The 15 Most Underrated Action Films of the 1990s

The 1990s boiled over with hot action, but these gems can’t be missed
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The 1990s was a fascinating decade for film. For one thing, computer technology evolved dramatically during the decade, from relatively hokey or highly-stylized “cyber” special effects that held sway in the 1980s, to some crazy CGI heading into the 2000s. A lot of what we now take for granted in that department was spurred by George Lucas who, for the creation of the Star Wars prequel films, pushed a whole new era of digital filmmaking into existence.

For action films, the field became more interesting, offering neo-noir masterpices like La Femme Nikita', pulp hits like Point Break, and sci-fi extravaganzas like Terminator 2. Meanwhile, directors like John Woo were pushing the boundary for hard-core, over-the-top action that would inspire some of the greatest action films of later decades. Other masterpieces, like Léon: The Professional (1994) aimed at a stylized emotional story told through an action script, striking gold in so many unexpected ways and ultimately becoming both recognized works of genius and cult favorites.

But there were other films, too, as there always are, that fell through the cracks. What’s sad is that some of these films were really solid in their own ways — some just for a particular cast, or a solid script, but others because of some total factor that made them shine as a complete entity. Maybe they premiered at the wrong time, or the studio didn’t give them the coverage they needed, but these little action films never saw the same recognition as some of the others that the 1990s spawned.

Let’s dive on in and see what’s been missed and forgotten.

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Hard Rain (1998)
Hard Rain (1998)
Director Actors
Mikael Salomon Christian Slater, Morgan Freeman

During a period of never-before-seen rains and floods, two armored-car drivers are ambushed by a gang of armed robbers.

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Hard Rain (1998)

Hard Rain (1998) deservedly got panned for a number of reasons, and yet, this little action-disaster gem lives on. It did really well during the VHS home video era, and the reasons for this are simple: it’s uncomplicated and fun. While it fails as the sort of spectacle piece you need to see on the big screen, and as an intense drama that could likewise make use of a movie theater, it succeeds as a rather simplistic action-shooter that makes great viewing cuddled up on a couch with someone special and a slice of pizza.

Rapid Fire (1992)
Rapid Fire (1992)
Director Actors
Dwight Little Brandon Lee, Nick Mancuso, Powers Boothe, Raymond J. Barry, Kate Hodge

A martial-artists caught between warring Chicago gangs ends up having to fight fire with fire to protect himself and those he loves.

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Rapid Fire (1992)

Rapid Fire (1992) is mainly a chance to watch the charismatic Brandon Bruce Lee kick butt and take names. This was two years before his tragic death on the set of The Crow, and it’s easy to see that we not only lost a good human being when Lee died, we also lost a consummate action actor who would have certainly reached new levels of stardom had he survived.

The action in this film is fun and solid, even if the plot and story are both a hot mess.

Ronin (1998)
Ronin (1998)
Director Actors
John Frankenheimer Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan SkarsgÅrd, Sean Bean, Skipp Sudduth

A team of former special operatives are hired to steal a mysterious, heavily guarded briefcase. But the team, led by an ex-CIA agent, while navigating a maze of shifting loyalties where trusting anyone could lead to disaster.

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Ronin (1998)

Ronin (1998) doesn’t usually top the charts of De Niro’s filmography, but it would be incorrect to forget this little gem. The acting is solid, the action supreme, and the plot has enough twists and turns to keep you interested. It inspired a huge number of other films and even some video games, and is probably one of the top action films you’ve never heard of.

Waterworld (1995)
Waterworld (1995)
Director Actors
Kevin Reynolds Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper

In the future, the polar ice cap has melted, and the sea now covers the land. A mutant antihero, “The Mariner”, drifts across the watery world in his trimaran, living free and clear until encountering a young girl with a map to dry land tattooed on her back.

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Waterworld (1995)

Waterworld (1995) is one of those “you hate it, or you love it” sort of films. It had a massive budget, which shows in fascinating ways, offering a grade-A film experience for a grade-B film. What this creates is a unique sort of futuristic action movie, something concerned with climate change and the reckless violence of the oil industry, but more intimately concerned with guns, explosions, giant fish, and strange dark frontiers for the future of our world. Go in expecting it to be precisely what it is, and you might come out surprised at how much you enjoyed it.

The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
Director Actors
Chia-Liang Liu Jackie Chan, Ho-Sung Pak, Lung Ti

A young martial artist and expert in the disgraced art of “drunken boxing” becomes embroiled in a foreign plot to steal precious artifacts.

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The Legend of Drunken Master (1994), despite being listed by Time magazine as one of the “100 best films of all time” doesn’t seem to get as much widespread love as it should.

The martial arts genre frequently lives halfway to fantasy, but in Drunken Master this is taken in stride for excellent comedic effect. Chan is a master of physical comedy the likes of which the world has not seen since the days of Buster Keaton, and in Drunken Master he was in his absolute prime. Funny, action-packed, and brimming with great physical work, this is one of the best martial arts films of all time.

Judgment Night (1993)
Judgment Night (1993)
Director Actors
Stephen Hopkins Denis Leary, Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Stephen Dorff, Jeremy Piven

A group of friends on their way to a boxing match take a wrong turn and end up witnessing a drug lord’s revenge. On the run, they must use their wits to escape, or face the same fate.

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Judgment Night (1993)

Judgment Night (1993) doesn’t offer a favorable view of life in the inner city, but its paranoid approach is clear and sharp, brimming with the sort of tension that you can only find in a 90s action film. Its premise is simple, and it never deviates far from its main pot, but it’s the sort of action thriller that’s perfect for a late night up.

The Rock (1996)
The Rock (1996)
Director Actors
Michael Bay Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris

A crazed United States General threatens a launch of chemical weapons from the island of Alcatraz, and only a nerdy FBI chemical warfare expert and a retired British spy can stop him.

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The Rock (1996)

The Rock (1996) is a pure slug-fest shooter with some great on-brand acting from Connery and others. It’s not smart, it’s not clever, but it is visceral in its exploitation of explosions and blood, and it packs a wallop in this regard from start to finish. Also, Quentin Tarantino was also an uncredited screenwriter, so that’s pretty nifty.

Weirdly, an informant to the British Secret Intelligence Service used this film to fabricate information that led to Britain’s entering the war in the Middle East.

The Last Boy Scout (1991)
The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Director Actors
Tony Scott Bruce Willis, Damon Wayans, Chelsea Field, Noble Willingham, Taylor Negron and Danielle Harris

A disgraced Secret Service agent and one-time hero discovers he’s embroiled in a massive plot. Now, he must team up with a former football quarterback who was kicked out of play for gambling in order to take down a criminal conspiracy of epic proportions.

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The Last Boy Scout (1991)

The Last Boy Scout (1991) is the perfect example of a buddy-cop action flick. You get exactly what you pay for with this one, in best early-90s style, and with Willis at the top of his game.

The Rocketeer (1991)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Director Actors
Joe Johnston Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, and Tiny Ron Taylor

A prototype jetpack goes missing in 1938, and both the FBI and Nazi agents are hot on its trail. The guy who finds it, however, is a stunt pilot with a hard head and a heart of gold.

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The Rocketeer (1991)

The Rocketeer (1991) is a fascinating film as one of the early modern superhero flicks to arrive on the scene, and a reminder of just how far special effects have come from the early 1990s. It’s a silly, fun story, that basically feels like it’s been pulled straight out of the 1930s serial films from which it draws inspiration.

Split Second (1992)
Split Second (1992)
Director Actors
Tony Maylam and Ian Sharp Rutger Hauer, Kim Cattrall, Alastair Neil Duncan, Pete Postlethwaite, Ian Dury, and Alun Armstrong.

A burned-out London detective is haunted by the death of his partner some years before, and obsessively tracks the killer—only, what he’s after may not be human after all.

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Split Second (1992)

Split Second (1992) didn’t connect with audiences and critics upon its release, but it’s become a lesser-known cult icon, largely due to the extremely solid performances by its cast, the gritty and low-budget feel, and the unintentionally hilarious moments (mostly between the two main cast members).

Anyone who follows my film writing will know that I’m a HUGE fan of Rutger Hauer’s work, as well as of B-films like Split Second, and I honestly think this is one of the most underrated of his schlock movies. Just watch it for what it is, and don’t expect a top-notch creature feature. Be prepared for weird.

Face/Off (1997)
Face/Off (1997)
Director Actors
John Woo Nicolas Cage and John Travolta

An FBI agent obsessed with his pursuit of a notorious terrorist comes to the conclusion that the only way he can foil a deadly plot is to replace his own face with that of his target… but things go horribly wrong when the terrorist decides to do the same thing. With their roles reversed, friends and foe alike don’t know who is who.

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Face/Off (1997)

Face/Off (1997) is one of the most ridiculous action films of the 90s, but as an intentional grade-B epic it makes a remarkable 3-point landing. John Woo’s fantastical action scenes are played out with impressive talent by Cage and Travolta, leaving you with little room to ruminate on the impossible nature of literally everything happening in every scene.

Ricochet (1991)
Ricochet (1991)
Director Actors
Russell Mulcahy Denzel Washington, John Lithgow, Ice-T, Kevin Pollak, and Lindsay Wagner

A hitman is captured by a rookie cop and sent to prison, but his years behind bars only sharpen his lust for revenge. When he escapes, he sets his sights on the man who put him away, determined to have his vengeance.

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Ricochet (1991)

Ricochet (1991) is a random action flick that got no love from critics upon its release, but deserves its place as a grade-B action-thriller featuring some seriously solid performances. Overall, schlocky as heck, but definitely good for a late-night action film binge.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
Director Actors
Martin Campbell Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Stuart Wilson

When a power-crazed despot schemes to buy California from Mexico, it takes two Zorros--the legendary Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins) and his chosen successor Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), a dashing bandit-turned-hero-- to defeat the tyrant's unscrupulous plans. 1998 Global Entertainment Productions GmbH & Co. KG. All Rights Reserved. SHOW LESS

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The Mask of Zorro (1998)

The Mask of Zorro (1998) is one of my favorite 90s action films, a true swashbuckling masterpiece of the sort we rarely get to see, following a tried-and-true formula for heroism and bravado. It’s got sex appeal, explosions, sword-fights, and snappy dialog—what more could you need?

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Director Actors
Renny Harlin Geena Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Amandes, Yvonne Zima, Brian Cox, Patrick Malahide, Craig Bierko and David Morse

An amnesiatic schoolteacher begins to rediscover her past, which is darker and more complicated than she might have ever believed. Soon, she’s embroiled in a vast conspiracy, and her submerged self is the only thing that will save her and her new family from the darkness of her past.

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The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) has everything: it’s funny, sharp, witty, and filled with all manner of crazy stunts and explosions. It’s one of those rare gems that’s completely missed by most people looking for a classic action film, but it’s got all the ingredients for a killer star. Great writing, great acting, and a real great time.

Blade (1998)
Blade (1998)
Director Actors
Stephen Norrington Wesley Snipes,

Blade is a half-human, half-vampire, who hunts the creatures of the night relentlessly, together with his mentor Abraham Whistler. But, when a particularly evil vampire sets his sights on a final vampiric apocalypse, will even Blade be able to stop him?

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Blade (1998)

Blade (1998) set the stage for the entire Marvel franchise that came afterward, proving that a grittier, more realistic, and more intense superhero action film could become a massive success. Snipes was superb in this role, and the late-90s special effects (so much improved from just a few years prior) offered insane visuals for the age.

A new Blade film is in the works, and this one will take place as part of Marvel's "MCU" (Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The age of Netflix
The age of Netflix

Once upon a time, Netflix’s DVD library hosted well over 100,000 titles and sent out roughly 12 million DVDs per week. Now, with the advent of easy-to-use streaming services, the amount of content viewers have available has shrunk to the low thousands. Look up any list of “films to watch” and you’ll find a tiny selection of movies, usually curated by people all reading the same lists and commenting on the exact same hot new show or film.

But, is that all there is? With over a hundred years of incredible filmmaking on the planet, isn’t there something missed when we only pay attention to the latest and greatest? This series is dedicated to answering that question and to exploring a small handful of the unsung films from decades past. I’ll examine each decade in turn, all the way back to the earliest days of film, and I’ll be exploring every genre of film there is! From science fiction, to drama, to romance, to comedy—I’m going to cover the entirety of film history for you, bringing out the golden nuggets for you to enjoy.

As always, with these articles, I love hearing your feedback in the comments section, or on Twitter @indubitablyodin. Let me know what your favorite films of the decade were, which ones you think I should have included, and which you hope I’ll mention in one of my next decades!

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