06th Jan2021

Top 10: Action Films of 2020

by Phil Wheat

As is obligatory for the start of a new year, it’s time to look back at the sh*t-show that was last year and pick out our highlights of the year… This time round it’s Phil’s Top 10 Action Movies of 2020. Which are, in no particular order:

THE 2ND

Secret-service agent Vic Davis (Ryan Phillippe) is on his way to pick up his estranged son, Shawn (Jack Griffo), from his college campus when he finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes terrorist operation. The daughter of a Supreme Court Justice is the target and this armed faction will stop at nothing to kidnap her. Vic quickly realizes that there’s no one coming to rescue them and must now use his entire set of skills to save her and his son from an incredibly dangerous and lethal situation.

Yes, we’re in Die Hard territory once again for The 2nd… even down to the seasonal setting. However unlike the myriad of Die Hard clones released these days, where our hero takes out a myriad of bad guys like some superhero killing machine, The 2nd returns to the “underdog” roots of the Bruce Willis starrer – with Ryan Phillipe’s character Vic, whilst a highly-decorated Green Beret, still fighting like a real soldier would: struggling against larger enemies, not being stupid and taking out the terrorists one at a time etc. It’s a grounded sense of reality in a film that is otherwise a flight of conspiratorial fantasy.

With an ending that hints (well, less hints and more slams the audience in the face) at a sequel, I’d love to see the adventures of Green Beret “everyman” Vic Davis continue further; and hopefully director Brian Skiba and co. decide to come back for more.

I AM VENGEANCE: RETALIATION

I Am Vengeance: Retaliation sees former special-forces soldier John Gold is given the opportunity to bring Sean Teague – the man who betrayed his team on their final mission in Eastern Europe several years ago – to justice. Gold would cheerfully see Teague dead, but he is convinced to help transport him to a military prison to pay for his crimes. Along the way, Gold will have to fight off Teague’s team who are attempting to extract him, as well as a sniper seemingly hell-bent on killing Teague before he can be secured.

Expanding on the revenge-seeking anti-hero of the first film, I Am Vengeance: Retaliation gives us a John Gold who puts his life on the line for friend and foe alike in the pursuit of what’s right foregoing the vengeance of the title somewhat to deliver a more traditional hero, the kind of which Chuck Norris would be proud!

LEGACY

On the surface Legacy is yet another “hunting humans” tale, only wrapped up in a much bigger story of international crime, drug-dealing and people smuggling. However it’s not played in typical action-movie fashion, and there’s a commitment to making this story more human by focusing on the relationship between Jake (Renton Pexa) and his father and Agent Gray’s struggle with the consequences he’s brought upon strangers in his unrelenting quest for justice against Boranovic. It’s pretty dark stuff at times – especially when Gray (Luke Goss) starts losing men, he has a real sense of loss and regret which Goss portrays brilliantly.

A character-based movie that is clearly focused on people – relationships and family – rather than delivering over-the-top action, Legacy is a surprising film filled with surprisingly good performances and a surprisingly human story. It’s honestly worlds apart from your typical direct to market action fare and as such is a refreshing change. I hope to see more DTV action movies that focus just as much on characters as action in future!

SNIPER: ASSASSIN’S END

The EIGHTH(!) installment of the Sniper film series, Sniper: Assassin’s End is a sequel to 2017’s Sniper: Ultimate Kill and sees Special Ops Sniper Brandon Beckett (Chad Michael Collins) is set up as the primary suspect for the murder of a foreign dignitary on the eve of signing a high-profile trade agreement with the United States. Narrowly escaping death, Beckett realizes that there may be a dark operative working within the government and partners with the only person whom he can trust, his father legendary Sniper Sgt. Thomas Beckett (Tom Berenger). Both Becketts are on the run from the CIA, Russian Mercenaries, and a Yakuza-trained assassin with sniper skills that rival both legendary sharp shooters.

New to the franchise in this film is Agent Zeke ‘Zero’ Rosenberg, played by Canadian actor Ryan Robbins, who gets to do all the detective legwork in Sniper: Assassin’s End in what is essentially a co-lead role, leaving star Chad Michael Collins’s Brendan Beckett to get to grips with all the action, including a remarkable fight with the aforementioned Sayaka Akimoto – who displays some tremendous martial arts skills, with some of the best weapon work in an American movie I’ve seen in looong time.

With some cute nods and easter eggs to previous Sniper films that will please long-term franchise fans, yet with a story that doesn’t rely on knowledge of the past films to enjoy it, Sniper: Assassin’s End is yet another first-rate entry into the series… Long may it continue; and give us a Lady Death/Agent Zero spinoff while you’re at it too Sony.

CAGEFIGHTER: WORLDS COLLIDE

The film Jon Moxley made in-between his run in WWE as Dean Ambrose and his debut in AEW (this film uses footage from that promotion AND seemingly used some fans for the fight crowd scenes too) Cagefighter: Worlds Collide is another sports underdog story – this time seemingly built around the same fighter comes good story, the road to redemption arc, that made the Rocky films such classics. Though this film doesn’t go the bombastic route that the Rocky franchise did. No, whilst we do get the typical tropes of a fight movie – training montages, uplifting score etc. It also presents a somewhat realer story that you’d expect, one that will no doubt go down well with MMA and fight fans.

Cagefighter: Worlds Collide follows the typical underdog filmmaking cliches telling a story that – as a fan of wrestling and seeing how they use MMA fighters and boxers in their sport – felt familiar but surprisingly never derivative. Instead it’s a great example of how to do the stereotypical story right even on a budget; and a great example of triumph of the human spirit wrought beautifully on the screen.

GOLD DUST

Somewhere along the border with Mexico, two lifelong friends – prospectors – use moth eaten maps and passed down legends in a lifelong search to find a ghost ship rumoured to have been buried in the desert sand over millennia as the seafloor dried up. Today, Mexican drug lords operate here, using a fleet of children in ultra light airplanes, flying in a new type of treasure – heroin – modern gold dust. These two friends must decide between pursuing their dreams of treasure, suddenly so close, and what they know is right. To save themselves, or risk their lives to save a young girl captive to the drug lord.

Written and directed by and starring David Wall, Gold Dust is like a love-letter to the films of a bygone era. The kinds of high-concept, action-adventure movies that came out in the 80s, spawned by the success of the Indiana Jones franchise – in particular those that skewed heavy on the comedy like Romancing the Stone, Firewalker and the Allan Quartermain movies. Films that mixed adventure with slapstick elements, that went for laughs as much as they went for action.

Gold Dust also feels like part David Lynch, part Percy Adlon. Twin Peaks meets Bagdad Cafe if you will… With odd characters, odd situations and a general all-round warm-hearted quirkiness. In fact the characters and the lines they spout are they real treasures here – this film honestly has one of the wittiest scripts I’ve heard in some time. The film also flails wildly between genres, keeping the audience hooked by never standing still, feeling at times like a buddy road movie and at others a family-friendly adventure and others like a classic screwball comedy.

BURNING DOG

Shot completely from the hero’s perspective, a la FPS video games, Burning Dog is obviously inspired not only by video games but by Hardcore Henry, the 2016 film starring Sharlito Copley, which told the story of a man with no memory and placed the audience – for the most part – in the shoes of Henry. Burning Dog takes a slightly different tact. Told mainly in flashback, the film is shot in a first-person point of view, as the audience relives a bizarre day in the life of a video game designer who stumbles into a blackmail conspiracy, clashing with contract killers, Russian mobsters, and compromised cops in a wild journey through Los Angeles.

Given that this film is shot first-person, there’s nothing much to go on when it comes to the central character beyond the voice performance by Adam Bartley (though the character is actually performed physically by Chris Todd, who also produces). Even the characters nickname, Five, is ultra-generic. Thankfully Bartley, even just with his voice, gives a great performance, reminding me very much of the kind of voice over found in shows like The Wonder Years: charismatic, inviting and sympathetic.

What also helps keep the audiences attention is the mystery. We’re in the dark as much as Five is, thrown in the deep end in the very same way he is. And there’s a sneaking suspicion that not everything we’re seeing and experiencing is totally legit – it feels like no-one’s story, not even the protagonist’s Five, can be believed. Honestly it’s that mystery, the unanswered questions of Why?, Who? How? that will keep the audience watching, keep them intrigued, all the way to the climax of the film… A climax which has an absolutely tremendous denouement that left me grinning from ear to ear.

ACCELERATION

To the uninitiated Acceleration looks like yet another DTV star-vehicle for Dolph Lundgren; hell, even the cast listing atop the DVD cover puts Sean Patrick Flanery, Lundgren and Chuck Liddell ahead of Burns. But this IS Burns’ film, she and her character are the driving force behind the action. It probably shouldn’t surprise you to learn – given that Burn co-wrote Left to Die – that she has a hand in this film too as a producer AND casting director. Hell, Burn even performs her own stunts her as she did in Left to Die and Downhill. This is an actress whose making her own path through films and – so far – each and every film she’s had her hand in has ended up exceeding expectations.

The film sees Dolph Lundgren “star” as Vladik Zorich, a crime lord whose tentacles permeate the underbelly of a seedy Los Angeles – dealing in guns, gambling, drugs and skin trafficking. Yet one day Zorich finds himself double-crossed by his most trusted operative Rhona Zyocki (played by Natalie Burn). Vladik’s propensity for power, control, and violence drives him to kidnap Rhona’s young son, forcing her to participate in a planned elimination of Vladik’s enemies and identities. However, Vladik underestimates the power of a mother’s love, and finds himself losing control as his devious plan slowly unravels…

Fantastically shot by co-directors Michael Merino and Daniel Zirilli, the latter of whom films Circle of Pain and Locked Down are still, to this day, watched on heavy rotation in my house, Acceleration stands head and shoulders above typical Lundgren-starring DTV fare (and a lot of other DTV fare for that matter); making this one an easy recommendation.

THE MERCENARY

Maxx (Dominiquie Vandenberg) is a legionnaire turned mercenary. When a mission in South America goes wrong Maxx is left for dead, but he is nursed back to health and reborn with a new outlook on life. He tries to live tranquilly within the confines of his new beliefs surrounded by his new friends at a church. But his peaceful days are short-lived when mercenaries he used to work with cross his path again and he is forced to revisit and face his own demons. His brutal past, war and violence have come looking for him again. His path to redemption is interrupted and Maxx becomes an avenging warrior using the skills that were his trade…

Whilst the story isn’t that deep – mercenary seeks revenge on his cohorts after finding god – it does at least provide a decent plot on which to hang a myriad of action set-pieces. Set-pieces which feel like they’ve stepped out of the classic 90s DTV action era… and no, that’s not a bad thing, it’s a VERY good thing! Which means that for fans of that era of action-movie filmmaking, or those – like me – who grew up in that era renting any and every action movie they could on VHS and treated Impact Magazine as their bible, The Mercenary is like a slice of cinematic heaven.

IN THE LINE OF DUTY

In the Line of Duty sees former Two-Face Aaron Eckhart in the lead role as a put-upon, downtrodden cop who – in reality – is so dedicated to his role its costing him his job AND his life. Eckhart plays cop Frank Penny who, after disobeying direct orders, kills the kidnapper of the police chief’s 11-year-old daughter. Now with her life on the line, Frank goes rogue to try and save the young girl. But to find her Frank will need the help of vlogger Ava Brooks, whose live-streaming news channel is broadcasting Frank’s every move to an ever-watching city… and the kidnapper’s brother (Ben McKenzie), who’s watching Frank’s every move in his quest for revenge.

Besides all the action, In the Line of Duty offers some rather interesting commentary on the state of news reporting, online media and the rise of the vlogger (and to a lesser extent how they aren’t bound by the rules of television and risks more sometimes to get the story). And just when you think Miller and co. are going to turn the idea of vlogging and internet “fame” as a force for evil – for that is how it’s portrayed in a myriad of other genre films – it turns out that, at least here, vlogging and the ridiculous amount of time people dedicate to watching online video etc., actually builds communities; and, come the end of the film, gives us a powerful example of one such community – made up of a diverse range of ages, cultures, creeds and colours – coming together in a fantastic example of humanity at its best.
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What do you think of Phil’s choices? Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below… or let us know your picks for the films of 2020 too!

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