The 10 best 80s action movies
Remember the ’80s? Between Stranger Things, It, Ready Player One, and even art-house pictures like the recent Mandy, everything seems to be steeped in ’80s nostalgia. While folks are quick to bring up nerdy references, there’s not as much talk about the fact that the ’80s had some of the greatest action movies ever made! Most were so successful, they’re still spawning reboots, remakes, and sequels to this very day.
This was a time before CG explosions and animated stunt people. It was a time before muscles could be added with a rubber suit. Heroes just needed a cause…and maybe a touch of animal growth hormones. These movies were so good, they paved the way for action films for the next 30-plus years.
Here’s a look at the greatest action films of the ’80s.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Directed by Martin Brest (Midnight Run), Beverly Hills Cop is easily one of the best comedies and action movies of all time. The story: a Detroit cop investigating a murder gets a culture shock and provides one of his own to the citizens and police of Beverly Hills. Dozens of notable action movie actors were up for the role of Axel Foley, but thankfully Eddie Murphy got it. It’s hard to picture anyone else in the role at this point. Most of the hilarious script is improvised, including the banter between Judge Reinhold and John Ashton. There were many blown takes over the cast and crew laughing on set. While the movie is hilarious, it also has some killer action, with Murphy proving that Axel is funny, but not one to be messed with.
In Commando, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix, a special agent forced out of retirement when terrorists kidnap his daughter. Arnold is a modern-day Greek hero, like Achilles, and he does most of his own stunts. He’s a friggin’ meta human in this! He’ll go through anything living or solid to get his daughter back. Other than superheroes, Dwayne Johnson’s character of Hobbs in the Fast and Furious series is the only person to come close to the level of unstoppable-ness that is John Matrix. This movie is dynamite and cheesy in the best way, but it’s also one of the kick-starters for the action genre and elements of this movie are found in most action films, even now.
Die Hard (1988)
Die Hard originally started as a sequel to Commando, and was based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorpe. That novel was a follow-up to his book The Detective, also made into a movie in 1968 that starred Frank Sinatra as Sgt. Joe Leland. The character of Joe Leland was changed to John McClane, and after assembling another huge roster of would-be stars, the role was given to Bruce Willis. History was made. This movie is huge and wonderful. McClane is a fish out of water, a common man thrust into a situation he never expected: rescuing his wife and a building full of strangers from terrorists on Christmas Eve. The movie was a smash hit, with four sequels of varying reception and a new sequel/prequel entitled McClane due sometime in the near future.
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The Killer (1989)
Written and directed by action master John Woo, The Killer may be one of the most romantic and sad action movies ever made. Yun-Fat Chow is Jeffrey Chow, an assassin who makes a mistake on his last job and blinds a singer, Jennie (Sally Yeh). Out of guilt and a need to quit the life, he wants to save his money to help fix her eyes and live with her in peace. When he is double-crossed, he teams up with Inspector Li (Danny Lee) to save Jennie and fight back against those gunning for them. This movie is heavy on both action and drama, with a good dose of dark humor thrown in. The violence is brutal in this movie, but it’s also beautiful. There are many who consider this to be John Woo’s best film.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
Written by Shane Black and directed by Richard Donner, Lethal Weapon was a huge hit upon release. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover star as Riggs and Murtaugh, two cops who couldn’t be more different but have to put aside their differences to stop a gang of drug smugglers. This movie is funny, action-packed, but also very dark. Riggs’ mental capacity is volatile and he’s in need of some major therapy, but he gets the job done. The chemistry between these two polar opposites is fantastic. This movie also has one of the greatest fist fights ever captured on film. Lethal Weapon has had three sequels, as well as a rebooted TV series following the same characters, which premiered in 2016.
Directed by John McTiernan, Predator is an in-your-face man versus nature story that became a huge piece of cinematic action and science fiction history. The cast, lines, and action scenes are still talked about and quoted. It’s safe to say that the raid on the guerrilla base ranks easily in the top five action sequences ever filmed. Most folks are familiar with the story about a team of commandos being hunted for sport in the jungles of South America by an extraterrestrial being. Predator shows no signs of stopping, with spin-offs and sequels still going now and probably well into the future. Check out our review of the most recent film here.
And Now For A Laugh: The 10 Funniest ’80s Movies
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Rambo: First Blood Part II was written by Sylvester Stallone and James Cameron and based on characters from David Morrell’s original novel First Blood. Directed by George P. Cosmatos (a surname you should recognize), this movie took the character of John Rambo to new heights, heights which he’s never descended. This time, they put Rambo’s PTSD to good use and send him on a mission to rescue POWs from a soviet-ruled Vietnamese prison camp. Rambo is a one-man army, capable of blowing up boats, helicopters, and actual people. Nothing can stop him from completing his mission. This movie rules! A fun and interesting theory after the first film (First Blood), is wondering if every Rambo sequel just exists inside his own head as he loses his mind in prison.
The Road Warrior (1981)
The Road Warrior is the follow-up to Mad Max. Written and directed by George Miller, this unbelievable action movie is still impressive over 35 years later. The only other post-apocalyptic movie to even come close is Miller’s own Mad Max: Fury Road. Mel Gibson is Max, a lone survivor in the futuristic wasteland of the Australian outback. He chooses to help a community of people fight back against evil marauders who are trying to steal the most valuable of commodities: gasoline. Over-the-top action ensues from beginning to end. The camera work, stunt work, and chase sequences are absolutely amazing. As far as sequels go, this one might be one of the best of all time.
RoboCop was directed by Paul Verhoeven and stars Peter Weller as Alex Murphy, a kindhearted cop and family man who is ruthlessly gunned down by a vicious street gang. He’s brought back as an unstoppable cyborg, haunted by past memories. While mostly tame by today’s standards, the violence in this movie is ridiculous. There are a few scenes that definitely aren’t for the squeamish. It’s also chock full of dark humor. This hit was followed by two sequels and a recent remake. Another brand new sequel, helmed by director Neill Blomkamp, is supposed to pick up after the events of RoboCop 2.
The Terminator (1984)
Written and directed by James Cameron, The Terminator is a sleek neo-noir action thriller was something to behold in 1984. An intelligent, dangerous cyborg is sent back in time to kill the mother of an unborn child. A human soldier is also sent to protect her at all costs. The chase is on as they must constantly escape from the seemingly indestructible machine. This is the first and best “I’ll be back.” A Terminator reboot/sequel is due out next year, with an all new model Terminator, this time played by Gabriel Luna (Agents of SHIELD). Linda Hamilton, star of the original film, will also be returning as the bad-ass survivor, Sarah Conner.