The 1990s were an exciting period for action films, with many of them getting released direct-to-video and showing up seemingly randomly at local video stores, requiring fans of the genre to have memberships at multiple locations to get to see everything. There was so much that if attention wasn’t paid, titles would be missed easily or rented twice under different titles at different video stores (looking at you, I Come in Peace, aka Dark Angel). Stars emerged within those ranks and gathered the love and adoration of fans. Here are the 10 of the best DTV action stars of that era:
Let’s start with the obvious man on the list, the one that everyone saw films from at their local video stores. Lundgren had films that were released in theaters, on video, and direct to cable in some cases during the 1990s, but one thing is for sure, he was a mainstay of the action film aisle and one whose films meant the viewer would get a solid 90 minutes of entertainment no matter which of his films they picked up. He mainly worked in the action genre but occasionally crossed over to science fiction. Some of his best DTV titles for the 1990s are Silent Trigger, Hidden Assassin, Bridge of Dragon, Men of War, Dark Angel, and Showdown in Little Tokyo (the last 2 had limited theatrical releases, but for most people, they were DTV movies).
A Frenchman with an interesting background, Gruner has all the training to make any fight look real, from hand-to-hand combat to weapons. The man has the background for it. Using this as a starting point for his career, Gruner became a mainstay of video store action and sci-fi action films in the 1990s. Of course, one of his better-known films to this day is Nemesis, a solid entry in both his career and that of director Albert Pyun. Still active to this day, he has had a bit fewer films per year, but seemingly still gives strong fight elements whenever he shows up. His best DTV action films of the 90s include Angel Town (his first film), Savate, and TNT, with the sci-fi action titles Nemesis, Savage, and Mars to round up a good marathon of his early career.
The Queen. If you are an action fan and not familiar with her work, what are you waiting for? This lady was one of the very few women giving us solid action films in the 1990s, most of which went DTV in North America. She has 5 black belts in different martial arts disciplines, and she’s known for her weapons work. She’s one of the nicest people in the industry, has made a name for herself as an action actress when women were rarely the lead, and she’s maintained her skills in fighting and acting to this day. Her 1990s DTV output is respectable with so many films it’s difficult to pick just a few, but a good place to start is with these: China O’Brien, Martial Law, Angel of Fury, Tiger Claws, and Guardian Angel.
A good friend of Lady Rothrock, Don Wilson is another highly skilled fighter and good human who had a ton of films released DTV in the 1990s. His career has included some great works over a few decades and even some that went to theaters, like Batman Forever. However, like many others on this list, it seems that the bigger the movie, the smaller the part. So, for those who love to watch this fighter kick people in the head, face, and behind, his 1990s DTV films are a great place to start. He did do mostly action during that decade, but some of his films were more of the genre cross-over kind with some sci-fi action and some horror action. A good place to start with his 90s work is with the Bloodfist series (yes, we know the first is from 1989, but worth including), then go with the Ring of Fire series, Red Sun Rising, the Cyber Tracker films for a bit of sci-fi with your action.
A competition fighter with a kickboxing record of 22-2-0 and a Tae Kwon Do record of 13-3-0, and experience as a boxer, the man can fight, and it shows on screen. His British accent and charm attracted a new group of viewers to his films while his fighting skills got his respect from action fans, his film may not have been as popular as Dolph Lundgren’s or as well-known as others, but those who haunted the action aisle at the video store definitely knew who he was and was he was capable of. His presence in the first Expendables films was quite welcome if a bit short on-screen time. The man made a lot of films in the 1990s, most of which hit DTV for most regions (small releases in only a few cities are not counted as theatrical here), and picking the best ones to start with is not easy. Ring of Fire and Bloodfist IV: Die Trying are good places to start, both with Don Wilson. Then, Firepower (a bit sci-fi, but great fight sequences), Riot, and Bloodmoon. There’s a bit of everything for everyone in Daniels’ career, so going for random titles is always a good place to start.
The inventor of Tae Bo Fitness, Blanks, was not simply a trainer or a martial artist of the 1990s. He was also an action star with some really fun titles under his belt. While his Tae Bo days are what most remember, his films were good, and he is still an active actor with a few films coming soon. In the 1990s, his career had parts for him in larger theatrical releases such as Kiss the Girls, The Last Boy Scout, and Lionheart, but the bulk of his work could be found in DTV movies during that decade, including in titles like China O’Brien II, The King of the Kickboxers, Street Justice, Talons of the Eagle, and Expect No Mercy. His style was very particular and easy to spot in any fight scene and still is to this day.
The first female Crow on the television series The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, Phillips was a mainstay of action in the 1990s, albeit in a smaller proportion than Cynthia Rothrock. Phillips did a lot of television work, which is what most people think of when thinking of her body of work, but she also has done plenty of films. Her 90s DTV action films may not have been numerous. They are worth tracking down as they include Ring of Fire 3: Lion Strike with Don Wilson, TC 2000 with Billy Blanks, who trained her, Back in Action with Roddy Piper, Guns & Lipstick with Sally Kirkland, and Wings Hauser, and the Chameleon film series which was all about her (granted, these were tv movies in the US, but in other territories they were DTV).
Lamas started his career in 1969 as a child actor, the son of two actors, Arlene Dahl and Fernando Lamas, leading him into a varied acting career with a good amount of action films through the 5 decades of his career. In the 1990s, it was easy to find his work in the action section of any video store, putting him in the pantheon of that category quickly. Of course, most will remember him for his television role on Renegades as Reno Raines from 1992 to 1997, but during that period and the rest of that decade, he also was seen in a bunch of DTV action films, including Final Impact, The Swordsman, Bad Blood (aka Viper in some territories), Midnight Man, Mask of Death (where he played 2 parts), and The Rage.
Thomas Ian Griffith
Most first saw him in The Karate Kid Part III in 1990 and recently on Cobra Kai, this trained opera singer and Broadway performer had a good number of films in the DTV category in the 1990s and is a fun one to go back to these days. Considering he played everything from evil martial artist Terry Silver to Valek, the head bloodsucker in Vampires, the 1990s were an interesting period for him. In terms of DTV action films, he had a bunch, so starting with Kill Fee, Excessive Force, Crackerjack, Blood of the Innocent, and Hollow Point should give a good idea of what kind of work he did during that era.
With a career started in 1978 on the Dallas series, Dudikoff came to the action scene in the 1980s with quite a few titles. Most will likely remember him for the American Ninja series, something that is a good place to start to get to know the man’s work. In the 1990s, he joined the ranks of the DTV action film stars, those seen on the covers so often at the video store they became part of the décor. His best work in the 1990s will vary depending on who is asked, but in general, his action work that found itself premiering on DTV was entertaining, so where to start? With the Bounty Hunter films, of course, then American Ninja 4: The Annihilation, Crash Dive, Counter Measures, and Fugitive Mind, which were officially DTV. Of course, a few more of his 90s films were DTV for most folks outside of LA and NYC where limited releases were limited to back in the day.
Of course, these are but 10 of the folks who ruled the DTV action film section of any good video store back in the 1990s. A bunch more names could be included here, such as Joe Lara, Jeff Speakman, Hulk Hogan, Jeff Wincott, Shannon Tweed, Mark Dacascos, Roddy Piper, Frank Zagarino, Loren Avedon Kathleen Kinmont, etc.