The 20 Best Action Movies The 1990s Had To Offer
There were some incredible action movies that debuted between 1990 and 1999. Culturally, the '90s was a decade of ironic detachment, where creators began interrogating the tropes and established narratives of what came prior–and in many cases letting Nicolas Cage be as wacky as he thought was appropriate..
For Hollywood, that meant remaking old classics in a new light. It meant delivering sequels that subverted their predecessors rather than simply continuing them. It meant punctuating tension with self-aware comedy. It meant questioning the nature of reality itself. And, honestly, it meant blowing up practically everything in sight. Naturally, that means Michael Bay is on this list more than once.
Without further ado, here are the 20 best action movies of the '90s, as far as we're concerned. Sound off in the comments with your favorites!
20. Rush Hour
Starring: Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker
Director(s): Brett Ratner
Jackie Chan was a massive star in Hong Kong. But this film brought him widespread, mainstream recognition in America, even though Chan has admitted that he neither understands the appeal of the films nor finds them funny. But the formula has worked very well for the rest of us: Chris Tucker tells jokes, and Chan swoops in to kick ass. And they both fumble and fight over the radio. Rinse and repeat for two sequels.
Starring: Wesley Snipes
Director(s): Stephen Norrington
One of the earliest, most successful Marvel movie adaptations of the modern era, Blade helped destigmatize comic book adaptations and pave the way for the superhero boom that persists to this day. Wesley Snipes plays Blade, a half-human, half-vampire hybrid who hunts down the mobster vampire Deacon Frost.
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek
Director(s): Robert Rodriguez
When director Robert Rodriguez first came on the scene, he was heralded as a one-man auteur—he wrote, directed, composed, and edited his features. He made his mark with the low-budget cult classic El Mariachi. But Desperado was his first movie with a budget, and it showed exactly what he was capable of. It has an epic gun fight in a bar. It has a guitar case that doubles as a bazooka. And It's filled with Mexican pride, kinetic action, and Salma Hayek.
17. Enemy of the State
Starring: Will Smith, Gene Hackman
Director(s): Tony Scott
It's not a great sign that the themes in Enemy of the State have only become more relevant in the 25 years since its release. A Congressman opposes a new bill, which will increase surveillance over the American people, and is subsequently assassinated. His assassination is covered up as a heart attack, but the truth threatens to get out when a labor lawyer, played by Will Smith, comes into possession of the assassination's recording. Political thrillers are a dying breed in the modern era, but this is one of the great ones.
16. Point Break
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves
Director(s): Kathryn Bigelow
Point Break is a whole bunch of things at once: a heist movie, a buddy film, and a celebration of surf culture. Keanu Reeves plays an undercover FBI agent on the tail of a robbery gang led by Patrick Swayze. Lots of great action, lots of heart, and truly one of the raddest movies of the decade.
15. The Rock
Starring: Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage
Director(s): Michael Bay
Filmed on location at Alcatraz Prison off the coast of San Francisco, The Rock plays to Michael Bay's strengths as a filmmaker: big explosions, over-the-top action, and quippy one-liners. Nicholas Cage plays a FBI chemical weapons specialist, who teams up with the only man to ever escape Alcatraz, played by Sean Connery. They lead a Navy SEAL team to take down a rogue general (Ed Harris) and his Marines, who are holding tourists hostage for ransom and have chemical weapons they plan to unleash on the world.
14. Bad Boys
Starring: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence
Director(s): Michael Bay
A buddy cop film that spawned two sequels, Bad Boys made a star out of Will Smith--thanks to his bare-chested, gun-drawn run through the streets of LA, with his black shirt open and blowing in the wind. Filled with shootouts and offbeat humor, Bad Boys is Michael Bay biting off exactly what he can chew, and delivering on it fully.
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Famke Jannsen
Director(s): Martin Campbell
The previous Bond, Timothy Dalton, made two Bond films (The Living Daylights and License to Kill) that were considerably darker and grittier than their predecessors; critics argued that perhaps, they went a little far. Goldeneye shifted course, back to the jet setting, giddy high life that the Bond series was famous for depicting. It has one of the most sexually suggestive Bond girls/villains of all time–no small feat in a franchise with a character named Pussy Galore. And it debuts Judi Dench as M, with her glorious, sardonic wit on full display.
12. Mission Impossible
Starring: Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames
Director(s): Brian De Palma
Nowadays (at least since the third entry), the Mission Impossible franchise has its formula down pat–a mixture of spy hijinks, future tech, and breezy plot twists. Serious, but not too serious. But when the movie franchise first began in 1996, the feel hadn't been established yet–it was darker and felt more grounded than what was to come. One place where the movie does not drag was the action sequences. And Tom Cruise, always a madman, performs his own stunts, even in the train/helicopter sequence that forms the movie's climax.
11. Total Recall
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone
Director(s): Paul Verhoeven
This is based on a sci-fi short story by Phillip K. Dick, which is always pretty good news. Set 60 years in the future, the movie stars Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid, a mild-mannered construction worker who discovers he's a secret Martian agent. A massive commercial hit, Total Recall featured cutting-edge CGI, and it won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
10. Die Hard: With A Vengeance
Starring: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson
Director(s): John McTiernan
John McClane (Bruce Willis) teams up with Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) to stop terrorist bomb threats. Out of all the Die Hard films, With A Vengeance comes the closest to capturing the devil-may-care atmosphere of the original. And it's no wonder that the director of the first film, John McTiernan, came back to direct this one as well.
9. Once Upon A Time In China 2
Starring: Jet Li
Director(s): Tsui Hark
The Once Upon A Time in China trilogy, starring Jet Li as Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, is known for its balletic martial arts sequences. Thematically, it addresses the modernization of China, nationalistic pride, and the tensions between the Qing Dynasty and the Western colonizers. The villains of the second film are the White Lotus Sect, an extremist cult led by Priest Gao, a man who claims to be impervious to bullets.
8. The Professional
Starring: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman
Director(s): Luc Besson
Featuring a 12-year-old Natalie Portman in her debut role, The Professional tells the story of a professional hitman and the child he takes in as a surrogate daughter and protege. The quieter moments, like when Portman's character Mathilda learns to shoot a sniper rifle, make the thrills that much more visceral.
7. True Lies
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis
Director(s): James Cameron
When James Cameron makes a high-budget action movie, you see every dime of it spent on screen–the genre is rarely this explosive, both literally and physically. In this action/comedy, Schwarzenegger plays a family man who lives a double life as a secret federal agent, and finds out that his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) might be cheating on him. Unfortunately, his investigation of his wife's affair conflicts with his investigation of a terrorist organization.
6. The Crow
Starring: Brandon Lee
Director(s): Alex Proyas
The son of martial arts legend and Asian American icon Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee stars in this film about a man who returns from the dead to avenge his lover's murder. Moody, stylistic, and aggressively dark, this was Lee's final performance; he died during an accident on set, and stunt doubles finished his remaining scenes.
5. Drunken Master II
Starring: Jackie Chan, Anita Mui
Director(s): Lau Kar-leung
A comedic take on Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, Drunken Master II was released in North America as The Legend of Drunken Master. The climactic fight between Chan and Taekwondo martial artist Ken Lo is widely considered to be the best fight scene Chan ever filmed, and one of the best fight scenes in cinematic history. As always, Chan does his own stunts. That scene where he gets knocked into a pit of hot coals? All real.
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper
Director(s): Jan de Bont
It's just such a delicious narrative: a bus carrying a bomb will explode if it drops below 50 mph. And the filmmakers milked this premise for every drop of adrenaline they could. It's an old observation that art thrives under pressure and limitations. And because the movie is a literal race from start to finish, not a moment feels wasted or arbitrary.
3. The Fugitive
Starring: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones
Director(s): Andrew Davis
Action thriller movies aren't usually nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Picture. But The Fugitive is not your typical action movie. On its face, it's a cat-and-mouse chase movie, between a dogged U.S. Marshal and a man covicted of murdering his wife. But on a deeper level, it's a character study of two men, both of who have the audience's sympathy, and both of who strive to discover the truth and do the right thing. Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the marshal, won an Academy Award for his Supporting Actor performance and even starred in a spin-off film about his character.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton
Director(s): James Cameron
A sequel that outpaces the original at every step, Terminator 2 recasts the T-800 from the first film as a hero, who must travel back in time and save John Connor from the relentless assault of the T-1000. The latter's liquid metal effects still hold up, and certain scenes, like the highway truck chase scene, have become iconic.
1. The Matrix
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne
Director(s): The Wachowskis
As far as popular cinema goes, it's hard to get more mind-bending, more genre-defining, than The Matrix. It combined the best of martial arts, anime, and cyberpunk literature into a spectacular action film. There are so many famous scenes: the Agent Smith fight on the subway platform; the woman in the red dress; bullet-time; the Duracell-assisted explanation of the future. The Matrix went on to inspire three live-action sequels, including The Matrix Resurrections, in 2021. But the original remains the best of the four.