In the past decade, Hollywood has churned out more mega-budget blockbusters than ever before in its history, with ballooning budgets and a larger emphasis on previously established properties driving the film discourse. Now it seems as if there is a major blockbuster out every weekend, and due to the high volume of these films being released, there’s less time to thoughtfully consider each film individually.
In a time where serious critical thought is replaced by a Tomatoemeter score or opening weekend box office estimates, it’s no wonder that many films thought to be important are now forgotten. Due to the fast paced nature of how audiences consume films and anticipate future releases, big budget films that are panned or flop financially are not often the subject of critical reevaluation or considerate thought.
However, often hiding behind the guise of mixed reviews or middling financial success are real gems. Some tentpole films deemed to be duds actually have many redeeming qualities, and are certainly worth a second look. Here are the top ten most underrated blockbusters of the decade.
10. Triple Frontier
After sitting in development hell for several years, Triple Frontier was intended to be a major blockbuster for Netflix, who saw the action-oriented premise and cast of movie stars as a signal that they could capture the cultural zeitgeist. Unfortunately, the film was met with a rather muted response, and although Netflix doesn’t release its viewership or box office receipts in an official capacity, it’s not thought of to be a success.
This is quite unfortunate, as Triple Frontier is actually quite more thought provoking and introspective than one may expect; written by The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty scribe Mark Boal, it’s a fascinating look at how veterans are forced to make ends meet when their country abandons them.
The military dialogue feels accurate, and director J.C. Chandor sets up a relentless pace where the characters are forced to use their problem solving skills to survive. Opening with an exciting streetway chase that ends with a twist, Triple Frontier establishes itself as a film with real scale that’s also willing to challenge the viewers to pay close attention.
The morality of the characters isn’t clean cut, as they ultimately meditate on the failures of their lives both before and after this mission, and Chandor constantly switches things up with a film that’s equal parts character drama, action-adventure, and survival thriller. It’s the type of morally gray genre film with a big budget that Hollywood simply doesn’t make anymore.
Coming off of the massive success of District 9, writer/director Neil Blomkamp was pegged as the next big thing, but his follow up Elysium was largely seen as a step down, despite moderate box office success and mixed to positive reviews. While Elysium isn’t the game changer that District 9 was, it’s a very thoughtful look at how the class divide could manifest in a science fiction world and the lengths people would go to join the elite. Like District 9, this is a lived in film with a detailed history of how things came to be, and the dirty, waste barren vision of Earth that Blomkamp envisions seems very realistic.
Matt Damon’s performance is an unusual one; Damon is known for being a charismatic lead, and here he gets to play a character of questionable morality who inadvertently starts a revolution as he tries to save himself and ends up finding a greater purpose in his actions.
Pursuing him is Blomkamp’s District 9 star Sharlto Coppley as an insane bounty hunter, and Coppley clearly isn’t holding back by giving an outrageous, scene stealing turn that feels lifted from an 80s action film. While Blomkamp himself has expressed dissatisfaction with some elements of the film, there’s a lot to like about Elysium, and it’s inspiring to see so much time and care put into an original sci-fi film.
8. The Bourne Legacy
After the success of the brilliant Bourne trilogy, Universal Pictures was keen to replicate their success and greenlit a spinoff of sorts that focused on a new highly trained assassin named Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who is also a part of the Treadstone program.
The film debuted to little fanfare, and Universal reverted to their original template by bringing back Matt Damon as the lead in the largely forgettable Jason Bourne. Rather than adhere to the previously established formula, The Bourne Legacy expands the franchise’s mythology by exploring how a snowy cabin in the woods, an international pharmaceutical drug conspiracy, and morally dubious government agents all relate to the world of brainwashed assassins.
Aaron Cross is no Jason Bourne, but Renner isn’t playing him like they’re the same person. Unlike Bourne, Cross acts in full knowledge of his choices and chooses to chemically advance his abilities, making his awakening to the sinister forces at play interesting in a different way. Unlike the up close, shaky camerawork that Paul Greengrass utilized in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, director Tony Gilroy uses much wider, longer takes that allow viewers to get engrossed in the globe-trotting adventure. Ending on an ambiguous note that teased further adventures, The Bourne Legacy unfortunately never spun out into its own franchise.
7. The Accountant
Despite mixed reviews, The Accountant was fairly successful at the box office, but three years after its initial release there’s been no movement on a sequel and it seems to be forgotten in the public consciousness. The Accountant is a very unusual film- it casts one of the most charismatic movie stars on the planet as a character that is purposefully removed and non-emotive, but as the story goes on the shroud around Ben Affleck’s character Christian Wolff becomes unveiled. With a story that is both grounded in actual corporate dealings and pulpy in nature, The Accountant is often surprising, witty, and strangely emotional.
Ben Affleck is often an actor who is not given enough credit, and here he does a great job at playing a character who’s smarter than anyone who he comes into contact with, yet isn’t able to respond in a traditional emotional manner. His character finds a solace of sorts in his long lost brother Braxton (Jon Bernthal), an international assassin who has lost his way.
It’s ironic that it takes an embezzlement scheme and a series of botched assassinations to reunite two brothers, but there’s a surprising amount of heart in a story of two highly gifted siblings that end up on opposite sides of a dangerous situation. Idiosyncratic and well-researched, The Accountant is a blast to watch and certainly deserves more attention.
6. Jack Reacher
Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise redefined the action movie with the latest two installments of the Mission: Impossible franchise, but their previous collaboration Jack Reacher certainly deserved more attention.
This slick, cool action thriller puts Cruise in the exact right role as a distanced, highly trained assassin who does things that the law can’t normally do. The appeal of Cruise’s movie star status has always been his ability to do things that others can’t, and McQuarrie understands this and gives him a character that’s gruff and no-nonsense, providing Cruise with one of his best acting moments to date when he belittles Jai Courtney’s character over the phone.
Cruise is also great at playing an outsider, and Jack Reacher is often a character that is forced to fight against the system. As he uncovers a case involving a former military sniper framed for murder, Reacher is forced to do a lot of detective work, and the mix of mystery between the set pieces make Jack Reacher much more intelligent than average action fare.
It’s also a film populated by an interesting supporting cast, including the legend Werner Herzog in a scene stealing performance as a Russian gangster. The film received a follow up, and the lack of McQuarrie’s involvement is very clear in the absolutely terrible sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. However, the sequel’s failure should not discredit the very impressive first film.