Total Nerd

15 Underrated Hyper-Stylized Action Movies

List Rules
Vote up the best action movies that have a style all their own.

There are plenty of cult action films floating in the ether - hyper-stylized adventures possessing a heightened and visually distinctive style that extends even to the choreography of their fights. But for every known commodity with its own rabid fan base like, say, Sin City or The Matrix, there is a Dark City, an equally cool alternative that somehow doesn't have a devout following to call its own yet.

It's time to examine some of the great genre content (some of which thrives in part by mashing together with other genres, to be fair) that's well worth your time and engagement even if it may have slipped below the general pop-culture radar. Vote up the stuff you think deserves more love from action fiends!

  • 1
    583 VOTES

    In the wake of The Matrix, a cadre of imitators tried their darnedest to emulate the inimitable classic to decidedly mixed results (Ultraviolet, anyone?). But one innovative 2002 action film, starring a future Batman and a future Dr. Sam Bennett, was able to effectively carve out its own distinctive niche.

    Equilibrium marries fascistic Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 themes of personal and artistic repression with the pistol-play acrobatics of The Matrix into a wickedly satisfying blend. John Preston (Christian Bale) and Andrew Brandt (Taye Diggs) are a pair of future cops tasked with enforcing strict anti-emotion policies in a grim postwar metropolis. Writer/director Kurt Wimmer's key innovation, however, is the new martial art of "gun kata," where characters incorporate hand guns into their hand-to-hand combat. As Dion Beebe's swirling camera moves through stark sets, we bear witness to Preston eventually rebelling against Brandt and "Father," their city's autocratic ruler, whose identity may not be what it at first appears...

    Equilibrium is a lot of fun, and thrives as a nice complementary spin on the groundbreaking sci-fi action of The Matrix without feeling derivative.

  • 2
    434 VOTES

    Though director Alex Proyas is best known for his Gothic superhero tale The Crow, his follow-up is decidedly more adventurous. Dark City details the journey of a man (Rufus Sewell) who awakens at a crime scene with no memory in an ever-shifting nocturnal world. He finds himself pursued by sinister bald men (and one child) draped in Hellraiser gowns, and to his own surprise finds himself able to wage telepathic war with them above the curious confines of the city.

    Think of it as, thematically, The Matrix before The Matrix, albeit channeled through the adventures of Jason Bourne and possessing a mid-century film noir aesthetic. A lot of the action of Dark City - a more cerebral movie than a lot of entries here - vacillates between shootouts in narrow alleyways and derelict tenement buildings, telepathic battles, and occasional chases. Things are on a more contained scale, and the film masterfully blends practical effects, processed miniatures, and selective CGI, while employing eerie camera movement and brilliantly specific production design. There's a reason this was Roger Ebert's favorite film of 1998. And it's high time more people give Dark City its due as one of the great weird action hybrids of the 1990s.

  • 3
    464 VOTES

    The underappreciated retro Jennifer Connelly-Billy Campbell comic book adaptation The Rocketeer arrived to a muted audience reception in 1991. A throwback adventure that married Indiana Jones revivalist instincts with a science-fiction superhero origin story, all wrapped up within the context of 1930s Hollywood, The Rocketeer may have felt strangely quaint on first release. It was clearly modeled after the kinds of serialized Saturday morning matinee adventures studios would pump out in the pre-TV days of the 1930s and 1940s. 

    Given that The Rocketeer was always a period film, and that it employed the very best in practical special effects with minimal-but-effective CGI, the family-friendly adventure has managed to age like fine wine. A fun, snappy movie that leaps through set pieces with earnest wonder and much technical skill, The Rocketeer sizzles as slam-bang old-school fun.

    Happily, director Joe Johnston later grafted this similar stylistic formula onto his blockbuster smash Captain America: The First Avenger.

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  • 4
    384 VOTES

    Keanu Reeves was exploring virtual-reality universes throughout the 1990s. Johnny Mnemonic predated The Matrix by four years, and stylistically falls somewhere between Max Headroom and the continuing adventures of Neo to make its own stew.

    Mega-corporations further the class divide as the internet destroys society, and all communication is vulnerable to malicious hacking circa 2021. Also, that is the plot of Johnny Mnemonic.

    In the movie, adapted from a prescient William Gibson story, our hero is a "data courier" who has sacrificed his own recollection of his childhood in order to securely transmit data. Part action-comedy, part VR adventure, Johnny Mnemonic employs a lot of the elements The Matrix would later popularize (Keanu Reeves as a hero who gets imperative information implanted into his mind in a dystopic future, a techno soundtrack, lots and lots of cool suits). It feels like an alternative reality take, and though it was not a hit, there surely exists some parallel timeline where it was a smash that spawned two (soon to be three) sequels and audiences and policymakers heeded its dire warnings about the dangers of data mining. Oh well.