2017 has already been one heck of a year for action movies with the likes of John Wick: Chapter Two and Atomic Blondedelighting theatrical audiences while others including Free Fire and Plan B (my favorite action film of the year so far) wowed festival goers. The rest of the year holds promise as well, with the upcoming release of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Jackie Chan’s The Foreigner, and Gerard Butler’s Geostorm…never mind. I can’t even finish that joke.
One of the year’s best, Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess, is hitting theaters in limited release this week, and if it opens near you I must insist you buy a ticket, have a seat, and prepare yourself for two hours of beautifully choreographed action, ridiculous plot turns, and even more fantastically entertaining action. It’s a memorable ride and adds to the argument that we’re in the heyday of action cinema with many of the best coming our way from Asian shores. Keep reading for a look at some of the best recent action films from Japan, Cambodia, China, and elsewhere that you probably haven’t seen.
Hard Revenge Milly (2009, Japan)
When a family is targeted by violent thugs, the intruders forget rule number one and foolishly leave someone alive. Milly is wife to a murdered husband, mother to a slaughtered infant, and filled with a rage that can only be calmed by revenge. Bloody, bloody revenge.
This Japanese feature is actually two films – Hard Revenge Milly and Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle – and combined they only run roughly two hours, but it’s a fluid shift from first to second and feels every bit like a singular experience. The first half focuses on Milly’s immediate quest for revenge while the second part sees the narrative expand to include a trio of visitors seeking their own revenge, some of which is aimed her direction. Painful drama and surprising story turns rear their head, but action remains the focus throughout.
That action is elevated by Miki Mizuno’s fierce and fearless lead performance that sees her execute brutal and eye-catching fight choreography with skill and style. We get fights with fists, knives, and more, and while its slickly impressive, it’s also wonderfully messy thanks to the practical bloodletting magic of Yoshihiro Nishimura. Geysers of blood spurt and arc through the air, with every wound adding an over-the-top feel to the the film’s more serious moments. It’s affecting, funny, and utterly thrilling.
Confession of Murder (2012, South Korea)
A detective chasing down a serial killer finds only a slashed face instead as the murderer escapes into the night. The statute of limitations on the crimes expires fifteen years later, and the cop is surprised to see the killer step forward into the limelight with news of a book deal. Things only get stranger from there.
This one admittedly reached some eyeballs here in the States, but I wanted to include it as it’s director Jung Byung-gil’s precursor to The Villainess and arguably even more of a blast. It jumps right to the chase, literally, by opening with a extended foot chase through alleys and restaurant windows and across walls and rooftops. The camera glides beneath cars, leaps out windows, and stays with the two runners throughout the five minute scene, and it manages more thrills and suspense than many Hollywood action films do in their entirety.
The fancy footwork shifts into some ridiculously entertaining (and just plain ridiculous) car chase action, and the film goes on to find time for laughs, real suspense, and even some commentary on the cult of celebrity. It’s a tale of hard-edged cop vs twisted serial killer, and while it doesn’t reach the level of I Saw the Devil or Memories of Murder – it’s having far too much fun for that – it manages to carve a niche of its own as it melds intense drama, exhilarating action, and honest heart into one hell of a ride.
Hwayi: A Monster Boy (2013, South Korea)
Five criminals kidnap an infant boy and raise him as their own. It’s a tough life as the men lack the basic emotional skills, but they each teach him their more illicit crafts over the years until as a teenager he discovers a truth about his birth parents that splits his adopted family apart.
Director Jang Joon-hwan’s long awaited follow-up to 2003’s Save the Green Planet is every bit as dark and twisted, but ups the ante on the thrills in glorious ways. It’s as close to genre perfection as you’re likely to find with its heady mix of suspense, heart, drama, comedy, and blistering action. Those action scenes – shootouts, fights, and a wonderfully crafted car chase – are both frequent and excellent enough to qualify the film as a pure action thriller, but while it’s wholly satisfying in that limited frame, the film succeeds as something far richer. In addition to fleshed out characters and sharply scripted events, the film gives thought to the psychology of violence on both the perpetrator and the victim in ways that are unusual for a genre picture.
At over two hours, the film features an abundance of crowd-pleasing moments that punctuate a series of dramatically compelling characters and rewarding sequences. It’s crazy good and pure entertainment… violent, sweet, cruel, joyous and remarkable entertainment that delights darkly with nearly every frame.
Deadman Inferno (2015, Japan)
A member of the yakuza exits prison determined to make good with the one friend he has and he’s immediately challenged by an unnatural disaster on a nearby island. The friend’s daughter was visiting when a deadly virus broke loose, and now the island’s inhabitants have turned into flesh-eating zombies. Time to put those brutal yakuza skills to good use.
This Japanese entry is billed as a zombie/comedy – a zom-com if you will – and while that’s accurate, it undersells the film’s fantastic action chops. The energy level is high throughout with some big laughs, a dynamic score, and sharply-crafted action sequences. Our heroes know martial arts, obviously, and they unleash their flailing limbs on the undead in fights, chase scenes, and intimate acts of violence. There’s even a knife fight on the back of a moving truck.
For all the genre beats it gets right, the film still finds time to develop engaging and interesting characters who we come to care about which in turn makes for even more suspenseful sequences. It’s exciting, affecting and incredibly funny – including the best zombie walk/run gag I’ve seen – and immensely satisfying from beginning to end.
Jailbreak (2017, Cambodia)
A quartet of police officers are tasked with delivering a hostile witness to his temporary home in a jail cell, but trouble erupts before they get back out again. A full-scale riot breaks loose, and their day gets that much worse when they discover their man just may be the target.
Cambodia has never really been part of the “action cinema” discussion, but that changes now. The film’s premise is even simpler than The Raid‘s, but like that gem, it delivers its one-note tale with brutal action, endlessly impressive fights and more than a few laughs. Think the prison riot scenes in SPL 2 and Fate of the Furious, but simultaneously pared down and stretched to feature length — there’s no wire-work or CG assists here – just 90 minutes filled with breathless, sweaty, expertly-executed fight scenes.
This is the epitome of a simple action plot, but it’s executed with terrifically exciting action chops and some surprising charm. Sure some of the performances are rough – these are amateur actors but professional butt-kickers — but it’s a film that leaves you immediately wanting a sequel. The performers include a stunt double who’s worked on Marvel films and other big budget blockbusters and Cambodia’s female MMA champion, and both serve beautifully as ambassadors introducing the country’s cinema to a whole new audience.
Wolf Warrior II (2017, China)
A disgraced soldier, formerly of an elite military unit, heads to the shores of Africa to find work as shipboard security, but it’s far from the stress-free job he envisions. A rebel force has come threatening a Chinese medical team and nearby factory, and the once heroic soldier is forced back into unofficial duty.
I typically focus on small films or ones that have slipped through the cracks, but it may surprise you to learn that Wu Jing’s latest is currently the 74th highest-grossing film of all time with nearly $800 million in box-office receipts. That’s huge, and happily it’s a fantastic movie to boot. It follows its predecessor in being highly patriotic and jingoistic towards its homeland of China, but it steps up its game in every other department. Wu once again directs too, and it’s clear he’s learned lessons in both crafting and capturing action sequences.
Scott Adkins co-starred in the first film, but he was ultimately wasted with an unmemorable face-off with Wu. This film fixes that with a supporting turn by Frank Grillo that builds to a terrifically brutal brawl between the two men. We also gets tank action, homemade crossbows, and some creative fights that see Wu utilizing his surroundings and whatever he can lay his hands on as weapons. It’s a fun, exciting film well deserving of its monstrous success.