Top 10: Action Films From The 90s (Non Sci-fi)
List by Aaron Haughton
The 80s will be forever remembered as the golden era of the action film, but the action films of the 90s came in full force with gargantuan budgets that were unheard of at the time. In several respects, the 90s changed the face of the action blockbusters — some may even say it took its "face off" — but they also continued to push the franchise trend solidified in the 80s, and even propelled the action film toward increasingly more fantastic environments due to the dawn of CGI. However, for the sake of our list, we've stripped out the sci-fi (which would dominate the list) and kept only the grounded and more "realistic" action films, which we think are the crème de la crème of 90s action and deliver all the visceral thrills that one would expect from a genre pumped full of testosterone.
- 10: Point Break (1991)
Point Break ushered in a new era of cop film, scraping the clichéd 80s cop model for the kinds of high octane thrills and physicality that became 90s action staples (or new clichés). The film ticks a lot of boxes with one effort; it's not just a great movie about cops and robbers, but it's also one of the better films about surfing and extreme sports. Point Break marked Keanu Reeves' first break into the action blockbuster, and it gave director Kathryn Bigelow her high-water mark for the 90s, which she wouldn't come close to again until 2008's The Hurt Locker. The film would also give heartthrob Patrick Swayze his last truly great leading role as the adrenaline junkie Bodhi. The has been referenced in films such as Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz, The Avengers and Thor: Ragnorak. It remains one of the most beloved action films from the 90s, and its essence remains untarnished despite the attempts to ruin the film's legacy in an even more mindless reboot.
- 9: Ronin (1998)
Stacked with a wonderful ensemble cast and directed by the legendary John Frankenheimer, Ronin is an under-appreciated 90s staple teeming with sensational car chases through a European underworld. It's twisty espionage thrills serve up both skill and schlock in the best possible sense. Impressive for its refusal to give into the burgeoning special effects of the late 90s, Frankenheimer used the same camera mounts as the Grand Prix, and placed his actors in the speeding cars, which were driven by Formula One and high-performances drivers — it's truly the film's crowning point. In 2014, Ranker put the film on its 12 Best Action Movies You've Never Heard Of" list at the #1 slot.
- 8: True Lies (1994)
James Cameron is a master of the action genre and has crafted some of the most exceptional action films ever made — if we allowed sci-fi to seep into our action list, Terminator 2: Judgement Day would without a doubt be our number one. True Lies is no exception to James Cameron's masterful action prowess and manages to tick several boxes in a single effort; it's an action film wrapped in a political thriller with a heavy dose of cartoony comedy, which equals one helluva crowd-pleasing ball of entertainment. While it may not hit the heights of Cameron and Schwarzenegger's previous efforts, the film packs in enough action and laughs into its absurd plot to keep you thoroughly amused, through schlock or thrill.
- 7: The Rock (1996)
This Jerry Bruckheimer produced action staple marks one of the few high points of Michael Bay's career — in fact, it's the only Bay-directed film to have a "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert, who was hyper-critical of most of Bay's work, even called the film "an action picture that rises to the top of the genre because of a literate, witty screenplay and skilled craftsmanship in the direction and special effects." The Rock joins Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery together in a plot full of chemical warfare, rogue marines and Alcatraz. It might not engage your brain, but it's a pure popcorn-munching good time, complete with thundering sound design and great ensemble cast.
- 6: GoldenEye (1995)
Pierce Brosnan makes his Bond debut with bravado in 1995's GoldenEye. The film was a huge success, especially considering the disappointing box office return for the previous bond flick, License to Kill. With a great cast including Sean Bean, Famke Janssen, Allen Cummings, Minnie Driver, Robbie Coltrane, Judi Dench, and Desmond Llewelyn in one of his final appearances as Q, GoldenEye exudes all the charisma, wit, thrills and sexy swagger that Bond films are known for. The film also contains two of the most memorable bond villains, including a sadist femme fatale who enjoys torturing her enemies by crushing them between her thighs, which is pretty damn hard to beat by our standards.
- 5: Speed (1994)
There are very few films that are capable of inducing the nail-biting tension and exhilarating rush of Jan de Bont's Speed. While Point Break may've proved that Keanu Reeves was a capable action star, it was Speed that rocketed him into full on action stardom and proved that he was here to stay. The film also did wonders for Sandra Bullock, churning here into a household name, and it gave Dennis Hopper his last truly extraordinary scenery-chewing shot at villainy. De Bont's camera movement ropes the viewer into an unrelenting story from the word go and never lets up — it's the kinda gold he would only ever strike once more with his follow up film Twister. Speed is a film whose thrills are viscerally felt and is full of the high-octane artistry to match.
- 4: The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
No one does martial arts stunts quite like Jackie Chan, and The Legend of Drunken Master (or Drunken Master II) finds him at his most intricate, difficult, and hilariously fun. The film manages to blend kung fu and drunken behavior — two of our favorite things — with virtuosic effort on Chan's part. When you see this film, especially the last 20 minutes, you know immediately why Chan is considered one of the greats of the kung fu medium, and it's crazy to think that he was at the tender age of 40 whilst shooting this production. The film even manages to surpass its predecessor, Jui Kuen (Drunken Master), in nearly every possible way. While the plot is just a clothesline to hang dazzling action sequences, it still has plenty to offer in the ways of action fare and is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest Chan vehicles ever made.
- 3: Leon: The Professional (1994)
Leon: The Professional still stands as one of the sleekest and oddly affecting 90s action thrillers. The film is sharp witted, confident, and oozing with style on all fronts, which are just a few of the gleaming characteristics that make it quintessential for the era. The film also marks Natalie Portman's breakout performance, and showcases a sadistic and deranged Gary Oldman at full tilt boogie. Essentially a character study, Leon is heightened by chic direction, top-notch performances, exhilarating action and graphic violence, which are all wrapped in a well-rounded script that touches on a surprising array of emotions. It's definitely no Mickey Mouse bullshit.
- 2: Hard Boiled (1992)
John Woo breaks into our list with the stunningly choreographed Hard Boiled (or Lat Sau San Taam). It's a suave endeavor with all the visual flair that have since become John Woo hallmarks. While it's tough at times to follow the action and take in the subtitles, the film is endlessly entertaining and contains one of our favorite drink inventions, the tequila slammer. Chow Yun-Fat slays as the clarinet-playing police officer, aptly named Tequila, whose partner is killed in a restaurant gunfight with a small army of gangsters. Who doesn't love an action sequence with a gun-toting man carrying a baby?
Before we get to the number 1 pick, here's a few action films that just narrowly got left on the cutting room floor:
- Die Hard with a Vengeance
- Air Force One
- Con Air
- Rush Hour
And the number 1 action film of the 90s is...
- 1: Heat (1995)
Heat is Michael Mann's scorching magnum opus. The film is near-operatic and features a dynamite ensemble cast, which brings Al Pacino and Robert De Niro — who had both starred in The Godfather Part II, but never in the same scene — together on screen for the very first time, something that occurs exactly at the midpoint of this three-hour epic heist actioner. The film is visceral at its core and beautifully and methodically crafted. Its psychological complexities elevate it out of the realm of the simple action picture, and the characters, above all, feel wholly real and never trapped by the conventions of cliché, which is why its our top pick for the greatest action film of the 90s.
What do you think? Do you agree with our list? Did we leave off your favorite 90s action film? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!