Let's Talk About... The Best Action Movies of the 1990s!
Nostalgia of the 1990s
Earlier this year there was another sequel made to one of my favorite action movies to come out of the 1990s, Bad Boys For Life; which I found to be an absolute joy ride. Shortly after my review of the third Bad Boys movie was finalized, I began recalling all the other action flicks of the ‘90s that I grew up with, but sadly don’t see as much attention given towards as they rightfully deserve. Seemingly in our modern culture, many individuals are either fixated on the current trend of comic book blockbusters or classics from the 1980s. Both of which I truly love and admire myself. However, it would be nice to take a look back at what the ‘90s also brought to the action genre as well. So I figured, what the hell? Why not comprise my own little list of what I find to be the best action spectacles that the 1990s had to offer. Some might be obvious, others not so much. Without further ado, here is my love letter to the best action pictures of the 1990s!
Inevitably there will be some movies that I’m positive about certain readers who will disagree with my claims on what does and does not make the list. Please keep in mind that this is all subjective, as all art is subjective, so what I find to be a masterpiece someone else may call a dud. Then there are selections that most of the world would likely put on this list while I might not. If a reader comes across this list of mine and disagrees, I will be the first to apologize… Even though I’m right and you’re wrong… I mean, I’m sorry that we don’t see eye to eye and I would be more than ecstatic to delve deeper on the subject at hand in the comments below!
Honorable MentionsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Before continuing on with the article I have written, I'd like to mention that something strange happened as I began forming this article. What started out as a love letter to '90s action picture surprisingly also became an odd love letter to my family, as many of the selections on my list hit very close to home in my personal life and certainly from my childhood. So beware, I do discuss just how close some of these movies are to my heart and how close they were to others of my family that sadly aren't around anymore. I hope you enjoy my list and my family.
10) GoldenEye (1995)
007 is back and this time has to stop a Russian crime syndicate from using a stolen satellite weapon known as “GoldenEye”, which could kill countless lives. Now it’s up to James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) to team up with a young scientist (Izabella Scorupco) in order to put an end to this terrifying destruction before it is too late.
Let’s be honest, it was practically mandatory to include this ‘James Bond’ action spectacle as one of the best action flicks the 1990s had to offer. Not only is GoldenEye known to be one of the best ‘James Bond’ movies ever made, but also the epic introduction to Pierce Brosnan as Bond himself. And what a hell of an introduction this is, I mean, my God! With Brosnan harkening back to the days of Sean Connery where this leading man is a true star and a half, to say the least. Charisma oozing out of every frame whenever Pierce is on screen, he simply is the definition of cool. Throwing out the perfect delivery for every one-liner his character has to offer, it’s easy to figure out as to why Pierce Brosnan is regarded as one of the best Bonds in the franchise.
Then getting to the actual action itself, this contains some beautifully insane set pieces that no one could ever forget after witnessing once. Truth be told, the first fifteen minutes alone is worth the price of admission and then some as it packs one hell of a fantastic punch. However it doesn’t let up there because the opening was simply the appetizer, the main course even more fulfilling in every way imaginable; incorporating fast cars, runaway trains, crashing airplanes, fist fights on top of giant satellites, a little twist or turn in the story every now and again, and of course a tank! It’s sheer exhilaration with 95% of the effects being absolutely stunning. The other 5% I question, but I forgive it because it’s GoldenEye; it’s earned one or two missteps.
Although the element that pushes this movie over the edge of being spectacular, in my opinion, is the villains. Well, one in particular captures my heart; that being the villainous Bond girl Xenia Onatopp, played by Famke Janssen. Janssen is pure delight as she obviously relishes sinking her teeth deep in this absurd role of a Russian assassin who uses sex as her literal weapon and crushes the air out of men using her legs to wrap around their body. What makes it even better is the fact that she seems to be experiencing an orgasm every time she is squeezing a man to death. Now that is one perfect woman right there. Seriously though, Onatopp is one of my favorite antagonists in the entire ‘Bond’ series with her absolute crazy performance and her name is also just amazing. Onatopp, which ever writer thought of that name deserves a raise. Sexy, absurd, devilish… Marry me.
GoldenEye is a classic ‘Bond’ movie for a reason, and it’s actually the one and only PG-13 rated action film on my list here. If you haven’t already seen this spy epic, then you have no idea what you’re missing. It’s on Netflix right now, go check it out before missing the opportunity of a lifetime! Please remember, the name is Eye… GoldenEye. I’m sorry, I’m an idiot. Please see the movie though, it’s great.
9) Bad Boys (1995)
Detectives Marcus Burnett and Mike Lowrey, played respectively by Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, are assigned to protect a witness of murder while they also must investigate a case of stolen heroin from the evidence storage room of the police precinct. While protecting this feisty witness (Tea Leoni), there’s been a little bit of mistaken identity between the two detectives as they have to maintain the lie in order to continue earning her trust and finding the men responsible for murdering their friend.
Bad Boys is the sole reason of what inspired this list to begin with, so it only makes sense that it would wind up as one of my favorite action flicks out of the ‘90s! Back in the day when Michael Bay was a genuine master of action pictures and not shunned for his several failed attempts to make giant robot fights coherent. Not sure how someone fumbles that, but that’s a conversation for another time. Now is the time for Bad Boys! One of the most fun, funniest, awesome, gritty yet sleek, buddy-cop action films ever produced. There is not a single second of this film that I don’t love with all my heart; the action/effects/stunts are filled with high-octane awesomeness, the dialog is wickedly quick and hits hard with the humor without a misfire in sight, the cinematography can be described as heavily influenced by the vision of Tony Scott only on cocaine, and the urban inspired musical score is easily one of my favorites out of the entire decade.
The key element that shines brightest in the entire movie, as well as its follow-ups, has to be from the lightning in a bottle chemistry between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Talk about the perfect on screen duo. Lawrence and Smith work wonders off each other in every one of their scenes shared, including both sequels released decades later. Personally, I’d argue that there is not a better set of actors who could have done a better job than these two hilarious power houses right here. Every time they are either bickering and arguing with one another or simply having normal chat in their daily lives, I am busting a gut and am laughing so hard that tears are rolling down my face. Because these two are so damn entertaining to watch, time and time again. Even though it would be easy to say their success resides in the spot-on comedy, the fact is that the two actors inject such immense levels of heart with the strong friendship between them that it is near impossible to not be instantly charmed by their comradery. They’re phenomenal together, plain and simple.
Both Bad Boys and Bad Boys II were movies that my family and I enjoyed probably hundreds of times together, specifically my father could not get enough of the side-splitting banters between Smith and Lawrence as he would quote their lines constantly on an endless loop. If I were to guess, I’d say that the first two Bad Boys movies were amongst his favorite action movies of all time as he loved hell out of both features. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about how he would most likely have loved seeing the third installment from earlier this year. Quite honestly, it breaks my heart that my dad never will see Bad Boys For Life since I know for a fact he would have yet another two full hours of quotes to include in his repertoire.
Anyways, Bad Boys (and Bad Boys II) are available on Netflix so there’s no excuse not to join in on the fun. Seriously, don’t make your life less magical by skipping out on the Bad Boys experience. It is well worth the watch!
8) The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) is a smartass, hard-edged, alcoholic, down on his luck, private detective hired on to protect an exotic dancer. When things go south with the dancer being murdered, Hallenbeck and the dancer’s boyfriend Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) begin investigating the crime. Leading this duo into a whole mess including a corrupt politician and a crooked football team owner who will stop at nothing until they get what they want and eliminate every witness, including our heroes.
Speaking of Tony Scott just in the last selection, as here Scott teams up with Shane Black (both of which are some of the greatest action writers/directors to ever step foot in Hollywood) to give us a terrific combination of a solid crime mystery along with terrific action and a great sense of humor within the characters. To me, Tony Scott and Shane Black can pretty much do no wrong; between Scott giving us gems like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, The Hunger, and Man on Fire while Black has Lethal Weapon 1 & 2, Last Action Hero, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and The Nice Guys under his belt. It only makes sense for these two artists coming together to provide one of the best buddy-cop flicks the subgenre has to offer. I could watch both of these men’s filmography on a daily basis and be totally satisfied.
The Last Boy Scout combines both the writer and director’s specialties; vibrant lead characters with pitch perfect dialog, dark humor sprinkled within the hard R violence and vulgarity, explosively stylish action, and a legitimate crime mystery for us to follow. At the center of it all is another pair of misfits that need to partner up, Damon Wayans and Bruce Willis; which quite frankly is the strangest combination of actors that one could possibly come up with in order to lead one’s action picture. On paper, big time action star Bruce Willis teaming up with Damon Wayans who was fresh off of In Living Color, this already sounds like the worst possible idea of all time. Yet somehow, these two actors are beyond on point in their chemistry together and it is freaking remarkable. Whoever thought Wills and Wayans were truly meant to play off each other in a movie is apparently a God damn genius.
At first glance, one may jump to the conclusion that this is a fairly typical Bruce Willis performance as it heavily resembles his iconic character, John McClane from the Die Hard series. To an extent, I can see why one might think that as both are smartasses with always the perfect snarky comeback to bout out. Although I’d disagree that McClane and Hallenbeck are even remotely the same character. Willis truly comes to life in this film as this completely broken shell of a man. What an oxymoron of a sentence, right? This is a guy who has basically given up on life, on being a husband, and even being a father to a certain degree. Hallenbeck is a mess of epic proportions as he is in a living rut, constantly drinking and smoking to get through every day while taking chump cases for a few measly bucks.
I’d also argue that the sense of humor of the John McClane character is utilized and executed differently than in Joe Hallenbeck. The humor seen with McClane comes across more as a defense mechanism in order help get himself through these high tension situations, while Hallenbeck uses jokes in order to catch his opponents off guard and then go in for the attack. So anyone discarding this as “just another Willis role”, look again as the subtleties making for a differently compelling character that Bruce executes beautifully. Plus I truly do love the inclusion of Hallenbeck’s family being pretty much the polar opposite of a picture perfect home as most of the time Joe can be seen in a screaming match with his wife and daughter. It’s actually rather original to see this ‘less than appealing’ depiction of a hero’s home since on most occasions in film, when we see the protagonist’s family they’re far more ‘nice’ than what is depicted in Last Boy Scout.
This ain’t no game, Flash. Real action, real laughs… It’s dangerous. And there’s nothing not to love. I don’t know where you have to search to see this underrated treasure, but scour the earth until you find it or else risk never being whole in your life forever.
The Last Boy Scout was also extremely John Sr. approved.
7) The Rock (1996)
Alcatraz, a retired high-security prison has been taken over by a rogue team of mercenaries who have captured hostages and are also threatening to strike the city of San Francisco with missiles filled with a highly lethal nerve gas. Now it is up to a quirky Nic Cage chemist and an ex-convict Sean Connery who once was a prisoner of Alcatraz to lead the counterstrike against the terrorists.
Yes, another Michael Bay production has made its way onto the list. What can I say? The man knew how to blow sh*t up in the mid-90s. Here’s the thing though; The Rock, arguably, is legitimately the most grand-scaled action epic on this whole list. By epic I do mean EPIC! To start off, we have the who’s who of the 1990s character actors; Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, John Spencer, David Morse, William Forsythe, Michael Biehn, John C. McGinley, Tony Todd, and Bokeem Woodbine. Every single one of them is f*cking awesome. Moving along, we also have a screenplay with relentless pacing, heart pounding adrenaline rushes in every action beat, sharp and funny jolts of inspired dialog, and filled to the brim and oozing personality in every frame. Oh, and of course I can’t forget the soul sweeping musical score that blows my mind and practically brings a tear to my eye every single time I hear it. Also, the cinematography is much how I described Bay’s previous hit, Bad Boys, style by way of Tony Scott with an extra dose of cocaine. This is about as monumental as it gets in this particular decade and it is quite freaking awesome!
Let the record show that I, John Peter Plocar, Jr., am a hardcore Nicolas Cage fan. For several years now I maintain that Nic Cage is one of the greatest actors working today and he is damn near my favorite, if not my absolute favorite, actor of all time! Therefore, I cannot lie when I say Cage may have influenced my decision to place The Rock in the list. To be fair though, the film is still great and the action is genuinely some of the best I’ve seen out of the ‘90s. It just doesn’t hurt to have a wicked cool guy meets science nerd performance from the Cage-man himself as Stanley Goodspeed. Love that name, by the way. Seriously, this man is a Rockstar and I adore every minute of him here as he is completely energized, which results in jazzing up my own enthusiasm throughout the chaos that ensues.
Not to mention, his chemistry with Sir Sean Connery; one word, legendary. Truth be told, it depresses me to think about how these two never co-starred in another picture together again. Even though The Rock does not require a sequel in the slightest, if the opportunity arose to launch a follow-up that brought back Cage and Connery, I would be dancing in sheer joy. Not remotely joking, I’d love the utter hell out of that idea just to see those two back together kicking major ass and delivering more of the funniest banters I have ever heard in cinema history. Seriously, The Rock is so ungodly quotable and these two leads are a huge reason as to why. Who doesn’t remember the line, “Winners go home and f*ck the Prom Queen”? No one can forget that line!
Yet another movie that the Plocar family and I practically watched on a weekly basis, the movie is so infectious with how much fun it is. And yes, The Rock was without a doubt John Sr. approved. Although I would say even more so acclaimed by my mom who quotes the film probably every day. Her favorite scene might be when Cage’s character asks, “What about Mr. Henderson’s head?” Cutting back to Connery simply turning around, gives a quick thumbs-up to Cage, and walks away while Cage is left totally confused. Gets a big laugh out of my mother every time. Honestly, it makes us all laugh every time to the point where we’ll occasionally rewind the movie just to watch the scene again. It’s marvelous, the whole film is marvelous and brilliant from start to finish.
Before wrapping up on gushing non-stop about The Rock, I do have to say that the handling of Ed Harris’s character as the villain is truly astounding. Why I say this is because of how the film opens, the motivations behind his General Hummel character, the sympathetic and dedicated performance provided by Harris, it is as though he is being built up as the hero. Which that is extremely cool and unique because any other run of the mill action flick wouldn’t flesh the little details out about this General turned terrorist; a generic action movie would have had this guy as nothing more than the forgettable bad guy only to move along the plot. Not the case for The Rock, if someone were to walk into this film blind, for the first five minutes they would legitimately be under the impression that Ed Harris was the protagonist. Then when he takes civilians hostage, they might get a clue from there that he might not be the good guy. All joking aside, I adore that attentive writing on this villain and Harris as always is flawless in the role. We see deep down that this is a man who has the best of intentions, he’s not some madman and he’s clearly no murderer, but he’s been pushed over the edge by the government and he’s had enough. Then as the film goes on we slowly understand just how far he is willing to go in order to make things right.
If anyone misses Michael Bay in his prime with dialog that is actually funny and not cheap ‘bro’ humor, action that elevates the experience and carries the story rather than brings the pace to a screeching halt, and characters that are fully developed characters instead of joke machines. Do not miss out on a stay inside The Rock!
6) Universal Soldier (1992)
Two rival soldiers who killed each other in Vietnam are brought back to life in a top secret military experiment that creates superhuman warriors. Now, decades later, the two soldiers are regaining their memories; with one man (Jean-Claude Van Damme) wanting nothing more than to go home while the other (Dolph Lundgren) is on his way to raging war on the world as he still believes himself to be in the midst of ‘Nam.
Universal Soldier was truthfully a selection I wasn’t expecting to include on this list. Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie and have loved it since childhood. Again, another Plocar family picture institution. However, when I initially thought back to Universal Soldier I didn’t necessary think, “Of course this is one of the best action flicks out of the decade.” Recently I decided to revisit this Van Damme-Lundgren action vehicle, and to my surprise, finding that I was wildly mistaken with my underestimation of this particular movie because Universal Soldier is an absolute blast! Let it be known that I apparently did not appreciate this feature to the degree that it rightfully deserved.
Admittedly, I am a sucker for basically any movie somehow incorporating ‘Nam into their screenplay. So bonus points for Vietnam flashbacks! On a more serious note though, from even the opening credits I was thrown off-guard as the film brought to my attention Universal Soldier was in fact a Roland Emmerich production. Yes, the very director that brought us ’98 Godzilla, Independence Day, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and the ultimate classic that is Independence Day: Resurgence… In short, mostly the man has been behind the majority of big budget ‘global disaster’ pictures to come out in the last twenty-some years. It turns out though that there was a time before Emmerich had such a high-dollar amount backing his productions, which is difficult to mentally process yet I believe the smaller budget made him more of an innovative action director in the early ‘90s. Especially since this was a time before Emmerich had gotten his hands on CGI, making for much more exciting set pieces and awe-inspiring stunts to behold.
One particular element that I forgot about is how quirky the movie is. Just little snippets of dialog or sometimes lack thereof with physical comedy, injecting a level of humor smack dab in the middle of the action and it is really funny. I’m not strictly talking on behalf of the main cast, but the supporting as well that our leads come across. There will be random bits of humor sprinkled in that feel distinctly European to me and it supplies the tone such a uniquely fresh energy within the scenes throughout. Yes it’s cool to see Jean-Claude Van Damme kicking ass, but for the movie to pause on a moment where his character is running for his life as he’s busting through walls he comes across a newlywed couple having sex in the motel room next-door, resulting in our heroes hiding under the covers with this couple as the baddies are on the hunt for them; extremely random, but really funny. Or later on when the pacing slows down a tad in order to give our heroes a breather, then Van Damme’s character decides when they stop by a restaurant to literally order everything on the menu without any intention of paying. Which then angers the patrons as they try starting a fight while all Van Damme wants to do is eat, so he juggles fighting a room full of pissed off rednecks while taking bites of different foods laying around the restaurant; again, freaking hilarious! There are plenty of strangely joyful and quirky details like that to keep such a terrific energy through the whole runtime, it’s truly a delight.
Lastly, I rediscovered an electric performance in Dolph Lundgren as the villain. Holy hell, watching Lundgren in this is pure joy. Addictive is the best way I can describe this man’s role, I mean truly addicting because I could not get enough of his insanity. Dolph finds his inner lunatic and runs anxiously with it, holding no limitations whatsoever. I love it! This is a resurrected, psychopathic, Vietnam Sargent who wears men’s ears as a necklace. If that isn’t one of the best villain out of the 1990s then I don’t know who the hell is! No joke, Dolph Lundgren as Sgt. Andrew Scott is possibly my favorite villain out of this entire decade. Is he the most fleshed out, developed with backstory or sympathy? Not even remotely, but from this type of villain that is not what I want. What I want is the madness that Dolph provides immensely from this character. He’s having a blast being over-the-top evil and I’m along for every second of the ride. Honestly, Dolph Lundgren is a major reason why Universal Soldier made my list and I say he deserves more recognition for being the incredible talent that he is.
In terms of the story from Universal Soldier, on paper, it sounds like a combination of familiar materials; be it similarities to RoboCop or Terminator, but it never feels derivative of those other properties as it always manages to maintain its own distinct identity. Which is largely why I love this flick and recommend hopping straight onto Hulu to check it out for yourself! Trust me, it’s a great way to cool down… When you see the movie you’ll get the joke.
Universal Soldier definitely has the John Plocar Sr. seal of approval!
5) Desperado (1995)
Former mariachi turned revenge driven crime fighter (Antonio Banderas) arrives in a small Mexican town in search of a local drug lord that he deems responsible for why the ex-mariachi’s life has become the blood-lusted rampage that he lives now.
Robert Rodriguez is the best action director to come out of the ‘90s. To me, there is no debate on the matter. When Rodriguez is behind the camera on a hard R rated action flick, there is no stopping the guy; he’s phenomenally talented and full of passion! When it comes to his PG rated children adventures, that’s an article for a different day. Sorry, Robert. However, getting back on track, Desperado represents an important point within Rodriguez’s career; representing the growth of an amateur indie director obtaining an exciting amount of potential into a God damn professional action cinema artist. Quality of film and production value pretty much is tripled from his directorial debut, El Mariachi; maybe a ‘no brainer’ seeing how Rodriguez’s budget is literally a thousand times larger for Desperado compared to El Mariachi. And of course, his innovation in the creation of every action sequence is impressive still to this day after twenty-five years later.
Now, what’s my favorite part about the film? That’s such a difficult question. Between the darkly funny bloody violence, the kinetic yet beautiful Spanish soundtrack, the colorful dialog that rings like magic in the ear, cinematography that profusely drips with ‘cool’ and ‘style’, it’s all A+ material! With that said, there is one element that sticks out to me… Antonio Banderas. How do I put this? Oh, right. Banderas is f*cking incredible! Re-watching his performance again made me remember exactly why I love this actor’s work. His balance of inner turmoil, sharp witted one-liners, exemplary levels of being suave, a presence that screams “do not mess with this man or get ready to die”, and some of the most perfect comedic timing in his delivery and physical performance that I have personally ever seen in a badass hero. I have no idea how Banderas does it, but he handles every moment even better than the last. He’s flawless playing a hero we simultaneously love and at times can even fear. His introduction alone is spectacular during this story being told about his murderous escapades. There is a stunning shot of only Antonio’s eyes as the rest of his face is covered in shadow and it is haunting in all the right ways. It’s remarkable and he is remarkable.
There is no one in the entirety of the world who could have done a better job in the ‘Mariachi’ role than Banderas and I wouldn’t want anyone to try. No offense to actor Carlos Gallardo who actually played this role prior to Banderas in Desperado’s predecessor, El Mariachi; Gallardo did a damn fine job, but I can’t lie when I say I fell head over heels for Banderas’s performance. Although Carlos does show back up as another guitarist hitman, so that was pretty freaking sweet. Just like everything else about the film is freaking sweet! The film is technically available on Hulu with a Starz subscription, so if you have that then I suggest getting your butt on the couch as quickly as possible to have the experience of a lifetime with a symphony of carnage.
4) Speed (1994)
There’s a madman bomber (Dennis Hopper) who rigged a bomb onto a bus that will explode if the vehicle’s speed drops below 50 miles per hour. Now it’s up to young, badass policeman Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) to put an end this psycho’s plan and save the people trapped on the bus before it comes to an explosive stop itself.
Let’s be real, there were a number of Die Hard clones that came out in the ‘90s. Some good, some not so good. Passenger 57? Die Hard on a plane and it’s good. Cliffhanger? Die Hard on a mountain and good. Under Siege? Die Hard on a boat with Steven Seagal still giving a damn about acting. Under Siege 2: Dark Territory? Die Hard on a train and only good for all the wrong reasons. Air Force One? Die Hard on another plane with President Harrison Ford and still good. Executive Decision? Die Hard on another other plane. Toy Soldiers? Die Hard in a school and good. Masterminds? Die Hard in another school and not good at all, but Sir Patrick Stewart was pretty entertaining. The Rock? Die Hard in a prison and awesome, but already on the list clearly. Sudden Death? Die Hard with Jean-Claude Van Damme killing baddies in a hockey rink. Crackerjack? Possibly the most obvious Die Hard rip-off, directly stealing whole scenes and lines straight out of the original source… Not good. Speed? Excellent!
So what exactly is it that Speed has that the others I mentioned don’t? Keanu “F*cking” Reeves, of course! Long before Keanu’s days as the immortal assassin John Wick, before he ever stepped foot into the Matrix as Neo, he was once known by other epic names… Jack Traven, Johnny Utah, Johnny Mnenonic, and Ted Theodore Logan! Seriously though, is there a record for best names in cinema history? If not, I feel Reeves definitely deserves a shot at the title. I could write a whole article on simply the names of Keanu’s characters alone. It is now dawning on me how sidetracked my article is becoming. Damn my A.D.D.!
Since I’m on a role for being random, check out the Speed musical score because it is another stunning piece of art ‘90s action had to offer.
If we’re getting straight into what I believe separates Speed from the rest, it is how the screenplay utilizes every possible component to its premise to the absolute maximum. The idea of a bus that cannot drop below 50mph within the heavy traffic ridden streets of Los Angeles or else it will explode, that unleashes an endless supply of story avenues to explore and the movie fully delivers on basically every possible outcome! Whether be it the massive onslaught of other vehicles cluttering the road, pedestrians simply crossing the street, construction cutting off entire sections from bridges with no other path for our heroes to detour on, multiple news media helicopters tracking the bus’s every move for our villain to sit back and watch while the police are completely helpless in the situation, at one point we actually see our protagonists use an airport runway to their advantage in order to bide themselves time, we see what happens when the bus begins to run out of fuel, the difficulties that go into even maintaining a speeding bus while trying to inspect a bomb underneath it while still at full speed, the opportunities practically write themselves in the excitement that could come from a story like this.
Does the excitement end there? Hell no! We’ve also got on our hands a dangerously dangling elevator filled with people, a runaway train, and a crazy ass Dennis Hopper to top it all off! We’ve got everything a growing boy needs. Most importantly, what keeps this film feeling fresh compared to other Die Hard clones of the time is the pacing. There is no stopping because literally the movie can’t stop, the bus can never stop so we as the viewer constantly feel on edge while running alongside this heart pounding scenario. Our hero is always under the pressure of a ticking time bomb and all the environmental obstacles that come with a bus running through a crowded city. The only stop allowed is if and when the heroes either make it out alive or perish in a fiery inferno. Because that tension is so relentless, it feels as though every minute is crucial and there is no time to breathe. Even when there is time to breathe, something else then becomes prevalent to keep our leads on their toes. In other words, Speed is fantastic and deserves all the love in the world! Speed 2: Cruise Control on the other hand… Well, let’s leave that topic for another day.
3) Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
John McClane (Bruce Willis) finds himself in yet another mess involving a very angry German terrorist, named Simon (Jeremy Irons), with a personal vendetta against McClane. As Simon throws a slew of twisted games at McClane in order to test whether he can defuse bombs around New York City with the help of a Harlem store owner (Samuel L. Jackson). Can McClane and his new “friend” Zeus survive through the day or will a ticking timebomb be their unfortunate fate?
Well, we just discussed the best Die Hard clone of the decade. How about the actual best Die Hard sequel? Die Hard with a Vengeance, to me, is one of those perfect sequels that only comes around every ten to fifteen years or more. Upping the ante without being disingenuous, continuing another high octane journey with the iconic McClane without feeling forced, keeping true to the character of John McClane and being portrayed with a fierce dedication by Willis himself, action that is top notch nail biters without coming across as cynically cashing in on the lazy idea of ‘bigger equals better’, and above all injecting a sense of ambition without losing the Die Hard spirit. In other words, the exact opposite of A Good Day to Die Hard. F*ck that movie.
Is there a soul on this planet who doesn’t know that Die Hard is one of the greatest action films of, not only the 1980s, but of all-time? It’s a one of a kind experience that I was lucky enough to finally see on the big screen for the first time last Christmas, it was even more breathtaking to see Die Hard in a theater than ever before on my own television set. Knowing everything just stated, what kind of chance does a sequel have to stacking up against such a legendary status? First you have to make Die Hard 2: Die Harder, a solid follow-up. Then you mess with the Die Hard formula, rework what was originally a script for a Lethal Weapon sequel, then transform that into Die Hard with a Vengeance.
Bruce Willis as John McClane is nothing short of iconic; relatable, hilarious, sympathetic, down to Earth, stubborn, obviously in fear of the deadly hurdles he faces yet knows the only way to save people’s lives is by prevailing through those fears. Long story short, he’s a human being that we can easily root for from the very second he enters frame. McClane is the quintessential action hero who can handle the physicality while still being a three-dimensional character with a range of emotions, he’s unsure of himself at times, but doesn’t hesitate to do what is right. Willis is the heart and soul of this character, no question; this entire franchise, the original Die Hard as well as all of its sequels are nothing without this man driving the narratives with his incredible talent. When Willis is truly motivated within his performance, the audience is motivated right along with him because his personality is ridiculously infectious. Looking at him return in this third installment, it’s clear seeing that spark inside Willis as he gives his all into this character with proper care and love. I respect this actor so much for everything he’s accomplished portraying McClane. Hell, I respect him in general. Even though I’d argue certain modern low budget direct-to-video filmmakers don’t respect him as much as the man deserves lately. My fingers are crossed Willis will be given something on par with his classic roles in the near future again.
Die Hard with a Vengeance is undoubtedly one of my favorite action sequels ever made. John McTiernan reprises in the director’s chair for this third entry and he does his best to make his last Die Hard hoorah count! The tension is constantly building as McClane plays along with these lethal riddles to barely solve them with his life, the mystery of who Simon is and why he’s targeting McClane is engaging, the chemistry between Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson is extremely fun! At first it is slightly concerning at the prospect of McClane not entirely taking on the story solo, as what we have known and loved from the series at this point is how John McClane singlehandedly overcomes these terrifying circumstances. Now that he has a partner of sorts, that element is changed. Thankfully, it is changed in a very good way as the two lead actors work wonderfully off one another in their funny as hell arguments; McClane being smartass McClane we all know and love, only with a killer hangover throughout the whole movie while also having to deal with a very angry Samuel L. Jackson. It’s pretty amazing, I can’t lie.
Nothing else to say other than Yippee Ki-Yay, mother f*ckers! Go see Die Hard with a Vengeance!! I mean, come on, how often does the third installment of a movie franchise work anyways? Not very often. So appreciate what we’ve got, dammit!
2) Total Recall (1990)
Total Recall is the ideal vacation of the future. No more need for pitch perfect planning, no unexpected inconveniences to ruin the trip, no worries about reservations gone wrong because with Total Recall a traditional vacation is a thing of the past! Now all one has to do is simply come into a facility and the employees can quickly construct an entire memory for the customer in no time. Remembering whole leisurely and completely relaxed experiences without the hassle from the unpredictability of real world problems.
That is until Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) decided to take a virtual trip to Mars himself, but not as himself, as a fantasy role of secret agent which was a part of a special deluxe deal he ordered for his brand new memory implant. Although things quickly begin to turn upside down as it turns out Quaid, unbeknownst to him, was a spy all along who had his memory erased. Now an evil organization is after him before Quaid remembers too much about his past life, leading Quaid to the planet Mars for real to uncover the whole plot. As more details are unraveling, however, Quaid wonders if this is actually real or if he’s still sitting in a chair at Total Recall as these virtual experiences are being implanted into him all along.
So I understand that there might be some individuals who disagree with including Total Recall over other Schwarzenegger led ‘90s productions, such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day or True Lies. Please do not misinterpret my lack of including those pictures as meaning that I don’t like those films. Trust me, I love Terminator 2 and True Lies among other underrated efforts starring Schwarzenegger from the 1990s. Truth be told, they were really close to also making it onto the list alongside Total Recall. However, while constructing my ‘Best 1990s Action Movies’ list I came to the conclusion that I needed to buckle down a little bit and select only one Arnie action flick. It took me a good long while in determining what I truly believed to be the absolute best that this muscle man actor had to offer in this particular decade. While I agree that he has great standouts from the ‘90s that rightfully deserve a spot on this list, in my opinion though, Total Recall is the one that shines brightest among all the rest.
To say that Total Recall is one of the best action movies from the 1990s is an understatement, this is also one of the greatest action films of all time. Why? Because it works on two totally different levels of entertainment. On one end of the spectrum we have ourselves a joyful, hard R action spectacle with a bunch of fun twists and turns that appeases easily to the typical Schwarzenegger/action movie fan. Then on the other side of the coin, we have a fairly layered narrative where we are completely unsure as to what is real and what is possibly a figment of virtual simulation. Depending on what type of perspective the viewer so chooses to have while watching the film will impact exactly how the experience will go. If someone wants to keep their brain switched off, sit back and enjoy an action thrill ride with one of the greatest action heroes around then they will be 100% satisfied. However, if another person wishes to dissect the film a little further, looking deeper into whether or not Quaid’s adventure is reality or fantasy; in that regard, the picture becomes wildly immersive in figuring out just how deep the rabbit hole really goes.
Let’s get this nice and sparkling clear, Arnold Schwarzenegger is probably my favorite action star who has ever lived. Why? I’ll freaking tell you why! He consistently brings charm, personality, spot-on humor, dedication, impressive physicality, and epic badassery to basically every single role he has ever performed. Arnold is a master of the art of one-liners, he looks cool as hell kicking major ass, and above all else I can see the heart that his performance supplies any screenplay he works with. Already with the screenplay of Total Recall I would declare masterful, but with Arnold adding is own personal flare, it becomes something truly special and definitely unforgettable. Without a shadow of a doubt, I guarantee there is legitimately no one else in the world quite like Arnold Schwarzenegger as he brings a unique life to every script he touches. There is not enough nice things I can say about the man, I commend him for his entire career and I respect the hell out of him. Doesn’t matter what may come next for this ultimate Austrian talent, I am always excited for what he has coming next in his filmography. A huge reason why I am such a devoted fan is largely thanks to this very classic, Total Recall right here.
Alright, I’ve gotten my gushing of my man-crush out of the way. Bottom line, this movie stacks up against most films from the 1990s as well as plenty others from any other decade on top of that. Total Recall is a popcorn action flick with a terrific intelligence in every line of the screenplay. Any specific detail that might be amiss can be easily explained with another’s interpretation of the material. The action is awesome as the story is always on the move, gaining more and more momentum as the story unravels. There’s not a dull moment to be had in this near two-hour runtime with so many wonderful elements pushing this movie to be the best it possibly can. With Paul Verhoeven’s signature satirical edge, visceral gore effects, and thought-provoking themes making Total Recall more than just a movie; it’s a dream filled with ambition and awesome imagination. With that said, get your ass to Mars and have yourselves a damn good time with Total Recall! The 1990 original, not the 2012 remake, I’ll discuss that blunder another time. Maybe when I’m already pissed off.
1) Leon: The Professional (1994)
Mathilda (Natalie Portman) a 12-year-old girl whose whole family has been viciously murdered by crooked cops, a professional assassin by the name of Leon (Jean Reno) reluctantly takes in the young girl to train her as his protegee to teach her how to work in his dangerous line of business. As her training goes on, an unusual relationship forms between the two becoming close. Although that doesn’t quench Mathilda’s thirst for revenge against Detective Stansfield (Gary Oldman) who is responsible for her family’s demise.
Going over this list several times in my head, constantly analyzing every detail I could about all the films here, it proved rather difficult to decide which was the number one pick. Yet simultaneously in my heart I always knew which was going to be the one I gave the mantle to by the time everything was said and done. Hell, when writing up a quick list of ‘90s action movies I believed to be the top contenders, Leon: The Professional was automatically at the top of my list; then it remained at the top of my list as I continuously went back and forth on reordering the selections, removing some, adding others in, yet Leon: The Professional never moved from the top slot once. To me, it came across as a sign saying, “This is the one. This is the one that should be noted as the best from the entire decade and deep down you know why.” No, this wasn’t a nostalgic pick for me as I truthfully didn’t discover this beautiful gem until my late teens. However, when I saw it back then and every viewing since, I knew this was a masterpiece.
To be clear, I am solely referring to the uncut version of the film, not the theatrical cut. In terms of why I will be strictly discussing the uncut edition of the film is because it is referred to by the director and fans alike as the definitive version of Leon: The Professional. Plus, I just like it more. It is the version of the film that is not afraid to take some major risks with the characters and explore certain ideas that would make audiences uncomfortable. Because of those risks, because of that lack of fear to challenge the viewer, that is why Leon stands so strong among the crowd. Allowing the relationship between the characters of Leon and Mathilda to truly develop in a manner that is heartwarming while also keeping the audience on edge as to what exactly is blossoming from this bizarre duo.
At this film’s center, the soul of the entire screenplay is found in our two leads played by Jean Reno and Natalie Portman. Without the beautifully innocent chemistry shared between these two purely emotion driven performances, the entire picture would crumble. Balancing out themes that could easily be construed as disgusting or misguided, given how the premise is based around how a young girl falls in love with an older man, yet the writers and filmmakers layer this uncomfortable material in a way that makes sense without immediately disturbing its audience. The love and friendship forming between the duo is fleshed out enough and makes sense as to exactly why Mathilda would be developing feelings towards Leon. At the same time we are able to understand that while Leon is a professional hitman, he’s mostly an uneducated individual with a very limited social intuition. As these two grow closer and closer in their personal bond, we become charmed by the naivety and purity of their relationship as teacher and student.
The only way this movie works is if the roles of Leon and Mathilda are played to perfection, because if Leon is played too maturely or Mathilda is played too childlike then the prospect of them in the same room becomes overwhelmingly creepy. Thankfully Reno and Portman knew exactly what they were doing and nailed this subject matter of an off kilter love without flaw. Jean Reno as Leon needs to strike fear into the viewer when he is on the job and only when he is on the job, painting the character as more of a boogeyman than flesh and blood. For the rest of the time though we need full understanding of the tender and rather simple side to him in his daily life, defining his humanity. Leon is not a regular guy working a 9 to 5 job who’s had a normal life; this is a guy who was basically taken off the streets as a kid and trained to kill. Not being taught anything else in his life, to the point of being a master of death yet completely illiterate in his adult years. Then when Mathilda comes along in his life after she is left with nowhere else to go, we see his life getting simultaneously complicated yet happier as well. We grow to love these characters together because they’re endearing, but we take them seriously because the script takes its time unraveling their true emotions towards one another. Is this easy to digest an adult-kid relationship quite like this? No. That’s what makes the movie so unique. It has balls to dabble in territories untouched by any other production.
Unorthodox is probably the key word in describing this film; unorthodox characters, unorthodox romance, unorthodox story, unorthodox dialog, unorthodox lighting, unorthodox violence, unorthodox music, unorthodox acting, unorthodox humor, unorthodox everything. In other words, it’s very French. Obviously seeing how the entire crew working on the production was mostly French, which makes for an experience unlike any other, even with a basic premise of the flawed guardian protecting a child from killers which we’ve now seen fairly often in cinemas. This formula has been especially popular as of recently in comic book flicks such as Logan, Deadpool 2, and Birds of Prey. None of which reach the levels of quirkiness in tone as much as Leon nor the suspense felt inside every action beat. The training of Mathilda to be an assassin alone evokes tension as it’s unclear how far Leon is willing to teach her to kill.
StansfieldClick thumbnail to view full-size
Alright, I can’t end my writing on this movie without touching on one last thing… Gary Oldman as Stansfield is a revelation. Whenever Oldman walks on screen he effortlessly steals the scene. Any time Stansfield enters a room there is nothing else that exists, it is just Gary being a crazy strung out dirty cop who I cannot pry my eyes away from. This man is literally conducting an imaginary symphony as he’s slaughtering a whole family with a shotgun. Elaborating in a jittered agitation about the differences between Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms to a man who just watched his wife and two children blown away. Oldman doesn’t have to say a word, the minor act of him biting down on a pill capsule somehow becomes amped up to eleven with his sheer physicality. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen this movie, Stansfield still surprises me is his madness. My jaw is dropped to the floor, my eyes are wider than the Grand Canyon, my mind is stuck in a trance as I’m terrified of what this dude might do next. Stansfield is the human embodiment of psychotic evil and he should be known as one of the greatest antagonists in cinematic history based on Oldman’s enjoyably insane performance alone. Gary Oldman is mesmerizing, intense, and he leaves me in a weird emotional state of ‘bliss meets horrified’.
Leon: The Professional reshaped what an action movie can be, what taboo territories can be studied with intelligence and heart. At no point does it come across as manipulative, exploitative, or used for any sort of shock value. This is a reinvention of the action genre, breathing a brand new life into it never seen before and not matched after. Luc Besson is a master of entertainment, injecting his own distinct style of writing and visuals to enhance every film of his to a higher degree of greatness. Besson’s magnum opus pieces are without a doubt actually two of his features, Leon: The Professional and Le Femme Nikita. Do yourself a favor, learn what the ring trick is and seek out this work of action packed art.
Favorite 1990s Action Movie
What's your favorite 1990s classic action movie?
That’s All Folks!
The Best Action Movies of the 1990s… What do you think of my list? Like or dislike? Agree or disagree? Have any of your own suggestions for what you declare as the best of the decade? Comment down below and let me know! Also, if you so happened to have enjoy my list then please do me a favor and share this article around the social media world. Thank you all so much for reading and have yourselves and action-packed day!
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