20 Surprisingly Sad Moments In '90s Action Movies

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Vote up the moments in big, fun action movies that actually made you a little emotional.

Action movies definitely peaked in the '90s. That was the last era when films full of explosions and muscled-up guys hitting each other weren't burdened by IP or the ever-watchful eye of film Twitter. In the '90s, action movies could be over the top and unhinged, but also hit the audience directly in the feels when they least expected it.

Not all of these surprisingly sad action movie moments are created equal. Some of them feature a beloved character going out like a boss, but other moments are quieter or more thoughtful. If you were in the theater for any of these movies (or more likely renting them from Blockbuster), you had no idea what kind of heartbreak you were in for.

There were a lot of action movies in the '90s, so hitting every surprisingly sad moment in them would take forever. These are the moments that hit us the hardest and came out of nowhere.


  • With the worldwide destruction on hand in Independence Day, it's easy to forget about the actual people lost in the opening volley of death made by the aliens in this '90s science-fiction classic. It doesn't matter where someone fits into society in this film; the alien onslaught touches everyone in a personal way - even the president of the United States of America. 

    Even though the president manages to escape from the White House unscathed before it's destroyed, his wife and the vice president aren't so lucky. While she makes it to Area 51, First Lady Whitmore is suffering from internal bleeding and can't be saved. It's bad enough to see the president process the news, but our hearts really break when his daughter asks if her "mommy is sleeping" after she passes. It's hard enough to explain an alien invasion to a child - but the demise of her mother? It's impossible to even think about.

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  • Sent into the house of a suspected serial bomber, Detective Harry Temple leads a SWAT team to apprehend the person who has Los Angeles gripped in a fist of terror. He easily makes his way into the suburban home, and while he doesn't find the bomber, he does find a bomb. Harry has a brief moment of recognition that he's about to perish, and then, boom.

    The thing that separates this from a normal action scene is that we know Harry; we've seen him interact with the film's hero, and we know he's a good guy who cares about the people in his life. Early on in the film, he's taken out of the field after he takes a bullet to the leg, and Harry's so excited to get back out there that he doesn't even think that this is going to be it for him. It's so real, and Harry's sadness is so palpable (thanks to some superb acting by Jeff Daniels) that it genuinely feels like the audience is watching this poor guy's final moments.

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  • Léon: The Professional is an incredibly emotional story about a hitman who saves a young girl after her entire family is slain by a rogue DEA agent and then helps her get revenge on said rogue DEA agent. For such a fun film, there's a long list of sad scenes - Danny Aiello getting beat to a pulp, Léon almost escaping his final fight before getting gunned down, Mathilda's younger brother being murdered - but the scene that's the hardest to watch is the one that sets the film into motion.

    In the film, Mathilda has just stepped out of her family's apartment before the rogue DEA agent played by Gary Oldman arrives to dish out pain. She returns and plays it cool, walking past her family's apartment and instead going straight for the door that belongs to Léon, a French fellow who keeps to himself. She knows that if he doesn't let her in, she's going to wind up just like the rest of her family, and he knows that if he lets her in, his private world will be turned upside down. Mathilda begs, pleads, and dissolves into tears as her family passes away merely feet from where she stands, and Léon does nothing for a few beats too long. It's so hard to watch a young Natalie Portman beg for Léon to let her inside, to keep her safe, that yelling at the screen is pretty much the only thing you can do until the hitman pulls the young girl into his apartment.

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  • Backdraft is the story of a group of Chicago firefighters who investigate a serial arsonist across the area. The film opens with the young Stephen McCaffrey accompanying his father on a call. This already feels like a bad idea, but there's nothing wrong with bringing your kid to work.

    Stephen watches as his father leads the firemen through a standard takedown of the blaze until something goes wrong and an explosion rocks the building. There's nothing for the boy to do but watch as the fire rips through the upper story of the building, sending brick and mortar sailing across the neighborhood. This isn't simply a sad moment because this kid is watching his father's untimely demise - the audience is seeing this kid get screwed up so badly that he puts himself in his father's shoes when he grows up to try and karmically redeem his dad.

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  • The Quick and the Dead finds Sam Raimi firing on all cylinders in this post-modern Western that follows a group of sharpshooters who descend on the town of Redemption to take part in a series of one-on-one duels to determine who's really the fastest gun in the West. At the center of the film is "the Lady," played by Sharon Stone. Sure, she wants to win the competition, but she also wants to get revenge on the evil John Herod for the demise of her father. As simple as that may be, things aren't as cut and dried as they sound.

    Through a flashback, the audience sees that the Lady - or Ellen, as we come to learn - watched as Herod rode into Redemption with his men and strung up her father - the town's former marshal - and gave the young woman a chance to save him. In the scene, Herod hands Ellen a gun and says that she has three chances to save her dad. She fires at the rope to try and ease the tension, but she misses and kills her father instead. The loss of a parent is terrible, but being responsible for that loss is unimaginable. This scene takes the film from being a fun Western romp to something much more nuanced.

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  • In the '90s, Jack Ryan movies were red hot at the box office, and The Hunt for Red October is the movie that started it all off. Alec Baldwin plays Ryan as he attempts to prove that the captain of the Red October - a stealth submarine - wants to defect to America.

    The Russian soldiers aboard the Red October are iffy on the prospect of defecting to America, with Captain Ramius's first in command, Captain Borodon, spending much of the film weighing the options of life in the States. For most of the film, he's sort of a comic relief character, but once he gets onboard with the idea of defecting to America, he gets genuinely excited, noting to his superior that he looks forward to owning a "recreational vehicle." It's initially charming when Borodin talks like this, but by the end of the movie when a saboteur fills him with lead aboard the Red October, it's genuinely heartbreaking to hear his last words: "I would have liked to see Montana."

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