John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 is an archetypal cult film. All but shunned by US critics on its release in 1976, it won a rapturous reception at the London Film Festival a year later. It was remade in 2005, is now seen as one of the best action films of the '70s, and yet is still arguably underrated.
Assault was shot in November 1975 on a budget of just $100,000. Carpenter could not afford to make a western, as planned: to cut costs, Carpenter refashioned the film as a contemporary thriller which transplanted the siege scenario of Rio Bravo (1959) to an isolated Los Angeles police station.
A master of Wing Chun has soundly defeated ten Japanese karatekas, who lie broken and groaning around him. General Miura, the organiser of this bout, demands to know the victorious fighter's name. After a pause, he answers: "I am only a Chinese".
At this point in Wilson Yip's film, Ip Man truly becomes a new folk hero. Once privileged and aloof, Ip has been transformed by the Japanese occupation of his country into a selfless protector of his people. Donnie Yen's performance as Ip reflects this change even in the way that he fights: a newfound sense of political commitment and righteous anger seems to pervade every strike.
When Walter Hill made The Driver, he felt that the time was right for its spare, minimalist approach - for something "more than, or perhaps less than, an action film." In fact, it arrived too soon. It was savaged by critics and proved a financial failure. Had Hill's next project not already entered production, The Driver might have prematurely ended his career.
Like that next project - The Warriors (1979) - The Driver has become a cult favourite. What critic Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times saw as a "bad imitation" of European and American noir is now recognised as an inspired extension of those movies. Far from being "ultraviolent trash", its superb car chases are electrifying even for the '70s, the golden era of the form.
The '90s heyday of the real-time strategy game is long over, but Westwood Studios' classic Command & Conquer games are being kept very much alive.
CnCNet is a hugely impressive community project providing a network of servers for the C&C games, several of which were released as freeware some years ago. The website provides downloads of the games which are optimised for modern systems and ready for online play on CnCNet servers.
John Woo's first Hollywood film was only a modest success. In 1993 Hong Kong's master of ballistic action was little-known in the west, and Hard Target didn't take off in the way it deserved to. To really make it with American audiences, Woo needed to make American movies - and that meant blowing up some helicopters.
The exploding helicopter is one of the images synonymous with action cinema in the west. By the '80s a helicopter's very purpose in an action film was to explode. On a poster or in a trailer, an exploding helicopter is almost the ultimate visual shorthand for excitement. Even on The A-Team, a show where no-one could ever die, a chopper had to be taken out from time to time - its crew inexplicably climbing unscathed from the wreckage.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) [IMDB]
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Kurt Russell
The team of misfits that form a comic tangent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe get a second run-out in James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. While the CGI action is more numbing than exciting, this spacefaring sequel has charm and wit to spare.
By 2014, the MCU was well-established and lucrative but in danger of becoming stale. Guardians of the Galaxy felt fresh, deftly introducing a new team of eccentric heroes without the years of buildup the Avengers had required. Better yet, Starlord and his crew were shown to exist in relative isolation from the rest of Marvel's universe, offering a degree of freedom from the straitjacket of continuity.
Tomboy (AKA The Assignment) (2016 / 2017 wide release) [IMDB}
Directed by Walter Hill
Starring Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Caitlin Gerard
Walter Hill's controversial sex change revenge thriller has a strong concept and some good performances. But hamstrung by his own very poor script and a tiny $5 million budget, the genre veteran turns in a muddled, often boring mess.
It's fair to say that Tomboy has had a troubled history. Based on a 1978 script that Hill had optioned and abandoned once before, the film has gone through numerous changes of title and a very poorly received premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. Even before shooting began it was dogged with controversy because of its gender reassignment premise, and in the UK it's been released direct-to-video - and not even on Blu-Ray, at that. The film's single biggest problem, however, is simple: it's bad.
With its heady mix of the fact, fiction and folklore of the American frontier, the Western has been a popular genre for over a century. Detailing the dubious exploits of bounty hunter Silas Greaves, Techland's 2013 FPS Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a brilliant and under-recognised exploration of the Old West.
By 2013, the Call of Juarez series had picked up a very bad reputation indeed. The most recent game at the time, subtitled The Cartel, had become notorious for its poor quality and numerous technical issues. Many were surprised to learn that Polish developer Techland hadn't abandoned the franchise altogether. For its part, Gunslinger was released as an inexpensive download-only title and afforded very little promotion. It looked like another disappointment in the making - but while it didn't make many waves in its release, it won deservedly strong reviews.
While I came to Half-Life late, Valve's 1998 masterpiece was the game that cemented my enthusiasm for games generally, and first-person shooters specifically. Replaying it almost 20 years on from its release, one aspect shines more than any other: the game's unique environments and crucial sense of place.
During the early history of the FPS, developers did not tend to prioritise settings. In classics of the form like Doom (1993), Hexen (1994) and Duke Nukem 3D (1996), settings and locations were only nominal, with little to no coherence between levels or episodes. Things began to change with id Software's Quake II (1997), in which the player progressed through numerous areas of an enemy planet, Stroggos. It was Valve and Half-Life, however, which gave the FPS its first - and perhaps best - coherent sense of place.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Ian McShane
Free up a chair at the High Table of modern action films - John Wick: Chapter 2 has arrived and it is glorious.
There's been a clear trend in action films during the last several years: the number of films that fit squarely in the genre is quite small, and mediocre efforts outnumber the accomplished ones. Once or twice a year, however, a film is produced which immediately enters the pantheon of true greats. With their directorial debut John Wick, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch did exactly this in 2014. Combining their vast action design and second-unit experience with the total commitment of star Keanu Reeves, they forged one of the most exciting American action films of the decade.
Directing alone this time, Stahelski has gone and done it again. Chapter 2 is a blistering continuation and expansion of everything that made the original so intoxicating - the unique fictional underworld, the beautiful cinematography, Reeves' performance as "the man, the myth, the legend" that is John Wick and of course the astonishing action sequences. The sequel reaches a level of intensity and accomplishment in action cinema that, in recent years, is matched only by the likes of The Raid 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road.