“Hasta la vista, baby.”The Terminator
There are few images in cinema more iconic than the sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger, pistol in hand, uttering his legendary catchphrase, all moments before he blows the frozen T-1000 to bits.
The 1990s decade was the last bastion of blockbuster cinema for muscle-clad action superstars like Schwarzenegger.
Their films captivated audiences and commanded box office returns—until more realistic action movies put an end to the era, giving us modern action heroes like Matt Damon and Daniel Craig.
But the action movies from the 90s are worth remembering and revisiting to this day. Here are our favorites, ranked!
8. Batman Returns (1992)
In 1989, Batman showed the world what could be achieved with a movie that starred a dark, vengeful superhero. Michael Keaton’s character was far ahead of his time—by at least a decade.
Yet while Batman was the first, it wasn’t the best. That honor goes to 1992’s Batman Returns, which remains an underrated masterpiece of 90s action cinema.
The leading protagonist is more complex and withdrawn. The world around him is darker and far more gruesome. The villains are just as horrifying as the man hellbent on stopping them.
As a film, Batman Returns is wonderfully pieced together and tells an adult story that plays on the idea of outcasts. The action sequences reflect the film’s tone, and the set piece where Batman flees from the police in a hijacked Batmobile? Brilliant.
7. True Romance (1993)
Quentin Tarantino’s script is felt throughout True Romance. We can see the signature style of the future Oscar-winner permeate the picture, which allowed director Tony Scott to focus on tone than story.
True Romance tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers who run away together with a large suitcase of drug money. It’s as brutal as it is romantic, with a killer cast of day-players and stars.
The likes of Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Brad Pitt, and Gary Oldman all show up in the film for small roles—and some of their presences still linger long after the credits have rolled.
The action scenes are bloody and have a touch of Tarantino absurdism, but the best sequence sees a battered Alabama (played by Patricia Arquette) driving a corkscrew into the foot of Virgil (played by James Gandolfini). It’s all pure Tony Scott.
6. Speed (1994)
A classic action movie with a basic premise and great set pieces. In Speed, a bomber rigs a city bus to explode should its speed drop below 50 mph—and Keanu Reeves as Jack Traven must board the bus to try and prevent the deaths of everybody on it.
The romantic chemistry between Reeves and Sandra Bullock is fun to watch, as is the performance of Dennis Hopper as bomber Howard Payne. The constant adrenaline rush in keeping up the speed of the bus is gripping to watch and never relents.
The film’s best action sequence is when the bus has to make a jump over a half-constructed freeway overpass, which is brilliantly choreographed and coordinated by the stunt team.
5. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)
Easily the best Die Hard sequel ever made, With a Vengeance reunited Bruce Willis with original Die Hard director John McTiernan and brought in Samuel L. Jackson as partner to Willis’ John McClane.
Jeremy Irons’ venomous Simon Gruber is second only to Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in the Die Hard franchise’s villain ranking as he sends McClane all through New York City defusing several bombs.
The film is tense but fun, and the interactions between Simon, Zeus, and McClane give the film some levity from the dark story.
The best action sequence occurs when John McClane makes it to a subway train bomb in time before throwing it off the back of the train and saving the lives of hundreds of people in the process.
4. Leon: The Professional (1994)
The tale of an immigrant hitman, an orphaned girl, and a crooked police detective. Leon: The Professional is a ferocious film with a profound emotional core in its two leading characters.
Starring Jean Reno and a young Natalie Portman, the picture shows the pair on the run after Leon saves her from becoming the victim of a dirty cop hit—the same hit that killed her whole family.
The final action sequence where Gary Oldman’s Detective Stansfield demands that everyone in the New York police force arrive at his disposal to kill Leon? Perfectly executed.
The hope, the devastation, and the emotional heft of the film is compounded in its final shootout—and few films have been better.
3. The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix still feels like a current film despite its 1999 release, all because of how ahead of its time the plot was.
Sure, the movie features incredible martial arts sequences and more guns than can be counted, but it’s the story—which shows people living blissfully unaware that they’re in a computer simulation—that feels as modern as any contemporary film.
Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Hugo Weaving, and Laurence Fishburne all stand out in their roles, as does the sharp direction from the Wachowskis.
Of the many memorable scenes, the best remains the fight between Neo and Agent Smith in the subway station, where a believing Neo goes toe-to-toe with Smith in a duel for the cinematic ages.
2. Heat (1995)
The sight of iconic Al Pacino sat across a table from friend and fellow acting legend Robert DeNiro was enough to generate all kinds of excitement for the release of Heat.
A classic cops-and-robbers story, Heat follows Al Pacino as Detective Vincent Hanna as he chases Robert DeNiro’s thief Neil McCauley across Los Angeles.
Director Michael Mann assembled a cast that rivals any action movie: Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Danny Trejo, Wes Studi, Amy Brenneman, and Natalie Portman. All next to the leading duo.
The film is a bonafide masterpiece and the two central performances are phenomenal. While the final chase is as tense as any in cinematic history, the best action sequence goes to the foiled bank robbery, in which a whole city block is turned into a warzone.
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The best action movie ever made. Full stop.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day was everything the first Terminator film was and more: bold, groundbreaking, violent, and heartbreaking. A tall order for a movie about a killing machine and a future army leader.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, and Edward Furlong all played important roles in this masterpiece of filmmaking while James Cameron spun his unique brand of sorcery behind it.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day follows Schwarzenegger’s T-800 as he’s sent back in time to protect John Connor against the relentless T-1000. The action scenes are masterfully put together, and the final battle in the steel mill is still jaw-dropping to this day.