10 Best Action Movies from the ’80s
BY JUAN ENRIQUE DIAZ
The ’80s were known for their excess which certainly bled through to film. The New Hollywood films of the ’70s were brushed aside for more action-oriented fare that benefited from VHS and a desire for style over substance. The best action movies of the ’80s all shared certain qualities that made them stand out; big explosions, quippy one-liners, and over-the-top violence. This was the decade where the action hero reigned supreme. Action heroes from Sylvester Stallone to Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the box office with their adrenaline-fueled action flicks.
But Stallone and Schwarzenegger weren’t the only ones at the top of their action game in the ’80s. Countless actors led action movies and they did it well, even if the movies weren’t necessarily critical darlings. The decade was so dominated by action films both good and bad. In fact, the so-bad-it’s-good action flick won over just as many fans as the top productions. Action movies were plentiful that decade and the pool to choose from is vast when it comes to the greatest of them all. The crown for best ’80s action movie is certainly a battle royale with plenty of contenders. Some films just barely missed the cut while others drifted too far into other genres to be considered for the list. The battle was brutal but these are the best 80s action movies, ranked.
Beverly Hills Cop
The 1980s wasn’t just the decade of action movies, it was the decade of Eddie Murphy. He took Saturday Night Live by storm and his success translated to film right away. His first movie role was another ’80s classic action flick, 48 Hours in 1982. It was his second action film however that really placed Murphy atop the list of greatest ’80s action heroes. Beverly Hills Cop, released in 1984, starred Murphy as Axel Foley, a Detroit cop trying to solve his friend’s murder in Beverly Hills.
Murphy’s comedic timing paired with some top-notch action sequences turned Beverly Hills Cop into a blockbuster. Not bad for a film that was originally meant to be a straight dramatic film starring Sylvester Stallone.
Bloodsport was a fever-dream of 1980s action cinema. It relied on the acting talents of martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme, was inspired by a too-crazy-to-be-true story, and had a soundtrack so emblematic of the ’80s it may as well have been wearing Jordache.
Based on the alleged exploits of Frank Dux, Bloodsport followed Vann Damme’s character, Frank Dux as he enters the secret martial arts tournament, The Kumite. While the movie is incredibly light on plot (and any semblance of good acting), the hard-hitting action was enough to place Bloodsport as one of the greatest action movies of the ’80s.
Few films ever dared to tell the story of a PhD-educated bouncer with the ability to rip people’s throats out with one hand. It’s likely no one else ever asked for this story to be told but thankfully, Road House was brave enough to do so.
Starring Patrick Swayze, Road House told the story of James Dalton, an overqualified, martial-arts practicing bouncer tasked with overseeing a bar in Jasper, Missouri. His talents naturally draw the ire of the local bad guy, Brad Wesley (played by Ben Gazzara) and is thrust into protecting the town from the corrupt businessman. The over-the-top violence and lapse in logic would have proven too much to handle for any other actor but Swayze’s dedication to the role helped Road House become an instant classic.
First Blood paved the way for Stallone to be the action icon of a generation. Despite the excessive violence of future installments, John Rambo’s first outing was actually a relatively grounded study of a disillusioned veteran who just wanted to go home.
First Blood was a sign of things to come for Stallone. It showcased Stallone’s knack for carrying an action movie and created one of the most enduring action hero characters in film history.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of The Lost Ark was the product of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ brilliant partnership that gave way to one of cinema’s most iconic action heroes, Indiana Jones. Directed by Spielberg from a story created by Lucas, Raiders of the Lost Ark followed the whip-carrying adventurer and professor, Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) as he embarks on an expedition to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant.
The first entry in the Indiana Jones franchise had everything going for it. A partnership between two of the biggest directors of their time, Ford’s charisma, and John Williams’ legendary score. Spielberg excelled in crafting an action film filled with heart and adventure in an immaculate riff on classic pulp stories.
Before there was John Wick, there was John Matrix in the 1985 film, Commando. Schwarzenegger starred in the preeminent example of the one-man-army film. Schwarzenegger brought his A-game to this absolute bullet-fest of a film.
The story was simple enough, Matrix is a former commando on a mission to rescue his daughter from the clutches of a crazed mercenary and a South American dictator. What ensues are 90 minutes of Schwarzenegger simply mowing down henchmen and hurling out one-liners as he finishes mowing down said henchmen. The bullet-riddled final act alone is enough to warrant Commando as one of the greatest action films of the ’80s.
Shooting down countless henchmen wasn’t enough for Schwarzenegger so he had to face off against an extraterrestrial threat in Predator. The 1987 classic was directed by action-movie expert, John McTiernan and followed a group of commandos being hunted by the titular alien creature.
Predator stood out among a sea of action movies that dominated the box office at the time. It brilliantly displayed what made Schwarzenegger such a giant of the action-movie genre. It also included some of Schwarzenegger’s most iconic lines and a handshake so epic it became an internet meme.
James Cameron’s The Terminator was a perfect blend of action and horror. The sequels may have relied heavily on action sequences but the very first entry made do with simple set pieces and atmosphere. But the real standout was Schwarzenegger’s turn as The Terminator. The stalking, hulking, android was easily one of the greatest villains to have ever appeared onscreen at the time.
When it comes to buddy-cop films, Lethal Weapon remains the template. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover shined as the duo of Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh; two mismatched LAPD detectives on a mission to topple a gang of drug smugglers.
Future buddy-cop films owed plenty to Lethal Weapon. The pairing of the young detective with nothing to lose and the veteran has been seen in countless similar films. However, few have been able to perfectly emulate the chemistry between Gibson and Glover. Their performances paired with the direction of the legendary Richard Donner made for a nearly perfect action film.
Die Hard essentially changed the approach to action films for decades to come. Rather than make a film about the one-man army with no vulnerabilities, director John McTiernan created a brand new type of action hero: the everyman who is thrust into action. Bruce Willis wasn’t the prototypical action hero in 1988. Moreover, the character of John McClane wasn’t the typical action character. McClane was an NYPD officer but he was no John Matrix. He was just a guy at the wrong place at the wrong time.
This became the template for so many action movies in the years following Die Hard’s release. Countless movies wanted to be the next Die Hard but none were able to perfect the recipe that made Die Hard great.