I’ve always been far more partial to action accomplished via choreography than with CGI shenanigans. There’s a place for both, obviously, but I’m more impressed by the agile movement of bodies than I am by the placement of pixels. Unfortunately, fight scenes unassisted by CGI or wire-work are becoming a bit of a rarity these days. That said, there’s still plenty of fun to be had with action scenes, big or small, that are created with the aid of technology or that eschew fisticuffs all together for exciting gunplay or vehicular hijinks.
This year’s best action films are a mix of all of the above and include both domestic and international movies. What’s not included? Movies featuring superheroes. It wasn’t an intentional slight, believe me, but when it came time to rank which films offered up the most legitimately exciting and visceral thrills the thirteen below beat out the likes of Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, and others. Remember, this isn’t a ranking of movies but of the action in the movies, meaning while these aren’t all necessarily great films they do represent the best action to have hit screens this year.
To that end, keep reading for a look at our choices for the Best Action Movies of 2013.
13. World War Z
I know, I’ve already lost you. But while the vast majority of the action here is accomplished via CGI it’s given a tangible weight missing from the big comic book movies thanks to a more emotional presence. The rampaging crowds of “zombies” feel like a real threat, a highly exaggerated mob mentality, and characters we care about are placed in harm’s way adding a degree of menace to the the frenetic action in the city streets at the beginning and over the walls of Jerusalem later.
12. The Last Stand
All things considered, Kim Jee-woon’s Hollywood debut is easily the weakest of his films, but while it falters in the story and character departments it offers a ton of fun in the area of gunplay, car chases, and ‘80s-style one-liners. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to leading man status comes complete with the realization that he really is too old for this shit. He has a good time with it though, and any fan of his can’t help but love to see him manning a Gatling gun again reminiscent of Terminator 2.
11. Lone Survivor
Director Peter Berg has already proven himself in the action department with the joyous romp that is The Rundown and the incredibly intense The Kingdom, and while his latest doesn’t quite live up to those standards it still delivers on the gun battles. Based on a true story, the film shows a reverence for not only the real Navy SEALs that were involved but also for their tactics, abilities, and courage. As exciting as the gunfights are though the slides and falls down the mountain are truly epic.
10. Fast & Furious 6
The latest installment in the world’s most unexpectedly successful franchise probably utilizes as much CGI as any other summer blockbuster, but it’s the combination of the audacious and the ridiculous that makes it so purely entertaining. Incredible car chases, immense stunts, tanks (?), and more all come together to create a world where seemingly anything can happen when Vin Diesel or Paul Walker are behind the wheel. That’s never more clear than when the gang discovers a 26-mile long runway.
9. Drug War
Hong Kong director Johnnie To is no stranger to elaborate exchanges of gunfire, but he’s crafted one of his best and most effective films here. The film plays out at times like more of a procedural, but when it comes time for opposing hails of bullets it shifts gears into something truly spectacular. They hit with an impact that almost reverberates through your own body, and you can’t help but feel like you’re a part of the battle.
8. Olympus Has Fallen/White House Down
Can you tell which of the two films the above still is actually from? Probably not, and that combined with the films’ near identical plots made it seem right to list them together. Both have their detractors (and both feature laughably bad effects work), but I’m happy to admit I find both to be incredibly fun action flicks. The former is grittier while the latter is goofier, but both offer up lots of enjoyable gunplay and some creatively executed hand-to-hand combat.
7. Special ID
I’m a sucker for Donnie Yen, and I’ve been pretty open about my excitement for his first contemporary action movie in six years, so you can bet your ass I imported this one as soon as it was available. On the down side it’s not a very good movie. But on the upside? Donnie kicks a lot of ass. His mix of martial arts and MMA-style takedowns is pure bliss to watch in action, and he gets involved in a few scraps here that left me smiling. Flash Point and SPL remain tops, but this is a nice reminder that he’s still got it.
6. The World’s End
Edgar Wright’s latest doesn’t appear to be an action movie on its surface, but while it’s a comedy first and foremost it surprises with one of the best fight scenes to hit theaters in 2013. The brawl in the bathroom is a beautifully choreographed action sequence that gets more impressive on repeat viewings. As elaborate as the choreography is, consider that they had to take the effects aspects into account too. Add in a handful of other wonderfully crafted brawls and you have one of the year’s best action films.
5. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
Stephen Chow’s first film in five years features a staggering amount of CGI and wire-work, and its heart seems set on making audiences laugh more than anything else, but none of that gets in the way of the action. There are some thrilling fight scenes to be found here, both of the slapstick variety and the more straightforward, but we also get Jaws-like comedic setpieces, a pig demon, and an incredibly tenacious and talented Monkey King. And not for nothing, but Shu Qi is still a nimble little minx.
4. Confession of Murder
South Korea has delivered some of the best action in recent years, and they’re one of the few countries still crafting stunning hand-to-hand fight sequences. This film is one hell of a thrill ride, and the action starts almost immediately as a man crashes through a window triggering a brilliant fight and even more impressive chase. Some of the later action grows nuttier than George Washington Carver’s underwear drawer, but it’s all executed with such flair and adrenaline that even the goofiest bits are forgivable.
3. Bounty Killer
This is probably the lowest-budgeted film on the list, but you really wouldn’t know it for the amount of fun and value packed into its tight runtime. It’s a post-apocalyptic romp complete with competing bounty hunters, an army of Juggalo-like gangbangers, and lots of bloody gunplay. Some CGI blood and explosions threaten the fun on occasion, but the film’s incredible creativity and energy repeatedly makes up for it with scenes and sequences that will have you immediately wanting a sequel.
2. Man of Tai Chi
Much like the Inquisition, nobody expected that one of the year’s best fight films was going to be directed by Keanu Reeves. And yet, here we are. He wisely chose an incredibly basic story line for his directorial debut, but he filled it with fantastically talented fighters, strong choreography, and an eye for capturing all of the thrills with minimal editing. Reeves caps it off with a highly comedic turn as the big bad guy and a fight scene of his own where he handily avoids looking like a poser.
1. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear
Anyone who’s seen director Isaac Florentine’s newest Scott Adkins film knows it belongs at number one on any list of best action films for 2013. Like the film above, the story is nothing special (aside from its respect for Japanese culture). But the fights… sweet jesus the fights. Florentine and Adkins are understandably excited in sharing that their fights are 100% free of CGI and wires. What you see is what you get, and what you see is awesome. Even better, the fights are often shot wide and unbroken to help our eyes take in the full glory of what Adkins is doing here. He’s England’s most legitimate action star, and that star deserves to be higher.