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The Best Action Heroes of the 90s, Ranked


In the 90s, it seemed like the only way to properly end a movie was to have the hero walk in slow motion away from an explosion. The fact that CGI took quantum leaps forward in the 90s opened up the possibilities for movies to feature astounding effects-heavy fights, chases, and detonations that would have never made it to the screen in the 80s. Maybe it was the end of the millennium or the end of the Cold War, but something about the 90s made it a golden age for action movies.


Action movies can blend with many genres — from science fiction and fantasy to comedy and drama. And whether the action on-screen takes the form of a stylish chase scene from Michael Bay or groundbreaking visual FX in a James Cameron movie, great 90s action movies all share one thing in common: great action heroes. Being crowned an unforgettable action hero isn’t just about box office receipts or number of movies in a franchise. It’s also about style, lasting impact, and influence. It’s about the swagger, stunts, and sequences that burn the exploits of the hero into our collective memories. So, without further delay, here are the best action heroes of the 90s, ranked.

MOVIEWEB VIDEO OF THE DAY

19/19 Geena Davis

long-kiss-goodnight-1
New Line Cinema

While Geena Davis only starred in a few action films during the decade, they were each remarkable and delivered incredibly memorable scenes. Cutthroat Island (1995) features one of the best escape chases of the 90s as Davis drives a horse and carriage through crowded streets, a funeral procession, and a barrage of cannonballs. And in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), she plays a suburban homemaker with no recollection of her past as a CIA Assassin — until it catches up to her. Throughout the movie, she goes toe-to-toe with all manner of bad guy as she unlocks the shadowy conspiracy of her history. With its shockingly brutal fight scenes and Davis’ cold-blooded, steely demeanor, The Long Kiss Goodnight has forever etched Davis on the list of best action heroes.

Related: Best Action Heroes of the ’80s, Ranked

18/19 Antonio Banderas

the-mask-of-zorro-banderas
Amblin Entertainment

WIth his suave demeanor and sly smile, Antonio Banderas brings a slick charm to every one of his roles. But as polished as Banderas may seem, he’s able to roll up his sleeves and get down to action. He delivers over-the-top thrills in Robert Rodriguez’s Desparado (1995) and brings an unhinged obsessiveness to his character in Assassins (1995). In The 13th Warrior (1999), Banderas shows how he can team up with Vikings to fight savage cannibals. And in The Mask Of Zorro (1998), he wields the classic character’s rapier with a silky touch in some of the most intricate sword fights ever to hit the screen.

17/19 Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan holding a pistol
Media Asia Releasing

In an acting career that spans close to 60 years, Jackie Chan is famous the world over for doing the majority of his own stunts. And while this has meant plenty of contusions, breaks, sprains, and worse, Chan has delivered thousands of thrills over the years. The 90s were a great time for Chan’s lightning-fast fists and fight choreography, from classics like Crime Story (1993) and Super Cop (1992) to favorites such as Legend of the Drunken Master (1994) and the first Rush Hour (1998). In fact, fans of the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker buddy-cop franchise may be in for a treat — as Chan has announced he’s in active discussions to bring Rush Hour 4 to theaters.

16/19 Jean Reno

Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Léon: The Professional
Gaumont Buena Vista International

Jean Reno is at his best when he plays an assassin with a soul, and has been a mainstay throughout director Luc Besson’s career. The 90s saw Reno breaking through to American audiences after establishing his career in France throughout the 80s. He perfected his ability to provide memorable supporting roles in movies like Nikita (1990), Mission Impossible (1996) and Ronin (1998). But in Léon: The Professional (1994), Reno’s portrayal of a lonely, ruthless hit-man who opens his heart and home to an orphaned Natalie Portman is the character and movie he will forever be remembered.

15/19 Sandra Bullock

sandra-bullock-speed
20th Century Fox

If the star of Hope Floats (1998) doesn’t immediately spring to mind when the subject of action movies comes up, think again. Sandra Bullock‘s name may not be as synonymous with the genre as Stallone, Reeves, or Snipes, but she shared the screen with each of them in 90s action movies. In Demolition Man (1993), she helps Stallone’s John Spartan bring the evil Simon Phoenix to justice. In Speed (1994), Bullock crashes a bomb-laden city bus through the streets and freeways of LA, while in Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) she stops an ocean liner from plowing into an oil tanker. And starring as Angela Bennet in The Net (1995), Bullock uses her savvy online skills to escape cyber-terrorists and stop their sinister conspiracy before they can take control of the government’s computers.

14/19 Will Smith

Independence Day - Will Smith
20th Century Fox

In the 90s, it seemed like studios couldn’t make a big-budget action blockbuster that didn’t star Will Smith and his unique brand of charming bravado. Using his successful hip hop career as a springboard to Hollywood, Smith refused to be typecast solely as a comedian (even though his TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was such a hit). Smith flexed his action skills in Michael Bay’s Bad Boys (1995) and teamed up with Jeff Goldblum to stop invading aliens in Independence Day (1996). He partnered with Tommy Lee Jones to save the world in Men in Black (1997) and saved America from the fiendish Dr. Arliss Loveless in Wild Wild West (1999). What’s next for Smith? According to Jerry Bruckheimer, Smith may be back in action for Bad Boys 4.

13/19 Sean Connery

sean-connery-the-rock
Buena Vista Pictures

Fact is, Sean Connery (1930-2020) was making memorable action movies as James Bond before a lot of the people on this list were even born. And as the 90s began, Connery didn’t slow down. Even though he was entering what some might call his golden years, he experienced an action renaissance in his career, starring in a string of blockbusters such as The Hunt For Red October (1990), Rising Sun (1993), The Rock (1996), and The Avengers (1998). But it was his role opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones in the complex art-heist movie Entrapment (1999) that capped off a memorable decade of hits for the star. In speaking of Entrapment, Connery said, “It’s got a wit. It’s got a very intriguing romantic element, and it has quite a sting in the tail at the end” (via Slash Film).

Related: Here’s What Makes Pulp Fiction the Best Action Movie of the 90s

12/19 Steven Seagal

Under Siege 2 - Warner Bros. Steven Seagal
Warner Brothers

While the debate continues to rage whether Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme would win in a fight if the two squared off, there’s no denying Seagal was one of the biggest Hollywood martial arts stars in the 90s. Hard to Kill (1990), Out for Justice (1991), Under Siege (1992), and On Deadly Ground (1994) were at the heart of a stretch where the furious fists and flying feet of this reputed Aikido master were box-office gold. With a steely-eyed toughness and soft-spoken delivery, Seagal could clear a room full of bad guys without breaking a sweat.

11/19 Jean-Claude Van Damme

Jean-Claude Van Damme & Dolph Lundgren in Universal Soldier
TriStar Pictures

Much like Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme‘s style of 90s action was most at home in the martial arts category. Unlike Seagal, the Belgium-born Van Damme (nicknamed “the muscles from Brussels”) branched out to lend his skills to other genres of film. Universal Soldier (1992) and Timecop (1994) saw the actor doing some Van-damage in science fiction settings, while Street Fighter (1994) was one of the first film adaptations of a video game — and The Quest (1996) featured as much drama as action. In a meta 90s-crossover moment, Van Damme even played himself in a 1996 episode of the sitcom Friends.

10/19 Michelle Yeoh

michelle-yeoh-wing-chun (1)
Century Pacific

Decades before her critically acclaimed performance in Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), Michelle Yeoh was one of the boldest, baddest, kick-butt action stars on earth. In hits like Supercop (1992), Yeoh holds her own in every frame alongside superstar Jackie Chan. But in classics such as Butterfly And Sword (1993), Tai Chi Master (1993), and Wing Chun (1994), her fighting skills are only surpassed by her incredible swordplay — some of the best of the decade. In 1997, Yeoh even flexed her skills starring opposite Pierce Brosnan in the James Bond blockbuster Tommorow Never Dies.

9/19 Chow Yun-Fat

Chow Yun-Fat slides down stairs with guns in Hard Boiled
TWC

If director John Woo succeeded in elevating the intricate choreography of an on-screen shootout to the level of ballet, then Chow Yun-Fat is Baryshnikov. Already an established action star in Hong Kong in the 80s, Chow exploded into the 90s with some of his best roles and action sequences. Blending a cool demeanor and easy smile with an ability to gracefully sweep through scenes of chaotic, extravagantly staged combat, Chow lit up the screen in gangster and heist classics such as Once A Thief (1991) and Full Contact (1992) — and even successfully blended romance with edgy action in Treasure Hunt (1994). But the highlight of this era was undoubtedly John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992), where he plays “Tequila” Yuen, a jazz saxophone-loving detective hot on the trail of gun smugglers whose turf war is slaughtering innocents caught in the crossfire.

8/19 Sylvester Stallone

Cliffhanger
TriStar Pictures

One could easily make the case for Sylvester Stallone being among the all-time greats in action movies. In the 90s, Stallone branched away from his most well-known movie franchises (Rambo and Rocky) to expand his range as an action star. Daylight (1996) saw Stallone leading the charge in a classic disaster-escape movie in the same vein of The Poseiden Adventure (1972) or Towering Inferno (1974). Cliffhanger (1993) thrilled audiences with director Renny Harlin’s death-defying heights and camerawork. Richard Donner’s Assassins (1995) was as much crime thriller as action, and Stallone even tackled science fiction in Judge Dredd (1995) and Demolition Man (1993). Stallone clearly looks back on the era fondly, and has remarked how Demolition Man was ahead of its time.

7/19 Jet Li

fist-of-legend
Eastern Productions

If there is a Mount Rushmore of martial arts stars, Jet Li has to be included. Blending almost unnatural physical gifts and skills with a wordless grace and charm, Li has joined the action movie game in 1982 — but hit his stride in the 90s. The speed, agility and exquisite choreography on display in movies such as The Master (1992), The Legend (1993), and Once Upon A Time In China (1991) are some of the greatest modern martial arts sequences in the last 40 years. And though many of Li’s more well-known Hollywood movies didn’t make it to the screen until the 2000s, his action roles in the 90s remain the most impressive displays of his martial artistry.

Related: Best Sci-Fi Action movies of the 90s, Ranked

6/19 Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves stopping bullets
Warner Bros. Pictures

Keanu Reeves has never been afraid to make bold career choices. From indie art flicks (My Own Private Idaho, 1991) to screwball comedies (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, 1991), he has always jumped fearlessly between genres to take the roles he wants to play. Rom-com, horror, sci-fi, drama — is there any kind of movie Reeves has not excelled in? With that in mind, it’s no surprise to see him on this list, as he brought several unforgettable 90s action heroes to the screen, from federal agent Johnny Utah in Point Break (1991) to chosen one Neo in The Matrix (1999).

Reeves’ best action role of the decade, however, was undoubtedly bus bomb-diffusing Jack Traven in Speed (1994). From beginning to end, every scene in Speed is an escalation, from the tension of the initial elevator sequence through to a runaway subway car crashing on to the busy streets of Los Angeles. The good news? Reeves still isn’t slowing down, and his upcoming John Wick: Chapter 4 is one of the most anticipated movies on the horizon.

5/19 Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Orion Pictures

Like Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s career achievements make him one of the first names in action movies. And while his most iconic action roles were created in the 80s, Schwarzenegger’s work in the 90s was some of his best. Reprising the role he made famous in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) started the decade with a bang. And the meta, self-referential storyline of Last Action Hero (1993) satirized conventional action movie tropes while still delivering classic action movie chases, fights and intrigue.

The high point of the 90s for Schwarzenegger was undoubtedly his role in James Cameron’s True Lies (1994) — the first movie to exceed $100 million in budget (according to Film School Rejects). True Lies redefined what an action movie could be, blending all the extravagant explosions and energy audiences expect with great humor and a classic love story.

4/19 Harrison Ford

harrison-fords-best-action-movies-ranked
Columbia Pictures

After owning two of the greatest roles in cinema history in the 80s (Indiana Jones and Han Solo), the world would have understood if Harrison Ford took a decade off. Instead, the actor reinvented himself as a true action star, carrying the baton as Tom Clancy’s most enduring hero, CIA analyst Jack Ryan, in Patriot Games (1992) and Clear And Present Danger (1994). In between, Ford found time to thrill audiences and elude Tommy Lee Jones as Richard Kimble in The Fugitive (1993).

But Ford’s most action-packed portrayal of the decade was as the Michigan football-loving POTUS James Marshall in Air Force One (1997). When Russian terrorists take over the President’s jet, Ford fights back and delivers one of the most beloved lines in action movie history as he throws bad guy boss Ivan Kurshanov (Gary Oldman) out at 30,000 feet: “Get off my plane!”

3/19 Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2
20th Century Fox

Bruce Willis walked an action movie tightrope throughout his career. A born comedic leading man, he had the timing and charm to make every one of his roles supremely likable and relatable, no matter how heroic the struggle or stacked the odds. Willis’ brand of 90s action had a bare-knuckled quality about it. Instead of elegantly choreographed combat or CGI wizardry, he always played a tough guy gritting out the fight of his life and trying to save the day — all while cracking a few jokes along the way.

From the criminally underappreciated Hudson Hawk (1991) to a few turns as his most enduring character — John McClane in Die Hard 2 (1990) and Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995) — WIllis was half-man, half-amazing. And that’s why audience’s connected so well with him. He even championed this variation of regular-guy heroics in outer space for science fiction movies like The Fifth Element (1997) and Armageddon (1998). But it was the over-the-top action and genuine chemistry between Willis and Damon Wayans in The Last Boy Scout (1991) that makes this movie stand out as his best of the decade.

2/19 Wesley Snipes

10 Best Wesley Snipes Movies, Ranked

In the 90s, Wesley Snipes showed a remarkable ability to be as perfectly cast as a villain as he was a hero. Snipes’ flamboyant, gleeful portrayal of criminal Simon Phoenix in Demolition Man (1994) stands out as one of the most iconic action movie bad guys of the decade, while his dry, deadpan delivery in the horror-action classic Blade (1998) makes for one of the most stoic heroes ever. Snipes starred in a string of classic action movies in the 90s, from Passenger 57 (1992) and Rising Sun (1993) to Drop Zone (1994) and US Marshals (1998). In every role, he was able to deliver action with an elegant martial arts fluidity along with an understated charm and swagger — and crafted some of the most memorable action hero performances of the decade.

1/19 Nicolas Cage

Con Air
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution Releasing

Maybe more than any other actor alive, Nicolas Cage‘s career has evolved through several different stages and phases. One thing is certain: Cage was masterful in this decade’s action movies. 90s action movies were all about hyperbole and overkill: Bigger explosions, badder villains and deadlier disasters. And that’s exactly why Cage was so perfectly suited to play a hero in the 90s. Not only did his movies deliver some of the most stylish stunts, thrills, and chases, but Cage’s ability to match his character’s energy to the onscreen action made him the quintessential 90s action hero.

He plays his characters as smart, capable heroes who are not afraid to rise to the occasion, save the day and take a victory lap. While The Rock (1996) and Con Air (1997) may be two of the most perfect examples of 90s action flare, they aren’t the only examples of why Cage is the best action hero of the 90s. Two must-sees from this era include his amazing performance as the sociopathic bad guy in John Woo’s Face Off (1997), as well as his portrayal of a corrupt cop trying to redeem himself in Brian DePalma’s Snake Eyes (1998).



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