The action genre, which had become a blockbuster enterprise in the 1980s, took the 90s by storm. Hollywood, realizing that the genre could make them potential billions, began to produce hundreds of action films while also experimenting with the genre’s conventions.
With a rising influence from Japan and Hong Kong productions, who reinvented the action film with even more intense sequences and harder-edged stories, Hollywood-produced action films began to compete with each other of who could make not just action-packed films but those that displayed a little more finesse and artistry than the genre was known for.
The result was a decade that made some of the highest-grossing action films of all time: True Lies, Face/Off, and Con Air raked in hundreds of millions of dollars and it seemed the action movie was here to stay. But in such a crowded field, many action films–both popular and less successful at the time–have faded from memory in the ensuing decades. Here are 10 underseen action films from the 1990s that fans of films from the decade or genre should revisit.
1. Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991)
Cop Chris Kenner (Dolph Lundgren), an American raised in Japan, is given a new partner, Johnny Murata (Brandon Lee), a half-Japanese American. Mismatched from the start (Kenner doesn’t like American culture while Murata doesn’t like Japanese culture), they do have one thing in common: martial arts. Assigned to Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo district, they attempt to take down the Yakuza drug operation there.
Mismatched buddy cop action movies were a staple of 90’s action movies, and Showdown in Little Tokyo follows the familiar formula to a T. One thing it has going for it, of course, is the talent of Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son who died tragically on the set of The Crow just two years later. An entertaining, action-packed movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s a small underseen bit of fun for fans of the genre and Brandon Lee fans in particular.
2. Ricochet (1991)
Nick Styles (Denzel Washington), a young cop and law student, comes across hitman Earl Blake (John Lithgow) while on patrol in a carnival one night. Caught on camera as he saves a hostage and takes down Blake, the media makes Styles a hero.
Years later, Styles has become Assistant District Attorney while Blake has churned away in prison with a vendetta against the man who brought him down. After escaping from prison, Blake takes Styles hostage and engineers a cruel revenge that ruins Styles’ life. But Styles teams up with an old friend that’s turned into a drug kingpin to take Blake down for good.
This stylish and often intense action film is a solid thriller with standard excellent performances by Washington and Lithgow but somehow flew under the radar when it was released in 1991. Which is unfortunate, since its depiction of media’s fickle allegiance and concern over promoting explicit content rather than the truth was prescient, and it’s a 90s action film with some smart twists and turns in its plot.
3. Rapid Fire (1992)
After witnessing the death of his father at Tiananmen Square, LA-based art student Jake Lo (Brandon Lee) is lured into a pro-democracy Chna advocacy group. However, after witnessing the murder of a party sponsor, Jake is put into protective custody to testify against the murderer, a drug distributor with mafia ties. He’s almost murdered by agents, however, and is then taken by a Chicago cop who’s been after the drug kingpin who will be brought down by Jake’s testimony. From there, his involvement in the case becomes active as he fights alongside the police to bring the bad guys down.
As discussed before, Lee’s early unfortunate death had taken away a potential major action star, and Rapid Fire is a great representation of his talents in this field. He was in discussions to make a sequel to this film at the time of his death, and for good reason: Rapid Fire is a great showcase of his martial arts skills and his on-screen charisma. A fun action film that moves along at a clipped pace, Rapid Fire is an underseen action movie and one of Brandon Lee’s few films he made before his death.
4. Hard Boiled (1992)
John Woo is one of the best action movie directors of all time whose work unfortunately didn’t translate to Western sensibilities. Although he had a few major hits with 1997’s Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2, after a few Hollywood films Woo returned to Hong Kong to continue his work. Before making his American debut, however, Woo made one of the best action films of his career–if not all time–with 1992’s Hard Boiled.
An undercover cop who poses as a high-ranking assassin for a criminal triad teams up with Officer “Tequila” Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat) to take down the crime syndicate. But forget all that: the real draw here are the action sequences, which are intricately choreographed and dynamically shot by Woo. Now 25 years after its release, Hard Boiled still holds up and is a must-see for any serious action movie fan.
5. Deep Blue Sea (1999)
A team of scientists search for a cure to Alzheimer’s in a submarine, using sharks to grow a protein that restores dead neurons. But since the sharks’ brains were too small to harvest effective amounts of the protein they genetically engineer the sharks to have larger brains–which may not be the best idea, since one of the sharks escapes and almost kills a boat full of teenagers. An investor is sent to the company to see if they should continue funding the project, which is when the now super-smart sharks start to attack everyone in the research facility.
A battle between humans and hyper-intelligent sharks always promises a good time, and Deep Blue Sea delivers on this promise. With a well-crafted and sometimes intense premise, great visual effects, and an action thriller that delivers, Deep Blue Sea was a moderate hit upon its release but has since been somewhat forgotten. But for a good time watching an action flick, Deep Blue Sea transcends its somewhat silly premise and makes a slick and well-made thriller action fans will appreciate.