Was 2011 a great year for action cinema? Or was it a festering pile? Or was it somewhere in between? In this article we will list the top major (and not so major) action films released theatrically in the United States in 2011. They are listed by month, but in no particular order beyond that. Just glancing over the list might give you a sense of the current state of action cinema. I’ll comment on each month, but want to hear from you as well. Let us know what you think about the action slate from 2011! Did we miss anything? Disagree with anything being classified as action? Chime in!
I have actually seen all of these films, and while Ip Man 2 is clearly the best of them, and The Green Hornet is pulling in a close second for me, I wouldn’t say this was the strongest of months. Both Ong Bak 3 and Season of the Witch were major let downs for me and The Mechanic did not piss on the memory of the beloved Charley Bronson original, but sure didn’t stand out either.
Rough month. I couldn’t find the appeal in I Am Number 4, so I passed. Apparently everyone else did too, from what I recall. Both Sanctum and Drive Angry delved into the third dimension. And while Sanctum had some cool technical aspects, the story was pretty poor. Drive Angry was over the top, but very forgettable. Unknown had a distinct Taken 2 vibe, but was muddled and silly. I barely remember seeing The Eagle and liked it better when it was good, and called Rome.
Yeesh. Another rough month. But this one hurt because I had pretty high expectations for both of these films. Sucker Punch was probably one of my single biggest disappointments of the 2011 film slate. I’ve been a nominal fan of pretty much all of Zach Snyder’s work. And Watchmen really knocked it out of the park for me. So to see this bizarre, soulless video game of a film unfold was hard indeed. Some stunning visuals and action set pieces that had no weight at all. And then Battle: LA pretty much delivered what it was trying to sell; a documentary style alien invasion flick. But Battle: LA suffers from having just enough in common with District 9 to remind viewers how much better District 9 is than Battle: LA was.
Now, here we have a different month entirely. In April the action cinema of 2011 really came into it’s own. Hanna featured Oscar worthy production values and one of the soundtracks of the year from The Chemical Brothers. 13 Assassins made many critics’ Top 10 lists for all films, much less action films. It gives its entire 3rd act over to a raging battle sequence that is epic in scope and execution. Fast Five has been the action tent pole to talk about this year. Adding The Rock and bringing back pretty much the entire cast from the first 4 films, director Justin Lin created some sort of monster with this hit. And while I saw Legend of the Fist in 2010, it stood out as one of my absolute favorite films from the Fantastic Fest 2010 line up. Super is most likely not an action movie, but I included it nonetheless. Shocking at times, quaint at others, Super is a small and special film. While I saw Stake Land, I found myself in far too familiar territory and would’ve loved to see a more unique tale of the vampire apocalypse.
While this month was VERY kind to the box office take, I can only count myself an unabashed fan of Hobo With A Shotgun from this list. When it comes to the Pirates films, I really do enjoy the first one, but the rest just aren’t for me. I’m glad the franchise is doing well but I have no need to delve further in to that world. (But that world will inevitably be revisited as the money does all the talking). Thor got its casting right, and I’m excited to see Chris Hemsworth continue on in this role. But the movie felt antiseptic to me, and relatively action free. Priest was actually kind of more fun than I had been led to believe from its terrible reviews. But it was also fairly derivative. And then we have Hobo With A Shotgun. Although this isn’t primarily an action film, it takes much inspiration from them and lived up to all of its potential. Hobo for life!
X-Men: First Class managed to make me love the X-Men again. Matthew Vaughn and his amazing cast did well by me in this rousing period adventure film. I still haven’t seen The Green Lantern. Am I missing anything? If the rumors are true, I think not. Which leads me to Transformers 3. That entire franchise is just not for me. I’ve only seen parts of the second one. But couldn’t stand the first movie. Geek buzz was high on this third installment, and yet I found myself disengaged. Michael Bay sure knows how to make things look pretty, but the action sequences did nothing for me.
The month that dreams are made of. Attack The Block and Captain America are easily two of my favorite movies of the year regardless of genre. And while the entire world has seen Captain America and turned it into an international hit, Attack The Block remains a film seen mostly by geek audiences only. Please, seek this one out. It isn’t exactly an action movie per se. But it is an R-rated, sci-fi, Goonies. Enough said. And then we have Joe Johnston’s Captain America just nailing the action-adventure vibe of an Indiana Jones movie and knocking it out of the universe. Love both of those films. Ironclad was a brutal and action-packed castle siege film that is also entirely too under seen. Check it out. I’ve heard awesome things about Point Blank, a French film, but have yet to see it.
These two franchises couldn’t possibly have faired more differently. Conan was one of the biggest box office failures of the year, and ROTPOTA became a surprise box office smash despite early rumors of a troubled production. I enjoyed both movies for what they were, but Conan could have been so much more. Sure, it featured great casting for our lead, and start-to finish-action. But the villain and story were weak, and the action sequences started to blur together. And while ROTPOTA isn’t really an action film either, it does have one of the all time great non-human lead characters riding atop a galloping steed amidst an ape revolution. What more could you ask for?
Dear God. Drive is the movie of the year. Nicholas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling pair up to bring the coolest of cool to the big screen. The action here is incredible. Thrilling car chases, stabbings, meticulously staged gun battles. This thing is the real deal. But it also delivers an incredible level of drama and romance that I’ve just never experienced before. In time, Drive could become one of my all time favorite films. Warrior also impressed, delivering a somewhat by the numbers sports action story in a way that really delivered. This one didn’t seem to find its audience, so check it out if you loved Rocky (which should be…everyone). I missed Killer Elite and Columbiana, but plan to see them both as soon as possible. And I didn’t get to see Bunraku or Shaolin in theaters, but each had their fun moments in my blu-ray player.
By some freak twist of fate, I haven’t seen any of these movies. Which ones ruled? Which ones are better forgotten? Do I already know the answers to these questions?
I had to include Elite Squad 2 here solely to recommend it to folks looking for a great, epic, sweeping Brazilian crime story. Elite Squad 2 is an awesome film, but it is much more of a crime and politics film than it is an action film. Elite Squad 2 will leave you feeling like you just saw a pretty great Michael Mann film mixed with a bit of The Wire. Immortals looked kind of pretty at times, and had some remarkably brutal fight sequences, but I never felt drawn in to the world of the gods. Director Tarsem has a nice eye for visuals in many senses, but the brown color palette on Immortals was pretty numbing after a while.
Many will declare Mission: Impossible 4 as the action movie of the year. If you saw it in IMAX then you understand why. While I can’t call it the best, I can say that seeing the film’s Dubai sequence in IMAX was one of the most thrilling experiences of my movie-going year. I am a fan of this new Sherlock Holmes film series, but a nominal one. The first film entertained me more, but Jerrod Harris as Moriarty in this sequel made for a much better villain than the first film had. And in a cruel and freakishly terrible reality, I haven’t seen Tin Tin yet. But I am crying inside about that, so I’ll fix that problem as soon as possible.
WELL, there you have it folks. A breakdown of all the action releases of 2011 (that I didn’t forget to list). Overall, I would say action cinema is thriving as we barrel ahead into 2012. 2011 featured some films that will stand the test of time and live on to become legend. There were also a lot of flicks that will get tossed away in our memories. Sure, most of the films listed here are hybrids of some kind, and not pure action cinema. And yes, I would love to see more pure action hitting the big screens. But with the comebacks of legends such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2012, I think more pure action is just around the bend.
And I’m Out.