With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

Total Recall (1990)

Time does not always move forward in a linear way. History comes in fits and starts—sometimes jumping forward, sometimes easing back. Die Hard and its descendants eventually killed off the ultraviolent, megabudget, burnished-steel style of ’80s mainstream action movies—or, at the very least, it forced them to adapt and evolve. But this didn’t happen all at once. It wasn’t like Arnold Schwarzenegger sat down to watch Die Hard and then started looking into employment options in California state politics. And one of the finest, most excessive examples of ’80s action-movie excess didn’t come out until 1990.

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Looking back, it’s a terrible shame that Schwarzenegger only made one movie with the mad Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. (I suppose there’s still time, since they’re both still working. But Verhoeven has apparently lost all interest in making movies within the Hollywood system; he’s back to his European-auteur roots.) Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven were made for each other. They were both amazing at a certain form of gory, tactile stylized violence, and they were both bone-deep cynics. There’s never been any sentimentality in a Verhoeven movie, and the sentimentality that’s appeared in Schwarzenegger movies has been so nakedly manipulative that it almost seems more cynical. Verhoeven’s Hollywood movies were both violent spectacles and commentaries on the idea of violent spectacle, and Schwarzenegger was always fine with the idea of being a commentary on himself. We’re lucky we got to see Verhoeven film Schwarzenegger holding Michael Ironside’s severed arms aloft while smirking and delivering a one-liner, but we should’ve seen that exact same thing happen at least three more times.

Judged as a straight-up ’80s action movie, Total Recall is, quite simply, one of the best. It has levels of body horror that must’ve seemed bracing even to the desensitized audiences of 1990. It has Sharon Stone as a future-noir femme fatale. It has one death via jackhammer and another via Martian-atmosphere face explosion. It has “consider that a divorce,” one of Schwarzenegger’s most iconic one-liners. It has neck-snap noises that are as loud as gunshots. It has great, brutal fights like the one where Schwarzenegger and Stone beat the absolute shit out of each other. It has an old lady cussing at Schwarzenegger. It has a prostitute with three boobs. If you happened to be, say, an 11-year-old boy in 1990, Total Recall was an absolute garden of delights.

But Verhoeven never does anything that works on only one level, and so Total Recall is also a hall-of-fame cinematic headfuck. And while, from a certain perspective, it stands as one late monument to that ’80s action style, it’s also a forward-thinking sci-fi freakout in some important ways. It’s an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, and it manages to find space for all the ambiguities and twists and moments of delectable confusion that always characterized Dick’s work. And in that way, it foreshadows some of the what-even-is-reality stoner classics that would follow: The Matrix, Inception, the fellow Dick adaptation Minority Report, and even more indie fare like Waking Life or Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Consider, if you will, that Schwarzenegger played a secret agent with no memory of his own dastardly past deeds 12 years before Matt Damon would do the same thing in The Bourne Identity.

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Total Recall was not, of course, the first sci-fi movie to question the nature of reality or of humanity, and it wasn’t the first to adapt a Philip K. Dick story. Ridley Scott had famously done the same thing with Blade Runner eight years earlier. But Blade Runner doesn’t exist in an action-movie context the same way Total Recall did. It’s a visual feast, a real attempt to imagine the way a future-world might look. Verhoeven, by contrast, made everything look cheap and shitty and antiseptic. Total Recall’s locations, on both Earth and Mars, appear to be made entirely out of cheap plastic and fiberglass. Its cars look like futuristic versions of European jalopies from the ’70s. And its fun, inventive design elements—the giant security-checkpoint X-ray screen, the robot cabdriver, the automated tourist-lady costume that Schwarzenegger wears—exist more to serve as visual punchlines than anything else.

Still, nasty as Verhoeven’s sense of humor was, he really did have fun playing with the idea that the whole movie could be unfolding within Schwarzenegger’s head. “Sorry, Quaid,” one character tells him. “Your whole life is just a dream.” Another informs him, “You’re not really standing here right now.” At one point, he asks Rachel Ticotin, “Are you still you?” Later, as credits are about to roll, he has another question for her: “I just had a terrible thought. What if this is still a dream?” The credits roll before he gets an answer. There’s even a moment, years before The Matrix, where one character gives him a red pill that will supposedly bring him back to reality. And there’s a wonderfully weird moment—of Schwarzenegger watching his past self, on a video screen, telling him that he’s going to need his mind and body back, thank you—where the hero is revealed to be the villain’s delusion.

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This was strange and heavy stuff, especially for 1990, and it’s a measure of Verhoeven’s virtuosity that he was able to pull all this off while still making sure the movie worked as a gleefully nasty mainstream entertainment. His pacing is impeccable. Plot twists arrive right on time, and when someone has to deliver a big dump of expository dialogue, it always happens in some sort of dazzlingly weird way—like, for instance, Schwarzenegger’s past self talking to him on a video screen, or the mutant leader Kuato (a tiny, slimy, deformed person growing out of another person’s belly) telling Schwarzenegger what he needs to know before imploring him, again and again, to “open your miiiiiiind.” The movie even drops the idea of ancient Martian technology on you and expects you to just accept it and keep it moving. And because the movie is so fucking fun, you just go with it.

Total Recall was Verhoeven’s follow-up to RoboCop, his masterpiece. For Total Recall, Verhoeven brought back much of the RoboCop crew, including lead villain Ronny Cox and gore-effects visionary Rob Bottin. The two movies shared a few other important things: a vicious sense of humor, a splatter-happy sensibility, an eagerness to indulge in fake newscasts, a glaring and probably intentional lack of romantic chemistry, a scene where the hero basically dies. But while RoboCop works as one of our great all-time satires, Total Recall stands as the moment that Verhoeven had fun playing around with bigger, weirder questions, and then leaving those questions unanswered.

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Before landing with Verhoeven (and with Schwarzenegger, who gets credit for recruiting the director), different versions of a Total Recall script had been bouncing around Hollywood for years. For a while, David Cronenberg was working on it. And in an old Wired article, Cronenberg told this story: “Eventually, we got to a point where [screenwriter] Ron Shusett said, ‘You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?’ He said, ‘No, no, we want to do Raiders Of The Lost Ark Go To Mars.’” There’s still plenty of Cronenberg in Verhoeven’s version; Cronenberg reportedly came up with the idea of Kuato looking the way he did, and I like to imagine all of Michael Ironside’s super-intense facial expressions as a tribute to Scanners. But the magic of Verhoeven’s version is that it’s both the Dick version and the Raiders one. Nobody else could’ve pulled that off; the pointless 2012 remake damn sure didn’t. We’re lucky we got Paul Verhoeven in Hollywood for so long, and we should always resent Hollywood for letting him slip away.

Other notable 1990 action movies: Steven Seagal had broken into action movies with Above The Law in 1988, but 1990 was the year he really broke out and became a B-movie icon. 1990’s runner-up award goes to Seagal for Hard To Kill, which has some beautifully brutal and abrupt fight scenes, Seagal’s amazing coma beard, and the truly great moment where Seagal—speaking to himself in an empty room, no less—promises to take a senator to the bank. The blood bank. But that same year, Seagal also made the almost-as-great Marked For Death, in which he fought a Jamaican drug-dealing gang led by a pair of demonic Rasta twins.

But many of the year’s best action movies came from elsewhere in the world. In France, Luc Besson borrowed John Woo’s swooping camera moves and over-the-top gunplay to make La Femme Nikita, a story about a drug-addicted thief who’s remade into a world-class assassin. Meanwhile, Woo himself made the male-bonding war epic Bullet In The Head, which made up for the absence of Chow Yun-Fat with some truly insane shootouts. And the Hong Kong epic The Swordsman stands as one of the more grand and sweeping kung fu period-pieces of the era.

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In Hollywood, it was a big year for sequels. With Die Hard 2, Renny Harlin watered down the classic simplicity of the original but still made a fun-as-hell action movie, turning Bruce Willis’ John McClane into more of a motormouth and more of a superhero. With Predator 2, Stephen Hopkins lost Schwarzenegger, brought in Danny Glover, and dropped the mysterious alien hunters into the middle of an urban gang war between Colombians and Marked For Death-esque Jamaicans. I really liked it. I also liked RoboCop 2, an even-more-cartoonishly-violent story (written by comics great Frank Miller in the years before he went crazy) that turned Verhoeven’s ice-cold satire into something more akin to a straight-up action movie. And then there was Another 48 Hrs., which brought back Eddie Murphy, Nick Nolte, and Walter Hill, all to negligible effect.

There were original visions, though. In Darkman, Sam Raimi got ahold of Liam Neeson about 19 years before his grizzled action-movie rebirth, transforming him into a deranged face-melting superhero who saves Frances McDormand from a gang of cackling, finger-amputating mobsters. With The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane, Renny Harlin gamely attempted to make an action hero out of noxious shock-comic Andrew Dice Clay, coming up with one of the weirder artifacts of turn-of-the-’90s culture in the process. (In the movie, Dice keeps a koala, an obvious puppet, as a pet, and the moment where he comes home to find it dead and freaks out is one of the more bugged-out things you will ever encounter.) With Revenge, Tony Scott crammed a whole lot of shooting into a marital-infidelity story.

There were more conventional movies in there, too. The Rookie: buddy-cop movie with Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen. Navy Seals: men-on-a-mission movie with Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn. Death Warrant: Van Damme movie where Van Damme goes undercover in a prison and fights a serial killer. Lionheart: Van Damme movie where Van Damme once again enters the underground-fighting circuit and fights the same guy who he fought in Kickboxer. And we were also getting more and more action-comedy movies made specifically for kids. Kindergarten Cop delighted in tweaking Schwarzenegger’s onscreen persona and left plenty of material for people who used soundboards to make prank calls. And the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie made a ton of money, baffling adults and providing a nice gateway drug for those of us who would get very into martial arts movies in the years to come.

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But if you’re looking for a hidden gem from the era, I can think of no better recommendation than I Come In Peace, in which the former stuntman Craig Baxley directs Dolph Lundgren as a take-no-shit cop who has to fight a seven-foot alien drug dealer. The alien has come to Earth to drill holes in people’s brains and steal their endorphins, which he then converts into a super-potent space drug, which will mean bad things for our planet when other aliens learn that Earth is an endorphin-farm. Along with the alien and his amazing flying-CD weapon, Lundgren has to deal with a stick-in-the-mud FBI partner and a drug gang called the Whiteboys, who dress like yuppie CEOs and make fun of other criminals for not going to the right college. It’s fucking great, and it features Lundgren’s best leading-man performance and his best one-liner this side of “If he dies, he dies.” (You’ll know it when you hear it.)

Next time: With Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Schwarzenegger returns to the role that made him a great, while James Cameron changes the way action movies will look forever by introducing CGI and setting a visual template for the big-budget ’90s action movie.