The 2010s weren’t just a great decade for action films, but a decade in which action cinema continued to gain credibility and respect. Mad Max: Fury Road was a landmark moment in the history of action filmmaking, instantly praised as one of the greatest films of the 21st Century, and films like John Wick popularized the “gung fu” action style in American filmmaking. There were also franchises like The Raid and Mission: Impossible that were able to keep outdoing their previous installments.
The great thing about action films is that it’s a fluid definition; the best action films often intersect with other genres, including comedy, science-fiction, horror, and historical. Often, it is the films that don’t fall into the standard molds that are more likely to become underrated, but hopefully they are able to gain visibility and get the credit they deserve. Here are the top ten most underrated action films of the 2010s.
10. American Ultra (2015)
While it unfortunately bombed at the box office, American Ultra was a surprisingly heartfelt romantic thriller that managed to be both a send up of stoner movies and spy films. The film pulls no punches with its dedication to the espionage genre, pulling off hyper stylized, violent action set pieces that make use of its ludicrous premise. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, a perpetually paranoid stoner who discovers he’s a secret CIA operative; Howell must battle sinister government forces in order to win back his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristin Stewart).
Eisenberg and Stewart have worked together several times now in films like Adventureland and Cafe Society, and once again they have terrific chemistry; despite the crazy story, the aspects of the film that detail their shared fear of commitment are surprisingly potent. Eisenberg isn’t acting out of character as a nervous, awkward protagonist, but he’s great in these sorts of roles, and American Ultra gives him the chance to transform himself into an action star. It’s a rare original action-comedy, and deserves to attain cult status.
9. Welcome to the Punch (2013)
In the subgenre of underground London crime thrillers, Welcome to the Punch stands out as one of the best; there’s a methodical nature to the film’s depiction of bank heists and police procedures that is reminiscent of Michael Mann films, but there’s also a adrenaline-infused elasticity that infuses elements of Guy Ritchie’s films. There’s nothing terribly original about the story, which follows a cat and mouse game between a disgruntled cop (James McAvoy) and a criminal mastermind (Mark Strong), but it’s an action film that hits all the right beats and does so with style.
Both lead performances are terrific and elevate the material; McAvoy brings a lot of pathos to his character, who is suffering from a series of professional embarrassments, and Strong is able to slowly peel back the layers of his character, who retains a surprising moral uprightness. The story never gets too convoluted, and the interactions between the two characters are smartly staged throughout in order to lead up to the grand confrontation.
8. Kick-Ass (2010)
In many ways, Kick-Ass was ahead of its time; many superhero movies today argue that “anyone can be a hero,” and Kick-Ass takes aim at that statement by showing what it would be like if a totally incompetent, irresponsible kid became a surprising overnight sensation. The film cleverly draws the parallels between superheroes and celebrities, and Matthew Vaughn does a good job at not making too many references to other comic book characters, and instead building an entire history into the world and feel of Kick-Ass’s untraditional heroes.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson is often an underrated actor, and has given tremendous performances in films like Nowhere Boy and Nocturnal Animals, and here he succeeds in the somewhat thankless role of a superhero who is deliberately less interesting than any of his counterparts. This is often because the character of Kick-Ass is supposed to be outshined by his allies, and the characters of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) are both larger than life. With great hand to hand combat sequences and a fantastic score from Henry Jackman, Kick-Ass is a cut above many superhero movies.
7. Red (2010)
Bruce Willis has had a somewhat rough decade, having starred in mostly direct to VOD action films, but he still had a few great roles, including Looper and Moonrise Kingdom. Red wasn’t just one of Willis’s best recent efforts, but a role that allowed him to reflect on his entire career; the film focuses on a group of hitmen who are brought out of retirement for one last job. That may seem like a generic premise, but the film is surprisingly earnest in showing what it’s like to feel important one day and unrecognized the next.
Willis does a great job playing a somewhat matured version of some of his most iconic characters, but the film is often stolen by his co-stars. Most notably, John Malkovich is having a blast as Marvin Boggs, a conspiracy theorist who pulls off many ridiculous schemes, and Helen Mirren is hilarious as Victoria Winslow, a former assassin who just loves killing. A sequel, Red 2, was a solid, if somewhat underwhelming follow up, but here’s hoping the creative team can come back for a great third installment.
6. Anthropoid (2016)
One of the most underrated and moving World War II films of the past decade, Anthropoid is a suburb undercover thriller about the Czech insurgency against The Third Reich. Two Czech agents, played by Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, go undercover in their occupied homeland as they plot to assassinate Hitler’s top lieutenant Reinhard Heydrich. The two men become reunited with their cherished homeland, but they must keep their identities secret as they plot the daring heist that could turn the tide of the war.
The film is a slow burn, leading to an absolutely thrilling third act in which the Czechs are placed in a horrifying real event and display the utmost heroism; the film is detailed in showing the physical and psychological tortures that the Nazis put their subjects through. Dornan gives a breakout performance, and excels as his character is forced to leave his secret identity behind, and Murphy once again proves that he is one of the best actors working today. It is a must see for fans of the espionage genre and World War II buffs.