The 1990s were an incredible decade for action cinema. After Die Hard’s release in 1988, many imitators attempted to use that formula, but there were many different bold and original action films that dominated the decade. Many of the most influential action directors of all-time, including James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Verhoeven, and the Wachowskis, created films that continue to inspire future generations of filmmakers to this day.
There’s no one way to define a great action film, but the films on this list stand out for their groundbreaking filmmaking, electrifying action sequences, memorable characters, and cultural impact. Here are the top twenty best action movies of the 1990s.
20. Batman Returns
The sequel to 1989’s smash hit Batman is an equally weird, eccentric action noir that perfectly combines Tim Burton’s elaborate sense of the macabre with the imagination of Bob Kane’s characters.
Burton’s second stab at the franchise is a much more confident, textured approach, as he crafts a surprisingly clever satire of political campaigns within the battle between Batman (Michael Keaton) and the Penguin (Danny Devito), as Penguin is considered a possible mayoral candidate. Devito is having a blast chewing the scenery, but the film really stands out due to the iconic performance by Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/ Catwoman, a femme fatale that is just as bizarre as the rest of Burton’s noir universe. The best Batman films are often the ones where Gotham City feels like a real place, and Batman Returns stands as one of the most visually unique and thematically rich films in the series.
19. The Crow
One of the darkest and most kinetic comic book action films of all-time, The Crow sent shockwaves through cinematic culture due to its iconic soundtrack, striking visuals, and of course the performance by Brandon Lee as Eric Draven. Lee was killed during an on set accident during the film’s production, and his tragic passing gives the character of Eric Draven even more emotional resonance as he returns from the dead to undertake a mission of revenge. The film’s closing moments hold even more power as Draven finds his moments of peace. While it inspired a franchise that never lived up to its potential, The Crow remains a cult classic.
18. Clear and Present Danger
The Jack Ryan franchise has been through many iterations, and while 1990’s The Hunt For Red October was more of a spy thriller, the series became a full on action franchise when Harrison Ford took on the role.
Ford’s first iteration as Ryan in 1992’s Patriot Games was a solid reinvention of the character, but 1994’s Clear and Present Danger was in many ways the ultimate Jack Ryan adventure. Ryan is tasked with investigating the connection between an American businessman’s death and a drug cartel in Columbia, and becomes aware of a wide ranging conspiracy involving the U.S. Government. Ford is perfectly cast as an experienced, yet idealistic analyst who has been trained to be skeptical, and it is interesting to see Ryan question the institutions he’s trusted over the course of the film’s story.
17. The Mask of Zorro
A terrific throwback to a different era of swashbuckling action-adventure films, The Mask of Zorro is a playful take on the Zorro character that benefits from the two great performances who play the titular role.
Anthony Hopkins stars as Don Diego de la Vega, the original Zorro who escapes capture in order to avenge the death of his wife, and Antonio Banderas matches him as the younger adventurer Alejandro Murrieta, who has also donned the mask. The chemistry between the two is excellent, as both characters have different reasons for taking on the mission to stop Governor Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) from taking over California. It’s the rare protégé and mentor relationship where both characters learn from each other, and the spirited performances by Hopkins and Banderas are instrumental in creating the film’s old fashioned tone.
16. In the Line of Fire
This conspiracy thriller was one of Clint Eastwood’s last action star vehicles, and it ranks among the best performances that he’s ever given. Eastwood has the market cornered on playing grizzled law enforcement officers, and he’s given a lot of great dramatic material as Frank Horrigan, a Secret Service agent who failed to stop John F. Kennedy from being assassinated. Horrigan’s anxieties about failing another President come to fruition when the sadistic assassin Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) aims to kill the current President.
Malkovich received an Oscar nomination for his memorable role as a criminal mastermind who enjoys taunting Horrigan. Director Wolfgang Peterson is well known for his ability to capture chaos on screen, and this breathless thriller makes for an interesting redemption story that takes place during a political campaign.
15. Die Hard With A Vengeance
Transforming the Die Hard franchise into a surprisingly entertaining buddy cop adventure, Die Hard With A Vengeance paired Bruce Willis’s John McClane with Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), a small time shop owner who teams up with McClane to solve a series of riddles left by Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons), the brother of the original Die Hard’s Hans Gruber. McClane remains one of the greatest action heroes of all-time due to his snarky, sardonic manner, and Jackson is able to provide another strong personality with him to play off of.
The ties to the first film are quite clever, and Jeremy Irons gives a menacing performance as the terrorist who has rigged bombs throughout New York City. The mystery element puts McClane and Zeus on a race against time, exploring the vastness of New York City as the two mismatched partners embark on their adventures.
14. Air Force One
Of all the films to utilize the Die Hard premise, the concept of “Die Hard on Air Force One” is certainly one of the most creative. The idea of the President of the United States being an action hero sounds ludicrous, but director Wolfgang Peterson infuses the film with an attention to detail and sense of grittiness that makes the premise feel believable.
Harrison Ford is phenomenal as President James Marshall, and Ford’s signature gruffness fit perfectly for his role as a military veteran who draws on his wartime experience to save the day. He’s also matched by Gary Oldman, who is having the time of his life as the over the top villain Egor Korshunov. It’s a claustrophobic film that culminates with one of the greatest one-liners of any action film, “Get off my plane!”
After a six year hiatus, the James Bond franchise returned to its full power in 1995 with Goldeneye, the first of Pierce Brosnan’s four iterations as the character. Brosnan is often not given enough credit for his performance; he’s able to capture Sean Connery’s charisma, Roger Moore’s sense of humor, and Timothy Dalton’s physicality, all while adding his own interpretation of the role.
Goldeneye was in many ways a more modernized version of the series, incorporating some of the best gadgets and technology of the entire franchise, as well as some of its best action sequences, including the thrilling opening set piece that establishes Bond’s relationship with Janus (Sean Bean). Bean’s character is in many ways a dark mirror to Bond, as he is a former MI6 agent who plots to cause a global financial crisis. The rest of Brosnan’s Bond films were unable to meet the high standard of Goldeneye.
12. The Last of the Mohicans
Michael Mann’s frontier epic is quite different from the epic crime sagas that he usually helms, but it retains his signature commentary on the nature of violence and obsession. The Last of the Mohicans reimagines the French and Indian War as a sweeping epic that examines the intersections between class, race, and family, and the sincerity of the characters doesn’t feel corny or out of place. Daniel Day Lewis, of course, is phenomenal, and makes for a compelling romantic lead and action hero all at once with his performance as Hawkeye. Mann stages brilliant historical recreations and doesn’t shy away from showing the grimmest aspects of war.
11. Con Air
Con Air is the type of ridiculous, nonsensical live action cartoon of an action film that just isn’t seen anymore, and that’s a real shame. The film features a colorful array of wacky criminals, cheesy one liners, and an all-time ridiculous Nicolas Cage performance, and it never loses its sense of whimsy or sincerity.
Cage plays Cameron Poe, a veteran who was sentenced to ten years in prison for killing a man who threatened his wife. The plane transporting prisoners home is hijacked by the vicious Sirus the Virus (John Malkovich), and Poe must save the flight crew without blowing his cover. Cage’s wacky New Orleans accent adds a considerable amount of comedy to the film, as does the extensive supporting cast of villains, including Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, and Danny Trejo. Con Air attains a level of self-awareness that is appreciated, and gifted moviegoers everywhere with the line “put the bunny back in the box.”