There’s nothing more exhilarating than going to the movies, having yourself a seat, and watching a film where things blow up for a couple of hours. It’s a great break from our own lives, and who doesn’t love seeing someone say something incredibly clever, before firing a gun at a car, which causes the car to explode into oblivion?
Action films have been around since the start of movie making, as 1903’s The Great Train Robbery is considered by many to be the first in the genre. However, it truly exploded during the 1990s when over-inflated budgets and rising stars made movies like Terminator 2, The Matrix, and Die Hard With A Vengeance must-see affairs.
With Mission Impossible: Fallout coming out this summer–the latest entry in a movie series which began during the ’90s–we’re taking a look at some of the greatest action films from the decade that are underrated, underappreciated, and demand your attention. Even if you’ve seen these movies before, you should watch them again.
14. Mission Impossible
Mission Impossible is a huge franchise now, but in 1996, it was just an action movie starring Tom Cruise that was based on a TV show. While the film series is known for its convoluted plots, the first movie is solid and a lot of fun. It’s a great balance of espionage, surprises, and well-executed action sequences.
The plot to Speed is pretty dumb: A bus needs to keep its speed above 50 MPH or a bomb underneath the vehicle will blow up. This, along with Point Break, is the movie that helped launch Keanu Reeves as an action star. Without Speed, we wouldn’t have seen Reeves star in The Matrix. Also, without Speed, we wouldn’t had seen this ridiculous bus jumping stunt. The movie is cheesy and silly at times, but it’s still an incredibly fun watch.
12. Bad Boys
Former music video director Michael Bay broke onto the Hollywood scene in 1995 with Bad Boys. It starred Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as two Miami detectives who discover heroin had been stolen from the police precinct. Plot-wise, it didn’t do anything new, but Bay’s direction, which is grandiose, helped frame how a lot of action movies were directed in the future. Bad Boys helped launch Will Smith’s career, as prior to that–aside from a couple of small parts–he was primarily known for his role on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
11. Judgment Night
You may have never seen Judgment Night, but as a lifelong resident of the Chicagoland area, this 1993 movie was required viewing for me as it was one of the few action movies that took place in Chicago. It follows a group of guys who take a wrong turn off the expressway in the bad part of the city. The men witness a murder and are on the run from Denis Leary’s character. Yes, Denis Leary plays a gang leader on the west side of Chicago during the ’90s. Feel free to laugh. Regardless, it’s a hidden gem as far as action movies during that decade go.
Nowadays, there are at least six superhero movies coming out every year. Back in 1998, that wasn’t the case, as the Joel Schumacher-directed Batman movies killed the genre. However, New Line Cinema took a chance on Blade, a rated-R movie based on the half-vampire Marvel hero. The movie starred Wesley Snipes and felt like a showcase for him to show off his martial arts prowess.
9. Hard Target
Legendary action director John Woo made his American debut in 1993 with Hard Target. The movie follows Chance Boudreaux (Jean Claude Van-Damme), a drifter who saves a young woman from a gang. He then joins her on the search for her missing father. The movie is truly a product of its time, as the main character has a mullet and wears a duster jacket while beating people up. These are things someone considered “cool” in 1993. It may not be Woo’s best-known American film, but it’s certainly worth your time.
8. Total Recall
It’s hard to call 1990’s Total Recall an underrated movie as it is memorable and one of the better Philip K Dick adaptations; however, it gets lost in the shuffle when you think of great Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi/action flicks. In addition, it doesn’t get the credit it deserves for mixing a high-concept story with the cheesy, over-the-top action of an Schwarzenegger movie. It’s also important to note that this was directed by Paul Verhoeven, who gave us Robocop and Starship Troopers.
Another sci-fi action flick that should be in your rotation is Jean Claude Van-Damme’s Timecop. The master of the splits plays a cop who regulates time travel; however, there’s a politician using this technology for evil purposes. It may seem like a cheesy film–and at times, it can be–but it’s actually a pretty fantastic story. More importantly, it’s one of the few “futuristic” time-travel movies from the ’90s that doesn’t get too crazy with technology that could never exist–of course, except for time travel itself.
6. True Lies
True Lies is one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best movies. The 1994 film follows a secret agent whose life is turned upside-down when he finds out his wife is having an affair. He deals with this all while terrorists are trying to smuggle nuclear weapons into the United States. It’s the perfect balance of action, comedy, and drama. It may be the perfect ’90s action film. Once again, this movie is underrated simply because it’s overshadowed by the rest of Schwarzenegger’s work.
Face/Off is easily John Woo’s best American action film. It’s also the weirdest. The movie follows Sean Archer (John Travolta), an FBI agent who gets experimental plastic surgery to go undercover as Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). Things don’t go as planned, and Troy becomes Archer through the same process. The concept is purely insane–as is some of the dialogue–but the movie has so much rewatch value. Make sure to watch it while eating a peach.
4. Last Action Hero
Speaking of weird concepts, Last Action Hero follows Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), a young boy who loves the Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) movie franchise. One day, he gets a magic ticket and finds himself inside the fictional new Slater film. From there, the movie becomes a satire of action films, as Madigan learns that Slater’s movie world differs immensely from real life. The movie was directed by action-juggernaut John McTiernan, who also has Predator, Die Hard, and Die Hard With A Vengeance under his belt. This may be controversial, but Last Action Hero is McTiernan’s best film, as it holds a mirror up to Hollywood, letting everyone know that action movies had gotten way too ridiculous.
3. The Rock
Sorry Transformers fans, but the 1996 movie The Rock is the best Michael Bay film. The movie stars Nicolas Cage as an FBI chemical weapons expert, Sean Connery as a former inmate who escaped Alcatraz, and Ed Harris as a former Marine who puts together an elite team that takes over Alcatraz. Harris and his men plan on releasing chemical weapons on San Francisco. Everything about The Rock is large and over-the-top, from the helicopter shots over Alcatraz to the convoluted plot. It is easily one of the most overshadowed action movies of the decade.
2. Con Air
Simon West’s directorial debut was 1997’s Con Air, a truly wonderful and ridiculous movie that embodies everything great in the action movie genre. Nicolas Cage plays Cameron Poe, a former US Ranger who is sent to prison after accidentally killing a man. Poe finds himself on a plane with other prisoners, which ends up with the inmates taking control of the aircraft. The movie has some great lines which, recited out-of-context, are utter nonsense–“Put the bunny down back in the box” and, “It’s my daughter’s birthday today. So please feel free not to share everything with me.” In addition, this movie is stacked with great actors like John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo, Dave Chappelle, Steve Buscemi, and John Cusack. It’s everything you could ever want in a ’90s action film.
1. Demolition Man
The most underrated ’90s action film is Demolition Man. In the mid-’90s, Sylvester Stallone plays LAPD Sergeant John Spartan, who is hunting down criminal Simon Phoenix ( Wesley Snipes). After Phoenix’s capture results in the death of civilians, both Spartan and Phoenix are put in a cryo-prison. Phoenix is released early in 2032–four decades later–and finds it’s easy to be a criminal in the future, and the police are no help, so the LAPD enlists the help of Spartan. There is so much detail put into this film you may not pick up on right away, like the fact that a 2010 earthquake leads to the formation of the utopian San Angeles and that there was a thing called the “franchise wars,” which Taco Bell won. It’s one of the few ’90s action movies that put a lot of effort into world-building and history, and it’s one of the few films from that decade you can watch multiple times and come out learning something new with each viewing.