A funny thing happened to action movies in 2018: Horror movies swallowed them whole. This wasn’t an across-the-board thing, but a lot of the year’s best action movies weren’t just action movies. They existed in some lost B-movie nether region, a place where historically disrespected genres come together and commingle in strange and unpredictable ways. These were canny, self-conscious movies, movies deeply in thrall with their own cinematic predecessors. They were low-budget phantasmagorias, and they found ways to straddle the video-store genre dividers that don’t exist anymore.
Consider Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade, a slick and nasty sci-fi fable that includes some of the gnarliest, weirdly funniest fight scenes in recent memory. Logan Marshall-Green plays a man possessed by an AI chip, and he does this amazing routine where he kicks ass while looking utterly shocked and perplexed at his own alien ass-kicking abilities. Or Julius Avery’s Overlord, which starts out as a visceral World War II adventure before transforming into a delightfully gory farce. Or Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, a meticulous art-film meditation on the ’70s rape-revenge thriller, one that (for once) takes a whole lot more joy in the revenge than it does in the rape. And then there’s Indonesian horror master Timo Tjahjanto’s brutally excellent Netflix martial-arts epic The Night Comes For Us—a straight-up action movie, but one that has a blast letting loose with buckets of blood.
Action cinema has always been a fluid genre, but these movies cross all sorts of lines, mashing different pleasure centers but still somehow coming together as coherent wholes. With superhero movies mostly playing the roles that big-budget action movies once played, these hybrid beasties take advantage of the freedom afforded by under-the-radar releases and streaming-service content needs, pursuing strange and personal and violent visions. And the strangest, most personal, and damn near most violent of any of them is Panos Cosmatos’ slow-motion freakout Mandy.
It’s probably reductive to call Mandy an action movie. It’s a lot of things. It’s a pulp meditation, a prog-rock fever dream, a raw exposed-nerve domestic drama, an incredibly dark, never-cracking comedy, a piece of reverent grindhouse revivalism, and a playground that allows Nicolas Cage to do some full-on, unbridled Nicolas Cage shit. It’s a flesh-ripping elemental-warrior fantasy that starts off as an endurance-test romance about a man and a woman who sit around asking each other about their favorite planets. It’s a trip. I was high as fuck the first time I watched Mandy, and this was absolutely the right way to experience it.
Cosmatos made his name with 2010’s Beyond The Black Rainbow, a slow, hallucinatory horror movie that drew inspiration from some of the same dank and forbidding ’80s VHS nuggets. And Mandy is an art film in many of the same ways. It takes real work (or drugs) to get on its mental wavelength, especially early on. The movie starts out with a languid, idyllic look at the home life of two backwoods weirdos. They both have jobs; he’s a logger, and she works at a convenience store. But they seem to spend their time mooning over each other, watching TV or reading fantasy novels, each getting lost in what the other is saying, all as ominously beautiful drones from the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson bubble up on the soundtrack.
When things do go bad, they go bad in slow and agonizing ways. A cult leader named Jeremiah Sand comes across Mandy, the woman of the couple, and decides that he has to have her. Sand’s underlings kidnap her and dose her with absurd hallucinogens, and then, in a deeply unsettling speech, he explains to her why he should get to have whatever he wants, telling her that God “gave me his deepest and warmest permission to go out into this world and take what is so very much mine.” She laughs at him. He does not appreciate this. Shit goes down.
Mandy is a movie that prizes aesthetic touch points over character or plot, and yet it works, in part because Sand’s horrifying sense of entitlement is a funhouse-mirror reflection of so many of the attitudes we see in the real world. It works because Andrea Riseborough, as Mandy, and Linus Roache, as Sand, are willing to transform themselves into mythic avatars of (respectively) strength and evil. And it works because of Nicolas Cage.
In recent years, Cage has dove headfirst into self-parody, to the point where he often just seems to be playing Nicolas Cage in movies. But it’s hard to imagine Mandy operating with anyone else (though Cosmatos initially tried to get him to play Sand, which could’ve also been awesome). Cage is capable of great mania, and he gets a chance to show it in Mandy. But he also spent a few years as an honest-to-god A-list action star, and Mandy builds on those memories. And Cage is able to give the movie a sense of mind-blown tenderness before it forces him to become an unglued killing machine.
Almost all of the characters in Mandy know that they’re characters in a movie; only Cage’s Red Miller has no idea. The movie visits absolute, brain-altering horrors upon Miller, and he reacts at first with blank incomprehension, and then with a feral-animal howl. The movie’s centerpiece is a stunning unbroken shot of Cage, in tighty whities, chugging a gin bottle in a bathroom while screaming like Sam Kinison. It’s really something.
Mandy only really becomes an action movie when it’s more than halfway over. (The movie’s title card, flashing its name in black-metal font, appears onscreen about 75 minutes in, giving the weird sense that we’ve just been watching the opening credits that whole time.) When it goes action, though, it really goes all the way. We’re getting into deep spoiler territory here, but Cage uses the following things as murder weapons in Mandy: a Jeep, a lead pipe, a boxcutter, his bare hands, a chainsaw, and a gleaming, mythic hand-welded battle ax. He lights a cigarette on a burning decapitated head, a move I’ve never seen before. He pauses mid-killing spree to snort a big pile of cocaine, another new one. He wanders around the movie’s second half caked in blood and grime, staring vacantly, filling up the screen with his presence. One character calls him a “Jovan warrior sent forth from the eye of the storm.” I don’t know what that means, but it sounds about right.
Cosmatos, as it happens, has family roots in the action-movie business. He’s the son of the late George P. Cosmatos, the Italian director who made the deeply ’80s Stallone spectacles Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra. Panos has said that he made Mandy, in part, to deal with the loss of his parents, and he did that by channeling the nutso theatrical grandeur of his father’s ’80s work. Rambo and Cobra were full of square-jawed figures who were constantly coated in gleaming sweat, and Panos brings some of that same otherworldly stickiness to Mandy. The scene where Cage forges his battle ax recalls the strapping-up-for-war montage in Rambo, while the murder cult in Mandy must owe something to the murder cult in Cobra.
The film plays more like a dream sequence than like any of the movies that might’ve inspired it. Panos Cosmatos soaks everything in red or blue light and keeps fog billowing throughout. He fades landscapes into fantastical pulpy novel covers. He holds shots for uncomfortably long periods, or he superimposes faces onto one another until you’re not exactly sure what you’re watching. Sometimes, he practically drowns out dialogue with the ominous score. And yet Mandy is, at its heart, very much an action movie.
Panos Cosmatos understands the way action movies work, and for all its psychedelic provocations, his film sticks to the time-honored revenge-movie blueprint. Cosmatos knows what people want to see in an action movie. He gives us Predator veteran Bill Duke, showing up for a great little scene as the old unexplained buddy who keeps all of Cage’s weapons for him and who tells him about the acid-casualty cannibal biker gang working for the cult. He gives us beautifully terse hard-boiled dialogue: “You should go in knowing that your odds ain’t that good and that you will probably die.” “Don’t be negative.” He gives us that biker clan, outfitting them in demonic masks and shooting them more like the Cenobites from Hellraiser than like any regular humans. He gives us a fucking chainsaw duel. Mandy is a weird-ass crowd-pleaser, but it’s a crowd-pleaser nonetheless.
Other notable 2018 action movies: I came very close to writing this column about Mission: Impossible—Fallout, a ridiculously exhilarating spectacle of a blockbuster. Fallout is probably my favorite action movie of the year, but I can’t imagine that it’ll signal a way forward for the genre the way Mandy does. Prognostication is a fool’s game, but it doesn’t seem sustainable to bet a genre’s future on a 56-year-old cinematic icon’s willingness to forever hurl himself out of planes and off of rooftops. But in any case, Fallout rules, and you should watch it.
Fallout was the year’s only truly great action blockbuster, unless you count a superhero movie like Black Panther. The other high-profile movies were a mixed bag. The Rock utterly failed to capture the majesty of Die Hard with the weirdly defanged Skyscraper, a movie that really should’ve worked. Den Of Thieves did Heat-style bank-robbery theatrics engagingly enough, but without adding much to the formula other than some macho chest-puffing. Equalizer 2 had some moments of deeply satisfying ass-kicking but also too much stuff where Denzel Washington does nice things for Lyft passengers or apartment-building neighbors. Tomb Raider suffered the fate of so many video game adaptations before it. The Commuter was a decidedly mid-tier entry in Liam Neeson’s post-Taken action-hero rebirth. Mile 22 took the great Indonesian martial-arts star Iko Uwais, billed him below Mark Wahlberg, and chopped up his fight scenes badly enough to make them incoherent. The Predator was shittier than I ever could’ve possibly imagined, especially given the track record of writer-director Shane Black. Peppermint and the Death Wish remake attempted to bring back crypto-racist vigilante-movie tropes that nobody ever needed to see again. We didn’t get a John Wick or Fast & Furious movie. Shit was bleak.
But as has so often been the case lately, the real gold was on the fringes. Low-budget straight-to-VOD action movies had another banner year. Braven found low-stakes old-school thrills by pitting Jason Momoa and his family against a bloodthirsty drug gang in a snowy, isolated cabin. Final Score turned out to be the movie that truly brought back the Die Hard formula, with Dave Bautista fighting an elite crew of Eastern European terrorists in a packed British soccer stadium. The great U.K. martial artist Scott Adkins continued his run of collaborations with director Jesse V. Johnson, kicking ass in the breezy and fun Accident Man and The Debt Collector. Kickboxer: Retaliation had Jean-Claude Van Damme as a blind sensei, Mike Tyson as a wise prison swami who can punch through walls, and the guy who plays the Mountain on Game Of Thrones as an indestructible heavy, and I’m not really sure what else you might want from a movie like that.
And while they don’t quite qualify as action movies, 2018 proved to be a good year for violent elevated-pulp movies like Widows, Sicario: Day Of The Soldado, and You Were Never Really Here. Those movies deserve a shoutout, too. And Creed II is a sports movie, not an action movie, but it’s got some real good punching in it.