Blood, guns, and glory: 10 gratuitously violent underrated action movie gems

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Action cinema doesn’t require gratuitous violence to succeed, but it often comes in handy to have heroes and villains alike dispatch their enemies in gruesome fashion.

It can turn a bad movie into a watchable one, a watchable one into a good one, and a good one into a great one, with something as innocuous as flailing limbs and wanton evisceration doing more to up the entertainment value than any story development or monologue ever could.

That’s not to say violence is the barometer by which any actioner should be measured, but it is in this case. None of them are what you’d call classics, several of them flopped at the box office, and more than a couple were resoundingly trashed by critics, but every single one of them is worth seeing.

The best action flicks balance their scenes of violence with memorable set pieces, stellar performances, directorial style, and engaging narratives. Needless to say, that doesn’t apply across the board to the following ten, but they’re all magical in their own way.

10 underrated violent action movies:

10. Ninja Assassin (James McTeigue, 2009)

One of the biggest criticisms of Wachowski protégé James McTeigue’s second feature after V for Vendetta – beyond the inarguable fact it’s not very good by conventional standards – was that it was unrelentingly violent to a distracting degree. However, who says that needs to be a bad thing?

Anyone who sits down to watch a movie called Ninja Assassin will not be disappointed with what they get, although turning up the brightness comes recommended with the gallons upon gallons of blood and mountainous array of body parts being strewn over the screen regularly shrouded in borderline impenetrable darkness.

The main character, Raizo, is a ninja who is also an assassin. That’s all there is to it, setting the stage for a geyser-spraying gorefest that would come across as brazenly comedic if the movie didn’t take itself so seriously. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, because the unintentional hilarity pushes it over the top.

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9. Punisher: War Zone (Lexi Alexander, 2008)

Has Marvel Comics’ most trigger-happy vigilante ever been the subject of a good movie? Not even this one, with Ray Stevenson stepping in for Thomas Jane, who stepped in for Dolph Lundgren? Again, no, but watch it as the darkest type of comedy, and it’s an absolute riot.

Nobody cracks a joke, but the solemnity of it all makes War Zone worth watching. The titular antihero blows up a guy doing parkour with a rocket launcher in mid-air at one stage. Why? Because fuck parkour, that’s why. Why does the Punisher hang upside down from a chandelier and rotate in a perfect circle to gun down an entire room of goons defying the laws of physics? Because fuck physics, that’s why.

In the grand scheme of cinema, War Zone is admittedly shite. And yet, get on the same wavelength and don’t dare contemplate switching the brain from its ‘off’ setting, and it’s a ridiculously violent romp that’s remarkably stylish given how shoddy it is on every level besides the action.

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8. Raze (Josh C. Waller, 2013)

Insanely violent action flicks rarely try and convey a deeper message, which is part of what makes Josh C. Waller’s unflinchingly brutal Raze stand out from a crowded pack of bare-knuckle brawlers.

Producer, star, and Quentin Tarantino regular Zoë Bell is kidnapped alongside 49 other women by a nefarious married couple played by Twin Peaks favourite Sherilyn Fenn and Guillermo del Toro’s go-to monster Doug Jones, where they’re informed they’ll be fighting to the death for entertainment purposes.

If they refuse, their families will be murdered. It’s hard-hitting in a literal sense as the black eyes, bruises, and bodies pile up, but Raze also makes a point of ensuring its largely female cast are never victimised, asking surprisingly deep questions about agency, the nature of violence, and gender stereotypes in between the bouts of fisticuffs.

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7. Shoot ‘Em Up (Michael Davis, 2007)

Many of the best video game movies aren’t even based on video games at all, and Michael Davis’ demented Shoot ‘Em Up fits neatly into that bracket, more than living up to its title as well.

Clive Owen kills a man with a carrot. He engages in a mid-coital shootout as his mysterious protagonist barrels his way towards their ultimate goal, which in this case is defending a sex worker and her new-born baby from a scenery-chewing Paul Giamatti, who wants to harvest the child’s bone marrow to prolong the life of a corrupt United States senator. No, really, that’s what it’s about.

An unfortunate victim of a thorough box office bombing, the unrestrained audacity of Shoot ‘Em Up brings a breakneck 86 minutes of madcap madness to the screen, and it narrowly avoids the realms of bad taste by keeping its tongue just inside its cheek at all times.

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6. Sisu (Jalmari Helander, 2022)

It might not be an entirely fair comparison, but it wouldn’t be too wide of the mark to describe Sisu as what would have happened were John Wick traversing the rugged wilderness of Finland during World War II, except even thirstier for blood. A whole lot thirstier.

Director Jalmari Helander knows his way around a delirious genre flick, having transformed Santa Claus into a horror villain in Rare Exports and partnered Samuel L. Jackson’s president with a small child to take out the trash in Big Game, but Sisu raises the bar to an entirely new level.

Once the shit hits the fan, the fan soon stops working because it’s been overloaded with so many Nazi bits, with Jorma Tommila’s hero Aatami Korpi suffering in the name of revenge as he repeatedly gets beaten, bludgeoned, stabbed, shot, and submerged. On the plus side, his enemies get it significantly worse.

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5. Exiled (Johnnie To, 2006)

A spaghetti Western set in modern-ish Macau, director Johnnie To channels the spirit of Sergio Leone by telling his story on an epic canvas, but makes sure to channel the spirit of Sam Peckinpah too by packing Exiled with some bursts of balletic and graphic violence.

Star Nick Cheung is a reformed gangster who returns to his old stomping grounds to try and raise a family, only for his former boss to send a quartet of assassins to take him out. On one hand, it’s good that they happen to be his childhood friends. On the other, it’s bad that they’re all in danger of becoming marked men.

The violence may be stylised, but it’s also plentiful and deployed at regular intervals, although Exiled never loses sight of its origins as a story about brotherhood. Slapped with the highest possible Category III rating by local censorship boards, it’s Eastern cinema carrying the beating heart of the classic Western in the most spectacular style.

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4. Killers (Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel, 2014)

Timo Tjahjanto eventually segued into more straightforward action with the spectacular Netflix original The Night Comes for Us and the gleefully anarchic The Big 4, but when he was one half of the Mo Brothers, his work was so ruthless it comfortably flirted with horror.

Killers, for example, is about two strangers growing closer and forging a bond based on mutual respect and mutual admiration, before it quickly becomes clear that their first meeting is destined to descend into a cacophony of blunt-force trauma.

The stinger is that one of them is a serial killer, and the other is an assassin, and their bond is initially forged when they upload videos of their murderous tendencies onto the internet. Good and evil aren’t even part of the equation, but the filmmakers nonetheless create some fascinating moral conundrums in amongst the wanton violence.

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3. Full Contact (Ringo Lam, 1992)

If anyone ever tried to argue that John Woo muse Chow Yun-fat wasn’t one of cinema’s coolest-ever action heroes, then the swiftest way to shut down such a ridiculous statement would be to fire up the final scene of Ringo Lam’s Full Contact.

The leading man plays a nightclub bouncer called Jeff, who wears a vest over his t-shirt, tells the villain to “masturbate in hell” before he kills him, and then drives off in his motorcycle in the pouring rain to leave a smouldering pile of bodies and wreckage behind. If that doesn’t fit the criteria, then nothing does.

A great deal rougher around the edges than the standard heroic bloodshed fare, Full Contact places less emphasis on operatic set pieces in favour of being dirtier, grubbier, and more impactful. Somewhat dated and sleazy it may be, but still one of the era’s most overlooked gems.

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2. Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (Lam Nai-choi, 1991)

Part exploitation movie, part splatter flick, and part martial arts extravaganza, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky leaves no stone unturned or no body un-obliterated in its aim to ratchet the violence as far past ten as it’s possible to get away with.

Louis Fan’s title character is incarcerated, and that’s about it for the plot. People want to kill him, he kills them instead, and even after a concerningly high number of fellow inmates are disfigured, disembowelled, crushed, tasered, decapitated, or stuffed into a meat grinder, they refuse to give up.

Outrageously over the top and revelling in it, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky goes full steam ahead from minute one and refuses to let up its deliciously camp assault on the senses.

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1. Mad Heidi (Johannes Hartmann and Sandro Klopfstein, 2022)

Very, very, very, very loosely based on Johanna Spyri’s 19th century children’s book, Mad Heidi is nothing short of a fever dream, but what a fever dream it is as cheese and gratuitous violence combine like they never have – or probably will ever again – in cinema.

Alice Lucy’s Heidi finds her idyllic existence ruined when her boyfriend is dragged away and executed by the ruling regime for illegally trading his top-notch goat’s cheese. Casper van Dien seems to be doing his best Tommy Wiseau impression as the president, who oversees the nation’s cheese production.

To avenge her paramour’s murder, Heidi launches a rampage of revenge that’s something not to dissimilar from a fairy tale twist on Kill Bill, except even more indebted to grindhouse, exponentially more violent, and quite possibly more entertaining just for how off-the-wall bonkers it is.

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