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Days Gone By: Warner Bros. Action Films of the Late ’80s and Early ’90s

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like This Anymore

We are a product of our generation. As children, our thoughts and opinions are shaped by what we take in and observe during childhood. With no choice to make decisions for ourselves, every one of us becomes a product of our environment. From politics, tastes in music and general ideologies—each are distinct and individualized. For me, my favorite film of all time is Ghostbusters. It may not be a great film—akin to Citizen Kane—but it resonates with me and holds a special place in my heart. With my sensibilities at an all-time high at the end of the ’80s, there is another slice of film history that I hold close: the mid-budget action film. There have been many mid-budget action films over the years, but the ones I would like to dig into are the Warner Bros. action films of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

When I say they churned them out, I mean that in a loving way. Unlike films nowadays, which are focus-grouped to death and crafted specifically towards an audience to ensure maximum profits, Warner Bros. quietly carved out a small niche for the action film fan. Granted, I will be fair and say that none of these films broke new ground or molded history in any significant way—instead, they were a product of their time and provide a snapshot in film history.

I will be skipping over films that spawned a franchise, as Lethal Weapon did. Instead, I would like to briefly touch upon a handful of films that were not high-risk investments and delivered on what they promised.

One final stipulation is that I am only sticking with Warner Bros. action films. There are plenty of other movies similar to this style (including, Stone Cold, Road House, and Death Warrant to name a few), but since they came from different distributors, I did not include them on this list.

With that in mind, lights, camera, action!

Action Jackson

Right off the bat, I need to say that Action Jackson isn’t technically a Warner Bros. title. Initially, the film was released theatrically under Lorimar. Once on home video, Warner Bros. took over the distribution rights. Action Jackson is a satellite film to Warner Bros., but it fits in the stable of the topic at hand—in my opinion, that’s close enough.

Action Jackson hanging onto the roof of a cab

With a title like Action Jackson, you have an expectation, and the film gives you everything you could want. Carl Weathers plays Jericho “Action” Jackson, a demoted police officer who has conflicts with his police captain. Jackson works a case dealing with the cause of his demotion, leading to a confrontation with the city’s big bad, Peter Dellaplane (Craig T. Nelson). Jackson is tough-talking and no-nonsense when it comes to solving the case. It is a no-frills action film that doesn’t apologize for what it is. 

Produced by Joel Silver and armed with a seven-million-dollar budget, Action Jackson puts that money to good use. Featuring a cast consisting of Bill Duke, Robert Davi, Vanity, and Sharon Stone, there is more talent than meets the eye. Not stopping for additional world-building or twists, the film is an hour and a half of good action and simple storytelling. Sometimes, simple is better.

Above the Law

Steven Seagal would not be the name he is without Warner Bros. And, I hate to give spoilers, but it will not be the last time he makes an appearance, either. Once Steven Seagal proved capable of handling his own, he was offered a contract with Warner Bros. and had his first starring vehicle with Above the Law.

Nico holding a machete with both hands.

Steven Seagal is an interesting case for me, as I do not enjoy most of his films. I find his acting wooden, and he does not make for an interesting leading man. Despite this, early Seagal films have their charms and fit well onto this list. Capably directed by Andrew Davis and using Chicago well, Above the Law is a mix of buddy-cop cliches and early-era Seagal martial arts. Partnered with Pam Grier (always a bonus), Seagal investigates a drug ring but finds that corrupt federal officials are involved. Nothing too fancy, but again, this isn’t about reinventing the wheel. Plus, we get a turn-in-the-badge moment, which is almost a requirement for films of the caliber.

On a budget of under eight million dollars, the film has capable talent. Besides Davis as director, Ronald Shusett co-wrote the film—the man who gave us Total Recall, plus another film to be named later. And we got another appearance from Sharon Stone! Is there anything else you could want from a movie like this?

Next of Kin

Surprisingly, the only film on this list featuring Patrick Swayze, Next of Kin, is a slightly different Warner Bros. action film. Played closer to revenge than action, Swayze’s Truman finds himself in the middle of a war between his family and a Chicago mob outfit. Truman is more of a peacemaker and is only pushed to violence later in the film. I did say it is slightly different, but in the end, Swayze takes matters into his own hands and handles business before the credits roll. Next of Kin seems to get lost in the shuffle of classic action films, and it is easy to see why.

Truman using a bow and arrow in front of his wife and child

What makes Next of Kin stand out from the pack is the acting talent. Besides Swayze, we have Liam Neeson, Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, and Michael J. Pollard—there is a gravitas that one would not expect to find in a Swayze revenge film. In the end, that is what it is. That is not a knock on the film; it is what one would expect and is why I wanted to make sure I gave Next of Kin a mention.

Tango & Cash

To be honest with this film, I almost didn’t add Tango & Cash to the list because of the budget. Costing over fifty-four million dollars in 1989, it didn’t meet my criteria of mid-budget Warner Bros. action films. At the same time, though, Tango & Cash is the epitome of this article. Our teaming of two mismatched cops, Ray Tango (Sylvester Stallone) and Gabe Cash (Kurt Russell), work to take down crime lord Yves Perret (Jack Palance). Complete with bickering, Cash flirting with Tango’s sister, and a ticking clock, Tango & Cash is a bigger budget version of every cop film before it.

Tango and Cash standing together with guns drawn

As this is the most expensive film on the list, the film has talent wall-to-wall. Even with its messy production history, there is enough on and off-screen expertise to craft a solid action film. Rewritten by Lethal Weapon-scribe Jeffrey Boam and co-edited by Stuart Baird, they work to make a film that caters to the action enthusiast. Top that off with a talented cast featuring Teri Hatcher, James Hong, Michael J. Pollard (again), and the dependable Brion James, Tango & Cash is all you could want and more—even if you didn’t ask for it.

Dead Bang

Possibly the least known of the list, Dead Bang is a minor film within the action genre. Based on the life exploits of Jerry Beck, Don Johnson plays Beck, who is searching for the killer of another officer. As is the case with films of this era, what Beck finds is not as simple as an officer’s killing, and he gets lured into a world of arms trafficking and white supremacy.

Jerry Beck on his side, holding his revolver out

What makes this film stand out is the talent in front and behind the camera. Directed by John Frankenheimer and featuring a cast that includes: William Forsythe, Penelope Ann Miller, Bob Balaban, and Brad Sullivan—it is packed to the gills. The problem with Dead Bang is, like its title, it’s easy to forget with little in the way of memorable moments. You might expect more from a John Frankenheimer film, but if you keep your expectations in check, you might find yourself having a good time.

Hard to Kill

He’s back! In the Steven Seagal film I recall most from my childhood, Seagal plays Mason Storm (yes, really). Storm is a detective who videotapes a meeting between the mob and political figures. In response, he and his family are dealt with by crooked cops. At first thought to be dead, Storm lies in a coma for seven years before awaking and exacting revenge. As I already mentioned, the film deals with politicians, the mob, and corrupt cops. Hard to Kill can’t just be about mobsters; that’s silly talk!

Mason Storm holding his gun straight ahead

As would be expected between early-era Seagal and Warner Bros. action films, we get many scenes showing off his Aikido talent, including an unnecessary yet entertaining robbery scene featuring the great Robert LaSardo. Adding on William Sadler as the villain, Kelly LeBrock as the love interest, and Dean Norris—Hard to Kill is what you expect: no more, no less.

The Rookie

It’s been a while since we’ve had a mismatched buddy cop film, so our next entry is The Rookie. Clint Eastwood directs and stars as an aging, veteran police officer assigned with a hotshot younger detective, played by Charlie Sheen. What’s most surprising about this film is how forgettable it is. As has become a staple with this list, the title does not pop off the screen. Yeah, the title tells you what you need to know, but so would ‘Partners.’ It’s just as bland and forgettable. What makes the film memorable, though, is the reliance on heavy-duty stuntwork and action setpieces. As if they are hiding how formulaic the rest of the film is, they overload the senses in every other aspect attempting to mask how complacent the plot is. And, you know what? It kind of works.

A Mercedes flying through the air surrounded by fire

Yes, one would expect more from a film directed by Clint Eastwood and featuring Raul Julia (as a German!), Tom Skerritt, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Xander Berkeley. Sometimes, you need to pull yourself away from what you expect and go along with the ride. With that in mind, you can dive into this ten-million-dollar production and have an entertaining two hours. Or, maybe you won’t be able to get over that hump. Either way, The Rookie is a lot of smoke and mirrors. It might “wow” you at the moment, but you look back and feel cheated. It’s divisive but works as an artifact of this time in film history.

Out for Justice

Will three times be the charm for Steven Seagal? If you ask most action fans, Out for Justice is Steven Seagal in top form. With two starring features under his belt, Seagal seems most comfortable with this film. Seagal plays an NYPD officer who is looking to exact revenge on those that murdered his partner. Top form doesn’t always mean trying something new. Seagal wages war through the streets of Brooklyn and is: out for justice. See what I did there?

Gino emerging from a wall of beads, point a shotgun

What can I say about this film? Seagal mows down bad guys with the hands and shotgun while William Forsythe hams it up as the bad guy. It’s a perfect encapsulation of this point in time and does the job it needs to. Add on Robert LaSardo (again), Jerry Orbach, and Gina Gershon to the cast, and you have yourself a solid, little action film that delivers the goods.

Showdown in Little Tokyo

As seems to be customary with these films during this period, we find another action film with a troubled production. Showdown in Little Tokyo features the tried-and-true plotline of pairing two cops together who don’t get along to take down a crime boss. Our mismatched pair this time consist of Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee. While these two struggle to adjust to each other’s lifestyles, we get one of the best villains on this list, Yoshida, played by the great Japanese actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

Chris and Johnny high-fiving

Director Mark L. Lester, who gave the world Commando in 1985, keeps the action moving along its extremely brisk 79-minute runtime. As has been customary with these films under the Warner Bros. regime, the production was notoriously troubled. Our pal, Stuart Baird, was brought in to edit the film in an uncredited role, and segments of the film were shifted, edited, or outright deleted. You would think, with so much of the product torn down and rebuilt again, that the film would be incomprehensible. That is where a movie of this time and place holds together. The building blocks are already in place. The plot needs to move from A to Z coherently and quickly enough that the audience is none the wiser. Even if those are low bars to clear, Showdown in Little Tokyo hurdles those bars and expertly excels at its primary goal: entertain.

The Last Boy Scout

Here’s another film I went back and forth on whether to include on this list. A loud, expensive star-studded vehicle written by Shane Black, directed by Tony Scott, and starring Bruce Willis; this forty-three million dollar action film, like Tango & Cash, seemed too big for this list. At the same time, it fits the mold perfectly, so I decided to include it.

Joe looking at a stuffed animal holding a gun

Another film with a troubled production, at one point in time, the script for The Last Boy Scout was the most expensive in Hollywood. Everything from Bruce Willis and co-star Damon Wayans not getting along, to producer Joel Silver clashing with Willis and Scott, and everything in between. And what would a troubled Warner Bros. film be without Stuart Baird coming on board to assist with editing?

As notorious as The Last Boy Scout is, the finished product is a film of its time. In that, it’s a high-octane, nonsensical romp. Is it good? I guess that would depend on your definition of what “good” is. It’s a high-budget Warner Bros. action film from 1991, and that’s fine by me.

Freejack

As we near the end of this era that we’ve spoken about so lovingly, screenwriter Ronald Shusett returns with the action film Freejack. Adding on a sci-fi twist, Emilio Estevez plays a racecar driver transported to a dystopian future. You would think an idea like this, co-written by the guy who gave us Total Recall and Dead & Buried, might have a solid sci-fi story to tell. With Freejack this is not the case, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing.

Victor laughing on a laptop screen

Freejack is another film that, say it with me, was a troubled production. With up to 40% reshot to liven up the tone and add character development, the film is a mish-mash of dark themes and campy, action movie cliches. Emilio Estevez is not on par with a Stallone or Schwarzenegger as an action hero, but Mick Jagger steals the movie as bounty hunter Victor. Add on a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Frankie Faison, and Jonathan Banks—they pick up the film when Estevez can’t. Freejack has more visual effects than other films on this list—when you get right down to it, the film is an action chase movie. And there’s no shame in that.

Passenger 57

One of the better, and more famous entries on this list, Passenger 57, is the film that made Wesley Snipes an action star. Snipes plays John Cutter, a security expert for an airline that happens to be on the same flight as a criminal (played by Bruce Payne) being flown back for extradition. You should know the drill from that setup: the criminal gets free, takes over the plane, and only Cutter can save the day. Sure we’ve seen it before, but, well, there is no “but.” There is nothing here that will reinvent the wheel but, what’s wrong with that? It is the comforting familiarity that makes Passenger 57 so enticing.

Cutter talking on the air phone with a stewardess next to him

Passenger 57 is the prime example of Warner Bros. action films of the early ’90s. We get Snipes in top form, with a commanding presence, and he does a solid balance of playing an action hero that doesn’t take himself too seriously; yet avoids winking to the camera. Yes, Bruce Payne’s villain does not hold a candle to the best in the genre, but who cares? Passenger 57 is entertaining through and through and is the prime example of this list. Plus, “always bet on black” cannot be matched in the department of one-liners.

Boiling Point

Here it is, folks, the last film that I would like to mention. Wesley Snipes goes for two in a row with Boiling Point. This time, Snipes’ Jimmy Mercer is a federal agent whose partner is gunned down. With the clock ticking, Mercer finds that the killer of his partner, Ronnie (Viggo Mortensen), was working for crime boss “Red” (Dennis Hopper).

Mercer holds a gun on Red with Brady watching

Honestly, this is not the best film to go out with; it just so happened to be last chronologically. Boiling Point is as generic as the title. Again, as has been mentioned, generic is not always a bad thing. Snipes does his thing, and there is a pool of talent to elevate Boiling Point beyond mediocrity. With Lolita Davidovich, Seymour Cassell, Paul Gleason, and Jonathan Banks (again) rounding out the cast, it is elevated slightly and worth it if you enjoy standard action fare.

These are comfort films. You know what you’re going to get; the film meets those expectations, and you go about your day. And that is something I believe we are missing from today’s movies. I won’t stand here and rail against cinematic universes, comic book adaptations, or those pandering to one particular audience. Films like those are a product of the here and now. Producers and creators get together and formulate every nickel and dime to ensure a blockbuster success or franchise is eminent. That’s the filmmaking process nowadays—it is what it is.

What is missing are films that producers are willing to take a financial risk on, not like John Carter, but setting a budget or thirty to forty million. Have a cast of well-known but not A-list talent and craft an entertaining cops and robbers story. For the foreseeable future, ideas and films like this are not in the cards. Will that change? At some point, I feel creators will see that films like the ones we have talked about can be viable and a safe bet. Until then, we will always have the back catalog of Warner Bros. action films to keep us company. 

Written by Robert Chipman

Robert is a struggling screenwriter who enjoys music, writing, and all forms of cinema. His musical tastes span a wide array, but mainly within the hip-hop genre. He considers Ghostbusters the best film of all time and has a weird obsession with Stephen Dorff. Make of that what you will. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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