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It’s odd how action movies move in and out of the cultural consciousness. Some were blockbusters when they came out and they stayed that way in our memory (“Die Hard,” “The Matrix”). Some might not have been big hits when they were first released, but they later gained a following (“Last Action Hero,” “True Romance”). Some did moderately well, but slipped out of memory. This list is dedicated to those films, four in particular. They are artistic (a term used loosely here) standouts in the action genre, and they have now become criminally underappreciated.
1. “Broken Arrow”
I have an equation for you. Take a secretly psychotic stealth bomber pilot played by John Travolta and have him try to kill Christian Slater, who plays his best friend and co-pilot, mid-flight, all for the purpose of stealing two nuclear warheads and using them to extort the federal government. Add in an attractive, spunky female park ranger, a huge copper mine explosion, and Howie Long in his feature film debut playing an asshole villain sidekick. How much money does that movie make? A billion dollars? Two? Nope. In fact, it barely recouped its budget with domestic ticket sales. How does that happen? I have no idea. In fact, it completely flew under my radar (pardon the slealth bomber pun) until only a year ago. It’s a fantastically ridiculous movie, but actually very well executed, and it even has a few twists I didn’t actually expect. Travolta is in his hammy “Face/Off” mode and Christian Slater provides yet another awesomely brooding performance. I don’t know why this doesn’t get mentioned with the other great action movies of the era, but it really should.
2. “Hard To Kill”
I think we all agree that “Under Siege” is Steven Seagal’s best film, but it’s a pretty well-established film, and certainly not an underrated movie. However, Seagal’s second best feature has been relegated to playing only in the wee hours of the morning on secondary cable channels. “Hard To Kill” has a fantastic premise: a crack LAPD detective investigating the mob gets gunned down in a firefight that kills his wife. He wakes up from a coma SEVEN YEARS LATER to find out the man who had him killed is now a fucking United States senator whose catchphrase is, “And you can take that to the bank.” How does Seagal respond? By retraining himself in kung fu, and at one point, delivering one of the greatest action movie lines in history: “I’m gonna take you to the bank, Senator Trent. The blood bank.” Nailed it!
3. “The Three Musketeers”
I have no shame in saying this is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s the prime example of a movie that knows exactly what it is. It has fantastic actors in it, it perfectly delivers on its premise, and it brings all sorts of fun action and hilarious lines to the audience. Sure, it’s no “Lawrence of Arabia,” but it isn’t trying to be. Anyone wanting to make a good action comedy should use this movie as a template, because every character is dynamic, and has his or her own interesting quirks and backstory. The lead character goes on a journey and learns something about life. Throw in some solid fight choreography, and phenomenal production design, and baby, you got a cinema stew going. Oh, did I mention the cast? How did I not mention the cast?! Chris O’Donnell, Kiefer Sutherland, Oliver Platt, Charlie Sheen, Rebecca De Mornay in her prime, and a deliciously evil Tim Curry–that’s how you put together a movie, ladies and gentleman.
4. “U.S. Marshals”
1993’s “The Fugitive” was a surprising success for an action film. It was based on a TV series, but it still ended up getting nominated for Best Picture. It also landed Tommy Lee Jones an oscar for Best Supporting Actor, so you can imagine my surprise that the equally good sequel, “U.S. Marshals,” didn’t receive the same amount of acclaim. Okay, maybe it’s not AS good, but it’s certainly a cut above most “man on the run from a competent detective who ends up realizing his target is innocent” movies. Wesley Snipes makes for a surprisingly good follow up to the Harrison Ford role in the first film, too. It made a respectable amount of money, but in subsequent years, it has fallen out of most people’s memory. That’s really the point of this list. It’s not about initial success–it’s about lauding movies that deserve to be counted among the best against their competition.