Here it is, make your choice wisely. Our contenders:
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): Ushered in the era of CGI special effects in a story that made The Terminator the good guy and made Linda Hamilton a badass. Signature Action Movie Line: “Come with me if you want to live!”
True Lies (1994): Another action movie starring Ah-nuld (and also directed by James Cameron). True Lies is more of a spoof than anything, but it is also flatout awesome. Also, the only time Tom Arnold was ever cool. Signature Action Movie Line: “Have you ever killed anyone?” “Yeah, but they were all bad.”
The Matrix (1999): One word… whoa! Signature Action Movie Line: “Guns. Lots of guns.”
The Bourne Identity (2002): Dubbed “a thinking man’s James Bond,” the Bourne movies are less actiony than the other three on this list, but have developed quite the following. Plus, Matt Damon kills a guy with a magazine. Signature Action Movie Line: “Who am I?” “You’re U.S. Government property. You’re a malfunctioning $30 million weapon. You’re a total goddamn catastrophe, and by God, if it kills me, you’re going to tell me how this happened.”
It was in T1. Reese (Reece?) says it to Sarah Connor when the Terminator shows up at the night club on Pico. Yes, I do remember what street the club was on. I also remember it was called Tech Noir. Ha!
True Lies was a really fun movie, and I certainly enjoyed watching it. But it didn’t really seem to have much impact on the genre as a whole. So it’s my runner-up out of these choices.
The Bourne Identity I thought was a fairly standard spy-thriller-action movie. Not bad, and a good representative of the genre, but not amazingly great, either.
I’ve already mentioned that I disliked T2, and thought that it relied too heavily on computerized special effects that looked too cheesy.
But The Matrix was a defining (or re-defining) movie. It had an excellent mix of computerized and practical effects, integrated well into the movie. For years afterwards, moviemakers wanted to be the one to make “the next Matrix”. The cinematic techniques and story ideas from it showed up all over the place, and still have a significant presence in movies. It’s the clear winner out of these four, in my eyes.
T2 is a close second, but pretty much every great thing about it except perhaps the morphing CGI could be said about Aliens. Both far exceeded their first movies, but both were also undermined by their follow ups. They were superior perhaps only in their female action leads (Trinity was awesome but a bit too cold). Whereas Matrix totally redefined action and fighting sequences.
The Matrix is cool looking, and it has some nice ideas, but I don’t think it holds up very well on repeated viewing. The main mcguffins are stupid (why would you need telephones? Why not use bacteria or even cows instead of humans if you really need a biological source of energy?) Also, the CGI stuff in the “real world” with the machines just looks silly. True Lies was OK, but I just don’t like it much and I don’t think it belongs in a top 4 of best action movies.
T2 has the most emotional impact, a strong & believable main character (Hamilton), gore, madness, deceit, a nuclear holocaust, and some awesome chase & fight scenes that really make you feel the danger. It’s all about humans/what it means to be human. Some of the CGI may feel a little dated (though I think it still looks very good) and some of the acting is a little hokey but IMO it’s easily the best of the 3.