The early months of a new year are always a time for action films and sequels to populate the theaters while we wait for spring and summer blockbusters. This year, there seems to be a particularly serious action slate. From new projects like Sleepless and The Great Wall to major sequels like xXx 3: The Return Of Xander Cage, John Wick: Chapter 2, and Logan, it’s a very busy time for the action genre. With some of these films actually expected to do quite well—John Wick: Chapter 2 is in the mid-90s on Rotten Tomatoes—one can’t help but think of some of the better action movies we’ve seen in the recent past.
Because they’re eventually drowned out by larger-than-life superhero blockbusters, other summer franchises, and the fall and winter awards contenders, a lot of good action movies end up sort of fizzling out. With that in mind, and in celebration of the awesome smorgasbord of action flicks we’re in the middle of to kick off 2017, here’s our look back at some of the 21st century’s most underrated films.
John Wick (2014)
John Wick is actually approaching an appropriate level of respect in the movie-loving community, but it took a little while. At the time of its release, this Keanu Reeves-led gunslinging masterpiece was more or less overlooked as just another generic action film. In the time since, and in the lead up to the sequel, it’s nestled nicely into “cult classic” territory. Indeed, many will now say the movie, and budding series, represents the best of Reeves since The Matrix.
When Lucy came out a few years ago, it looked as if Scarlett Johansson was entering something akin to Angelina Jolie’s Salt phase, and it was a little bit of a bummer. Johansson, from a critical perspective, is the more accomplished actress, and to see her settle for a career as an action hero in tights might have been disappointing. But the fact remained that Johansson is really good in action movies, and Luc Besson is really good at directing them. Combining forces, the two produced something like a mashup of the Bourne franchise and Limitless, and as a result Lucy has even featured on a list of the century’s best action movies, underrated or not!
There’s not a whole lot to say about Machete other than that it involves Danny Trejo amassing one of the highest body counts in modern action movie history with, mostly, a machete. If that’s the kind of action you enjoy—completely over-the-top, brutal, and intentionally comedic—this might be your favorite movie you’ve never seen.
Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
I actually assumed this film had a nice place in people’s minds where this genre is concerned, but I couldn’t help but notice it in another piece about underrated action movies—so I’ll go ahead and include it here to emphasize the point. This is an awesome, clever, and thrilling movie where Gerard Butler somehow channels the ferocity of Leonidas in a completely modern setting. It’s an exceptionally brutal flick that borders on gore at times (given that Butler’s character is out to torture those who have done him wrong), but the fact that it actually moves along at a good pace with a clear purpose saves it from being a throwaway slash-fest.
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
This might be the most forgotten movie on this list. It debuted just as the Marvel Cinematic Universe was getting started, but wasn’t considered part of the action. The Punisher has since been rebooted through the Netflix Daredevil series and you might have noticed more a few skull T-shirts on the streets these days. One of the only hints that this cult-film ever happened is that a slot arcade based on its content still among the numerous Marvel casino games online. It’s even been described as a chance to fight injustice with one of Marvel’s finest additions. I’d submit that the film is also one of Marvel’s hidden gems for its sheer brutality and utter disregard for cheesy, overplayed superhero tropes. It’s not a masterpiece, but as an action flick and an interpretation of an uncompromising antihero, it’s a whole lot of fun and deserving of a viewing.
Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)
Shoot ‘Em Up is an out-of-this-world gunslinging adventure starring Clive Owen. Whether he’s sinisterly munching a carrot before committing a murder, or making love to a woman while fending off an entire squad of armed bad guys, Clive Owen is at the absolute top of his game in a film that probably has the highest body count of the century. But I don’t want to make it sound like a festival of raw brutality. This is a sexy, highly stylized film that looks good and will make you want to keep watching over and over again. It personifies the idea of an underrated action movie and overlooked by many due to its silly title and somewhat generic outward appearance but just might surprise if you’re willing to give it a try.