46 MPH / The Best Action Movies of the ’90s

With Die Hard on a Blank Hosts Philip Gawthorne & Liam Billingham

As 50 MPH begins to coast to the end, we have a few laid-back weeks of fun in store in the form of, what else? Lists! But seriously, it’s time to really place Speed into the context of ’90s cinema and see how it stacks up against the decade’s cream of the crop, beginning today with an assessment of the best action movies of the ’90s. Joining the show to discuss are Philip Gawthorne and Liam Billingham, hosts of the popular Die Hard on a Blank podcast, which analyzes the action-oriented cinema that came in the wake of John McTiernan’s 1988 landmark and owe a debt to it.

Gawthorne, Billingham and 50 MPH host Kris Tapley‘s lists are varied but passionate, beginning with Billingham’s out-of-the-gate cheat as two films tie for his number-10 spot. But it’s hard to argue with the reasoning.

Ronin Poster
John Frankenheimer’s Ronin features arguably the greatest car chase ever committed to film.

“It’s interesting that the ‘80s are the classical era in action filmmaking and the ‘90s are postclassical,” Billingham says, “because my two picks for number 10 are what I would consider two great subversions and analyses of the action genre, which is the Sylvester Stallone-starring Demolition Man and the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring Last Action Hero. Last Action Hero, I think it’s something of a masterstroke and a deeply, deeply prophetic movie about where Hollywood is going to go. Demolition Man [is] another movie that sort of deconstructs Sylvester Stallone’s role in action movie history.”

In a reprise of its inclusion in 50 MPH‘s discussion of the best action set pieces of all time, John Frankenheimer’s Ronin makes an appearance on Tapley’s list, which is apt, given that Frankenheimer is Speed director Jan de Bont’s favorite action maestro.

“The greatest car chase of all time is in this movie, in my opinion,” Tapley says. “The Paris car chase in Ronin is just balls-to-the-wall amazing. It’s from this David Mamet script, which I guess he was rewritten and then took his name off of it. But the Mamet is very clear in this movie, and there’s just something about that marriage with the John Frankenheimer, practical kind of stuff. This is the man who made The Train in the ‘60s, which you might consider the first modern action movie.”

There are one or two controversial choices, depending on your definition of an “action movie,” but Gawthorne really tests the waters with his inclusion of a certain epic crime saga from 1995.

Heat Michael Mann
Is Michael Mann’s Heat an action movie?

Heat, written and directed by Michael Mann…I would submit to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that this would make the definition,” Gawthorne says. “It contains four incredible action sequences, including the most realistic urban shootout sequence ever committed to film, which goes on for about 10 to 15 minutes. But in addition to the bank heist and aftermath, you also have that opening heist sequence where they ram an armored car with a juggernaut to tip it over. You have the shootout sequence in the drive-in movie theater, which involves some pretty incredible action stuff. And then the final showdown at the airport as well. So, it does contain more set pieces than Mission: Impossible, for example, which barely has two.”

There are just two crossover points on the three lists, one of course being the reason we’re all here. The other ranks very high on all three lists and has a strong argument for best action film of the decade: Michael Bay’s The Rock.

“I think that what is so powerful about the movie is Ed Harris being one of the most compelling and sympathetic villains,” Billingham says. “There’s a way that you can view this movie as really pulpy, and I think him and David Morse’s performance as these, like, conflicted generals, transcend summer silliness and turn this movie into a piece of actual legitimate, in ways, political cinema. I think it’s kind of brainy in a way that we didn’t appreciate when it came out.”

And that’s really just a taste. All of that and much more on this week’s action-packed (literally!) episode of 50 MPH.

Kris Tapley’s List:

  1. Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)
  2. The Matrix (Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999)
  3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1992)
  4. The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996)
  5. True Lies (James Cameron, 1994)
  6. Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996)
  7. Last Action Hero (John McTiernan, 1993)
  8. Ronin (John Frankenheimer, 1998)
  9. Die Hard with a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995)
  10. Twister (Jan de Bont, 1996)

Philip Gawthorne’s List:

  1. The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996)
  2. Hard Boiled (John Woo, 1992)
  3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991)
  4. Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)
  5. Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
  6. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)
  7. The Last Boy Scout (Tony Scott, 1991)
  8. Under Siege (Andrew Davis, 1992)
  9. Con Air (Simon West, 1997)
  10. Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (Simon Wincer, 1991)

Liam Billingham’s List:

  1. The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996)
  2. Face/Off (John Woo, 1997)
  3. Die Hard with a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995)
  4. The Fugitive (Andrew Davis, 1993)
  5. Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)
  6. Ronin (John Frankenheimer, 1998)
  7. The River Wild (Curtis Hanson, 1994)
  8. Lethal Weapon 3 (Richard Donner, 1992)
  9. The Peacemaker (Mimi Leder, 1997) / Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999)
  10. Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993) / Last Action Hero (John McTiernan, 1993)

QUICK NOTE: 50 MPH is making waves! After loads of wonderful coverage of last week’s interview with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, ABC’s Good Morning America featured your favorite Speed podcast in its pop news segment!


Kris Tapley Your Host:

Kris has covered the entertainment industry for nearly two decades, with bylines at Variety, The New York Times, Empire and Vanity Fair. He now works as a writer and consultant in Los Angeles, where he lives with his loving wife, lively son and lazy cat. He likes Speed.