Action movies have been around for a long time, but if any one decade was the “action movie decade,” it was the 1980s. Huge stars were introduced, genres were born, and everyone picked up a lot of great one-liners. There were a ton of great action movies in the 80s, which made it hard to pare down a list like this, but what we ended up with was a pretty solid list of movies that are still worth watching today.
Think we missed one? Tell us what it is in the comments!
While the first Alien movie was a suspenseful horror film, the sequel moved itself more into the action genre. Sure, there was still plenty of tension and some horror elements as well, but the main film is all about the battle for survival being waged by Ripley and the Marines. It’s got the requisite one-liners (thanks, Bill Paxton), the awesome weaponry (hello, Pulse Rifles), and even a nuke going off at the end. It’s glorious.
If you’ve ever wondered where many of the tropes of the over-the-top action movie were solidified, let me introduce you to Commando. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix, a retired Army commando whose daughter is kidnapped in an attempt to force him to help fight a revolution in South America. It’s 90 minutes of unadulterated badassery, with Arnold employing nearly every man portable weapon you can think of as he fights his way to rescue his daughter. There are a ton of great one-liners here as well, like “Remember Sully, when I promised to kill you last? I LIED.” It’s a cheesy film, but that doesn’t stop it from being great.
Over the years, we’ve seen a ton of buddy cop movies, but none of them have surpassed Lethal Weapon. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is a Vietnam vet turned L.A. detective with suicidal tendencies. He’s paired up with Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), an older cop who’s worried Riggs will get him killed before retirement. The pair is pitch-perfect, with their interaction driving the movie more so than the plot, which has them chasing down a drug smuggler villain (who just happens to be played by none other than Gary Busey). THis film was so good, it led to three more movies, although none would be quite as good as the first.
The Terminator is a dark action movie, centered around an unstoppable killing machine from the future. Fresh off playing Conan the Barbarian, Arnold Schwarzenegger absolutely nails the part of the futuristic cyborg, with his expressionless face and massive physique combining to make a character that was genuinely scary. It’s an intense film, with perfect pacing and great action scenes. It makes great use of the theme of inescapable death in the person of the Terminator. It’s easily the best film Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in, as well as the best movie James Cameron ever directed.
First Blood invented many of the action movie tropes that Commando later solidified. Sylvester Stallone stars as Special Force and Vietnam vet John Rambo, who has returned to the US after being released from a Vietnamese POW camp, where he was tortured. Hassled by some small town cops and eventually arrested, he lashes out, killing a police officer and kicking off a gigantic manhunt. From there, it’s Rambo the survivalist against the more conventional (and of course, out of his depth) sheriff, played by Brian Dennehy. It’s not as bloody as you might expect, but the action is still pretty darn good.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
I wavered on including Raiders of the Lost Ark on this list, as it’s not your typical action movie. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up to make a movie that paid homage the adventure serials of the 1930s. The result was the film that cemented Harrison Ford as a leading man, made archaeology kind of sexy, and inspired video games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted. Indiana Jones must find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do, leading him to chase all over the world searching for it. It even sounds like a video game plot. It’s a movie that’s stood the test of time, and still holds up as well today as it did when it theaters in 1981.
Predator brought together a cast of action stars that wouldn’t be surpassed until The Expendables came along. Along with Arnold Schwarzenegger, you get Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, and Sonny Landham, just to name a few. Schwarzenegger’s team is sent into a Central American jungle to assist CIA agent Dillon on a rescue mission. Before long, they find themselves being stalked by a killer from another world. The effects are surprisingly good, even by today’s standards, and the fight scenes are well worth your time. Terminator was Arnold’s best movie, but Predator isn’t far behind.
Of all the action films from the 80s, it’s hard to think of one that surpasses Die Hard. It took a guy known only for sitcoms and commercials (Bruce Willis), and turned him into the template for the next decade of everyman action stars. It also spawned a genre of single-location action films, and showed off just how great Alan Rickman is at playing a villain. As NYPD detective John McClane, Willis heads to LA to try to reconcile with his wife, but gets caught up in a terrorist attack led by Hans Gruber (Rickman). It’s the most quotable film of the decade, it’s masterfully made, and it’s still just as good as it was in 1988.