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The Best Action Movies of the ‘80s

The Reagan era gave rise to masculine heroes who saved the day without regret or apology.
American actor Mel Gibson on the set of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior written and directed by George Miller. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

We often look at today’s Hollywood product with a “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” shrug. The same can be said of the modern action spectacle. Blockbusters are often interrupted by virtue signaling, CGI overload and rail-thin heroines who outmuscle men triple their weight. That wasn’t how things went down in the 1980s. The Reagan era gave rise to masculine heroes who saved the day without regret or apology. The decade’s female warriors could be just as tough, but their heroism came grounded with their strengths, like motherhood, and physical limitations. They still gave as good as they got. Ask Sarah Connor.

The following films could be played at a movie theater next week and still draw sizable crowds. Classic action movies don’t come with expiration dates.


“If it bleeds, we can kill it …

“Get to the choppah!”

“I ain’t got time to bleed…”

“C’mon, kill me now! I’m here!”

Few action movies spat out so many choice, and cheesy, lines as 1987’s “Predator.” Arnold Schwarzenegger and a muscle-bound battalion stumble upon an alien life form during a jungle raid. The creature systematically picks them off in epic fashion, hiding in not so plain sight.

Director John McTiernan (“The Hunt for Red October”) used the alien’s invisible nature to his benefit, letting a sense of mystery shroud the feature until the epic third act.

Self reliance is the overriding message here, from the preparation needed to take on an enemy encampment to Ah-nold’s ingenuity in defeating the title character.

Schwarzenegger’s rise to the A-list came, in part, because he collaborated with the best directors in the business, from James Cameron to Ivan Reitman. He did it again with “Predator,” a sci-fi actioner that screams ‘80s goodness.

The Road Warrior

Forget the over-rated “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Tom Hardy’s Max is barely the star of his own movie. This slab of post-apocalyptic doom boasts one of the best action sequences of all time and a somber, conflicted hero in Mel Gibson.

The film’s pacing may lose modern viewers, addicted to near-constant mayhem. The dystopian set-up matters, as does the road race that caps the film in a bravura finish. The shooting location, an Australian town where the ore mines had dried up, lent the film a realistic air of desperation and decay.

The rest, including costumes partly cobbled together from leather specialty shops, completed the surreal picture. It’s how director George Miller staged it all, including humanity at its worst, that makes this the ultimate “Max” movie.

The story seems ripped out of a liberal nightmare, with dwindling oil supplies sparking global unrest. However, another, more robust theme emerges from the smoke and mayhem – appeasement won’t work. It’s why Max and co. finally stand up to Lord Humungus and his colorful thugs.


It might be the best sequel of all time without the word “Godfather” in the title, especially considering how it extends the first film’s story while shifting gears to all-out action.

Cameron knew star Sigourney Weaver could carry an action film, but he gave her plenty of colorful support, including strong turns by Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen and especially Paul Reiser.

Together, they deliver some of the decade’s white-knuckle highlights, goosed by James Horner’s hypnotic score. The first alien bombardment shows the power of waiting, and waiting, for the villains to enter the frame.

Or, as Paxton’s character memorably says, “Game over, man!”

Best of all? Weaver’s patented blend of moxie and maternal spirit save the day, along with little Newt, from the Mama Alien’s clutches. Any remake might remove that essential element of the story in favor of a more “empowered,” progressive heroine.


Peter Weller turned down a lucrative role in what turned out to be the disastrous “King Kong Lives” to play a doomed cop named Murphy in this 1987 gem. And he didn’t have to audition, per se, for the role. Instead, he performed a dance-like sequence to show director Paul Verhoeven he had the moves to play a man trapped in a robotic shell.

“RoboCop” blended comedy, social satire, FX wizardry, shoot ‘em action and a big ol’ heart for its blue steel theatrics. Weller’s tragic hero added the final, bravura touch, but Verhoeven didn’t let the crush of genres interrupt the action.

The movie oddly resonates with today’s world, where the public is realizing why we need police officers in the first place. RoboCop represents the ultimate in police reform, as long as its creators don’t exploit his supreme firepower.

The 2014 remake, naturally, lacked the charm and wit of the source material, and the sequels proved increasingly inferior.

Die Hard

It’s merely the gold standard for the modern action film. Take a cranky, indefatigable hero (Bruce Willis), a charismatic baddie (Alan Rickman) and odds stacked so high they dwarf Nakatomi tower, and you have the prototypical actioner.

McTiernan, again, fuses familiar genre beats with Willis growing into his movie star status — even though he was simultaneously shooting ABC’s “Moonlighting” while working on the project. Some of the film’s best moments were created at the last minute, like the first physical meeting between Rickman and Willis, inspired by the former’s impression of a California dweller.

Willis’ John McClane doesn’t get political in the film, but is there any doubt which lever he pulls when he enters the voting booth?

And, for the record, it’s not a Christmas movie.

Return of the Jedi

Many people refuse to forgive the third film in the original “Star Wars” trilogy for its fuzzy, kid-friendly heroes, the Ewoks.


Look past the product placement jamboree. This 1983 sequel moves, from the spectacular battle on Jabba the Hut’s floating palace to the finale featuring not one or two but three epic fights happening all at once.

Director Richard Marquand, an odd but perfect choice, corrals so much mayhem into the third act without losing clarity of the saga’s soul, which revolves around a commitment to courageously confronting evil while also remaining open to the potential of personal redemption.

The Hidden

This under-valued sci-fi affair casts a pre-“Twin Peaks” Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI agent on the trail of a curious crook. Turns out the pair have something in common, much to the confusion of the Earth-bound officer (Michael Nouri) assigned to the case.

Call “The Hidden” a sly genre blend in the “RoboCop” mold, a lo-fi thriller brimming with action, mayhem and an otherworldly glow.

Lethal Weapon

If “Die Hard” cemented the action movie template, Richard Donner’s 1987 film nailed the buddy cop genre for years to come.

Mel Gibson stars as a cop on the edge, tempered by an older, wiser Danny Glover who’s getting too old for … eh, you know the rest.

Slick action, sharp comic asides and a gonzo finale featuring, who else, Gary Busey as the heavy, made this popcorn movie perfection. Gibson’s Riggs character is all alone at the start of the movie, but by the finale he’s embraced a new nuclear clan courtesy of his older, wiser partner.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

This 1981 ode to cliffhangers of yore is nearly perfect. Where to even start cataloging the stunning action scenes?

The opening sequence, as good as any Bond adventure can summon? What about Indy versus the gargantuan Nazi, a fight settled by those spinning propeller blades?

By the time our hero lowers his body under a speeding car, you know you’re watching one of the greatest action films of all time.

The film’s FX-heavy finale explores Christianity in a way many blockbusters either avoid or downplay.

One of the most iconic scenes turns out to be a satirical twist on the standard action setup, with a weary Jones facing off against a scimitar-wielding villain but wisely opting for the pistol over the whip.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Yes, the second part of the franchise has its glaring flaws. Kate Capshaw’s lounge singer shtick is no match for Karen Allen’s gritty heroine. The film’s gross out dinner sequence proved both unnecessary and culturally inaccurate.

But what a finale.

The film’s final 45 minutes simply do … not … stop. It’s classic Steven Spielberg, dragging us along from the mining caves to the edge of a mountain. Harrison Ford does the rest, scrambling to save the children enslaved by the film’s evil cult.

Indy saves the day, of course, but he also realizes “fortune and glory” matters little if he can’t use his skills to help his fellow man.

Rocky III

The Italian Stallion stares down not one but two super-sized foes in this colorful sequel. The match against Hulk Hogan is just for fun, except no one told the gargantuan wrestler that. Clubber Lang (Mr. T in full grimace mode) is all business from the opening bell.

The challenger whups Rocky in their first confrontation, but you know there’s going to be a rematch. Sylvester Stallone, doing triple duty as star, writer and director, knows exactly what we expect from a Rocky movie. And he delivers, wearing his old pal Apollo’s red, white and blue trunks, of course.

The best part? A third fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed, teased in the film’s final seconds without a hint as to who came out on top. Perfect.

The Terminator

It’s Cameron, again, teaming with Schwarzenegger for a film that affirmed his status as an elite action auteur (his preachy screenwriting side emerged later). The results are more rugged than you remember, courtesy of a smaller budget and modest expectations.

The film delivers anyway, from the classic police station massacre (“I’ll be back”) to the unlikely romance between Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and her protector (Michael Biehn). Today’s female action heroes owe plenty to Hamilton’s stoic turn.

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