We take a 30 year trip back to 1993 to look at ten action movies you have to see…
In the grand scheme of action films, 1993 was an interesting year. Jumping back 30 years we see a time of transition, where the stalwarts of the 80s like Stallone and Schwarzenegger were finding it difficult to match their best successes, whilst being challenged by the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Wesley Snipes.
The year was an interesting mixture of films that were either torn apart by critics, failed at the box office, or fell short of the expectations of fans. In time, many of these have found themselves held in higher regard, however.
Let’s cock our shotguns, mount our hogs and grease our mullets as we jump back to 1993 and look at the underrated action movies of the year.
Sly Stallone was having a tough time in the early 90s. When 93 rolled around he was coming off the back of a dire run which saw a failed third Rambo, a fifth Rocky and two critically annihilated comedies.
Stallone gambled on sci-fi, with Demolition Man, the tale of John Spartan and his arch nemesis, Simon Phoenix. After a battle between the two leaves a building destroyed and a bus full of hostages dead, Phoenix is sentenced to be cryogenically frozen but manages to frame Spartan. They both inevitably wake and Phoenix goes on the run in a PC gone made, a woke paradise of a future. An old-fashioned crim can only be caught by an old-fashioned cop.
Demolition Man did okay business on release, but perhaps not enough to convince that Stallone could repeat his 80s success. Critics were decidedly underwhelmed too, not quite attuned to the mix of satire, humour and genre elements. Now, with the benefit of time and the fact that the film’s depiction of the future wasn’t too far from where we are now, it’s become a little bit more heralded.
The satirical humour works well, the film is affably silly in places but above all, it’s got Stallone in good fettle and Wesley Snipes and Sandra Bullock vying to steal the movie. Whether they quite knew it, the makers of Demolition Man created one of the most enduring action classics of the 90s.
With a nice balance of man vs terrorists and man vs elements, we have Cliffhanger. It’s a film that felt suitably grandiose for a Stallone vehicle. It also gave Stallone a haunted character seeking redemption that allowed him to inject a bit of pathos into his performance. Stallone wrote the script, so he certainly gave himself some good arcs.
Director Renny Harlin, coming from the school of 1980s, music video-inspired stylists, was already well versed in this Die Hard archetype, having directed Die Hard 2. He provides plenty of visual flair here in a film that utilises its snowy mountain, occasionally vertigo-inducing, visuals to great effect.
Michael Rooker is great in support, arguably upstaging Stallone, whilst John Lithgow gnaws up the scenery as the villain. Cliffhanger did well at the box office and received so-so reviews. It never got the appreciation it deserved for nailing an interesting and visually arresting concept. Likewise, it’s one of the better ‘Die Hard on a…’ riffs.
Only The Strong
The helmer of several Van Damme classics, Sheldon Lettich took a break from lensing his old buddy JC and made this riff on this Class of 1984/The Substitute riff. A crime-riddled and troubled school, rife with drugs and underachieving wasters, needs a swift kick of inspiration. This comes in the form of then-rising star, Mark Dacascos as a former student back from military duty and now an expert in Capoeira.
The use of Capoeira on screen was pretty unique at the time, only very briefly seen in a few action movies here and there. Only the Strong sees Louis (Dacascos) stepping in to help an inspiring former teacher and sub at the school. His class of lackadaisical students are slowly turned around as he teaches them the rhythmic, dance-infused martial art.
He’s not the only Capoeira Maestre in town, however, as one of the students has an older brother running a notorious criminal gang. Conflict is a certainty, as are plenty of fights. Dacascos is likeable, the fights are great and the soundtrack is also superb. Only the Strong certainly had the potential to do well and be a springboard for Dacascos, but issues in marketing, and the leading man being in the midst of filming (Double Dragon) and thus unable to hit the promo circuit, seemed to hold the film back, as did a decline in theatrical interest in punch-em-ups. Only the Strong is a great, very underseen martial arts classic.
On the subject of Jean-Claude Van Damme, his kickboxing-centric films which brought him to the forefront of martial arts cinema were hugely popular but by the early 90s it felt like he needed to branch into slightly different genres. That saw a shift into doing sci-fi action films, but also a very definite inspiration from Hong Kong guns and gangster cinema. For one, that saw Van Damme and the aforementioned Lettich shoot Double Impact in Hong Kong, laced with fights and some John Woo-inspired gun sequences.
So what better for Van Damme, who was versed in Asian action cinema, than to bring over John Woo? For American audiences, the stylistic sensibilities of Woo were quite jarring and not least for Van Damme fans. Initially, his aficionados didn’t seem too enamoured with Hard Target’s gun-heavy action and Woo’s use of slow-motion. There’s a sub-section of the Van Damme fandom who persistently want(ed) tournament fight films and can be difficult to please. What has happened in time though, is that Hard Target has grown in appreciation.
The action sequences are undeniably the most superbly constructed and anarchically destructive in Van Damme canon (and right up there in the 90s full stop). Opposing the greasily mulleted JC are Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo one of the great action cinema pairing of villains.
Joshua Tree (Army of One)
Coming after the success of Universal Soldier, Dolph Lundgren might have expected a bit more joy as a theatrical leading man. The film did wonders for his co-star, Van Damme of course. In spite of a clearly beefy budget, enabling plenty of bang for the buck, Joshua Tree (known as Army of One in the US) bypassed theatres and ended up as a (popular) video premiere.
Despite that DTV tag, the on-screen chaos is big-screen worthy and you’d expect nothing less than the well-crafted vehicular and stunt carnage, being helmed by a legendary stuntman, Vic Armstrong.
Among the highlights, aside from Lundgren’s fetching red T-shirt and black jeans combo, are the numerous car chases and the John Woo-inspired warehouse shootout. It’s a joyous throwback to a bygone era of practical effects action, where squibs are used excessively and proudly.
In the Jackie Chan classic era, people often talk about the Police Story franchise, Project A and Armour of God films. Lesser talked about is Crime Story, a slightly grittier variation on Chan’s more iconic Police procedurals. It still has certain staples like liberal use of at-hand props and furniture during fights, as well as comedy.
The story is engaging and the film is really well-shot. Recent remasters and HD editions look superb too. This doesn’t go quite as crazy as some of Chan’s 80s work, but there’s a certain grit to the action and it’s interesting to see Chan in action scenes with a little more use of gun fights and pyrotechnics. Yes, he of course still delivers exceptional fights and stunts and the finale is thrilling. Very, very underrated in Chan’s catalogue.
Last Action Hero
For a time, Last Action Hero was a punchline in movies and sitcoms, pouring scorn on a film deemed a critical and commercial failure. This had Schwarzenegger at the peak of his powers, who had hit a box office high a couple of years before with Terminator 2. It was directed by action titan, John McTiernan and written (initially at least) by genre golden boy, Shane Black.
Unfortunately, the broad satire didn’t quite hit back in the day. People wanting all-out action found it too silly and a slightly awkward cut and paste of various ideas and numerous script drafts does shift the tone slightly and lose a grip on logic. However, go with it, appreciate the odd mixture and embrace the great things of Last Action Hero. Aside from its wry send-ups of genre conventions, one thing it nails extremely well is the action sequences, as brilliantly constructed as you expect from McTiernan.
Arnold has a great time mercilessly McBain-ing himself and Charles Dance is ridiculously good. He is ‘should have got nommed for an Oscar’ good. Tom Noonan, as he always does as a villain, gets unsettlingly into it. Great gags, great action and it feels huge in scale.
Beyond the Law
When it comes to slightly cheesy undercover cop infiltrating notorious biker gang kind of movies, then the prize selection is Stone Cold, the Boz classic from 1991. However, there’s also plenty to be said for a largely forgotten but enjoyable slice of peak Charlie Sheen-era action. Sheen was fairly prolific around the time, doing a number of action flicks.
Sheen is the cop looking to take down a Biker gang, headed up by Michael Madsen at the height of his villainous powers. The depictions of biker gang culture are almost as ludicrous as Stone Cold, topped with Sheen’s ridiculous costuming and hair. It only adds to the appeal of a film that feels like it belongs in the previous decade. For good measure, you’ve got some beautifully crafted and stunt-filled set pieces.
In the Line of Fire
Clint Eastwood was well attuned to films about ageing heroes well past their prime by this point. He’d struck gold the year prior with Unforgiven. Here, Eastwood plays a former presidential bodyguard who was on duty when JFK was shot. He’s dusted off and brought into the security of the new man, nearly 30 years later, when a threat is made.
Eastwood’s flawed hero finds himself pushed to physical limits whilst dealing with past psychological trauma. Wolfgang Petersen is an expert in ratcheting up the tension and does so very well in this enjoyable potboiler. Eastwood is typically gruff and great and with John Malkovich as the villain, you know the antagonism will be on point. Still, whilst this was initially greeted with good box office and solid reviews, it was still met with some disappointment when compared to the inspired Unforgiven. In time, it’s been a little unfairly forgotten too.
Take a great everyman cast, a simple concept and set over the course of a night for breakneck immediacy and you have yourself a great set-up for an action film. That’s exactly what we get in 1993’s Judgment Night with Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr, Stephen Dorff and Jeremy Piven caught in a gang-controlled district after dark and witnessing a murder.
They then find themselves hunted through dark, unfamiliar and menacing streets by Denis Leary and his gang. Judgment Night really did get overlooked on its release. This was a fairly significant studio release with a beefy budget. Sure, it was never going to do Jurassic Park numbers but it doesn’t get enough credit for its brilliantly paced tension, engaging cast or the gripping hunt-and-chase that doesn’t let up. Trespass, Walter Hill’s similarly liked film was also decent, but Stephen Hopkins really nails all the elements in this one.
What’s the most underrated action film from 1993? 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 around the world, including When Darkness Falls and several releases due out soon, including big-screen releases for Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see.