Buddy cops! Bulging biceps! Something called “The Internet!” These were the staples of action movies in the final years of the 20th century when chiseled jaws and pyrotechnics held sway. It was a time when audiences flocked to see familiar stars rather than familiar characters, when computer-driven effects were in their awkward adolescence, and when kids snuck into movies for grown-ups rather than the other way around.
Plenty of action movies from the 1990s have stuck around in our cultural canon, from Terminator 2 to The Matrix, but many more have fallen through the cracks or been drowned out by the noise of ongoing franchises. Here are a few of our favorite action flicks from the Nineties that you may not have seen but are worthy of your attention.
La Femme Nikita (1990)
Before he released his masterpiece, Leon, in 1994, director Luc Besson made a splash in his native France with La Femme Nikita, another tale of murder and intrigue. Nikita stars Anne Parillaud as a killer and recovering addict who is offered a pardon for her crimes so long as she works as a secret assassin for the French government. Like Leon, La Femme Nikita features plenty of terrific action, but as it’s a French import, it was promoted in the U.S. as an arthouse picture and struggled to find an audience. In spite of this marketing fiasco, it has become recognized as a genre classic and inspired two North American television adaptations.
La Femme Nikita can be rented or purchased on Prime Video.
The Rocketeer (1991)
Decades before Disney was pumping out three Marvel movies a year, the studio hired director Joe Johnston to adapt Dave Stevens’ indie comics series The Rocketeer into one of the best superhero films of the 1990s. Set in Los Angeles in 1938, The Rocketeer is a rare example of a film successfully recapturing the tone, atmosphere, and fun of the Indiana Jones films, pitting a charismatic but kinda goofy leading man against the Nazis in a stylish, high-concept adventure.
Starring the classically handsome Billy Campbell, a devilishly villainous Timothy Dalton, and Jennifer Connelly at her most devastating, The Rocketeer is an absolute delight. It’s no surprise that when Marvel was preparing to make their own World War II-period superhero film, Captain America: The First Avenger, they enlisted the very same director. Fans of The First Avenger owe it to themselves to fire up Disney+ and revisit Joe Johnston’s previous (and arguably, superior) triumph.
You can stream The Rocketeer on Disney+.
Demolition Man (1993)
The ‘90s were a terrific period for sci-fi action films, as the addition of high technology or speculative futures offered a level-up from the explosive police thrillers of the previous decade. The Cold War was over, the US economy was strong, and the world was on the precipice of rapid, unprecedented change. This was the environment from which sprung director Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man, a bizarre action-comedy starring Rocky and Creed actor Sylvester Stallone as John Spartan, a hyper-violent cop who wakes up in a squeaky-clean future.
Nobody in 2032’s gleaming city of San Angeles is equipped to do battle with Spartan’s nemesis, Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), who’s on a rampage after being freed from cryostasis. It’s up to Spartan and his bright-eyed rookie partner (Bullet Train‘s Sandra Bullock) to take him down. From the kooky fish-out-of-water comedy between Stallone and Bullock to the unhinged, Joker-like performance of Snipes, Demolition Man is tremendous fun, and its projections about the rise of hyper-corporatization and class stratification have proven to be surprisingly prescient.
You can rent or purchase Demolition Man at major digital vendors like Prime Video.
Last Action Hero (1993)
Nowadays, audiences are all about metatext, fascinated by genre, structure, and behind-the-scenes drama. But, in a world before Wikipedia and TV Tropes, few audiences knew what to make of Last Action Hero. In this goofy satire, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a parody of his famous movie persona alongside a preteen fanboy (Austin O’Brien) who has been magically transported into an action blockbuster. While fulfilling the fantasy of being Arnold’s sidekick on an adventure, the kid uses his savvy about movies to help the Austrian Death Machine beat the bad guys and save the day across two parallel dimensions.
It’s basically the Cabin in the Woods of action movies, years ahead of its time. Directed by Die Hard’s John McTiernan, written by Lethal Weapon’s Shane Black, and packed with memorable cameos, Last Action Hero makes the perfect finale to any ‘80s or ‘90s action movie marathon.
Last Action Hero can be streamed on Netflix and Hulu.
The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
Just one year before his mainstream American breakthrough in Rumble in the Bronx, Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan reprised his role as historical martial artist and folk hero Wong Fei-Hong. His first portrayal of the character in 1978’s Drunken Master helped to codify the “kung fu comedy” artistry that would make him an international legend, but its sequel, Drunken Master II, might be its ultimate expression.
Chan and his team perform some truly incredible stunts and fight choreography, all while delivering an abundance of Buster Keaton-style physical gags. Though a smash hit in Hong Kong, Drunken Master II wasn’t even released in the United States until the year 2000, under the new title The Legend of Drunken Master. Thanks to home video and streaming, it has since received the appreciation it deserves from fans who discovered Jackie via Rumble or Rush Hour.
The Legend of Drunken Master can be rented or purchased on Prime Video.
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Hot off of horror-comedy Army of Darkness, director Sam Raimi teamed up with producer and star Sharon Stone and the legendary Gene Hackman for this weird Western. Essentially a live-action tournament animé about a cast of gimmicky gunfighters, The Quick and the Dead is unrestrained Raimi, with nearly every scene displaying some kind of crazy or innovative directorial choice. The camera whirls and zooms, making the stale Old West Town locale feel fresh and new.
The cast includes a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio and a pre-Gladiator Russell Crowe opposite beloved genre actors Keith David and Lance Henriksen, heightening the film’s appeal as a sort of elevated B-movie. Along with his less successful 1993 feature Darkman, The Quick and the Dead serves as a stylistic missing link between Sam Raimi’s cult classic Evil Dead trilogy and his world-shaking Spider-Man trilogy.
The Quick and the Dead is streaming on Netflix.
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
During the mid-1990s, Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own star Geena Davis took a swing at becoming a big-screen action heroine. Alongside then-husband, director Renny Harlin, Davis produced back-to-back action vehicles, the pirate adventure Cutthroat Island in 1995 and crime thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight the following year. The Long Kiss Goodnight is a sharp, fun, and thrilling action flick in which Davis stars opposite Samuel L. Jackson as a typical single mom who recovers repressed memories of being a cold-hearted assassin. It was well-received by critics but faced an uphill battle with audiences.
Why? Blame Cutthroat Island, whose disastrous reception 11 months earlier was an industry laughingstock that brought down an entire movie studio. Neither filmgoers nor New Line Cinema gave The Long Kiss Goodnight much of a chance but is now a cult classic, thanks in part to its place in the Shane Black screenwriting canon.
The Long Kiss Goodnight is streaming on HBO Max.
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