The 10 best ’90s action movies
Pop quiz, hotshot: You’re on a streaming site, trying to pick something to watch. You come across the action movies. There are a couple dozen or so titles to choose from. You can only pick one to watch. What do you do? What do you do?!
While the 1980s were the defining decade of action movies, some would say that the 1990s simply improved upon the genre. Action movies exploded onto the screen left and right during this decade. There are many action titles in the ’90s which have gone on to become iconic pieces of cinematic history and a couple of which forever changed the way modern action movies are made.
Come with us if you want to live, and check out our top picks for the ’90s blockbusters with the biggest bang.
10. Bad Boys (1995)
Bad Boys was a bad-ass breakout hit for Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, and first-time movie director Micheal Bay. Bay had to deal with production woes and a tight schedule right up until the end and was ultimately still dissatisfied with the final cut of the movie. He has no reason to be, as it was a smash hit. The story follows two Miami cops caught up protecting a witness who might be the only lead in a major narcotics robbery. Bad Boys may be one of Bay’s finest movies. It’s playfully over-the-top without being completely ridiculous. Bay complained about the lackluster budget for the action scenes and even put up his own money for one of them, but still crafts some truly wonderful, fun action all through the film. The chemistry, improv, and banter between Smith and Lawrence is bulletproof. Watch it now on Netflix.
9. Desperado (1995)
Desperado is director, writer, editor, and composer Robert Rodriguez‘s intense follow-up to his indie smash hit El Mariachi. This truly might be Rodriguez’s best film. El Mariachi continues his vengeful quest to take down the man who wronged him, along with anyone who gets in his way. The hyper action and camera work is some of the finest. The fast parts are perfect and the slow parts are picturesque. Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek are absolutely electrifying. The style of this movie has yet to be outdone. This and El Mariachi are proof that it doesn’t matter how much money you have. If you want to tell a story bad enough, you’ll find a way to tell it, and tell it well.
8. Face/Off (1997)
After surprising American audiences with the highly underrated Hard Target and the incredibly fun and frantic Broken Arrow, director John Woo created the giant cheesy action masterpiece Face/Off. FBI agent Sean Archer undergoes facial transplant surgery to assume the identity of terrorist Castor Troy in order to stop a major disaster. The plan goes wrong in a big way. Featuring a couple of cartoonish performances by both Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, as well as some of the biggest action set-pieces to date, this movie blew audiences away. It’s completely chock full of Woo’s trademark visual style. While the script and acting are rather laughable, you can’t deny some of the sequences in this movie are the best ever filmed.
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7. Hard Boiled (1992)
Hard Boiled is one of John Woo’s many Hong Kong action masterpieces, along with A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II, and The Killer. Tequila (Yun-Fat Chow), a street-smart no-nonsense police inspector must team up with undercover agent Alan (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) to take down a major gun smuggling operation. The action of this film is through the roof with some of the biggest and best shoot-outs ever projected onto the big screen, especially the now famous two-and-a-half minute one-take sequence in the hospital. If you fancy yourself an action fan but haven’t seen this, make the time. This was the last film Woo made in China before coming to America, until 2008 when he returned to direct his massive and wonderful two-part epics Red Cliff and Red Cliff II.
6. The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix surprised audiences, became a worldwide phenomenon, and changed the way modern action movies are still made to this day. The story of Neo (Keanu Reeves) waking up to the real world and discovering his destiny is pretty familiar to most folks at this point. Even if the sequels have left a bad taste in your mouth, you cannot deny how awesome this first movie truly is. Yes, it leans heavily into sci-fi, but it’s also chock full of amazing action, gun play, and fight choreography. Not to mention coining the term “bullet-time” and popularizing it. The style in this movie was so unique, movies and video games have been copying it for years since.
5. Point Break (1991)
Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) crafted this slick, stylish action thriller that blew audiences away. Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) must go undercover as a surfer to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers known as “The Ex-Presidents.” Often joked about, the plot of The Fast and the Furious is essentially the same, but with cars instead of surf boards. Patrick Swayze brought his own adrenaline-fueled charm to the character of Bodhi, as you can see in the scene where Swayze himself leaps off a plane on-camera. The story is intense, funny, thrilling, and sad. The photography is easily some of the best of any title on this list. As far as action movies go, this one may be one of the most beautiful.
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4. The Rock (1996)
The Rock was director Micheal Bay’s follow-up to Bad Boys, and it was bigger, louder, and more ridiculous in every way. A chemist and an ex-con must team up to stop a group of rouge soldiers from a nerve gas attack launched from Alcatraz island. From the opening scene (where poor Ingo gets melted behind a locked door) to the incredible climax, the stakes are always high. Chases, shootouts, fistfights, and more are littered throughout this movie. Not to mention the wonderful performances by Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, William Forsythe, David Morse, Tony Todd, and more. The stand-out performance must go to Sir Sean Connery who plays his character, John Mason, with the amazing bad-ass suaveness and precision that only he can bring. Fun fact: both Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin did un-credited rewrites on the script.
3. Speed (1994)
Jan de Bont, who had previously only worked as a cinematographer, crafted this beauty of a movie in his first time in the director’s chair. Speed grabs the audience in the first couple of minutes and doesn’t let go until the last frame. It’s insane edge-of-your-seat fun from beginning to end. A bomb is triggered on a city bus when it goes over 50 mph and a young cop (Keanu Reeves) must keep the bus from dropping below 50 or… bad things will happen. Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, and Jeff Daniels all give amazing performances as well. The photography, stunt work, and editing are all some of the best of the decade. But that silly, snarky dialogue…apparently (and not surprisingly), we have screenwriter Joss Whedon to thank for that.
2. Terminator 2 : Judgment Day (1991)
If there’s one thing James Cameron does better than most, it’s sequels. The man outdid himself in a big way, following up the original Terminator with this giant continuation of the story in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This was another of those action titles that changed the movie game when it came out. The special effects in this, though now dated, were some of the most amazing things ever seen on a screen in 1991. Even those fans of the original who objected to the new direction of the annoying kid and friendly machine had to give it up for the special effects and action. While every actor is great in this, the standout performance has to go to Linda Hamilton as Sarah Conner; she went full-on Rambo in this film. It’s a role she’ll reprise in the forthcoming (though still untitled) Terminator reboot due next year.
1. True Lies (1994)
Between Terminator 2 and Titanic, James Cameron made this super fun spin on the spy genre. This is definitely another one of his epics. An unstoppable secret agent has to balance his home life with his professional one. The problem is, they’re never supposed to overlap. Arnold Schwarzenegger is in top form while Jamie Lee Curtis is absolutely stunning and fantastic as the bored housewife who gets way more excitement than she expected. There are also fun performances by Tom Arnold, Bill Paxton, and Tia Carrere. While the bad guys are total stereotypes, the action blows the doors off. This movie is so much fun you may not even notice the 141 minute run-time.