My Top Three Action Movies

My buddy Brandon dropped me a line this afternoon, asking for a list of my three favorite action films of all time (along with extensive reasoning for each selection) for a paper he’s writing on… movie criticism or something. He wasn’t specific. It’s very possible the whole thing is a hoax.

I figured if I were to make such a list, I might as well copy it over to a blog post and finagle some use out of it. Especially since it’s a question I’d never covered before on this site. Or even, come to think of it, ever asked myself.

Three's a small number, so I debated the topic for a couple hours before landing on a trio of films I felt good about. Just missing the cut: The Matrix, Star Trek, and Casino Royale all received serious consideration, but I finally decided fell just outside the “Top 3” threshold. I also considered adding Empires Strikes Back or The Fellowship of the Ring, but it didn’t feel right to label either just an “action movie.” The Hurt Locker was considered and rejected for similar reasons, and also because I admire the film much more than I consider it a favorite of mine.

All right, in no particular order.

Gladiator (2000)
Gladiator was the first R-rated movie I snuck into a theater to see. My buddy James and I planned the trip for weeks, huddling together in study halls, whispering excitedly, imagining the spectacle. We met at ten in the morning on the first day of summer vacation, bought tickets to Dinosaur, and with a few cautious glances about, slipped quietly through the door.

Considering my alarmingly lofty expectations for the film, it’s all the more impressive how easily Gladiator cleared them. But the film succeeds on every level – as an action film, a period drama, as a treatise on honor and bravery. 

It’s the film that first introduced me to Ridley Scott. Fans of Ridley’s work are supposed to anoint Alien or Blade Runner his greatest work (a few film snobs will point to The Duelists, but even they know they’re lying), but I think it’s Gladiator. That film is the reason I applied for an internship at Scott’s company the first week I arrived in Los Angeles.

It won five Academy Awards, including the big one, Best Picture, but I put forth that its most impressive win was Russell Crowe for Best Actor. Crowe barely raises his voice above a humble mutter the whole film, but his performance is still so memorable that most people can quote chunks of it verbatim off the tops of their heads (“…father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengence, in this life or the next.”). Tom Hanks spent a year losing 50 pounds and brought a volleyball to life in Castaway and still couldn’t take the Oscar away from him.

There’s so much I love about the movie – Hans Zimmer’s brassy, thundering score, Joaquim Phoenix's sniveling turn as the usurping Emperor, John Mathieson’s epic, bronze-hued visuals. But the thing that elevates it onto this list is that while most action films consider themselves lucky to have a plot that’s even interesting enough to keep you in your theater seat until the next fight sequence, there’s no piece of Gladiator that isn’t wholly compelling.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Some movies age at an incredible rate. Special effects, film stock, stylistic choices – these things change so quickly that films from ten years ago already seem outdated. Heck, The Phantom Menace looked like a TV movie before its sequel was even released.

Raiders of the Lost Ark hasn’t aged a day.

On one hand, it’s easy to credit Harrison Ford for this. The sardonic, knowing way he played Indy, making him the idol of teenage boys the world over. Or Spielberg, for creating a giant action movie entirely on real sets. Even as visual effects improve, nothing compares with real life.

But I think what's lasting about it is just that Raiders is imbued with a sense of adventure rarely found in cinema. Movies don't swash and buckle like they should, when they do, people stand up and take notice. Look at Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Robin Hood (the one with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone). The movie came out eighty years ago, and it's yet to land a single bad review on Rotten Tomatoes.

Adventure - and real adventurers - stand out. It’s one thing to have a hero who daringly runs amidst explosions and gunfire. It’s yet another to have him hunt for golden treasure and ancient mystery in the shadows of old gods with a wry smile on his face.

The Dark Knight
It’s actually a little shocking it took this long to get a Batman film like this on the screen. Filmmakers love to explore the darkness of human souls, and Batman is a character who treasures darkness. Superman can come out in the sunlight because people adore and admire him, but Batman has to keep to the night. In the harsh light of day, the line between hero and vigilante gets much sharper.

For decades, Batman shows and movies embraced campiness because everyone assumed no one wanted to stare too deeply into the blackness of a man who lived his life for only revenge. We like our heroes a little tarnished, but not that tarnished. What Christopher Nolan gave us was something that seems even now unpalatable to modern audiences: a study of the grey line that separates a do-gooder from a madman.

Heath Ledger received so many accolades for the film in part because it’s the role that killed him, but mostly because he made the Joker a character that’s broad, over the top, and totally recognizable. There’s a scene where he kills a man with only a pencil, and yet that’s not part of the film that most makes me shudder. Inside a maelstrom of wicked insanity, there’s a kernel of our own selves, a dim, cracked mirror.

In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne choose the bat because it’s a symbol, fear in the darkness. In The Dark Knight, he has to choose a darker symbol still: sin. He takes the wrongs of another on his back so that the cause can remain unblemished, so that the city he loves will believe in goodness even if they see only evil in him.

Unsettling symbols like that aren’t found often in movies at all, never mind populist action fare. How is it possible that a movie this dark made a billion dollars at the box office? Maybe moviegoers want truth more than Hollywood suspects. But probably only when it shows up riding a cool motorcycle.