From 'Total Recall' to 'The Matrix': Here are the 32 best action movies of the '90s

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From 'Total Recall' to 'The Matrix': Here are the 32 best action movies of the '90s

"See you at the party, Richter!"

Totalrecall 1990

Let's get the ol' adrenal glands pumping with a trip back to the action-fueled cinema of the 1990s.

Along with the decade that preceded it, the Bush/Clinton years were a peak time for thrills, explosions, shootouts, killer robots, alien invasions, and downloadable kung fu knowledge.

They were a time when stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Will Smith cemented their blockbuster legacies or — in the case of an up-and-coming Smith — crafted brand-new ones. Directors such as James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven, Roland Emmerich, and Michael Bay played around with what was possible at the time (from brand-new CGI tools to gonzo thematic ideas) to deliver a slew of big screen classics, the likes of which we may never see again. We're celebrating that last great decade for non-stop action cinema with the 32 best movies of the era, listed in order of release (not ranked).

32. Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (1990) PRESS

Schwarzenegger — who was one of several action movie kings in the '90s — goes for broke in Paul Verhoeven's big screen translation of Philip K. Dick's 1966 short story, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." Between Blade Runner and Total Recall, Hollywood excels at coming up with better titles for the literary works of Mr. K. Dick. What we were talking about again…? Oh yeah, Total Recall. If you like conspiracy thrillers, awesome practical effects, and head-exploding trips to Mars, this is a must-watch.

31. La Femme Nikita (1990)

Le Femme Nikita (1990) YT

Luc Besson didn't mess around in the 1990s, releasing no less than three stone cold classics, La Femme Nikita (or Nikita as it's known in the U.S.) being one of them. In his review, Roger Ebert described the film as "a version of the Pygmalion legend for our own violent times." That's as good a description as any for this tale of a convicted felon who agrees to be trained up as a government-sanctioned killer rather than serve jail time.

30. Point Break (1991)

Point Break (1991) YT

The fourth directorial effort from Oscar-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, Point Break marked a turning point for an up-and-coming Keanu Reeves, who would evolve into a fully-fledged action star throughout the '90s. The Bill & Ted vet plays Johnny Utah, an FBI agent who infiltrates a group of surfing bank robbers led by Patrick Swayze's Bodhi. If ever you see a heist/caper film in which the criminals don masks inspired by past presidents, odds are good you're watching a Point Break homage in action. That was certainly the case in Army of Thieves, a Netflix prequel to Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead.

29. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2 Judgement Day

"Hasta la vista, baby!" Is there a better action movie catchphrase out there? Well, maybe Die Hard's "Yippee Ki-Yay, mother f***er."

A paradigm of how to craft a satisfying sci-fi sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day flipped the concept of the first movie on its head. The T-800 is now a good guy programmed to protect a teenage John Connor? Sarah Connor is now a Terminator-esque doomsday crackpot hunting down the maker of her would-be assassin from the future? The machines ruling the future have shapeshifting terminators?!

T2 ups the ante in every way possible and what's more, it does so without breaking the framework of what made the original such a hit.

28. Hard Boiled (1992)

Hard Boiled (1992) PRESS

Prior to his foray into mainstream Hollywood blockbusters like Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II, director John Woo cut his stylish teeth in the world of Hong Kong action cinema.

Named for the genre of tough cops and even tougher city streets, Hard Boiled stars Chow Yun-fat (American audiences might know him best as the pirate lord Sao Feng in the third chapter in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean saga) as a detective navigating the seedy underbelly of Hong Kong. For Woo's mastery of adrenaline-pumping thrills, look no further than the movie's one-take hospital shootout sequence.

27. Under Siege (1992)

Under Siege (1992) YT

There's no way you put together a list of the best action movies to come out of the '90s without a single mention of Steven Seagal. It just can't be done. If you wanted to describe Under Siege as Die Hard at sea, we wouldn't stop you (even Roger Ebert saw it that way). Seagal plays a Navy cook who uses his kitchen-based prowess with a knife to take out a group of maritime terrorists led by Tommy Lee Jones' William Strannix.

26. Cliffhanger (1993)

Cliffhanger (1993) YT

Fresh off the airport-based Die Hard 2, director Renny Harlin returned to the world of aviation for Cliffhanger, a film about a botched airplane heist that scatters a windfall across the harsh wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. Sylvester Stallone plays Gabe Walker, an expert (but guilt-ridden) mountain climber held hostage by a group of terrorists looking for the money.

25. Last Action Hero (1993)

Last Action Hero

Arnold Schwarzenegger re-teamed with Predator director John McTiernan for this meta love letter to the action movie genre. Penned by Shane Black almost a decade before his directorial debut, the film — which almost certainly influenced modern titles like Shawn Levy's Free Guy — centers around a young kid who enters the cinematic world of his favorite action hero (Schwarzenegger) by way of a magical ticket. That same magic allows the fictional villain (Game of Thrones' Charles Dance) to enter the real world. Hijinks invariably ensue.

24. Demolition Man (1993)

Demolition Man (1993) YT

Do you know how to use the three seashells? You don't? Well, then you better watch Demolition Man, which is sort of like Idiocracy if the Mike Judge classic was played completely straight. Sylvester Stallone plays John Spartan, a man from the late 20th century who is frozen until 2032. Society has changed so drastically over the decades, that he's the only person capable of apprehending a killer from his own time: the psychotic Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes).

23. The Fugitive (1993)

The Fugitive (1993) YT

Based on the 1960s television show of the same name, The Fugitive — much like Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible several years later — is a shining exemplar of how to turn adapt a small screen property for the big screen. Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones elevate this action-thriller about a man framed for the murder of his wife to thrilling new heights.

22. Hard Target (1993)

Hard Target (1993) YT

And here we have another John Woo-directed movie. What can we say? The man absolutely ruled the '90s action space. Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose reputation in the genre was also unparalleled at the time, steps into the role of Chance Boudreaux, a certified badass who agrees to help a young woman investigate the disappearance of her father in New Orleans.

21. Speed (1993)

Speed (1994)  YT

Perhaps the greatest example of '90s-era action absurdity on this list, Speed came out of nowhere, barreling its way to the top of the box office like…well, like a Los Angeles bus carrying a bunch of explosives that will detonate if the vehicle can't maintain a speed of 50 miles per hour. The film helped solidify Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock as a pair of Hollywood A-listers and a scene-stealing turn from the late Dennis Hopper as a bitter, yet cunning, terrorist took Jan de Bont's rip-roaring thriller to another level of summer entertainment. Does it matter that some of the stuff in this movie are highly implausible? Sure, but the fun far outweighs the goofiness.

Let's just try and forget Speed 2: Cruise Control, ok...?

20. The Crow (1994)

A still from the film The Crow (1998) featuring Brandon Lee.

The late Brandon Lee stuns in this gothic tale of resurrection and vengeance. Alex Proyas You may not know it, but The Crow is based on a comic book series from James O'Barr. Lee plays Eric Draven, a man who comes back to life to avenge the murder of himself and his girlfriend. The rain-soaked and gritty backdrop against which the story takes place lends an almost Batman-y vibe to the proceedings.

19. True Lies (1994)

True Lies

The story of a wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) who learns that her husband (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is actually a secret agent, True Lies often gets lost in the shuffle of James Cameron's more well-known genre efforts (i.e. Terminator and Avatar). However, that doesn't make it any less worthy of our admiration. A pure expression of '90s action excess — that's a good thing — the project is about the only instance of Cameron trying his hand at comedy.

18. Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Cleardanger1

Harrison Ford was the second actor to play Jack Ryan character on the big screen after Alec Baldwin brought Tom Clancy's enduring character to life in The Hunt for Red October four years previously. Based on the 1989 novel of the same name, Clear and Present Danger was Harrison's second and final time in the role. In this case, the CIA analyst finds himself in the crosshairs a secret (not to mention illicit) conflict between the U.S. government and a Colombian drug cartel.

17. The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)

The Legend of Drunken Master (1994) YT

You can't discuss '90s action cinema without a mention of the great Jackie Chan, now can you? While filmed in '94, The Legend of Drunken Master didn't reach mainstream American audiences until the turn of the millennium. A blend of comedy and martial arts sensibilities, the film asks whether inebriation can make you a better fighter. The answer — at least according to the logic of this universe — is a resounding yes.

16. Bad Boys (1995)

Bad Boys (1995) YT

Not only was Bad Boys the directorial debut of Michael Bay, it also signaled the start of Will Smith's explosive career as Hollywood's top leading man. In the years that followed, Smith appeared in box office hit after box office hit (Independence Day, Men in Black, and Enemy of the State). This rather modest vehicle about a pair of mismatched cop buddies (Smith's chemistry with Martin Lawrence is out of this world) couldn't have been a more perfect starting point.

15. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)

Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995) YT

Once you learn that Die Hard 3 — helmed by the returning John McTiernan — began life as a totally different movie, its a little hard not to notice how the filmmakers jerry-rigged the screenplay to include our favorite wisecracking police officer, John McClane. With that said, the odd couple team-up of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson against the backdrop of a sweltering New York summer is a lot of fun, especially when you add Hans Gruber's little brother (a hammy Jeremy Irons) into the mix.

14. Desperado (1995)

Desperado (1995) YT

Following his low-budget debut that was El Mariachi three years before, Robert Rodriguez officially entered the big leagues with Desperado. Made on a modest budget of just under $8 million, this tale of a musician/gunslinger getting in way over his head set the stage for the rest of Rodriguez's career.

"When Desperado came, it was a struggle for them to let me edit the movie and I told them, 'Well, who else will you get? I'm free,'' the filmmaker said in 2015. 'They just didn't want me to have that much control, but they let me do it. That was a big mistake because it sets another precedent. If my next movie hadn't been Desperado, if I had done one of the really big budget movies they were offering me, I would have lost that control."

13. Goldeneye (1995)

GoldenEye (1995) YT

Pierce Brosnan's big screen debut as 007 is a rousing success, pitting James against a mirror image of himself. The question of "What would happen if Bond got burned one too many times?" is perfectly answered by Sean Bean's Alec Trevelyan.

In addition to its introduction of a new actor in the iconic role of Britain's gentleman spy, GoldenEye also spawned a beloved video game for the Nintendo 64, whose legacy continues to endure to this day. The film was directed by Martin Campbell, who, a little over a decade later, would reboot the franchise with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.

12. Mission: Impossible (1996)

Mission: Impossible (1996) YT

How can we not have Mission: Impossible on this list? Brian De Palma's big screen reboot of the classic television series spawned a multi-billion dollar franchise that continues to live on to this day with Tom Cruise still leading the IP as seemingly immortal IMF agent, Ethan Hunt. A of this writing, two more M:I installments from writer-director Christopher McQuarrie are scheduled to hit the big screen in 2023 and 2024, respectively). Vacillating between bombastic action set pieces and quieter moments of nail-biting tension, Mission: Impossible is a TV-to-movie adaptation done to perfection.

11. Independence Day (1996)

Bill Pullman Independence Day

"Welcome to Earth!"

Roland Emmerich's multi-faceted alien invasion flick still holds up nearly three decades after its first arrived in theaters. The definition of popcorn cinema, Independence Day manages to juggle relatable human drama with a larger story of humanity's last stand against hostile visitors from beyond the stars. When Randy Quaid destroys the alien ship hovering over Area 51 in the movie's climax, it's not just destruction for destruction's sake. It's a father giving up his life so that his children can continue to enjoy theirs.

10. Escape From L.A. (1996)

Escape From L.A.

For the last 26 years, Escape from L.A. has lived in the shadow of its more popular older brother: 1981's Escape from New York. Yes, the visual effects are a tad dated (after all, CGI was still finding its footing), but the blockbuster appeal of Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken is immortal.

Just don't ask John Carpenter why the movie ultimately bombed.

"You're asking the wrong dude here," the filmmaker said during a recent conversation with SYFY WIRE in the run-up to Escape from L.A.'s 4K Ultra HD home release. "I don't know, I have no idea," Carpenter says. "Look, it was released up against Independence Day. Escape From L.A. is a dark, nihilistic movie, okay? Independence Day is fun. Which one do you think is gonna work at the box office?"

9. The Rock (1996)

The Rock (1996) YT

Michael Bay's second directorial effort racked up one hell of an impressive cast: Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, David Morse, and Michael Biehn. Indeed, it would end up being one of Connery's final live-action roles before his retirement from acting in the early 2000s, after the bomb that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Like most films in the realm of '90s action adventures, The Rock presents a ticking clock in the form of — what else? — a terrorist attack brewing on Alcatraz.

8. Face/Off (1997)

Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in Face/Off (1997)

Nicolas Cage and John Travolta challenge each other to a "who-can-chew-the-most-scenery" off in John Woo's seminal action classic. The cat and mouse game between an FBI agent and domestic terrorist, who literally swap faces as part of a secret government procedure, is so bonkers that we have no choice but to accept it as one of the greatest things the '90s ever gave us. Unless anything has changed since it was announced in 2021, Godzilla vs. Kong's Adam Wingard is still directing a sequel.

7. Starship Troopers (1997)

Starship Troopers (1997) YT

Who doesn't want to see human soldiers brainwashed with jingoistic propaganda go toe-to-toe with giant insects from another planet?

If that doesn't sound appealing to you, then you're probably a Brain Bug and must therefore be destroyed. Paul Verhoeven's satire of passive fascism wasn't fully understood in its time, but even if you're not into lofty political critiques, you can still enjoy all the skin-melting, bisecting, and limb-chopping violence you can only get from an ongoing war against the Bugs. Would you like to know more…?

6. Air Force One (1997)

Air Force One (1997) YT

"Get off my plane!"

Who says POTUS can't kick ass? Harrison Ford plays the Commander-in-Chief, who finds his titular airplane under siege by Russian terrorists (led by the always-game Gary Oldman) who can't seem to accept the fact that the Soviet Union is no more. Think Die Hard at 50,000 feet. Plus, Elya Baskin plays one of the antagonists. That name sound familiar? It should. The actor would later step into the role of Peter Parker's rent-grubbing landlord in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy. We always knew the guy was no good.

5. Spawn (1997)

Spawn (1997) trailer still

Without Spawn, we wouldn't have the superhero movie boom we currently enjoy today. That's just a fact, jack. Despite being a critical and box office appointment, the film showed that comic books could be more than just cheesy television shows or Roger Corman productions. Todd McFarlane's hellhound antihero was nothing short of groundbreaking for the time and helped pave the way for darker comic book adaptations like Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy. Now, if only Blumhouse would start production on that reboot we keep hearing some much about.

4. Blade (1998)

Blade Hero Movie 01

And here we have another superhero feature that predates the biggest Marvel franchises of the early 2000s: Fox's X-Men and Sony's Spider-Man. For many people, Wesley Snipes is Eric Brooks, aka The Daywalker, which is why the actor giving his blessing to Mahershala Ali (set to play the vampire hunter in the MCU) was such a big deal.

3. Ronin (1998)

Ronin (1998) YT

More than three decades after he made The Manchurian Candidate, director John Frankenheimer proved he still had a keen eye for crafting tight thrillers with a sharp political spin. Robert De Niro plays an ex-CIA agent and operative-for-hire on the trail of a MacGuffin that several dangerous people are willing to kill for.

2. Enemy of the State (1998)

Enemy of the State (1998) YT

After two consecutive alien-based adventures, Will Smith dove headfirst into the political thriller genre in this late '90s outing from director Tony Scott. Harkening back to the paranoid cinema of the 1970s (i.e, The Parallax View, All The President's Men), Enemy of the State finds Smith's Robert Clayton Dean at the center of a sinister conspiracy that reaches into the highest echelons of the U.S. government.

1. The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix Agent Smith

The '90s ended on quite a bang with this absolute game-changer about a lowly programmer who discovers that he's actually a messianic figure destined to free humanity from an oppressive technological regime. John Connor who?

An expression of humanity's Y2K fears at the dawn of the Internet Age, The Matrix redefined action cinema as we know it — thanks, in no small part, to the iconic fight choreography of Yuen Woo-ping.

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