Here are a couple of ground rules for this article.
1. Movies are from the New Millennium, 2000 – present day.
2. All protagonists must be males.
3. All films are of the action genre.
Keanu Reeves as John Wick (JOHN WICK 2014)
The killing of John Wick’s dog is the fuel that ignites the conflagration of gloriously choreographed violence. The story is much deeper than just the death of a puppy; it hinges on the recent death of Wick’s wife who gifted Wick the dog after her death. This emotional link is the catalyst for Wick’s vengeful rampage. Wick decimates dozens and dozens of Russian gangsters while trying to get to his target Iosef Tarasov, the son of Russian mob boss, Viggo Tarasov.
It was Iosef Tarasov that beat Wick out of a cold sleep in the middle of the night, killing his puppy in the process. Tarasov then steals Wick’s 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1. This leads Wick to a friend’s chop-shop to inquire about his stolen car. Once the thief is identified, Wick calls mob boss Tarasov and it’s here we learn that Wick once worked for him. Carnage ensues as Wick battles his way toward his target of the son and then to the elder Tarasov.
JOHN WICK came out of nowhere, and by word of mouth, became a cult sensation. Keanu Reeves had made plenty of pictures in the past and is probably best known for his role as Neo in the mega-blockbuster THE MATRIX (1999). Prior to this, Reeves was just sort of known as an actor playing goofy characters in films such as BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989) and PARENTHOOD (1989). He had done some action films in the past such as POINT BREAK (1991) and SPEED (1994) but nothing that compares to his role as John Wick.
This picture set new standards for the action genre. It’s extremely violent and moves at a quick and steady pace in which Reeves as Wick, literally mows down bad guy after bad guy. Wick’s weapon of choice is the gun, any gun, and he uses it as though it’s natural part of his anatomy. Wick, without fail, places a final bullet into the heads of his opposition, to ensure a definitive kill as he doesn’t want to deal with them later. I found this detail to be a nice touch in regards to Reeves’ character.
If you were told Reeves was being cast for a part like this, you would have likely laughed at the idea. Maybe that’s the reason the studio kept it so quiet. After seeing Reeves in JOHN WICK, you’re speechless as he plays the part to perfection.
NOTE: Keanu Reeves was 50-years old when he took this part.
Karl Urban as Judge Dredd (DREDD 2012)
I first saw Sylvester Stallone’s JUDGE DREDD (1995) during its original theatrical run and had no idea the movie was inspired by a British comic book. While the Stallone vehicle isn’t very good, it manages to be a fun watch for all its silliness and science fiction world building.
When DREDD (2012) was announced, I had no intention of seeing it. Not theatrically anyway. I honestly had no real desire to see it after it was released to home video. When it did become available, the Internet sported a massive virtual hard-on for it, calling it the real deal. The Internet reported this film version depicted Dredd consistent with the comic book source material; a gritty and violent world filled with drug lords and corruption. I found myself intrigued, so I picked up the disc and have watched it several times since.
Karl Urban is a New Zealand born actor who had been in several big pictures prior to appearing in DREDD, most notably; THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002) and THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003). He then appeared in DOOM (2005) as John Grimm (a guilty pleasure of mine) playing a great sympathetic, yet, tough guy in that role.
While Urban has that tough guy look, he hadn’t really taken that tough guy “leading role” until DREDD. In this film, Judge Dredd is tasked with breaking in a new partner, Judge Anderson (played by Olivia Thirlby). Both Judges have been assigned to the Peach Tree 200-story high-rise flat in Mega-City One, where two known drug-dealers have been murdered. During their investigation they find the high-rise is ruled by drug lord Ma-Ma (played by a gloriously grotty Lena Headly). Ma-Ma is not only manufacturing the drug Slo-Mo, she’s distributing it throughout the city while ruling with an iron-fist. Needless to say, Dredd and his new partner enter the 200-story building and mow their way to Ma-Ma’s den on the upper floors.
To my surprise, DREDD far my exceeded expectations. Coincidentally, I set those expectations on low and was blown away with how well the picture was made and the quality of the writing. Urban never takes his helmet off during the film, and according to fans of the comic book, this is exactly how it should have played out. One of the issues most people had with JUDGE DREDD (1995) was the fact that Stallone removed his helmet far too often, something that hasn’t happened in the character’s source material since his first appearance in 1977 in the comic magazine 2000 AD.
Part of DREDD’s allure is how violent it is and it’s this over the top violence which allows it to work so well. It takes comic book violence and translates it to the big screen with adrenaline pumping perfection. At one point in the film, a hired henchman mans a minigun in an attempt to kill Dredd in a relentless storm of bullets. It’s here you realize that nothing is too over the top – not even losing the entire hi-rise if it means eliminating the Judges.
Urban makes DREDD work when maybe it shouldn’t have. He never cracks a smile, never tells a joke and never lets the bad guys go. He’s completely dedicated to the judicial system and immerses himself in the role, and that’s why it works so well.
Sylvester Stallone as Rambo (RAMBO 2008)
When I heard there was going to be another Rambo picture I sort of laughed and brushed the idea off. I did this because at the time I heard the news, Stallone was 60-years old, and let’s face it, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985), though a financial success, wasn’t exactly a great picture. RAMBO III (1988) followed three years later and was almost a parody of the previous two pictures. In looking back, it’s one of those “it’s so bad it’s good” movies. Twenty years after the last installment of the Rambo franchise, Stallone is back as John Rambo in a film simply titled RAMBO. And OMG, is he back and back with a vengeance.
Twenty years after his shenanigans in Afghanistan, John Rambo is now a snake catcher and handy-man living in a small village in Thailand. He’s not much of a talker and seems to be living in peace. It’s here we meet Michael Burnett (played by Paul Shulze). Michael is leading a small group of missionaries into war torn Burma (Myanmar) to lend aid to those less fortunate. Michael attempts to hire Rambo as a boat guide to take them up river. Rambo, being a man of few words, tells him to “go home”. Later that night, Julie (played by the sexy Julie Benz) talks Rambo into taking the team.
The following day, Rambo and the missionaries head up river to begin their quest. The journey starts out just fine, but late into the trip, they’re stopped by river pirates. After being threatened and after the pirates see the blonde haired girl (Sarah), Rambo quickly kills them as they were about to do the same to them. Once at the drop off point, the missionaries depart and begin their goodwill mission. Weeks go by without hearing a word from the missionaries. This leads Rambo up river once again only this time he’s taking mercenaries along to find the missing party.
That’s RAMBO in a nutshell, but there’s so much more to this picture. In fact, it’s one of the most violent movies I’ve ever seen and the bloodshed is absurdly crazy. And that’s OK, because the villain in the film is a pedophile and a rapist and his men are no better. This makes it OK to maim and slaughter dozens and dozens and dozens of soldiers using any means possible.
Stallone as the protagonist plays his part perfectly. He’s the single reason why this film works so well. In fact, if looking back at his many tough guy roles, this 2008 version of Rambo is much more cartoonish if compared to that of the earlier films, or maybe I should say, the film is much more cartoonish in its violence and Stallone just goes along for the ride. At this point in Stallone’s career, he should have been washed up. Instead, he puts together an amazing little independent picture allowing his John Rambo character to live. When it comes down to it, this film had to be over the top violent in order to survive the onslaught of other violent action films in the late 2000s. This is one I HIGHLY recommend if you’ve yet to see it.
NOTE: Sylvester Stallone was 62-years old when this movie was released.
Iko Uwais as Rama (THE RAID: REDEMPTION 2011)
This will likely be the shortest piece in this article. While I own both RAID films, I’ve only seen them once each and badly need to revisit them.
Similar to DREDD, THE RAID: REDMPTION takes place in a high-rise filled with bad guys. The object of the picture is for a S.W.A.T. team to climb each floor of the building until they reach the top killing the boss. It’s the equivalent of a video game, a modern day Rampage.
This movie is an Indonesian produced film directed by Welsh-born Gareth Evans. It’s sort of an odd-mix if you ask me, but one that works extremely well.
The star of the film is Iko Uwais (Rama). Uwais was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, and started practicing Silat, a traditional Indonesian martial art, at the age of 10. In fact, his Grandfather was a master of Silat, so it was only natural for Uwais to learn himself. In 2005, Uwais became the Silat National Champion and was discovered by Gareth Evans when he was doing research for a 2007 documentary. The rest is history as Iko Uwais has fast become an internationally recognized martial artist and film actor.
Being an actual martial artist lends to a realistic martial arts/action film. Like the other modern day badasses mentioned in this piece, THE RAID: REDEMPTION works, most notably, because of Iko Uwais’ fighting talent. The film is slickly produced and rarely takes time to slow down and breath. Uwais is no Bruce Lee or Donnie Yen, but man, does he kick some serious ass. In time he may be one of the greats, but only time will tell.
THE RAID: REDEMPTION is a must see and the fighting is second to none until you see the follow up film THE RAID 2 (2014) which ups the ante quite a bit.
Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills (TAKEN 2008)
Liam Neeson has been making movies since 1978. If looking back at his filmography, you’d likely know him from EXCALIBUR (1981), KRULL (1983), THE DEAD POOL (1998) and ROB ROY (1995), the film in which Neeson comes into his own. Thirty years after his acting debut in PILGRIM’S PROGRESS (1978), Neeson takes an unusual role as the character Bryan Mills from the movie TAKEN (2008). To everybody’s surprise, Liam Neeson is one bad mother-fucker.
TAKEN has a simple plot. Mills is a retired CIA agent looking to make a few extra bucks by doing personal security. Along with this, his daughter’s birthday is just around the corner and he’s doing what he can to smooth things over with her in what has been a rocky relationship. Kim (played by Maggie Grace) and her Mother (played by Famke Janssen) corner her Father during lunch asking his permission to go to Europe over school break. He hesitates, but tells her yes as long as she keeps in contact with him over the phone every day.
After Kim lands in Paris, she completely forgets to call dad as she gets caught up in her new surroundings. Kim and her friend also meet a nice boy and agree to go to a party with him later that night. Once settled into their temporary flat, someone knocks at the door and it’s here Kim and her friend are taken, but not before she calls her Father while hiding under the bed in an attempt to elude the kidnappers.
Bryan Mills – I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money . . . but what I do have is a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
Marko – (after a long pause) Good luck.
This small piece of dialogue sets the stage for what is an amazingly fun action film. Neeson in the role of Mills is surprisingly convincing. I honestly was blown away with his performance and how well staged the action scenes were. Again, it’s a pretty simple plot and Mills wants just one thing – his daughter. He actually gives the kidnappers an opportunity to return her. They are, however, so well established in the sex trade industry to believe they cannot be touched. Bryan Mills shows them differently.
Each confrontation Mills has with the bad guys is well crafted. The script, while not complex, is fairly believable. It appears the daughter’s future role as a sex trade victim goes deeper than just sex. At about the halfway point, the audience is introduced to Mills’ old friend St-Clair (Gérard Watkins). St-Clair is the local police chief and is aware of the sex trade in which Mills is embroiled. While having dinner with St-Clair and his family, Mills shoots St-Clair’s wife in the leg. This was done to show St-Clair that nothing was going to stop him from getting his daughter back, not even politics or friendship.
Once the dinner conclude Mills goes on a rampage. He literally slaughters the gangsters, one after another, until he gets his daughter safely returned. I think we’d all do the same if confronted by these men and if we had the skills of Bryan Mills.
NOTE: Liam Neeson was 56-years old when this picture was released.
Modern Day Badass Round-Up
Each of these Modern Day Badasses deserves to be recognized. They’re all FANTASTIC in their own right and the performances need to be seen, so there’s no prioritization to the order of this list. The modern action film is punctuated by extreme, over the top violence. The true badasses of this cinematic era, as evidenced here, have a maturity delivered by mostly seasoned actors who imbue their characters with a gravitas that sells the ferocity and tone of these films.
Did I leave a Modern Day Badass off this list? If so, who would you have included? Let us know by posting your comments below.
Contributed by Mike Murphy