From Schwarzenegger space adventures to DTV entries where Dolph Lundgren saves the day, ’90s cinema was pretty stacked with fallen adversaries. But there are caveats to a film’s inclusion here. Movies that include war like Braveheart were up for inclusion, but not something that’s strictly a war film e.g. Saving Private Ryan. Furthermore, if it’s bugs getting shot like in Paul Verhoeven’s masterful Starship Troopers, that didn’t count, nor did action-horror movies like The Mummy or Army of Darkness. These are the best of the best of ’90s action, provided the viewer is looking for a high body count.
20 Tombstone (1993) — 55
If Tombstone isn’t the best Western ever made, it’s by a far sight the most entertaining. Featuring one of the greatest casts ever assembled, memorable dynamics between the characters, sublime set-pieces, and even better set design, Tombstone is a two-hour movie that feels like 20 minutes.
What’s extra impressive is there were numerous behind-the-scenes issues. And this is to the extent that, depending on whom one asks, it was Kurt Russell who directed the film, not Rambo: First Blood Part II‘s George P. Cosmatos. That would make sense, considering the film has far more heart than the aforementioned Rambo or Cosmatos’ other Stallone adventure: Cobra. But, that’s not to say there isn’t a ton of violence because, well, there is. And, regardless of how they’re positioned in the narrative, law enforcer or criminal, they’re all played by a familiar face, which makes it hard to see them on the business end of a revolver or Winchester.
19 Face/Off (1997) — 56
John Woo’s best American film by a country mile, Face/Off is a wildly inventive and utterly unforgettable action film with style to spare. Both Nicolas Cage and, especially, John Travolta have a ball with the film, with the latter actor going down zany roads that Cage had explored to an extent, but not the way he would down the road.
In a way, Travolta is playing Cage when he was in the direct-to-video bin for a while. Unhinged but utterly entertaining no matter what’s happening around him. Fortunately, everything that’s happening around the duo in Face/Off is infinitely superior to any DTV Nic Cage film, loaded with interesting characters (two of whom adopt the other’s personality) and dove-flying slow-mo action sequences that make John Woo the action expert he is.
18 Under Siege (1992) — 65
Quite possibly the best movie Steven Seagal ever lead (out of all those Oscar winners), Under Siege also stands as the number one film to rip off the framework and ensuing success of Die Hard. Admittedly, Seagal is solid as former Navy SEAL turned cook aboard the now-hijacked USS Missouri Casey Ryback.
He’s stoic, he stares, he flails his fists, he does what the role requires. But, it’s Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey who steal the show as former CIA operative turned terrorist William Strannix and current Navy officer Commander Peter Krill. As the film’s two unhinged villains (among other gun-wielding, money-hungry jerks), they rack up much of the film’s body tally, but Ryback sure does his best to give them a run for their bloody money. The death of Strannix is a particular highlight.
17 The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) — 68
As much a Shane Black-written film as it is a Renny Harlin-directed one, The Long Kiss Goodnight is a fun if not also crowded actioner. However, no matter how many tangents it goes down, Geena Davis devours every scene.
Why she didn’t become an action star after the 1996 film is a mystery, because as the film proves she’s incredibly adept in the genre. That said, Jackson and Harlin would team up to better effect in Deep Blue Sea just three years later.
16 True Lies (1994) — 71
Not everything about True Lies has aged well. For instance, its conveyance of female characters’ level of strength in comparison to the males’, not to mention its rampant xenophobia.
But someone would be hard-pressed to call the movie anything other than wildly entertaining. What other movie has Schwarzenegger on horseback…in the middle of a crowded mall? What other film has Schwarzenegger fire off a missile…with a man attached? Not even Last Action Hero could pull off anything that ridiculous. Though, comparatively, Last Action Hero didn’t pull off anything at all. Is True Lies one of James Cameron’s weakest films? Absolutely, but that’s not to say it isn’t a riot all the way through, and for those looking for Schwarzenegger taking down an entire terrorist cell, they really can’t do any better than True Lies.
15 Sweepers (1998) — 74
There have been quite a few straight-to-video Dolph Lundgren action films. Like the few that went to theaters, they mostly range from forgettable to awful. Sweepers skews the latter, but it’s not as if it’s a movie with neither ambition nor heart.
Lundgren portrays Christian Erikson, a former demolition expert who lost his son while disarming a mine. He’s forced himself into retirement, but finds reason to exit that when a humanitarian bomb-defusing mission is brought to his attention. Of course, things reach a boiling point when Erikson realizes the bombs he’s diffusing aren’t relics of a war, but rather fairly new. Passenger 57‘s Bruce Payne puts in an antagonistic performance (per usual).
14 Total Recall (1990) — 77
Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall is not only one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most beloved films, it’s flat-out one of the ’90s best both in terms of actioners and science fiction movies. And, just as it’s a thoughtful and intelligent adventure, it’s also a brutally violent one.
Like RoboCop, there’s hardly a dull moment in Total Recall. And, with peak Verhoeven, a high concept, villains in Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside, and Arnold in the lead role, how could it not be? Total Recall is a blast, just avoid the soulless remake.
13 Desperado (1995) — 80
If there’s any Robert Rodriguez movie that just absolutely screams Robert Rodriguez, it’s his Desperado, which effectively serves as both a sequel and reimagining of his debut, El Mariachi. Is El Mariachi a better film? In a way, and really in the ways that count, but dang if Desperado isn’t a lot more fun and a lot less somber.
Furthermore, Antonio Banderas makes for a better leading performer, and he’s entirely in his element as a vengeance-seeking mariachi with a brother complex. Toss in amazing chemistry between Banderas and fellow Rodriguez favorite Salma Hayek and Desperado is one of his best films. Not to mention, Steve Buscemi is perfect in his limited role, making every minute of his screen time count.
12 Fifth Element (1997) — 80
Plenty of species pass away in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, but unlike the space bugs in Starship Troopers, they’re all essentially humanoid and count. All in all, 80 people are killed in Besson’s film, mostly at the hands of Gary Oldman’s wretched Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg.
Considered by many to be one of the best sci-fi movies of the past 25 years, The Fifth Element also features one of Bruce Willis’ best performances of the decade. He has a lot of fun as Korben Dallas and, yes, that involves firing a gun or two.
11 Delta Force 2 (1990) — 92
A sequel to the Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin-led The Delta Force (Marvin’s last film), Delta Force 2 is a mostly-bland actioner that sees Norris reprise his role of Major Scott McCoy. This time he travels to South America in an attempt to cease shipments of cocaine from entering the U.S.
The first Delta Force film wasn’t high art, but it had more energy and a stronger script, not to mention the gravitas of Marvin, which never stopped short of blowing Norris’ subdued performance style out of the water. Delta Force 2 has none of these things, and really it exists only for Norris completionists.
10 Bridge of Dragons (1999) — 109
Dolph Lundgren reteamed with his Showdown in Little Tokyo co-star Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat) for Bridge of Dragons, one in a line of direct-to-video Dolph Lundgren action films from the ’80s, ’90s, and aughts. Lundgren portrays Warchild, a mercenary trained by Tagawa’s General Ruechang, who plans to take control of the (unnamed) country via a marriage to royalty.
But Lundgren’s character falls for her too, and together they exact vengeance on the man who both murdered the princess’ father and has spent a lifetime manipulating Warchild. The film is a bit of a departure for Lundgren in that it often embraces both the romance and fantasy genres. But, of course, considering it’s a Dolph Lundgren movie, it doesn’t exactly short the audience on violence.
9 Blade (1998) — 111
A trend-setting formative Marvel movie, Blade predates the Spider-Man franchise and manages to have more kills than all of those films combined. That said, killing was never Spidey’s bag.
With over 110 kills in the original Blade film, it’s logical that the titular character isn’t the only one doing all the death-dealing. However, he sure does most of it. Much of it in the opening club scene.
8 Operation Delta Force (1997) — 120
A long forgotten ’90s B-movie, Operation Delta Force nonetheless has merit in fits and starts. Mostly this is due to the cast, with Ernie Hudson and Jeff Fahey giving the lackluster script their all.
But, outside of them, there’s nothing special in Operation Delta Force. It does to an inferior extent what Navy SEALs already did poorly. But, like any cheap-o action flick, it comes with a big body count (and, admittedly, a solid opening featuring a training scenario).
7 From Dusk till Dawn (1996) — 122
From Dusk Till Dawn is a great pick if someone wants to understand Robert Rodriguez’s style. But, what it is even more so, is a great pick to show off just how well Rodriguez and fellow auteur Quentin Tarantino can do when they’re working together.
Grindhouse, with it’s Rodriguez-helmed Planet Terror and Tarantino’s inferior Death Proof, was ambitious and remains impressive. But From Dusk Till Dawn is more entertaining, and considering it’s a solid member of both the vampire subgenre and the crime spree type of narrative, it’s nearly as impressive as their later collaboration. Admittedly, the crime-skewing former half is superior to the latter, but at least the horror-skewing latter manages to build upon characters who were successfully established in the former.
6 Judge Dredd (1995) — 148
A horribly misguided attempt to adapt John Wagner and Carlo Ezquerra’s source material, 1995’s Judge Dredd is a total mess. It’s ugly, it’s hollow, it’s horribly acted, it’s crowded, and it only purports to have something on its mind. And, if one even analyzes its production to even a cursory extent, it’s pretty clear it was Sylvester Stallone’s fault. All due respect, because no one who can fuel Rocky and First Blood is nearly as bad as even their softest critics proclaim, but Judge Dredd really went off the rails as a star vehicle.
He claimed to be a fan of the IP but heavily pushed for it to skew comedic. So, really, every joke that lands with a thud (all of the films jokes or general attempt at humor) is on him. Director Danny Cannon fought for it to be more grounded and faithful, which would have done the film much good. But, for action fans, at least the film has a high body count, even if its action sequences are edited like cubed steak.
5 The Last of the Mohicans (1992) — 172
Featuring typically sterling work from Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Mann’s period piece The Last of the Mohicans is a beautiful work and a wonderful half of a double feature also consisting of Braveheart. And, unlike most other Day-Lewis films, it has a body count.
There’s an argument to be made that The Last of the Mohicans is a war film, just the same as that Mel Gibson-directed and starring film, but what it is more is a man-on-a-mission movie. And, fortunately, that mission is of an altruistic and unifying nature. Unfortunately, blood has to be spilled before that unification of races can happen…if it happens at all.
4 Braveheart (1995) — 184
Less a historically accurate biopic and more a crusading actioner, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is one of the ’90s most quotable Oscar darlings. It’s also a testament to just how firm a grasp Gibson can hold on a complex, expansive narrative with any number of character who genuinely require an arc.
For the most part, Gibson’s William Wallace is the star of the show, but many are given their time to shine. This includes Sophie Marceau’s Princess Isabelle, Angus Macfadyen’s empathy-magnet Robert the Bruce, Patrick McGoohan’s contemptible King Edward “Longshanks,” and, briefly, Catherine McCormack’s Murron MacClannough. And, while only half those people die (including Wallace), there are plenty who die either on the battlefield or at the hands of “Longshanks,” including his own son’s lover.
3 Bullet in the Head (1990) — 237
Essentially the first John Woo film to really feel like his work, Bullet in the Head is an impressive epic that will nonetheless turn some viewers off. On one hand, there’s its perpetual genre-balancing, with the narrative finding itself in family drama and war territory just as often as small-scale conflict.
On the other hand there’s its 136-minute runtime, but darn if those minutes aren’t populated with terrific character development as much as they’re populated by intense action sequences. And, like with the best (and, in the case of Mission: Impossible II) the worst from Woo, his staples are present.
2 McBain (1991) – 250
Starring Christopher Walken and María Cohnchita Alonso, McBain has the lead performers to be a memorable movie, but it simply isn’t one. That said, it’s a violent one, considering Walken portrays a Vietnam vet now tasked with toppling the Colombian government and assassinating its sitting president.
McBain is similar to something like Triple Frontier or, to a lesser extent, The Expendables. Specifically, a rag-tag group of ex-soldiers take on a supposedly final mission to get rich in a way the military wouldn’t have afforded them with even decades of service. Of the film’s fleeting merits, however, the highlight isn’t the series of action sequences but rather the chemistry between Walken and Alonso.
1 Hard Boiled (1992) — 307
An all-timer action film and John Woo’s best, every staple that the Hong Kong director has popularized was mostly done via Hard Boiled. Starring Chow Yun Fat as Inspector “Tequila” Yuen and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings‘ Tony Leung as undercover police officer Alan.
The plot follows Inspector Yuen as he seeks vengeance for the death of his partner at the hands of a drug lord. To take down the man, he teams with an undercover cop currently acting as the drug lord’ favored hitman. Doves fly, bullets zoom, fists bash against cheeks, and credits roll. Hard Boiled is a breathless action classic, and it’ll leave the viewer feeling just the same.