Movies from the 1990s are often open to scrutiny these days. Do they hold up? Are they as good as we remember? Nostalgia often gets thrown around as an improper way to regard 90s entertainment, but action movies offer a certain level of comfort, regardless of how “great” they might be.
Here is a list of ten of the best action movies from the 90s. The choices selected either hold up entirely well, changed the direction of the genre, or are worth revisiting at some point down the road.
10. “The Matrix” (1999)
dir. Lana Wachowski and Lily Wachowski
Admittedly, this writer isn’t the biggest fan of “The Matrix.” Even so, Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s sci-fi action movie is as important as any to come out in the 90s. “The Matrix” set the bar for how movie-going audiences consumed, thought about, and treated the genre. “The Matrix” was nominated for four Oscars (Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects) and, impressively, won all four. Could this have been a Best Picture nominee in an expanded year?
9. “The Rock” (1996)
dir. Michael Bay
Once upon a time, Michael Bay made a pretty good action movie. Long before he entered the “Transformers” realm, Bay paired Nicholas Cage, Sean Connery and Ed Harris in a story about threatening chemical attacks on San Francisco from Alcatraz. It might sound as Bay as anything has ever sounded, but it wasn’t pure noise thrown at the screen. That would come later from the director.
8. “The Fugitive” (1993)
dir. Andrew Davis
“The Fugitive” scored seven Oscar nominations, winning Best Supporting Actor for Tommy Lee Jones’ performance as a U.S. Marshall. Harrison Ford stars, in one of his best performances, as a doctor falsely accused of killing his wife. The story takes its time unfolding but keeps the suspense high as Ford’s character tries to find the real murderer and clear his name.
7. “Face/Off” (1997)
dir. John Woo
Nicholas Cage and John Travolta seem like cinematic punchlines these days. They appear in a new movie, in what feels like every other week. While it’s easy to sneer at the decisions they make now, they once ruled the 90s. Travolta stars as an FBI agent, who swaps faces with Cage’s criminal mastermind to help thwart a terror attack. “Face/Off” is as ludicrous as it sounds, which makes it the perfect 90s action flick.
6. “Mission: Impossible” (1996)
dir. Brian De Palma
There’s something to be said about an action franchise, which only gets better with age. The Tom Cruise-led series features him as Ethan Hunt, who must clear his name when he is pegged as a mole within the CIA. The movie is excellent entertainment, which laid the groundwork for a series to grow and continue Hunt’s story while outdoing itself each film with a new stunt for Cruise perform.
5. “Independence Day” (1996)
dir. Roland Emmerich
“Independence Day” should have stayed in the 90s. That’s not a dig on this big, loud, and entertaining alien invasion picture, but leftover bitterness towards the incredibly bad sequel from 2016. The Oscar-winning film (Best Visual Effects) stars Will Smith, another dominant force in the 90s, who is called upon to lead the charge against the alien invasion. On top of providing great action, Bill Pullman delivers the iconic speech about Independence Day.
4. “Batman Returns” (1992)
dir. Tim Burton
Everyone has their favorite “Batman” film and favorite “Batman” actor. Michael Keaton seems to be a consensus favorite as the cape crusader, starring in two of director Tim Burton’s films. Whether or not “Batman Returns” is your favorite trip into Gotham City, there seems to be great affection for the movie, thanks to the performances by Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as The Penguin.
3. “Air Force One” (1997)
dir. Wolfgang Petersen
“Air Force One” is a tense thriller about terrorists hijacking Air Force One with the president (played by Harrison Ford) on it. As more and more of his guards and Secret Service members are killed, it’s up to the president to defeat the terrorists (led by Gary Oldman.) Watching “Air Force One” now proves two things: It holds up as a slick and entertaining piece of popcorn fun, and it would be nice to live in a world where Ford is president and Glenn Close as his V.P.
A lot of the talk surrounding Michael Mann’s sprawling crime saga “Heat” is the pairing of stars Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. Of course, they were in “The Godfather: Part II,” but never shared the screen because DeNiro was featured in flashbacks. There has always been debate if the stars shot the talked about diner scene together or if it was stitched together. Regardless, watching these two titans face-off makes the nearly-three-hour “Heat” even more exceptional.
The title of the greatest 90s action film comfortably belongs to “Speed.” From the moment the movie starts, it draws you in and doesn’t let you go. The propulsive race-against-the-clock action features Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock having impeccable chemistry as they try to keep the bus moving. The late Dennis Hopper stars as the villain. “Speed” offers everything you crave from an action picture.