Has there ever been a decade as good as the 90’s for action films? It was an era that produced many classics that had pure escapist fun, ludicrous yet entertaining premises, and a whole lot more!
Today, June 6th, is a special date for the decade as one of its most memorable features, Con Air, celebrates its 20 year anniversary. Thus it’s a fitting time for me and a few other Young Folks writers to countdown the top 20 greatest action movies of the 1990s!
Honorable Mentions: Blade, Rush Hour, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Ronin, Demolition Man, Air Force One, Broken Arrow, Bad Boys, Under Siege, Hard Target
20. La Femme Nikita (1990)
Before the turn of the century where he shifted his focus to writing and producing disposable, videogame-esque action films, Luc Besson was one of the most talented genre directors in the 90s. It all started in 1990 with La Femme Nikita, which tells the story of a teenage junkie (Anne Parillaud) that murders a police officer and is sentenced to life in prison, but her captors fake her death and then bring her to a mysterious agency that gives her the choice of becoming an assassin.
Although its initial reviews in both France and the U.S. were mixed overall, Nikita has grown a warmer reception over time. Besson displays a deft grip on constructing thrilling action sequences, in addition to making stylish nods to classic film noir. Parillaud’s performance is captivating in her dramatic transformation from junkie to swift assassin, and the character’s dramatic angle ultimately crafts one of cinema’s most morally realistic action heroines.
19. The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Although it was sandwiched in between the first and second Die Hard sequels, The Last Boy Scout failed to connect with audiences in 1991. That’s a darn shame because it arguably transcends each Die Hard sequel and the majority of Bruce Willis’s action canon. Penned by the always reliable Shane Black and directed by the late great Tony Scott, The Last Boy Scout was somewhat ahead of its time. Black’s script is chock full of post-modern humor and jabs at the overblown action films of the 80s. For all its humor and clever set pieces, it’s Bruce Willis who stands tall in one of his last self-aware roles. His cynical P.I. character doesn’t feel too astray from the John McClane we meet in Die Hard With a Vengeance. He’s joined by Damon Wayans in one of his most consistently humorous roles. Being a Tony Scott film, it doesn’t shy away from the violence, which is more significant given the rise of PG-13 across the genre. – Matthew Goudreau
18. True Lies (1994)
It’s always a joy to remember just how funny Arnold Schwarzenegger can be. Even more so when he is given a vehicle to balance comedy with action, such as in True Lies. Following Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger) as he attempts to keep his two lives from colliding—one as a lowly computer salesman living in suburban quietude, the other as a CIA operative attempting to take down a jihadist cell—the film is a who’s who of 90s talent, with Jamie Lee Curtis as Harry’s frustrated wife, and James Cameron in the director’s chair. (Not to mention Tom Arnold, in a show-stealing performance as Harry’s partner.) As far as big, goofy action movies with big laughs and bigger battles go, True Lies is unparalleled. – Dan Baker
17. Desperado (1995)
As the second installment in his Mexico Trilogy, Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado might be a loose remake of El Mariachi, but it differs in a having a budget 1000 times its predecessor. Antonio Banderas takes reign of the El Mariachi character, a.k.a. The man with the guitar case full of guns.
Banderas is very charismatic as both an intimidating vigilante and smooth guitarist that serenades Salma Hayek into helping him in his quest of getting revenge on the drug lord that murdered his lover in the first film. With a larger budget Rodriguez takes full advantage of making the set pieces much grander, which is especially shown in the bar shootout that features blood squibs and exploding alcohol bottles galore. Although the action gets more over-the-top as the film goes on (ex. guitar cases are used as machine guns and rocket launchers…which are awesome!), Rodriguez pulls it off with humorous charm due to his keen self-awareness of how it should be treated as nothing more than pure entertainment. Lastly, you’ll likely get a kick out of Quentin Tarantino’s cameo as the Pick-Up Guy, in addition to Danny Trejo as a knife-wielding hit-man, a character that would serve as the template for Machete fifteen years later.
16. The Fifth Element (1997)
The Fifth Element is beautifully bonkers. Director Luc Besson gives us an amazing piece of science fiction with a remarkable look and insanely amazing culture. The Fifth Element is fun pushed to the highest limits, with absolutely stunning visual design, ranging from Leeloo’s (Milla Jovovich) odd orange overalls to the busy space cityscapes of Korben’s (Bruce Willis) home world. Everything is pushed to extremes, images and themes played out and blown up in a beautifully over the top manner. And, most importantly for this list, it’s an amazing action film. Besson keeps the pace rushing and the action tight, going from scene to scene in a wonderfully seamless manner. Even if the entire film was just the ‘Diva Dance’ scene, where Leeloo beats the snot out of an alien race to the tune of an opera aria turned pop piece. The fight is only about three minutes long, but that’s long enough for this amazing work of fight choreography, editing, and stuntwork to take it’s place in the pantheon of Greatest Movie Fights Ever. – Katie Gill
15. Mission: Impossible (1996)
Looking back past the riding off of airplanes, climbing the largest tower in the world, and the slow-motion motorcycle fights, it’s shocking to remember how subdued the first Mission: Impossible movie was.
The first film based on the late 60s/early 70s TV show follows IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) trying to clear his name after his team gets set-up in a plot to steal a list of undercover operatives. It feels very run of the mill on paper, but that’s why you bring in a stylistic master like Brian De Palma to direct. De Palma is a patient man, building the tension and snapping it on a dime to set the audience’s hearts on fire. Everything from the iconic ceiling-hanging heist to the dinner scene with Ethan and Kittridge (Henry Czerny) are explosive in subtle ways. It’s understandable that the climax needs to have something as ridiculous as a helicopter exploding, but De Palma understood that action doesn’t need to be over the top to be exciting. – Jon Winkler
14. GoldenEye (1995)
Amongst all the leftover machismo from the 80s and the imposing explosions that came with it, who said action movies couldn’t use a little class?
Pierce Brosnan slid into 007’s tuxedo like a charm in director Martin Campbell’s stellar retooling of the James Bond franchise (which wouldn’t be the last time he’d do that). Here, Bond goes toe-to-toe with former partner 006 (Sean Bean) and the dangerously limber Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) to stop a Russian spy satellite from sending England’s electronic banking system back to the Dark Ages. Despite the said-machismo of the 80s still lingering, GoldenEye manages to have a legitimate plot that doesn’t get bogged down in action scenes. It’s a gentleman’s action movie that just happens to feature a villain who kills with her thigh game and Bond driving a tank. Not to mention the stellar opening scene involving spelunking off of a damn. Bond was back and better than ever. – Jon Winkler
13. The Fugitive (1993)
There’s no doubt that Harrison Ford will always best be known for playing Han Solo and Indiana Jones. However that should not overshadow one of his best performances in The Fugitive, an adaptation of 1960s TV series of the same name. Ford plays Richard Kimble, a well-known Chicago surgeon that’s wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife. On the bus to death row, the other prisoners on board attempt an escape which leads to crashing into a ravine. Kimble manages to climb out of the wreckage just before a train collides into the bus and ultimately derails. With a new lease on “free” life, he sets out to find the real suspect while also avoiding a manhunt led by U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones).
The Fugitive silences any critics that say all action movies need to entirely highlighted with shootouts and explosions. It relies more on sharply edited chases that are sprinkled with offbeat banter from Jones’ domineering Marshall Gerard. Kimble and Gerard are excellent characters in that although they’re on different sides of the law, the fleshing out of their journeys lead you to rooting for both of them. In their respective roles, Ford and Jones are both incredible, with Ford bringing considerable humanism to Kimble, and Jones stealing every scene as the smart-talking Marshal. This movie may not be as flashy as most selections on this list, but the intelligent filmmaking and acting are what make it earn its spot alongside the best.
12. Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
There’s no denying that the original Die Hard is the quintessential action movie, so it’s easy to see it’s 1995 sequel as a ‘90s also-ran. And yet that negates the fun and action that is Die Hard with a Vengeance, a film that, in many ways is on equal footing with its 1980s predecessor. Directed once again by the original film’s director John McTiernan, who sat out the previous sequel in 1990, this iteration seems a circling back to the original, as John McClane (Bruce Willis) has to stop bombs and baddies intent on ripping off the Federal Reserve. You also get a healthy dose of good banter between Willis and his sidekick, Zeus (played by that other badass symbol of the ‘90s, Samuel L. Jackson). For me though, Die Hard with a Vengeance, much like the original, lives and dies based on the awesomeness of its villain. And in the ‘90s who was the best person you could hire to play a villain? Jeremy Irons, of course! It’s more than conceivable to believe he and Alan Rickman are related, purely through the genetic genepool of being evil badasses. Die Hard with a Vengeance ends up becoming a great bookend to the Die Hard franchise, returning to its roots, literally. We can forget anything that happened to the franchise after this, right? – Kristen Lopez
11. Starship Troopers (1997)
The last feature of director Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trilogy, Starship Troopers is without his most ridiculous sounding movie when read on paper. In a dystopian future, several high school grad friends enlist in the military to fight an interstellar war against a bug species known as Arachnids. Don’t let the silliness of the premise distract you as this is not just one Verhoeven’s best films, but also one that was very misunderstood at the time of its theatrical release. So if I still have your attention on this suggestion, I must ask you the question; “Would you like to learn more?”
On the surface, Starship Troopers is an excellent war flick full of exhilarating battle sequences and CGI that still holds up surprisingly well today. Verhoeven’s trademark use of campy humor is also present throughout. Above all however, the smart satire on topics like fascism and the military industrial complex that give the movie its added weight. The use of advertisements are similar in execution to those in RoboCop, but this time they serve as propaganda to recruit people into fighting in a war where they are very likely not to return home alive. It may also for the casting of pretty face actors to exemplify the naive innocence of those entering a morally questionable conflict. It’s that form of satire that made Verhoeven’s sci-fi films more memorable past their violent entertainment, and it’s great that Starship Troopers has gradually accumulate the cult status it deserves.
10. The Rock (1996)
Ed Harris leads a platoon of rogue US Force Recon Marines that take over Alcatraz Island and hold people hostage under the threat of releasing chemical weapons across San Francisco. Who will be able to counter their threat and save all the hostages? Well of course it’ll be an FBI chemist with little combat experience (Nicolas Cage), and an imprisoned former British national that’s known as the only inmate to have escaped from the titular island (Sean Connery). Ah, only in the 90s would this crazy premise work…and it does very well!
The Rock is back when Michael Bay some legitimately great action films. His pacing was already at the breakneck level that still shows in his work today, but the camerawork boasted far more fluidity in terms of movement and stylistic angles. This is shown best in a legendary car chase in the streets of San Francisco between a Hummer and Ferrari, both commandeered by Connery and Cage’s characters respectively. Being that it’s a Bay film, there are many frenetic shootouts and explosions but they’re all precisely executed, and it’s an added bonus where all the actors are clearly having a blast with the material. Connery and Cage are both great and have amusing banter together, but Ed Harris is above everyone with his freshly subtle performance as the the villain, General Hummel.
9. Total Recall (1990)
If praising one Paul Verhoeven sci-fi action classic wasn’t enough, why not do it for one more? Loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story, We Can Remember it for you Wholesale, Total Recall tells the story of Douglas Quaid, a construction worker in a dystopian future that has experienced recurring nightmares about Mars. Wanting some excitement in his life, he visits Rekall, a shadowy company that creates memories of fantasy vacations chosen by the consumer. Quaid chooses the Mars Secret Agent fantasy, but the procedure takes a sharp left turn and that’s all I will say if you haven’t yet seen the film.
Arnold Schwarzenegger may have the top billing and is no doubt great playing Quaid, but Verhoeven is the true star of Total Recall. The action is fast-paced and high on the body count and squib levels, but his visual styles for the Earth and Mars settings are vivid in their contrasting details. Earth is drowned in plain gray that symbolizes Quaid’s boring life, while Mars is bright for both the planet’s literal surface and the cheap glitz of the Venusville district. Speaking of which it’s impossible to ignore the brilliant makeup effects designed by the genius Rob Bottin. While the satire isn’t quite as sharp as that of RoboCop and Starship Troopers, Total Recall is a complete package of violent entertainment and acute technical craftsmanship.
8. Face/Off (1997)
Face/Off is the perfect example of the right director with the right cast at the right time. John Woo, while a supremely talented filmmaker, had difficulty matching his foreign success here in America. Actors Nicolas Cage and John Travolta were at the heights of their careers during the mid 90s. The action and sci-fi genres had continuously been merging together for quite some time. 1997 was the perfect storm to produce this incredibly bombastic action masterpiece. On paper, this ludicrous premise should not have worked. While it’s not exactly played straight, it works within the confines of this heightened cinematic universe. Cage and Travolta excel in their dual roles while having a ball impersonating each other. While it’s full of John Woo trademarks, Face/Off owes a great deal to the films of Paul Verhoeven. It’s loaded with gore and the side characters are all eccentric enough to avoid becoming bullet fodder. More importantly, the movie is chock full of memorable quotes and catchphrases which defined the decade. Since we are coming up on the 20th anniversary very soon, expect a more detailed analysis of Face/Off in the coming weeks. – Matthew Goudreau
7. Léon: The Professional (1996)
Luc Besson makes his third and final appearance on this list and it’s for without question his most mature directorial feature, Léon: The Professional. The film stars Jean Reno (who played “The Cleaner” in Nikita) as Léon, a New York City hitman that lives a reclusive life outside of his paid business. His quiet lifestyle is interrupted when he takes in Mathilda (played by a 12 year old Natalie Portman in he film debut), a young girl whose entire family has been murdered by corrupt DEA agents led by Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Mathilda quenches a thirst for revenge, which leads to Léon teaching her how to handle weapons. In the middle of the training, the two form an unusual father-daughter bond that could break if Stansfield’s presence re-emerges.
The relationship between Léon and Mathilda is one of the most unorthodox yet emotionally resonating character relationships in action movie history. The subtly earnest performances by Reno and Portman enhance the tender moments shared between the characters, and they help balance out the charmingly over-the-top instability displayed by Oldman’s Stanfield. Besson as usual cranks up the energy when the action kicks in, but smartly never takes the scale of it to a grand level. All in all, Léon: The Professional is a remarkable exercise in balancing entertaining gunplay with genuinely moving drama. If you ask me who might enjoy this movie the most, allow Gary Oldman’s character to give you my answer.
6. Point Break (1991)
Now we get to a pair of picks that boasted the most memorable aspects of 90s action movies. The first of those is Point Break, which has Keanu Reeves play Johnny Utah, a name that in the real world would never have the title FBI Agent attached at the beginning, but in this movie does. In the movie, Utah starts to investigate a stretch of bank robberies that his partner (Gary Busey) believes the suspects to be local surfers. He goes undercover into the surfing community and meets Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), a surfer with a magnetic personality who he and his crew turn out to be the suspects committing the robberies. This puts Utah at a crosswalk of doing his job properly or having to end his bromance with Bodhi.
If you in any way take Point Break seriously, clearly you are not watching the movie with the right mindset. Rather you should view it as an excellent slice of escapism that also has great chemistry between its leads and adrenaline-pumping action handled deftly by future Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow. And if all that’s not enough there’s loads of quotable lines from both its lead characters and a hilariously over-the-top Gary Busey. Just over 25 years since its theatrical release, Point Break still has a high influence for both the genre and pop culture in general. If you want a great example, check out this clip from Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.
5. Con Air (1997)
As it now reaches the age of 20, Con Air has still exemplifies one of the finest examples ot the “shut off your brain and enjoy” style of filmmaking. Similar to Point Break, there are loads of charismatic characters and well-choreographed action, and of course it must all prepared with a crazy setup. Nicolas Cage (with a silly hairpiece and bad Alabama accent) plays an ex-con on parole that hitches a ride home on a prisoner transport plane to see his wife and daughter for the first time in eight years. To his surprise however, the plane gets hijacked by the other prisoners on board, led by career criminal Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, played marvelously by John Malkovich.
It’s hard to find a specific moment to begin why Con Air kicks so much ass, because it’s that awesome of an action film. All the prisoners are played by actors with excellent charisma, there are one-liners aplenty from a multitude of characters, and all multi-facet mayhem is expertly choreographed throughout. Furthermore it has a pumped up soundtrack theme with a guitar solo that sounds as American as Joe Satriani’s cover of “The Star-Spangled Banner” does. (This at one point plays before Cage’s character pretty much walks through getting shot in the arm and seconds later kicks the shooter’s ass). Con Air is without question manly entertainment at its finest and most of all has a self-awareness that should followed if you want to make an action film with the goal of delivering maximum unabashed entertainment.
4. Speed (1994)
Already high off the success of Point Break, Keanu Reeves struck gold again in 1994 with Speed, a constantly tense action-thriller that’s built on a simply genius plot; A bomb is placed under a bus that will turn on once it reaches 50 miles per hour. If the speed at any point goes below 50, the bomb will detonate and kill everyone onboard. Then you add a Los Angeles setting to boot along with one of the greatest taglines of all-time: “Get ready for rush hour.”
Once Speed’s high energy pace kicks in, it doesn’t let up until the very end. The adrenaline is all the more fun when there’s snappy Joss Whedon-written dialogue between the characters. Director Jan de Bont displays stark craftsmanship in finding new ways to amp up the intensity while also maintaining a keen collaboration with his technical crew, which ultimately resulted in Oscar nominations for Best Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. Reeves, Sandra Bullock and Dennis Hopper all deliver great performances, and at least two of the three were smart to not involve themselves in the horrible sequel. Overall if you have yet to feel the experience of gripping the armrest of a chair from experience heart-pumping intensity onscreen, Speed would very likely be your first.
3. Hard Boiled (1992)
Before leaving for Hollywood to experiment his style in a new industry setting, John Woo gave his Hong Kong cinema fans his magnum opus of bulletfests with Hard Boiled. In his final collaboration star with legendary action star Chow Yun-fat, the movie centers on Hong Kong Police Inspector “Tequila”, who teams up with an undercover cop posing as a triad assassin to take down a criminal syndicate led by Johnny Wong. Very simple, right? Yes but this John Woo we’re talking about, who uses that basis to craft the grand daddy of Hong Kong action movies.
Hard Boiled shows Chow Yun-fat at his most badass (yes I’d even put that above The Killer) and John Woo in next-level prestige for his subversive brand of action. Each shootout becomes bigger, bloodier and better than the previous one. Chow Yun-fat goes from firing dual pistols while sliding down a stair rail in the beginning, to mowing down bad guys in a hospital with any gun he can get his hands on and then performs the job just as well even while carrying a newborn baby. Woo’s construction of the action is operatic with the lush carnage and trademark aspects that would pour into the films he made in Hollywood (vivid slow motion, unlimited ammunition, Mexican standoffs, and the aforementioned use of dual weapons). To put the cherry on top, the portion of the grand hospital shootout that occurs in a long take is one of the best constructed sequences in action history.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
With a budget that was close to fifteen times the size of the first film in his famed trilogy, James Cameron brought both The Terminator franchise and Hollywood technology to groundbreaking levels with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. With revolutionary CGI for the famed T-1000, in addition to rip-roaring chases and shootouts, Cameron saw his full vision of the Terminator universe come to life. He also flipped two classic 180s with making Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 a protagonist, and turning Sarah Connor into one of action’s greatest femme fatales.
Cameron always displays effortless commitment to keeping his audience engaged, and he does it to near perfection with one awe-inspiring action sequence after another. The unforgettable L.A. River chase scene is riveting not just for pitting a motorcycle against a tow truck, but also for putting a tween John Connor in the face of potential death of the malicious T-1000. There are some films of T2’s kind that manage to one-up the first film in their respective trilogy, but it’s also in a league of its own for how much it revolutionized the widespread range of digital effects used in today’s blockbusters.
1. The Matrix (1999)
Oozing with masterful world building and daring visual effects that still have a huge influence today, The Matrix was the perfect close to a brilliant genre decade, and it goes double for the “trinity” of classics that Keanu Reeves starred in. It’s also the most intelligent of all the films in this list for its intriguing story that is grounded in rich philosophical themes. The Wachowskis brought a deep vision that wowed way more than just the casual moviegoer, and were courageous to take certain risks that have stood the test of time. Everything from the “bullet time” effect to sleek color palettes and the trademark costumes, there’s absolutely no denying that its unique aspects have become so distinguished to the point that most of them are still imitated and or parodied in pop culture to this day.
In regard to the end of the 90s, it’s especially important to acknowledge The Matrix as the template of the turning point in the action genre for the twenty first century. The movie has an exceptional blend of digital and practical effects, but few films since have retained that approach where digital is now much heavily favored. One can only dream of most present-day action movies returning to those aforementioned blended roots but we should nonetheless remember the 1990s as a decade that was truly one-of-a-kind for the action genre.