The Best of the Genre (By Decade): Top 25 90's Action Flicks

The Best of the Genre (By Decade): Top 25 90’s Action Flicks

This is to be the first of a whole new series here at Grizzly Bomb. For each feature we will examine an individual genre and the quality of its films produced within a specific decade. These lists will be compiled from a point system determined by votes from each member of the staff. It’s very scientific, we used Excel.

For this first topic I asked all 11 members of my staff to give me a list of their Top 10 Action Movies of the 1990s. These movies were to be ranked from 1-10, and the results surprised me a little. But before we get there, there was some discussion over what qualifies as an ‘Action Movie’. For the purpose of this exercise, we looked at movies that are unmistakably Action, and ignored some of those that are more broadly categorized. The 3 movies that best fit this example were Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, and Leon/ The Professional. While all 3 of these movies have action in them, it just seemed like they were too good to be crammed in as genre flicks, as they run a lot deeper than movies like, Tango and Cash or Bad Boys II, which are simply focused on blowing shit up. We were looking more for the ‘Blowing Shit Up’ stuff.

90’s action was about more than just explosions though, it also really expanded on the Sci-Fi aspects as well. As technology advanced and they found themselves able to do things previously not possible, you really saw the whole genre shift on a closer parallel with the Sci-Fi genre than ever prior. As the decade went on, and Stallone and Schwarzenegger got older, Hollywood also started to move away from the muscle-bound action stars of the 1980’s and more towards special effects driven stories.

Anyhow, as for the results: From the 12 people asked to make a Top Ten list, it resulted in 56 different movies being named. I’ve tallied up the points, and I now give you the Top 25 of them…

90's Action

Babies make the best sidekicks.

25. Universal Soldier (1992)
24. Hard Target (1993)
23. Last Man Standing (1996)
22. Hard Boiled (1992)
21. Desperado (1995)
20. GoldenEye (1995)
19. Point Break (1991)
18. Mission Impossible (1996)
17. Total Recall (1990)
16. Demolition Man (1993)
15. Boondock Saints (1999)
14. Under Siege (1992)
13. Con Air (1997)
12. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
11. Independence Day (1996)

10. Blade

90's Action

In 1998 most people had never heard of the Marvel Comics ‘Vampire Hunter’ Blade. That all changed though when New Line Cinemas cast Wesley Snipes and gave him a sword. Granted, a lot of people still didn’t realize they were watching a ‘Comic Book’ movie, but they loved it. The success of the film also did something else, it proved that you could still make comic movies even in the aftermath of Batman & Robin.

This movie told the story of a half-man/half-vampire with all the powers of the vampires, but very few of their weaknesses. He hunts down the undead to avenge his slain family. Stephen Dorff hands in maybe the strongest performance of his career as Frost; the new head of the vampire community.

Aside from a very capable cast (which included Terrier‘s Donal Louge) Blade had all the elements that made 90’s action great. It was fast paced, filled with gun-play, and featured new technology paired with old-school tactics. The movie revitalized Snipes career for a few more years and spawned 2 sequels and a TV show.

US Release: August 21, 1998
Director:
Stephen Norrington
Notable Cast: Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Dorff, Donal Logue, Udo Kier, and Traci Lords.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/0
US/Total Box Office: $70,087,718/$131,183,530
Best Quote: “Some motherf–kers are always trying to ice-skate uphill.”
Trivia: Jet Li was offered the part of Frost, but opted to do Lethal Weapon 4 instead.

How 90’s is it? – This whole movie was like a really cool commercial for sunglasses, but with more blood. Very 90’s. I award a copy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 1 on VHS.

9. Bad Boys

90's Action

Before he smashed robots into one and other for a living, Michael Bay actually made some really good action flicks. The first of which helped launch Will Smith from Rapper/TV Star into a bonafide movie Superstar.  Now one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, Smith owes many of his career opportunities to Bad Boys. This is also arguably the only movie Martin Lawrence has ever been in where I didn’t hate him.

It’s the story of a couple of Miami Detectives who drive around in a $100,000 car and shoot everything that moves. A huge catch of heroin from a bust of their’s is stolen out of the police evidence locker and they must get it back. My old man used to complain about how often my little sister and I watched this movie because of the abundance of F-Bombs. Apparently those are only ok in mobster movies. He is Italian. Anyhow, this movie is the first time I can really remember such stylized camera work from an American Director. It was like watching a John Woo movie, but with less doves. This is a style that Bay is now known for and probably has trademarked, but when I was 12, it was totally fresh. The sequel that came out in 2003 however, not so much…

US Release: April 7, 1995
Director: Michael Bay
Notable Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Tchéky Karyo, Téa Leoni, Joe PantolianoMarg HelgenbergerMichael ImperioliKim CoatesTheresa Randle, and John Salley.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/0
US/Total Box Office: $65,807,024/$141,407,024
Best Quote: “You know you drive almost slow enough to drive Miss Daisy.”
Trivia: Michael Bay actually sacrificed part of his salary so a key sequence during the film’s climax wasn’t eliminated due to budget constraints, much like what Arnold did in Terminator 3.

How 90’s is it? – From the music to the Micheal Jordan references, this movie was super hip in 1995. I give it a Dodge Viper, a #23 jersey, and a ‘Fresh Prince Greatest Hits’ cassette.

8. Speed 

90's Action

Speed came out in 1994, and probably remained the most spoofed and quoted movie around until Austin Powers showed up in 1997. This movie was a phenomenon, and I think people often forget just how big it was. You can look at what Bad Boys did for Will Smith, and argue that Speed did even more for Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.   Keanu transformed himself here from half of ‘Bill and Ted’ into an actual movie star, building on what he started in Point Break. And Sandra Bullock, well she went on to become “America’s Sweetheart” dethroning Julia Roberts, and eventually winning an Oscar. Dennis Hopper also greatly benefited from the movie’s success, keeping him relevant until his death last year.

This was one of those movies where even if you didn’t see it, you know what it was. “Yeah, that’s the one with the bomb on the bus right?” The sequel however had less of an impact, but that’ll happen when you replace the star of the movie. Without Keanu Speed 2 was doomed from the start. It’s not surprising they tried after the success of the first one though. And it’s even less surprising that this movie made the list.

US Release: June 10, 1994
Director: Jan de Bont
Notable Cast: Keanu ReevesDennis HopperSandra BullockJeff DanielsJoe MortonAlan Ruck, Patrick Fischler, and Beth Grant.
Oscar Wins/Nominations 2/3 (Won – Sound/Sound Effects Editing)
US/Total Box Office: $121,248,145/$350,448,145
Best Quote: “Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?”
Triva: Quentin Tarantino were offered the chance to direct, but turned it down. Tarantino later named the film as one of his 20 favorite films since 1992.

How 90’s is it? – It’s Seattle-90’s. Everyone in this movie has a flannel shirt, so I give Speed the entire Nirvana discology, and a Starbucks gift card.

7. Die Hard 2: Die Harder

90's Action

This is the inclusion that will likely surprise the most people. Not that it’s on the list, but that it’s in the Top 10 ahead of movies like Con Air, Face-Off, and Under Siege. I know it surprised me, but I have to honest. I love this movie. And as I was preparing this article, and watching the trailers again for each movie, this is the one that I felt most pumped to watch. After all, what’s the big knock against this movie? It’s too much like it’s predecessor? Well what’s wrong with that? The first Die Hard film is the greatest Action movie of all time.

Anyhow, this time around, and the Christmas following his LA adventure, John McClane is at Dulles Airport in D.C. waiting for his wife’s plane to land, and wouldn’t you know it? Terrorists take over the Airport. Forced to deal with things on his own because Dennis Franz won’t help him, McClane proves once again, it doesn’t pay to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This movie gave us what is easily the best ‘ Yippie-kai-yay‘ delivery of the franchise.

US Release: July 6, 1990
Director: Renny Harlin
Notable Cast: Bruce Willis, William Sadler, John Amos, Dennis FranzBonnie Bedelia,  William AthertonReginald VelJohnsonFranco NeroFred Dalton Thompson, Robert PatrickMark Boone Junior, and John Leguizamo.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/0
US/Total Box Office: $117,540,947/$240,031,094
Best Quote: “Yippie-kai-yay, motherf–ker.”
Triva: The General is from “Valverde”, the fictitious Latin-American country used in the Schwarzenegger classic Commando. This could imply that McClane can John Matrix exist within the same fictional universe.

How 90’s is it? – This one is ‘New 90’s’ as John had to “get with the 90’s” and learn how to use a fax machine. I award this movie one Zack Morris cell phone.

6. The Last Boy Scout

90's Action

Joe Hallenbeck is basically a washed out John McClane, working as a detective and disgraced after his exit from the secret service. He’s a drunk and a smartass, and extremely entertaining to watch.

Jimmy Dix is basically a washed out Michael Vick, dating as a stripper that looks like Halle Berry and disgraced after his exit from Pro Football. He’s a drug addict and a pain in Joe’s ass.

This movie took on Sports Gambling and struggling TV rating for Pro Football. Not very realistic there, but hey, it’s a fun watch. This movie is as close as you can get to an “80’s Action Movie” released outside the 80’s. Shane Black’s screenplay is so full of buddy cop moments and one-liners it’s impossible not to like this if you grew up on movies like Lethal Weapon (also written by Shane Black) and The Running Man. It probably would have led to sequels if not for an under performing Box Office total, opening against Hook during the Holiday season and being deemed ‘too violent’ for Christmas.

US Release: December 13, 1991
Director: Tony Scott
Notable Cast: Bruce Willis, Damon WayansChelsea FieldNoble WillinghamTaylor NegronDanielle HarrisHalle BerryBruce McGill, Kim Coates, Billy BlanksEddie GriffinMorris ChestnutMichael Papajohn, and Rick Ducommun.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/0
US/Total Box Office: $59,509,925/ NA
Best Quote: “This is the ’90s. You can’t just walk up and slap a guy, you have to say something cool first.”
Trivia: The conversation between Joe and Jimmy about the $650 pants was taken from a deleted scene in Lethal Weapon. Murtaugh’s daughter is wearing an expensive dress for a New Year’s Eve party, and he asks “It doesn’t have a little TV in it?” She says no, and Murtaugh mutters “I am very old.” Lethal Weapon is also he movie that Darian is watching on TV.

How 90’s is it? - It’s not. It’s just SUPER late 80’s. So for that it gets a ‘Member’s Only’ jacket and a Prince LP.

5. Die Hard: With a Vengeance

90's Action

Widely recognized as the better of the 2 Die Hard movies released in the 1990’s, it’s also the first one not to feature Al, Holly, and Richard Thornburg. It also is the first one not to take place at Christmas. This, the 3rd of the series focuses more on John himself, as opposed to the first 2 movies which simply had him thrown into bad situations.

Hans Gruber’s brother Simon (Irons) is holding the city of New York in a grip of terror and he wants to play a game with John. From stolen gold to exploding Subway trains this movie never really slows down. The franchise welcomes back John McTiernan, director of the original movie to breath some new life into McClane, but this time giving him a sidekick. And quite the sidekick Sam Jackson makes, constantly at odds with McClane and everyone else. The pair race around the city playing Simon’s games, all the while Simon is filling dump truck after dump truck with gold bars.

This is a movie that to this day, if I catch it on TV I have to watch it, and it was this, combine with Pulp Fiction, that made Sam Jackson a household name.

US Release: May 19, 1995
Director: John McTiernan
Notable Cast: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson,  Jeremy IronsAldis HodgeDick Cheney, and Anthony Peck.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/0
US/Total Box Office: $100,012,499/$366,101,666
Best Quote: “Yippie-kai-yay motherf–ker.”
Triva: The line spoken by McClane “Smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo” is taken from a song called “Flowers on the Wall” by The Statler Brothers, which appears in the Gold Watch section Pulp Fiction (1994), also featuring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.

How 90’s is it? – Kinda 90’s. This movie, unlike a lot of the other ones on this list isn’t unique in style to the decade and could really fit in any time period, so for that it gets an Aerosmith T-Shirt, a Coke, and a smile.

4. The Rock 

90's Action

This is the movie that made Nic Cage, at least for a while, an action star, leading him to later do some movies as Con Air, Face/Off, and Gone in Sixty Seconds. And it reminded people the reason that Sean Connery was one of the world’s first real action stars – He’s a badass.

This was also Michael Bay’s follow-up to Bad Boys, which tricked us into thinking he’d never do a bad movie. Bay’s stylistic camera shots that averaged less than 3 seconds each, and the fast paced flow of plot helped to define the decade’s ‘Action Identity’, and no movie exemplifies that more than The Rock.

For a full review of the film: Click Here 

US Release: June 7, 1996
Director: Michael Bay
Notable Cast: Nicolas CageSean ConneryEd HarrisDavid MorseWilliam ForsytheMichael BiehnJohn C. McGinleyTony ToddBokeem WoodbineGregory SporlederClaire ForlaniTodd LouisoBilly DevlinJames CaviezelXander BerkeleyRaymond CruzJohn SpencerPhilip Baker Hall, and Anthony Clark.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/1 (Nom. – Best Sound)
US/Total Box Office: $134,069,511/$335,062,621
Best Quote: “Your ‘best’! Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and  f–k the prom queen.”
Triva: Quentin Tarantino was an uncredited screenwriter on this film.

How 90’s is it? –  Maximum 90’s. This movie is so 90’s in fact that it’s gonna get a OJ Trial Transcript and signed Tanya Harding Ice Skate.

3. True Lies 

90's Action

Schwarzenegger’s last truly great movie, and no surpirse he was paired with Terminator scribe and director James Cameron. This movie examines some of the everyday life stuff that a Schwarzenegger character would have to deal with. The most memorable scene however, isn’t one centered around Arnold, but around Jamie Lee Curtis…
90's Action
Bill Paxton and Tom Arnold added quite a bit more humor than was in Schwarzenegger and Cameron’s previous collaborations. True Lies marks the end of an era, which at the time we did not know, but this would be last truly great movie to star the Governator (at least to date). This is for Arnold almost what Unforgiven is for Clint Eastwood. A movie where he plays a character that is very similar, but in a different light. Unforgiven is Clint once he is old and broke down, while True Lies is a comedic look at the behind the scenes of his life. The movie was obviously a huge hit and almost spawned a 2002 sequel, but tensions after 9/11 caused them to delay, and as of 2011 they have not moved forward.

US Release: July 15, 1994
Director: James Cameron
Notable Cast: Arnold SchwarzeneggerJamie Lee CurtisTom ArnoldBill PaxtonTia CarrereEliza Dushku, and Charlton Heston.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/1 (Nom. – Best Visual Effects)
US/Total Box Office: $146,282,411/$378,882,411
Best Quote: “Same thing happened to me with wife number two, ‘member? I have no idea nothing’s going on, right? I come home one day and the house is empty, and I mean completely empty. She even took the ice cube trays out of the freezer. What kind of a sick bitch takes the ICE CUBE trays out of the FREEZER?”
Triva: Spencer Trilby (Heston) is based on Nick Fury, the Marvel character. Like Fury, he has an eye-patch, same mannerisms, and heads a peacekeeping organization.

How 90’s is it? – It has Tom Arnold in it. Is that answer enough? No? Ok, well if came from a time where you could still have Middle Eastern terrorists in movies instead of them just being used as Red Herrings. For that I award a retroactive failing grade from the “PC Police” for being too awesome.

2. The Matrix 

90's Action

When I saw the trailer for this movie I thought: “Gonna be all special effects, no story”. Boy was I wrong. The fact of the matter is The Matrix had some of the best action sequences I’ve ever seen, and the advancements in special effects changed the way movies were made. The story was very similar to that of the Terminator Franchise. Futuristic war against the machines, one man destined to save humanity and all that jazz. So it’s not that the concept was as new as people thought at the time, rather it was presented in a new way that dropped jaws. Nothing like this had ever been seen visually and that is what made people go back to see it for a 2 or 3rd time.

Kenau hadn’t really taken advantage of the success of Speed, and the weakening grip that Stallone and Schwarzenegger had on the Action genre. It looked as though he could be the next big thing, replacing aging stars like Van Damme, Segal, and even Bruce Willis. But it was 5 years until The Matrix came out and he really hit one out of the park.

This movie did something else too. It launched the career of Hugo Weaving, who played Agent Smith. If you don’t recognize the name, you might recognize his resume: The Matrix trilogy, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, V for Vendetta, The Wolfman, and the voice of ‘Megatron’ in the Transformers movies. He will also be playing ‘The Red Skull’ in the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger.

The movie itself simply changed the whole industry, and remains (despite a slew of terrible  sequels) extremely popular still today, more than a decade after it’s release.

US Release: March 31, 1999
Directors: Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski
Notable Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence FishburneCarrie-Anne MossHugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, and Gloria Foster.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 4/4 (Won – Editing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects, Sound)
US/Total Box Office: $171,479,930/$463,517,383
Best Quote: “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.”
Triva: This cast almost looked very different – Jean Reno turned down the role of Agent Smith for Godzilla instead. Ewan McGregor turned down the part of Neo for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. And Sean Connery was originally offered the role of Morpheus, but turned it down saying he couldn’t understand the script.

How 90’s is it? – Cutting Edge 90’s! This movie gets a ‘White Zombie’ CD and a new trench coat.

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

90's Action

Without a doubt, the 90’s movie I’ve seen the most times (edging out The Sandlot and Mallrats) is Terminator 2. It was no surprise to me that this turned out #1 as it was at the top of almost everyone’s list.

This is probably Arnold at his absolute best, and I doubt we’ll ever see him do anything this good again. This movie, brought in over $500 million at the Box Office and shattered records all over the place. It held the record for opening weekend Box Office of an R rated movie for 12 years, and still holds the record for the biggest Box Office increase for a sequel over the original with over a 400% jump.

The movie’s effects, groundbreaking in 1991, still hold up now, 20 years after it’s release. Before the massively over-rated Titantic and Avatar movies, James Cameron made sweet shit like this. And as far as I’m concerned, there is no argument to be made against this being atop the list. It is simply, as perfect a 90’s action movie as you can ask for.

US Release: July 3, 1991
Director: James Cameron
Notable Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda HamiltonEdward Furlong, Robert Patrick, Earl Boen, Joe Morton, Jenette Goldstein, Xander Berkeley, Nikki Cox, Danny Cooksey, and S. Epatha Merkerson. (Michael Biehn also appears in the Director’s Cut…)
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 4/6 (Won – Sound Editing, Visual Effects, Makeup, Sound)
US/Total Box Office: $204,843,345/$519,843,345
Best Quote: “I need your clothes, boots and your motorcycle.”
Triva: The Minigun used in the Cyberdyne scene was so heavy that Arnold Schwarzenegger was in fact the only person on stage that could carry the gun.

How 90’s is it? – It was Trend-setting 90’s! This movie popularized many 90’s trademarks and for that it’s gets an autographed photo of George Thorogood, season 3 of The Simpsons, and an unopened copy of Windows ’95.

Also check out our other Best of the Genre (By Decade)