Conan the Barbarian (John Milius, 1982)
Arnold Schwarzenegger has given better performances than this one over the course of his decades-long career, but he has never been more perfectly cast than he was in John Milius’ 1982 sword-and-sandals film. His impossibly jacked frame, gap-toothed grin, and Teutonic accent are all a seamless fit for Robert E. Howard’s iconic pulp hero. But for all the swagger and bluster and operatic grandstanding contained herein, this is a supremely dorky film, a rip-roaring adventure that plays out like a sprawling, lovingly-detailed Dungeons and Dragons campaign, a pure hit of elemental hero’s-journey high fantasy. It unfurls like a prog-rock epic poem, winding and lumbering, baffling and hypnotic. That Milius plays the material straight-faced, wedding ludicrous violence to sumptuous natural vistas, only accentuating how cartoonish the whole enterprise is. James Earl Jones, as the snake cult leader Thulsa Doom (great heel name, by the way), is a welcome source of gravitas and theatrical menace, but sadly, the capping image of a ripped strongman in an Austrian accent beheading the black baddie ends the proceedings on a bum note.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017)
This might as well have been called Army of Shadows. Chad Stahelski’s first solo outing as director in the Wick-verse is a superlative sequel, doing exactly what a series’ second entry should: use the original as a springboard to flesh out and broaden the story’s universe and lore; the gear-up montage in Rome! The rockabilly archivists! Laurence god damn Fishburne! But in addition to featuring the hallmarks of the series in spades (masterful action choreography, prodigious violence, laser-focused direction), Chapter 2 doubles down on the previous film’s overarching sense of existential doom, with a lateral from grief to guilt. While Keanu Reeves’ Wick is still practically a creature of legend, the bogeyman of the criminal underworld, he is still bound a code; even the Devil deals in contracts. The entropic pull of the world Wick haunts imposes itself in increasingly severe fashion. To its eternal credit, the film successfully folds the emotional impact of the film’s carnage inside of its aesthetization. The psychic violence goes toe to toe with the physical. No one gets out of this one alive, so to speak. Except the dog. You deserve to know that the dog lives.
Parole Violators (Patrick Donahue, 1994)
This one might be for heads only, but oh how sweet such nectar it is: a janky, low-budget direct-to-video actioner from Northern California made in the mid-90s about a cop-turned-video vigilante-turned-actual vigilante named Miles Long (geddit?). The general expected crumminess of this backyard Death Wish/America’s Most Wanted hybrid is offset by how high it is on its own supply; this is clearly the work of a passionate few who wanted to make a sleazy, balls-to-the-wall, stunt-filled action bonanza, and what they lacked in proficiency and resources, they make up for in sheer gusto. It absolutely never lets up: there’s always either a shootout, chase, fistfight, or wild stunt happening at any given moment. And while the gloriously bemulleted Sean Donahue, a career stuntman and son of director Patrick, doesn’t have the VHS-era meathead charm of, say, Ted Prior, he is transfixing in his apparent desire to put himself in harm’s way for the shot, crashing motorcycles and sliding off the hoods of moving cars. This kind of regional labour-of-love genre transmission is always a blast to watch. This isn’t a great movie, but, you know, it’s a great movie.
Tip Top (Serge Bozon, 2013)
Ah, the French. This was my first encounter with the work of critic/actor/filmmaker Serge Bozon, probably best known for his 2007 World War I rock musical La France. He is a member the critic-turned-filmmaker crew of La Lettre du cinema, and the idiosyncrasies expected from a film writer’s movie are present here. Adapted from the Bill James novel of the same, Tip Top is one part provincial police procedural, one part racial allegory, and one part sex farce. None of these parts mesh especially well together, the racial/sexual angle feeling particularly ill-developed; there’s lip service paid to how poorly France treats its Algerian citizenry, literalized in a series of “funny” S&M scenes between lead investigator Esther Lafargde (Isabelle Huppert) and her Algerian beau Gerald (Samy Nacery). But this friction of modes does give the weirder moments (Huppert catching droplets of blood running down her nose with her tongue, Aymen Saidi doing his best Denis-Lavant-at-the-end-of-Beau–travail impression to the strains of Turkish classic rock) a captivating gonzo energy. It’s almost like Hot Fuzz, but if it was indebted to the droll, desert-dry French comedies of the 1980s instead of adrenaline-pumping American action movies.
Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, 1992)
Not everything in Mike Myers’ first foray into longform has aged well, but it’s remarkable how much of it has. Like fellow SNL skit-turned-movie The Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World is smart about its silliness. It knows that by its very nature, it runs the risk of being spread thin, so the plot, as it is, is little more than an excuse to string together a series of gags and skits. Evergreen too are the film’s joyousness and irreverence; the good guys (nominally Myers and Dana Carvey) are amiable suburban metalheads (and no one knows more about amiable suburban metalheads than director Penelope Spheeris) with a weird cable-access TV show. The bad guys, including the first recorded instance of Rob Lowe playing slimy, are sleazy, cynical business types who nakedly want to exploit the good guys. For all its goofiness, referentiality and fourth wall-breaking hijinx, this is still Myers’ most focused work as a writer, thanks in no small part to Spheeris’ direction, which is instrumental in shading the Wayne’s motley crew. Notable also are Tia Carrere as badass rocker Cassandra, and Brian Doyle-Murray as an out-of-touch corporate sponsor.