In my opinion, 1990 was a mediocre year for the action and adventure film genre. There were a handful of memorable movies like Total Recall, Die Hard 2 and The Hunt for Red October but there were also a garbage can full of duds like I Come in Peace, The Rookie and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.
On the bright side, 1990 still had a lot of strong action and adventure films to revisit if you’re ever interested or curious. For example, comparing the original 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the 2014 version is interesting in that the former holds up better despite the fact that the reboot had access to far better special effects. Most importantly, the four turtles (Leonardo, Donatello, Michaelangelo, and Raphael) are far better in the original. They actually have character. Aside from that, the movie was good old-fashioned fun, something the reboot failed to deliver on. Last note: At the time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the highest grossing independent film ever.
Perhaps 1990 could have been called the Year of the Action Sequels as there were nine action sequels that got a wide release: Another 48 Hours, Back to the Future III, Delta Force 2: The Columbian Connection, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter, Predator 2, RoboCop 2, Rocky V, and Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory.
The sequels that enjoyed the biggest success were Back to the Future III and Die Hard 2, both of which earned more than $240 million. Those two were head and shoulders above all the other sequels, some of which were moderately successful like NeverEnding Story II and Young Guns II. In fact, NeverEnding Story II did not do well in the U.S. but did well in Germany.
Delta Force 2 was not only a dud at the box office, it was critically panned as well. RoboCop 2 was a flop considering it cost $35 million to make and only took in $45.6+ million. Another failure was Predator 2, costing $35 million to make yet only grossing $57.1 million. Unlike RoboCop 2, however, Predator 2 has gone on to become a cult favorite. Interesting note on Predator 2: A lot of cuts had to be made to get it down to an R-rating as the MPAA initially rated it NC-17. If you ever wondered why Schwarzenegger wasn’t on board, apparently it was a salary dispute. Clearly, the movie’s success would have been bigger had he been in it.
I made a separate paragraph for the the two other sequels due to some interesting notes. At first glance, one would think Another 48 Hours did well with $153+ million worldwide but it was considered a disappointment because of its cost ($50 million). The version of the movie released in theaters was far from what the director wanted (It was cut from 145 minutes down to 120 and 95 minutes a week before its release). Rocky V got obliterated at the box office by Home Alone although it was supposed to be one of the biggest hits of the year. It will probably forever be known as the worst Rocky movie. Interesting fact: Rocky was supposed to die at the end of the Rocky V until the studio and producers had second thoughts.
One of the funnest action films of the year was Tremors, the story of an isolated desert town fighting against giant, ground-dwelling worms. Although it was not a box office hit, it wound up doing incredible business in the home video market and remains to have a cult following. The constant back-and-forth banter between Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward makes the movie funny as well as some fun characters in Michael Gross (fresh off the final episode of Family Ties) and Reba McEntire. According to IMDB, it originally was given an R-rating by the MPAA due to a number of f-bombs in the original version. After cutting them all out, the rating was changed to PG-13.
Another fun action film from 1990 was Blind Fury. It was based off of a Japanese cinema series called Zatoichi – Blind Swordsman but the American version starred Rutger Hauer as a blind Vietnam vet who helps a former soldier buddy of his rescue his son from a crime syndicate. There’s some funny lines in it and the film never takes itself too seriously. It’s not a great movie but a good action flick to enjoy and get a laugh from.
1990 was one of the better years for Steven Seagal who had two hit movies, Hard to Kill and Marked for Death released that year. They were both hits, with Hard to Kill earning $47.4 million and Marked for Death taking in $58 million. Jean-Claude Van Damme also had a good year with Death Warrant as it took in $46.7 million only a $6 million budget. That being said, neither action star had the box office chops of Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis.
The studios were trying to ride Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon fame with two films: Air America and Bird on a Wire. The first starred Gibson alongside Robert Downey Jr. but failed to excite at the box office. Bird on a Wire was far more successful as Gibson and co-star Goldie Hawn pulled in audiences to the amount of $138+ million. Neither was particularly cared for by critics but at least one of them was a box office hit.
Believe it or not, before he went far off the deep end, Charlie Sheen was the lead in two 1990 action films. The first, Navy SEALs bombed at the box office, making just $25 million on a $21 million budget. Fun fact unrelated to Sheen: According to IMDB, Navy SEALs was the third film the late Bill Paxton and Michael Biehn acted in together with the first two being Terminator and Aliens. Sheen also starred with Clint Eastwood in The Rookie but it has a big disappointment financially and critically.
While a lot of comic movies are talked about these days, many people tend to forget Dick Tracy, a relatively big hit in 1990 (based on the popular comic strip, not comic book). It had a huge cast including Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna, Dustin Hoffman, and James Caan. It was very well received but the studio head of Disney considered it a disappointment because it cost over $100 to produce and promote. Perhaps that’s why the $162+ million it took in worldwide wasn’t enough to make a sequel. The critics loved it too.
If you asked me personally what my favorite action film from 1990 is I’d tell you it was a toss-up between Total Recall and Die Hard 2. Both are great and the second Die Hard is actually my favorite of the series. It’s Bruce Willis at his best going up against a nasty villain in William Sadler. A lot of people like the first or third Die Hard but the second one, set in an airport, is awesome. With Total Recall, you get a unique action film with Schwarzenegger in his prime.
One of the biggest duds of the 1990 was Ford Fairlane, starring the wildly popular comedian, Andrew Dice Clay. For whatever reason, it had a huge budget (in those times, at least) of $40 million and made nearly half of that at the box office ($21+ million). If the Golden Raspberry Awards mean anything, Ford Fairlane was the worst movie of the year, taking home the “Worst Film of the Year” Razzie for 1990. The only bright side of the movie is Billy Idol’s soundtrack hit, “Cradle of Love.”
Another huge letdown was Fire Birds, starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Young, and Tommy Lee Cooper. Remember that movie? Chances are, you, like many other people, do not. Made for $21 million, it only grossed $14 million at the box office. The critics didn’t enjoy it either. Other box office duds of the year include Blue Steel, The Fourth War, Flashback, Quigley Down Under, I Come in Peace, Downtown and Memphis Belle. Blue Steel is an unfortunate one since it’s a darn good action thriller starring Jamie Lee Curtis and directed by Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow.
There were a few other action hits in 1990, including Tom Cruise’s Days of Thunder. Fun fact: Cruise and Nicole Kidman met on set and would later get married at the end of 1990, a marriage that lasted eleven years. Another hit that year was Darkman, starring Liam Neeson and Frances McDorman and directed by Sam Raimi. It is considered a cult hit but some but the critics liked it overall.
If you wanted me to give you ten action films from 1990 to check out, it would be these in no particular order:
Die Hard 2
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Hard to Kill
Days of Thunder
Young Guns II
Bonus pick: Blind Fury