Is it just me, or is 90s action cinema the best?

(Image credit: Paramount)

Screen action has come a long way since the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train allegedly had 19th-century audiences bolting in fear. Today, the pendulum has swung too far to cookie-cutter CG for the stake-free visual noise that rounds off most comic-book movies. But we’ll always have the sweet spot, the wild ride that was the best decade for action: the 1990s.

Obviously, we must acknowledge the groundwork laid by the 1980s. But that decade’s action was often Commando-level predictable and Road House cheesy. It sometimes suffered from being handed over to lacklustre second-unit teams (see Predator’s compound ambush) and could easily be mistaken for The A-Team. Frequently we suffered special effects (the stop-motion ED-209, a skinless Terminator) that veered from terrifying to comical.

The 90s picked up the baton, injected the steroids and surged forward. Action became bigger, bolder, better. Jerry Bruckheimer, Tony Scott and a pre-Transformers Michael Bay embraced OTT concepts as the order of the day. Fights, shootouts and stunts that would have been mere 80s set pieces now became the focus of the story, whether it was dodging a train crash while in chains, careering a bus at 50mph through Los Angeles or skydiving sans parachute with gun in hand.

Bodybuilders and kickboxers gave way to thespians with real acting cred. Want someone to hunt a fugitive? Call Tommy Lee Jones. Prevent nuclear missiles launching? Get me Denzel Washington. Need sinister comic relief? Bring me Steve Buscemi! And only one man can swap faces, save San Francisco from a VX nerve agent and thwart a prison break in order to get a toy bunny to his daughter: a 1990s Nicolas Cage.

The 90s gave Paul Verhoeven the budget he deserved for the subversive Starship Troopers, ‘the most expensive art movie ever made’. The decade was so action-packed it dished up duplicate volcano and asteroid films; one of the latter saw schlubby miners and their epic drilling skills saving Earth backed by an Aerosmith power ballad. We should be grateful. Or is it just me?

Paul Tanter is a British director, writer, and producer. He produces and directs the cult Amazon Prime series Age of the Living Dead, and Fox's No Easy Days. He has also written, directed, and produced over 15 feature films, alongside several graphic novels. He's also written about movies for publications including Total Film, Digital Filmmaker, and Film Stories Magazine.