Led out of the mega machismo of the 1980s by everyman action hero John McClane in Die Hard, the '90s were a great time for action movies. From Point Break to Speed to Mission: Impossible to the decade-ending The Matrix, the era has no shortage of highly memorable and influential hits that are still highly regarded today.
Still, there were a load of action flicks that don't get the recognition they deserve in the modern era — even some that were huge successes but don't seem to have the lingering pop culture impact of a Terminator 2 or The Professional.
It'd be easy for me to just make this a list of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, but I promise I won't. Maybe.
20. The Chase
- Release Date: March 4, 1994
- Directed By: Adam Rifkin
- Cast: Charlie Sheen, Kristy Swanson, Henry Rollins, Josh Mostel, Ray Wise, Cary Elwes
Why It's Worth Watching: If you've ever clamored to see a blossoming romance set almost entirely during a high-speed chase set to a soundtrack featuring a who's who of SoCal punk bands and features punk legend Henry Rollins as a no nonsense copper, The Chase is what you're looking for. In a case of mistaken identity of an escaped convict, Sheen is pursued by cops after he panics and takes Swanson's character hostage, forming a romance as they attempt to escape to Mexico.
Stacked with cameos from LA scenesters like Red Hot Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis and Flea and porn legend Ron Jeremy, The Chase is a punk-influenced satire of sensationalist reporting and abusive law enforcement that has gone unappreciated in the 20 plus years since its release.
19. Demolition Man
- Release Date: October 8, 1993
- Directed By: Marco Brambilla
- Cast: Wesley Snipes, Sylvester Stallone, Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt
Why It's Worth Watching: Besides the fact that it imagines a future where Taco Bell is the nation's only surviving fast food chain (we could only be so lucky in post-truth America), it brings together two egotistical powerhouses in Stallone and Snipes, pitting them against each other as cryogenically frozen arch enemies — Stallone a cop, Snipes a criminal mastermind — that awake in an increasingly realistic post-apocalyptic America.
The movie certainly isn't a masterpiece, but it's an imaginative action sci-fi flick that teeters on the brink of satire and is anchored by surprisingly strong performances from its primary leads. And even where it falls apart, at the very last it is spectacular in its failures.
18. Predator 2
- Release Date: November 21, 1990
- Directed By: Stephen Hopkins
- Cast: Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Bill Paxton, Robert Davi
Why It's Worth Watching: Even though Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't return for a Predator sequel, Predator 2 works magnificently reuniting Lethal Weapon adversaries Glover and Busey as an LAPD detective and a Special Agent that wind up hunting the alien Predator after it disrupts a major drug investigation.
The reason it works so well — and probably the reason it's often overlooked — is that it's such a crazy departure from the original's premise. You've still got this alien killing machine terrorizing humans, but that it interrupts a real-world investigation of drug cartels is genius. Plus, the tagline was "He's in town with a few days to kill." I mean, come on.
17. Tomorrow Never Dies
- Release Date: December 16, 1997
- Directed By: Roger Spottiswoode
- Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Jonathan Pryce, Michelle Yeoh, Judi Dench, Teri Hatcher
Why It's Worth Watching: Pierce Brosnan's Bond films, GoldenEye aside, are predominately underwhelming. However, despite its mediocracy in the larger pantheon of Bond flicks, Tomorrow Never Dies actually has quite a bit going for it. It's got an amazing motorcycle sequence and a badass Bond girl in the form of Michelle Yeoh, who was actually Bond's peer instead of just his romantic interest.
Most surprisingly, Tomorrow Never Dies is actually pretty cynical as it pertains to the emerging prevalence of the internet at that time, featuring a plot about a media mogul trying to manipulate world leaders into World War III so as to benefit from the news coverage. In an era of post-truth and fake news dominating the political climate, Pryce's villainous character could more than likely succeed in his plans if only he'd waited until 2016 to enact it.
16. Dick Tracy
- Release Date: June 15, 1990
- Directed By: Warren Beatty
- Cast: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan, Catherine O'Hara, Charlie Korsmo
Why It's Worth Watching: If you love the comic book movies of today, you owe it to yourself to revisit Dick Tracy. As much as Tim Burton's Batman deserves credit for making superhero flicks mainstream, Beatty's technicolor dream is a precursor to the stylish comic book adaptations of the modern era like 300 and Sin City.
Dick Tracy has commitment to the source material that even Marvel would scoff at. The colors are vibrant, the characters look and act like their comic strip counterparts, their names are silly, not to mention that Beatty is perfect in the role of the gruff gun-toting detective. Critical reactions have always been mixed, but it's the visual appeal of Dick Tracy that makes it a must-watch.
15. Die Hard 2
- Release Date: July 4, 1990
- Directed By: Renny Harlin
- Cast: Bruce Willis, William Sadler, William Atherton, Reginald VelJohnson
Why It's Worth Watching: Die Hard 2 is essentially a classic Hollywood Die Hard pitch in and of itself — "It's Die Hard in an airport!" — but despite it being unoriginal in its premise, the movie still manages to be one hell of an action movie. Holding it to the standards of the original is pretty harsh, particularly when the movie provides a steady stream of great actions set pieces, including what might be the best explosion ever caught on film.
14. Conspiracy Theory
- Release Date: August 8, 1997
- Directed By: Richard Donner
- Cast: Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, Patrick Stewart
Why It's Worth Watching: Conspiracy theories are a little less amusing in post-truth America, but Donner's underrated action thriller is worth checking out for the strong performances of Gibson and Roberts, as well as the layer-by-layer onion peeling that showcases a devotion to high concept that few action movies grounded in reality attempt. It might not be a Donner classic in the same way as Lethal Weapon, but it's a fun way to kill a couple of hours.
13. Blue Streak
- Release Date: September 17, 1999
- Directed By: Les Mayfield
- Cast: Martin Lawrence, Luke Wilson, Dave Chappelle, Peter Greene
Why It's Worth Watching: Pre-Big Momma's House Martin Lawrence was chock full of comedy gems, and this buddy cop flick wasn't quite the action bonanza of Bad Boys but had way more laughs. The chemistry of the slick Lawrence and the aw-shucks charm of Luke Wilson makes for an appealing pairing amidst a predictable — but fun — story of a jewel thief and his treasure.
12. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
- Release Date: March 30, 1990
- Directed By: Steve Barron
- Cast: Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas, Corey Feldman, Michael Turney
Why It's Worth Watching: T-U-R-T-L-E-Power. The first film incarnation of the TMNT phenomenon, the original 1990 film is not only one of the most engaging — and thematically mature — comic book movie offerings, but it's also got plenty of great action to thrill.
Despite the bulky turtle costumes and the inability to really use their weapons, the fight scenes are thoroughly badass — from the antique shop fight with the Foot to the fantastic rooftop climax with The Shredder, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is underrated not only as a superhero flick, but an action movie.
- Release Date: September 16, 1994
- Directed By: Peter Hyams
- Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Ron Silver, Mia Sara
Why It's Worth Watching: Are there massive plot holes in Timecop? Sure. Do they matter? Not when #JCVD is spin kicking his way through time and messing up bad dudes with attitudes. Based on the Dark Horse Comics series, Timecop is imaginative and fun in a way that most Van Damme movies — as much as I love them — forget to be.
10. The Long Kiss Goodnight
- Release Date: October 11, 1996
- Directed By: Renny Harlin
- Cast: Geena Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Craig Bierko, Brian Cox
Why It's Worth Watching: Another Renny Harlin joint on this list, and the first of two Shane Black-written flicks. Notoriously known as one of the biggest screenwriting paydays of the '90s, the script fumbled around in Hollywood bidding wars until it was finally made and released by New Line Cinema.
It's got all of the Black-ian touchstones, including badass one-liners, creative action sequences, Christmas, and a lot of gun violence. Though it was pretty well-received at the time, it's definitely faded to the background of Black's career — but it shouldn't stay there.
9. In The Line Of Fire
- Release Date: July 9, 1993
- Directed By: Wolfgang Petersen
- Cast: Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Renee Russo, John Mahoney
Why It's Worth Watching: It's another take on the Eastwood speciality: A man haunted by his past looking to make things right. In this case, it's as Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan, who failed to stop the assassination of JFK. When a rogue CIA agent threatens to kill the current POTUS, Horrigan is, of course, the only one that can stop him.
In the Line of Fire is a forgotten latter-day Eastwood gem despite numerous Academy Award nominations — maybe because it lives in the shadow of Unforgiven, released the year prior.
8. Patriot Games
- Release Date: June 5, 1992
- Directed By: Phillip Noyce
- Cast: Harrison Ford, Anne Archer, Sean Bean, Richard Harris, Thora Birch, James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson
Why It's Worth Watching: Harrison Ford takes over the role of CIA analyst-turned-action hero Jack Ryan from Alec Baldwin and becomes the best man to inhabit the role. While not as good a flick (or novel, for that matter, which is admittedly very different from the film) as The Hunt for Red October, it's always delightful to see Harrison Ford shooting guns and pointing at stuff.
7. Rapid Fire
- Release Date: August 21, 1992
- Directed By: Dwight H. Little
- Cast: Brandon Lee, Powers Boothe, Kate Hodge
Why It's Worth Watching: Before he was Eric Draven, Brandon Lee shined in this straight forward action romp that utilized his martial arts skills more than his acting chops. It's a classic case of an art student unwittingly wrapped up in the business of a drug kingpin and left no choice but to take down a narcotics empire while romancing a lady.
6. Air Force One
- Release Date: July 25, 1997
- Directed By: Wolfgang Petersen
- Cast: Harrison Ford, Glenn Close, Gary Oldman, Dean Stockwell
Why It's Worth Watching: Oh, look. More Harrison Ford! The man is just a magnetic action icon, and putting him in the role of POTUS was just genius. "Get off my plane" is right up there with the best of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and his good guy/bad guy chemistry with uber villain Gary Oldman nearly reaches McClane/Gruber territory.
Not to mention that an action thriller set in such a claustrophobic locale (I mean, it's still an airplane even if it is Air Force One) is an achievement in and of itself. It's also directed by In the Line of Fire's Wolfgang Petersen, making that two entries in the top ten for the filmmaker.
5. The Last Boy Scout
- Release Date: December 13, 1991
- Directed By: Tony Scott
- Cast: Bruce Willis, Damon Wayans, Talyor Negron, Chelsea Field, Danielle Harris
Why It's Worth Watching: Another Shane Black-written gem, this movie is crazy enough to open with a Monday Night Football-esque sequence that ends with an NFL player committing a murder-suicide on the air.
Bruce Willis plays a PI that's a down-and-out Secret Service agent that once saved the president's life (looks like Eastwood's In the Line of Fire character would have been disgraced either way) that winds up teaming with a former quarterback to take down the bad guys. Full of great lines and fun sequences, The Last Boy Scout is just aching to be revisited.
- Release Date: August 24, 1990
- Directed By: Sam Raimi
- Cast: Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Larry Drake, Colin Friels
Why It's Worth Watching: Before Sam Raimi reinvigorated the modern superhero movie with Spider-Man and prior to Liam Neeson becoming an iconic cinema badass, Darkman was an original take on the superhero genre that was as much a tribute to classic monster movies as it was comic books.
A serious superhero native to cinema would never be attempted in today's franchise film economy — attempts like Hitchcock are all some degree of satire or parody — let alone spawn its very own (decidedly lackluster) sequels.
3. True Lies
- Release Date: July 15, 1994
- Directed By: James Cameron
- Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bill Paxton, Tom Arnold
Why It's Worth Watching: James Cameron is certainly no slouch when it comes to action blockbusters, already coasting to cinema history with Aliens, Terminator, and Terminator 2 under his belt by the time True Lies came along. The film is the tale of a secret agent leading a double life, only to get his family wrapped up in a counter-terrorism operation.
Although a massive hit in 1994 and one of Schwarzenegger's greatest performances, the film has gone woefully under appreciated in the great pop culture lexicon — Jamie Lee Curtis' memorable striptease scene not withstanding.
2. Hard Target
- Release Date: August 20, 1993
- Directed By: John Woo
- Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lance Henriksen, Arnold Vosloo, Yancy Butler, Wilfred Brimley
Why It's Worth Watching: For my money, the best JCVD that money can buy. Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme) is a homeless former Marine that gets caught up in an illegal ring of hunters paying homeless vets to be their prey.
This epic includes, but is not limited to, Van Damme standing on a moving motorcycle while shooting a gun, sweeping back his duster like a gunslinger would to show off his revolver except it's just his leg, JCVD chomping a rattlesnake, and spin kicking bad guys off of their motorcycles in slo-mo.
- Release Date: September 25, 1998
- Directed By: John Frankenheimer
- Cast: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce, Natasha McElhone
Why It's Worth Watching: Car. Chases. Ronin feels like a forgotten classic that will surely be rediscovered in the decades to come when we go back to analyze what we lost because of CGI's affect on the movie industry. Ronin has an enormous amount of car chases — all of them super rad, and all of them incredibly real.
This movie utilizes an art of practical stunt coordination rarely seen in modern cinema after its release in 1998. Add into the mix an epic MacGuffin, Robert De Niro and Jean Reno being badasses, and a twisty-turny labyrinth of allegiances, and you've got the most amazing, oft-forgotten action flick of the '90s.
Which '90s action flick do you think is underrated?
What movies would you add to the list?