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Good Action Movies (1995-00): Actions Speak Louder

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Ren Zelen itcherAction movies tend to be the crowd pleasers of the cinema, combining as they do, a dramatic storyline with physical action, frantic chases, explosions and special effects. I’m taking a look at how by the late nineteen nineties, the action genre developed and became increasingly violent and gung-ho. ~ Ren Zelen

Violence and Body-Counts

Pre-1970 action heroes were far more moral; their code was to kill only in self-defence. By the 1980s most of this code was abandoned and the action movie became increasingly dominated by the vigilante or ‘rogue-cop’.

By the 1990s movies sought to consolidate that feeling of amoral power by becoming ultra-violent with ever increasing body-counts. Here are some of the lesser known examples of that new era.


Ultra-Violent Action Movie Recommendations

‘Desperado’ (Robert Rodriguez, 1995)

You know, it’s easier to pull the trigger than play guitar. Easier to destroy than to create…

Desperado is a spirited remake of director Robert Rodriguez’s low-budget Spanish-language ‘El Mariachi’. Not content with the relatively small audience that saw the original film, Rodriguez decided to take Hollywood’s money and redo it as a version of ‘High Plains Drifter’ for the post-Tarantino age.

In this English language version, the mysterious Mariachi (here played by Antonio Banderas) wanders into town with a guitar case and vengeance in his heart. He plunges into the underworld and follows a trail of blood to the last of the infamous Mexican drug lords, Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida). With the help of his best friend (Steve Buscemi) and a beautiful bookstore owner (Salma Hayek), the Mariachi tracks Bucho down and takes on his army of desperados, for an action-packed, bullet-riddled showdown.

What makes this an effective actioner is Rodriguez’s assured touch – his action pieces may defy anything approaching credibility in their glee for pure cinematic destruction, but he makes up for this with skilful editing and a perverse sense of humour.

‘Rumble in the Bronx’ (Stanley Tong, 1995)

Don’t let the situation change you. Change it…

Hong Kong policeman Keung (Jackie Chan) arrives in New York for the wedding of his uncle Bill (Bill Tung), a grocer who recently sold his Bronx store to the attractive Elaine (Anita Mui). When a biker gang bursts into the store to wreak havoc, Keung springs into action, his mission, to defend the weak and protect the innocent with his extraordinary martial arts skills! As Keung investigates local gangs, he learns more about a criminal syndicate that needs to be brought to justice.

Jackie Chan is famous for his crazy stunts. True, he uses his martial art skills to defeat whole gangs of thugs, but he also uses whatever props are at hand. In ‘Rumble,’ there’s a sequence where he improvises with furniture, another where he uses refrigerators, one involving perfect timing with a knife and another fight – in a grocery store – where he does something amazing with a grocery cart.

It’s not only the stunts that make ‘Rumble in the Bronx’ fun to watch –it’s also Jackie Chan’s infectious personality. He doesn’t view himself with great solemnity and he always seems to be enjoying himself as much as entertaining his audience.

‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ (Renny Harlin, 1996)

To our dear friends, may the best of your past be the worst of your future…

An action movie with a female protagonist remains a rare thing, and ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ featuring Geena Davis, remains one of the boldest, loudest, and most entertaining action blockbusters of the 1990s.

Directed by Davis’s then-husband Renny Harlin, it’s wonderfully over the top in every respect, from the ebullient characters to the non-stop, reality-defying action set pieces.

Davis stars as a small-town schoolteacher and mother suffering from amnesia, who begins to recall strange memories of violence and revives an odd set of physical skills. She discovers that she was once a ruthless assassin working for a shadowy government agency. Samuel L Jackson plays her reluctant sidekick, and there are also ripe performances from Patrick Malahide, Brian Cox and the cheerfully villainous Craig Bierko, all relishing a sharp and playful script by ‘Lethal Weapon’ creator Shane Black.

Shot against the freezing backdrop of an East Coast winter, much of the fun comes from the pairing of Davis and Jackson and the way Shane Black flips their roles – Jackson is the perfect sidekick, allowing Davis to show that she can be a convincing action heroine and giving us the intriguing prospect of Davis presenting a challenge to the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone as a bona fide action star.

‘Broken Arrow’ (John Woo, 1996)

I don’t know what’s scarier, losing nuclear weapons, or that it happens so often there’s actually a term for it…

‘Broken Arrow’ directed by the Hong Kong cult favourite John Woo, is his big-budget Hollywood debut, (after his modest first U.S. film, ‘Hard Target’ 1993). It shows Woo is capable of staging noisy fight scenes and spectacular explosions – and a lot of stuff gets blown up  in ‘Broken Arrow’,  including a train, four helicopters and , if that wasn’t enough, a mountain.

The plot is basically a duel between Air Force pilots Vic Deakins (John Travolta) and Riley Hale (Christian Slater) who are sent on an overnight top-secret mission in a Stealth bomber carrying two nuclear weapons. Once they are in the air, Deakins changes the plan. He, it transpires, is a traitor intent on killing his partner, stealing the bombs, and selling them to a syndicate that plans to blackmail the government.

When he crashes the plane, somehow Hale survives, and meets up with park ranger Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis). Together, Hale and Terry go on a mission to thwart Deakins’ plan.

‘The Replacement Killers’ (Antoine Fuqua, 1998)

So you didn’t want to kill a kid. Welcome to the human race…

The film was the American debut for Chow Yun-Fat, a popular star in Asia for over 20 years and a frequent collaborator with John Woo, the above mentioned Hong Kong action wizard who also produced this film.

Chow is solemn, open-faced, with a hint of sadness. Here he plays hired assassin John Lee who owes a favour to Chinatown crime boss Terence Wei (Kenneth Tsang). Wei’s son has been killed by a cop Stan Zedkov (Michael Rooker) and Wei wants Lee to exact revenge by killing Zedkov’s young son in retribution.

Lee has the boy in his sights, but his conscience gets the better of him, and he spares the child’s life. Afraid that Wei will take revenge on his family in China, Lee seeks out expert forger Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino) to obtain the passport he needs to get out of the country, but a band of replacement killers is soon on his trail.

‘The Replacement Killers’ was also director, Antoine Fuqua’s first feature. He went on to direct a slew of successful action movies – Denzel Washington in ‘Training Day’ (2001) and ‘The Equalizer’ (2014), Mark Wahlberg in ‘Shooter’ (2007) Gerard Butler in ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ (2013) and Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Southpaw’ (2015) amongst others.

‘Enemy of the State’ (Tony Scott, 1998)

I’m not gonna sit in congress and pass a law that lets the government point a camera and a microphone at anything they damn well please…

Corrupt National Security Agency official Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight) has a congressman assassinated to assure the passage of expanded surveillance legislation which will give the government greater powers to snoop on its citizens.

When a videotape of the murder ends up in the hands of Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), a labour lawyer and dedicated family man, Reynolds directs a vendetta against the lawyer that includes planting sexual gossip in the paper, cancelling his credit cards, getting him fired and eventually even trying to frame him for the murder.

For much of the movie, Dean, the lawyer, doesn’t even know he has the evidence, just a videotape showing the congressman’s suicide being faked.

As Dean chases around Washington, trying to discover who’s after him and why, the story is told with footage from spy satellites, surveillance cameras, listening devices, bugs, wiretaps and database searches. With the help of ex-intelligence agent Edward “Brill” Lyle (Gene Hackman, reprising something similar to his role in ‘The Conversation’), Dean attempts to throw Reynolds off his trail and prove his innocence.

The movie is fast-paced, centred around two big chase scenes, and ends in a clever double-cross that leads to a violent shootout.

‘Ronin’ (John Frankenheimer, 1998)

No questions. No answers. That’s the business we’re in. You just accept it and move on. Maybe that’s lesson number three…

The Ronin of Japanese legends were Samurai whose lords had been killed. Left with no leader, they roamed the countryside, freelance swords for hire. The same definition would seem to apply to the disparate band of killers who assemble in a Paris bistro at the beginning of John Frankenheimer’s movie.

This team is put together by IRA pay mistress Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) – they are tasked with stealing a valuable briefcase, the contents of which are a mystery. The international team includes Sam (Robert De Niro), an ex-intelligence officer, along with Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard) Spence (Sean Bean), and others. As their operation gets underway, several team members are found to be untrustworthy, and everyone must complete the mission with a watchful eye on their colleagues.

John Frankenheimer is known as a master of intelligent thrillers (‘The Manchurian Candidate’ ‘The General’s Daughter’  ‘The French Connection II’ ), and his films have a visual quality that brings a presence and realism to the many locations. The screenplay credits reveal the presence of David Mamet, who reportedly wrote most of the final draft, and who gives the dialogue a deadpan authenticity.

‘Ronin’ is really all about characters, locations and behaviour. Here, with little plot but a fine cast, Frankenheimer creates an entertaining and exciting movie.

‘The Boondock Saints’ (Troy Duffy, 1999)

The question is not how far. The question is, do you possess the constitution, the depth of faith, to go as far is as needed?

Convinced that they are doing God’s will, two Irish Catholic brothers from Boston set out to cleanse their hometown of evil and wipe out the crime overrunning the streets in this Reservoir Dogs-style vigilante thriller, although this movie takes non-linear storytelling to a level beyond where Quentin Tarantino was ever able to go.

Brothers Conner and Murphy MacManus (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) then begin by performing their ‘holy duty’ against the Russian mob. As they hunt down and kill one notorious gangster after another, they become controversial folk heroes in their community. But Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe), an eccentric FBI agent, is fast closing in on their trail.

‘The Boondock Saints’ attracted some controversy on release. It appears to be the kind of movie that people either love with a passion, or loathe for ever being thought up, but people can’t seem to be apathetic about it. The movie is certainly designed to be over-the-top, from Willem Dafoe’s performance to the action sequences themselves.


Lethal Weapons

What makes a great action movie? It should have memorable characters, grand set pieces, possibly some martial arts skills, and a supreme daftness of plot and credibility. The end usually takes place in a cloud of bullets, glass, or shrapnel. If it also boasts some scary biceps and the endless availability of bullets, explosions, and one-liners, no action fan is likely to feel short-changed.

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