attempts to do so in an admirable manner. It also earns some bonus points for fantastic introductions for both Spider-Man and Black Panther. Not an easy task considering this film is not about either of them.
29. The Purge: Election Year
Most end of the year lists are jamming this one into the horror film category and while the third Purge film certainly uses horror elements to its benefit – particularly in the third act – the use of rebel fighters, sieges, and badass Grillo kick it further into the action category for me. So here it is and while the film isn’t quite as awesome as the last one, it’s still light years ahead of the first one in quality and features a ton of memorable sequences worthy of mention. Plus, in a year like 2016, this film feels hopeful when it comes to its political commentary and satire.
28. Sword Master
The more I watch Sword Master the more I love it. It’s definitely a move that isn’t perfect, but it’s throwback intent to recreating the Shaw Brothers tone is something that hits me right in the feels and the combination of Tsui Hark’s production values with Derek Yee’s direction is worth noting for any fans of Hong Kong cinema. It’s well grounded into the wuxia genre with its high-flying action and over the top characters (and designs) so take it with a grain of salt going in and it should definitely be one that Shaw fans will appreciate on some level if only for its spin on being a remake of the classic wuxia Death Duel.
Eliminators was a wild card film going into the year. The director showed some talent with Green Street Hooligans 3 (ugh, three of those?) and it does star Scott Adkins (always a win in my book) so I was hoping the combination would be pretty awesome. It is. It’s not a complex movie, focusing down on its stripped thriller plotting, but it’s loaded with old school style and it lays the groundwork for an interesting lead character. It seems to be riding on the wake of John Wick’s success in its style heavy, bare script approach, but when it works it does work. Eliminators makes it work pretty well.
26. Hard Target 2
A double dose of Scott Adkins is just what this list needed and after the surprise quality of Eliminators, let’s talk about the surprise quality of Hard Target 2. It’s a sequel that no one really asked for, but the combination of Adkins and director Reine makes it one of those straight to home video releases that action fans are going to love. The use of its Thailand setting is smart and it gives its heroes and villains plenty of cheesy material to play with just like a film called Hard Target 2 needs. The throwbacks to John Woo’s style from the original are also a nice touch and it kicks it onto the list for the end of the year.
This was a film that, even as I started watching it, I would have never guessed would have made this list by the end of the year. Marauders has a strong cast, although Willis is not much more than a namesake anymore in these kinds of films, but for an action thriller this hits a remarkable amount of gritty and effective beats to raise it above the normal crop of crap that drops during the year. At times it does feel a bit like a TV series concept that was made as a movie instead, but its clever writing and great characters make it one that eases by on the talents of its team instead of its worn concept. More of a thriller than straight up action, it is one of those gems that is going to be more than overlooked in the coming years.
24. The Accountant
Ben Affleck is an autistic accountant who moonlights as an international book keeper and vigilante justice provider. Yet, with a concept like that, The Accountant still made it into a wide theatrical release. Still, considering the low expectations I had for it, it carries a remarkable amount of charm with it, powering itself on the chemistry of its cast and some shockingly funny moments. It’s also quite the action film when it wants to go there and I guess Affleck wanted to show people he can kick ass without a Batsuit and shitty film to go with it. I’ll run with that. Here’s to hoping this gets franchised because there are so many fun things you can do with the foundations that this film lays out. I hope it goes there.
23. Blood Father
Crazy Mel Gibson is the best Mel Gibson. While he is earning a bit of praise for his latest directorial effort garnering some awards season praise, Blood Father will remain on my list for best action films. It’s gritty and dark with just enough social commentary to give it a depth that these kinds of action thrillers normally don’t receive. Gibson remains one of the main reasons to see the film and his dark humor and off kilter performance energizes its 70s style plotting. Definitely worth seeing.
Tom Jane and Laurence Fishburne are both men with nothing to lose and their stand off against one another in a small rural farm house over a little girl who has seen a murder might be one of the cleverer ideas that has come out of the straight to home video market in recent years. This film is less about the action and more about the tension, but when it’s driven by some great direction and two screen cult giants doing their thing…it remains one of the best gems of the year.
21. Operation Mekong
Many of the early trailers for Operation Mekong made the film look something like a military action thriller, powered by a dramatic ‘based on true events’ plot, and packed with big name stars throwing their best performances to earn awards. In many ways, yes, this is the film you are going to see with Operation Mekong. It’s certainly all of those things to an extent. However, that’s not all it is either. There was a certain expectation that went with the tone of the trailers that seemed to mix Platoon with a more modern day Lone Survivor spin and Operation Mekong is a bit more than that…and a bit less. Dante Lam’s latest action extravaganza is more John Woo and less Oliver Stone in its approach to the story, blending in high octane block buster action sequences with military dramatic touches. So it is less, in the idea of an impactful and emotional punch categories, but it is certainly more in the insane cheesy action categories. Operation Mekong ultimately comes off as a slightly mixed effort in its writing and characters, but it makes up for a lot of its larger flaws by being skull shatteringly action packed and tense. When it’s boiled down, this is really the film I should have expected and I still enjoyed the hell out of it, even if it doesn’t quite match the dramatic heights that Dante Lam has reached in previous films.
20. Call of Heroes
Initially, I didn't love Call of Heroes. It's a film that leaps from over the top outrageous antics to dark and often shockingly violent moments that I wasn't sure that worked. So I sat with it for a day or so and reflected about it. The more I thought about it though, the more it seemed to be the intent of the film. Yes, it's occasionally cheesy with some of its melodrama and almost cartoonish like characters, but as the film moves it starts to break those down. It goes as far as to fight against its own style at times to break those patterns and give abrasive texture to the normally bright colors and bigger than life moments of the film. The more I think about it, the more it works. The more I think about, the more those leaps between its tone and shifts are purposefully abrupt and disruptive. Call of Heroes is both a film that celebrates its heritage as a wuxia and a western and challenges it with modern style and spectacle.
19. Reign of Assassins
Over half of a decade. HALF A DECADE. That's how long it took Reign of Assassins to finally get a US release, despite the fact that it's co-directed by John Woo and stars Michelle Yeoh. Luckily, the wait is worth it because Reign of Assassins is one of those modern wuxia films that really works and it works in a lot of ways. It's effective in its character builds, gimmicky in its style, and impactful in its themes. It's one of those martial arts films that hits the viewer on a multitude of levels and despite some weird and occasionally predictable twists later on, it rarely misses a moment to run with what it is given. Sure, I waited for this film a long time, but the wait was worth it.
18. Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno
The first sequel to the live action version of Rurouni Kenshin (and the first of a two part story), Kyoto Inferno takes what the first film established and runs a theme more epic and more over the top. This is both a blessing and a curse, as viewers get to explore the universe that Kenshin exists in with more back story and deeper layers, but it's also a lot to consume at times. This film adds a lot of new characters, still as spunky and energetic as the ones in the first, and it really builds a kind of visual feast. It's epic. The action isn't nearly as memorable although, until the final act that is, and it takes a lot of time establishing the chess pieces for a much more robust concept to play out in the third film. It's still a massively impressive film, although I do like it a tad less than the original one.
17. Judge Archer
Xu Haofeng may have made a name for himself internationally by writing the acclaimed The Grandmaster for Wong Kar Wai, but his career as a writer is only one part of it. His career as a director, in my opinion, is even better than his ability to write dramatic martial arts films and his second film, Judge Archer, is further proof of this. While Judge Archer may not be the kind of film that appeals to martial arts fans who only like cheesy, over the top stuff, it is a martial arts film that bridges the gap between the classic kung fu foundations and an artful representation of them. It's dramatic and artfully vague, but it still rests its style and focus on classic martial arts ideas and it's masterfully crafted in its visuals and performances. It's not quite as efficient as Xu Haofeng's latest film The Final Master, but it certainly is a brilliant gem of the genre.
16. Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends
While the film lacks the feeling of a full structure (it is the second half of one long film, essentially) and adds even more characters into the mix of an already very packed narrative, Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends is still bombastic and effective. The story arc for our titular hero is strong and it wraps up some fun secondary plots in some unique ways - even going so far as to add in the classic martial arts "go-back-to-your-roots-and-retrain-for-the-final-battle" sequence in there. The final 25 minutes are an action fan's wet dream of expertly choreographed fight sequences, blistering execution of those, and dynamic shifts to the tone and atmosphere. It may not be perfect as a standalone film, but the final act alone might be one of the greatest action set pieces put to celluloid...ever. Truly an epic way to finish out an epic two-part film.
15. Saving Mr. Wu
Ding Sheng does it again with his latest thriller, Saving Mr. Wu. While based on real events, this film uses the director's grounded style and intense emotional bits to really drive home a unique and pounding thriller. It's a fairly straight forward film, but it's saved by an artistic and often complex narrative that wraps smaller character details into a leaping time structure that builds tension and the sense of urgency to sell the entire thing. The film is hinged on a series of very impressive performances (including the never-aging Andy Lau) and some charismatic dialogue that keeps things feeling human within its high speed style. Color me impressed once again with what Ding Sheng has to offer here. I was excited for his take on the A Better Tomorrow franchise that is in production, but now I'm positively stoked.
14. Hardcore Henry
Watching Hardcore Henry felt like it took 15 minutes. This is because the movie is outrageously entertaining and frantically paced. The gimmick of a "first person shooter film" can wear thin on occasion, but the script it’s built on is so loose and fun that it's remarkably easy to run with as our hero Henry goes through a variety of horrifically violent and continually more unbelievably "levels" to get to his destination. In a lot of ways the film is built like a video game, all the way down to flash backs and exposition that resemble cut scenes and even problem solving to defeat a telekinetic boss (who is also viciously awesome). If you're not willing to buy into the gimmick, this movie will not interest you in any way. For clever conceptional action and its shockingly efficient way of telling its bare bones story though, I have to give it a huge recommendation as one of the most entertaining films of the year.
13. The Nice Guys
12. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Star Wars has always been a series I enjoy, but not necessarily love. Even Rogue One, the first anthology film for the expanding universe, is flawed in a few ways, but director Gareth Edwards and his merry bands of film makers simply nail the tone and pacing of this film. The characters are all fun and effective for their limited screen time and the final act is simply stunning in its scope and execution. This is a film that really does ride the line between Star Wars family friendly blockbuster and one that pushes the boundaries just a little bit further into darker and grittier territory. Not to mention, it’s the first of many Donnie Yen films to make this list.
11.The Lost Bladesman
Johnnie To remains one of my favorite directors and one that always takes his thriller, gang, and action films into slightly new and effectively executed arenas. Three is another round of that concept where To crafts a film that's tensely minimalist for the first two acts and then shockingly overzealous in the final twenty minutes. It takes a lot of chances, some that work and some that don't, so there is mad respect for that. This is one of those action films that more thriller and even then it’s more atmospheric thriller than pure action film, but when To is at the helm and it has such a smartly written script then the film comes highly recommended.
Owing its fair share of influence from the likes of 80s HK action comedies from Golden Harvest, Veteran is a full gear fun film that showcases some great talent. The stunts and action are fabulous, the lead character is delightfully rough around the edges, and the villain is shockingly evil. The film misses a few opportunities to lift itself above being a good action comedy in themes and threaded ideas, but it's hard to say that it was a huge deterrent to the entertainment I had with the film. It’s also a film that has grown with me more and more as the year has gone on and continually shifted upwards on this list to land in the top 10. It’s quirky and very charming.
08. Kung Fu Panda 3
While Kung Fu Panda 3 does not top my list for best animated films for the year, that award goes to Kubo and the Two Strings, it does still make the list for top ten action films of the year for a variety of reasons. Like the previous two entries, this third one is an awesome balance between the simplicity of kid’s filmmaking and some heavier concepts and it pushes it even further by going well into some non-western concepts like chi and the afterlife. It does it by littering the film with some great characters, funny situations, and plenty of action, but it’s still something of a chancy intent. To add gravy to this dinner though, the animation is simply stunning and makes it all blend together impressively well.
One of the biggest surprises of the year was Deadpool, a film that took years to make and only days to dominate the international box office. Truthfully, it might be how surprisingly fun and solid it was as a film that rocketed this superhero film into the top ten on this list. By all means, Deadpool can be an irritating character and his die hard fanbase can be just as bad. Yet this film has a surprising amount of heart to go with its fast and randomized humor and it uses its limited budget and characters in a wise manner. The balance between comedy and action is striking and the casting is spot on for all of the characters. It’s not nearly the best comic book superhero adaption ever made, but in a year where most of them were either underwhelming (X-Men, Doctor Strange) or outright terrible (Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad) Deadpool came out like a breath of fresh air.
06. Star Trek Beyond
Considering some of the luke warm love that this film received when it came out, the fact that it made it all the way to #6 on this list is going to be decently controversial and I’m sure I’ll hear all about it. However, when it comes to theatrical films that I saw this year Star Trek Beyond must be one of the movies I had the most fun at. This is, inherently, because it is the anti-Star Trek Into Darkness film. Instead of massive amounts of forced plot and haphazardly thrown together references to the original series, Beyond flows in a very natural way embracing the adventure and fun of the original series while still maintaining the modern aspects of this latest franchise. Justin Lin adds his own spin to things in the second half mostly, but the director knows entertaining and he fully embraces it here. It’s not a life changing entry into the series, but I can easily see it being one that I revisit the most for how enjoyable it is.
05. Cold War II
The first Cold War film was one that I enjoyed quite a bit as a political and police thriller, but Cold War II ups the ante on damn near every level. This one might be a stretch to call an action film as it really does focus down on suspense, tension, and thrills with a couple of action set pieces thrown in for good measure, but I was on the edge of my seat the entire film and it’s relentless pacing and high octane performances made it feel like an action film. The addition of Chow Yun Fat to the roster only made things more awesome this time around and for that it easily makes my top five of the year.
04. Ip Man 3
Donnie Yen owned 2016. Not only is he on this list multiple times already, but his return to the Ip Man franchise is a key reason to his international success and this third entry is a worthy addition. While the Mike Tyson plot does seem to be a tad unnecessary in the grand aspect of the film, Ip Man 3 balances it out with some phenomenal casting choices including Max Zhang and Beardy to the roster whom make the most of their time in the film. Again, this series is easily one of the best martial arts series of all time so far and with the announcement of a fourth one coming, it’s not a hard decision to add Ip Man 3 to your list to watch. If only for the stunning finale.
03. Rurouni Kenshin: Origins
That’s right, all three Rurouni Kensin movies made the list this year. Despite the epic tone of the final two, the first one remains the best. The action is swift and relentless, the heart and humor work to make the characters stick, and it’s period piece plotting ably gives the film a great twist of blending traditional samurai cinema moments with modern appeal. The casting is spot on and the emotional resonance is effective. It’s not often that adaptions for anime make our lists, let alone this high, but Rurouni Kenshin deserves to be recognized – even if the US release came four years too late to really be able to jump on the bandwagon.
02. Killzone 2 (SPL 2)
The original Killzone (SPL) was released to acclaim, but over the years has taken an ambitious life of its own as a modern action classic that blended classic Hong Kong cops n’ robbers motifs with a modern sensibility. It’s sequel may not feature any of the same characters, but it ably recaptures that same tone and concept. It features some jaw breaking action set pieces and uses its A-list casting to maximum benefit. Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, and Max Zhang? Not to mention Simon Yam and Louis Koo? This is a modern Hong Kong cinema fans dream cast and it uses them to near perfection. This film also features TWO of the best fight sequences in 2016 with a prison riot and a 2 on 1 brawl between Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, and Max Zhang. It might have tightened up its symbolic moments a bit, but when it’s this entertaining and contains this much heart that’s a minor annoyance.
01. The Final Master
There are a lot of left field choices on my list this year, controversial or not, but perhaps the biggest one takes the #1 spot for the year. I say its controversial because it was a film that only received a very limited theatrical run in the US earlier this year and then seemingly disappeared. No home video release has been announced. It’s a shame really. The Final Master (also known as The Master) is everything that I wanted The Grandmaster to be as an artistic martial arts film. It’s dense, uses space in brilliant ways, and features some phenomenal performances from actors and in the action set pieces. It’s perhaps more arthouse than most action fans would care to see in their action movies, but it blends the two so perfectly that I couldn’t help but be completely at the film’s beck and call.