Some years are just great for certain genres, and this year was a great one for action. All across the board were films within different subgenres stepping up and delivering great action set pieces and characters. Consider the shot on the revolving tank gun revealing the totality of carnage in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or the tight line between insanity and sharp focus with the home invasion scene in The Guest, the shot of Chris Evans plowing through several baddies with an axe in slow motion during Snowpiercer, watching Keanu Reeves dispatching thugs with slick gun-fu in John Wick, or literally any scene from the action opera The Raid 2. Take all that together in the same year (!!!!) and it’s clear to see we’ve been spoiled.
But all that aside, only one person can take the title of 2014’s Action Hero. Action Heroes are like Highlanders, there can only be one.
Rule #1: Only lead performers can take the title. Supporting roles in other films will help their status, but a singular film of theirs will be the deciding factor. So as much as I want to raise my future children to be just like Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man from The Raid 2 someday, I can’t list either of them on this power ranking. But since they stole the show with 3 scenes I’ll give them an honorable mention as Best Guns for Hire.
BEST GUN(S) FOR HIRE – Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man in The Raid 2
Rule #2: There is no specific limit for how many people can make the Action Hero rankings, but I’ll keep it small in the spirit of competition.
Rule #3: Becoming an action star isn’t entirely quantifiable, it just kind of happens through collective agreement for the most part. But there were a few factors were taken into account in deciding how to rank these badasses. For one, I took into account the general amount of ass that they kicked. In Baseball there is a statistic called WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which combines all the statistics to calculate how many wins the player contributed above the league average for their position. I essentially tried to come up with my own variant for this regarding these rankings but swiftly fell down a wormhole of data that I was lost in for hours, and eventually gave up on trying to quantify ass-kicking. What we learned here today is that I am not a sabermetrics genius, just a guy who likes to write about action films. But I did take into account box office performance as well as the general amount of ass kicked in the film.
So after determining that data, sweating over the research and performing some dark magic/devil worship, then ignoring the data and adding my own healthy dose of confirmation bias, I decided the rankings below.
7. Frank Grillo – The Purge: Anarchy
With this role as well as playing Brock Rumlow in Captain America: Winter Soldier, this was the year the American public finally became familiar with the talent of Frank Grillo. You could argue picking him from this film violates Rule #1 as this does lean towards an ensemble film, but you take his character out and you don’t have a movie. Everyone in the group dies in like 5 minutes and you don’t have a character with an arc like he did. The movie loses without him. The Purge: Anarchy has many flaws, but Frank Grillo is none of them. With a customized car made of armor, a bag of guns and stubble that could cut you if you touched it, Grillo broke out as a quasi-action icon. Since they don’t mention his character’s name I’m forced to believe it’s Frank Castle, and now we are all foaming at the mouth for a Punisher film starring Grillo.
Iconic moment: The scene where he goes through the courtyard taking out a handful of rich pricks who have paid to hunt Grillo and his group. He starts out with nothing but his hands and slowly takes them all out. The ease and focus he does it with make you believe Grillo is ready for action stardom. If the Purge ever happens, I’m going to Frank Grillo’s house to bunker down.
Next Year – No strict action roles until he presumably turns up in Captain America: Civil War in 2016, but let’s hope if they make another Purge film it’s just him kicking some government ass.
6. The Rock – Hercules
Heading into this year, this was going to be The Rock’s year. He had finished 2013 as the highest grossing actor in the industry, and his action star was steadily rising. But as I wrote earlier this year, The Rock only brings in the big bucks when he’s part of an ensemble, not a lead. This was the case with his lone release this year in Hercules. While the film underperformed its budget domestically, his worldwide marketability proved true and strong, helping the film make a decent profit. But why does The Rock really make it onto the rankings?
Iconic Moment – One scene in Hercules. A guy riding a horse on a battlefield charges at The Rock. The Rock holds steady. Just before the rider gets to him, he sidesteps the guy, and WITH ONE HAND picks up the horse and throws it like a good 30 yards. That’s a little thing called setup and payoff. I knew that a badass moment was about to happen, but I didn’t know it was gonna be “vaulting a horse” level of badass. It’s like ordering a steak that you’re expecting to be good, but then it’s great.
Next year, – The Rock fights nature in San Andreas and returns in the sure-fire hit Furious 7, so expect him to rise in the rankings next year.
5. Liam Neeson – Non-Stop
Liam Neeson has one of the weirdest career arcs we’ve been blessed to watch. At the ripe age of 56, in one swift move he became the most bankable action star in Hollywood with Taken, and has largely held the bankability ever since. With Non-Stop, he reached the coveted levels of action stardom where movie plots are created and then convoluted specifically to have its star kick ass. Non-Stop is what happens when somebody has the amazing idea to have Liam Neeson kick ass on a plane. We all got what we paid for. Liam Neeson kicked ass, threw out some one-liners and saved the day.
Iconic moment – When he dives, grabs the gun in mid-air in slow motion, then turns and shoots the bad guy – still in mid-air. It’s amazing. God Bless Liam Neeson.
Next year – He has Tak3n (actual title) and reteams with Non-Stop director Jaume Collet-Serra for Run All Night, so expect him to battle for the top spot in the rankings come 2015.
4. Denzel Washington – The Equalizer
Denzel Washington kills the entire Russian Mafia in this film. That’s not hyperbole. It literally ends with him killing the head of the Russian mafia. Denzel Washington is also a superhero in this film. There is only one person in this film that lasts longer than like 15 seconds in a fight against him, and it’s not even the main villain, it’s one of his henchman.
Iconic moment – In the climax he takes out a bunch of goons with power tools. Now you want to see this film immediately, right?
Next year – Denzel has no action films set for next year, but expect his remake of The Magnificent Seven sometime in 2016, we’ll see him back in the rankings then.
3. Scarlett Johansson – Lucy
Fun fact, this film actually had the highest worldwide take of the contenders on this ranking with a whopping $418 million. Take that, misogynist-valued Hollywood! Just shove that stat in the face of anyone who ever claims that people don’t pay to see films – and even more so, action films – starring women. Now make more of them, please.
Iconic Moment – Near the beginning when she first gains drug superpowers, she takes out her captors, starting by feigning seduction to get one of them close enough to take out. With this and Under the Skin, 2014 was the year of Johansson flipping the male gaze on its head, then killing it.
Next year – Johansson will take a breather on the action front save for a return as Black Widow in The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
2. Keanu Reeves – John Wick
This is the year that Keanu Reeves the action star finally returned to us in his most definitive entry into the action genre. This is the Keanu Reeves action film we’ve always been waiting for. Even at 50 years old, Reeves can still perform stunts and fight scenes with more dexterity and athleticism than guys half his age. The ease with which he does it, framed by the kinetic camerawork by directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch instantly make John Wick an action icon.
Iconic Moment – The home invasion. There are numerous scenes I could have picked, but I went with this one because it delivers on the promise of just how lethal John Wick is. It’s the first time we get to watch him really kick ass in the film. Just after the audience is told that he’s the man they send to kill the Boogeyman, he lives up to the reputation when some assassins try to kill him in his home. One by one he dispatches them with slick ease, reinforcing to the audience that they are in for a good ass-kicking time.
Next Year – Reeves doesn’t have any action films next year, but is gearing up to reteam with John Wick directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch for their action series Rain. When that comes out I’ll be forced to reconsider my rules to include TV performances on the rankings.
1. Iko Uwais – The Raid 2
Anybody who has seen The Raid: Redemption and this year’s The Raid 2 had to have seen this coming. Lowest box office return on the list ($2.6 million)? Doesn’t matter. When you watch Iko Uwais kick ass, you’re watching a master of his martial art do his thing. With other cast members he helped director Gareth Evans pull off some of the most mind-blowing action sequences ever put on screen. The Raid 2 turned him into a one man army, taking on dozens upon dozens of goons. While you laugh in enjoyment at seeing most people turned into one man armies, you completely believe that Uwais could take on literally everyone and pulverize them – including the other people on this ranking.
Iconic Moment – I could literally put any action scene from The Raid 2 here and it could speak for itself, but we’re going to go with the climactic kitchen fight. It is beyond mind-blowing to witness, because you are watching two martial arts masters truly giving it their all. The whole space of the kitchen is used, as well as numerous props to an intensifying effect. Just go watch The Raid 2, okay?
Next Year – Uwais doesn’t have anything immediately lined up, but when The Raid 3 comes out expect him back at the top of the rankings.