In the 1990s, the action movie evolved. The plots got bigger and more wacky, and science fiction became a dominant force in the genre more generally. Thanks to innovations across the genre, there was plenty of great action sprinkled across the decade, including a number of movies that would eventually launch much larger franchises.
The ’90s also marked the emergence of a number of new action auteurs, including the Wachowskis, John Woo, Kathryn Bigelow, and Michael Bay, who all had an impact on action not just in the ’90s but into the present day. The action movie was in full bloom in the 1990s, a decade largely free of the kind of Marvel spectacle that dominates the multiplex today.
With this list we take you back to the golden age of action movies, the ’90s, to give you the 10 best.
10. The Rock
Nicolas Cage was one of the definitive action stars of the ’90s, and The Rock amounts to a passing of the gauntlet. Following a chemical weapons specialist who teams up with an aging British agent to take down a team of terrorists, the movie is Michael Bay at his most controlled. That doesn’t mean that the movie is small, just that its plot is almost entirely manageable. Cage and co-star Sean Connery are excellent on screen together, and the climactic taking of Alcatraz island is an extended bit of action that deserves a spot in the hall of fame, if there is one.
Keanu Reeves will show up several times on this list, and with good reason. In Speed, he plays an FBI agent who finds himself on a bus that will explode if it goes under 55 mph. As stupid as that premise may sound, Speed knows how to execute on it expertly. Reeves has oodles of chemistry with co-star Sandra Bullock, and the movie is smart enough to push as many twists as possible out of its fairly hacky premise. Thanks to expert direction from Jan de Bont, Speed becomes basically the only Die Hard rip-off that works, and it’s much more than simply functional.
8. Mission: Impossible
The best Mission: Impossible movies were, somewhat insanely, made during the 2010s. Even so, this first installment remains pretty special, even if it doesn’t feature the same stunts as some of the later installments. The film follows Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as he loses his entire team and is forced to go on the run to figure out what happened. Cruise is remarkably good here as a man who has just lost everything, but still has plenty of training to fall back on. Mission: Impossible has evolved into something different in the years since, but the silent action sequence at Langley still stands alongside the franchise’s best scenes.
It may be utterly ridiculous, but Face/Off is also kind of beautiful. The film tells the story of an FBI agent and a criminal mastermind who swap faces, and all of the insanity that follows. Nicolas Cage and John Travolta are remarkably good in their central roles, and John Woo’s frenetic direction leaves you breathless. Cage and Travolta are two actors who are unafraid of going big, and that makes them ideal for roles like the ones they take on here. Even so, there’s a surprising amount of vulnerability hidden beneath Cage’s performance in particular as a man trying desperately to return to his family.
6. Point Break
Kathryn Bigelow’s bro-y action masterpiece has some truly stunning action setpieces, including one in which the story’s main characters jump out of a plane. Point Break is really about the relationship between Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah and Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi, and the slippery line between a cop and a criminal. The movie is not afraid of its over-inflated masculinity, and of the way that masculinity pins the movie’s central characters into lives they don’t necessarily want. Point Break ends with a giant wave, but that’s far from the only moment in the movie you’ll find thrilling.
5. Total Recall
A science fiction masterpiece, Total Recall tells the story of a regular guy who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger who discovers that he’s not actually a regular guy at all. The plot spirals from there, and even climaxes on Mars, but what makes Total Recall so fun is that all of its climactic action beats are set up in the movie’s earliest scenes. Couple that with some truly excellent production design and a heady script that keeps you guessing even after the credits start rolling, and you’ll find that there are few movies more thoroughly satisfying than Total Recall.
Action movies don’t usually get to be this high-brow, but what makes Heat so thrilling is that it’s an action movie with prestige trappings. Starring Robert De Niro as a career criminal and Al Pacino as the cop who’s on his tail, the movie is really just an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse between two men who respect each other a great deal. The film contains several of the best action sequences of the decade, but Heat is also sad in a way most of the movies on this list are not. We come to understand these men, and in doing so, we realize that no one can really win here.
3. Jurassic Park
Just months before he released Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg released a blockbuster that would redefine what those words meant. Jurassic Park was historic not just because the CGI dinosaurs still look great today, but also because Spielberg knew how to use them in the service of the story he was telling. Jurassic Park is an action adventure with elements of horror buried underneath its surface, but it remains above all else one of the most exciting movies ever made, and that’s thanks in no small part to Spielberg’s expert direction.
2. The Matrix
One of the most influential movies ever made, The Matrix combined kung-fu with some heady philosophy to create a mix that proved to be intoxicating for audiences. Keanu Reeves is the ideal vehicle for this franchise, and Carrie-Ann Moss is underrated as one of the most important action heroines of all time. What made The Matrix so successful, though, is how smart the Wachowskis were in every decision that they made. The movie has ideas, but they’re not too complicated, and it has some of the clearest action sequences ever put to film. It rules from its first minute through to the very end.
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Much like Aliens, James Cameron’s Terminator is much more of an action movie than the first installment, and that only makes the movie all the better. Terminator 2 is quite possibly the best sequel ever made, and that’s in part because it’s much more sentimental than its predecessor. Few movies today can get away with all the things that this movie achieved so effortlessly, and the pioneering CGI effects don’t hurt either. Throw in Linda Hamilton’s beefed up Sarah Connor, and this movie has everything it needs to excel. T2 is one of the most original movies ever made, which, considering the fact that it’s a sequel, is saying something.