A few weeks into our annual year-end binge of the Best and Worst of the movies in 2016, and we’ve looked at the finest trailers and posters, the best movies and TV shows, the breakthrough directors and actors, the best scores and soundtracks, the worst films, and the most anticipated films and television series. There’s plenty more to come, but with the weekend here, and a weekend where a new “Star Wars” movie is opening, no less, we wanted to loosen up a bit and talk about the Best Action Sequences of 2016.
It was decidedly not a great year for the blockbuster on the whole, and yet a great year for the action scene. That’s because some not-great movies had some great scenes, in part because of inventive foreign or indie filmmakers getting the most of their limited means. But even with a longer list than last year, we still had a hard time getting in down to 25. Take a look at our final picks below, and you can suggest your own favorite fights, chases and battles in the comments.
25. The Wave Hits – “The Wave”
The excellently named Roar Uthaug came from seemingly nowhere to land a plum big studio job with 2018’s Alicia Vikander-starring “Tomb Raider” reboot, but you only have to see a little bit of his breakthrough movie “The Wave” to understand why the Norwegian helmer is such hot stuff. A Scandinavian take on the classic disaster movie that sees the tourist town of Geiranger threatened by an 80-foot wave caused by a landslide, it juggles some well-done character work with Hollywood-level effects and destruction on a relatively meager budget. This can especially be seen in the sequence here, which, relatively late in the movie, sees the tide of water-y destruction hit the hotel where much of the action’s set. The effects work is strong, the tension palpable and the force of nature unrelenting. Fingers crossed he does Lara Croft justice when he shoots next year.
24. The First Explosion – “Deepwater Horizon”
In select circles, Peter Berg gets often wrongfully criticized as a sort of lesser Michael Bay, but while “Battleship” was an outright misfire, and his others movies aren’t necessarily the subtlest in the world, Berg has developed a clear, attentive eye for strikingly realistic and authentically harrowing action sequences these past couple years, which was displayed beautifully throughout the unjustly overlooked “Deepwater Horizon” earlier this year. This 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil-spill recreation could’ve easily been another by-the-numbers wannabe awards-contender snoozer, but instead, the “Friday Night Lights” filmmaker produced a startling, compulsively engaging in-the-moment thriller that grabbed you straight by the throat and refused to let you go. And while the second act contained no shortage of thrills, it was ultimately the build-up to the big explosion, driven by near-masterful suspense on Berg’s end, that engaged us the most. Always teasing danger, but never explicitly stating when it’ll arise, Berg heightened the stakes by showing us, in detailed fashion, where everything went wrong, opting to focus on the little cracks, creeks and breaks that caused the eruption of flames under everyone’s nose, rather than hitting us with the debris and chaos all at once. The results were explosive, in more ways than one, and deeply magnetizing. It proved Berg is no fluke when it comes to directing real-to-the-bone action sequences. His craftsmanship is deep.
23. The Chase In Rodent Town – “Zootopia”
Even by the standards of the renaissance of Disney Animation in the last few years, “Zootopia” was a good one, competing, we’d argue, only with “Moana” to be the best since things started to turn around with “Bolt.” It’s smart, funny, gorgeous and, frequently and happily for our purposes here, exciting, too, with a number of well-choreographed action sequences. The best, and most inventive, might be early on, when Officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) pursues a literally weaselly suspect (Alan Tudyk) to the section of the titular city inhabited by tiny rodents. Even in a brief scene, directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore have enormous fun with the the proportions of a chase sequence through a toytown-sized area, in a way that’s oddly reminiscent of the final sequence of “Hot Fuzz.” It’s a great example of how your world-building can actively inform your action scenes.
22. The Boat Fight – “Mechanic: Resurrection”
Even by the low standards of the sub-genre of ‘Jason Statham movies released at the butt-end of August,’ “Mechanic: Resurrection,” a sequel to another Statham movie you probably don’t remember, was a pretty uninspired, low-rent affair. But it does have two memorable scenes to add to the Statham canon. The first, and probably more iconic, is the batshit-crazy swimming-pool assassination whereby Statham’s assassin kills a target by draining his glass-bottomed swimming pool from underneath. The other is the final action sequence, an imaginatively staged shoot-out punch-up on the luxury yacht of villain Crain (Sam Hazeldine), which sees a wetsuited Statham dispatch one mercenary with a grenade/hot-tube combo, twirl around in a inflatable raft like a spinning Angel Of Death, and then have a fight with an anchor. It’s muddied by some awful effects work, but it stands happily aside the best sequences from the “Transporter” movies.
21. The Van Fight – “The Take”
Originally released under the title “Bastille Day” in the UK and France, and more or less buried in the U.S. after the horrifying events in Nice on the French holiday the original name referred to, “The Take” was a fairly solid action thriller in the Luc Besson mold (though not actually associated with Besson), which sees CIA agent Idris Elba and pickpocket Richard Madden drawn into a terrorist conspiracy in Paris that, “Die Hard”-style, is actually a cover for a huge heist. Director James Watkins (of “The Woman In Black” and the “Shut Up And Dance” episode of “Black Mirror”) handles the action, of which there’s plenty, with muscularity and clarity, and it’s best shown in this mid-film sequence, where the two heroes, plus shady local Charlotte Le Bon, are picked up by what turn out to be bad guys. The three fight their captors as the van speeds along, the ride made decidedly bumpier when the driver is killed by a stray bullet, and there’s real wit and smart choreography in the enclosed staging of the brawling.