5 Underappreciated Action Movies of the 1990s
Neglected but not forgotten.
The 90’s were a strange, fluid time for action flicks. The old model of making them – a huge star would be the lead, the budget would be in the high millions, there’d be a ton of blood and one-liners thrown about, along with f-bombs – was changing into a safer, more teen friendly genre, with The Fast and Furious and xXx just around the corner.
Audiences were primarily younger, and didn’t wanna see superhuman tough guys obliterate a thousand bad guys with guns and knives and fists and feet. The box office began to drop off for usually reliable action stalwarts, and some of their better movies fell by the wayside. It was sad… and unfortunate, because some of these movies are quite good. Classics? No. But entertaining as hell.
Here’s the top 5 underappreciated action movies from some of our favorite stars in the 1990s.
5. STRIKING DISTANCE (1993)
It’s no secret. Even the star of this movie, Bruce Willis, hates it. He’s been critical of it in several publications and even said it “sucked’ on a talk show. Bruce’s reasons for not liking this movie are his own, but for audiences, there’s a lot to like about this actioner. Bruce plays his familiar rough-around-the-edges cop in this predictable, but action-packed thriller. After failing to catch a serial killer, and testifying against his brutal partner in court (a big police no-no), a disgraced policeman (Willis) is demoted to water patrol… and finds himself being taunted by the very killer he was pursuing. Look, the plot for Striking Distance is full of holes and doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, but it’s the no-holds-barred action scenes and excellent location filming makes this by-the-numbers pic stand out.
The movie opens with an awesome car chase, scored by the always reliable Brad Fiedel, that tears across the streets of Pittsburgh, and ends with a pretty cool boat chase through the city’s murky waters. In between, we get a nifty gunfight on a boat and a car/boat pursuit that ends with a fiery explosion. What about Bruce? He’s his wise-cracking, burnt-out best, even in one of his lesser vehicles. Definitely a big slice of 90’s action film-making, Striking Distance was a critical and box-office bomb when it was released, but it’s a movie I return to quite often. It’s a heap of fun and a great way to kill 100 minutes. There’s also a great supporting cast made up of memorable character actors like Robert Pastorelli, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Farina and John Mahoney.
4. MAXIMUM RISK (1996)
Street Fighter: The Movie died at the box office… AND killed Jean Claude Van Damme’s burgeoning career along with it. For me, its number one fatality was 1996’s Maximum Risk – a fast, glossy and gritty thriller that saw the Muscles from Brussels flex his acting muscles along with, well…his regular muscles. Van Damme plays twins again in this film: one is a Russian mobster, the other a dedicated soldier. The two worlds collide amid the chaos and violence of corrupt government agents, hot babes and dangerous stunts. There’s also a pretty cool bath house fight in the middle of the movie that is awesome. And the acting side? As I mentioned, Van Damme is given more to do in this movie than beat and kill. He has to mourn and grieve for his dead brother, and for the life he never had with him. He’s never gonna be confused for Tom Hanks in the acting department, but Van Damme gives it his all in the emotional scenes. It’s certainly one of his better efforts.
The only negative I can say for the movie is that the finale, which promises to be epic, kinda dies before it starts, and the ending is less than satisfactory. Of course there’s a gorgeous chick for JCVD to swoon over in Species hottie Natasha Henstridge, but her role is a pretty one-dimensional, but she is nice to look at. Hong Kong helmer Ringo Lam made his US debut with this entertaining flick. Shame he never got to do more stuff in the states. He has a great eye for action and drama. What could have been…
3. THE GLIMMER MAN (1996)
If 1995’s Se7en and 1987’s Lethal Weapon had a baby, the result would probably be The Glimmer Man – a bizarre mix of cop-buddy-action-comedy and serial killer thriller that was D.O.A. in fall of 1996 when it opened to lacklustre business and reviews. Steven Seagal plays a mysterious cop who is partnered with another streetwise (and wisecracking) Detective, effectively played by Keenan Ivory Wayans. The mismatched duo soon discover that the grisly murder case they’re working on is somehow connected to Seagal’s shady past with the government. Convenient and lazy is really the only way to describe the plot of this movie, but it doesn’t really matter, because at heart The Glimmer Man is another excuse for Seagal to beat Hollywood stuntmen to a pulp while looking suave and debonair. Warners, the star’s then home studio, tried to spice things up by introducing the witty, urban Wayans into the mix, and the experiment works to some degree – although Wayans gets all the best comedic lines. Like Jim Belushi in Schwarzenegger’s Red Heat, Wayans is the comedic foil to Seagal’s straight man – who is too busy breaking limbs to be funny.
While it looks like no one’s heart was really in this outing, the movie does have some good action scenes, moody atmospherics and a creepy score by Yes frontman Trevor Rabin, and the violence is strictly hardcore. No PG-13 gunfights here, instead we get bloody headshots and impalings. Vintage Seagal? No. But nowhere near as bad as it’s made out to be, and better than most of the action fare that comes out today.
2. ERASER (1996)
Although Eraser managed to rake in $100 million dollars at the US box-office when it opened in summer of ’96, the movie has never been regarded as one of Arnold’s “greats”, which is a shame considering it was pretty much his last hurrah as the 90’s primo action hero. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a mysterious government agent who protects witnesses by faking their deaths or making them disappear, eg, he “erases” them. When his latest assignment, involving the beautiful witness to industrial treason, Lee Cullen (Vanessa Williams) goes sideways, Arnold discovers someone inside his beloved agency is dirty, and selling secrets to the bad guys. Cue explosions, fist fights, shootouts, car chases, hungry, limb-chewing crocodiles and a pretty nifty stunt involving Arnold freefalling in a parachute while dodging a circling jet, that sees the jet come off second best.
Eraser is pure 90’s action gold. It’s got everything anyone could want from this film: crude humor, foul language and explicit bloodshed. Plus it’s got Arnold striding through all the carnage like an Austrian God! I had a blast with Eraser when I first saw it, and I really enjoyed seeing manly legend James Caan as Arnold’s mentor/arch nemesis, and Vanessa Williams adds some depth to her thankless role as the hunted heroine. While the effects and plot aren’t a sturdy as his collaborations with writer/director James Cameron, Eraser is a neglected gem in the Arnold film canon, and one that is worth revisiting.
1. LAST MAN STANDING (1996)
This film sounded like a dream come true for me when I first heard about it: Bruce Die Hard Willis starring in a movie directed by Mr. Walter 48 Hours Hill. This could be awesome. Was it? YES!! The box office was not kind to the movie, and it barely lasted in theatres. Shame. For this retelling of Yojimbo is a solid, bloody and brutal western gangster movie that still holds up today. Bruce is a Chicago gangster, fleeing his troubles, who stumbles upon a dusty dried up jerkwater town called Jericho. He soon learns that two rival gangster families are fighting it out for control of the booze that runs through the town’s dying streets. What’s he do? Decides he can make some money for himself by playing both sides off against each other. But he doesn’t count on this little thing called a conscience (something’s he’s always avoided till now) getting in the way, until he decides to help a beautiful Mexican woman who has been enslaved by one of the town’s low rent gangsters. The message of the movie is pretty much no good deed goes unpunished!
The more Bruce tries to be the good guy, the more trouble, and pain, he gets into. By the end of this laconic, moody actioner, Bruce has every gun in town after him, including Christopher Walken, in a creepy turn as a mob enforcer. What’s he to do, but fall back on his one skill. The gun! Which brings us to the action set pieces. There are plenty, and they’re all well done and brutal. Hell, Bruce nails a dude with a pair of .45’s within a minute of the opening credits finishing. That’s a bold move. Unlike modern action cinema now, where the action is stretched out to epic proportions, Last Man Standing’s scenes of mayhem hit you like a .44 magnum between the eyes. The gunfights are jarring, fast and loud. And final. No one gets up wounded. They’re all face down in the dirt, where they belong.
Hill assembled his usual creative team with this pic, editor Freeman Davies and cinematographer Lloyd Ahern, and they haven’t been better. But a special shout out must go to composer Ry Cooder. His score for the film is a thing beauty. Dark, menacing, scary, peaceful, exotic, haunting. It’s all of those things rolled into one, and it shows what a versatile, and highly underrated, composer Cooder is. And what about Bruce? He’s never been cooler in a movie than this one. Years of killing has left him broken and empty, and you can see it in his dead eyes. He’s not looking for redemption, and he sure as well wasn’t expecting to find it in Jericho. Critics complained that Willis played the part like the Terminator, but they missed the point. This isn’t a movie about posturing. It’s about mucho dudes getting things done. Bruce conveys everything he needs to in this movie using the old school Bronson way – with his eyes and face. At heart, this is a minimalist action picture, one that was wrongfully ignored, and it deserves a rightful place next to other action classics. Check it out. You won’t be sorry.
From a small country town where not many films played, Kent Church grew up on a steady diet of Coca Cola, horror magazines and action movies on VHS. If the movie didn’t have Chuck Norris or Eastwood on the cover, he wasn’t interested. His one core belief: Arnold Schwarzenneger must be President!! And James Woods vice –President…
Let us know what you think in the comments or on the Facebook page!