To many, the 90s are the era where some of the best films were released. Chances are, you’ve watched plenty of movies from the decade without even realizing. The 90s gave us so many groundbreaking genre gems, from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) to The Sixth Sense (1999); from Groundhog Day (1993) to Good Will Hunting (1997); from Pretty Woman (1990) to The Truman Show (1998); from The Crow (1994) to Scream (1996). Steven Spielberg alone made at least three alltime classics (Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), and so did plenty of well-known directors, as the 90s saw the release of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Fincher’s Fight Club and Se7en, Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, and many more.
It was the decade of blockbusters, from Thelma and Louise to Forrest Gump, Home Alone, Independent Day and Titanic, as well as independent gems like Being John Malkovich, Boogie Nights, Clerks, and Trainspotting, and also a fantastic one for animation (The Lion King, Toy Story, Ghost in the Shell, Princess Mononoke, The Nightmare Before Christmas). And, of course, it was the year of fantastic adrenaline-fueled action movies that gave us explosive thrill rides and heart-pounding fight sequences, and have stood the test of time.
So let’s take a trip down memory lane and explore 5 great action movies from the 90s that continue to captivate audiences today! So head to your living room with a big bowl of popcorn – or make sure to have high speed internet if you’re watching on an online streaming platform – and get ready for some fun action movies that are perfect whether you want to revisit the decade or to discover something new. Let’s begin!
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Back in 1984, The Terminator took the world by storm by delivering one of the most compelling sci-fi epics we had seen to date, with the story of a cyborg assassin (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who is sent back in time to 1984 to kill a woman (Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor) whose unborn son would be able to prevent the apocalyptic event planned by the artificial intelligence who hired him from happening. This low-budget production conquered the hearts of countless sci-fi fans, revolutionizing the genre as a whole with the great storytelling that defines director James Cameron’s cinema.
And though the first film is the most beloved chapter of the Terminator saga, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is just as good, delivering the same epic storytelling with a slightly more complex screenplay and plenty of satisfying action. The film is set eleven years after The Terminator and mainly revolves around the same battle of good vs evil, but this time, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, cyborg T-800, is the protector. The film’s antagonist is the shape-shifting T-1000 (Robert Patrick), who has been once against sent back in time to kill John Connor (Edward Furlong), but the boy and his mother team up with T-800. With its heart-pounding chase scenes, intense action sequences, well-crafted, complex characters, and a thought-provoking storyline about the nature of humanity, Terminator 2: Judgment Day remains one of the most influential action movies of all time.
2. The Matrix (1999)
Lilly & Lana Wachowski
It’s hard to place The Matrix into a genre, as it’s one of those movies that defy definition: this groundbreaking sci-fi action film created a genre of its own upon release and hasn’t aged a day to this day. The film revolves around a tech-savvy loner named Neo (Keanu Reeves) who is one day contacted by a woman named Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) and taken to someone named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a very hard man to read. Morpheus gives Neo a choice: either go back to his ordinary life or “take the red pill” and find out the truth.
Needless to say, Neo chooses the latter, and soon discovers that the place he called home was a simulated reality created by machines. Morpheus, who leads the rebellion, believes that neo is “the One”, and that he has the power to save them all. As he learns martial arts and becomes acquainted with the rules of this unfamiliar world – as well as new ways to interact with the simulation he once called home – Neo fights the terrifying Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and very quickly discovers – to quote Morpheus – just “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
It’s best to leave it at that to avoid spoilers but suffices it to say that The Matrix was innovative back in 1999 – to the extent that it actually invented many special effects – and still is in 2023. If you haven’t seen this wonderfully witty, surprisingly violent film, it will become your new obsession. If you’ve seen it before, you’ll find the action scenes just as groundbreaking as you did upon release, and you’ll be surprised by how timely its themes still are to this day.
3. The Fugitive (1993)
The Fugitive is very different from the action movies listed above, as it takes place in our own world and mainly revolves around an ordinary man escaping from the law. But Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is no ordinary “fugitive”: he was wrongfully accused of murdering his wife, and he’s determined to find proof that would show the authorities – detective Samuel Gerard’s (Tommy Lee Jones) and his marchals – that they’re wrong. Of course, the only way to find the proof he needs is to catch the actual killer, which puts Richard in even more danger, and keeps us on the edge of our seat from start to finish as he uncovers secrets about his wife’s past and death.
What makes The Fugitive so good is the combination of a fantastic screenplay (Jeb Stuart and David Twohy) that creates plenty of tension, and exceptional acting from leads Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, joined by an all star cast that includes Julianne Moore, Joe Pantoliano and Sela Ward. The Fugitive is the textbook example of a chase thriller, made even more compelling by the mystery underneath and the charisma of its protagonists.
4. Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
The third Die Hard film is in no way the best instalment in the beloved Die Hard franchise, as, narrative-wise, it’s filled with stereotypes and very predictable. But there’s a lot of heart in a film that still has plenty of throwbacks to the original to still belong to the franchise, and, more importantly, delivers plenty of breathtaking, well-choreographed action scenes that you won’t be able to take your eyes off.
Die Hard with a Vengeance brings back Bruce Willis as the indomitable John McClane, a now retired and divorced detective who definitely doesn’t have it together, as he has a drinking habit and doesn’t quite know what to do with his life. But his skills are soon needed with a terrorist named Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons) takes control of New York City and forces everyone to take part in a deadly game. And so, McClane teams up with an electrician (Samuel L. Jackson) to try and second guess their “captor” and ultimately save the city by navigating through a series of high-stakes challenges and solving riddles.
What makes this film truly shine is the chemistry between Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, whose on-screen banter and unlikely partnership provide a perfect blend of humor and action. McClane’s sarcastic wit and Carver’s street-smart resilience create a compelling duo that you can’t help but root for, and the action scenes are bound to enthral you throughout the movie.
5. Mission: Impossible (1996)
Brian De Palma
Of course, we can’t complete this list without Mission: Impossible. Tom Cruise takes on the role of Ethan Hunt, an elite operative for the U.S. government’s Impossible Missions Force (IMF) who is sent on a dangerous mission that goes utterly wrong, as he becomes the prime suspect in a murder investigation. Not only that, but Ethan is completely alone, as his own agency is suspiciously unreachable, making him think that they might be trying to make him a pawn in a bigger game. And so, Hunt teams up with brilliant hacker Luther (Ving Rhames) and skilled pilot Franz (Jean Reno). Their new mission? Stealing a secret computer file from inside an inaccessible CIA building, which would ultimately prove his innocence.
Mission: Impossible is the action movie you’ll find yourself going back to over and over again, as its charismatic cast, improbable stunts, and irresistible dynamics make a recipe for success. It might not be the most subversive film you’ve ever seen, but it’s a thrilling, enjoyable one that has stood the test of time.
The 90s were a golden era for action movies, and these 5 films stand as great examples of the genre’s excellence. If you love entertaining and heart-pounding movies, you’re definitely going to like the movies listed above. Happy watching!