Whoa. These Are the 15 Best Action Movies of the ’90s
Let's just say this list is gnarly.
There is arguably no era as significant to the action movie genre as the ’90s. After the muscular brawn and Reagan-inspired ideals of the 80s and before the rise of superheroes and franchises in the ’00s, the ’90s charted a path built around ingenuity, blending stunts and visual effects to make even the most unbelievable scenario believable. It was an age of style, in which coolness was defined by blue jeans, black leather, and sunglasses.
It was a time in which almost any actor, even those you’d least expect could be an action hero. The filmmakers of this era, many of whom went off to do grander things, established signature styles that would aid them later in their careers and changed the Hollywood course for many a star. No, not everything to emerge from this decade was a winner but even among missteps, there was a tactile element that gripped audiences and left them feeling the heat of an explosion on the backs of their next long after the credits rolled and the popcorn had been swept away. And as for the greats? Well, they remain great and continue to influence action filmmaking today even as release patterns in Hollywood change. We’re laying it down, and if you disagree, that’s just too bad. These are the greatest Hollywood action films of the 1990s.
15. Desperado (1995) – Robert Rodriguez
The second entry in Rodriguez’s El Mariachi trilogy helped make Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek Hollywood superstars and put Rodriguez on the map as a guerilla filmmaker. While most of the films on this list are studio blockbusters, Rodriguez made Desperado for $7 million dollars and its show-screen production is a large part of its charm as it allowed for the action to be shot in rather ingenious and stylish ways.
The story is a refreshingly simple ode to classic westerns. Banderas stars as El Mariachi, a former guitarist and gunslinger with a dark past who believes he’s found refuge in a small Mexican village only to find that the town is operated by a drug cartel, led by the man whose second command killed El Mariachi’s lover. Alongside a bookstore owner, Carolina (Hayek), El Mariachi sets his sights on taking down the cartel and its leader, Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida).
Action highlight: The rooftop battle in which El Mariachi and Carolina escape Bucho’s forces.
Desperado is currently streaming on Netflix.
14. Clear and Present Danger (1994) – Phillip Noyce
The third entry in the Jack Ryan series, and the second to star Harrison Ford as Tom Clancy’s most famous character, is the most action-heavy of the lot. Noyce, returning as director from the previous entry, Patriot Games, manages to pull away from some of the more complicated espionage and global politics of the previous films, making it a film that simultaneously feels less prestigious but more entertaining. In this installment, Ryan takes on the Colombian drug cartel but uncovers a deeper conspiracy involving the United States Government and their War on Drugs. This forces Ryan to team up with Clancy’s second most popular character, John Clark, given great gravitas by Willem Dafoe. Harrison and Dafoe teaming up to ultimately confront the President of the United States for his hand in illegal activities feels particularly prescient for its time.
Action Highlight: Ryan and Clark take down cartel leader, Escobedo’s (Miguel Sandoval), cocaine operation while freeing Clark’s captured squad.
13. True Lies (1994) – James Cameron
When it comes to BIG action, James Cameron always delivers. The director’s third collaboration with the blueprint for action icon, Arnold Schwarzenegger, saw the two riffing on the spy genre and the rom-com. Schwarzenegger plays Harry Tasker, a secret agent, already funny in itself considering there’s not a single thing about the man that’s inconspicuous. Harry’s duties to protect the world have kept him away from his wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) who he believes is having an affair with a used car salesman, Simon (Bill Paxton). Realizing that his wife needs excitement and adventure in her life, Harry, along with his friend Gib (Tom Arnold) arrange to stage a sly mission for her. But it all becomes real when she’s kidnapped by actual terrorists. Hijinks ensue and Cameron makes an engrossing action thriller out of couples therapy.
Action highlight: Just when it seems the dust has settled, Harry’s daughter, Dana (Eliza Dushku) is taken hostage and Harry has to save her while also preventing the detonation of a nuclear warhead.
12. Cliffhanger (1993) – Renny Harlin
It wouldn’t be much of a 90s action movie list if Stallone wasn’t represented somewhere, and to be honest, it was a real toss-up between Cliffhanger and Demolition Man, but ultimately the former won out for the sheer thrill of the rocking climbing scenes. While action movie stars were changing during the 90s, becoming leaner and more cerebral, there was still room for 80s brawn, which Cliffhanger delivered in spades.
Stallone stars as Gabe Walker, a Ranger and rock climber who responds to an emergency distress call that turns out to be a plot by a gang of international thieves, led by Qualen (Jon Lithgow) whose helicopter crashed, leaving cases of money scattered around the mountain. Held at gunpoint and his friends as hostages, Walker is forced to navigate the rough mountain terrain while outsmarting the thieves in one tense situation after another.
Action highlight: A failed helicopter escape in the last act results in Gabe and Qualen facing off on a wrecked helicopter held up only by a cable. It’s nail-biting stuff!
11. Enemy of the State (1998) – Tony Scott
By 1998, Will Smith had already cemented himself as an action icon, as well as one of the most charismatic leading men in Hollywood. As the 20th century edged closer to the 21st, it made sense that Smith would lead the action genre into its next phase, one less caught up in sheer physical strength and more concerned with mental prowess. Smith portrays Robert Clayton Dean, an unassuming lawyer who ends up with a tape containing the murder of a congressman who was blocking a bill to expand surveillance measures for counter-terrorism. As the NSA pursues Robert to obtain the tape and kill him, he gets help in the form of a former NSA communications expert, Edward “Brill” Lyle, played by acting titan Gene Hackman. Enemy of the State twists the buddy cop formula into something new, a conspiratorial technological thriller in which the law isn’t on anyone’s side because the law is malleable. It’s a frightening portrait of America’s War on Terror before 9/11.
Action highlight: Tony Scott was a master of chase sequences and the trainyard car chase, following the destruction of Brill’s hideout, is one of his best.
10. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) – Renny Harlin
Before Black Widow. Before Red Sparrow. Before Atomic Blonde, Geena Davis was the best heroine in the spy game. Davis plays Samantha Caine, an amnesiac who has settled down with her daughter as a suburban mom. But after she hits her head, she starts getting memories of another life, as a CIA assassin. When faces from her past re-emerge and hunt her down to cover up a government conspiracy, she teams up with a private Detective, Mitch Henessey, to take back her life. Written by Shane Black The Long Kiss Goodnight is bursting with the buddy dynamics he’s known for while Harlin delivers scrappy action that creates a real sense of danger. The only downside is that this film didn’t launch the sequel it should have. Geena Davis’ action hero was something the world needed more of.
Action Highlight: Battle on the Niagara Falls International Bridge during Christmas time.
9. Con Air (1997) – Simon West
Few things promised big, blockbuster action in the 90s like the name Jerry Bruckheimer, a producer whose collaborations with Michael Bay and Simon West created the template for warm sunset glows, ear pounding explosions, and broadly drawn characters, all tied together with it hit romantic ballad. In Con Air Nicholas Cage is Cameron Poe, a recently released ex-con forced to share a flight with an unruly crew of prisoners being transferred to a SuperMax prison, overseen by U.S. Marshall, Vince Larkin (John Cusack), who is set to pick up a drug cartel leader in route. Never mind the implausibility of that setup, once the prisoners, led by Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom (John Malkovich) escape and hijack the plane it becomes a battle of big personalities and betrayals as each of the prisoners’ ambitions and grudges become clear. Poe must navigate this den of psychopaths to return home to his wife, and the daughter he never met and hold onto his morals in the process.
Action Highlight: Attack helicopters damage the plane’s fuel tank, forcing it to land on the Las Vegas Strip. Mass destruction and casualties ensue, obviously.
8. Bad Boys (1995) – Michael Bay
In 1995 Bayhem was born. Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer took two actors, best known for their sitcoms, and made them the stars of the best buddy cop movie since Lethal Weapon 2. Although Bay would certainly go bigger, Bad Boys serves as a reminder of how great Bay can be when he sticks to the streets and plays with cops and robbers. Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett, portrayed respectively by Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are partnered detectives tasked with protecting a murder witness, Julie (Tea Leoni), and find themselves investigating $100 million worth of heroin stolen from their precinct, a theft that could cost them their jobs. Unsurprisingly, the fun of Bad Boys comes from the banter between Smith and Lawrence whose dueling personalities make for compelling comedy. But there’s also a real sense of stakes, the mortality of the central characters, an aspect that got a bit lost in the chaos of its first sequel before the third entries return to form.
Action highlight: The 3rd act airport chase and shootout.
7. Speed (1994) – Jan de Bont
Speed shouldn’t work. A bomb attached to a city bus that will explode if it drops below 50 mph? That’s absurd. And yet, it does. Chalk it up to Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, who as police officer Jack Traven and bus driver Annie bring a surprising amount of warmth and humanity to a film built around quick decisions and hasty judgments. And credit to Dennis Hopper as well who has a great turn as the villain, Howard Payne. While it’s an inherently uncomplicated movie, there’s a lot to be said about how invested it manages to keep an audience over its two-hour running time, setting up tons of roadblocks, figuratively and literally, to keep audiences in suspense. And sometimes that’s really all the greatest action movies need to do – provide ridiculous odds, likable characters, and keep things moving.
Action highlight: The bus jumps over the incomplete freeway. Come on!
6. Face/Off (1997) – John Woo
John Travolta plays FBI Agent Sean Archer, who undergoes an experimental facial transplant surgery to assume the identity of a psychotic killer, Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage) who killed his son. But Castor has plans of his own and takes Archer’s face, resulting in an identity swap that makes Freaky Friday seem like a normal Tuesday. Absolute chaos ensues and Travolta and Cage crank their performances all the way up to 11. The film would perhaps cross the line into parody if it wasn’t for John Woo’s stylish action sequences (the doves) that would later land him in the director’s chair for Mission: Impossible II. The greatest thing about Face/Off is how fearlessly weird it is.
Action highlight: The headquarters raid that quickly becomes a bloodbath as the FBI faces off against Troy’s organization.(Although the possible real highlight is the strange slash in the title?)
5. Mission: Impossible (1996) – Dir. Brian De Palma
Cue up the familiar theme. Mission: Impossible has only grown bigger as a worldwide phenomenon over the decades and gotten better with most subsequent entries. But this first one had the momentous task of making a 60s TV series into a cool summer blockbuster with a filmmaker who wasn’t necessarily known for action, despite the remarkable shootout in Scarface. But what star Tom Cruise brought to Ethan Hunt in terms of cool and work ethic when it came to stunts, De Palma brought in thrills, taking a page from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and his horror background in prosthetics. What ensues is a tight caper that sees Hunt and his few friends, including Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) attempt to clear his name after a mole in the agency frames him for the murder of fellow agents. And the film gets bonus points for including Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) from the original series long before legacy sequels had been coined.
Action highlight: As you might’ve guessed, it’s the iconic scene of Ethan Hunt suspended on a wire while infiltrating CIA headquarters without being detected.
4. The Rock (1996) – Michael Bay
After the success of Bad Boys, Bay and Bruckheimer reteamed for a testosterone-filled adventure that paired the iconic action hero of yesteryear, Sean Connery, with an unlikely star best known for quirky dramas and comedies, Nicholas Cage. For Connery, it became the last iconic role of his storied career, and for Cage, it shifted the trajectory of his career and added action hero to his ever-growing repertoire. Like Bad Boys, Bay found success in simplicity. Ex-con, John Patrick Mason (Connery) and FBI chemist, Dr. Stanley Goodspeed are tasked with infiltrating Alcatraz to stop a general, Francis Hummel (Ed Harris), and his rogue squad of marines from launching deadly nerve gas in San Francisco unless the government pays him $100 million for his men and the families of the soldiers who died under his command. The film, notable for its set pieces and action sequences, is, in hindsight, a significant look at the evolution of the action hero from Connery to Cage.
Action highlight: Goodspeed disabling the rocket at the last minute.
3. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) – James Cameron.
The Terminator relied on tense and simple pacing borrowed from the slasher movies and put James Cameron on the map. T2 found glory in excess and cemented Cameron as a king of science fiction, years before he became king of the world. Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as The Terminator, but this time he’s not hunting Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), but protecting her son, John (Edward Furlong), the future leader of the human resistance in the war against the machines. Connors and the Terminator set out to prevent Judgement Day, a nuclear apocalypse that will happen when the AI Skynet takes over all the world’s systems. Forced to kidnap scientist Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), and pursued by a new breed of Terminator, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), this alliance ensures the future of humanity. It’s Cameron’s first stab at a true epic and was at the time the most expensive film ever made. While we could argue whether action or science-fiction is the best descriptor for what Cameron achieved here there’s no doubt that the action sequences are some of the biggest, boldest, and most emotionally investing ever put on screen, regardless of whether that involves robots.
Action highlight: The siege of Cyberdyne as the Conners, Dyson, and the T-800 fight to survive against the police and the T-1000.
2. Point Break (1991) — Kathryn Bigelow
When it comes to action, without any additional genre elements, the earliest release on this list is the best. Kathryn Bigelow delivered the adrenaline rush of the 90s with Point Break. A rookie FBI Agent, Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) goes undercover within a gang of thrill-seekers, led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) who also happens to be a bank robber. Utah finds himself torn between his duty to the job and the allure of Bodhi’s enlightened viewpoint, and their mutual love interest, Tyler (Lori Petty). Point Break is effortlessly cool, and supporting performances from Gary Busey and John C. McGinley brings humor to a film that never relinquishes from delivering an emotional gut punch. When it comes to brothers from opposite sides of the track, few onscreen characters are as compelling to watch as Utah and Bodhi.
Action highlight: the parachute drop and chase, naturally.
1. The Matrix (1999) – Lana and Lily Wachowski
It almost seems too ahead of its time, too much of a companion piece to the 21st century to believe The Matrix came out in the 90s, albeit the tail end of it. But the Wachowskis, influenced by anime, cyberpunk, and the world’s religious history invoking messianic saviors, crafted a film so unique that even today viewers are still deciphering it as an essential text of science-fiction, action, and our relationship with technology and identity.
When computer hacker Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is awoken to the reality of his world he’s swept up in a battle for humanity alongside Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and a rag-tag crew intent on winning the war against the machines. Anderson renamed Neo, discovers that he’s not simply part of the fight, but the fight itself, the chosen one who can end the war. While the sequels would further complicate the myth, offering greatness on their own terms, this first entry delivered ideas and action scenes that no one had ever seen delivered in this way before. It ended the action of the 90s and set the stage for a new decade driven by special effects and super-powered characters.
Action highlight: The whole third act is magnificent. From the bank battle to the helicopter crash to Neo vs. Smith (Hugo Weaving), it’s a bounty for action junkies.
While we can’t go back, and the specific energy of 90s action can’t be replicated, we should feel some thrill in knowing that Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious, John Wick, Cage rage, and Cameron’s promise to blow our minds with the Avatar sequels all have their foundations in the glorious action of the 90s. Action flicks may be made bigger now, but they might not be made better.