Where we left off…
1 Bourne vs. 9 James Bond
This seems like a fight between two doppelgangers. Both are globe-trotting superheroes masquerading as ground-bound master spies. The Bourne franchise always fancied itself as the more serious IP, with its focus on privacy, leaked data, and international jurisdiction. Just remember Bourne’s scowling face amid the half-polished Paul Greengrass grit and grime.
The Bond franchise just fancied itself as fancy.
When Bond tackled privacy, it was because Moriarty had all the CCTVs and the sneeriest sneer, and his BFF was camped out in a comet crater with his cat. Bond was never about deeper issues. These movies are everything about the sheen off the Aston Martins, the Bond girls, and the classic Walther PPK, everything a singular distillation of the coolest branding producers and costume and prop design could come up with. And despite its demand for cool, the Bond franchise ultimately succeeds. Upholding the entire English hegemony on his sculpted, Atlas-ian shoulders, Craig is a symbol for an entire country’s perfectly manicured masculinity.
Both series are problematic. The five Bourne movies suffer obviously from the Renner handover (minus one of the most chilling, realistic, palpitation-inducing work-shooting scenes ever) and 2016’s long-awaited return: Bourne: Diminishing Returns. Meanwhile Bond has Quantum of Solace and Spectre. Yet the real point of differentiation is in the memorability of those movies. Try to differentiate between any of those Bourne films, including their titles. They all featured the same chopped-up shaky-cam editing and semi-incoherent car chases punctuated by the occasionally brilliantly tense one-on-one showdown.
Bond, on the other hand, will always have the parkour chase in Casino Royale and Javier Bardem’s chilling Raoul Silva in the glistening neon framing of Sam Raimi’s Skyfall. Those are two masterpieces of elegant popcorn action.
Bond escapes Bourne’s elaborate torture device, downs him with an elbow to the head, and nonchalantly tosses off a one-liner as he strides off into the action sunset.
Winner: 9 James Bond
4 The Dark Knight Trilogy vs. 5 Edge of Tomorrow
I feel bad about this matchup.
This is David vs. Goliath, and Goliath is a giant, man-sized bat with billions behind it. Meanwhile, I’m not even sure if anyone even watched Edge of Tomorrow.
Instead we will eulogize Edge for some of the amazing tightropes it walks:
– Tom Cruise pulling off his classic, smirking asshole who slowly grows a heart along with some balls.
– Emily Blunt adding a nuanced, pained edge to her unstoppable, badass Xena Warrior Princess stereotype.
– a firm injection of humor in a tense, futuristic Saving Private Ryan-esque set-up.
You may not have won, but you keep running, Tom. You keep running.
Winner: 4 The Dark Knight Trilogy
2 Captain America: Civil War vs. 10 John Wick
One of the best features of Civil War and the two Wick films, especially Chapter 2, is the creativity of the action.
The Russo brothers both did scintillating work on Community and the fleetingly effervescent Happy Endings (only one of the most perfect TV shows ever constructed). But I didn’t ever think the Russos had the chops to take the TV-to-epic bull by the horns. Even Whedon failed. (I liked Age of Ultron, but that’s a different hill to die on.)
Let’s set aside the brilliant Captain America: Winter Soldier. We’re going to rank some of the action grace notes in Civil War. Because anyone can fire a gun or break a neck, but I saw some things I had never seen before.
5) Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow using a man’s body to shield her from a grenade.
4) An ant turning into a giant, and it’s not entirely ridiculous.
3) Everyone taking on Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier mostly unarmed, with a Tom Ford-clad Robert Downey Jr. catching a bullet with his hand.
2) Chris Evans holding down a helicopter with nothing but his enormous, steroidal biceps. The Winter Soldier responding by attacking Cap with a helicopter. Not with its guns or missiles. He attacks him with the fucking helicopter.
1) The Winter Soldier and Cap attacking German special forces with a stairwell. Let me repeat: with a stairwell.
Let’s quickly parse the last scene in particular. The use of constantly-shifting planes in the apartment building’s geometry is one of the cleverest pieces of choreography I have seen in a long time. The necessity of avoiding deaths simply adds to the degree of difficulty. And there are even extra grace notes on the entire scene, including Cap smothering a grenade with his shield, and the Winter Soldier using a battering ram on mere mortals.
The Wick films have their own advantages and disadvantages. Namely: Marvel has the benefit of one of the vastest worlds and a helicarrier’s worth of cash and a long and varied foundational history. Wick is making up its own world along the spot, but that hard R rating goes a long way towards evening the odds.
Where the Wick franchise really takes off is in the specificity of its aesthetic, all those blue and black reflective palettes. The smoothness of its gun-fu choreography puts the choppiness of Civil War’s occasional shaky cam to shame. And there’s something compelling about the one-man-against-the-worldness of Keanu Reeves that satisfies something deep down and bloodthirsty in us rather than a bunch of superpowered billionaires punching each other through buildings. Maybe it’s just politics, or maybe John Wick is just amazing.
Civil War is often underrated as an action movie because of all the Marvel fanboy baggage hanging off it, but Keanu Reeves does more with eleven lines of dialogue and a silencer than six times the budget.
Winner: 10 John Wick
3 Crouching Tiger vs. 6 Fast and the Furious
Buckle in, because we’re going to have to reconcile two facts.
1) Crouching Tiger is not really an action movie.
2) Crouching Tiger has three action set pieces that probably top everything else on this list.
From this platform we will proceed, but I can tell already you’re going to need convincing.
Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi are not martial artists. They aren’t wrestlers like the Rock or MMA specialists like Gina Carano. They aren’t Furious 7’s perpetual motion machine and second Muay Thai expert Tony Jaa.
Yeoh barely even keeps her balls-out action movie star persona, instead somehow settling for a big sister warmth and seriousness that threatens to dull the razor-sharp epee foil of the willfully hotheaded Jen and her thousand miles of brittle ice and armor warding a romantic’s heart. (Zhang is goddamned luminescent.)
This is a movie that carries great long moments of heartaching silence that speaks volumes more than any Tarantino-penned talkathon. Hong Kong master Peter Pau’s cinematography cuts as sharply as the Green Destiny, and a bunch of shaved Chinese guys sit around talking philosophy and stillness.
So why does Crouching Tiger win the choreography wars? It comes courtesy of Yuen Wo Ping, who had flights of fancy mixed in with leaden, overlong matches in the Matrix Trilogy. If Civil War used the different planes of geometry in spectacular fashion once, Tiger lives it and breathes it naturally and instinctively. Where Zack Snyder and Zhang Yimou’s Hero learned all the wrong lessons about bullet time and slow mo from The Matrix, Tiger was the other hissing visage from the double-headed snake that changed early 2000’s action. The fights were never too sped up nor too slowed down. Everything proceeded at precisely the velocity you expect a bunch of flying, wuxia badasses to move. Never once did it approach the repetition of The Matrix Reloaded’s infamous Agent Smith fight. And aside from the flying, you could almost, just almost imagine that each move was physically possible if you commanded the balletic grace of someone practicing in the shadows of Mount Wudang.
I enjoy the asymmetry of our bracket’s quietest, most thoughtful, beautiful and subtle movie taking on one of our stupidest, loudest, most actiony action movies.
Too bad Crouching Tiger isn’t an action movie. It’s just amazing it ever flew this far.
Winner: 6 Fast and the Furious
9 James Bond vs. 4 The Dark Knight Trilogy
We’re going to keep this one simple.
The Dark Knight and Skyfall are two of the best movies, much less action movies, to come out in the past twenty years or so. Except when one completely rips off the other (to great effect, mind you), then how can we give this matchup to anyone other than the caped crusader?
Batman is the OG, and so he moves on.
Winner: 4 The Dark Knight Trilogy
10 John Wick vs. 6 Fast and the Furious
Two of our most populist, purist actions movies meet in a straight up head to head.
These are two completely different movie franchises.
- F&F is about fast cars, heists, and beautiful women.
John Wick is about killing, killing, killing more people, and an occasional puppy.
- F&F luxuriates in its glossy, chrome cars.
John Wick luxuriates in its glossy, chrome-colored cinematography.
- F&F makes its bank on some of the most ball to the wall, cartoonish yet incredibly choreographed stunt work.
John Wick taps into a heroin vein of slick, brutal, closed-quarters fights and the non-occasional double tap to the head.
- F&F has an oddly sentimental streak.
John Wick has no sentiments.
- F&F relies on an ensemble.
John Wick relies on one man by his lonesome.
- F&F is multicultural.
Keanu Reeves is about as white as you can get.
F&F is big, dumb, brash, exciting, ridiculously hilarious with a panoply of stars digging into the dirt because they’re having so much fun (when Diesel and the Rock aren’t feuding) one-upping the last violently dangerous stunt in a world where it always seems to be 95 degrees in Brazil on the beach even when it isn’t.
John Wick is the more cerebral (which is saying something, because the first film is about a man getting vengeance for a puppy) meditation on violence, an unfurling, flowering expanse of idiosyncratic worldbuilding full of tattooed, horn-rimmed glasses-wearing telephone operators and Ian McShane out-gravelling Keanu’s gravelly voice.
I hate to lose big, dumb fun, but Wick provides more cinematic flair and point of view in two crackling, groundbreaking movies. Also, I pretended the Reeves-Fishburne reunion was The Matrix sequel we always deserved. Furious 7 might have been the only movie in this bracket to make me cry, but Wick turned me into a 12-year old again.
Winner: 10 John Wick
ROUND FOUR: THE FINALS
4 The Dark Knight Trilogy vs. 10 John Wick
And so we arrive at the end.
We are down to two stylish, beautifully choreographed films. Two franchises drowning in a sea of black-suited criminals. Two stone-faced vigilantes kicking ass and taking names.
It’s time to sing our hosannas because either of these franchises are worthy warriors.
The Dark Knight Trilogy manages to be many types of films all at once. The first film is an origin story, and a ninja flick, and a Taken movie (except Liam Neeson wants his economic Gotham de-recovery instead of his daughter). The second film is Heat, it’s The Godfather, it’s a twisting contortion of a psychological thriller, and the story of a man who burns down the world to catch another man who just wants to burn down the world. And the third is an out-of-retirement film, a redemption film, a terrorist film, a war film, and a what-the-fuck-is-this insane epic film.
It’s the MCU except with Christopher Nolan’s keen auteur insight, a popcorn film with weighty, heavy thematics that are so weighty and heavy they sometimes threaten to crush the viewer. Except we are buoyed up one of the sharpest bullpens of actors at the top of their game and the precision of a knife to the carotid.
John Wick goes for the aorta.
He fought Common in a busy subway station and no one noticed. John Wick: Chapter 2 is the movie that Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted (also with Common) always wanted to be but failed to be in almost every possible way. John Wick fought every possible assassin because there was a $7 million bounty on his head and you felt every blood-soaked pencil he needed to stagger and gasp his way towards the finish line.
When the end came, and the Continental excommunicated Wick, and every single human being in a ten-mile radius lifted their eyes up from their phone or grocery bags or stroller and stared him down, I got the chills and I got the goosebumps. So much assured filmmaking was packed into this sleekly concise punch.
Except there are weaknesses. Silly, loose premises. Slow first acts. A second-rate second film villain with a seconder-rate henchwoman.
Part of what I enjoy so much about the Wick franchise is the purity of it, how much they don’t give a shit about story and set-up and want to get straight into the action and the killing and the world of assassins. It doesn’t have time for any of those shenanigans.
But that’s the thing about the Dark Knight Trilogy. It always had time for story.
So when Wick promised he would kill them and kill them all, he was almost right. But he let Common live.
Batman made the climb.
FINAL WINNER: 4 The Dark Knight Trilogy