Action Movies Critics Loved That Totally Bombed At The Box Office

A movie critic's job is to offer insightful, observant, but overall subjective opinions to help us decide if we're going to enjoy a film. It's not important to be right about whether one is good or not, but noting a film's overall quality is a tool we often take for granted. On the flip side, audiences aren't always "right" either, passing up great movies on the way to something else.

There are lots of reasons genuinely great movies can end up tanking at the box office. Issues like a terrible — or worse, ignorant — marketing plan by the studio, as "Crimson Peak" endured; or, as Schwarzenegger realized with the release of "The Last Action Hero," poorly timing the film's release date can lead to disaster. And sometimes the project's topic is something a general audience isn't going to vibe with, leading to niche and classic works that are still worth remembering. Action movies are bait for general audiences, however, and it's rare but shocking when a proper shoot-em-up that earns coveted critical acclaim doesn't click with ticket-buyers. Let's remember some of the best action flicks that audiences missed the first time out.


If the number of people that rush up to tell you how great "Dredd" is and how it unfairly flopped at the box office whenever you ask about hidden action gems actually went to the theater at the time, this baby would've made James Cameron-tier money. But that's not our fault. Bogged down with a tiny, but ludicrous, media campaign that banked on its 3D format – ironically, one of the best uses of the tech since "Avatar" — and the legacy of that god-awful Sylvester Stallone movie, "Dredd" ghosted into its opening weekend.

Targeted to take around $8 million at the domestic box office in its debut, Karl Urban's magnificent chin fought to get over the $6 million line. It didn't even open in the top five, and its total theatrical take was roughly equal to its budget — minus that piddly marketing campaign. Critics picked up on what "Dredd" was putting down, though, remarking on Urban's gruff quality and Lena Headey's cold, controlling power as the drug lord Ma-Ma. The film's long since been redeemed by its home release, with action movie sommeliers offering it as an example of the best of the best. It is, and Rotten Tomatoes knows it. At 79% fresh, that's a great critical score for a hard-R murder fest.

The Nice Guys

"The Nice Guys" stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling continue to have thriving careers, and yet this rollicking Shane Black action-comedy is somehow even less well known than Robert Downey Jr.'s comeback ride, "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang." With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 91%, critics understood we had a fresh new take on a formula made familiar by "48 Hrs." and "Lethal Weapon," yet it scrambled for audience notice. It took fourth place in its opening weekend, its lunch stolen by a movie about grumpy iPhone birds and "Neighbors 2," a Seth Rogen flick that we have no problems with, but is a better experience at home, flying as high as a French-fry-laden seagull.

It's possible that "The Nice Guys" and its visibly '70s-era hardboiled premise threw off audiences, who associate films about this era with dramas like "Boogie Nights" and "Jackie Brown." Even so, there are few roles where Crowe doesn't go all out, and as the movie's heavy, Jackson Healy, how can you not expect him to go fightin' 'round the world? Gosling, meanwhile, repeatedly proves he's adept in various genres and as PI Holland March, he's at the top of his game here.

Rise of the Guardians

A competent kids' movie usually has two facts in its corner: a built-in weekend audience of children dropped off at the theater to throw oodles of money at a safe bet, and a relatively gentle critical response that knows its adult reviewers aren't the intended demographic. Yet, "Rise of the Guardians" upended both expectations. Critics realized that this superhero-styled team-up of childhood legends versus evil was much better than average, and kids ... well, the kids sat this one out.

Though "Rise of the Guardians" eventually pulled in over $300 million with the help of its worldwide release, that wasn't enough to recoup its high budget and marketing costs. A financial stumble for DreamWorks, this movie features some of the best CGI animation in the business, with fine details visible in every inch of its fantastical cast. At its heart is Chris Pine as the voice of the bishonen-pretty Jack Frost. If you believe in your heart that Pine is truly the best Chris in Hollywood, yet you've never seen this movie, you've missed one of his best roles. Meanwhile, Hugh Jackman is the Easter Bunny and Jude Law is the bad guy. What are you still doing here? Go watch a kids' action movie that's on par with Marvel.


Say the name William Friedkin, and the eerie jingle of "The Exorcist" kicks off in the backs of our minds. While there's no doubt that he's the director of one of the finest horror movies ever made, it ignores the rest of a strong career. Included in his resume is "Sorcerer," an intense action-drama that had the bad luck to come out during the summer of "Star Wars," with a title that recalled something far more supernatural than an ordinary truck and its deadly cargo.

Freidkin intended "Sorcerer" to be a reimagining of the original novel "Le Salaire de la peur" ("The Salary of Fear") by French author Georges Arnaud, but some critics passed the film over as a remake, instead. Roger Ebert quickly became an advocate for the film, and that may have helped Friedkin's secret action masterpiece earn the glowing critical reassessment it has today. Nothing, however, could tear audiences away from droids and fascism; not even its star, Roy Scheider, who helped Steven Spielberg dominate the box office with "Jaws" two years earlier. "Sorcerer" fought to earn $12 million worldwide, against a $21 million budget. Despite its obscurity, it remains one of the best, most cerebral action movies ever made.

The Suicide Squad (2021)

Director James Gunn has a knack for terrific movies that underperform. Though "Guardians of the Galaxy" is his blockbuster resume builder, his style first came through in the less-acclaimed films "Slither" and "Super." He has a gift for bringing bombastic, eye-catching comedy to the screen in dark ways, but even two Marvel smashes couldn't get people to give his take on "The Suicide Squad" a chance.

It's not difficult to understand why Gunn's soft reboot of this DC franchise had a hard road uphill. Its David Ayer-directed predecessor was greeted at its release with all the acceptance of a flaming bag of dog turds from critics and fans. The COVID-19 pandemic also created a speed bump on its way to success, and its hard-R rating is difficult to overcome. Critics loved Gunn's revival, though, and it holds an incredible 90% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It made only $167 million, against a $185 million budget. Streaming gives this great flick continuing life, and if you've missed one of DC's best superhero movies, this is your chance to experience it.

Children of Men

With its slow, contemplative cinematography and bleak palette, it may be hard to think of "Children of Men" as the action-thriller it's categorized as actually being. Cerebral in its environmental and mortal conceits, and, frankly, beautifully depressing, it remains a sleeper hit with those that know it. Regarded lovingly by critics and Film Twitter goblins, it's hard to get people onto the couch to "enjoy" one of the best soul-destroying flicks since "Grave of the Fireflies."

With a decaying world and the remnants of infertile humanity falling into chaos, there's not a lot of hope to look for in its car chases and one-shot cafe explosions. Yet, there is some, as a single baby becomes a mostly silent protagonist in a world crying to make as much noise as it can with the time it has left. Despite a magnificent 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and the talents of star Clive Owen, it limped through its time at the box office. It came up $6 million short against its $76 million budget. We know "Children of Men" is a masterpiece, dammit. You should find that out, too.

The Rundown

It's remarkable to think of a world where Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson wasn't a larger-than-life presence in Hollywood, but once upon a time, it was still true. In 2003, Johnson was still absorbing the rocky critical response to "The Scorpion King," his big spinoff vehicle from "The Mummy Returns." Not quite the Conan-sized entrance he needed, his next film, "The Rundown," by director Peter Berg, was another chance to become a blockbuster action movie star.

With Christopher Walken as the jungle-chewing villain and Seann William Scott as Johnson's foil, it's a great '80s-style treasure-hunt romp through dark territory. But even a cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn't turn the flick into the smash success Johnson needed. "The Rundown" earned acclaim as a terrific buddy-style action movie by none other than Roger Ebert, but failed to make back its $85 million dollar budget at the box office. Whatever your opinion is of Johnson's gigantic persona these days, it's his earlier films that often have the most charm to them. "The Rundown" is genuinely underrated, with a performance that isn't just The Rock being The Rock.


Two pulp movies for the price of one, like the cheapo drive-ins of old. That's the gimmick of "Grindhouse," which hands us the Troma-riffic Robert Rodriguez love letter "Planet Terror" as an early dessert to help the much talkier Quentin Tarantino second act "Death Proof" go down smoother. Peppered in are gonzo trailers for movies that didn't exist. Some of them were so fun that they've since been released, like "Machete" and "Hobo With A Shotgun." But the real meat of "Grindhouse" is good enough.

"Planet Terror" blends over-the-top action with gory zombie guts, even adding in the effects of a missing film reel; while "Death Proof" is a bit more '70s thriller, with a serial killer who screws with the wrong pack of women. Critics loved the deliberate homage to the decades of joyously crap movies they've experienced. Audiences, unfortunately, were uninterested, and the true reasons are probably multiple but also vague. The total length, trailers and all, was over three hours — that's a big ask for its Easter weekend release. And both segments starred Rose McGowan, whose presence may have tanked the film's advertising, thanks to the involvement of since-convicted sexual predator and producer Harvey Weinstein. All told, "Grindhouse" made less than half its budget, despite being a quality ride with two top directors.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Edge of Tomorrow

"Edge of Tomorrow" is a meaningless title, the sort of bland thing that would make Samuel L. Jackson go on interviews and demand it be renamed "Timescrew Aliens On My Planet," or at the very least, the source material's original title, "All You Need Is Kill." Hell yes, all you need is kill. To take on a hive mind race of time-looping aliens, Tom Cruise's equally generically named PR grunt William Cage gets both Emily Blunt as a warrior so fierce she's called the Full Metal B*tch and exoskeletal mech suits on his side.

Even the backup title "Live Die Repeat" is more useful than what we got. Still, critics sniffed out that under the title mess was a taut screenplay with some unique visual action and a fresh alien invasion. But a 91% Tomatometer wasn't enough to overcome the limp name and a story that might've been too complicated for the "Expendables" crowd. It qualifies as the rare Cruise box office cult classic, a film that did double its budget, thanks to overseas fans, but fought to earn notice in Cruise's usually guaranteed demographics. Check it out, it's fun stuff.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, and Paul Dini's "Batman: The Animated Series" remains one of the finest entries in the Batman canon. With its stylish aesthetic, Kevin Conroy's gravelly voice as our hero, and Mark Hamill as the Joker, it offered a cache of terrific stories that pulled in adults and kids. It was partially with that in mind that WB greenlit a full-length movie on the strength of its first season. Eager to capitalize on success, "Mask of the Phantasm" went from being a straight-to-DVD movie-length episode to a theatrical release, with WB able to give the animators greater funding to make up for a truncated development time.

Unfortunately, the hurried schedule and light marketing campaign weren't enough to give what's arguably still the best Batman movie a Christmas miracle. It only earned $5.6 million worldwide – the opening weekend gross a bigger bomb than what Joker would make in a Lockheed Martin missile factory. Critics began setting the stage for its redemption once it hit home video, however, realizing that they'd missed something wonderful. Today, it typically receives the glory it's due from Batman's biggest fans. Even outside of the superhero genre, it's an excellent piece of action.

The Hunter

You could put Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe together in a dirty bathroom stall with only a copy of "The Fountainhead" to read aloud from, and these two would still create a gripping movie experience. Fortunately, Australian action movie "The Hunter" is better than that. Dafoe plays a mercenary named Martin, who's engaged by a biotech firm to discover whether a thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, still exists on the Australian island territory. If it does, he's to hunt it down and bring it in for study.

Sam Neill is Jack, the Nice Neighbor Guy, which means he's probably suspicious. It's up to the viewer to decide how involved he really is with the events that occur. An often sedate action flick, Dafoe has to keep the audience invested in his work, and, well, it's Dafoe. Assisted by gorgeous Tasmanian wilderness and long, thoughtful silence, he shines. Functionally Australian only at release, it's not even just a bomb. It's a blip; a curiosity worth seeking out by those looking to hunt down a new experience, one treasured by a rare few.