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Hasta La Vista, Baby: The Best ’90s Action Movies

By David Young · March 6, 2023

Hasta La Vista, Baby: The Best 90s Action Movies_featured

A certain blend of formulas gave us the movies we remember from the 1990s. Nowhere was this more true than in the action genre, as largely defined as that may be. Whether it’s the sci-fi spectacle of Jurassic Park and Independence Day or the grounded, star-powered stories like Air Force One and Speed, the filmmakers of the ’90s had it down to a science. Each one feels iconic for one of two reasons: the stars or the spectacles, the vehicles or the visuals. But more than that, each of these films focuses on an invaluable trait of the action hero: their skills. 

Combining this with the grandeur of an acting star or hot new visuals created the action films most successful in shaping the future of experience cinema. Something about the largeness of these action-packed flicks made the world expect even more — and it’s thanks to action movies from the ’90s that Marvel movies look and feel the way they do now. If you want proof, take a look at the following 90s action movies.

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Air Force One (1997)

First up on our list of 90s action movies is Air Force One. Harrison Ford was everywhere — he was an action hero for decades, from Han Solo’s first appearance in the ’70s to his days as Indiana Jones, expanding into the Crystal Skull. But in the 1990s, Ford’s action roles included some more real-life-gone-wrong-type adventures, like the film Air Force One

The story isn’t a high-octane mess, but instead a thriller and a race to the rescue — with Ford acting as war veteran POTUS James Marshall, a “Rambo on a plane.” Rife with post-Cold-War terrorism, this film takes many steps to build out a world that offers high stakes in a way that feels larger than life, and the performance of the star-studded cast (with Ford acting opposite Gary Oldman) makes for a thrilling ride.

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GoldenEye (1995)

Nothing really screams “Action in the ’90s” like Pierce Brosnan as the legendary 007. James Bond’s usual escapades involve debonair attitudes and explosions, but Brosnan sold it in this film first. But it’s not just a vehicle for stardom: the James Bond tradition carries with it a certain amount of spectacle, grandeur, and of course, world-saving action. 

The action villain really was perfected in the Bond movies, and that’s only further cemented by films like GoldenEye — the one Bond film so iconic that it gave birth to a video game as well. And isn’t that what all good action movies really deserve?

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Independence Day (1996)

There is something about having many familiar faces fighting for Earth’s survival that just creates a powerful experience. But more than that, the film is a memorable mural of spectacles: from Randy Quaid’s character performing his act of revenge to the unwarranted destruction of the White House — and many cities across the world — it’s clear that Independence Day is meant to show off what the ’90s were capable of. 

The believable alien creatures, the looming spaceships, and the ruins of Buffalo, New York, all give a clearer picture of how the action was done right back then — and served as a template for future spectacles in the modern day.

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The Matrix (1999)

If you want an action-packed science-fiction adventure, check out The Matrix. Not only is it a thought-provoking rendition of the fears that earlier science fiction brought to the table, but it’s also a film full of mystery, fights, and chases. In this flick, the action informs the mystery to the ultimate degree — and when you watch or read it, you’ll question everything that comes your way while drinking in the action scenes, evocative worldbuilding, and of course, the knowledge that brings Neo his unparalleled skills in the Matrix. 

Read More: The Hero’s Journey Breakdown: The Matrix

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Speed (1994)

Sometimes, action happens when it’s least expected. And no one expected the events of Speed. As Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock piece together their situation in the high-speed events of this flick, they’re stuck with various “rock and a hard place” moments. The story itself forces on the audience a sense of urgency that keeps mounting — and the stellar performances of these two stars fill the screen and page with tension that must go somewhere.

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Jurassic Park (1993)

You can’t expect Jurassic Park to be anything but a spectacle: The idea of dinosaurs in an amusement park just brings specific and unforgettable images to mind. The action of Jurassic Park is more of a slow burn, carrying weight the more you watch it. It is, by all accounts, a sci-fi movie, first and foremost, but the action within it is real and sometimes terrifying.

Being chased and hounded by prehistoric predators while you race for survival creates a lot of tension, and this kind of situational action film — with huge contextual spaces and buildup to consider — makes for a great template for modern sci-fi action flicks as well.

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Read More: Out of This World Sci-Fi Screenplays

Blade (1998)

Superhero movies are some of the most recognizable forms of action films. And yet, what we know now as a superhero movie didn’t start with Spider-Man in 2002. Instead, Marvel’s first modern cinematic foray came to us in 1998 with a little movie called Blade

Everyone’s favorite half-vampire hero, portrayed by Wesley Snipes, gave the world something to remember with a film that captured themes of horror, danger, and high stakes — and that iconic 1990s trope of needing to save the whole world, all thanks to Snipe’s adept vampire-slaying in the film.

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Mission: Impossible (1996)

Sometimes, action heroes have to act outside of their purview. That’s usually a suicide mission, though — otherwise known as Mission: Impossible

This star-powered spy action thriller shows Tom Cruise’s character taking on a seemingly impossible task: proving his innocence in the face of treasonous charges. Once again, films in the ’90s prove how those skills inherent in an action hero must be valued for the movie to really pay off.

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Read More: The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Formula to Writing Thrilling Heist Sequences

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

We love a good woman-led action flick! The best action hero in this film is Sarah Connor, but she’s not the only one. The original Terminator himself (Schwarzenegger) comes back to protect Sarah’s son as well, and it’s through their separate ordeals that the stakes of Judgment Day really come to light. Having to escape the seemingly indestructible T-1000 successfully will create enough mounting tension to deliver the high-octane experience first capitalized on in the first film. 

But make no mistake — Terminator 2 is and has always been the best of the franchise for a reason: Sarah’s adept adaptation to each situation as she fights to keep her son alive.

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90s Action Movies: What’s Your Favorite?

Action films today aren’t always focused on the same traits as the successful films of yesteryear. While some movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have won the hearts of the world, others have failed — because they’re not focusing on the formula.

It’s not just stars or spectacles that make a powerful action flick. If we can learn anything from the ’90s, it’s this: the action genre is about what the hero can and will do. It’s about putting their skills to the test — and if you combine that with high-octane scenes and well-developed main characters, your action story can shine just as brightly as the action movie golden age of the 1990s!

Read More: 25 Best Action Screenplays You Can Read and Download

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