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: ImpossibleFallout, 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.