The Most Underrated Action Movies of the 1990s

This was the decade where the popularity of VHS and then DVD helped usher in a glorious era of great action movies, big and small.

Most underrated action movies of the 1990s including Daylight Ricochet and Backdraft
Photo: Getty Images: Universal / WB / Pool BENAINOUS / REGLAIN / Gamma-Rapho

The 1990s represented a golden epoch for action cinema. This was the time which saw VHS and its digitized successor DVD introduce a whole new generation of fans to the magic of stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. And those titans from the ‘80s still claimed big wins, too, at the box office and home media via the likes of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Demolition Man, and Cliffhanger.

It was also the decade that saw audiences turn out in droves to theaters and rental stores to catch a glimpse of Steven Seagal’s flying fists in movies like Under Siege or Jean-Claude Van Damme and his trademark splits in Timecop; Jackie Chan finally got the larger American fanbase he so richly deserved thanks to the Rush Hour movies while Bruce Willis gave us Die Hard With A Vengeance, the best of all the Die Hard sequels, before pivoting to more dramatic fare as the decade wore on. 

The 1990s ended on a high too with The Matrix; a movie that would influence much of action cinema for the next 25 years, and one that opened the eyes of many to the genre’s unbridled  potential. To quote British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan: “You never had it so good.” Proof of that can be found in the sheer number of action movies that ended up being sleeper hits; adored by fans of a certain age who were lucky enough to catch them on late night TV; or at a local rental video store. Here are just a few favorites from that bygone era that deserve more appreciation.

Blue Steel (1990)

Three years after breathing new life into vampire movies with Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow turned her attention to action with Blue Steel, a stylish cop thriller that pits Jamie Lee Curtis’ rookie Megan Turner against Ron Silver’s slickly demented day trader turned psychopath, Eugene Hunt.

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The late Silver delivers a memorable turn as Hunt, who becomes obsessed with Turner after witnessing her gun down an armed robber in a supermarket shootout on her first day in the job. He’s smitten and an unpredictable game of cat and mouse ensues. But while Silver steals scenes, Curtis holds Bigelow’s movie together as a likable and grittily grounded heroine. A box office flop upon release, Blue Steel remains ahead of its time as a female-led police actioner, serving as a prime example of Curtis’ versatility and Bigelow’s sizable talents as a director.

I Come In Peace [or Dark Angel] (1990)

Dolph Lundgren impressed as Ivan Drago in Rocky IV but a starring role as He-Man in Masters of the Universe had some asking serious questions of his acting credentials. Yet he’s perfect alongside Brian Benben in this highly enjoyable blend of buddy cop action movie and sci-fi horror. Lundgren plays Det. Jack Caine, a renegade cop forced to team up with an uptight FBI agent (Benben) to apprehend a mysterious alien drug dealer called Talec. Played by martial arts mountain man Matthias Hues, Talec’s scheme involves injecting victims with synthetic heroin and extracting the resulting endorphins from their brains to sell on his home planet. 

It’s bonkers but in a good way, with a fun script co-written by future Jurassic Park scribe David Koepp. Director Craig R. Baxley, meanwhile, fresh from helming the similarly nutty Carl Weathers action vehicle Action Jackson, puts his background as a stunt coordinator to good use, delivering an explosive and inventive movie packed full of eye-catching set pieces and plenty of firepower.

Narrow Margin (1990)

Gene Hackman will be remembered for any number of brilliant movies from across his storied career, yet few if any fans are ever likely to pick out Narrow Margin among his many highlights. This underseen neo-noir action thriller is nonetheless worthy of celebration, if not for Hackman’s involvement then for the efforts of the movie’s writer and director, Peter Hyams. Perennially underrated, Hyams’ output in the 1980s included gems like Outland and Running Scared while the 1990s would see him draw out Jean Claude Van Damme’s arguably most complete performance with Timecop before going on to helm the terrific Tom Sizemore creature feature, The Relic.

The decade began with Narrow Margin though, a remake of a 1952 RKO classic which sees Hackman take on the role of an LA deputy district attorney tasked with protecting a murder witness (Anne Archer) who ended up trapped traveling by train to the trial with several hitmen onboard for company. Despite derailing at the box office, Narrow Margin is a well-paced thriller full of great twists, impressive pyrotechnics, and winning performances from the movie’s two main leads. 

Backdraft (1991)

The best movie about firemen bar none, Backdraft might have been a sizable hit upon release, but it’s not had the same kind of lasting legacy of other similar action-led efforts like Top Gun. Yet it’s an infinitely superior movie, bolstered by a superb cast that includes Robert De Niro as a grisled arson detective and a cameo from Donald Sutherland in full Hannibal Lecter mode.

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The main plot centers on brothers Brian and Stephen McCaffrey (William Baldwin and Kurt Russell, respectively) who after witnessing their firefighter father die on the job as kids, take decidedly different routes into the family business. Baldwin ostensibly serves as the film’s lead with Brian going from rookie firefighter to arson detective. Alongside De Niro’s Donald Rimgale, he is tasked with working out who is behind a series of “backdraft” arson attacks.

However the heart and soul of the movie is Russell as the compellingly complex Stephen, a man who struggles as a father, brother, and husband yet excels when the heat is on. Bolstered by a winning Hans Zimmer score with director Ron Howard balancing the action and emotion of proceedings to predictably crowdpleasing effect, Backdraft is ‘90s action cinema at its very best.

The Hard Way (1991)

Michael J. Fox had only just called time on playing Marty McFly in Back to the Future Part III when he decided to team up with peak era James Woods for this fresh twist on the buddy cop movie format. Fox plays Nick Lang, a jumped-up action movie star known for appearing in a series of Indiana Jones-esque films as “Smoking” Joe Gunn. Desperate to reinvent himself by landing the lead in gritty cop drama Blood on the Asphalt, Lang seeks out real-world experience, pulling a few strings so that he can serve as temporary partner to renegade NYPD Lieutenant John Moss (Woods). 

Moss wants nothing to do with Lang’s antics of course, especially as he’s on the trail of “the Party Crasher,” a serial killer played by a fresh Stephen Lang, who has been gunning down people in night clubs across the city and taunting police in the process. Once pitched as a star vehicle for Kevin Kline and Gene Hackman, in a case of life imitating art, Woods actually spent time shadowing an NYPD lieutenant to prepare for the role. Directed by John Badham, who had prior experience with buddy cop fare in 1987’s Stakeout, The Hard Way drew a mixed response from audiences, which some put down the lukewarm response to the Gulf War. However, it remains an entertaining affair buoyed by a witty script and the undeniable on-screen chemistry of the two leads, who play off each other perfectly. 

Ricochet (1991)

When Australian director Russell Mulcahy first heard the pitch for Highlander, a movie about an immortal Scotsman locked in an endless struggle that involves traveling around the world beheading his rivals, he must have thought it would be the most outlandish film he would ever make. But then Ricochet came along and changed everything.

The simplest way to describe Ricochet without getting too bogged down in the specifics would be to describe it as Cape Fear on cocaine. That might also explain why it was overlooked by audiences—Scorsese’s version of the same story came out just a few weeks earlier. Ricochet is a different kind of beast though. Penned by Die Hard’s Steven E. de Souza, it centers on Denzel Washington’s Nick Styles, a former cop turned Assistant district attorney. Styles finds himself a target for Earl Talbot Blake, a sadistic career criminal played by John Lithgow to gloriously scenery-chewing effect. Styles was the cop who busted Blake back in the day and, after an audacious prison breakout during a ludicrously gory parole hearing, he’s out for revenge.

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To explain how that revenge is exacted would be to spoil one of the most absurd elements of the film but, rest assured, if you can get onboard with its wild and occasionally inappropriate tone, Ricochet is a blast.

Stone Cold (1991)

Stone Cold is the kind of brainless action movie that, were it released today with a Vin Diesel or Jason Statham in the lead role, would storm the box office. Unfortunately, the average cinemagoer’s palate was a little more refined back in 1991. The decision to cast relatively unknown NFL flavor-of-the-month Brian “The Boz” Bosworth in his leading man debut didn’t help matters either with the movie going on to make less than half its budget back.

Yet Stone Cold is an undeniable guilty pleasure. It’s big, dumb and lots of fun with the aforementioned Craig R. Baxley back in the director’s chair and bringing his usual array of pyrotechnics to the proceedings. The plot couldn’t be more like Point Break if it tried with Bosworth’s tough Alabama cop Joe Huff recruited to go undercover in a violent Mississippi biker gang led by the genius bad guy double act of Lance Henriksen and William Forsythe, who both appear to be having a hell of a time. The truth is you will be too by the time the film reaches its absurd climax: a shootout in the halls of the Supreme Court featuring any number of helicopters and Harley Davidsons.

Showdown In Little Tokyo (1991)

Brandon Lee is remembered by most for The Crow and the tragic on-set accident involving a loaded prop gun that led to his death, but that final performance, released posthumously, only tells a small part of Lee’s story. A bonafide star in the making who was so much more than a pretty face and a notable name, Lee starred in a handful of impressive star vehicles prior to his untimely demise, starting with this fun martial arts buddy cop comedy alongside the ever-reliable Dolph Lundgren

Lundgren plays Chris Kenner, an LA cop raised in Japan who together with new partner Johnny Murata (Lee) sets his sights on bringing down the ruthless Yakuza crime boss, played by go-to ‘90s bad guy actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, responsible for his parents’ deaths. Dismissed by many as B-movie fare, Showdown in Little Tokyo is notable for being Lee’s first American film role and a prime example of the kind of onscreen charisma that suggested bigger things were to come. Clocking in at just under 80 minutes following a studio-sanctioned recut, the film remains a breezy, fast paced martial arts action flick buoyed by Lee and Lundgren’s surprising chemistry.

Toy Soldiers (1991)

Sean Astin graduated from The Goonies with this enjoyable mash-up of Die Hard and Dead Poets Society. Astin plays Billy Tepper, the resident prankster at an elite all-boys private boarding school where he regularly butts heads with the late Louis Gossett Jr.’s Dean Edward Parker. But Tepper’s inventively mischievous ways end up coming in pretty handy when the school gets taken over by Colombian terrorists intent on forcing the U.S. government to release a notorious drug kingpin from prison.

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Matters are further complicated by the presence of Wil Wheaton’s Joey Trotta, who is himself the son of a mafia crime boss. Like I Come In Peace before it, Toy Soldiers is the work of Jurassic Park scribe David Koepp and while it may follow a familiar formula, the winning central performances and steady pace of the movie make it an easy watch and one that holds up to repeat viewings. A modest box office success, Toy Soldiers ended up largely lost in the sands of time. But it’s worth digging up. 

Rapid Fire (1992)

A year on from Showdown in Little Tokyo, Brandon Lee took center stage for another underappreciated action effort. Lee plays Jake Lo, an art student who ends up in the crossfire of an ongoing street war between two rival drug lords. Witness to a recent killing, Lo finds himself on the run after the federal agents assigned to protect him turn out to be corrupt. 

He eventually finds a valuable ally in Chicago cop Mace Ryan, played by Powers Boothe, who lends a little gravitas to proceedings as the bullets fly and the bodies pile up. Though Lee had previously established himself as a martial artist in the mold of his late father, Rapid Fire saw the young star play things a little more straight as an everyman protagonist caught in the middle of a seemingly impossible situation.

The movie still boasts plenty in the way of high kicking action with director Dwight H. Little bringing much of the experience gained on his previous movie, Steven Seagal’s Marked for Death, to the table. Though the film drew criticism for exploiting the death of Bruce Lee by having Lee’s character also lose his dad, the frenetic, video game-esque action makes it an entirely watchable affair, as well as yet another reminder of the star that was lost with Lee’s death.

Trespass (1992)

Walter Hill delivered any number of down-and-dirty action movies throughout his storied career with efforts like The Warriors and 48 Hours among his most famous. Trespass was an excellent addition to his already notable filmography and is worth seeking out not least for the fact it was written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale back in the 1970s, long before they made their names with the Back to the Future trilogy.

Playing like a boy’s own adventure story from hell, the plot centers on Bill Paxton and William Sadler’s Arkansas firefighter best friends Vince and Don, who during an encounter with an elderly man caught in a blaze at his home, are given an envelope. The paper includes details that are supposed to lead to a hidden stash from a church robbery years earlier. Sensing an opportunity to better themselves, they head to the location on the map but things take an unexpected turn when they wind up witnesses to a gangland shooting involving gangster boss King James (Ice T) and his crew, including Ice Cube’s Savon. Both musicians had input on the script during filming while, in a clever nod to the times, Hill shot much of the movie through video tape. Despite faring poorly at the box office, Trespass finds Hill at his very best with a mean and lean thriller that’s also great for putting Paxton and Sadler front and center.

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Judgment Night (1993)

A yuppie nightmare come to life, Judgment Night might not have found an audience upon initial release but its stature has grown in the decades since with the film emerging as something approaching a cult favorite among ‘90s movies aficionados. It’s not difficult to see why. A quartet of friends, played by Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr. Jeremy Piven, and Stephen Dorff try to take a shortcut to a boxing match. However, they end up witnessing a brutal murder, which kicks off a good old fashioned chase movie as the four friends are pursued by a network of criminals led by Dennis Leary’s charismatic drug lord Fallon.

Though Estevez was the main draw at the time, each of the quartet holds their own with Lewis Colick’s script and the able direction of Stephen Hopkins ensuring viewers care about the kids’ fates as the tension rises. An inner-city nightmare of the highest order, this taut thriller was also notable for featuring an impressive soundtrack that boasted a heady mix of hip-hop and modern rock that was considered an early forerunner for the nu-metal sound that would emerge in the years following.

Drop Zone (1994)

Passenger 57 might be Wesley Snipes’ ‘90s  action movie calling card, but Drop Zone is arguably the more enjoyable movie, even if it is a shameless attempt to cash-in on the sky diving success of Point Break. Directed by John Badham, who also helmed The Hard Way, Drop Zone sees Snipes play Pete Nessip, a U.S. Marshal out for revenge against the computer hacking terrorists responsible for his brother’s death.

The terrorists, led by Gary Busey’s ex-DEA agent and renegade skydiver Ty Moncrief are planning to skydive their way into the DEA mainframe computer in Washington D.C. where they will steal the names of undercover agents to sell to the highest bidder. Nessip has no intentions of letting that happen and with the help of Yancy Butler’s Jessie Crossman and a misfit team of daredevil skydivers, he sets about immersing himself in the world of skydiving ahead of an Independence Day exhibition that is expected to serve as the cover for Moncrief’s scheme. Hindered by the release of Charlie Sheen’s Terminal Velocity at around the same time, Drop Zone’s impressive aerial stunts and satisfying story beats make it an enjoyable if slightly illogical addition to this once-popular action subgenre. 

The Chase (1994)

Though it was derided upon initial release by many critics, The Chase’s reputation has grown in stature over the years. On the surface, it’s a simple road movie with Charlie Sheen playing the part of Jack Hammond, a wrongfully convicted felon who winds up kidnapping wealthy heiress Natalie Voss (Kristy Swanson), sparking a lengthy car chase in the process. Assembling an eclectic cast that included Henry Rollins and Ray Wise, as well as Anthony Kiedis and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, writer/director Adam Rifkin does a fine job of keeping proceedings going at breakneck speed.

It’s a fun and often witty movie but what separates The Chase from other films of its ilk is the prescient manner in which it attempts to offer commentary on the state of tabloid journalism and the penchant at the time for TV news coverage of any and all random freeway pursuits. What’s even more notable is that The Chase arrived just prior to arguably the most famous freeway chase of them all, which involved O.J. Simpson and a certain White Bronco. Helped by the fact both Sheen and Swanson are undeniably watchable throughout, there’s a lot more going on in The Chase than first meets the eye, making it one worthy of repeat viewings.

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Surviving the Game (1994)

A year after John Woo made his U.S. debut with the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target, another movie about the homeless being hunted for sport by wealthy businessmen arrived at multiplexes. Both films were loosely inspired by Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” but while JCVD’s effort, mullet and all, might be better remembered by most, Surviving the Game is arguably the slightly more thoughtful of the two, with director Ernest Dickerson, best known for his work as a cinematographer alongside Spike Lee, able to explore themes of race and class in a way that Hard Target previously failed to.

Ice T is the man in the firing line this time as Jack Mason, a vagrant suffering with PTSD and who ends up being recruited by Charles S. Dutton’s soup kitchen volunteer for paid work as a hunting guide to Rutger Hauer. Once out in the wilderness, however, Mason quickly discovers that the only thing Hauer’s Thomas Burns and his friends are keen on hunting is him. What they didn’t count on, however, is Mason displaying some pretty impressive survival instincts. A well shot and solidly paced actioner, Surviving the Game is elevated further by a great supporting cast of would-be hunters that includes John C. McGinley, F. Murray Abraham, and, most notably, Gary Busey, whose main contribution is to deliver an astonishing monologue he reportedly came up with himself one memorable chat around the fireplace. That scene alone makes it worth seeking out.

Sudden Death (1995)

Peter Hyams had already proven himself a director capable of getting a good performance out of Jean-Claude Van Damme in their previous movie together Timecop. But while that effort is often held up as an example of JCVD at the peak of his powers, this sports-themed Die Hard clone is just as watchable. Van Damme plays Darren McCord, a former fireman attending the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals with his young son and daughter.

McCord’s enjoyment of the game, unfortunately, is cut short when he discovers the vice president, who is also in attendance, is being held hostage by a group of terrorists led by Powers Boothe’s disgruntled Secret Service agent Joshua Foss. Foss and his cronies have wired the entire arena with explosives which will detonate at the end of the game unless they receive millions of dollars in ransom money. A moderate success in theaters, Sudden Death nevertheless failed to make the kind of coin Timecop did, with critics slamming the contrived nature of the movie’s plot. Yet, under the watchful eye of Hyams, Van Damme delivers another solid performance, boosted by thrilling action set pieces and impressive stunts. Definitely one of the better of the Die Hard clones to come out over the years.

Daylight (1996)

Despite a great start to the decade with movies like Cliffhanger and Demolition Man, the 1990s was a largely fallow period for Sylvester Stallone, with his big screen adaptation of Judge Dredd failing to impress before Assassins endured a similarly lukewarm response. The latter was not helped either by the decision to jettison the movie’s brilliant original script, written by the Wachowskis.

Daylight should have brought an end to that rotten streak for Stallone but despite more than making back its production budget thanks, in part, to overseas sales, it lacked staying power. Still, Daylight remains a solid disaster action flick that finds Stallone displaying a glimpse of the vulnerability that earned him praise a year later for his performance in James Mangold’s Cop Land. Here he plays Chief Kit Latura, a disgraced former New York City EMT who is tasked with leading a group of survivors out of an underground Manhattan tunnel that is very quickly collapsing around them. Had director Rob Cohen got the green light for his original choice to play Latura, Nicolas Cage, then things might well have turned out different for Daylight, with Cage an up-and-coming star at the time.

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But Stallone still puts in a good shift here with similarly solid supporting turns from the likes of Amy Brenneman, Danielle Harris, and Viggo Mortensen who all help give proceedings the feel of a modern day reimagining of The Poseidon Adventure.

Broken Arrow (1996)

Pulp Fiction is largely credited as the movie that helped breathe new life into John Travolta’s flagging career, but it’s films like Get Shorty and Broken Arrow that ensured his renaissance was no flash in the pan. It could also be argued that, were it not for Broken Arrow, then we might never have gotten the more lauded of Travolta’s collaborations with John Woo, Face/Off.

Based on a script from Graham Yost, best known for Speed and the TV series Justified, Broken Arrow saw Travolta once again playing against type as Maj. Vic Deaking, a rogue U.S. Air Force officer attempting to steal two nuclear weapons. In his way stands Christian Slater’s Capt. Riley Hale, who is ably supported by Samanta Mathis’ park ranger Terry Carmichel. It may not be as big or inventive as Face/Off, but Travolta’s first foray into bad guy territory is a joy to behold while credit should also go to former NFL defensive end Howie Long, who puts in a charismatic turn as one of Deakin’s henchmen. Though Broken Arrow was a solid hit, critics were less convinced. Yet the combination of Woo’s eye for action coupled with Yost’s own ability to punch up a few memorable lines during the film’s many punch-outs make this a great companion piece to Face/Off.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Shane Black’s penchant for setting his movies in and around Christmas continued with The Long Kiss Goodnight, a first-rate actioner and vehicle for the considerable talents of Geena Davis. Davis plays Samantha Caine, a small town school teacher who, after a car accident, begins to remember snippets of her previous life as an assassin called Charly Baltimore. She soon enlists the help of Samuel L. Jackson’s Mitch Henessey in trying to work out who she used to be. But as they begin to peel back the layers, both quickly hit upon a dark conspiracy. Meanwhile the shadowy figures that once dominated Baltimore’s life also return to the fore, baying for blood. 

Though The Long Kiss Goodnight turned a profit, it wasn’t enough for plans for a sequel to get the green light. Many theories were floated as to why the film failed to find an audience with Black putting it down to the fact the movie had a female lead. Conversely, Davis and director Renny Harlin, who were married at the time, wondered if some had been put off by their previous movie together, the notorious box office bomb Cutthroat Island. Whatever the truth, The Long Kiss Goodnight has found a faithful following in the years since due to Black’s razor sharp script, a dynamic performance from Davis, and Harlin’s eye for action offering audiences a whip-smart action-thriller.

Drive (1997)

Something of a precursor to The Matrix, Drive bypassed cinemas with the movie debuting on HBO before then going direct-to-video. Nonetheless, word of mouth quickly saw it garner a cult following. Starring one of the great unsung heroes of the martial arts movie world, Mark Dacascos, the film sees the aforementioned action star playing Toby, a special agent who has been fitted with an advanced bio-device that gives him superhuman speed and agility.

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He soon finds himself being pursued by Chinese government forces eager to steal the tech while under strict instructions not to apply lethal force, as Toby has the device built into his chest. A fast and frenetic actioner, many claim Steven Wang’s original director’s cut should have been released in theaters. Though these plans were ultimately vetoed in favor of a trimmed down, toned down affair, Wang’s cut lived on in the DVD release and is a key part of the film’s cult following in the years that followed. A high point in Dacascos’ lengthy career and a movie that remains essential viewing for martial arts fans and action aficionados alike. 

Firestorm (1998)

Having impressed as John Travolta’s right-hand man in Broken Arrow, Howie Long got his first and so far only shot at leading man stardom with this enjoyable action thriller which feels like a fun mix of Backdraft and Con Air. Long is Jesse Graves, a smokejumper battling fires in northern Wyoming. But Graves gets more than he bargained for when dealing with his latest blaze, which turns out to be the work of a deranged convict and his gang, who’ve escaped from prison in search of hidden loot.

That the leader of said-gang happens to be William Forsythe adds to the fun of proceedings. There’s also equally impressive support from Scott Glenn as Graves’ former boss who took early retirement and Suzy Amis as a nature photographer caught in the crossfire. Firestorm failed to ignite at the box office with many critics dismissing it as an all-too-predictable thriller, but audiences discovering the movie on platforms like Disney+ have been pleasantly surprised at the film’s tight pacing, memorable villains, and impressive action sequences. Clocking in at just under an hour and a half, it’s a very easy watch.

Ronin (1998)

Despite featuring the greatest movie car chase to hit the big screen since The French Connection, Ronin underperformed at the box office. That in itself was a shame given that the movie represented the last film made by legendary director John Frankenheimer and was based on a script by David Mamet writing under the pseudonym of Richard Weisz. Thankfully DVD and countless lists of the best movie car chases have given Ronin something of a second life, but it’s worth stressing that the film is so much more than those two exhilarating four-wheel dashes through Nice and Paris.

Robert De Niro plays Sam, a former U.S. intelligence agent who, along with a group of ex-spy freelancers, is tasked with tracking down a mysterious package wanted by Irish forces and Russian criminals. Sam’s ragtag crew is a who’s who of great ‘90s character actors, including Jean Reno, Sean Bean, and Stellan Skarsgard. Though clearly influenced by the spy thrillers that came before it, Ronin boasts enough unexpected twists and turns, fine performances, and superb set pieces to make it a must-watch.