There’s a wonderful retro quality to the action films of the 1990s. It was a strange era in Hollywood, particularly for the action genre – somewhere in between the unabashed campiness of the 80s and the higher standards of the 00s. It was a time when heroic one-liners were celebrated, giant guns and giant muscles were as important as giant special effects budgets, and superstars (rather than up-and-comers or genre actors) still did action movies. And best of all, the era produced pretty timeless entertainment. Sure, ’90s action movies may have to be taken with a bit of a pinch of salt when we go back and watch them now, but that’s half the fun of retro culture. And they’re still highly entertaining in my eyes.
In celebration of this awesome sub-category of retro arts, here’s a brief look back at ten particularly great 90s action flicks. Let me preface this by saying that I’m choosing ones that I feel represent the great cheesiness of the mainstream 90s action movies. There are several other fantastic films that could be called action but could also crossover into other areas, and I have listed those films in the Honourable Mentions at the end.10. Demolition Man (1993) At a glance, Demolition Man looks like a pretty generic 90s action flick, but the premise is actually pretty inventive. Basically, a then-modern day cop (Sylvester Stallone) and criminal (Wesley Snipes) are frozen for 40 years as a means of incarceration. When they emerge in a futuristic, utopian Los Angeles, Snipes functions as the city’s lone evil while Stallone is the only man equipped to take him down. It’s a fun concept, and needless to say Stallone and Snipes are perfect for it.
9. Con Air (1997) Con Air almost represents the culmination of the action genre in the 90s. By the time this film was produced in 1997 it’s as if no one really cared about anything aside from pure entertainment, no matter how ludicrous. Nicholas Cage, Steve Buscemi, John Cusack, Ving Rhames, John Malkovich and crew went fully ridiculous in acting out this crazy airborne prison break movie that makes you laugh and gets your blood pumping all at once. And who can forget the classic line of “Put the bunny back in the box”.
8. Air Force One (1997) There was just something about action involving airplanes in the 90s. Con Air, Passenger 57, Die Hard 2 and also Air Force One, starring Harrison Ford as the U.S. president who takes matters into his own hands when Air Force One is hijacked. The idea of an ass-kicking president is always going to be interesting to audiences, and Ford in 1997 was the perfect man for the job. At the end when the support pilot says “Liberty 24 is now Air Force One” you can’t help just high-fiving or hugging the person next to you. I seriously have to be careful who I sit next to when I watch that film.
7. Under Siege (1992) Under Siege just screams 90s to me. Steven Seagal in his prime, Gary Busey not too crazy, and Tommy Lee Jones in a bandana. All fighting on board a naval ship. What more do you want? Erika Eleniak jumping topless out of a cake? Ok then, you can have that too. This is one of those films I remember getting passed around on VHS a lot between friends and was a great go-to action film whenever we were round at friends’ houses.
6. Die Hard: With A Vengeance (1995) There are debates about which the best Die Hard sequel is but I definitely prefer this one. Samuel L Jackson before he came too Samuel L Jackson and Jeremy Irons trying to outdo Alan Rickman’s German accent from the first film and failing. It continued a great franchise which has been made into some great video games and also is still spawning movie sequels. After the not so great A Good Day to Die Hard I’m slightly wary about the recent announcements of a Die Hard prequel as mentioned here on Den of Geek. This franchise really is finding it hard to die.
5. Blade (1998) Blade has an important place in history as it was arguably the first in the modern series of good Marvel superhero movies. And it’s an extremely good film too. It’s got a fantastic look to it and has some amazing action sequences. It’s also an interesting case because right now it’s enjoying a bit of a resurgence. Blade is now featured among the casino jackpots at Betfair, showing a cartoon image of Wesley Snipes’ iconic vampire slayer, sword drawn and all. The game is ultimately an arcade slot reel, but uses Blade to attract players in much the same way other games at the site use Iron Man and other Marvel characters. Incidentally, many Marvel fans have been calling for this character to be revamped within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And perhaps that speaks to the more modern nature of the film. Blade exemplifies some of the lack of subtlety in 90s action movies, but also reaches toward the more supernatural trends we’ve seen in 00s action.
4. Speed (1994) Speed is a film that I personally love and I find it extremely re-watchable. From the shot where Keanu is walking away and you see the bus explode behind him, to basically every shot with Dennis Hopper. There’s a great premise to the film and it had a fun 90s cast too including Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in their youthful prime.
3. The Rock (1996) Despite having absolutely nothing to do with modern action hero Dwayne Johnson, this 1996 film is a classic. I recently watched it again and was impressed at how well it stood up. Spies, SEAL teams, millions of dollars and chemical weapons at stake, Alcatraz shootouts, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, and Nicholas Cage. The Rock is like some brilliant director or producer’s bucket list of action film elements bashed together to great effect. If Michael Bay had died after making this I think he would have gone down as some kind of Hollywood action legend. Funny how things turn out isn’t it?
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be the greatest movie sequel. In fact, it’s second only to The Dark Knight in an IMDB poll on this very subject (and to be fair that’s hard to argue with), indicating that even decades after its release the fans recognize its quality. The T-800’s bond with a young John Connor added a surprising new level depth to the series, and Schwarzenegger has never been better. It was a seminal movie in the visual effects industry, had a kick-ass Guns n Roses song in its soundtrack and is just all kinds of awesome. When maybe think back to the Terminator franchise it’s this film that they think of, helped in no small way by the film having so many iconic and memorable moments. There are some fascinating short documentaries available online showcasing Jim Cameron’s attention to detail when filming action sequences.
1. Point Break (1991) I can’t say enough good things about Point Break, to be totally honest. To me it’s so good that it pushes T2 down to number 2. Point Break is a 90s action film through and through but has a healthy dose of 80s-ness in it too which just makes it even more awesome in my eyes. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and yet it has some very powerful moments. Great cast including Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey and Patrick Swayze (and Anthony Kedis of course) and some classic iconic moments, not least of which is when Keanu fires his gun into the air in ecstatic agony as he lets his surf bro escape. And did you notice how I didn’t even mention the 2016 remake that got 9% on Rotten Tomatoes?
Passenger 57 – Snipes being badass in a plane. It very nearly made my list. “Always bet on black”.
True Lies – Many may hate me for not having this one on the list, but for some reason I’ve just never really liked it that much. Maybe it’s Tom Arnold’s presence that makes it seem too much like a comedy or something. Not quite sure. But it’s a very well made film so it’s definitely worth a mention here.
Die Hard 2 – This came close to being on the list too but I prefer the third film and so this one got dropped.
Mission Impossible – This is an ok film, but it wasn’t good enough in my eyes to make the list and it also for some reason doesn’t quite have the 90s film vibe that some of other movies do.
Total Recall – I love this film but it doesn’t quite fit in the action movie category for me. It’s more a Sci-Fi movie or even just an ‘Arnie movie’.
The Fugitive – Such a good film. One of the best films in the decade I would say. I guess, again, I just felt it didn’t completely sit in the 90s action movie category. It’s broader and bigger than that. It would make the ‘best movies of the 90s’ list I’m sure.
The Matrix – Made in 1999 this just squeezes into the decade and I think this film is also way bigger than just an action movies list.
Leon (The Professional) – A modern classic. There is some action in it but I wouldn’t want to degrade it by just calling it purely an action movie. It’s an artistic movie and so much more. An incredible film with some truly beautiful moments.