From ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Jurassic World,’ 2015 Was a Great Year for Action Films
So many good films flickered across the silver screen this year it’s hard to pick my favorite. So I won’t, I’ll just share an informal list of the movies that stuck with me through the year.
Kylo Ren and the menacing forces of the First Order showed the galaxy the power of the dark side. Furiosa and Max tore across the flat lands burning through guzzoline and dropping war boys at every turn. Chris Pratt weaponized velociraptors. Hollywood gave us several compelling, respectful and fascinating portrayals of Iraq war veterans. Netflix created a dark fairy tale about child soldiers. Cynicism about the war on drugs reached a terminal point.
It was a great year for movies. Warning, The Force Awakens spoilers incoming.
Star Wars returned to theaters this year, free of the misguided vision of its creator George Lucas. The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars movie I’ve ever seen, and not just because it backed up my assertions from earlier in the year.
In the lead-up to the film, I pointed out that Kylo Ren and the mysterious remnants of Empire witnessed in the trailers was proof that targeted killings don’t work. Luke Skywalker killed Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, but the upcoming filmed seemed to indicate that the end of the Emperor did not signal the end of the Empire.
And I was right. After Skywalker and the Rebels blew up the Empire’s biggest toy and killed its leaders, something far worse emerged. The First Order is far more competent than its predecessor. It kept its super weapon secret and used it to destroy its enemy’s military capabilities in one fell swoop.
Worse, Vader is now a martyr worshiped by his mad grandson Kylo Ren. His fantastic death worship sends him on a crusade that causes him to commit all manners of atrocities on the desert planet Jakku.
Speaking of toxic ideologies rampaging across the desert, Mad Max: Fury Road was incredible. The two and a half-hour long car chase proved that action movies didn’t have to be brainless to be incredible.
This is a terrible idea. Universal Studios capture
But that doesn’t mean action movies need to be smart to be good. It was a good year for ridiculous low-brow — but high concept — action films. Back in February, X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn delivered the strange comic book spy beat-em-up Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Colin Firth became an action hero and murders a church full of parishioners in his fight against Samuel L. Jackson’s Mark Zuckerberg style villain.
“Kingsman is … violent,” I wrote. “Brains explode, limbs break and good guys impale people on spears. Which adds to the camp and fun. I felt like I was watching an R-rated Marvel movie — and that’s a good thing.”
American Ultra was another oddball, ultra-violent popcorn flick I saw this year. It’s a stoner comedy that supposes the CIA’s horrifying MK Ultra experiments never ended. Jesse Eisenberg plays a goofball pothead with agency training who goes on a rampage when spooks show up to clean up evidence of their human experiments.
Jurassic World tore up the box office this summer as Chris Pratt’s crew of velociraptors fulfilled the dream of everyone who grew up watching Jurassic Park. But, as David Axe pointed out, going to war with dinosaurs is a terrible idea.
“Good luck getting your war-lizards to follow orders,” Axe wrote. “The dinos in Jurassic World are unreliable, at best — and downright treasonous, at worst. InGen works hard to imprint its baby Deinonychus on human handlers, who then train and condition the animals as they grow up. And still, the raptors eat more than a few of their human teammates.”
The more serious movies of 2015 did a stellar job too. HBO’s Nightingale painted a haunting portrait of a veteran descending into madness and violence. It’s an old story, one ripe for exploitation. But Nightingale is respectful and sad rather than cold and cynical.
The independent romantic comedy Amira & Sam told the story of a Special Forces veteran coming home to New York City and falling in love with an Iraqi refugee. The film subverted the narrative by making Sam clear headed, intelligent and capable. It’s the rest of the world that went crazy after 9/11, not the soldier.
Two of the best films of the year dealt with seemingly intractable problems. Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation told the story of child soldiers in an unnamed African country. The dream imagery, Idris Elba’s performance and resistance to easy answers or interpretation made it one of the best films of the year.
But Sicario was the best war film I watched in 2015. It’s a hard film to write about without spoiling its impact. Agent Mercer’s journey through the dark heart of America’s war on drugs will haunt me well into 2016. Watch it, then go see Star Wars again.