25 Cult Action Movies You Might Not Have Seen
Once you’ve seen enough bad action films, you acquire a taste for movies featuring bulletproof cops, invulnerable martial arts masters and disturbed, indestructible villains. These guys aren’t likely to be mistaken for, say, Douglas Fairbanks or Alan Ladd, their silly shenanigans are several rungs below Bond or Bourne, and the picture itself isn’t even “good” – that is, endorsed by critics – but so what? Most of us don’t go to the movies for Great Art, just Good Popcorn. A film doesn’t have to be Vertigo or Citizen Kane, just ninety minutes that doesn’t leave the viewer feeling they’ve been had.
You grow to love the clichés in all their cheesy glory, and these occasionally lame, often derivative efforts still pack a surprising amount of dumb fun, whether you’re watching a WWE brawler chasing the scumbags who took his wife or, if you want something more cerebral, a WWE brawler fighting a chainsaw-wielding frog-man in the post-nuke desert.
Besides, who said every action hero has to be as noble and patriotic as James Stewart? Gary Daniels may not have shot Liberty Valance (neither did Stewart – it was John Wayne, standing in the shadows) but in Fist of the North Star he has the power to make his opponents’ heads swell and explode just by tapping them. And who needs wholesome role models when you’ve got Chuck Norris? Takes all kinds to make a planet.
Whether you call the following films schlock or guilty pleasures doesn’t matter, just as long as we understand this: the simple pleasures of B-grade escapism are not to be sneezed at.
25. Virtuosity (1995)
Here’s the pitch: Russell Crowe (Best Actor, Gladiator) is Sid 6.7, a “Nanotech synthetic organism”, which in layman terminology means he’s a composite of Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Jack The Ripper, John Wayne Gacy and, for all we know, Dick Chaney and Donald Rumsfeld.
You see, he’s part of a training simulation for LA’s finest, but unbeknownst to cop Denzel Washington (Best Actor, Training Day), one of Sid’s personalities is the psycho that butchered his family. So when Crowe escapes from virtual reality it’s one long cat-and-mouse game, but how do you tackle an opponent who’s impervious to bullets, doesn’t bleed and if tested could probably leap buildings in a single bound?
Think Demolition Man with the ethnicity of the leads reversed, some VR tossed in plus Louise Fletcher (Best Actress, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) as an ineffectual official and you’re almost there. There’s shades of The Hitcher and Die Hard as Denzel is set up for something he didn’t do, gets fired fired upon by a police helicopter and takes a very John McClane-ish rooftop plunge, then as if to prove originality is not this film’s strongest suit, it ends with Washington racing to defuse a bomb.
24. Executioner (1974)
For various reasons, Sonny Chiba’s ex-cop has to break a klutz out of prison and, together with a hitman, they set off to steal twenty billion dollars’ worth of dope from a New York gangster. Which is all the story that’s needed as for the rest of picture, Sonny’s content hurling bad guys through the air, tearing out rib bones and flooring henchmen by the dozen.
It may be light on plot, but the action never lets up and there’s some truly bizarre humour. During a car chase, Chiba refuses to ram the villain’s car because, he says, he isn’t gay (!), and when was the last time you saw a character ask their friend to look after their car payments before dying?
Chalk such silliness down to director Teruo Ishii, who delivers all the blood, nudity and bone-blasting, spine-shattering action you’d expect from the director of Horror of a Malformed Man (1969) and Blind Beast Vs Dwarf (2001).
23. Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone (1983)
Canada’s first 3D sci-fi epic, Spacehunter is another Star Wars/Mad Max copy, but like the Italian rip-offs it resembles, it’s diverting enough on its own terms.
Wolf (Peter Strauss), who in no way resembles Han Solo, is cruising through the galaxy when he learns of the reward offered for the safe return of three women who’ve crashed on Terra 11, a barren wasteland ruled by pasty-faced mutant Overdog (Michael Ironside).
Because he has alimony payments, rent arrears and 165 parking tickets, Wolf accepts and immediately runs into Washington (Ernie Hudson), who in no way resembles Lando Calrissian, and Niki (Molly Ringwald), who might’ve been intended as a Princess Leia-type but comes across more like Chewbacca – every time she opens her mouth, you want to cover your ears.
In plot terms, that’s all she wrote. Until their climactic encounter with Overdog, our heroes fight off Terra 11’s residents, including Amazon women, mutant children with Molotov cocktails, stunt performers in fat suits etc. Spacehunter may not have Return of the Jedi’s snap, but there’s no Ewoks, either.
22. Murphy’s Law (1986)
If you’re only familiar with Charles Bronson through his films with Michael Winner, you might find it hard to believe that he was also in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen, among others. He’s a long way from his glory days in Murphy’s Law, but it’s still the pick of his 80s films.
Framed for the murder of his ex-wife, Chuck hightails it to a rustic cabin, where his ex-partner takes him in, gives him a weapon and says “take care, old friend.” So we know the guy’s as good as dead. Sure enough, when Chuck leaves to confront whoever set him up, along comes psychotic Carrie Snodgress who’s waging a vendetta against the men that put her away, including the partner, who she wastes on the spot.
All the expected clichés and caricatures are present and correct in this Cannon classic, but best of all are the eye-talian mobsters that Chuck tangles with. When one of them informs him of Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong may result in a nosy cop taking a swim”), Bronson says: “The only law I know is Jack Murphy’s law. It’s very simple. Don’t f**k with Jack Murphy.”
21. Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Toho’s twentieth monster movie (their ninth to feature Godzilla), Destroy All Monsters is, by some distance, the liveliest and most outrageous of them all.
Set in an apparently alternate 1999, where rocket ships leave for the moon on an hourly basis, all of Toho’s creatures have been confined to a sanctuary called Monster Island. Naturally, they escape and start doing their thing, with Godzilla attacking NYC, Rodan trashing Moscow, Mothra invading Beijing etc., but the monsters aren’t acting of their own free will.
Turns out they’re being controlled by the Kilaaks, an “alien race” whose members just happen to resemble beautiful women in tight outfits. Thankfully, a group of astronauts are able to return control of the creatures to Earth, setting up one of the all-time-great monster movie showdowns as Godzilla, Mothra, Gorosaurus, Rodan, Baragon, Varan, Anguirus, Kumonga, Manda and Minira (Godzilla’s son) face off against King Ghidorah and the Fire Dragon, a flaming kestrel that turns out to be a Kilaak flying saucer.
20. The Adventures Of Hercules II (1985)
When his seven mighty thunderbolts are stolen, Zeus, the Greek God of fake beards, calls upon Hercules (Lou Ferrigno, apparently dubbed by Adam West) to battle extras in yeti costumes and rubber monster suits in order to retrieve them.
There’s more: Hercules’s nemesis, King Minos, has been resurrected by the forces of evil and sent to kill him. If that whets your appetite for a climactic swordfight, however, we’re sorry to disappoint you. But if you just thought, “I bet they transform themselves into animated dinosaurs – one yellow, one blue – and have a fight in outer space”, give yourself a cigar.
With its poorly choreographed fight sequences and scenes of skimpily attired maidens being sacrificed by a villain in a Ronald McDonald wig, The Adventures of Hercules proves director Luigi Cozzi (Starcrash, Contamination) to be the grand master of jaw-on-the-floor fantasy filmmaking. “If another threat emerges, the Earth is surely doomed,” announces Zeus. “Can mankind survive?” With Ferrigno and Cozzi in our corner, how can we fail?
19. 9 Deaths Of The Ninja (1985)
With its pre-credits action sequence, ‘epic’ theme song and flamboyant villains with silly names, as well as an appearance by Octopussy’s Vijay Amritraj, 9 Deaths thinks it’s a shoestring Bond movie, an ambition that’s derailed by saucer-eyed overacting, a supporting turn from Brent Huff (remember him in The Perils Of Gwendoline? Didn’t think so) and way too many unintentional laughs.
The problem with Moore-era Bonds was they often flirted with camp, what with all those comic strip villains and starlets named Chew Mee, but at least Roger’s smirk let you know the filmmakers were in on the joke. Here it’s hard to tell. There’s dwarf henchmen, naked female assassins, a villain that can catch a bullet, plus characters named Honey Hump and Madame Woo Pee, but it’s too earnest for it to be intentional.
Then there’s Blackie Dammett as Alby The Cruel, a wheelchair-bound Nazi in the Dr Strangelove mould, who when he can’t light his cigarette spits it out and shoots at it. You know Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis has watched this scene, if only to check out his dad’s acting.
18. TNT Jackson (1974)
Former Playmate of the Month Jeanne Bell fills in for Pam Grier in this Philippines-shot Blaxploitation action movie, playing a street-smart young woman who gets into fights every five minutes while searching for her missing brother.
Though game, Bell is no Pam Grier and certainly no martial artist, meaning her fight scenes are mostly good for laughs until her stunt double steps in to perform all the spine shattering bone blasting kung-fu kicks this one mamma massacre squad seems incapable of in close-up shots.
She does get one memorable fight scene, though. Confronted by gangsters, Bell plunges the room into darkness, removes her clothes (“You want it black, you got it black!”), and goes one on one with her assailants.
Produced by Roger Corman and co-written by Dick Miller, the film’s provenance alone guarantees it cult status, but it’s the unbelievable fight scenes and lively dialogue (“I’m gonna find ‘em, I’m gonna get ‘em and I’m gonna bust the motherfu**ers to pieces!”) that make it a must-see.