Thursday, June 2, 2016

Heavy Action: 10 Underrated '90s Action Movies

by Patrick Bromley
Celebrate '90s Action day with these little-loved gems!

Last year for Junesploitation's '80s Action day, I published a list of 10 '80s action movies I feel are underrated (and by "underrated," I only mean that they don't seem to be as widely discussed or as well-regarded as some of their contemporaries; of course a lot of people like them and don't underrate them at all, which is always the danger in writing a piece like this). It only seems fair to give the '90s the same treatment. While the genre was in a very different place a decade later, it was every bit as important to the box office -- action movies were, in fact, made on a $100 million scale. The movies appearing here were not, but that doesn't mean they don't deliver the goods and deserve more love than they often get.

1. Rapid Fire (1992, dir. Dwight H. Little)
While this list is in no way in ranked order, it should come as no surprise that the first movie on my mind is 1992's Rapid Fire, one of the most underrated action movies ever and one of my favorites of all time. One of only a few starring vehicles for the late Brandon Lee, Rapid Fire finds him playing a college student who is drawn into a massive criminal plot after witnessing a mob hit. While so much of the movie is rooted in the action tropes of the decade, Rapid Fire distinguishes itself with a truly sympathetic lead performance from Brandon Lee, great action, cool Chicago locations, Powers Boothe as a grizzled cop and so much more. If you're any kind of action fan and still haven't seen this one, please give it a chance. I can't promise you'll love it as much as I do (I don't know if anyone loves it as much as I do), but it deserves a bigger audience.

2. Nowhere to Run (1993, dir. Robert Harmon)
Another movie I've talked up a lot on this site. One of Van Damme's most spare and subdued efforts casts him as a drifter who shacks up with widow Rosanna Arquette and her cute kids, then having to spin-kick his way into her heart and underpants when trouble comes to her door. The Hitcher's Robert Harmon directs this one like a western, with Van Damme doing an early incarnation of the kind of sad sack he would play again and again, particularly in his later career. I like that version of Van Damme, and I like this action/drama/romance hybrid a real lot.

3. Terminal Velocity (1994, dir. Deran Serafian)
On the other side of the spectrum this preposterous movie which leans hard into its silliness. Chuck Sheen gives good straight face as a skydiving instructor who becomes an action hero after pairing up with a student (Nastassja Kinski) who is more than she appears to be. Originally intended as a vehicle for the likes of Tom Cruise or Michael Douglas, Terminal Velocity instead becomes exactly the kind of B-grade action film you want it to be: it's written by David Twohy (of The Arrival and Riddick series) and directed by '90s action staple Deran Serafian (Gunmen, Death Warrant) and stars two actors whose days of really opening a movie probably passed in the 1980s. The skydiving stunts are fun (and sometimes terrible) and Charlie Sheen's facial expressions alone crack me up. The movie is worth seeing alone for the scene in which James Gandolfini (in an early supporting role) quietly eats some candies.

4. Drive (1997, dir. Steve Wang)
Not the excellent noir thriller starring Ryan Gosling, but the late-'90s DTV effort in which a surgically enhanced Mark Dacascos travels across the country with Kadeem Hardison to transport some top secret tech and collect a $5 million reward. I have to thank Josh Pearlman (a prince) for turning me on to this one. I'm generally deficient in my Mark Dacascos viewing, but he kicks enough ass in this movie to turn me on to other stuff he's done. It has the energy and occasional cheapness of the kinds of movies that would debut on HBO's Friday night DTV showcase in the '90s, but the film is a lot of fun and the action choreography is amazing -- it moves like an Isaac Florentine movie.

5. Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991, dir. Simon Wincer)
Wonderfully stupid futuristic buddy movie in which a biker (Mickey Rourke) and a cowboy (Don Johnson) take on an evil corporation run by Tom Sizemore, who may or may not be on coke. I've always found Australian director Simon Wincer to be an underappreciated filmmaker, and here he mixes together action, comedy, science fiction and the western into a goofy mess of a movie that's pure '90s charm. Mickey Rourke hated making the movie and is openly miserable, but Don Johnson tries his best to compensate and reminds us that like Tom Selleck (who, oddly enough, was the star of Wincer's even better Quigley Down Under), he should have been a bigger movie star.

6. Trespass (1992, dir. Walter Hill)
Of course there's got to be a Walter Hill movie on this list. Not only does this mark the only time that Ice-T and Ice Cube have shared the screen (and collaborated on the movie's incredible theme song), but it's also a kickass action movie in which the great Bill Paxton and the equally great William Sadler star as firemen who run afoul of a gang when searching for treasure in an abandoned building. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote the script for this in the 1970s and it shows; Trespass is just the kind of lean and mean action thriller (populated by character actors, no less) that was de rigueur during that decade. I wish we'd get a proper Blu-ray release of this one.

7. Metro (1997, dir. Thomas Carter)
Another movie championed by Josh Pearlman (a prince). It took me two tries to see this back in 1997 because a fight broke out in the theater on opening night and the screening was cut short. I remember liking the car/trolley chase midway through the movie but couldn't remember a whole lot else; almost 20 years later, that's still easily the highlight of the film, but the rest is surprisingly decent coming as it does during one of Eddie Murphy's slumps. It's nice to see him playing a cop outside of the Beverly Hills Cop series (and, of course, Showtime), even if the need for him to do funny riffs interrupts what is otherwise a pretty straightforward action movie. Michael Rapaport has a nice supporting part as a hostage negotiator in training that Murphy takes under his wing.

8. Chill Factor (1999, dir. Hugh Johnson)
Here's where I may lose all credibility. Yes, this movie has one of the stupidest premises for a Speed ripoff that's already six years two late: small town short order cook Skeet Ulrich and ice cream salesman Cuba Gooding Jr. have to transport a chemical weapon in Gooding's delivery truck because it's the only way to keep it below the temperature at which it will detonate and kill everyone. They have stupid bickering along the way, but Midnight Run this ain't. Still, there's a certain goofy charm to the movie, which is surprisingly dark and violent for a film this dopey. Of all the movies on the list, this is the one I can least easily defend.

9. The Corrupter (1999, dir. James Foley)
Suprisingly good crime drama about a pair of cops (Chow Yun Fat and a super '90s Mark Wahlberg) working on bringing down crime in Chinatown. There's a twist in the movie that I legitimately did not know when I saw the movie back in '99 (imagine a surprise not spoiled by marketing!) that gives the movie greater resonance. James Foley is a really terrific director and this has to be Chow Yun Fat's best American role/performance.

10. Stone Cold (1991, dir. Craig R. Baxley)
Let's close the list out with another pick that no one will be surprised to find here -- the conclusion of stuntman-turn-director Craig R. Baxley's Kickass Trilogy (which includes Action Jackson and I Come in Peace) and the movie designed to turn Brian "The Boz" Bosworth into an action star. Released in 1991 -- arguably the best year for #HeavyAction ever -- Stone Cold distinguishes itself with a fantastic villain turn by Lance Henriksen, its setting inside biker subculture and director Baxley's usual penchant for incredible stunts and a tone that's just this side of absurd. Everything is a little bigger, a little crazier than it might be in the hands of another filmmaker and the results are glorious.


  1. Jeff Speakman's The Perfect Weapon replaces Metro. Thanks for giving that the Heavy Action Treatment last year!

    I would replace The Chill Factor with Showdown in Little Tokyo because it's the least defendable on the list :) Although maybe Showdown isn't underrated?

    I've haven't seen drive, but 90's Decascos is always fun.

    I LOVE Rapid Fire and, of course, Hill and Baxley. (but I don't love Tresspass - It's the Ice T/Cube factor - cheapens every movie.)

    Good list!

    1. Oh, and how could I forget, one that I watched last Junesploitation - PM's own Gary Daniels in "Recoil"!

    2. I think for 90´s Dacascos, there is nothing better than "Crying Freeman", directed by Christophe Gans, who later collaborated again with Dacascos on the equally great "Brotherhood of the wolf".

  2. Die Hard 2 - Just the fax, ma'am.
    The Glimmer Man - Last Boy Scout rip-off, ridiculous fun
    Toy Soldiers - Sean Astin in a belly shirt...
    Last Action Hero - Shane Black screenplay
    Point of No Return - Bridget Fonda kicking ass
    Street Fighter - Absolutely hysterical
    True Lies - Arnold & Arnold
    The Long Kiss Goodnight - Shane Black, again
    The Big Hit - liked as a kid, no idea if it holds up
    Necessary Roughness - Kathy Ireland can kick my balls any day...

    1. Dude, I saw the Big Hit twice in the theater for some reason. I had a thing for China Chow and Applegate of course in that movie. I remember it being a lot of fun and overly stylized with LDP over the topness - which I'm cool with all of the above.

    2. I saw it as a double feature with Godzilla at a Drive-In. Godzilla sucked, The Big Hit was awesome!

  3. I only saw it once but remember Chill Factor being fun. Is the director really named Hugh Johnson?

  4. Lance Henriksen's performance feels so authentically sleazy-biker evil. Plus you get the Boz in flip flops and a thong while blending eggs and Snickers for his pet iguana. That movie can do no wrong.

  5. Damn lets spread some Trespass love, I have raved about that film for years, Tonight I was championing how cool Samuel is in The long kiss goodnight, he is such a Pimp, but in Trespass Bruce A. Young plays Raymond who is quite possibly the coolest Pimp I have ever seen on screen, I am struggling to think of a cooler Pimp than Raymond? and that suit, and that song Patrick mentioned, I listened to it twice again just now and its still dynamite, Cube and T together, Boom,

    Im Down with the Boom ping ping,
    It aint no thing
    To Blast ,
    On Greedy Mother fuckers who Trespass......

    Arent song lyrics interesting? that looks like a pretty crappy lyric wrote down but in the songs it epic

    1. Naw, it's crappy either way :) Ice-T's songs for Ricochet, New Jack City and obviously Colors destroys the Tresspass song.

    2. 3 great choices, you have good taste Sir,

      I am a nightmare walking,
      a Psychopath talking
      King of my jungle,
      just a gangster stalking

      Now that's an intro.....

  6. I remember thinking Trespass was a personal discovery, tight little film.

  7. I will always be ride or die for Trespass.

  8. Showdown in Little Tokyo for the win.

  9. Plus I think Another 48hrs holds the record for "Most Glass Broken in a Movie"

  10. Plus I think Another 48hrs holds the record for "Most Glass Broken in a Movie"

  11. Showdown in Little Tokyo for the win.

  12. I totally agree with RAPID FIRE. I have always loved that film and have felt that it does not get its due.

    In April I was having dinner with composer Christopher Young [discussing my book SCORED TO DEATH, available for preorder of Amazon ;-) *shameless name-drop & plug] and I said to him, "You know Chris, you scored one of my favorite movies?" He said, "Really, which one?" I replied "Rapid Fire." And he said, "You like that film?" ...I laughed.

    Apparently, there were some issues with the recording session that soured him a bit on the experience, but he had a very nice story about Brandon Lee and wonderful things to say about him.

    But another 90s action film that gets zero attention and I personally love is 1998's KNOCK OFF, starring Jean Claude Van Damme and Rob "comic-relief" Schneider and directed by the great Tsui Hark. That movie is totally nuts and I don't know anybody else that has ever seen it! Van Damme was a pioneer in the 90s, working with some of China's finest John Woo with Hard Target (another amazing film that Dion and I covered on the SNMS podcast awhile back...check it out if you haven't yet).

    And God, speaking of "nuts," if you guys want a crazy action movie from the 90s, with some Asian flavor, you need to see THE ENFORCER (1995) starring Jet Li & the late Anita Mui. That movie is absolutely wild. I don't know the original title, but Li plays a cop that is deep undercover and the kid that was also in NEW LEGEND OF SHAOLIN with him is also in it and they both kick some major ass. Definitely worth checking out.

    Anyway, great list Patrick. There are more than a few films on here that I have not thought about in a VERY long time and need to revisit.

    - Blake

  13. Late to the party here, but thanks so much for the shout-outs! Glad you dug the movies. Regarding Decascos, if you haven't seen Only the Strong please please please do. It's like Dangerous Minds, but with capoeira and a villain who looks like a steroidal Adrian Paul in a vajazzled vest. So much fun, and you'll have the music in your head for decades afterwards.

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