Few genres are as rewarding to their sequels as the action genre. For action movies, the second chapter can be a chance to up the ante, increase the budget, craft more impressive stunts, bring on more superb talent and increase the excitement. You can further develop the characters or explore more of the world you have crafted with the first film, you can fulfill fans desires and deliver more of what made the first installment so appealing to so many.
Of course we have all been scarred by the likes of Speed 2, The Matrix Revolutions and both of the Taken sequels but for every film that fails to add to and improve upon the first installment there are many that do, some even surpass their predecessor to become an action classic, one that is long remembered and frequently cited as one of the genre’s best. Here are ten that do just that.
10. Once Upon a Time in China 2
Tsui Hark’s original martial arts epic was a fun, sprawling foray into a new age of martial artists, one of the first major martial arts movies of that era that didn’t feature Jackie Chan to break through in other territories. Not only does this sequel have an improved budget that allows for superior stunt work by its choreographer Yuen Woo Ping, more impressive production design and a better overall aesthetic to the movie.
At the same time Once Upon a Time in China 2 is also more focused and sylphlike than the franchise’ previous installment. The plot concerns Jet Li’s Wong Fei-Hong battling the White Lotus Cult, who are bent on expelling foreigners from China. He then becomes embroiled within a conflict between the local magistrate (led by Donnie Yen) and a small group of rebels.
The plot in question does an excellent job at finding just the right balance between thought provoking storytelling and intense action. Far from being one action set piece after another the story is able to unfold in a graceful and skilfully woven way. Its political undertones create a sense of genuine involvement and relevance that is able to resonate with the viewer in a surprisingly effective way.
But the action in question is also spectacular, with Jet Li laying waste to religious extremists and government thugs alike. The fights are visceral, stylish and superbly crafted. They may be extravagant and somewhat over the top but don’t for a second think that means they are not immensely engaging. The knock down fight between Li and Yen in particular stands as one of Hong Kong’s greatest.
Li shows great presence and precision in the role that would help rocket him to superstardom. At the same time the supporting cast around him from the comic relief of Max Mok to the glorious villainy of Donnie Yen, are all excellent.
Once Upon a Time in China 2 stands as an ideal example of a sequel that irons out some of the original’s shortcomings, it’s more fluid and balanced and the higher quality of its production design seeks to raise the authenticity and engaging nature of the film to an even higher level.
9. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The Last Crusade is somewhat unusual as an action sequel. Where many sequels will improve upon the original on an aesthetic level, an increase in budget, special effects or plot, The Last Crusade is able to inject a greater sense of emotion and adds a more compelling nature to the film. After the somewhat discomforting Temple of Doom Spielberg took the franchise back to its roots but still managed to keep it fresh by delving deeper into the personality and history of the franchise’s iconic lead character.
This is epitomised primarily through the cast as actors like Denholm Elliot, John Rhys-Davies and of course Harrison Ford who even at this stage embodies the character so brilliantly and utterly perfectly, balancing every contrasting element from his deadpan glare, offbeat chill, natural swagger and his ability to make it all completely credible. But its new cast members such as Sean Connery and River Phoenix are introduced to flesh out the character’s past and bring forward a deeper emotive aspect of the story.
After opening with a flashback of the young Indy (Phoenix) in which is career as an adventurer/archaeologist is forged the modern day (or 1938) Indy embarks on a quest in the footsteps of his father to recover the Holy Grail before the Nazi regime finds it.
By humanising the character of Indiana Jones, The Last Crusade became just as engaging and immersive as it could be. Sean Connery’s performance as Indy’s father was a fascinating insight into the character of Indiana Jones and their differences, as well as their similarities are examined to both comedic and dramatic effect. Connery’s performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor and his chemistry with Ford make for some of the wittiest and most entertaining moments of the entire franchise.
Furthermore, The Last Crusade still has that classic aesthetic that made the original film in the franchise so memorable and distinctive. By harkening back to the serials of his youth Spielberg fills the film with the strong, basic colours that permeated classic pulp magazines. While The Last Crusade may not be as impressively crafted as the masterpiece that is Raiders of the Lost Ark, it debatably packs a bigger emotional punch and above all else is just great fun from start to finish.
8. The Raid 2
The surprise success and acclaim that was earned by Gareth Edwards previous Indonesian martial arts film, The Raid: Redemption, meant that a sequel was inevitable. However it came as a surprise to many that it was as superb as it was.
Like the first one there is a plentiful amount of violent action and beautiful carnage, all choreographed in the most intricate and fluid of ways but shot to be brutal and visceral beyond belief, to say that The Raid 2 is unflinching in its depiction of violence would be an understatement.
However, instead of just being the same plot of the last film on repeat or simply escalated, The Raid 2 is unexpectedly meditative in its plot and story. The film slowly winds up as cogs begin the gradually turn and steadily speed up as the film continues to build momentum. While a lot of action films inevitably execute their dramatic scenes with a distinct lack of craftsmanship or enthusiasm The Raid 2 takes pride in the tense and suspenseful nature of its quieter scenes.
The plot in question picks up not long after the first installment, in which Rama (Iko Uwais), having barely escaped the disastrous raid from the previous film is recruited to go undercover in a prison to gain the trust of a local mob boss’ son and infiltrate the organisation.
The plot allows the film to escalate not through spectacle but through the complexity of its storytelling. In contrast to the first movie this one unfolds over a much longer period than just a single day. That plot also takes the viewer well beyond the confines of a single building, through restaurants, warehouses, subway cars, nightclubs and even a wine cellar.
Evans’ characterisation only works to further flesh out his rapidly expanding universe. He introduces a number of new and memorable characters from a pair of assassins named Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl (try to guess what they do) as well as an entire syndicate of Japanese criminals and a psychopathic self-made gangster. For action fans The Raid 2 is about as great as they come.
7. The Bourne Ultimatum
Though Paul Greenrass’ first sequel in the Bourne franchise is a thrilling feature (and obviously it’s too soon to comment on the upcoming Jason Bourne, we’ll also pretend that Bourne Legacy never happened) it’s the franchise’s third installment that stands as the best. The Bourne Ultimatum is the series at its most visceral and exhilarating.
Like the previous movies the story revolves around Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon as always, and his continuing quest to uncover his true identity and information about his past concerning his involvement in Operation Treadstone only to become the target of a similar assassination programme.
The third installment is yet another exercise in skillful stunt work and high tech effects that are strung together to form one electrifying chase after another. It unfolds at a breakneck pace yet rarely feels as if it’s simplified or dumbed down for the audience, Bourne is a smart man working his way through difficult problems and the movie knows that and makes sure that the audience do as well for every second of screen time.
The dialogue is sharp, the supporting characters are all well-chosen and under Greengrass’ direction every fight scene is executed so expertly and extraordinarily. Though Greengrass has sometimes been criticised for his use of shaky cam it seems to stem from a dislike of the technique and its over usage as a whole in the genre because in The Bourne Ultimatum it’s employed to much better effect.
Rather than being used to disguise a lack of action or movement it’s used to represent the adrenaline rush and breakneck speed of each scene. With every actor being competently trained, seamless editing and by switching to wide shots at just the right moment the scene actually benefits from it.
Of course how could we talk about this film and not mention Matt Damon. It says a lot about Damon’s talent as an actor when you consider all of the abilities that Bourne has and yet somehow Damon was able to make us feel empathy for him and become invested within his struggle. As opposed to being an un-relatable superhuman Damon once again turns the character into a compelling and engaging presence.
6. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
While Brad Bird’s fourth entry to the Mission: Impossible franchise, Ghost Protocol, was a fantastically whimsical and thrilling installment it’s the next chapter by Christopher McQuarrie that stands as the best of the series. More so than any other film in the franchise it finds the perfect balance that lingers on the edge of what is believable yet still retains a sense of visceral energy to keep us invested in proceedings as they unfold in spectacular fashion, across numerous continents and multiple set pieces.
Now on the run from the CIA as they shut down all operations by the IMF, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) sets out to not only prove his innocence and the usefulness of the IMF but must also expose a deadly international terrorist consortium known only as the Syndicate. Along the way he is joined by fellow operatives played by Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner while being accompanied by a mysterious undercover operative, played by Rebecca Ferguson with mysterious motives and a shrouded past.
In many ways Rogue Nation effectively and efficiently combines the best aspect of every other Mission: Impossible movie into one gloriously realised package. There’s the moral ambiguity and steady tension of De Palma’s original, the visual stylistics of John Woo’s sequel, the visceral energy of J.J Abrams effort and the cartoonish sensibilities of Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol.
It literally jumps from one action scene to the next, and each one is as astonishing as the last. From the opening in which we see Cruise literally hanging from the side of the plane (famously performed in real life, with the only CGI inclusion being that which was used to hide Cruise’s harness) to the almost electrifyingly poetic opera house fight, or the excruciatingly tense underwater break in or the break neck speed of the motorcycle chase. The film continues to top itself again and again.
But at the same time Rogue Nation retains a great sense of fun and entertainment value even in its quieter moments. The chemistry between the cast, accessible characters and solid humour as well as a genuine sense of development all serve to elevate the film to more than just a spectacle on the most basic level but in terms of character and writing it also excels.