The action movie genre has gone through significant changes over cinema history. Going back to the early days of motion pictures, audiences have always been interested in the fun and excitement of action sequences. As cinema progressed, the genre evolved, with more complex stunts, intense violence, and amazing stunts. For many fans, the genre reached its peak in the '90s with the release of some of the genre’s greatest films.
While action films have largely become special-effects-driven superhero films, there was a time when they were anchored by practical effects and more grounded heroes. They were loud and fun and packed with gunfire and explosion. While we don’t see many of these types of action movies these days, we always have those classics of the '90s to look back on. Here are the very best '90s action movies.
Perhaps the least popular film on this list, Ronin is an underrated gem that every action fan should seek out. The film follows a group of mercenaries who are brought together to acquire a mysterious package being sought by multiple parties.
The film was a return to form for director John Frankenheimer who expertly crafted this old-school actioner that is messy in all the right ways. The film is also bolstered by a stunning cast which includes Robert De Niro, Sean Bean, Jean Reno, and Stellan Skarsgard. But the real spectacle is the insane car chases which are among the best ever put to film.
9 Point Break
Point Break has a bit of a reputation as a cheesy actioner thanks to the surfer-centric plot and its homage in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. While there are some aspects of the film that are hard to take seriously, people tend to forget it really delivers as purely fun action movie.
Keanu Reeves stars as an undercover cop looking to bust a group of surfers, led by Patrick Swayze, suspected of multiple bank robberies. Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow directs the hell out of the high-octane set pieces, including a genuinely thrilling foot chase. So much more than just a “surfer bro” movie.
8 The Fugitive
Though a highly regarded film, The Fugitive is often forgotten among the lists of best action movies. It’s true that the movie doesn’t have the shootouts and car chases seen throughout this list, the action is absolutely non-stop.
Harrison Ford stars as a doctor falsely convicted of killing his wife. He escapes custody and goes on the run to find the real killer while being pursued by the U.S. Marshals. The film is a white-knuckle thrill ride with so many iconic action moments. It is the perfect example of how you can have a great action movie without any gunplay.
7 True Lies
Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the greatest action stars in film history. James Cameron is one of the greatest action directors in film history. Any movie in which they team up to cause mayhem is bound to be worthwhile.
True Lies is an action-spy film about a secret agent whose wife is accidentally brought into his very dangerous work life. Surprisingly, the film is a solid comedy with Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis giving genuinely funny performances. Unsurprisingly, the action is a blast with the kind of massive set pieces you would only expect from Cameron.
6 The Rock
Michael Bay is a director who seems to divide audiences. However, before he was occupied with the world of Transformers, he was a very solid action director with The Rock being his best all-out action film.
When a group of ex-special-forces take hostages on Alcatraz and threaten to unleash a deadly toxin on the mainland, it’s up to a chemical biologist and a former inmate of the famous prison to save the day. Bay’s standard high-energy action sequences are put to great use, but the film is boosted into that next level of awesome thanks to an unhinged Nicholas Cage and a surprisingly still badass Sean Connery.
5 Hard Boiled
Part of the reason action movies found a new life in the '90s was due to the genre boom from Hong Kong. American filmmakers were being influenced by the frenetic, highly choreographed action films from Chinese auteurs like John Woo.
Even as Woo was influencing the genre, he created one of its best entries. Chow Yun-Fat stars as a violent cop obsessed with taking down a deadly gangster. The film features some of the best-extended action scenes and shootouts that are so engrossing you almost forget to breathe while watching.
4 The Matrix
There is no denying the Wachowskis changed the action movie genre with this visionary film. As the 20th century came to a close, they delivered a totally unique film that still feels revolutionary to this day.
It stars Keanu Reeves as Neo, an aimless desk worker who is pulled out of his reality and into another where he is told he is the one who will save mankind. The film employed new technology, such as the “bullet time” shots, which were used ad nauseam by copycat films. It feels like a video game mixed with several different genres of action films creating a cinematic experience like no other.
3 Die Hard: With A Vengeance
Most people think of the Die Hard franchise as one of those series that should have stopped after the first film. While there are some stinkers in the bunch, let’s not forget that the third entry, Die Hard with a Vengeance comes close to the original in terms of being a flat-out fun action pic.
A notable change that works extremely well is that John McClane is not solo this time around, teaming up with Samuel L. Jackson’s Zeus. Add to that a solid villain turn from Jeremy Irons and an appropriately hungover Bruce Willis and you have a worthy successor to the original.
2 Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Another Schwarzenegger/Cameron team-up so it’s no surprise it ranks so high on this list. It’s easy to forget how bold of a sequel Terminator 2 was. The original was an almost horror film about a killer cyborg. The follow-up turned the film into a big-budget action movie romp and made that killer cyborg the good guy.
Cameron was taking a big risk and it paid off beautifully. Schwarzenegger fits the hero role perfectly, Linda Hamilton is a badass and the special effects are ground-breaking. It set the standard that no subsequent Terminator film managed to live up to.
While the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone are considered the action movie icons, it’s time we acknowledge that Keanu Reeves was the unequivocal king of the genre in the '90s. Reeves’ third appearance on the list is one of the most brilliant (if a bit outlandish) high-concept action films and one of the most enjoyable movies ever made.
Reeves plays a Los Angeles cop who finds himself on a bus filled with hostages that will explode if its speed drops below 50 mph. Sometimes dismissed as “Die Hard on a bus”, Speed deserves its own legacy for being able to make that concept a thrilling and fun action movie that still holds up to this day.