Ashes of Time (1994): Robert Altman made a chamber drama; Martin Scorsese a children’s picture; David Lynch and David Mamet each a film rated G. Master filmmakers aren’t above working outside their comfort zones, but only a few have dirtied themselves with a more challenging film type: the action movie. Even Wong Kar-Wai’s attempt is only sporadically an actioner. His take on a wuxia epic—culled from Jin Yong’s beloved Condor novels—is roughly 85 percent typical WKW moody brooding, even if the ones agonizing are super-powered ass-kickers. Here’s hoping Wong keeps the same ratio for The Grandmasters, his forthcoming contribution to the towering pile of biopics on martial arts legend Ip Man.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): There are fewer directors more preternaturally incapable of “kinesis” than Ang Lee, the patient, unfailingly literate craftsman who went from Sense and Sensibility to The Ice Storm to Ride With the Devil to a movie where Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi fuck one another up. The result: A chick flick and a dude flick, slow and moony when it’s not thrilling.
Kill Bill (2003-04): For all his cribbing from exploitation obscurities, Quentin Tarantino is more a man of talk than action. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown are soberly filmed chatterboxes, making it all the more exciting when he finally staged his very first orgy of spraying blood and hacked-off limbs.
The Dark Knight (2008): As it currently stands, Christopher Nolan’s second Batman is the top-rated action film on IMDb by users. Alas, the action is the film’s weakest element. Nolan is a master of montage, lost only when he has to show a man dressed in a bat costume beating up baddies.
Hanna (2011): In which Joe Wright takes a break from cranked-up Jane Austen and Ian McEwan adaptations to make an action movie so weird that it only gets better if you watch it while sick and high-as-a-kite on cough syrup.
Haywire (2012): Should his retirement threat somehow turn out not to be a bluff, a world in which Steven Soderbergh no longer imposes his increasingly dispassionate and experimental style on populist genres would be a poor one.