Cinema flourished in the 1990s, coming hot off the back of one of Hollywood’s most commercially successful and creatively vibrant decades. As a result, the ‘90s became an era defined by giant blockbusters of vast spending, where special effects ran rampant no matter how rudimentary they still were, and filmmakers flexed their creative muscles with some of the strangest and most exciting action movies of all time.
As filmmakers began to toy with new technologies, production costs spiralled, leading to filmmakers such as James Cameron making the most expensive movie of its time, spending $200million on Titanic in 1997. Such bank-breaking studio ventures reflected the ambition of Hollywood filmmaking during the decade, which gave directors total creative freedom to create whatever movies they so desired.
Like kids to a toybox, enthused by new cinematic bells and whistles, filmmakers such as Cameron, John Woo, Paul Verhoeven, Luc Besson and Michael Mann took the opportunity to make a number of unprecedented cinematic wonders. Whilst most of these movies were incredibly eccentric in nature, with bombastic plotlines and melodramatic main characters, it is this exact zany tone that keeps fans coming back for more, even decades later.
Take a look at our list of the ten greatest action movies of the 1990s below and dive into a world of frivolous cinematic joy.
The 10 best action movies of the 1990s
10. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)
If there are two individuals who define ‘90s action cinema, it’s the eccentric Austrian/American actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven. In 1990 they created one of the finest action flicks of the entire decade with the sci-fi movie Total Recall, the story of a man who goes to Mars and is forced into a wild adventure of cosmic madness and psychological fakery.
Totally mental and fantastically enjoyable, the movie, based on the novel We Can Remember It for You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick, is a loyal adaptation with a strong drizzle of ‘90s eccentricity.
9. Léon: The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994)
The French filmmaker Luc Besson is responsible for a number of classic movies throughout the decade, including 1990s Nikita and the 1997 Bruce Willis flick The Fifth Element, but neither of these movies is as visually and creatively accomplished as Léon: The Professional. Starring Jean Reno, Gary Oldman and Natalie Portman, the movie tells the story of a young girl who is taken under the wing of a professional assassin after her family is murdered.
This setup leads to a complex tale between a young girl and a dogged elderly man that is spiked with moments of thrilling action, helped by Oldman in a joyously villainous role.
8. Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)
Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers wasn’t exactly beloved upon its release, with the satire of its questionable special effects and cheesy plot going unloved. Yet, over 20 years later, Starship Troopers is now considered a classic of the decade, perfectly embodying the vibrancy of ‘90s filmmaking with an electrifying plot that tells the story of a cosmic battle between humans and giant alien bugs.
A satire on American military propaganda, Starship Troopers is a total blast that exemplifies Verhoeven’s knack for thrilling, satirical tales that provide over ninety minutes of utter cinematic delight.
7. Face/Off (John Woo, 1997)
If you want unbridled ‘90s action movie nonsense, John Woo’s Face/Off is the movie for you. Embracing the liberating creative license of the era, the film, from the Hong Kong filmmaker, tells the story of an FBI agent who undergoes a facial transplant to take the identity of a criminal mastermind in order to stop an evil terrorist plot. Indeed as mental as it sounds, Woo’s movie is made all the better by the presence of both Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in the leading roles.
Channelling a level of exhilarating lunacy that has yet to be replicated by either Cage or Travolta, Face/Off is completely bonkers from start to finish, taking the cliche of ‘90s action filmmaking to an entirely new level.
6. Hard Boiled (John Woo, 1992)
Sticking with John Woo for just a moment, we’re going back to the film that allowed him to make Face/Off at the end of the decade, 1992’s Hard Boiled. Starring the iconic actor Chow Yun-Fat, this excellent Hong Kong action movie tells the story of a hardy cop who teams up with an undercover agent to halt the activities of a sinister gang, with the film being best-known for its wild final sequence in which Yun-Fat’s ‘Tequila’ saves a baby from a shoot-out in a hospital.
Together with the success of 1987’s A Better Tomorrow II and 1990s Bullet in the Head, Hard Boiled would allow Woo’s creative stature to grow considerably on the world stage, making him a fierce director to be reckoned with by the end of the decade.
5. Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
These days, Kathryn Bigelow is well known as being the first female filmmaker to win ‘Best Picture’ for the 2008 movie The Hurt Locker, but back in the ‘90s, her career was only just gathering steam, helming Blue Steel in 1990 and Point Break just one year later. Starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, the insane crime thriller tells the story of an FBI agent who goes undercover among a gang of bank robbers and surfing enthusiasts.
Fully embracing the era, Point Break is radical for all the right reasons, crafting two excellent lead characters who bounce off each other and lead the film with frenetic verve.
4. Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)
Speaking of Keanu Reeves, the beloved American actor became one of the most recognisable action stars of the era alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, appearing in Bigelow’s surfer-dude crime flick as well as Jan de Bont’s 1994 film Speed. Fierce and stylishly smooth, Speed stars Reeves as a determined police officer trying to stop a bomb exploding on a bus by keeping it over 50mph, as per the demands of a maniacal villain.
A collaboration between Keanu Reeves and Dennis Hopper is the team-up we never knew that we needed, with the latter channelling his insanity from 1986’s Blue Velvet to deliver a fantastic performance.
3. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)
Though it likely borders on being more of a gangster flick, we can’t put together a list of the greatest action movies of the 1990s and not mention Michael Mann’s Heat. A seminal classic of the era, the film brings together such names as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore for a tale that follows a group of criminals who begin to be trailed by the LAPD when they make a mistake during an important heist.
Suffusing both the contemporary gangster and action movie genres, Mann’s 1995 movie is a sometimes serious, sometimes unhinged Hollywood film that is an enigmatic representation of cinema at the end of the 20th century.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991)
James Cameron may have made history in the 1990s with his billion-dollar-breaking movie Titanic, but it was his 1991 action flick Terminator 2: Judgment Day that critics and audiences best remember his contributions to the decade. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie, which is a sequel to Cameron’s own 1984 original, follows the iconic title character, a killer cyborg sent from the future to kill in the past.
Except, in Cameron’s sequel, he memorably turns the character on his head, making ‘The Terminator’ the hero of the story instead of the villain, making for a gripping, subversive action flick.
1. The Matrix (Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, 1999)
Perfectly representing the creative ambition of the era, for our money Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski’s The Matrix is the greatest action movie of the 1990s, thanks to its wild sci-fi premise that is as bonkers as it is fantastically believable. Starring the man of the decade, Keanu Reeves, the film follows a computer hacker whose proficiency in his craft takes him to a shocking truth – that the life he thinks is real is nothing but a mere simulation.
Helping to shape the future of action filmmaking in the 21st century, thanks to some nifty technological advancements, 1999s The Matrix is nothing short of a masterpiece that would change cinema forever.