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Best 90s Action Movies, Ranked


Cinema in the 1990s was as good as it gets. The prominence of Sundance and Miramax saw the rise of independent cinema make its way to the mainstream. We got filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and Ang Lee all start to find their way and become cinematic auteurs. The bar for visual effects was only being raised, thanks to directors like the Wachowski sisters and James Cameron.


A new faith in these directors by producers to see their creative vision through, a rise in reliable movie stars who could carry a story, and a thirst from audience members to see the world explode all led to a decade of memorable, genre-defying work. The modern actionfilm may have started in the ’80s, but the following decade saw the genre was remade and combusted to give us a slew of iconic films. These are the best action movies of the 1990s.

Updated May 7th, 2023: With gargantuan action movies becoming the biggest films of the past few years, Patrick Hayes has updated this article for accuracy in order to look back at the white-knuckled, badly-bruised intensity of action cinema in the 1990s.

14 Demolition Man

Warner Bros.

Pairing two action icons together was a no-brainer for director Joel Silver in his sci-fi/action hybrid Demolition Man. Starring Sylvester Stallone up against Wesley Snipes in a time-traveling, adrenaline-fueled, and often funny vehicle, the film has the high concept of a futuristic prison freezing its inmates as a way of serving their time.

Snipes is incredible as the villain Simon Phoenix, with his bleached hair and the denim overalls ’90s look, kicking his way through the futuristic Los Angeles and showcasing the athleticism that made him such a watchable action star. Stallone is reliable as always, paired with Sandra Bullock as to be the fierce, strong-willed counterpart to male action leads in the ’90s. Demolition Man remains a staple in action cinema because of its memorable fights but also its satire of American consumerism that still rings true today.

13 Rush Hour

Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan in Rush Hour
New Line Cinema

You can’t talk about action-comedy without mentioning the name of Jackie Chan. Jackie used his athleticism to perform death-defying stunts for decades. It wasn’t just his creativity in the ass-kicking department but how he could bend the environment around him to his whim and make great comedic use of props to add another dimension to the action. So, look no further than Rush Hour, the smash-hit buddy-cop film which first united the great action star with Chris Tucker. With a series of daring set pieces and infectious humor, the film launched Chan as a truly international superstar (and, weirdly enough, inspired the creation of Rotten Tomatoes along the way).

Related: Why Jackie Chan Doesn’t Do Hollywood Movies Anymore

12 The Fugitive

Ford in The Fugitive
Warner Bros.

Adapted from the ‘60s television series of the same name, Andrew Davis’ action-thriller The Fugitive positions Harrison Ford in the central role of Dr. Richard Kimble. Wrongly charged with the murder of his wife, Kimble escapes from custody and a nationwide manhunt, led by the highly experienced, relentless officer, Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones). A movie that is perfectly and precisely paced, palpably tense, and brilliantly captivating – everything one desires from a classic action flick.

11 Ronin

Jean Reno and Robert DeNiro in Ronin
United Artists 

1998 was a killer year for films. Guy Ritchie brought us the gangland cult classic that would finally rival 1980s The Long Good Friday with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, the Coen brothers took us on a comic bowling binge that ended in a case of mistaken identity and a rug that was never dry-cleaned, and Spielberg threw us into the chaos of Omaha beach on 6th June 1944 in a war flick that took over from The Great Escape as the gatekeeper of the genre. Ronin is a lesser appreciated commodity, yet its enthralling set-pieces and central characters played expertly by Robert De Niro and Jean Reno make it a deserved recipient of the kudos and this entry. The action-thriller depicts an ex-US intelligence officer embarking on a mission to recover a suitcase that contains top-secret information from Russian hands.

10 Mission: Impossible

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible (1996)
Paramount Pictures

Brian De Palma had already signed and sealed his status as a modern directorial great after producing the likes of Scarface, The Untouchables, and Carlito’s Way, and 1996 delivered the Dressed to Kill auteur’s undeniable greatness with Mission: Impossible, the Tom Cruise-fronted action-packed spy flick, that would spark a new dawn for the action movie, and become one of the best action franchises of all time.

Placing the stunt master, Cruise at the center of the picture leaping from skyscrapers, destroying the speed limit on a motorcycle, and attempting to prove his innocence after being falsely accused of murdering his entire team, Mission Impossible is easily the most instantly recognizable action film of the decade. With its unmistakable theme tune, stellar ensemble cast, and suspense-filled, cable-dangling antics, De Palma’s movie is a timeless caper.

9 Heat

Neil McCauley - Heat (1995)
Warner Bros.

Michael Mann’s epic Los Angeles crime saga Heat immediately entered the fray of all-time great action and heist films because of two casting decisions– De Niro vs. Pacino. Mann pitted the two on opposite sides of the law and would be the first time the two ever shared a scene, nearly 30 plus years into their acting careers. The two legends aren’t the only aspects which makes this film an impeccable piece of action cinema, though; it’s the script and postmodern visuals and color palette which Mann imbues into the minutiae of the story. You feel the fate of two men tied like anchors to their jobs, who are principled but stubborn and come crashing towards each other. Besides an excellent script and great acting, it also showcases the now legendary bank heist that any film in its wake can’t help but bear the influence of.

8 Leon the Professional

Leon the Professional movie
Buena Vista International
Gaumont

In this brutalist but strangely affectionate tale of love in Manhattan, Luc Besson cast French legend Jean Reno as the mysterious hitman, Leon the Professional. He rescues the young Matilda (Natalie Portman, whose incredible performance is why the movie works) from the vicious, Beethoven fanatic psychopath Gary Oldman, who massacres her whole family. Leon may be a tragic love story masquerading as an action-thriller, but when the shootouts occur and the blood goes to rain, it becomes tension-wire violence at its best.

Related: 10 Movies That Made 1994 An Iconic Year In Film

7 The Rock

The Rock movie 1996 with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery is one of the best action movies
Buena Vista Pictures

We have action movies, and then we have ‘Bayhem,’ the only term fitting enough to describe the over-zealous and excessive director who seems to find his way into explosions when there are seemingly none to be found. Michael Bay’s follow-up to his hit buddy-cop team-up Bad Boys was another team-up of sorts. Nicolas Cage is Agent Goodspeed, the FBI chemical expert who has to dismantle the bombs that traitorous General Francis Blackwell (Ed Harris) has armed on Alcatraz and enlists the help of the only man to have escaped the infamous prison, Sean Connery.

It’s a ridiculous setup, but what follows is one memorable set piece after another. Bay shows his deft touch when crafting high-octane, thrilling sequences with precision even when they seem ludicrous. Bay turns Alcatraz into a dirty and destructive playground of sparks, shootouts, excesses, and explosions. The Rock was just the tip of the blockbuster iceberg for the now-iconic director of mayhem but remains one of his best.

6 Speed

Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in Speed
20th Century Fox

If one could be crowned action-king of the 90s, it’d be easy to make a case for Keanu Reeves. Simple in its plot design and executed with expertise from its director Jan De Bont – who previously acted as the cinematographer of action classics like Die Hard and Hunt For Red OctoberSpeed is one of the all-time great action films because it literally never lets you go. It also had everything going for it in the casting.

Related: 15 Best Keanu Reeves Movies, Ranked

On a bus armed to the teeth with explosives because of a psycho who didn’t get away with his previous crimes, Dennis Hopper screams through the frames as a great villain; on the bus are officer Keanu and passenger Sandra Bullock, who both have to somehow keep the bus from exploding. Speed proved you can keep things simple but still create an intoxicating experience that people will never forget.

5 El Mariachi

A scene from El Mariachi
Columbia Pictures

The film that put Robert Rodriguez on the map and instantly injected his name into the independent film-making ethos of the ’90s, El Mariachi was a sleeper action hit no one saw coming. Done on the shoestring budget of $7,000 and with non-professional actors, Rodriguez wrote, shot, and edited the film around his singular interpretation of action. Caught up in the middle of a bloody war, El Mariachi is a tale of mistaken identity that nearly gets a local kid with a guitar and a dream killed. Done with a fever-pitch intensity, Rodriguez puts together shootouts with finesse like a born filmmaker. Spawning another two sequels, Rodriguez showed he had the chops to make films from the get-go.

4 Face/Off

Nicolas Cage in Face/Off
Paramount Pictures

John Woo takes his ever-present mirror motifs to the Hollywood extreme with the ridiculous, insanely entertaining film Face/Off. Nicolas Cage and John Travolta have some of the most fun they’ve ever had as a cop and a violent psychopath who switch faces and thus have to play each other. The movie is utterly over-the-top, with some of Cage’s finest manic acting, and Travolta clearly gets a kick out of doing his best Cage impersonation. The action sequences are fantastic, the movie is laden with humor, the score and cinematography are brilliant, and Woo proves that he has Hollywood chops.

3 T2: Judgement Day

Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator
TriStar Pictures

James Cameron is no stranger to innovation. The blockbuster director is known for pushing technology forward or waiting for tech to catch up to achieve his grandiose and meticulous vision. Such is the case for Terminator 2: Judgment Day and James Cameron’s collaboration with the VFX team Industrial, Light, and Magic. Together, Cameron and the team created an instant iconic villain with Robert Patrick, a liquid-metal shapeshifting robot, who was the first main character in a feature film to be entirely computer graphics. Beyond that, Cameron took his original villainous creation in Arnold Schwarzenegger and paved a new path for him to be a hero who had never been seen before. Along with a helicopter stunt that still melts people’s brains, T2 is an indelible piece of sci-fi action that still holds up today.

Related: Here’s What Makes T2: Judgment Day the Best Terminator Movie

2 The Matrix

The Matrix
Warner Bros.

The Wachowski sisters rewrote film history with their groundbreaking, high-concept, sci-fi action film inspired by everything from kung-fu to Buddhism and Baudrillard; The Matrix changed the action genre forever. With its incredibly innovative technique of using hundreds of cameras to capture one scene, the Wachowski twins created a new visual language to express stylized action.

As the eponymous One, Neo (Keanu Reeves) is awakened by the wise and prophetic Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) to see his life as a lie controlled by an artificial race of machines, and a heroic and unforgettable journey follows. From his battle with the agents to Neo learning Kung-Fu, The Matrix continues to be a cultural cornerstone for anyone who gets into action movies, proving to be everlasting with the fourth film of the series, Matrix: Resurrections.

1 Hard Boiled

Chow Yun-Fat slides down stairs with guns in Hard Boiled
Golden Princess FIlm Production

If there’s one international director that is synonymous with highly stylized action, it’s John Woo. The mainland Chinese native cut his teeth in the ’70s as an assistant to legendary martial arts director Chang Chen at the highly coveted Shaw Brothers studio. When Woo was finally given the helm and teamed up with Chow Yun-Fat – who became the epitome of cool – the embers of action as high art sparked.

Hard Boiled is one of the greatest action movies ever made with Fat and international icon Tony Leung at its center as a cop and an enigmatic killer who looks to bring down bosses of the criminal underworld. It’s a must-watch for all action die-hards and features one of the great set pieces the genre has to offer in a hospital scene that encapsulates why John Woo is a master of the operatic shootout. It’s the best ballet of violence from the ’90s.



This story originally appeared on Movieweb

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