The 1990s were a critical decade in the development of genre films. The immense popularity of Quentin Tarantino’s independent films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, inspired a new generation of crime thrillers known for their snappy dialogue, unique characters, and shocking plot twists. Simultaneously, the overwhelming success of Die Hard in 1988 led to more American action films that worked off the model that director John McTiernan perfected. The two genres crossed paths more often than not, leading to many great action thrillers that satisfied fans of both approaches.

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A great action thriller is more than just a collection of great stunts. Films that truly show the genre’s full capabilities must include compelling characters, a thoughtful storyline, and stylistic elements that suggest the passion of the filmmaker behind them. While some films may only aim to be fun blockbusters that you can “turn your brain off” to watch, some of the best films of the 1990s combine big-budget spectacle with genuine suspense. Here are the ten best action thrillers of the 1990s, ranked.

10 ‘The Hunt for Red October’ (1990)

Directed by John McTiernan

Alec Baldwin and James Earl Jones as Jack Ryan and Admiral James Greer in The Hunt for Red October
Image via Paramount Pictures

Tom Clancy’s novels about the Jack Ryan character have inspired many adaptations, but The Hunt for Red Octoberis still the best of the entire franchise. While Alec Baldwin does a great job at portraying the straight-laced CIA analyst, it’s Sean Connery who steals the film as a rogue Russian naval commander who decides to defect to the United States. McTiernan does a great job at mapping out the underwater action so that the viewers can invest in both sets of characters.

The Hunt for Red October addressed Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, portraying a situation that felt both plausible and terrifying. While its sequels, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, were still entertaining Jack Ryan adventures, The Hunt for Red October captured the intelligence and pacing that had made Clancy’s novels such a sensation in the first place.

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9 ‘Deep Cover’ (1992)

Directed by Bill Duke

Deep Cover is one of the best undercover cop movies ever made, as it drew from the blaxploitation genre to make a culturally specific take on a traditional crime thriller. One of Bill Duke’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker is his ability to incorporate critical social themes within otherwise straightforward genre films. Deep Cover examines systematic oppression and the disturbing history of police brutality through the story of an undercover cop who is forced to question his loyalties.

While it’s a film that has no shortage of exciting confrontations and shootouts, Deep Cover featured a stacked cast of great performances. Laurence Fisburne stars in one of the most endearing protagonist roles of his career; however, it was the casting of Jeff Goldblum as a ruthless drug kingpin that subverted expectations and made the film all the more thrilling as a result.

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8 ‘The Crow’ (1994)

Directed by Alex Proyas

Brandon Lee as Eric Draven in the black costume and black coat with the white face makeup in The Crow
Image via Miramax

Comic book movies didn’t really hit their stride until the release of Blade in 1998, but The Crow isn’t a traditional superhero film by any stretch of the imagination. Alex Proyas crafted a heartbreaking revenge odyssey about an “avenging angel” who returns from the dead to track down the thugs who assaulted and murdered his girlfriend. The Crow is made all the more haunting due to the onset of tragedy that claimed the life of its star, Brandon Lee. While it certainly makes the film harder to rewatch, Lee’s performance is an enduring part of the legacy of The Crow.

The Crow proved to be a sensational hit that was impossible to replicate. While there were many attempts at new entries in the series, including a new reboot starring Bill Skarsgard, it will be hard for any film to live up to the legacy of the 1994 original.

The Crow

Release Date
May 11, 1994

Runtime
102

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7 ‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996)

Directed by Brian De Palma

Jon Voight holding his hand on Tom Cruise's neck in Mission Impossible
Image via Paramount Pictures

While it’s become one of the biggest and most successful action franchises of all time, the original Mission: Impossible is still one of the best installments in the series. Director Brian De Palma created a suspenseful mystery that paid tribute to both the original series of the same name and the works of Alfred Hitchcock. Although the franchise continues to top itself with each subsequent stunt, the iconic train sequence in Mission: Impossible is still as thrilling as it was in 1996.

Mission: Impossible serves as a perfect origin story for Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, establishing him as one of the genre’s most exciting heroes. It’s Ethan’s heartbreak upon losing his team in the first film that gives him a strong desire to protect his friends in all the subsequent sequels. The fact that the franchise is still going strong is a credit to how well the original Mission: Impossible holds up.

Mission: Impossible

Release Date
May 22, 1996

Runtime
110 minutes

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6 ‘In the Line of Fire’ (1993)

Directed by Wolfgang Peterson

John Malkovich holding the ghost gun in In the Line of Fire
Image Via Columbia Pictures

Easily one of Clint Eastwood’s most rewatchable action movies, In the Line of Fire is a mix of conspiracy thrills, political intrigue, and frantic action sequences. Eastwood stars as a Secret Service agent who is haunted by his inability to save President John F. Kennedy from assassination in Dallas in 1963; however, he is given a shot at redemption when a new assassin (John Malkovich) attempts to take down the new U.S. President. Director Wolfgang Peterson crafted a realistic depiction of the American political landscape that made In the Line of Fire feel even more exciting.

Although Eastwood can always be counted on to play an endearing hero, Malkovich’s villainous performances rank among the best movie villains of the 1990s. He scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, a rare feat for a mainstream genre film.

In the Line of Fire (1993)

Release Date
July 8, 1993

Runtime
128

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5 ‘Ronin’ (1998)

Directed by John Frankenheimer

Sean Bean as Spence looking intently ahead in Ronin
Image via MGM

Director John Frankenheimer is perhaps one of the most underrated filmmakers of all time. While classics like The Manchurian Candidate and Birdman of Alcatraz were the first indicators of his talent, Ronin is a kinetic crime thriller that features some of the most stunning car chases in film history. Frankenheimer put in the work to make sure that a majority of the stunts were being performed for real; the practicality on display in Ronin had made it age better than any computer-generated action sequence could ever hope for.

While it’s worth appreciating for its thrilling action alone, Ronin also features a stacked cast of great actors. Robert De Niro is terrific as the American mercenary Sam, but supporting roles for Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce, Jean Reno, and Natascha McElhone ensure that he has several great co-stars to interact with.

Ronin (1998)

Release Date
September 25, 1998

Director
John Frankenheimer

Runtime
122 Minutes

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4 ‘Speed’ (1994)

Directed by Jan de Bont

Keanu Reeves as Jack on a bus, pointing a gun at a target offscreen, in Speed
Image via 20th Century Fox

Considering that it could essentially be described as “Die Hard on a bus,” Speedmanaged to create a remarkable amount of tension based on a fairly simple premise. Director Jan de Bont ensures that the adrenaline never stops as the police officer Jack (Keanu Reeves) works with the civilian Annie (Sandra Bullock) to prevent a bomb from detonating on a public transport bus in Los Angeles. The romantic bond between the two characters makes the emotional stakes of Speed even greater.

Speed features an amazing villainous performance from Dennis Hopper, who manages to steal almost every scene he’s in as a character that the audience loves to hate. While it inspired the disastrous sequel Speed 2: Cruise Control, it’s a better time than ever before for Reeves and Bullock to reunite for a third entry in the franchise and bring it to a satisfying conclusion.

Speed

Release Date
June 10, 1994

Runtime
116 minutes

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3 ‘Leon: The Professional’ (1994)

Directed by Luc Besson

Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Leon The Professional
Image via The Walt Disney Company France

Luc Besson is certainly a divisive filmmaker, as some audiences consider his aptitude for hypnotic set pieces to be nothing but “style over substance.” That being said, Leon: The Professionalis a rich-character drama that explores the ambiguities of heroism. Jean Reno is terrific as an aging French assassin, but it is Natalie Portman’s performance as a heartbroken teenage girl who has lost her parents that provides the film’s emotional core. That being said, Gary Oldman’s terrifying performance as a corrupt cop is certainly one of his scariest.

Leon: The Professional inspired a new wave of French action films that drew from its hyper-kinetic, eccentric style. While Besson himself returned to the subgenre with films like Anna and Lucy, it’s hard to imagine that he will ever make another film that will top the achievement of Leon: The Professional.

Leon: The Professional

Release Date
November 18, 1994

Director
Luc Besson

Runtime
110 minutes

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2 ‘Heat’ (1995)

Directed by Michael Mann

Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley point a gun at a taget off camera in 1995's Heat
Image via Warner Bros

Michael Mann knows how to make hypnotic crime dramas like no one else, but Heat uses the heist movie genre to analyze obsession and masculinity. The film broke new ground by featuring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as opposing characters; while the two had technically appeared together in The Godfather: Part II, this was the first time they got to interact. The six-minute diner scene has become legendary for its creeping sense of tension and many quotable lines. It’s also a film that is edited to perfection, as there’s not a single moment that isn’t necessary for advancing the plot or characters.

Heat is a long movie that justifies its length, as the stakes continue to escalate as the two characters grow more determined to track each other down. The now iconic bank heist sequence has inspired many other robbery movies, including The Dark Knight and The Town.

Heat

Release Date
December 15, 1995

Director
Michael Mann

Runtime
170 minutes

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1 ‘The Fugitive’ (1993)

Directed by Andrew Davis

Tommy Lee Jones as Samuel Gerard, dripping with water and holding his hands up in surrender in The Fugitive
Image via Warner Bros.

It may have been a disaster behind the scenes, but The Fugitiveis an action masterpiece that supersedes the original television show that it was based on. Harrison Ford gives one of his best performances as Dr. Richard Kimble, a respected medical professional who is falsely accused of murdering his wife. Kimble is forced to run from the authorities in order to clear his name. It’s a timeless story of an innocent man in over his head that is perfected by seasoned genre filmmaker Andrew Davis.

The Fugitive was a critical and commercial success, scoring an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and a win for Tommy Lee Jones in the Best Supporting Actor category. While Jones returned for the underwhelming sequel, U.S. Marshalls, the original The Fugitive is still one of the most entertaining and rewatchable mystery thrillers of all time.

The Fugitive

Release Date
August 6, 1993

Director
Andrew Davis

Runtime
130 minutes

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