10 Things We Learned From Turn Of The Century Action Movies

By Kenny Hedges

The 90s and early 2000s saw a radical shift in most genres, as is often the case. Horror films grew meta, thrillers continued their adaptation with new technology and action genres got their first taste of prestige since the 1970s. Andrew Davis’ 1993 Harrison Ford vehicle The Fugitve, itself a big-screen adaptation of a 1960s show, saw the genre’s first major Academy Award nomination in decades – snagging one for Tommy Lee Jone’s hardass U.S. Marshall and earning a nomination for Best Picuture. Since The French Connection won in 1971, the genre had transformed into a more mainstream version of horror – high box office returns, but often considered lowbrow fare.

After The Fugitive‘s success, the genre and Davis tried without success to ape the man-on-the-lamb genre, leading to series of flops. Davis’ career has never recovered. But for those who grew up in the decade, audiences learned (often incorrectly) as much as they did from Die Hard. Here are just some lessons that coincided and were often birthed from the changing world.

10. Though the Cold War is Over, Russia Is Still the Bad Guy

“We still spy on them, they still spy on us,” Timothy Busfield’s shady NSA agent explains to master thief Robert Redford while pitching a heist to steal a code-breaker in 1992’s excellent Sneakers. And while recent events have only brought this concept further to light,90s action thrillers were filled with rogue Soviets who wouldn’t accept the Fall of the Berlin Wall. It wasn’t until The Siege, released shortly before September 11, 2001, that Muslim terrorists were fair game. Before then, Hollywood shied away from such stereotypes, going as far as changing the perpetrators of a nuclear bomb explosion in Baltimore to German nationalists who wanted to re-start the Cold War in The Sum of All Fears (in Tom Clancy’s novel, they are indeed Muslim extremists).

9. Unless You’re Morgan Freeman, Don’t Be The Black Guy

It’s a long-held trope of the slasher movie genre that the African American character is the first to die, but it was the 90s that cemented the notion in the action genre. Unless the actor is coming down from an Oscar-win, they are likely bumped off early. Andrew Davis’ Chain Reaction (a much-maligned follow-up to The Fugitive) casts Freeman as scientist-on-the-run Keanu Reeves’ only ally. Meanwhile, Cuba Gooding Jr. signed up for the forgotten buddy picture Chill Factor, in which he and Skeet Ulrich are forced to carry a chemical weapon in the back of their iced cream truck.

8. Can you type 140 words a minute? Congratulations, You Are a Hacker.

Depictions of hacking in films has not improved much since the 1990s. Granted, it’s difficult to make someone at a keyboard typing at a rapid speed particularly interesting. 1995’s Hackers tried by visualizing schematics and constantly altering, early CGI landscapes. 1994’s The Net desperately clinged to the miraculous ins and outs of a pre-AOL internet (you can even order a pizza!). But, even today, films struggle to make audiences care – and many of the limp-wristed attempts screenwriters employ using tech jargon is completely unconvincing. Take 2008’s Untraceable, in which FBI agent Diane Lane tries to track a killer who sets up Saw-like torture devices that react the number of hits the website receives. Here we’re introduced to the world of “Trojan backdoors” and “rolling IPs” that, in reality, would take hours to set up, contradicting the film’s inability to instantaneously trace the killer. It’s hard for the audience to digest claptrap that a brief visit to IMDB’s “goofs” page can disprove.

7. If You’re Working for a Tech Company, the CEO is the Villain

Upon the release of Anti-Trust, Roger Ebert wrote that Tim Robbin’s evil CEO was so close to a Bill Gates archetype – right down to the glasses – it’s a wonder the film wasn’t sued. Perhaps the fact that Antitrust proved to be a box office flop thanks to ludicrous plot twists and an overall preposterous set up. Robbins’ CEO is closer to Tesla’s Elon Musk, promoting open-sourced technology…with murder!

Making corporate greed the ultimate motivator for a CEO wasn’t a 90’s concept, but it never looked sillier. Look no further than 1994’s adaptation of Michael Chrichton’s Disclosure. Though the cast may elevate the film slightly above early 90s trash, it still feels it necessary to show off a virtual reality demonstration whose graphics resemble an above-par Sega Genesis game – something completely out-of-place in a film meant to be about sexual politics and office power structure.

6. I’m the Lead’s Friend/Lover – I’m Either the Killer or Collateral Damage

It must be difficult to be a plot point in someone else’s life.  You rarely serve much of a purpose beyond helping them hide, stealing pertinent information to clear their name or distracting the police. Even the best of 90s action – The Fugitive – has its own best friend character.  After Dr. Richard Kimble goes on the run to find out who killed his wife, he approaches colleague and friend Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbe) for money and support.  Alas, Nichols is playing both sides, hiding his own culpability and throwing U.S. Marshals off the scent. Nichols is the ultimate example and proves that, without question, if the best friend character isn’t killed off by the film’s mid-point, he’s in on it.  It could have been worse, he could have been Dennis Miller…

5. Don’t Be Dennis Miller

Stand-up comic short-lived acting career lasted slightly less longer than when he was vaguely funny. Miller himself often kids about what an atrocious actor he was. He would regularly play supporting roles – in the far-fetched Murder at 1600 as a cop and as a psychiatrist in The Net. While killed off-screen in the latter, Miller manages to survive a bullet would in 1600 (as explained in a last-minute ADR line). Even his one leading role, Tales From the Crypt Presents Bordello of Blood, he meets a tragic fate. 

4. The Internet Will Give Us Creepy Sandra Bullock Sex

If humanity has one question about new technology, it’s bound to be, “Yes, but can I fuck it?” It’s almost hard to imagine that, prior to webcams and high-speed internet, cybersex was a thing. Strangers would sit in front of their browsers and type dirty things at each other, never sure they weren’t both obese, hairy guys pretending to be 18-year-old girls. This peaked with Chris Hanson’sTo Catch a Predator, which featured the host confronting grown men entering supposed underage girls’ homes, a case of Mike’s Hard Lemonade and a pack of Trojans. In the future, according to Demolition Man, sex is no-contact. Rather, it’s much like webcam/virtual reality, as Sylvester Stallone is dismayed to learn after his new partner (Sandra Bullock) proposes copulation. Adding to the creepiness is the fan theory notoriously put forth by Wyatt Cenac on the Paul Scheer’s podcast How Did This Get Made? that Bullock is, in fact, Stallone’s daughter – hence her love of violent 90s culture.

3. By the Mid-90s, Los Angeles Will Be A Wasteland

Movies rarely predict the future accurately. While 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly has its share of devices the public would one day see, it was a few years off. And while Los Angeles has been known for crime, pollution and violence, it wasn’t a wasteland in 1996. The wasteland, set at the opening ofDemolition Man, was likely inspired by the Rodney King riots and the expected 1960s-level racial violence expected in the early half of the decade. As inaccurate as Man gets, it does predict a few details – like fast food monopolies, Arnold Schwarzennegger’s political aspirations and Jack Black being a serious actor (he has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it walk on role). Predator 2, set in an unknown near future L.A.also seems to believe that gang violence completely dominating society is inevitable.

2. Virtual Reality Will Kill You Gruesomely…

While sex-use is typically at the forefront of alpha male inventions, murder comes next. Often, it’s intentional, however whatever innovations the future has in store always come with a warning label: This may go horribly awry and slaughter humanity. Enter virtual reality and A.I., advances slowly coming into realization that sci-fi writers have feared and theorized about for decades. In the 90s, cinema took them to violent, exploitative extremes. In Virtuosity, a simulated virtual reality training program escapes into the real world, wreaking havoc on the streets of L.A. It’s up to Denzel Washington to stop the dashing Russell Crowe-sim. Then there’s The Lawnmower Man – the only Stephen King adaptation the author sued, as it had nothing to do with his short story. In the film, basement scientist Pierce Brosnan uses virtual simulation to increase the intelligence of his mentally-handicapped gardener (Jeff Fahey). Things go a little too well, and soon Fahey sees himself as a God, trying to take over every computer in the world.

1. …But Will Also Solve All The World’s Ills

When discussing A.I. And virtual reality in pop-fiction, Michael Chrichton’s name was bound to come up. The late climate change-denying writer has been warning us about rogue robots since the 1970s. However, his opinion of virtual reality did soften in the 1990s sexual politics-thriller Disclosure. After learning of corporate misdoings, disgraced business executive Michael Douglas must enter a Sega CD-type VR to extract the illegal files and save his job. Meanwhile, while The Lawnmower Manultimately grows too powerful, Brosnan’s work does, in fact, work – improving a stifled mental intelligence. Meanwhile, 2018, VR primarily entertains teenagers who own a PS4 and only further encourages James Cameron (stop doing that).