04 March 2013

90s Action

More explosions, more car chases, more complicated plans to steal all the gold or rule the world. It's time for my favourite 90s action films.

This list features:

  • 3 starring Bruce Willis
  • 2 starring Nicolas Cage
  • 3 directed by Michael Bay
  • 4 directorial debuts (Bad Boys, Speed, Boondock Saints, Con Air)
  • 7 with police/FBI officers as major characters
  • 1 with oil-rig workers as major characters
  • 0 featuring space aliens... unless you count Peter Stormare's cabin-fevered cosmonaut.

10. DIE HARD 2 (1990)

This film has a valid excuse for repeating the "Die Hard in a <insert location here>" formula. Once again, John McClane is caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or the right place, really, considering he saves the day once again (not really that much of a spoiler in this genre).

This time, rogue military types seize control of Dulles International Airport remotely from a secret location, playing havoc with runway lights and aeroplane systems.

While in no way a weak or disappointing sequel, Die Hard 2 is still my least favourite of the series (my order is 1,3,4,2), and thus only sits at #10 for 90s action.


Imagine "Lethal Weapon"... with two younger, African-American, detectives instead. Martin Lawrence is married-with-kids-and-a-mortgage Marcus Burnett, and Will Smith is single-with-big-inheritance-and-fast-cars Mike Lowery. They have 72 hours to reclaim a drug shipment stolen out of their Miami police station's evidence vault, and protect a murder witness (Tea Leoni) at the same time.

The chemistry between Smith and Lawrence carries the movie. There is plenty of wisecracking. Lots of stuff blows up - this is a Michael Bay movie, after all. It's Bay's debut feature, after crossing over from the world of music videos and commercials, and lays out what to expect from future Bay films. Wisecracks and explosions. Sometimes at the expense of plot and believability, but there are times I need to switch my brain off... and then pass the popcorn!

8. SPEED (1994)

"Speed" is the directorial debut of Jan de Bont, cinematographer for films such as "Die Hard" and "The Hunt For Red October". The ticking clock motif common to many suspense thrillers is here replaced by the speedometer of a bus, which is linked to a bomb. Once the bus reaches 50mph, the bomb is armed, and will detonate if the speed ever drops back below that mark. Cue many close-ups of the speedometer getting oh-so-close to danger...

This could be done in several ways, and could come off as cliched or unbelievable. "Speed" keeps up the pace quickly enough, adding complications as it goes, that take us along for the ride rather than giving us pause for thought. In the case of an action movie, this is a good thing.

Keanu Reeves's character isn't a far stretch from his role as a cop in "Point Break", so there's not that much new there. I could easily imagine others (like some of these actors who reportedly turned it down) in the same role. However, Dennis Hopper is the standout, as the crazed (yet highly intelligent) villain intent on getting his revenge on the LAPD any way he can.

7. ARMAGEDDON (1998)

"Armageddon" hit cinema screens right around the same time as another end-of-the-world disaster movie, "Deep Impact", and of the two, I enjoy this one more. Sure, the plot is ludicrous. We can't spot a giant asteroid heading our way just because the budget doesn't cover enough of the "big-ass sky"? And the only way to get rid of it is to send a team of oil-rig workers up into space to drill a hole into the rock to place a nuke.

Once again, Michael Bay teams up with Big Explosions to create one of those "turn-off-your-brain-for-two-hours" action flicks. Bruce Willis and the supporting cast - including Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, and the late Michael Clarke Duncan - help make this an enjoyable entry in the genre.

6. CON AIR (1997)

Nicolas Cage plays Cameron Poe, an Army Ranger getting out on parole after a seven-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter (in a bar fight gone bad, which opens the film). He has to share a plane ride with some of the biggest and baddest criminals in America, who are all loaded onto the one flight. Of course, the bad guys take over the plane, and that's where Poe's problems really start, as he has to play along as a hardened criminal to fit in.

Cage and Cusack (as the lawman on the ground) are good, but the true scene stealing is done by the villains - John Malkovich, Ving Rhames and Steve Buscemi among them.

Over the top? Yes. Explosions? Of course. More explosions? Why not! While not much of a thought-provoking story, "Con Air" remains a watchable action flick.


Two Irish-American brothers, Connor and Murphy MacManus, get in a fight with Russian gangsters, and kill them. They then decide to become vigilantes, modern-day Robin Hoods killing the pimps, paedophiles and gangsters in their Boston neighbourhoods. Willem Dafoe is the FBI agent on trail of the serial killings, and Billy Connolly puts in an imposing appearance as an Irish assassin.

Some of the character motivations don't hold up to close scrutiny, though. The brothers start off with a self-ordained mission to "take out the trash", then switch to becoming guns-for-hire. They still only kill bad guys, but now they do it for a price and for a client, which brings definitions of "bad guy" into question.

The story is certainly a case of style over substance, with writer/director Troy Duffy showing clear influence from that other fan of talky violence, Quentin Tarantino. The ingredients are all there: a good cast, funny lines, and some stylish set pieces, like the hotel-room shootout. Despite the muddy philosophy, it's still an entertaining ride.


Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Nathaniel, aka "Hawkeye", in Michael Mann's historical action/adventure film. Together with his Mohican adopted father and brother, Hawkeye is a scout on the frontier of 18th Century America. The three men get caught up in events of the French and Indian Wars, with the British and Mohawks on one side, and the French and Huron on the other.

The great Wes Studi ("Dances With Wolves", "Avatar", and seen recently in TV's "Hell On Wheels") is in fine form as villain Magua, the Huron warrior intent on exacting revenge on the British for past injustices.

The scenery is breathtaking, and the score (by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman) is incredible. A great mix of drama, romance, and realistic action, this film is highly recommended.

3. GOLDENEYE (1995)

James Bond took a downturn at the box office through the Moore and Dalton years, up against action competition from 80s blockbusters - like those starring a certain bodybuilder. When Bond returned in 1995, he had a new face - Irish actor Pierce Brosnan, much closer to Connery than Dalton on the suave-o-meter.

He wasn't the only new face. "GoldenEye" moved with its times, and was set firmly in a post-Cold War world of computers, satellites and a new female M (played with no-nonsense perfection by Judi Dench).

Breathtaking stunts, a disfigured villain, globe-hopping scenery and pretty (and deadly) women... "GoldenEye" brings action and style back to the Bond films, and is my favourite of the Brosnan era. Martin Campbell would go on to direct another of my favourite Bonds, "Casino Royale".


In addition to being a continuation of the cop-in-the-wrong-place theme of the Die Hard movies, the third film (once again directed by John McTiernan) is a clever cat-and-mouse thriller, with puzzles and twists as well as explosions (the first of which goes off less than a minute in). Eastern European villains are back, once again with "terrorist" plans that aren't all they appear to be, and there's also a personal touch to the mess that John McClane finds himself thrown into.

The first two Die Hards saw John assisted from a distance, usually via radio or telephone. DH:WAV benefits from the inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson as Zeus, a Harlem storekeeper drawn into the deadly game of "Simon Says" laid for McClane by the enigmatic Simon (a brilliant Jeremy Irons). McClane and Zeus are the best "buddy-cop" partnership since Riggs and Murtaugh - in fact, the first versions of the script were intended to be a Lethal Weapon sequel, but got reworked into the Die Hard canon instead.

1. THE ROCK (1996)

Nicolas Cage is on the DVD cover, but the film belongs to Ed Harris and Sean Connery. Harris plays decorated war hero Brigadier-General Francis Hummel, angry over the mistreatment of black-ops soldiers and the families they leave behind. He and his elite unit steal a pile of nerve-gas rockets, and take control of Alcatraz.

In their plan to take back the island and rescue the hostages, the authorities have a secret weapon - Mason (Connery), a British spy (Bond?) arrested in the 60s and left to rot in prison. In his own words, Mason was "formerly a guest" at Alcatraz, and he is the only man to have escaped the island and survived. Together with FBI chemical "super-freak" Stanley Goodspeed (Cage), Mason joins the Navy SEAL team tasked with taking back Alcatraz from the rogue Marines.

"The Rock" is one of my favourite action movies of any decade, and it's one of those movies I can watch over and over. As a matter of fact, I watched it just the other afternoon as a double feature with "Top Gun", getting myself in the Action Movie zone.

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