Last weekend, Dwayne Johnson passion project Black Adam opened to poor reviews (from critics) and a rapturous embrace (by fans). Even as the superhero genre moves up the chain of cinematic respectability, it seems there remains a divide between movies that are seen as worthwhile and those that are viewed as empty calories. Described less charitably: Some movies want to say something important; others just want to say something loud, with lots of explosions. (Considering Black Adam is 80 per cent slow-motion fight scenes, you can guess which category it slots into.)
There is art to the dumb action movie. Many of the following 20 films split critics and moviegoers rather dramatically, whether because audiences saw things in them the reviewers missed, or because they were looking for a very different experience. They have been referred to as dumb fun, but anyone who has looked out the window (or checked Twitter) recently will recognise reality is far dumber. There’s nothing wrong with a diversion, or with finding joy (and maybe even hidden meaning) in an over-the-top action flick.
A lot of movies often described as “dumb” have brilliantly simple high concepts, and Crank stands peerless in that regard: After being injected with an improbably functioning poison, L.A. hitman Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) will die (!) if he doesn’t keep his adrenaline pumping. Wanting little more than to stay alive long enough to get revenge on the mob boss who betrayed and tried to murder him, Chelios spends the rest of the movie engaging in the most reckless behaviour he can think of: picking fights, driving wildly, electrocuting himself, very public sex — anything at all to keep his blood pumping.
Another all-time great high-concept, this Keanu Reeves vehicle is a bus (geddit?) that has been fitted by terrorists with a bomb that will detonate once the coach drops below 80 km per hour. Only a complete suspension of disbelief will allow anyone to imagine even Sandra Bullock could drive for two uninterrupted hours in downtown Los Angeles without slowing down, but that brazenness is part of the movie’s charm.
Hardcore Henry (2015)
Far more memorable for its core conceit than for any of its characters, Hardcore sees the titular Henry waking up on an operating table minus his memory and the ability to speak, and plus a plethora of cybernetic prostheses. Did I mention we’re seeing this all from Henry’s first-person perspective, like we’re watching a YouTube playthrough of a particularly oddball first-person shooter? Pretty soon, it’s off to the races as mercenaries break in and try to kill Henry/us. It’s hard to build a movie around a character with no personality (who we never even really see), but that also means there is nothing to distract us from one blaring action sequence after another.
Fast Five (2011)
Just about any of the Fast & Furious movies could find a slot here (it’s particularly tempting to include F9, if only for its trip to space), but it was director Justin Lin’s Fast Five found the lane the series has driven in ever since. Expanding just a tad on the street-racing action of the earlier films, Fast Five is an action-oriented heist thriller, one in which cars don’t just drive fast, they jump cliffs and drag bank vaults through busy city streets. By getting a little sillier and a lot more self-aware, the series guaranteed itself a future.
Passenger 57 (1992)
Brilliantly evil terrorist Charles Rane (Bruce Payne) has a perfect plan to escape custody: the flight transporting him from Miami to Los Angeles is packed with his former accomplices among the crew and passengers, so evading the FBI agents flying with him should be no trouble. Except the bad guys didn’t count on former policeman and anti-terrorism expert John Cutter to be on the flight, as well. Wesley Snipes and a wildly unhinged Bruce Payne make for entertaining adversaries in the movie that taught us to “always bet on black.”
Charlie’s Angels (2000)
Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu are clearly having a ton of fun in a movie that combines slapstick comedy, musical numbers, passable early ‘00s wire-fu, and Crispin Glover as a mute villain. It’s endlessly silly, but self-aware enough that it never feels downright stupid. Well, never unintentionally stupid, anyway.
A fast-paced action movie should almost certainly not be as long as RRR, but there is not one single dull moment in this nearly three-hour Bollywood film. Likewise, a historical drama that touches on the national trauma brought on by the British Raj and depicting two real-life revolutionaries who died as martyrs to the cause of independence shouldn’t be this fun, but somehow the context only makes it more satisfying. Find me a more thrilling moment in the movies than the bit where a truck full of wild animals is forcefully unleashed upon a sedate gathering at a British politician’s compound.
Man on Fire (2004)
Visceral violence can play as goofy fun, no matter how bloody, but Man on Fire veers toward the more serious end of that spectrum — without ever trying to be even a tiny bit more realistic. Seeking to rescue (and avenge) a young girl (a tiny Dakota Fanning) kidnapped while under his protection, Denzel Washington’s CIA agent-turned-bodyguard John Creasy pursues the ring of criminals with guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and, memorably, a bomb planted in a guy’s butt. It’s far from the dumbest or loudest action movie Tony Scott ever made, but it might be the gleefully violent best.
District 13 (2004)
The far-off future world of Paris (circa 2010) is looking bleak in this story of a poor suburb of the city that has been walled off, ostensibly for the protection of its inhabitants…but we all know how that sort of thing works out in the movies. It’s controlled by rival gangs, and politicians are planning to stage an “accident” that would level the place and everyone in it. The fun here is in the film’s extensive use of parkour — amazing, frenetic feats of athleticism accomplished without wires and without the benefit of CGI.
(You might also the movie listed as District B13, or just B13)
Police Story (1985)
There’s nothing “dumb”about the artistry involved in the early Hong Kong action movies of writer/director/star Jackie Chan, and action-comedy Police Story represents a career peak. His acrobatics and death-defying comedic stunts make him as much an heir to Buster Keaton and other silent-movie greats as to martial arts-movie masters like Bruce Lee.
This woefully under-appreciated tower climber sees Karl Urban’s stoic Judge Dredd fighting his way toward Lena Headey’s criminal kingpin, who sits atop a 200-story tower block in the middle of ultra-violent future metropolis Mega-City One, part of a United States devastated by nuclear war. With a dry satirical tone and a purity to its commitment to violence, it’s impressive, entertaining, and a hell of a lot better than the one with Sly Stallone.
Bad Boys (1995)
Michael Bay movies make money, and pretty consistently, but they can also be a bit too much: too loud, too dumb, with action sequences that overwhelm rather than entertain. Bad Boys is frequently guilty of all of that, but it has something that many other Bay movies lack: brilliant chemistry between leads Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. That chemistry is why we’re still watching Bad Boys movies (at least as of 2020), and while the most recent one might be the best of the trio, the it’s hard to top the mid-’90s charm of the original.
The Rock (1996)
Speaking of Michael Bay, this one involves the absurdly unlikely team-up of Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery as a chemical weapons expert and an Alcatraz escapee, respectively, brought together to stop ex-military terrorist Ed Harris, holed up on the island prison and threatening to attack San Francisco with chemical weapons in order to bring to light sanctioned injustices committed against members of the U.S. armed forces, or something. Despite an attempt at a message, the emphasis is places squarely on outsized action fun, with a lighter touch than many of Bay’s other films. The action was so convincing, apparently, that several scenes and characters were treated as real and presented to British intelligence as evidence of Iraq’s WMD program — it took the espionage experts at MI6 rather too long to realise chemical weapons aren’t typically transported in bright green glass balls.
(If this is where you get mad I included The Rock instead of Con Air, I understand.)
Robert Rodriguez knows exactly what he’s doing with Machete, a loud, violent, and tasteless exploitation movie that’s very much intended to be all those things. Reprising his role from (of all things) the Spy Kids franchise, the great Danny Trejo plays Machete Cortez, former Mexican Federal and current mercenary, as he carves a bloody path through Texas, getting revenge on the corrupt and racist police who ruined his life. It’s excessively gory, with plenty of gratuitous nudity, and a lot of fun if that sounds up your alley.
There are some who’d argue that John Woo’s sci-fi/action thriller is nearly operatic in its artistic reach, while others will say that it’s possibly the stupidest movie ever made. I say, why not both? An FBI Special Agent (played, initially, by John Travolta) and a child-killing criminal (Nicholas Cage, at first) swap faces for reasons that make sense as long as you don’t think about them for more than several seconds, and proceed to chase each other around for the rest of the film. It’s a premise that would be almost impossible to take seriously, even on its own terms, if it weren’t for the wildly zany action set-pieces (a prison where all the inmates wear magnetic boots? OK!) and deeply committed performances from the co-leads selling it all.
Road House (1989)
Between career peaks Dirty Dancing and Ghost, Patrick Swayze starred in this memorably sleazy story of a Zen bouncer (who repeats mantras like “Pain don’t hurt”) working at a roadside bar who gets into plenty of violent fights, mostly just because, but also because of something to do with corrupt businessmen controlling the nearby town. Swayze brings some of that A-list charisma to a trashy fistfight flick, elevating to something approaching pop art stupidity.
Highlander spins out a convoluted science-fantasy mythology that only obscures the fact that this is a movie about immortals (possibly aliens, we learn later) whose sole raison d’être is chopping each other’s heads off. Which is perfectly fine as a premise for a movie, if you ask me. Star Christopher Lambert is an under-appreciated legend of ‘80s action movies, and he’s joined by Sean Connery playing his Spanish mentor with an improbably thick Scottish accent, so I have basically no complaints.
Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003)
The best plots are often the simplest. Here, a young Muay Thai fighter (Tony Jaa) travels to Bangkok to retrieve part of a statue stolen from his village and beat up the thieves who took it. Think John Wick, but with a plaster Buddha head as motivation rather than a dog. It’s pretty much all fighting, all the time, but Jaa is so talented and charismatic that it works.
The movie that kicked off a decade of star-studded disaster films, and still (with the possible exception of The Poseidon Adventure) the best of the bunch, Airport improbably earned a bunch of Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. All that prestige only serves to obscure the fun, particularly for old-time celebrity spotters: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, and Helen Hayes are just a few of the performers who take part in the story of a bomber attempting to bring down a passenger airliner during a snowstorm that threatens to knock the only nearby airport out of commission.
John Wick 3 — Parabellum (2019)
This is the one where Keanu Reeves battles a league of assassins on horseback through the streets of Brooklyn, so yeah. Soon to be topped by the forthcoming John Wick: Chapter Four, probably.