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10 best action movies of the 1990s

If the 1980s were the decade defined by the action movie, the ’90s were a decade that pushed the boundaries of what you could do within the genre. The best action movies from that decade showcased the influence that foreign films, and Hong Kong action movies in particular, were having on their American counterparts.

The action got grittier, the headliners got bigger, and the directors proved that they could push even an absurd premise to its very limits. These are the best action movies of the 1990s, a very good decade for action movies.

The Fugitive (1993)

The Fugitive
Genre Action, Thriller, Drama
Stars Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pantoliano
Directed by Andrew Davis
It’s easy to imagine a version of The Fugitive that feels completely rote and predictable. Fortunately, the movie we actually got is way more interesting than that. Following a prominent doctor who is falsely accused of his wife’s murder, the film is an excellent showcase for both Harrison Ford (in one of his best movies) as the man accused and Tommy Lee Jones as the U.S. Marshal tasked with catching him. The cat-and-mouse game at the center of this film is excellent, and Jones is so good that he earned an Oscar for his performance.
The Fugitive (1993) Official Trailer #1 - Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones Movie

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Mission: Impossible
Genre Adventure, Action, Thriller
Stars Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Henry Czerny
Directed by Brian De Palma
Every Mission: Impossible movie is worth watching (with the possible exception of the second), but Mission: Impossible gets the entire endeavor off to a rollicking start. The film follows Ethan Hunt as he’s forced to go rogue after a mission goes bad and his entire team ends up dead. Although there’s plenty of outdated technology on display here, the movie works because it understands the importance of an outstanding set piece. Ethan’s attempt to infiltrate a secure computer rigged up with various alarm systems is among the best in the entire series, and it still feels like it hasn’t aged a day.
Mission: Impossible - Trailer

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Genre Action, Thriller, Science Fiction
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong
Directed by James Cameron

James Cameron is pretty good at making a sequel, and Terminator 2 may be his best. The movie, which was famously spoiled for audiences by the trailer, follows Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 as he attempts to save John Connor from the threat posed to him and his mother by the T-1000, a more advanced model that has been sent back in time to kill him. This movie is way more family-friendly than its predecessor and also features effects that still hold up today. On top of all that, it reinvented Sarah Connor as a genuine action hero, and turned her into an icon in the process.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Heat (1995)

Genre Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller
Stars Val Kilmer, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino
Directed by Michael Mann
Perhaps the movie on this list that can most realistically be described as high art, Heat is a story of cops and robbers taken to its extreme. The movie follows a criminal played by Robert De Niro and a cop played by Al Pacino as the two of them play a game of cat and mouse across Los Angeles. Although the movie features some genuinely thrilling shootouts, what has allowed Heat to endure is the way it seems to genuinely value both of its central characters. The iconic scene in which the two central figures meet and discuss the many ways they are alike is one of the greatest in the history of movies.
Heat (1995) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

The Rock (1996)

The Rock
Genre Action, Adventure, Thriller
Stars Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris
Directed by Michael Bay
Another actor who had a great action decade was Nicolas Cage, and The Rock was one of his crowning achievements. Cage plays a chemical weapons expert who is forced to team up with a former British spy to stop a chemical weapons attack that is set to take place on Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. The movie is absurd, but the chemistry between Cage and Sean Connery crackles, and the action is genuinely riveting from beginning to end. Few actors can go big like Cage, and in The Rock, he and Connery go big in a movie that can accommodate the size of their performances.
The Rock (1996) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Face/Off (1997)

Genre Action, Crime, Science Fiction, Thriller
Stars John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen
Directed by John Woo

Nicolas Cage and John Travolta are a genuine match made in heaven, and Face/Off is the perfect movie to see the two of them square off. Starting from a genuinely absurd premise (the two lead actors’ characters switch faces), Face/Off doesn’t get any less demented as it winds its way toward a conclusion. Fortunately, director John Woo is on hand to ensure that, as ridiculous as Face/Off often is, it also has a few genuinely hair-raising action sequences that few modern blockbusters would even dare to attempt.

Face/Off (1997) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix
Genre Action, Science Fiction
Stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
Directed by Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
The movie that redefined action filmmaking altogether, The Matrix was also a fitting conclusion to a decade filled with action movies that broke the mold. Following a young computer programmer who discovers that the world around him is not what he thought it was, The Matrix is still as mind-bending today as it was when it was released. The movie’s bullet time effect has been parodied to death, but that doesn’t make its use here feel any less effective. Thanks to that effect, and a heavy dose of influence from contemporary Hong Kong action films, The Matrix began a genuine revolution at the multiplex. 
The Matrix (1999) Official Trailer #1 - Sci-Fi Action Movie

Point Break (1991)

Point Break
Genre Action, Thriller, Crime
Stars Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Action star Keanu Reeves was utterly dominant in the 1990s, and Point Break helped to kick off that decade of supremacy. Telling the story of a young FBI agent who infiltrates a gang of bank-robbing surfers, Point Break is exactly as silly as it sounds, and that’s part of what makes it great. What really makes the movie work, though, in addition to the stellar direction of Kathryn Bigelow, is the way Reeves’ Johnny Utah seems to genuinely fall for the lifestyle of the surfers he’s chasing, so much so that he can’t actually bring himself to apprehend them when the moment of truth finally arrives.
Point Break (1991) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall
Genre Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven has played in many different genres over the course of his career, but his action movies are among the best he’s made. Total Recall, which tells the mind-bending story of a construction worker who discovers that he’s actually something of a secret agent, is most impressive because of its unrelenting strangeness. This is a movie that fully embraces practical effects, and features a number of great sequences set on Mars. Total Recall is the kind of movie that makes you question the reality of what you’ve just watched, but one thing you’ll be sure of is how great the movie itself undoubtedly is.

Speed (1994)

Genre Action, Adventure, Crime
Stars Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper
Directed by Jan de Bont
Maybe the most modest Keanu Reeves action vehicle on this list, Speed is worthy of its spot nonetheless in part because of its utter commitment to its fantastical premise. When Reeves is stuck on a bus that is rigged to blow up if it slows down, he goes to truly extraordinary lengths to save all the passengers on board. Thanks to some sparkling chemistry with Sandra Bullock, as well as some excellent supporting work from Alan Ruck and Jeff Daniels, Speed is perhaps the most literal thrill ride on this list. 
Speed (1994) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Editors' Recommendations

Movie images and data from:
Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance writer based in upstate New York focused on movies and TV.
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