The 1990s were as good as it gets for movies. The prominence of Sundance and Miramax has seen the rise of independent filmmaking makes its way to the mainstream. We have filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh, en Lee everyone starts to find their way and become film writers. The bar for visual effects was just raised, thanks to directors like the Wachowski sisters and James Cameron. A new faith in these directors by producers to see through their creative vision, a rise in reliable movie stars who can carry a story, and a thirst of audience members to see the world explode, all led to a decade of memorable, genre-defying work. The modern action film may have started in the 80’s, but in the next decade, the genre was recreated and burned to give us a slew of iconic films. These are the best action movies of the 1990s.
Updated December 2021: With gigantic action movies becoming the biggest films of 2021, Matthew Mahler updated this article for accuracy to look back at the whitewashed, severely bruised intensity of action film in the 1990s.
10 Sloop Man
Pairing two action icons was a no-brainer for director Joel Silver in his sci-fi / action hybrid Sloop Man. With Sylvester Stallone vs. Wesley Snipes in a time-traveling, adrenaline-fueled and often funny vehicle, the film has the lofty concept of a futuristic prison freezing its prisoners as a way to serve their time. Snipes are as incredible as the villain Simon Phoenix, with his bleached hair and denim overalls 90s look, kicking his way through futuristic Los Angeles and showcasing the athleticism that made him such a watchable action star. Stallone is reliable as always, along with Sandra Bullock as the fierce, strong-willed counterpart of male action leaders in the 90s. Sloop Man remains a staple in action movies because of its memorable battles, but also its satire of American consumerism that is still true today.
9 Peak time
You can not talk about action comedy without mentioning the name of Jackie Chan. Jackie has used his athletics to perform death-defying tricks for decades. It was not just his creativity in the kicking section, but how he was able to bend the environment around him and make largely comical use of props to add another dimension to the action. So, look no further than Peak time, the great hit buddy-cop movie that first united the big action star with Chris Tucker. With a series of daring set pieces and infectious humor, the film introduced Chan as a truly international superstar (and, oddly enough, inspired the creation of Rotten Tomatoes along the road).
Michael Mann’s epic Los Angeles crime saga Heat immediately entered the fray of great action and robbery films of all time as a result of two cast decisions – De Niro vs. Pacino. Mann placed the two on either side of the law and would be the first time the two have ever shared a scene, nearly 30 plus years into their acting career. However, the two legends are not the only aspects that make this film an impeccable piece of action film; it is the screenplay and postmodern imagery and color palette that Mann imbues in the little ones of the story. You feel the fate of two men who are tied like anchors to their work, who are principled but stubborn and rush at each other. In addition to an excellent screenplay and excellent acting, it also displays the now legendary bank robbery of which any film in its aftermath is anything but to carry the influence.
7 Leon the Professional
In this brutalist but strangely affectionate tale of love in Manhattan, Luc Besson cast French legend Jean Reno as the mysterious hitman, Leon the Professional. He rescues the young Matilda (Natalie Portman, whose incredible performance is why the movie works) from the vicious, Beethoven fanatic psychopath Gary Oldman, who massacres her whole family. Leon may be a tragic love story masquerading as an action-thriller, but when the shootouts occur and the blood goes to rain, it becomes tension-wire violence at its best.
6 The Rock
We have action movies and then we have ‘Bayhem’, the only term that is appropriate enough to describe the overzealous and extravagant director who apparently finds his way into explosions when there is apparently nothing to be found. Michael Bay’s sequel to his hit buddy-cop team Naughty boys was another kind of team. Nicolas Cage is Agent Goodspeed, the FBI chemical expert who has to dismantle the bombs that the treacherous General Francis Blackwell (Ed Harris) has on Alcatraz, and enlists the help of the only man who escaped from the infamous prison, Sean Connery. It’s a ridiculous setup, but what follows is one memorable set piece after another. Bay shows his deft touch when he makes high-octane, exciting series with precision, even when it looks ridiculous. Bay turns Alcatraz into a dirty and destructive playground of sparks, shootouts, extravagances and explosions. The stone was just the tip of the iceberg of great success for the now-iconic director of Chaos, but remains one of his best.
If one could be crowned as the action king of the 90s, it would be easy to make a case for Keanu Reeves. Simple in its plot design and executed with the expertise of its director Jan De Bont – who previously served as the cinematographer of action classics such as The Hard and Hunting for Red October – Speed is one of the greatest action movies because it literally never lets you go. It also had it all in the cast. On a bus up to the teeth armed with explosives because of a psychologist who did not get away with his previous crimes, Dennis Hopper shouts through the frames like a great villain; on the bus are Officer Keanu and passenger Sandra Bullock, who must both somehow prevent the bus from exploding. Speed has proven you can keep things simple but still create an intoxicating experience that people will never forget.
The film that put Robert Rodriguez on the map and immediately injected his name into the independent filmmaking ethos of the 90’s, Mariachi was a sleeper acton hit that no one saw coming. With a limited budget of $ 7,000 and with non-professional actors, Rodriguez wrote, shot and edited the film around his unique interpretation of action. Trapped in the middle of a bloody war, Mariachi is a story of false identity that nearly kills a local kid with a guitar and a dream. Finished with a fever-pitch intensity, Rodriguez puts together shootings with finesse like a born filmmaker. Rodriguez created two more sequels and showed he has the chops to make movies from the beginning.
3 T2: Judgment Day
James Cameron is no stranger to innovation. The blockbuster director is known for pushing technology forward or waiting for technology to catch up with him to achieve his grand and accurate vision. This is the case for Terminator 2: Judgment Day and James Cameron’s collaboration with the VFX team Industrial, Light, and Magic. Together, Cameron and the team created an instantly iconic villain with Robert Patrick, a liquid metal shape-shifting robot, who was the first main character in a feature film that was entirely computer graphics. Furthermore, Cameron took his original villainous creation in Arnold Schwarzenegger and paved a new path for him to be a hero never seen before. Along with a helicopter trick that still melts people’s brains, T2 is an indelible piece of science fiction action that still stands today.
2 The Matrix
The Wachowski sisters rewrote film history with their groundbreaking, high-concept, science-fiction action-film inspired by everything from kung-fu to Buddhism and Baudrillard; The Matrix changed the action genre forever. With its incredibly innovative technique of using hundreds of cameras to capture one scene, the Wachowski twins have created a new visual language to express stylized action. As the eponymous One, Neo (Keanu Reeves) is awakened by the wise and prophetic Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) to see his life as a lie controlled by an artificial race of machines, followed by a heroic and memorable journey . From his fight with the agents to Neo teaching Kung-Fu, The Matrix remains a cultural cornerstone for anyone involved in action films, and seems to be perpetual with the fourth film of the series, Matrix: Resurrections, released at the end of 2021.
If there is one international director who is synonymous with highly stylized action, it is John Woo. The Chinese native of the mainland cut his teeth in the 70s as a assistant to legendary martial arts director Chang Chen at the highly coveted Shaw Brothers studio. When Woo finally got the hang of it and teamed up with Chow Yun-Fat – who became the epitome of cool – the coals of action unleashed as high art. Hard-boiled is one of the greatest action movies ever made with Fat and the international icon Tony Leung in the middle of it as a policeman and an enigmatic killer who wants to destroy bosses of the criminal underworld. It’s a must – see for all the action-the-hards and contains one of the amazing set pieces the genre can offer in a hospital scene that sums up why John Woo is a master of opera shooting. This is the best ballet of violence from the 90’s.
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