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With superhero movies in full control of audiences’ brains and wallets these days, it can be hard for a testosterone-fueled, no-nonsense, fist-in-the-face action flick to make an impact. Unless you’ve got the words “fast” and/or “furious” in the title, people don’t care as much about brawny dudes wielding heavy artillery or beating each other up anymore. As a result, studios and directors are starting to experiment a little more with the concepts, style, and creative talent behind their action projects. Here were four action movies that tried to do a little something different this year. They weren’t necessarily successful or even all that good in some cases, but here’s hoping this paves the way for more innovation.

Pain & Gain

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Love him or hate him, Michael Bay was indisputably one of the kingpins of ‘90s action extravaganzas. The Rock and Armageddon weren’t just summer blockbusters; they were bona fide events. After getting bogged down with the successful but mind-numbingly dull Transformers movies in recent years, Bay wanted to make a smaller passion project. So he gave us Pain & Gain, based on the true story of a trio of Miami bodybuilders who dive headfirst into kidnapping, extortion, and eventually murder, all in pursuit of the American dream. The actual events are darkly fascinating, but Bay pitches the whole thing as a bombastically over-the-top comedy, sort of like what Tony Scott did for Domino. And he really focuses on the meathead personalities of the ridiculously jacked lead characters played by Mark Wahlberg, The Rock, and Anthony Mackie. We watch them bumble around and generally act like morons, yet somehow pull off their plans. The story probably would have been more interesting told straighter, as Bay’s teenage boy sense of humour isn’t really all that funny, but Pain & Gain still has its ridiculous pleasures and it’s nice to see Bay step a little bit outside his comfort zone before returning to franchise boredom.

 

The Last Stand

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Twenty-thirteen marked the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to leading roles, beginning with The Last Stand. Schwarzenegger alone should have been enough to get people excited, but someone made the interesting decision of getting Korean director Kim Jee-Woon (I Saw the Devil, The Good, the Bad, the Weird) to helm the story of an aging sheriff of a small Southern border town tasked with stopping the leader of a drug cartel from passing through. Unfortunately, Jee-Woon’s style was almost completely absorbed by a pedestrian script and generic execution, complicated by the fact that he doesn’t speak a word of English and had little communication with his cast. The film tanked at the box office, making back less than a third of its budget, so the return of Arnold came and went with little fanfare. Hopefully the idea of pairing iconic stars with eclectic cult directors catches on elsewhere though.

 

I Declare War

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Since it usually takes a ton of money to produce an action movie, you rarely come across an indie action flick that gets any notice. This year, however, saw the theatrical release of the inventive low-budget I Declare War from Canadian directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson. It takes off from a great premise: a group of middle school kids play a game of capture the flag in the woods and we see it from their fantasy perspectives, as they fire real guns to try and “kill” each other. The dynamics of the teams and the individual kids are explored, as well as the betrayals and jealousy that enter the mix as emotions start to get tangled up with the game. Despite this great starting point, the film does lose steam over time and the dilemmas become less interesting. Yet there’s no doubt this is one of the most original action movies in recent years, hopefully encouraging other directors to try to experiment with the genre on lower budgets.

 

Snitch

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Another way to do something a little different is to actually have an emotionally invested story. Snitch is the second movie starring The Rock this year which was based on true events, although this one is a little more down to Earth. When his son is imprisoned after being set up in a drug deal, John Matthews (The Rock) agrees to help the DEA catch a high-level drug dealer by going undercover. The Rock has always been a behemoth, but here he does a decent job playing an everyman father willing to go to any lengths to protect his son. Director Ric Roman Waugh, who previously made the excellent prison drama Felon, keeps upping the stakes at every turn. As John gets deeper and deeper into the drug trade, it becomes more apparent that he’s not just putting himself in danger, but his family and friends, too. And the way out is getting smaller and smaller. It’s an intense real world action movie that relies on expert storytelling more than anything else. Imagine that.

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