Tom Jolliffe ventures back 30 years to a year well stocked in action films…
Upon revisiting the cinematic landscape of 1991 recently, I noticed something that tickled my nostalgia no end. The year was chock full of action films, with a large number of films packing audiences in cinemas and a number also keeping video shop shelves well stocked with carnage. I’ll state right off the bat that the action film of the year was Terminator 2: Judgment Day bar none, but I covered that in another piece, given it’s an all round exceptional example of cinema and not perhaps just of its genre.
So here are some action films from the year 1991 and because I’m turning this up to 11 for carnage, it’s eleven essential films…
Out For Justice
As the tagline suggests, Steven Seagal has to take out the garbage, and boy does he. The idea is simple, a drug addled gangster with a death wish goes on a hedonistic and murderous rampage, killing Bobby Lupo to start off his day of destruction. Unfortunately that happens to be Gino Fellino’s (yes…Gino Fellino, as played by Steven Seagal) partner. Out For Justice was the culmination of an opening onslaught of early films that perfectly encapsulated what Seagal was good at. Undoubted screen presence and penchant for keeping stoic (but often with a certain charisma), the films showcased his unique screen fighting well (one of the first to really showcase Aikido). Seagal’s approach to fight scenes as being grounded, gritty and bone crunchingly violent (and ruthlessly efficient) over being stylish was a forerunner for the likes of Bourne and more recently, John Wick. A total antithesis to what Van Damme was doing at the time (which whilst dazzling, was pure fantasy). Seagal gives one of his best performances here, and as a physical force was at his best here (the bar scene is awesome). William Forsythe is absolutely fantastic as the deranged bad guy. He dials it right up and throws himself fully into the role. His character takes an almighty beating at the end of the film, much of which sees Forsythe himself being thrown around the room, massacring furniture as he goes.
As for Jean Claude Van Damme, well he starred in Double Impact. The film marked something of a shift for him. He’d predominantly starred in films revolving around underground fighting/tournaments (with a couple of notable exceptions like Cyborg). This had a little more in the way of comedic touches, and a very definite inspiration from Hong Kong cinema of the era. It also marked the first time (of several) where Van Damme played dual roles, starring as the twins Chad and Alex, separated at birth. Double Impact often ranks as a favourite among JCVD fans because it’s a good ride. It’s goofy on occasion but a lot of fun. The international cast is pretty eclectic (notably Geoffrey Lewis, Bolo Yeung, Alan Scarfe, Cory Everson and Philip Chan), the locations eye catching and the action scenes very stylish. It’s a bit more of an all around adventure, as opposed to being confined to fighting in underground kickboxing matches. With director Sheldon Lettich at the helm, Van Damme had a director fully in tune with his strengths.
Showdown In Little Tokyo
So Arnie, Seagal and Van Damme were busy in 1991. Not to be left out, Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee joined in the action. Showdown in Little Tokyo had a lot going for it. It was a Warner Brothers picture for one. Things hadn’t quite gone as planned for Lundgren for a variety of reasons up to this point but Rocky 4 still left him with credit. Brandon Lee was about to get pushed as the next big thing and his lineage certainly brought him attention. The film is a non stop action packed juggernaut filled with martial arts and one liner filled bickering. It plays out like a Shane Black buddy up film, directed with the kind of assured hand for action you’d expect from the director of Commando (Mark L. Lester). The story is kept simple, the logic dialled down, the fun dialled up. Maybe it was more suited to the 80’s and came a few years too late. Maybe it also had the misfortune to get consumed on release by Terminator 2. In time the film has been reappraised and found a great deal of appreciation as a kind of trashy classic. As a duo, Lundgren and Lee gel well. It showcases Lundgren’s presence and martial arts prowess very well, and makes him almost comically indestructible (very much an Arnie-esque role). He often seemed reluctant to play roles like this, and aside from his standout villain roles, struggled to find his place as a leading hero outside of the video market. As for Lee, undoubtedly he was blessed with talent and an effortless charm. He steals the film, but sadly would only make two more before his untimely death, just before he was inevitably going to break big.
The Last Boy Scout
So we’ve had Shane Black-esque. How about some actual Shane Black? Here, Bruce Willis, riding high as one of the biggest action stars on the planet is reluctantly teamed with Damon Wayans to uncover the murder of Halle Berry. As you’d expect from Black, the script is pumped full of memorable lines and entertaining friction between the mismatched partners. Willis revels in playing an eternally pessimistic antithesis to John McClane. Additionally, the film is further blessed with the stylish visuals of Tony Scott. It’s a glossy blockbuster with plenty of action and quite rightly is still very popular today.
The Perfect Weapon
1991 wasn’t adverse to launching new stars. Jeff Speakman was about to be pushed by Paramount as a new rival to stars like Steven Seagal. He was to do for Kenpo what Seagal did for Aikido, and the hope was, the box office returns would reflect the kind of successes Seagal was having (predominantly with Warner). The Perfect Weapon was a great opening gambit. It might not have been as good an opening pitch as Bloodsport or Above The Law, but it had enough to suggest that Speakman and Kenpo could have proved a productive on screen force. The film was moderately successful on first run but things didn’t fall into place for Speakman afterwards (with a multipicture Paramount deal falling through). Still, The Perfect Weapon, loaded with excellent fight scenes and a great supporting cast, remains a cult favourite among martial arts fans, whilst it showed the potential Speakman undoubtedly had.
And Keanu Reeves took his first fleeting steps into the world of action and the rest is history. Point Break was a hugely popular film that bridged Reeves from a young actor playing airheads, to growing up into more decidedly adult cinema. He wasn’t an aspiring (potentially world saving) rocker here, he was an undercover FBI agent tasked with infiltrating the world of extreme sports where a trail from nefarious bank robbers has lead. Reeves maintains his heartthrob image, whilst Patrick Swayze, fresh off success with chick flick classics like Dirty Dancing and Ghost, was able to channel his sex appeal into a complex antagonist and philosophical leader of his band of robbers. Point Break was popular in 1991 but its legacy has aged like a fine wine. It’s brimming with style, and beautifully crafted by Kathryn Bigelow. Whilst some have dismissed it as a little hollow, it’s not searing drama, it’s in the action genre, but the film has space to breath some complexity into the leads (Swayze particularly). The set pieces are fantastic and Point Break feels like a unique action experience with a very distinct style. We saw how it would have been under a conventional gaze with The Fast and Furious a decade later, which was essentially a remake.
Cynthia Rothrock was something of an ass-kicking action veteran by this point. She’d cut her teeth in Hong Kong, becoming a big name and very popular. Her American transition was a little unfortunate though and was largely consigned to the video market. She still maintained a big following in the 90’s as THE action heroine and proved immensely popular in the booming action video market. She wasn’t adverse to sequels among her work, and Tiger Claws marked the start of a trilogy. Oddly, despite Rothrock’s undoubted pull, studios still seemed reluctant to let her fly solo. Whether it was Richard Norton or Chad McQueen, or Jalal Merhi, she was often inevitably partnered with a male star. The aforementioned Merhi (whose career as a leading video action man never hit the level of guys like Gary Daniels or Don Wilson) is partnered with Rothrock here as the pair hunt down Bolo Yeung, a killer targeting martial arts masters. It’s not the best film Rothrock made, even in the US, but it’s fun. It’s another example though, where a little more faith in her ability to headline a picture would have added to the film, as the mismatched partner aspect falls a bit flat here, and you’re left wanting more of Cynthia in action.
Armour of God 2: Operation Condor
Jackie Chan’s signature blend of action, fighting, stunts and humour are in great effect here in this rip roaring adventure sequel to Armour of God (which was also fantastic). Chan as the intrepid treasure hunter, finds himself fighting off the attention of two women (providing plenty of comical moments) whilst hunting for a hidden stash of Nazi Gold. The set pieces and locations are wonderful starting points for Chan to do his thing and he’s at his absolute best here. It’s an iconic entry in his CV, and a fine example of just why he was one of the very best in his prime.
Another action star launching pad, with a push to find rivals to the booming success of Seagal et al. Here the Boz, aka Brian Bosworth, majestically mulleted, is an undercover cop tasked with infiltrating a white supremacist biker gang. The film was dismissed as a little terrible, as these films atypically are by critics, however it’s grown a very definite following, with no small amount of ironic viewing by some. It’s ludicrous but it’s so brilliantly delivered nonsense, boosted by a scenery chomping villain in Lance Henriksen, that there’s a genuine affection for Stone Cold. Craig Baxley, stunt man turned action director never got the break his set piece knack deserved. He has a line of cult favourites including this, Dark Angel (Lundgren) and Action Jackson, and also has the distinction of having overseen the superb jungle gun fight in Predator.
Christopher Walken, a bit late to the 80’s action party, headlines a kind of atypically 80’s action film. It’s an oddity within his undoubtedly eclectic CV but an enjoyable one. Walken is both a strength and a weakness in the film. For one, he’s Walken so he’s got the inimitable presence and charisma. He’s great to watch in a film like this. On the flipside the film does lag in places where it wants to inject more drama to proceedings (but it’s perhaps 10 minutes longer than necessary) because they have Walken. It could have embraced the genre and stylistic excess of 80’s action just a touch more, but regardless there’s some fine set pieces and there’s a definite lure in seeing Walken in the kind of film usually reserved for Chuck Norris.
Once Upon A Time In China
An enjoyably grandiose and stylish martial arts classic. The film really helped establish Jet Li as one of the major stars in Chinese cinema at the time. The film also marked one of the best works of Tsui Hark, a director of very distinct creative verve. It helped to re-popularise the classic martial arts genre, which was being replaced with more modern tales and more grit or humour (with the likes of John Woo, Ringo Lam and Jackie Chan very prolific). The film sparked a franchise although the first two are far and away the best. The action scenes are of course stunning (choreographed by Yeun Woo-Ping of The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, fame), Li is an undoubted presence, and he’s ably supported by Yeun Biao and Rosamund Kwan.
The also-rans: The Guyver (Mark Hamill in a sci-fi martial arts epic that feels like a lost Power Rangers episode), Ring of Fire (Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson launches a new fighting franchise to rival his own Bloodfist series), Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (Starring Don Johnson and Mickey Rourke, with lines aplenty and a lot of action among a muddled film), Timebomb (Michael Biehn is housing memories of another life he can’t remember, one which has left him targeted and on the run. Savaged on release but has found a cult following in time) and a Lorenzo Lamas triple whammy of Final Impact, Night of The Warrior and Killing Streets (along with Michael Pare). What’s your favourite action film of 1991? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/