A rallying cry for bullet-crazed readers: guns up statues down! Classic action flicks over forgotten Best Picture winners for life. See, the Hollywood action movie style that has dominated since the 1980s – one characterized by excessive and cartoonish violence, excessive and cartoonish writing, and what appears, on the surface, to be a total lack of morality – is not often associated with the best things cinema has to offer. However, time has been kind to these movies; the most unique films of the genre have become separated from the pack; many are regarded as subversive and cutting edge. Others have a mythic quality to them that demonstrates Hollywood’s image factory operating at full strength. These movies wear their age much better than than Oscar-winning movies that haven't gotten old with grace, pictures like Rain Man and Driving Miss Daisy.
A remarkable quality of the modern Hollywood action movie is its habit of involving supreme artistic talents such as John Carpenter, Paul Verhoeven, Michael Mann, Tony Scott, John Woo, and numerous others. Ignoring that the majority of action movies are varying degrees of forgettable, you can bank on at least a couple of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking movies every year being found among unpretentious multiplex fare.
In a similar vein, you can rely on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science to enshrine some of Hollywood’s biggest clunkers on a yearly basis. The Best Picture award has proven as adept at this feat as the action movie is at finding real artists. The worst Oscar winners, not too hard to choose with hindsight, were once critically lauded movies, and might still be, if you can believe it. Blame the supremacy of bourgeoisie aesthetic, if you need a scapegoat.
Of course, there's no shortage of action excellence from film industries overseas. This list is not meant to force them out, or to ignore the reality that American action movies can be unspeakably poor or ludicrous by every measure. But if you look at the best American action cinema has to offer and what the Academy deems the best American cinema had to offer, the difference in quality and cultural impact is striking. What follows is a side-by-side comparison of 20 of the best action movies and the last 35 dismal years of Oscars for Best Picture. No one's here to beat up on Best Picture winners like Gandhi or Titanic, but rather, to see how they square up to the likes of John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road.
Better Than: The Last Emperor
Battle Royale: Similar to Cobra but with far more intent to subvert, Paul Verhoeven’s invasion of the Hollywood blockbuster has a clinical nature that, plugged in to the dominant style and ideas of the time, emphasizes the horror of the violence it shows. This is, after all, a film in which a disintegrating man is splattered by a car. The catharsis that kill provides is the yang to the yin of our awareness of the gruesome machine that brought us to that point. Robocop exists in stark contrast to The Last Emperor, a safe pick designed from top to bottom to be a prestige film. The Last Emperor is all surfaces and gloss, telling real world history and horror through layers of distraction, keeping you at arm’s length from the real meat of the matter.
Better Than: Driving Miss Daisy
Battle Royale: Nothing can prepare you for Road House. It's pure candy-colored entertainment that has so little in common with other entertainments. So much of Road House feels superfluous, but there’s a joyous, clever center that has helped it outlast the zeitgeist of cheesiness that begat it. Through all the style and genre trappings (including serious homage to samurai and Shaw Brothers cinema), you can’t shake the feeling that Road House is about real people, such is the craft that went into making it. You wonder how it wasn’t made in 1935, a compliment meant in the best way. You also wonder how Driving Miss Daisy wasn’t made in 1935, in the worst way possible.
Better Than: The English Patient
Battle Royale: Believe it or not, there are people in the world who prefer Escape from LA to Escape from New York. It's John Carpenter at his zaniest, for sure, and he rides a wave of extreme fakeness other filmmakers are afraid of, to the point that it gives the film a unique point of view. But Carpenter never gets high on style; he always maintains strong widescreen compositions, remaining in complete control of what his movie says and how it says it.
Carpenter's films all speak to one another, and maybe that’s why a sequel obsessed with the copycat realities of Hollywood and computer images ranks among his best. Escape from LA is a comment on the superficiality and absurdity of the film industry, whereas The English Patient revels in self-righteous artifice, masquerading tortured glances, closed lips, and an excessive run time as subtly and romance. Don't be fooled - the emptiness is nothingness, not profundity.
Other Contenders: Mission: Impossible and The Rock were tough to leave out.
Better Than: Slumdog Millionaire
Battle Royale: Tropic Thunder is a rare mainstream comedy that functions on every level it sets out to, sending up many of the Hollywood impulses that can be found in the action and Oscar movies in this list. If you compare Tropic Thunder to Slumdog Millionaire, the former comes out looking better. It’s a piercing portrayal of the hubris, garishness, and callousness shown by Hollywood in movies about foreign countries versus, well…