25 underrated blockbusters of the 90s

Last Action Hero? Alien 3? Nick offers his selection of 25 underrated blockbusters from the 1990s...

Blockbusters in the 90s were a strange beast. If the 80s were the decade that defined what a blockbuster could be, and the 00s the decade where sequels and franchise began to dominate, then the 90s were the last decade where studios would bet huge sums of money on original and sometimes frankly barmy prospects. But think what we got: Independence Day, Jurassic Park, The Lion King, Titanic, Men In Black, The Matrix! Of course, we also got a whole bunch of films which either didn’t do as well, or have been swept aside when we think about the big hitters. But no more! Below are 25 of the most underrated blockbusters of the 90s.

Enemy Of The State

(d. Tony Scott, 1998)

A crazy unofficial sequel to Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Conversation, Enemy Of The State has a ridiculous amount of talent attached to it. The late, great Tony Scott proves himself an action virtuoso with a range of high tension sequences from the thrilling foot chase that kicks off the film, to the brilliantly over-the-top finale. Lead Will Smith is at the height of his powers, bringing effortless charisma to an everyman role. Gene Hackman is exactly what you imagined happened to his character from The Conversation, adding weary gravitas, while Jon Voight is obviously on baddie duties.

Last Action Hero

(d. John McTiernan, 1993)

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One of the strangest blockbusters of the 90s, Last Action Hero was Arnie’s big action return after T2: Judgement Day, and was hyped up a year in advance of its release, back when that was the exception rather than the rule. With Die Hard director John McTiernan behind the camera, and Arnie in front, this story about a young boy who magically finds himself involved in the world of his favourite fictional action star, should have been huge. Except it wasn’t. Too strange, too all over the place, and too different from anything else that was around, Last Action Hero scared audiences. But it’s this very strangeness, which includes cameos from James Cameron, a cartoon character, oddly timed comedy, and superb action, is the reason you should seek it out now. You won’t see anything quite like it on this scale.

Alien 3

(d. David Fincher, 1992)

David Fincher’s debut genuinely stands up as a great (if flawed) sci-fi horror film with both engaging and thought-provoking themes. A worthy follow-up to Alien and Aliens, the Special Edition is a must-watch, as is the Making Of, shedding light on original concepts when Vincent Ward was on-board as director and had visions of a wooden planet inhabited by monks. But the finished film is a fascinating entry in a series of films which have always seemed reluctant blockbusters, right up to the recent Prometheus.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

(d. Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)

I remember watching the Making Of documentary and reading the graphic novel of Francis Ford Coppola’s strange, erotic, dreamlike version of Dracula long before I ever watched the film. So for years I only had an imagined version of the film in my head. It turned out to be weirder than I could think up. Shot entirely on sound stages, with not one digital effect in the film (it’s all in camera tricks and matte paintings), Bram Stoker’s Dracula veers from the sublime (Gary Oldman’s towering performance, the costume design, the soundtrack) to the ridiculous (Keanu Reeves woeful miscasting). But it remains a gothic fantasy come to life on-screen, and a true work of art.

Twister

(d. Jan de Bont, 1996)

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Perhaps the best legacy Twister could ever leave is that it is now a theme park ride. That’s one of the highest compliments you can ever pay an aspiring blockbuster movie, and Twister is worthy of it. In many ways it’s the ultimate 90s blockbuster. A high-concept original material pitch based around a natural disaster, off the wall character casting for its leads, a gleeful overuse of CGI as it’s the new thing, a runtime that feels much longer than it is and includes weirdly dull parts, Michael Crichton’s involvement, Steven Spielberg’s involvement, and directed by Jan de Bont. If the film industry of the 90s could be represented in one film, Twister would be it.

Cutthroat Island

(d. Renny Harlin, 1995)

Unfairly slaughtered by critics upon release, and a huge box-office bomb, Cutthroat Island’s legacy for a long time was to hold the world record for biggest commercial film failure ever, and to drive its production company into bankruptcy. But it’s a film well worth revisiting. It hasn’t magically transformed into a brilliant movie, but it’s a better movie than you may have been led to believe. Geena Davis was certainly ahead of her time in trying to resurrect the pirate movie, and the practical effects and her own stunt work show this was a movie the creative talent poured their heart into. As a female led action-adventure movie which is enjoyable and a damn sight better than some of the recent dross we’ve had to put up with in cinemas, Cutthroat Island is worthy of your time.

Chain Reaction

(d. Andrew Davis, 1996)

Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz and Morgan Freeman head up this action spectacular about a scientist who accidentally invents clean energy, and the US government’s attempt to stop this discovery from becoming public knowledge. The plot is needlessly complex, the science completely baffling, and Keanu Reeves once again fails to convince in a role outside his particular wheelhouse, but for all that Chain Reaction is never not entertaining. I first saw it as a 12 year old and the action sequences are still clear as day in my mind. So obviously it was doing something right.

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Blade

(d. Stephen Norrington, 1998)

No Blade, no Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Bryan Singer’s X-Men is often heralded as the film which showcased superheroes as a viable genre for mega-franchises, it’s Blade which did the heavy lifting. Not only did it make David S. Goyer a superhero movie mainstay (for better or worse), it’s serious yet knowing take on the source material made film fans sit up and take note. Comic book movies didn’t have to be terrible! Lesser known characters could be just as appealing as the Batmans and Supermans! After Blade, a light seemed to switch on at many studios. A multi-billion dollar genre was born. Plus, Blade also gave us the finest quote in all of comic book movie history.

Small Soldiers

(d. Joe Dante, 1998)

Released to a blizzard of criticism that it was marketed at an audience far too young for its violent themes, Small Soldiers can now be appreciated for the subversive, dark comedy it really is, away from all its trappings of the Toy Story gone bad media coverage. As well as a young Kirsten Dunst, the film’s notable acting talent is in the voice roles of the toys. Tommy Lee Jones is Chip Hazard, leader of the gung-ho and ultimately villainous Commando Elite, while Frank Langella plays Archer, leader of the peaceful and noble Gorgonites. With stunning special effects, mini-mayhem, and exciting set-pieces, Small Soldiers is a treat.

Deep Impact

(d. Mimi Leder, 1998)

Considered the ‘cerebral’ killer asteroid movie of 1998 (what a sentence to write), Deep Impact had neither Ben Affleck in a vest, Aerosmith wailing, or Bruce Willis manfully dying to laughs/weeping (delete as appropriate depending on how dead inside you are). But it’s by far and away the better movie. Case in point, the astronauts sacrifice to save the world. It’s not a Bruce Willis ego trip, but instead a genuinely noble action from a group of people who realise they are Earth’s only hope. The film builds to it throughout, with their mission going horribly wrong, and showing this is truly the only way. It’s an inevitable decision, and one made all the more powerful for it. Deep Impact is a film which genuinely makes you care about the fate of the planet, rather than the fun of pretending a nuclear weapon is a horse.

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The Flintstones

(d. Brian Levant, 1994)

It’s fair to say that the live-action version of the classic cartoon received mixed reviews upon release. But with the current craze of adapting every cartoon into a live action version (Disney certainly know how to wring every last penny from their properties), it’s high time to revisit one of the earlier efforts. With John Goodman and Elizabeth Perkins as Fred and Wilma Flintstone, and Rick Moranis and Rosie O’Donnell as Barney and Betty Rubble, the casting couldn’t be bettered (not even in the prequel, Viva Rock Vegas). It’s also superbly faithful to the cartoon, especially in their brilliant version of the opening credits.

Waterworld

(d. Kevin Reynolds, 1995)

Massively hyped as the most expensive film ever made at the time, Waterworld was nearly bullied into failure before anyone even gave it a chance. Far more than just a vanity project, though, this labor of love saw Kevin Costner on set for 157 days, and almost dying on his Trimaran. Almost the last hurrah for massively budgeted, practical effects epics, Waterworld should be celebrated for its ambition, its scale, and its refusal to play by the rules. Case in point, the biggest practical set of them all was the atoll, a custom built 1000 ton floating island in the Pacific Ocean that measured a quarter of a mile in circumference and required not only all the available steel in Hawaii, but specially shipped batches from California too. That’s filmmaking on the biggest scale, so far removed from green-screen as to be almost a different medium. But it means that Waterworld holds up, looking far superior to later blockbusters.

Batman & Robin

(d. Joel Schumacher, 1997)

Batman may now be synonymous with crushing grim dark angst, and questions about if you bleed, but this wasn’t always the case. Once it was a dayglo pop inspired 90s fever dream. Almost 20 years on, Batman & Robin is still vehemently hated by many (as I’m sure the comments will show) but this is pure comic-book on-screen. From the inspired production design of Barbara Ling, to the sense of Batman realising how ridiculous he is, to the sheer epic camp of it all, Batman & Robin showcases just how broad a character Batman can be. There’s no right version of him, and no wrong one. But for those who will never forgive this film, just remember that without it we would never have got Nolan’s masterful take on the caped crusader.

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Demolition Man

(d. Marco Brambilla, 1993)

One of the best things about Stallone is that he’s never afraid to take a risk, and veer into bizarre territory. Sometimes that leads to steaming piles of crap no-one wants to even acknowledge the existence of (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot being the prime example) but more often that not it produces gold. Demolition Man is 24 carat. In 1996 a risk-taking cop and a crime lord are cryogenically frozen. Woken up in 2032, they find their world changed beyond recognition. A gleeful Wesley Snipes takes on villain duties, while Sandra Bullock is the future cop assigned to help Stallone integrate, leading to one of the more unusual sex scenes in cinema. The whole film is a blast from start to finish, and great original sci-fi.

Tomorrow Never Dies

(d. Roger Spottiswoode, 1997)

Bond was certainly back with a bang after Goldeneye, and while the Brosnan years ended on a a downer with Die Another Day, his second entry is every bit as solid as his debut. Just with a less memorable theme tune and villain, which are pretty key for Bond films. From a great opening sequence involving Bond breaking up an arms deal and averting nuclear disaster, to introducing to us not one, but two Bond girls who can match the main man (step forward Michelle Yeoh and Teri Hatcher), not even Rupert Murdoch as the villain can derail one of the most consistently enjoyable Bond films ever.

Hook

(d. Steven Spielberg, 1991)

Often derided as misstep for Spielberg, Hook certainly lacks the emotional power of his great 90s work, but by no means is this a bad film. As several recent efforts have proven, Peter Pan is almost an impossible property to get right. But Hook captures the same magic of the original story and the Disney animation. If this were anyone but Spielberg, we’d be applauding this as one of the best live-action fairy-tales ever made. But then again, perhaps anyone but Spielberg would have made a film like Pan.

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The Lost World: Jurassic Park

(d. Steven Spielberg, 1997)

Ok, so it wasn’t Jurassic Park revisited. But Spielberg had explored the park, and now wanted to make a monster movie love letter to the classic films of his youth. Jurassic World included, it’s the only sequel that even comes close to the original, with two sequences the match of anything Spielberg has ever put on film – one involving glass, the other grass. The slowly cracking windscreen of the jeep dangling vertically above a huge drop is nailbiting, while the raptors moving through the long grass as they hunt their prey is something worthy of a horror movie. Then to cap it all off we have at-rex rampaging around San Diego. Dino dream worthy.

Outbreak

(d. Wolfgang Petersen, 1995)

Wolfgang Petersen’s virus blockbuster has one of the most ridiculous casts ever, putting together Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Patrick Dempsey. Oh, and a monkey. Loosely based on The Hot Zone, the non-fiction book by Richard Preston on a US ebola outbreak (which is a must read by the way), Outbreak never quite lives up to its terrifying beginning, but is so relentless that it’s weirdly also one of the best horror movies of the 90s.

Clear And Present Danger

(d. Philip Noyce, 1994)

When you think of Jack Ryan you think of Harrison Ford, This is the film that cemented that for audiences. It’s also a smart, well put together spy-thriller which takes action set pieces of the 90s and puts them in a film which wouldn’t be out of place in 70s New Hollywood. Appointed the new deputy director of the CIA, Jack Ryan discovers some of his organisation are doing secret deals with the Colombian narcos, with potential Presidential approval. Determined to root out the truth, Ryan heads to the jungles of Colombia. The SUV ambush scene remains one of my all time favourite action set-pieces, while James Horner delivers a score worthy of his legacy. There’s a reason Jack Ryan has never really worked in a film again, and that’s because none could live up to Clear And Present Danger.

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Cliffhanger

(d. Renny Harlin, 1993)

More underrated Sly greatness from the early 90s, Cliffhanger is a high-concept, high-stakes action flick with a pun for its title. What’s not to like? Director Renny Harlin is a master at this sort of thing, and Cliffhanger doesn’t disappoint. Stallone and Michael Rooker are two former friends and mountain rescue guides caught up in a failed heist of a U.S. Treasury plane. Forced by John Lithgow to help locate suitcases of money in the Rockys, they must attempt to thwart the plan and rescue Stallone’s kidnapped girlfriend. It’s an absolutely absurd film from start to finish, essentially a fantasy rock climbing film. But this isn’t even the most out there cut. Stallone commented on the original cut and why it was dropped by revealing just how over the top it was: “the director’s cut was met with a lot of disapproval at the screening and received some alarmingly low scores. Mainly because the stunts were absurdly overblown. For example, the average man can jump maybe twelve feet across a gorge, and the stunts had me leaping maybe three hundred feet or more, so situations like that had to be pared down and still then were fairly extreme…”

Star Trek: Generations

(d. David Carson, 1994)

Basically the Star Trek: The Next Generation film that wasn’t First Contact. But damn it, it’s good! Far superior to Insurrection and Nemesis, it was the best odd numbered Star Trek movie until the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot. Think of all it has – klingon baddies, the destruction of the Enterprise D, Kirk and Picard hanging out, the Enterprise B! It might kill off Kirk in a really rubbish way, but Generations is a genuinely Star Trek experience amped up just right for the big screen. For all the love First Contact gets, it takes a lot of liberties with Picard’s character, while Insurrection is a boring long episode. The less said about Nemesis the better.

The Three Musketeers

(d. Stephen Herek, 1993)

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A clear attempt to repeat the success of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, this Disney retelling of the classic tale came complete with an all-star American cast (Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Oliver Platt, and Chris O’Donnell) as the French heroes Aramis, Athos, Porthos, and D’Artagnan, and an acclaimed British thespian on villain duties, with Tim Curry as Cardinal Richelieu. Oh, and it has a Bryan Adams song too, but this time with added Sting and Rod Stewart (an amazing music video for it has Sting asking after Rod Stewart, ‘Where is that old tart?’ at the beginning). It may not be the carefree classic it wants to ben coming across as a bit too much like a packaged product, but The Three Musketeers is almost the perfect Sunday afternoon film to sit down with and introduce your kids to blockbusters.

Volcano

(d. Mick Jackson, 1997)

Audiences and perspective regard the smaller, more serious and ‘realistic’ Dante’s Peak as the winner of 1997’s volcano disaster movies, in the reverse of the great asteroid battle of Armageddon and Deep Impact. But while I maintain there will be room for as many volcano movies as possible (actually scratch that, I watched Pompeii), any film which has a premise as ridiculous as a volcano magically forming out of the La Brea tar pits in LA after an earthquake has my vote. Weirdly it becomes fairly scientifically rigorous after the initial crazy set-up, with the use of cars and buildings to block the path of the lava exactly what you’d do in a real life urban volcano disaster.

Young Guns II

(d. Geoff Murphy, 1990)

Made on a $10 million budget, it seems odd to actually class this as a blockbuster, but it’s star-packed cast and summer release date suggest otherwise. While the first Young Guns told the story of Billy the Kid and his gangs quest for revenge for the murder of their mentor, Young Guns II is the tale of Pat Garret, a former friend, and his hunting and eventual killing of Billy the Kid. Emilio Estevez is once again a compelling Billy, along with support from Kiether Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips. Charlie Sheen, who’s character died in the first film, is now replaced with Christian Slater, a definite step up, and one which results in some intriguing performances, even if there’s nothing quite like the sequence where Billy bursts out from a box, all guns blazing.

The Shadow

(d. Russell Mulcahy, 1994)

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The superhero franchise that never was. One of the most popular of all American comic heroes, The Shadow starred in several successful films in the 30s and 40s, and even had a long running TV serial. So it seemed the obvious choice to bring to the big screen in the 90s when the superhero genre was just starting to gain traction after the success of Tim Burton’s Batman. Alec Baldwin is Lamont Cranston, a rich American who sets himself up as a warlord in Tibet after WWI. Shown the error of his ways by a holy man known as The Tulka, Cranston is trained to use martial arts and hypnotism to appear to his enemies as a shadow. Returning to the USA, he becomes a playboy by day, vigilante by night. It’s a visual delight, and full of great moments. It just sadly came out at the wrong time, as the comic book film which succeeded instead that year was The Mask. People didn’t want brooding back in the 90s.