The 27 Best Action Movies of the 90s
The action genre went through an interesting transition in the 90s. It still hadn’t quite reached the CGI-overload that would dominate the 21st century, but it was the last hurrah of practical effects. And yet despite the technical limitations of the era, the 90s were still packed with exhilarating, fun, and even thoughtful action movies that still resonate today.
We’ve run down the 27 best action movies of the 90s, and while there’s some diversity in the subgenres including sci-fi to Hong Kong to old-fashioned destruction, all of these films still hold-up and show that the 90s had something to offer to this exciting genre.
Check out our full list below and sound off in the comments if you think of any movies that deserved to make the cut.
Total Recall (1990)
Paul Verhoeven is a master of indefinable films. He delves eroticism, action, and science fiction with a heavily measured tongue-in-cheek satirical bent that is only matched by his unflinching regard for all things beyond the pale. Total Recall, which is one of his finest works, stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as your Average Joe, a regular dude who goes to the local Recall clinic – a place where you can have all the most wondrous memories implanted in your head – and ends up unlocking expertly repressed memories of his life as a secret agent. That pits him against a string of countless government agents, including his stand-in wife (Sharon Stone) as he sets out to bring down a nefarious, if somewhat vague, agency.
Based on a Philip K. Dick short, Total Recall is lavish and ridiculous, a stronghold of Verhoeven’s knack for the extravagant and his willingness to go for extremes. What it lacks in coherence, it makes up for in pure panache, as Verhoeven explores the wonders of a futuristic society by upending genre conventions as often as it indulges in them. Equally packed with one-liner humor and gory violence, Total Recall is the myth of the Schwarzenneger hero through the twisted lens of Verhoeven, making it true one-of-a-kind in one on the resume of the action genre’s foremost actors. — Haleigh Foutch
La Femme Nikita (1990)
La Femme Nikita launched not only Luc Besson’s career as the international man of action entertainment, but it also became an unlikely franchise of its own, spawning two US television series and an American feature film remake (Point of No Return). The watered down stateside formula is simple: woman in cocktail dress + a handgun. But all the US adaptations have missed what made the original so special: Nikita is a Beauty and the Beast tale and Nikita (Anne Parillaud) is both the Beauty and the Beast. And her beginning is beastly.
Nikita begins with Parillaud as a drug addict with a death wish coupled with an impulsive trigger. She shoots a cop after she druggily drifted off to sleep while her drugstore crew robbed a store and died during a shootout with the police. The policeman she shot merely woke her up, expecting her to be a damsel in distress. Nikita wasn’t startled by him. She just didn’t care. So she shot him. Nikita brutalizes more authority in jail, lands in confinement and is given a choice from the government: accept a death sentence or become an assassin. The Beauty aspect is a glorious touch from Besson, as Nikita is aided by a French New Wave icon, Jeanne Moreau, who teaches her how to embrace a dignified womanhood, even though she may be a contract killer. Many films think that the way to make a female assassin sexy is to give her a bad attitude and fit her into tight leather, but Besson gives Nikita the Bond treatment. She starts with the bad attitude and learns grace—while fitting into a dress that’s meant for cocktail hour—and earning her license to kill. – Brian Formo
The Last Boy Scout (1991)
This is Shane Black at his Shane Black-iest, and it makes you wish that he and director Tony Scott had collaborated more. Scott gets the tone that Black’s screenplay is going for, and while on the surface the story of a washed-up detective and washed-up football player seems too contrived to work, it does.
The film is unabashedly dark and twisted in its comedy right from the start where we see a football player gun down his opponents on the field before blowing his brains out. Even though it may play within the safety of noir, Scott’s skill at the action genre gives The Last Boy Scout a unique flavor that shows off a singular ambition when it comes to this oddball story. Throw in Black’s electric dialogue and strong chemistry between leads Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, and The Last Boy Scout is easily one of the most fun and exciting action films of the decade. – Matt Goldberg
Point Break (1991)
Let’s get this out of the way: Point Break is my favorite action film of the 1990s by a country mile. That may primarily be because its underlying focus seems to be on dismantling the legitimacy of the masculine impulses that guide most action films. Director Kathryn Bigelow sets up two opposing visions of masculinity at the center of the film: Patrick Swayze’s extreme-sports-loving outlaw Bodie and Keanu Reeves’ buttoned-up FBI agent Johnny Utah. As many have opined, the movie could be seen as an unrealized romance between the two men, as Utah goes undercover to infiltrate Bodie’s gang of presidentially-masked bank-robbers. One could run with that idea and Point Break would still work perfectly as a bracing, breathless action epic, and that’s what separates the film from much of its ilk. There’s a sadness at the center of the film that could be construed as sexual, romantic, and tied directly to straight identity. Bodie is liberated, which means he cannot live by the dictates of society, which Bigelow sees as being driven primarily by repression and uniformity. When Utah lets Bodie go at the very end, to meet his end amongst a swell of enormous waves, one can see that where Utah initially craved order, brotherhood, and discipline, he now sees the romance of oblivion that Bodie has become enraptured by. It’s a dark thought, but staring out at the crashing walls of water, it’s hard to argue the freedom that such a perspective allows. – Chris Cabin
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
We should probably stop giving James Cameron flak for taking so damned long on these Avatar follow-ups because if there’s a man who knows how to make an action sequel, it’s him. Hell, he practically defined the format in 1986 with Aliens, and in 1991 he put that bigger, badder formula to grand use in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Picking up with Linda Hamilton‘s Sarah Connor 15 years after the events of the first film, we find a woman completely changed by what she experienced – now a tough son-of-a-bitch and ferocious mamma bear devoted to protecting her son, the future leader of the human resistance.
That’s just one of the ways the script turns the original film on its head, the most famous being the re-introduction of Arnold Schwartzenegger‘s T-800, not as an unstoppable villain, but as a reprogrammed protector set against Robert Patrick‘s even scarier T-1000. Through Patrick’s new-and-improved Terminator, Cameron puts advances in digital effects to proud use, crafting wire-taut set-pieces as the liquid metal assassin bends, morphs, and bleeds – a terrifying figure of unstoppable death. While those brilliantly crafted set-pieces demonstrate Cameron’s unrivaled mastery of the marriage between technology and cinema, it’s the humanity behind the spectacle (who knew a thumbs up could make you cry?) that’s held up Terminator 2 as an all-time great, long after modern effects eclipsed its technological triumphs. — Haleigh Foutch
Hard Boiled (1992)
John Woo is a legend of the action genre, which is why you’ll see so damned many of his movies on this list. Hard Boiled, his last official Hong Kong film before heading off to Hollywood, is one of his most entertaining and stylistically definitive, and a giant of the genre. Hard Boiled stars Chow Yun-Fat as Tequila, a tough Hong Kong cop obsessed with taking out the nefarious crime ring that murdered his partner, who teams up with an undercover cop on the brink. Along the way, there are plenty of Woo’s stunningly choreographed fight scenes and shoot-outs, culminating in an insanely violent shoot-em-up final act that’s a breathless series of set-pieces. How insane? Try, “defending infants in a maternity ward from well-armed villains” insane. You just can’t beat the moment Tequila apologizes and coos at a tiny baby as he wipes a splatter of his own blood off the wee one’s face.
Hard Boiled boasts all of Woo’s signature slow-motion sharp-shooting and battletic torrents of blood in their best form. While we’ve come to take for granted just how much those hallmarks influenced and defined the genre, to watch Hard Boiled is to watch Woo write his chapter in the playbook of modern action. — Haleigh Foutch
Demolition Man (1993)
Set aside Rob Schneider and the three seashells, and Demolition Man is perhaps one of the smartest, most subversive sci-fi films of the 1990s. It doesn’t get credit for its subversion because it’s putting Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes front-and-center, but if you look at the surrounding film, it’s surprisingly crafty with its cultural critique of a future that will be overwhelmed with product placement and forced fuzzy feelings.
Demolition Man provides a unique dystopia, one that’s run by the mentality of a neighborhood association rather than a world falling into chaos. While Snipes’ Simon Phoenix is ostensibly the villain of the piece, he’s right in calling out the bigger bad, Doctor Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne) as “an evil Mr. Rogers.” Director Marco Brambilla basically reimagined Brave New World, gave it the body of an action movie, and imbued it with comedy. It’s a concoction that shouldn’t work and yet it does. – Matt Goldberg
Hard Target (1993)
How sweet it is to live in a world where movies like Hard Target exist. John Woo‘s first American action film is pretty much what you’d expect out of that scenario – bigger explosions, a swaggering hero, and a minimal interest in plot (it’s ostensibly about a heroic sailor taking down a ruthless society of men who hunt the homeless for sport, but it’s really about Jean Claude Van Damme fabulously kicking ass). The result is an intoxicating middle ground between B-Movie camp and Woo’s set-piece artistry.
The director’s trademark reverence for kinesthetic on-screen violence remains in tact, and with Van Damme he has an extraordinarily capable vessel through which he can channel it all. There’s a precision to Woo’s choreography, especially with an athletic specimen like Van Damme behind it, that keeps the audience attuned to every piece of the action. Every punch, kick and bullet lands — a skill that’s been widely missing over the last decade when lesser craftsmen tried to emulate Paul Greengrass‘ frenetic Bourne-style combat. It may not be as smart or incisive as Woo’s Hong Kong films, but it’s a stellar piece of action filmmaking all the same. Van Damme also knocks out a snake with a single punch, and that’s really all I needed to say. – Haleigh Foutch
The Fugitive (1993)
In the early 90s, Harrison Ford was intent on proving that while he was entering his 50s, his leading man days were far from over. The actor was just coming off his first turn as Jack Ryan in 1992’s Patriot Games when he signed on to lead a feature film adaptation of a television series called The Fugitive. Now, on paper, this just sounded like a neat little action-thriller, but it turns out Ford went and made one of the best films of the decade. Indeed, Ford’s turn as a prominent doctor falsely convicted of murdering his wife is wonderfully dynamic and unsurprisingly intense, and as the title suggests, Dr. Richard Kimble escapes on his way to death row and finds himself pursued by a relentless U.S. Marshal, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Director Andrew Davis frames the film as a non-stop action-thriller with a strong mystery throughline, and while there are certainly spectacular set pieces to be found, it’s the deeply human performances of Ford and Jones that really make this thing soar. It’s no wonder the film scored seven Oscar nominations—including Best Picture—and one win for Jones. – Adam Chitwood
Speed is often described as “Die Hard on bus” and that’s complete nonsense. To be sure, the 90s were littered with Die Hard copycats (See: Sudden Death), but Speed ain’t one of them. For one thing, the action isn’t confined to a single location. But most importantly, Keanu Reeves‘ Jack Trayven isn’t picking off bad guys one-by-one as he works his way to the top, and he isn’t the right guy in the wrong place, he’s specifically targeted by Dennis Hopper‘s incredibly creepy retired police officer with a grudge.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can celebrate Speed for what it is – an original spin on a well-worn formula that was executed so well, it managed to spawn copycats of its own (See: Chill Factor). Written by Graham Yost, who would go on to Justified fame, Speed was a hell of a debut from Die Hard DP Jan De Bont (who sadly never replicated the success of his first film) that had the foresight to recognize the talents of Sandra Bullock before the industry caught wise. Following Point Break, Reeves cemented his place as a premier action star (a legacy that was expertly re-established recently with John Wick), and his chemistry with Bullock is first-rate, making for a movie that’s endlessly watchable, even when you’ve become well acquainted with its clever twists and turns. — Haleigh Foutch
True Lies (1994)
Part ballistic Arnold Schwarzenegger-fronted action, part domestic comedy, True Lies is lesser James Cameron, which means it’s still fantastic because this is James Cameron, after all. True, the film may not have redefined the genre, as so many of Cameron’s works tend to do, but it’s a damn good time and a pleasing mishmash of genres. Framed as a Schwarzenegger piece that ultimately give co-star Jamie Lee Curtis equal room to shine, the story follows Schwarzenegger’s Harry Trasker — a special agent keeping his life secret from his nearest and dearest, including his wife, Helen (Curtis) — who we soon discover is seeking her own thrills.
Cameron, who has a history of knowing exactly what to do with Bill Paxton, puts the actor to some of the best use yet as a sleazy car salesman, conning his way through life under the visage of a secret agent. When he entraps Helen in his web, that’s when things get tricky. Cameron delivers all the action spectacle you’d expect, with effects that earned an Oscar nomination, along with a delightful comedy of errors. Along the way, we get stunning action sequence, extraordinary fight choreography, and hilarious antics that’s one of the best action-comedies of the decade, if nowhere near one of Cameron’s best works. — Haleigh Foutch
The Crow (1994)
A dark tale of vengeance made with exemplary style, The Crow remains something of an anomaly. This violent tale of a would-be rock star (the late Brandon Lee) who returns from the dead to violently dispose of the men who raped and murdered his wife, and the sadistic boss-man they serve (Michael Wincott), skirts fantastical elements but remains largely focused on its own unique world. There’s no stress on how the vigilante known as the Crow comes back and the dark world he resides in isn’t a world of magic. It’s a simple yet audacious conceit that allows director Alex Proyas to express a cynical worldview, and the lasting power of the film comes from his stylistic choices. Lee’s being dispatches the gang in not-so-pretty fashion, rather by giving one gang member a big hot shot to seemingly sticking another one with every knife available in this world, but Proyas doesn’t stint on the dramatic oomph. The great Ernie Hudson does reliably excellent work as the grief-stricken cop who discovered Lee’s rockstar and his fiancée, and Rochelle Davis is immediately engaging as Sarah, the young teen who played proxy daughter to the young couple. Adapted from James O’Barr’s comics, The Crow is a unique vision of revenge as moral imperative in a world where nothing good stays but it only works because Proyas envisions an entirely different world and doesn’t attempt to suggest that we might as well be living in such a horrific state of existence. – Chris Cabin
Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
Perhaps the greatest strength of Die Hard with a Vengeance is that it didn’t start out as a Die Hard movie. It was originally a thriller called “Simon Says”, and the studio refitted it into a Die Hard film, which was the smart move, especially since Die Hard 2 basically feels like a retread to the point where John McClane (Bruce Willis) actually comments on the ridiculousness of two similar situations.
Die Hard with a Vengeance changes the rules of Die Hard in all the right ways. Instead of confining the action to one location, it’s spread out across New York City. Instead of putting McClane out on his own, he’s paired with a reluctant Samaritan, Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson). Instead of having McClane pining for his wife, he’s now a drunk that’s been suspended and lost everything. And yet it still retains the core of what a Die Hard movie should be, which is John McClane trying to stop a group of bad guys and getting the shit kicked out of him in the process. While he’s borderline superhuman in this flick (a line that would be crossed in the next two Die Hardmovies) and the original ending is better than the one in the film, Die Hard with a Vengeance is still a terrific action movie and the second best Die Hard film. – Matt Goldberg
Sudden Death (1995)
Die Hard imitators were a dime a dozen in the 90s, but Sudden Death is one of the most formula faithful and one of the best. It’s best described as Die Hard in a hockey arena, starring Jean Claude Van Damme and if you’re not already sold, I’m not sure we’re on the same page here. Van Damme leads as Darren McCord, a former firefighter traumatized by a tragedy in the field, who picks the worst night possible to bring his kids to the hockey arena he oversees as Fire Marshall. Enter Powers Booth, playing the Hans Gruber of the piece, a greedy military man named Joshua Foss who holds the vice president hostage and threatens to blow up the entire arena unless he gets his money.
But Foss is a much more twisted villain that Gruber ever was, casually offing innocent civilians with glee and relishing every opportunity to torment McCord’s captive young daughter, who he repeatedly mocks, threatens, and tries to kill. There’s something about watching a full grown man threaten to stuff a child’s mouth full of spiders that sets a singular tone, somewhere between pitch darkness and over-the-top humor. That tone manifests in strange ways throughout Sudden Death – the ruthless execution of Foss’ hostages, McCord’s increasingly creative ways off picking off henchmen (from dry ice to MacGyver-ish projectile devices), and most memorable, a knockdown-dragout between Van Damme and a giant woman in a Pittsburgh Penguin Mascot outfit that just has to be the inspiration for Peter Griffin’s chicken fights. As far as ripoffs go, Sudden Death is one of a kind. — Haleigh Foutch
The Rock (1996)
Here it is: Michael Bay’s sole, legitimately good movie. While Bay has made other entertaining pictures, The Rock is the only one that isn’t aggressively stupid. That’s not to say it’s the sharpest action movie ever, but it doesn’t carry over any residual guilt. You can feel good watching The Rock and it’s action mayhem. It’s silly, but not in a way that’s overly empty-headed. Yes, there’s the larger-than-life stakes and action movie tropes, but Bay finesses them into a reasonable picture. There’s no confusing The Rock with a film like Bad Boys II.
What’s great about The Rock is how many little things it gets right. You expect Bay to deliver on a car chase and shootouts, but there are plenty of small touches that make it standout. I love that the “villain” (Ed Harris) isn’t a bad guy. I love that when Nicolas Cage has Cage-ian outbursts, it’s because they’re motivated by the plot rather than him trying to chew the scenery. I love that there’s a movie with John Spencer calling someone “fuckhead”. It’s the little things that elevate The Rock to being not just Bay’s best movie, but one of the best action films of the 90s.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
The Mission: Impossible franchise is the ideal example of what a big-budget series of films should be, anchored by a series of stylish top-tier filmmakers and the unparalleled chutzpah of Tom Cruise. With the notable exception of the deeply flawed second installment, these films have given the likes of J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird open canvases to exercise their big-screen know-how, but it’s never been as visually hypnotic and narratively caustic than in Brian De Palma’s infectious original. On the hunt for the people responsible for the murders of his team, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt must cross and double-cross government agencies and crime bosses ad nauseum, and De Palma takes the chance to stage the intrigue and astounding stunts with Hitchcockian verve. Perpetually in praise of the master of suspense, De Palma makes Mission: Impossible his variation on the likes of Foreign Correspondent and other wrong-man narratives (Young & Innocent, North by Northwest, etc.), but it’s not solely a work of homage. De Palma’s sensational set-pieces are exemplary and rhythmic in ways that are unmistakably beholden to De Palma’s filmic language, from the riveting break-in at Langley to the climactic exchange on a bullet train. There’s plenty of danger in all of the Mission: Impossible films but only the original exudes such potent menace and a giddy sense of cinematic indulgence. – Chris Cabin
Independence Day (1996)
Let’s all forget the buzzkill sequel and remember Independence Day for the monument-exploding charisma-fest we all fell in love with back in 1996. Before Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic spectacle devolved into a redundant schtick, he gave us an all-timer alien invasion actioner, and it was anchored by an exceptionally charming, nonchalantly inclusive cast long before diversity became the buzzword. You just can’t beat Judd Hirsch‘s nervous nagging, or Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum tireless bickering as they fly off into impossible odds. Obviously, you can’t beat Bill Pullman delivering what remains one of the best cinematic St. Crispian’s speeches of all time.
Aside from the film’s endless charms, you can’t undersell the impact of the Emmerich’s groundbreaking effects, shot in miniature, that hold up to this day even with the tremendous technological advancements over the last 20 years. Independence Day arrived long before the dawn of pervasive apocalyptic entertainment, and the spectacle on display was a stunning experience unlike any that had come before. — Haleigh Foutch
Escape from L.A. (1996)
Where Escape from New York was a precisely cut, stylish science fiction classic – politically subversive, serious-minded in its conception, and vibrantly inventive in its imagery – Escape from L.A. seems more purposefully cheeky and cheap. This isn’t to say that the second mission by Snake Pliskin (Kurt Russell) isn’t encoded with John Carpenter’s particular brand of leftist politics, but it’s delivered in a far more bombastic aesthetic, the dark greys and blues of the first film traded in for yellows, oranges, and reds. This is, in a sense, a reflection of the difference between the two cities but also reflects the mythology of those cities. New York is thought of as a dangerous realm rife with killers, gangs, and violent thieves, whereas Los Angeles is the playground of the blowhards, the covert sadists, the con men, and the self-obsessed. In a sense, this is a commentary on Carpenter’s arrival in the Hollywood system, far away from his early days as cult genre filmmaker that had to do some hard-scrapping to get his meager budgets. In Escape from L.A., pitted against a cruel revolutionary who makes himself up like Che Guevera, Pliskin is a man with a name, a celebrity even, brawling and shooting his way out of an island of West Coast maniacs and derelicts, just trying to get a job done. – Chris Cabin
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Shane Black rightly gets a lot of credit for his script for Lethal Weapon, but there’s just as much to love about his ribald, snappy dialogue and action-genre structuring in the script for The Long Kiss Goodnight. Director Renny Harlin provides a kinetic pace and all the explosions, gunfights, and hand-to-hand combat you can handle in this story of a housewife (Harlin’s off-screen wife Geena Davis) who slowly remember her former life as a deadly assassin. Harlin does an admirable job but the film belongs to Black’s preternatural understanding of the genre, as well as a tremendous cast top-lined by Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Cox, Craig Bierko, and David Morse. The winter setting, set against a lot of fire and hot lead, invokes a feeling of reawakening from a frozen state of mind and Black’s writing offers a few more uniquely strange set-pieces, such as the deer-killing after the car accident that awakes Davis’ mommy dearest or the bananas climactic showdown. All the while, Davis and Jackson burnish chemistry that few action films have been blessed with, adding an all-important human element to a genre that’s often happy enough to drifts along on autopilot. – Chris Cabin
Con Air (1997)
This one falls into the “So bad it’s great,” category of 90s action movies. It’s a movie so delightfully dumb and yet there seems to be just enough awareness of how silly everything is without winking at the audience. It’s almost like director Simon West is saying, “Yes, this is a film where a decorated soldier is sentenced to prison for protecting his pregnant wife from violent rednecks. That’s the logic we’re employing.”
While there have been many Michael Bay imitators, Con Air comes the closest to recreating Bay’s style, and the action is delightful and becomes even better when paired with a cast of colorful characters played by John Malkovich, Danny Trejo, M.C. Gainey, Dave Chappelle, Nick Chinlund, and Ving Rhames. And then there’s Nicolas Cage, doing a terrible southern accent, and making the proceedings even loonier. Con Air is just a giddy thrill ride, and an unabashed good time despite its overwhelming stupidity. – Matt Goldberg
The Fifth Element (1997)
Luc Besson’s 1990 film La Femme Nikita certainly piqued audiences’ curiosity and 94’s The Professional gave him cult status, but with the introduction of The Fifth Element in 1997, Besson earned his first big-stage, box office blockbuster. The film was a perfect storm of cinema, combining the proven entity of Bruce Willis with the up-and-coming talent of Milla Jovovich, supported by such veterans as Gary Oldman and Ian Holm, and the comedy styling of Chris Tucker. Mix in a delightfully bizarre future-set mythology and a myriad of beautiful worlds full of creatures and aliens brought to life through practical design, and you have an action-packed, space-tripping epic that pleased domestic and international audiences alike.
The Fifth Element made its mark on the action genre by throwing colorful characters (literally and otherwise) together in a space-based shooting arcade that leaped from one altercation to the next at a break-neck pace. Whether it’s a spaceship battle in a planet’s orbit, a flying-car chase through the smog and haze of an overcrowded city, or the final stand against the universe’s greatest evil, The Fifth Element has a style of action balanced with snappy dialogue and humor that’s nearly impossible to replicate, even by Besson himself (though he has tried). And you can enjoy this classic whether you’ve never seen it before or are watching it for the thousandth time. – Dave Trumbore
Starship Troopers (1997)
Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers presents the future as a place where nationalities are no longer recognized, men and women are equal in the job force and are so nonchalant about gender they can share the same bathrooms, showers, and changing rooms without a wandering gaze. What a utopia! This society should be protected at all costs! And protected it is, by the youth brigade who must enlist into the military in order to earn citizenship. Ah, so there’s a catch.
Verhoeven, ever the sneaky satirist, made a Hollywood career out of subverting the action genre by giving the people what they wanted—blood, guts, and nudity—while also making fun of the society that craves to see so much of that primal excess. And Starship Troopers is his satirical masterpiece. He follows a band of attractive but banal soldiers as they shoot off into space to fight giant bugs. And he fills the screen with propaganda videos made by Earth about why this space bug species must be exterminated. Eventually—amidst the bug splats, the brain sucks, and the workplace nudity—we see that Troopers is really an anti-Fascist film. And that the citizens of Earth, who must fight in order to become citizens, are blindly following the creed that “war solves everything.” At the bottom of each propaganda video, the viewer sees a question prompt: “Would you like to know more?” But how many of its citizens can actually read and comprehend that message? It’s revealed that the bodily and nation-free utopia is devoid of any type of education that isn’t warfare. For finding a constant threat and feeding fear can prevent free thought. – Brian Formo
It’s easy to say that John Woo’s American films revealed an inability to translate his vaulted, bombastic style to a more believable timbre for American audiences. Hard Boiled, which appears on this very list, and The Killer are many things but above all else, they are fucking crazy. There’s an identical strain of lunacy in Broken Arrowand, more importantly, Face/Off, which saw John Travolta’s obsessive FBI agent Sean Archer and Nicholas Cage’s notorious Castor Troy, the man who killer Archer’s young son, switching faces. If one attempts to drag logic, kicking and screaming, into an appreciation of Face/Off, the game was lost before it even began, but logic and reason often have no place in action films.
For all its inexplicable narrative decisions, Face/Off is an exhilarating work of action chutzpah, one that dips deep into the thematic consideration of what, if anything, separates the criminals from the people who chase them. At well over two hours, Face/Off boasts entropic pacing, wildly theatrical, over-the-top performances, and set-pieces that will blow your wig off. Some may say that the film is too silly, too raucous to be enjoyed, and there’s an argument to be made that they are completely right. For a seasoned fan of the genre like myself, however, Face/Off is all nonsensical decadence. – Chris Cabin
Blade certainly isn’t the best vampire movie to come out of the 90s, but it is one of the most kick ass. An action-packed comic book adaptation ahead of its time, Blade recruits genre icon Wesley Snipes as the titular hybrid mercenary on a mission to rid the world of an evil vampire scourge. From a screenplay by David S. Goyer, who would later help establish “gritty and grounded” as the order of business for the DC universe with The Dark Knight Trilogy and Man of Steel, Blade integrates vampire culture believably into the underworld of contemporary society with a goth raver bent that makes them seem like a bunch of blood-thirsty tools. Basically, you really just can’t wait for Blade to kick the shit out of them all.
And Snipes does so with aplomb in a tremendously athletic performance, as he slices, shoots and stakes his way through his immortal foes with impeccable physical command. He’s backed by the weaponry of his vampire-slaying ally Whistler, played by a delightfully gruff and grumbly Kris Kristofferson, and the two have a no-nonsense, taking-care-of-business friendship that helps keeps the movie entertaining even when no fists are flying and the dialogue becomes laughable. Cheesy lines and all, Snipes carries the movie on his very muscular back with a self-seriousness that works for the character, if not the film at large, and consistently fantastic fight scenes. – Haleigh Foutch
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
First, I’ll admit you have to set aside the fact that Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta Jones are playing people of Spanish descent. If you can overlook that slightly uncomfortable fact, The Mask of Zorro is one hell of a swashbuckling action adventure that should have spawned a new era for the masked hero rather than just one disappointing sequel. It’s also the film that should have cemented Antonio Banderas as an action star, although he kind of blew that with films like The 13th Warrior, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
But back in 1998, Banderas was very much a credible action hero, and he carries the role of Zorro with aplomb. Director Martin Campbell crafted a delightful throwback to the old serials while keeping the proceedings fresh enough to appeal to modern audiences. The movie is fast, fun, exhilarating, and charmingly old-fashioned in its heroics. It’s kind of a shame that Zorro is being rebooted as a futuristic, post-apocalyptic tale when Mask of Zorro shows there’s so much fertile ground to cover in his native setting. – Matt Goldberg
By the time Ronin came out in 1998, director John Frankenheimer hadn’t made a good movie since 1985’s The Holcroft Covenant and hadn’t made a great movie since the mid-1960s. The political anger and visual storytelling savvy that made Seconds, The Train, and The Manchurian Candidate so powerful and enduring had long since faded into a kind of mechanical knowledge of filmmaking in movies like Prophecy and The French Connection II. Ronin, however, didn’t feel mechanical nor did the movie feel particularly pre-destined, like the aforementioned 1980s works. Following Robert De Niro’s deadly, enigmatic freelance former intelligence officer and his team as they attempt to divert a package from similar teams from Ireland and Russia, Ronin felt like an old-fashioned, scrappy action epic that aired on the side of nuance over bombast.
This would turn out to be one of De Niro’s last great performances before he only put forth effort for David O. Russell, and a superb cast that includes Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean, and Jonathan Pryce backs him. These performers give all the robust spy business zip and an evocative emotional undercurrent but the real star is Frankenheimer, whose sense of pace and tension seemingly came back for one last return engagement. Working from a script by J.D. Zeik – in full disclosure, one of my instructors at SUNY Purchase – Frankenheimer makes a classical spy film that doesn’t feel beholden to any kind of rigid traditionalism, and moves with the purpose and focus of a hungry shark. – Chris Cabin
The Matrix (1999)
Though it came at the tail end of the decade, opening in late March of 1999, the Wachowski Siblings’ neo-classic sci-fi flick completely changed the game for movies that would come after it. The technology and techniques for the now-iconic Bullet Time sequences weren’t invented for this film, but they were certainly pulled into the modern era, putting the effect on display for audiences around the world. This could easily have been written off as a gimmick – which indeed it was for future films that aped its style – but thanks to a solid, thought-provoking, and at times mind-bending mythology, The Matrix remains one of the best movies of the 1990s.
But since we’re concerned with action here, let’s talk about the best examples from The Matrix: This thing opens with a thrilling (and confusing) chase sequence that introduces the movie’s dual worlds, teases the interface between them, and showcases the wall-running, rooftop-leaping Trinity and the Agents in dogged pursuit. It’s a slap to the brain that forces you to sit up, pay attention, and ask the hard questions: Not just how did they do that, but why? And as the answers are doled out over the course of the film, we’re treated to lots and lots of hand-to-hand combat, gunplay, and chase sequences, all in the signature style of the Wachowskis. In the action department, The Matrix is simply, “The One.” – Dave Trumbore