HBO Max has been met with a collective shrug so far, but not all is lost for the new streamer: turns out it’s got a decent enough selection of genre movies from the 1990s. Random? Yes! Full of clumsy early CGI, heavy-handed themes, and corny theme songs? Also yes!
Here are nine (including two horror-franchise sequels and two remakes, to really capture the spirit of the era!) that’ll kick-start your ‘90s nostalgia.
Most people only (mis-)remember the one where he plays a genie, but basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal’s brief foray into movie stardom also included this wholesome 1997 DC Comics adaptation from writer-director Kenneth Johnson (whose many TV credits include V, The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and Alien Nation). Shaq plays John Henry Irons, a military weapons designer who decides it’s time for a career change after an accident paralyzes his Army BFF (Annabeth Gish). The cause of that accident—a cartoonish bad guy played by Judd Nelson—gets kicked out of the service and starts peddling Irons’ designs to other bad guys (bank robbers, drug dealers, neo-Nazis who’ve just learned how to use “the internet,” etc.), necessitating Irons’ transformation into a metal-clad crimefighter named Steel.
As corny as Steel is (Shaq is charismatic, but his acting range is...limited), the Quincy Jones-produced project is notable for being one of the earliest big-budget films to focus on an African American superhero (Spawn came out the same year, and Blade soon followed). Also, Gish’s disabled tech kicks ass—a characterization that remains frustratingly rare in Hollywood even decades later.
It doesn’t get more 1990s than this bloated yet stupidly enjoyable 1998 disaster flick from Michael Bay, which imagines that in order to stop an asteroid from annihilating Earth, NASA decides to send a ragtag team of oil drillers into space to nuke the rogue space rock. Bruce Willis leads a huge ensemble that also includes newly minted beefcake Ben Affleck, reluctant sellout Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi as a genius named “Rockhound” who gets “space dementia” at a crucial moment, William Fichtner as an astronaut who packs a gun on the mission, Peter Stormare as a wacky cosmonaut, and a weepy Liv Tyler, whose participation was surely the main reason for the Aerosmith-heavy soundtrack.
That’s not even everyone who’s in Armageddon, but to be honest the two biggest stars are the film’s tone, which remains steadfastly earnest throughout despite an increasingly ridiculous plot, and that seething, festering supervillain of an asteroid. Earth’s in worse shape than ever, so why not come on back and finish the job? At this point, we’re all ready for Armageddon II: Still the Size of Texas, Mr. President.
This highly American remake of Wim Wenders’ angelic fable Wings of Desire just might make your teeth hurt, but it is actually a pretty fascinating time capsule of what passed for romantic drama in Hollywood, circa 1998. A relatively subdued Nicolas Cage—who was, at the time, emerging from his blockbuster action hero period in the wake of movies like Face/Off and Con Air—plays an angel who roams around Los Angeles with his fellow celestial beings, luxuriating in sunrises and escorting the newly departed to the afterlife.
His curiosity about humans explodes when he falls in love with one, a heart surgeon played by Meg Ryan (still in her “America’s Sweetheart” phase; for context, You’ve Got Mail also came out in 1998). She’s immediately taken by his soulful eyes, to the point of being unbothered by his stalker-ish behavior, and romance blooms—until tragedy inevitably strikes and everyone learns a hard lesson about what it really means to be alive, as well as the importance of wearing a bike helmet. Cue the Goo Goo Dolls...whether you want to or not.
The ninth (but not actually final) installment in the Friday the 13th series boldly introduces some new twists into the mythology of Camp Crystal Lake’s relentless slasher, including his ability to transfer his consciousness into unwilling host bodies, as well as the fact that he can only be “killed” by a blood relation. The 1993 release also brings in a fun new character—new to the series, but also new to the formulaic slasher genre as a whole—in the form of Jason-obsessed bounty hunter Creighton Duke (Steven Williams).
While some fans balked at the idea of all this doubling-down on Jason’s supernatural powers, the movie still contains the usual levels of creative carnage. What’s more, Jason Goes to Hell is also the franchise installment that first teased Jason’s impending showdown with A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger—a battle royale horror hounds had been demanding for years at that point.
Sandwiched between Child’s Play 2, which picks up immediately after the first film, and Bride of Chucky, which signaled the series’ shift into campier realms, 1991's Child’s Play 3 is one of those sequels nobody really talks about. Figuring enough time has passed since Chucky’s murder spree/bad-publicity campaign, the greedy toy company behind Good Guys dolls starts manufacturing its best-seller again; naturally, this gives Chucky’s wayward demonic spirit yet another revival opportunity.
It doesn’t take him long to track down Andy (Justin Whalin), now a teenager struggling through military school—remember when the ultimate threat for movie teens was being sent to military school?—and chaos inevitably ensues, largely because most everyone in the Child’s Play universe always snickers at the notion of a killer doll, right up until the moment that said doll is killing them. You can see why Child’s Play veered away from the Andy saga for a while after this; a feeling of diminished inspiration kind of hangs over everything except Chucky himself (voiced by Brad Dourif)—who, as always, remains a mean-spirited delight.
A few years after Tom Cruise discovered his new gig at a swanky law firm came at the price of his metaphorical soul (as seen in The Firm), Keanu Reeves one-upped him by going to work for a swanky law firm run by Satan himself in 1997's The Devil’s Advocate. Everything about the film is deliriously excessive—Reeves and Charlize Theron’s honey-dipped Florida drawls; the flashy trappings that come with their sudden entrée into Manhattan high society; the lurid crimes that Reeves’ character specializes in defending; the lavish production design; the runtime (nearly two and a half hours!); and most of all Al Pacino’s literally showstopping turn as John Milton, a performance so filled with entertaining bluster that the film doesn’t need anything else—but is overstuffed to high hell anyway.
In this remake of William Castle’s 1959 carnival-ride of a film starring Vincent Price, an eccentric amusement-park mogul named Steven Price (wink!), played by Geoffrey Rush, invites a group of people to a haunted mansion that housed an insane asylum in the 1930s, informing them that anyone who can last the night will win a million bucks.
The guest list is manipulated (by vengeful spooks!) early on, but the real story behind who’s who takes a back seat to the special effects—greats Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead) and Dick Smith (The Exorcist) both worked on the film—which kick in once the house starts to come alive. The ensemble cast is filled with 1990s luminaries (Famke Janssen, Peter Gallagher, Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Chris Kattan) and fashions (dark lipstick, skinny eyebrows, chokers!), and there’s even a Marilyn Manson song featured prominently on the soundtrack. True, you’ll be rooting for the ghosts by the end of House on Haunted Hill, but it certainly captures the spirit (wink!) of the era.
Soldier came out in 1998, but most of its action is set in 2036, when a man raised from birth to be a super-soldier who answers to “Sgt. Todd 3465” (Kurt Russell) is presumed dead when he’s bested in training by a younger, even-more-super soldier (Jason Scott Lee). For his trouble, he’s dumped on a snake-infested garbage planet, where he befriends the scrappy locals and plots against his ruthless former colleagues, while also questioning the whole system that trained him, exploited him, and then discarded him. Director Paul W.S. Anderson—the guy behind Resident Evil, as well as one of my all-time favorite 1990s movies ever, Event Horizon, which also co-stars Soldier’s Jason Isaacs and Sean Pertwee—gets to do both tech-noir and dusty-dystopian action here, with a decent enough script from genre veteran David Webb Peoples (co-writer of Blade Runner, Leviathan, and 12 Monkeys).
Scientists working to find a cure for Alzheimer’s find success at a remote ocean laboratory, where their experiments have created a population of super-smart sharks. What could possibly go wrong? Wait, is that some kind of hurricane rolling in? Everything goes wrong in this 1999 Renny Harlin movie that succeeds by fully committing to all of its elements, even the most ludicrous ones. As the floating facility’s resident chef, LL Cool J steals the show, but everyone—from Samuel L. Jackson, who gets a legendarily spectacular demise, to Thomas Jane as a jaded shark wrangler with “they ain’t paying me enough for this job!” written all over his face—brings their B-movie A-game.
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