Magazine June 22, 2020, Issue

The Best Nineties Summer Movies

Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in Point Break (Fotos International/Getty Images/IMDb)

While we wait to see if the movies will actually return this summer, or whether it will be a long hot swelter without even Christopher Nolan’s mysterious Tenet (still officially scheduled for July 17!) to feed the fanboys, the world of entertainment is subsisting on nostalgia: watching Michael Jordan’s Bulls romp to Clinton-era glory on ESPN’s docuseries The Last Dance, lovingly revisiting shows that everyone binge-watched just five or ten short years ago, and discovering random anniversary hooks to justify another listicle or retrospective. (This is a real recent article from The Ringer: “Every Character from ‘Finding Nemo,’ Ranked: In honor of the movie’s 17th anniversary, two ocean fanatics ordered every character from the 2003 classic.”)

I am describing, not judging, because in this column I’m going to do the same thing, and recommend for your viewing pleasure the Five Summer Movies That Will Make You Feel Like You’re in the 1990s Once Again. Stream them, rent them, project them on a big screen in your backyard, open a drive-in theater and run a film festival — however you choose to experience them, they’ll transport you back to the glory days between the end of the Cold War and our current anxious age, between the Reagan-era rule of overmuscled action heroes and the present rule of overarmored superfriends.

We’ll take my choices in chronological order, starting with 1991’s Point Break, which came out when I was eleven, and which I watched at a sleepover a few years later (along with Kurosawa’s Rashomon, believe it or not; my teenage host fancied himself a cineaste), making it the first R-rated action movie I ever saw. That alone probably would have been enough to imprint the tale of Johnny Utah, football star turned FBI agent turned surfer turned skydiver, in my malleable young brain, but Point Break is a masterpiece of the ’90s action form: The stakes aren’t terribly high (stopping a gang of L.A. bank robbers), the good guy is played by a young and lithe and stone-faced Keanu Reeves, the bad guy (Patrick Swayze) gets a bunch of glorious New Age Nietzschean monologues, Gary Busey and Lori Petty are aces in supporting roles, and the action itself — on waves, on land, and in the air — is kinetic, beautiful, and just the right amount of absurd.

This was a young Kathryn Bigelow’s first hit (or cult hit, at least), and the fact that she made a movie only every few years thereafter is solid evidence of Hollywood sexism: With Point Break as a calling card, a male director would have been helming a blockbuster every summer for the rest of the decade. So instead of following her disappointing trajectory, we’ll follow Keanu onward to his star turn in 1994’s Speed, the first R-rated action movie I watched in a theater, and another gloriously ridiculous L.A. story. The movie’s real lead, of course, is Sandra Bullock, driving the bus into stardom, while Dennis Hopper’s disgruntled bomb-squad cop–turned–bad guy embodied an interesting 1990s type: the Cold War figure who couldn’t adapt to the end of history, who turned from heroism to villainy after being forced into retirement in the resonant year of . . . 1989.

After Speed, the next movie in our festival brings that ex–Cold Warrior villain to perfection: In 1996’s The Rock, the best of the Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer collaborations, the bad guy is Ed Harris, leading a rogue force of U.S. Marines who take over Alcatraz and threaten San Francisco with nerve gas because they want the government to give them money to compensate the families of Marines who fell on secret, officially denied Cold War missions. In the sublimely gung-ho script, we’re meant to see Harris as a tragic figure, even as we root for Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery to bring him down — which they accomplish while together chewing so much scenery that it’s amazing the island prison is still standing at the end.

If The Rock is a peak of Cold War–shadowed action pyrotechnics, following Cage’s action career forward to 1997 (but skipping the bloated Con Air), we reach the peak of action pyrotechnics for their own sake: the only great movie John Woo made in America, the glorious and insane Face/Off, in which John Travolta’s cop and Cage’s gangster switch faces (it’s Science, don’t question it) and then spend the rest of the movie doing delirious impersonations of each other, while Woo’s balletic action style carries the plot from one wild set piece to the next. (If Connery slightly out-hams his co-star in The Rock, in Face/Off you get the purest Cage insanity: Find the YouTube clip of him screaming “I’m Castor Troy!” in the middle of a prison riot, if you want a small appetizer before you take the plunge and rent the film.)

Finally, from the same year, we’ll round out our nostalgia trip with Luc Besson’s how-did-this-get-made science-fiction spectacular, The Fifth Element — a movie that made the most of the new age of CGI before everyone got bored with special effects, and depicted a future that was neither utopian nor dystopian, neither ’50s optimism nor ’70s gloom, but candy-colored, gonzo, comic, religious, weird, and ultimately more human in its silliness than most sci-fi visions since.

From Bruce Willis looking baffled to Milla Jovovich looking hot, from Chris Tucker motormouthing to Gary Oldman villainizing, Besson’s movie is a true entertainment, disposable and unpretentious in its general plot and themes, but intensely memorable in all its stark visuals and wild particulars.

The Fifth Element belongs to a moment when it was possible to imagine the future playfully, without taking it too seriously, because after the Cold War the serious times had been left behind. That moment seems long gone, but the movies it generated are happily available — to get us through this strange coronavirus summer, and whatever lies beyond.

This article appears as “Glory Days” in the June 22, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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