The 12 best pure Hollywood action movies of the 1990s

There’s plenty of guns, violence and one-liners, as we count down the best 12 Hollywood action movies of the 1990s…

What is an action film? That’s been the tricky question that we’ve had to unconvincingly answer before putting this list of titles together.

Personally, I’m a massive fan of the Harrison Ford movie Clear And Present Danger, but have held off including it here because the action moments are few and far between (there’s one really good sequence, but not too much else action-wise). And to be fair, one or two of the movies that have made the cut here could have a similar argument at least wafted in their direction. It’s not been an easy list to compile.

But the 12 I’ve picked here – and I’ve kept it to Hollywood blockbuster flicks – are action movies at heart, even if the accelerator is relaxed for periods within the films chosen. And, given the availability of bullets, explosions and one-liners being spat out in this little lot, an action fan is unlikely to feel too shortchanged…

12. Executive Decision

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“I think we’re looking up the ass-end of a dead dog, but it’s worth a try.”

There were two impressive action movies about a plane hi-jack in the 90s. One of those was not Passenger 57, before anyone asks, the tepid union of Wesley Snipes and Elizabeth Hurley in a generally quite shitty action yawn-fest (although Snipes wasn’t shy of such movies at the time: Murder At 1600, anyone?).

One was Air Force One, which was the most commercially successful, yet the best was the Kurt Russell-led Executive Decision. This is the one that introduced Steven Seagal for, er, a short period of time, and then left Russell fighting David Suchet in a surprisingly exciting airborne action-thriller. The supporting cast here is strong – John Leguizamo is usually good value and proves so here – and the film trundles through a collection of sequences that punch well above their weight.

Air Force One would use the same cockpit, trivia fans, as Executive Decision, but despite the presence of Harrison Ford in a bad mood, it felt like a retread of work that had already been done surprisingly well. Plus Kurt Russell simply doesn’t get enough love for being the everyman action star. An impressive directing debut from experienced editor Stuart Baird, too, although one he’s not matched since (Star Trek: Nemesis wasn’t really anyone’s finest hour, after all)…

11. The Mask Of Zorro

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“Do you know how to use that thing?””Yes. The pointy end goes into the other man.”

A terrific old-fashioned swashbuckler that may have spawned a fairly tired sequel, but it also proved that swanky special effects, even in the 1990s, were not a pre-requisite for quality action cinema.

The story of The Mask Of Zorro sees Anthony Hopkins passing the mantle of Zorro over to Antonio Banderas, and both of them clearly have a great time in the role. Furthermore, there’s a rarely-better Catherine Zeta-Jones by his side. They then have to fight Don Rafael Montero (played by Stuart Wilson) in a bid for vengeance.

What makes The Mask Of Zorro tick, though, is a combination of factors. Banderas is excellent in the title role for starters, exerting effortless charm and plenty of wit. And humour is in abundance too. Furthermore, Martin Campbell puts together some genuinely exciting sequences, where you can see what’s going on and feel throughout that you’re invited to share in the fun. This was an era before ridiculously fast barrages of cuts came in, and I can’t help feeling it was better for it.

It stands apart in the 90s for its swashbuckling verve, and only the arrival of The Count Of Monte Cristo in 2002 would knock it off its contemporary perch.

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10. Mission: Impossible

“Everybody has pressure points, Barnes. You find something that’s personally important to him and you… squeeze.”

Brian De Palma’s last great movie? I’d certainly argue so. For up until the overblown back end, Mission: Impossible is a tight, taut action thriller, featuring some terrific set piece sequences (the kind that De Palma continually excels at).

It’s also got a terrific cast, and one that Tom Cruise is happy to sit more as an ensemble member of (unlike, say, Mission: Impossible III). For while he’s front and centre of the film for good chunks, just look at the memorable names around him. Vanessa Redgrave eats up the screen as Max, while the likes of Jean Reno, Jon Voight, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Beart and Ving Rhames are each good value, too. It’d be remiss not to mention David Schneider popping up right at the end, too.

But the thing we most take away from Mission: Impossible are wonderfully set-up action moments. De Palma knows how to wring maximum tension out of these, and it’s his discipline in putting these sequences together that was sorely missed in the overblown first sequel.

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Furthermore, Mission: Impossible also benefits from a lean running time, meaning you’re not left focussing too heavily on the occasionally over-wrought plot that the MI team are trying to uncover. Instead, you’re just left to enjoy one of the very best action thrillers of the 90s.

9. Speed

“Oh come on, thirty more years of this, you get a tiny pension and a cheap gold watch.”

The epitome of a three-act action thriller, and the first film to utterly convincingly demonstrate that Keanu Reeves could make a strong action movie lead, Speed also proved that Jan de Bont, even though he’s tried hard to convince us otherwise since, could put together a meticulously paced and exciting action movie.

The simplicity of the plot is wise here. Once we’re over the opening sequence, we head to a bus that can’t drop below 50mph else it’s going to blow up. On board the bus are Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, while pulling the shots from afar is the late Dennis Hopper (giving pretty much the same performance that he’d deliver again in Waterworld a year or two later).

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De Bont takes that framework, and manages to stage an impressive array of taut, finely directed action sequences (enhanced by the fact that most of them have a bloody big bus in the middle), only really losing it in the disappointing final act. Until that point, Speed is the kind of breathless action thriller that the sequel came nowhere near close to matching.

I’m not utterly convinced that it holds up to too many repeated viewings, but as a once-every-now-and-then treat, it’s terrific fun. Even if I do wish there was a bit more Jeff Daniels in it…

8. Goldeneye

“Standard operating procedure. Boys with toys.”

It had been six long years since Timothy Dalton attempted to take James Bond into harder-edged waters with the mildly underappreciated Licence To Kill. Caught up in a muddle of legalities and rights issues, the Bond franchise was caught in stasis, while pretenders such as True Lies seized the action spy genre for their own. Bond, they were crowing, was dead.

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But then Goldeneye happened. The first of two cracking 90s action movies to be helmed by Martin Campbell (the other was The Mask Of Zorro, and we’ve already talked about that), Goldeneye managed to completely resuscitate a franchise that some had foolishly written off as being out for the count. It had a cooler, harder edge to it that just pulled back from being nasty, and had the kind of thrilling action that you used to buy a ticket for Bond movies to see in the first place (just check out the audacious pre-credits sequence).

Finally, it had a new Bond in Pierce Brosnan, one of the few actors to emerge in the decade as a genuine action hero. Brosnan has said since that he never really fully got to grips with Bond, but in Goldeneye, his first outing, he really seemed to fit the role exceptionally well. And whilst he’d be front and centre as the next three films saw the 007 movies descend into admittedly fun silliness, Goldeneye remains a terrific, rounded action movie, and at times, a relentless one. It’s big screen action entertainment of some excellence.

7. The Rock

“Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and f**k the prom queen.”

To call Michael Bay a divisive director is akin to recognising that brown furry creatures have a tendency to make deposits in the woods. Yet, whether you warm to his style or not, there’s little doubt that there are few directors with anything like his capability to blow shit up on screen.

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Occasionally, he puts good characters at the heart of things too, gets good actors in to play them, and slows the action to a point where you really have a bloody clue what’s going on. The Rock, then (with due apologies to Bad Boys and Armageddon fans), is arguably the one where it most came together.

You have to overlook a half hour segue away from the main plot early on if you want to be particularly critical, and every one of Bay’s leering signature shots is here to be found. But heck, The Rock is a blast. It’s the casting that wins out too. Nicolas Cage is only mildly bonkers here, but Sean Connery is clearly having a whale of a time in perhaps his last terrific leading role.

The support is fleshed out well, too, with lots of Hollywood’s go-to guys for utter rock-hardness and/or looking utterly earnest when spouting out rubbish. Tony Todd, Michael Biehn, the marvellous John Spencer and David Morse are all on duty. Ed Harris, surprisingly, is the least convincing, but it’s still one heck of a cast.

The highlight, aside from the action (and Bay is clearly enjoying blowing shit up here), is basically any time Connery is allowed on screen to spew out pithy dialogue, as the one-time Alcatraz escapee who is forced to break back in to save the day.

The film is over-long, over-indulgent and has all sorts of problems. But it’s also a lumbering hoot, and proper brain-free action entertainment. Michael Bay hasn’t done better since, and arguably never will again…

6. The Last Boy Scout

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“Why did Mr Milo cross the road? I don’t know, why? Because his dick was stuck in a chicken.”

Bruce Wills did lots of action films in the 90s. There were two decent Die Hards, there was the fairly useless Striking Distance, there was the effects-fest Armageddon, pointless remake The Jackal, and several others that have generally fallen off the movie radar.

But The Last Boy Scout? It’s an absolute, hard-edged action treat. It really helps that it’s powered by a really smart and increasingly rare Shane Black script, and for once Tony Scott directing without one eye on all the fancy things he can do in the editing suite.

It’s also a film that captures Willis on top form, spitting out one-line asides in such an effortless, convincing manner that it’s as if no other action star on the planet could have taken the role. It fits him like a glove, and almost feels like the end of an era for the actor playing characters such as Joe Hallenbeck.

It might appear a little dated if you pop it in the player now, but this is still a movie of genuine quality. There’s plenty of action and no fear whatsoever of going all-out for an adult rating, Plus it’s funny, has a bit of edge to it and quite brilliant action cinema when it hits top form.

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Quite old-fashioned in its feel and structure, as it turns out, The Last Boy Scout is all the better for it. Now? We’re getting Die Hard movies with PG-13 ratings. What happened, Bruce?

5. Demolition Man

“The exchange of bodily fluids, do you know what that leads to?””Yeah, I do! Kids, smoking, a desire to raid the fridge.”

Sylvester Stallone enjoyed a career revival at the start of the 90s, after he reversed his decision to commit to unfunny comedies. Thus, he teamed up with Renny Harlin, headed up some mountains and hit the top of the box office once more with Cliffhanger (his biggest hit of the decade). He made many less successful action extravaganzas in the 90s – the disappointing Assassins, the hilariously bad The Specialist, the muddled Judge Dredd and disaster movie dullard Daylight – but he also gave the world Demolition Man.

Produced by Joel Silver, and putting him opposite Wesley Snipes, Nigel Hawthorne (who made the film to help get the funding for The Madness Of King George) and a pre-Speed Sandra Bullock (who gets to send up movie pay-off lines gloriously), Demolition Man is an absolute riot. It has a whale of a time with its script, as Stallone plays the brawny old fashioned cop failing to grasp futuristic technologies (there’s perhaps an Expendables parallel there), while Snipes gets big guns and the chance to blow stuff up.

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The dialogue here is golden, and Demolition Man isn’t just a fine action film (you’ve got to love it when Wesley Snipes gets hold of futuristic weaponry), but a cherishable comedy too. Director Marco Brambilla, who would go on to helm underwhelming Alicia Silverstone vehicle Excess Baggage, does a very good job blending the action and comedy together.

And while Nigel Hawthorne’s heart clearly isn’t in the villain role, and the moralistic subplot is hardly compelling, the end result remains really something worth rewatching on a regular basis.

Plus, it gave the world the three sea shells. Even if we’ve no idea how they’re supposed to work…

4. The Matrix

“Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.”

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I can’t claim to be the biggest fan on the planet of The Matrix, but then neither can I avoid the undoubtedly immense impact it’s had on action cinema either. That’s not necessarily a good thing, given the tired array of copycats of Matrix-style that have followed, but the action sequences in the Wachowski Brothers’ 1999 hit were very much ahead of their time, and still impress when fired up on disc. And the film sold a lot of discs.

Furthermore, even once you’ve got past the whole bullet time gimmick, there are some amazing moments to admire. The sheer energy of the film is hard to resist, and the fact that the Wachowski Brothers bother to underlay an interesting concept beneath it all (albeit one they’d piss away with the sequels) further heightens the movie.

It’s a film that’s been denigrated a lot by its sequels, but that shouldn’t dilute just what an impactful and impressive piece of cinema this is. It presented action in a style that others simply weren’t, and changed the genre to a point where Stallone’s forthcoming The Expendables already looks – deliberately – very old fashioned. As I said, I’m not a great fan of the film, but I do appreciate I’m very, very much in the minority. Because The Matrix was an absolute game-changer for action cinema.

3. Starship Troopers

A massively impressive blend of sci-fi and action from Paul Verhoeven, and one that utterly failed to find a mass audience in cinemas, Starship Troopers nonetheless is not only a film that works on more than one level, it’s also one of the very best action movies – should you choose to enjoy it that way – that the 1990s presented.

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Throughout Verhoeven’s career he’s never been shy about having characters inflict violence on one another, from the majesty of Robocop to the head-messing of Total Recall. In Starship Troopers – based on the book by Robert A Heinlein – he also indulges his passion for having people walk around with no clothes on, as he takes a young bunch of recruits into a mass alien war. It must have been one of the best movie pitch meetings ever. We hope he took in storyboards.

He chooses his cast well, none more so than the peerless Michael Ironside, and he packs an enormous amount into the film’s two hour running time. Plus, his action sequences have a raw intensity that – even accepting the CGI work isn’t always perfect – few other directors could manage in the decade.

Shame the sequels were so shoddy, really…

2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

“Of all the would-be fathers that came over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only thing that measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.”

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The 1990s was the decade when the dominance of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action genre came to an end, but not before he’d enjoyed two more massive hits for director James Cameron. Terminator 2 was the biggest, and both he and Cameron are in fine form here. No director has tailored material to Arnie better throughout his career than Cameron, and his script carefully chooses what the Austrian Oak is and isn’t allowed to say (there’s no “talk to the hand” shit here), and for much of the film, just gives him a big gun.

And heck, he needs it. In Robert Patrick’s T-1000, Cameron arguably created the most formidable foe of the action cinema decade. His relentlessness is never in doubt, and Patrick employs his sinister stare to optimum effect. While I’ve always felt the running time is a little too much, Cameron’s ambitious sequel is a massive action movie, and a mighty sight better than True Lies, which would follow a few years later.

As for Arnie himself? Eraser is a bit of a hoot, but the back end of the 1990s is an era best forgotten about, sadly. Were it not for his new career in politics, he’d be needed the upcoming The Expendables more than any other actor in it…

1. Con Air

“Why couldn’t you put the bunny back in the box?”

For pure, gleeful fun, here it is: the most downright entertaining Hollywood action movie of the 1990s. It might not be the best, but then it’s still the first disc I turn to when I need an urgent boost of action movie genius to pass before my eyes. And it never, never fails to disappoint.

Seriously, what’s not to like? The opening, as was rightly pointed out in the Empire review of the time, could have come straight out of a Zucker Brothers movie. Nicolas Cage is a hippy, hard-assed nutter as Cameron Poe, the oh-so-innocent man hitching a ride home. But it’s when you meet the supporting cast of criminals, a bunch who are being transferred via plane for no convincing reason, that you realise you’re in for a bit of a treat.

Just check out the names. There’s Ving Rhames as Nathan ‘Diamond Dog’ Jones, Danny Trejo as Johnny ‘Johnny 23′ Baca, Nick Chinlund as William ‘Billy Bedlam’ Bedford and a scene-stealing Steve Buscemi as Garland ‘The Marietta Mangler’ Greene (“he’s got the whole world in his hands”). And then there’s chief baddie, the equally bonkers Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom (as Cameroe Poe says, “it’s your barbecue Cyrus, and it tastes good”), a superb sparring partner for Cage and one of the decade’s finest villains.

Throw in too a rare blockbuster leading role for John Cusack (faring a lot better here than he did in 2012), and support from Colm Meaney, a man clearly instructed to spend the film in a gloriously bad mood, and surely the finest action movie cast of the decade is to be found right here.

Behind the camera, Director Simon West has never done better since this, his feature debut. His film is heavily schooled in the ways of the Bruckheimer, but it’s also the one where everything comes together utterly perfectly. The crash landing in Las Vegas at the end may feel like it overeggs things a little, but in retrospect, it seems a perfectly appropriate way to end an outstanding action movie whose tongue is rammed firmly into its cheek from start to finish.

Con Air it is, then. Great action, great characters, supreme daftness, and – nearly 15 years since it first appeared – damn near unbeatable.

Honourable mentions:

Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves: a film I’m a big fan of, but not really for the action. That’s not to say that Kevin Reynolds does a bad job with those sequences, but it’s the likes of Alan Rickman who lifts this higher than it otherwise would go.

The Fugitive: as I mentioned in the intro, Clear And Present Danger is my favourite Harrison Ford movie of the decade. I always liked, rather than loved, The Fugitive, but agree with Barry Norman’s criticism of the film all those years ago when he argued it’d make a far more memorable movie if the two main roles had been reversed, and Tommy Lee Jones played Richard Kimble.

Jurassic Park: Again, I love Jurassic Park, but I’m not overly convinced it’s an action movie…

Face/Off: Well, it’s a hoot. An over-indulgent, entertaining hoot, but not quite enough to make the list. Plus it’s a long, long way short of John Woo at his very best.

Cliffhanger: On rewatching Cliffhanger, I can’t help feeling that the action sequences themselves are surprisingly ordinary. It’s the setting that makes them impressive. And without the benefit of a massive screen to keep rewatching the film on, as much as I enjoy Cliffhanger, it’s far from a classic. Stallone’s biceps in it are scary, mind…

Leave your own thoughts in the comments below!