The term action movie didn't really exist until the eighties. Before that, there were lots of films with plenty of action but I would agree none of them would fit the definition of the term. I think of 1981's Escape From New York to be the father (godfather?) of all action movies. Then as the eighties continued, the genre was defined by crazy assaults like Rambo and Commando. The heroes were mostly one-dimensional and muscle-bound and the body counts were sky high.
When the nineties rolled around, the genre was evolving. Plots were becoming more intricate and characters more complex. People wanted "smarter" movies but they didn't want this to be at the cost of the action. Here are the movies that I believe succeeded the most in that during the rockin' decade that was the nineties.
5. Broken Arrow (1996)
Maybe this one surprises you. Maybe I don't give a %$#@. I'll admit there isn't any one spectacular thing about this movie. What makes it great is that it's just consistently good, start to finish. Christian Slater's character doesn't have much depth and isn't too unique but he's likeable enough. Samantha Mathis's spunky park ranger is just so adorable (my love affair with the actress began here) and Travolta's bad guy is quirky and menacing. I also really dig the music, particularly the main theme (which was inexplicably stolen and placed in Scream 2 as "Dewey's Theme). Oh, actually, this film does boast one really spectacular thing - the death of the main bad guy. Check it out.
4. Goldeneye (1995)
I almost didn't include this because I wasn't sure if it really fits my own definition of an action movie. I kept movies like Jurassic Park off this list because, despite all their action, I consider them Adventure films (like the Indy films of the eighties). Goldeneye can certainly be seen as an adventure film or spy/thriller or whatever but I finally decided it fits the action bill as well. Because, well, what action!
Plus this was an important film in the Bond franchise coming after the longest gap between movies in history (six years), being the first without a Cold War background, AND featuring a brand new guy to play Bond - Pierce Brosnan. Before it came out, a lot of people speculated it wouldn't work and the Bond franchise was as good as dead. Well, we all know how that turned out. Brosnan's Bond is witty, gritty and a true action star. Sean Bean was a great nemesis too. Like I said, I wasn't sure if I should classify this as a pure action film - then I remember the scene with Bond driving the tank through the streets of St. Petersburgh. Bravo.
3. Face/Off (1997)
Another movie with John Travolta as the bad guy. But wait - he's the good guy too? Huh?!?! People like to moan about this movie's preposterous plot as if there are no other movies out there with preposterous plots. Give me a break. I'll admit that when this came out, the idea of taking Hong Kong super action director John Woo and giving him an American movie featuring two American leading men wasn't necessarily the recipe for a hit. But it worked. The action is almost constant and the gun-fighting is sleek and stylish - not to be outdone until 2002's Equilibrium - which, to be fair, was a sci-fi film. Anyway, I stand by this flick as one of the best of the decade.
2. The Rock (1996)
People love to hate on Michael Bay. Some changed their tune after Transformers (2007). And I'm not really a fan either. But it bugs me that Michael Bay haters like to classify this movie in the same category as Pearl Harbor (2001) and Armageddon (1998) because it's really very good. Sure a lot of stuff blows up - that doesn't mean it can't be good too. So many people want to think of themselves as intellectuals or cultured or whatever to the point that they can't recognize a really stellar action movie when they see one.
And The Rock is a really stellar action movie. The plot is good and the actors are really good as well. Maybe none of it is Oscar material but you can sense Ed Harris's inner conflict - his sense of honour versus his sense of outrage. Nick Cage is neurotic but still heroic and Connery is just pure badass. There's a San Francisco car chase, a good, energetic score, lots of funny and memorable lines AND a crazy gas that makes people's skin melt off while they cough up their guts. What more do you want?
1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
No waffling here about whether this sci-fi movie can also fall under the category of pure action. The special effects were ground-breaking, Arnold was at his best and the bullets were flying. The chase through the fabled Los Angeles River is seen as a landmark moment in action movies (one could say that several scenes were, really) - eighteen wheeler vs dirtbike vs chopper. There's a breakout of a mental asylum with night sticks and syringes - you don't see that in too many movies, really. The bad guy is an unstoppable force and the hero is a reformed (er, reprogrammed) unstoppable force who wears a leather jacket and shades. There's shooting and explosions galore and even a few impalements. All action films look to this one as the mark to shoot for.