As a cultural commodity, the action movie is in a state of flux. On one end of the spectrum, you have enormous, globe-devouring public spectacles like Avengers: Endgame, this year's most widely anticipated film and likely its highest grossing one; on the other end, smaller crime thrillers and adventure stories, once the beating heart and lifeblood of the genre, have been relegated to relatively under-the-radar releases on streaming platforms and on-demand services. Except for the rare successful franchise like John Wick, it feels like the middle class of action movie-dom has been hollowed out.
Still, the current moment is a fascinating time to be a fan of movies where cars blow up and people kick each other in the throat. Like last year's list, the goal here is to keep a running list of the best action titles of 2019 on the big screen and on streaming platforms, which could mean superhero epics, foreign language slugfests, and, more likely than not, at least one movie starring a former professional wrestler. As the grizzled, tobacco-spitting squad leader in an action movie might say, we're getting the gang back together.
Released: January 25 Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Katheryn Winnick, Matt Lucas Director: Jonas Åkerlund (Lords of Chaos) Why it’s worth watching: On the surface, this adaptation of a graphic novel about a globe-trotting hitman nicknamed Black Kaiser (Mikkelsen) looks like a John Wick clone, complete with absurdist world-building and balletic gun-fighting. But the actual tone of movie, which follows the Kaiser on the verge of his retirement from the murder business, is hyper-kinetic and more than a little sleazy. Instead of the stylized, craft cocktail veneer of Wick, director Jonas Åkerlund, who has directed music videos for artists like Madonna, Taylor Swift, and Maroon 5, pursues the garish chaos and screaming tastelessness of the Crank series. Not all of the provocations are effective -- for example, the opening scene with Johnny Knoxville getting assassinated mid-blowjob will likely send squeamish viewers back to the Netflix homepage -- but Mikkelsen gives a moving, soulful performance. Whether he's instructing children on how to disembowel an enemy or dodging bullets in the nude during a log-cabin siege, Mikkelsen keeps the movie grounded, and, ultimately, makes it worth watching despite its flaws. Where to see it: Stream on Netflix (Watch the trailer)
5. Cold Pursuit
Released: February 8 Cast: Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, Emmy Rossum, Tom Bateman Director: Hans Petter Moland (In Order of Disappearance) Why it’s worth watching: More of a darkly comedic crime saga than a straightforward action-thriller in the mold of Taken, this Colorado-set revenge tale is centered around a snowplow driver named Nels Coxman (Neeson) who kills drug dealers and dumps their bodies in an icy river. He's set on this violent, chilly path after the tragic death of his son Kyle, who suffers a heroin overdose despite Nels' claims that Kyle was never "a druggie." The various criminals Nels antagonizes, plus their low-life associates and a couple local cops, take up more screen time than you'd expect, giving the proceedings a rollicking, shaggy-dog ensemble vibe that can be an odd fit with Neeson's angry dad schtick. (Neeson also made some horrifying comments during the film's press tour, which make some the script's crude attempts at "edgy" racist humor feel particularly misguided.) Though the film's central revenge plot can be tedious, the margins of the story are filled with scraggly character actors like William Forsythe, some genuinely clever bits of dialogue, and a handful of inspired visual moments of whimsy. Overlong and undercooked, Cold Pursuitis not in the same league as The Commuter or Non-Stop, Neeson's recent collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra, but it has a droll quality that shines through the piles of snow. Where to see it: In theaters (Watch the trailer)
4. Triple Frontier
Released: March 13 Cast: Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund Director: J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year) Why it’s worth watching: Any movie that inspires you to listen to Metallica's Ride the Lightning for a week after seeing it is doing something right. In addition to opening up with "For Whom the Bell Tolls," this military heist thriller, which finds Affleck leading a team of ex-Special Forces hotshots on a mission to rob a drug dealer in the jungle, hits all the necessary action movie beats: There's a "getting the gang back together" scene, a "are you in or are you out?" sequence, a "put the money down we gotta go" moment, and, sure, a "holy shit" helicopter crash in the mountains to show how much money Netflix was willing to shell out. So why does the movie feel underwhelming? Triple Frontier started life as another tactics-obsessed Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal project -- one that nearly every famous male actor in Hollywood was rumored to star in at some point -- but it was eventually taken over by Chandor, the helmer of the macho finance drama Margin Call and the sleepy '70s crime riff A Most Violent Year, and he gives the material an occasionally ponderous touch. Caught between an ultra-tense Bigelow epic and a scrappier WWE Studios thrill ride, the movie never quite finds its footing, particularly in the second half. Still, those Metallica songs sound great. Where to see it: Stream on Netflix (Watch the trailer)
3. The Bouncer
Released: January 11 Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sveva Alvit, Sami Bouajila, Kaaris Director: Julien Leclercq (The Crew) Why it’s worth watching: When it comes to aging action stars from the '80s and '90s, it can be hard to know which of their new movies are truly worth watching and which ones you wouldn't even pick up in a Blockbuster bargain bin. For example, the title and the poster for The Bouncer, a new crime thriller starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as the titular enforcer, are altogether unremarkable and don't really give you an idea of how good this movie is. This is a smart, no-nonsense, character-based action movie featuring one of Van Damme's finest broken-down, hollowed-out performances. The Bloodsport star plays Lukas, an ex-bodyguard turned nightclub tough guy who gets recruited by the cops to spy on his boss at a strip club. (He's not a willing snitch: The government suspects the crime boss of being in charge of a counterfeiting ring and they squeeze Lukas, who takes care of his young daughter, into serving as their mole.) While the setup is basic neo-noir stuff, the execution here is top-notch, from the direction and writing to the performances and the fights, which are brutal and quick. With his gaunt face and expressive eyes, Van Damme is perfect as a man consistently pushed to the brink. Where to see it: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)
Released: February 14 Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Mahershala Ali Director: Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) Why it’s worth watching:The first thing you notice are the large eyes, beckoning like portals to another dimension. Alita, a cyborg discovered in a junkyard by a possibly mad scientist consumed with grief over the death of his daughter, is played by the actress Rosa Salazar (Maze Runner, Bird Box), but she's brought to uncanny life via technology Alita producer and co-writer James Cameron developed for his alien environmental opus Avatar. (Cameron was originally going to direct Alita, but he got sidetracked by the world of the Na'vi.) Compared to Avatar, or other recent colorful acts of gonzo-world-building like Jupiter Ascending or Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, Alita: Battle Angel moves in fits and starts, occasionally struggling to merge Cameron's hyper-earnest, ponderous sensibility with Rodriguez's more garish, ironic approach. Still, when the movie connects, like in the ridiculous and kinetic "motorball" sequence, which finds Alita fending off brutish attackers in a violent, X-Games version of tag, it's as exhilarating as this type of reality-altering, money-burning sci-fi blockbuster gets. Perhaps fitting for a story about a character's complicated relationship to her own body, the movie takes time to feel comfortable in its own CG skin. Where to see it: In theaters now (Watch the trailer)
1. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
Released: January 18 Cast: James Badge Dale, Brian Geraghty, Patrick Fischler, Happy Anderson Director: Henry Dunham Why it's great:The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a movie that understands the value of restraint. After a mass shooting at a police funeral, a militia group in Michigan assembles at a warehouse to double-check the status of their massive stockpile of deadly weapons, including a batch of AR-15s. Turns out one of the guns is missing -- the radio has confirmed that the shooter used an AR-15 -- and only one of the men in the group could have grabbed it. Quickly, the Reservoir Dogs-like scenario spirals out into a simultaneously chatty and gripping whodunit with James Badge Dale's gruff ex-cop Gannon interrogating his fellow conspiracy-minded associates, mostly played by brilliant character actors given room to flex here, in an effort to find the killer before the shooting can be pinned on the group as a whole. But can any of these shadowy figures be trusted? This isn't an anthropological study of right-wing paranoia under Donald Trump or a treatise on white male rage in the age of InfoWars -- the exact specifics of what all these guys believe and hope to achieve with their considerable firepower are kept vague -- but Dunham, making his feature debut here, zeroes in on the personalities and attitudes of the men drawn to these fringe groups. He shows you what makes them tick. Then, he makes them squirm. Where to see it: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)