Photo Edit by Travis Wilker
A few weeks ago, in my nightly search for an action film to watch while my sleeping meds kicked in, I discovered the 90s action classic Executive Decision was on HBO Now. Have you watched Executive Decision recently? It’s incredible for many reasons, but the main reason it’s incredible is that it’s an airplane action film, and they are all pretty much incredible.
As you’ll find out, nearly every great airplane action film happened in the 90s and the 90s only. There’s a few reasons for that. The 90s were perhaps the craziest decade for action films, some of the most insane action films were made in that time as they were caught between the overkill of the 80s and the grounded nature of the 2000s. In the 90s, action films primarily followed the Die Hard formula of having our hero stuck in one location for the largest portion of the film (Speed, Con Air, The Rock). What’s more “stuck in one location” than being on a plane? It was the most popular form of the Die Hard formula in the 90s as you’ll see.
So why did the airplane action film stop happening? Well, 9/11 happened. After that, doing an action film on an airplane just felt too close to home, it was just too sensitive of a subject matter for audiences to suspend disbelief for. So ended, very understandably and justifiably, one of the most bizarre and fun eras of action subgenre filmmaking. Ranking them does kind of feel like ranking Aaron Judge home runs – they’re all amazing. But all the same, let’s give some love to these crazy films.
In the interest of keeping it competitive we gotta limit the number of movies we considered in an already limited subgenre. For example, I removed Snakes on a Plane because I just didn’t feel like writing about it and it’s not a film I want to watch again. Alright, let’s strap in and get to it!
One of the reasons you know Liam Neeson was the most dominant action hero of the 21st century is that he’s one of the only action stars powerful enough to get an airplane action movie made post-9/11. Seriously, who else has done that? Non-Stop follows air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson), who must save the day when an anonymous villain sends him texts that they want $150 million or else somebody will die every twenty minutes The whole movie is pretty much a flex, it’s just an excuse to have Liam Neeson kick more ass, so it’s amazing. There’s a part in the climax where they lose cabin pressure and everything starts floating and Liam Neeson is flying through the cabin and times it just right to where he catches the gun in mid-air and then shoots the bad guy with it. I started crying right there in the theater.
4. Air Force One
This movie is great because it not only took the Die Hard formula in the 90s but it took it up another level by having the guy in the wrong place at the wrong time be THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. On its flight back from Russia, Air Force One is overtaken by Russian terrorists and only President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) can stop them. Harrison Ford is definitely one of the top fictional film presidents of all time – just behind Bill Pullman in Independence Day – and Gary Oldman is always a great villain. Having your movie president double as an action hero is just about as cool as it gets.
3. Executive Decision
This is definitely one of the weirder action movies made in the 90s because even though I watched it recently I can’t tell you what the plot of this film is. But I can tell you is this film throws a real twist at you that totally changes everything. They kill off their biggest action hero (Steven Seagal) in the first act which really was surprising. It’s like in Scream where they kill off Drew Barrymore in the opening scene, their biggest star, to send the message to the audience that all bets were off and that we couldn’t predict what was going to happen in this movie. And it worked! You just spent the whole thing stressing about how nerdy Kurt Russell was going to pull it all off.
2. Passenger 57
This film recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and I tried to get off work for it because I consider it a holy day. Passenger 57 follows airline security expert John Cutter (Wesley Snipes), who is on a passenger plane that gets taken over by terrorists. The whole movie is great and fun, but the reason it vaults to the 2nd seed is because Passenger 57 also has one of the greatest one-liners in film history. There’s a part where Cutter is talking to Rane over the installed airplane phone, where they’re both making threats and teases to the other. Cutter ends it by asking if Rane if he’s ever played roulette. Rane haughtily replies “On occasion.” Cutter slam dunks it right in his grill with “Well let me give you a word of advice (camera dollies in epically)…..ALWAYS BET ON BLACK.” I almost passed out the first time I saw this film.
1. Con Air
Could it have been any other film? In any of my articles where I bring up this film (which is every other article), I’m legally required to disclose that my close friends and I rate every film on a scale of 1 – Con Air. It kicks off when newly paroled ex-con and former U.S. Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) is on a prisoner transport flight to be released when it’s taken over by the inmates led by Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom (John Malkovich).
I don’t know where to start with the glory of this film. It’s the most definitive action film of the 90s and the apex of Cage’s bizarre 3-film run as Hollywood’s most bankable action star. It’s got the best cast out of all of these, surrounding Cage and Malkovich with loads of great character actors in Mykelti Williamson, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo and M.C. Gainey. There’s a part where Cyrus threatens to shoot a stuffed bunny and it’s genuinely the most intense moment of the film, you’re totally invested in whether or not this stuffed bunny gets the bullet. Then Nic Cage says in this exact cadence “Put…..The Bunny. Down.” and it’s incredible. Even my dad, who does not like films like Con Air, flipped to it on TV while he was doing laundry and within a few minutes he wasn’t doing laundry anymore, he was gripped by Con Air. Con Air is just at its most heightened and exciting that it can be every single scene. Every subgenre gets a perfect version of itself, and Con Air is the perfect version of the airplane action film.