Top 10 Action Films of the 80s

My personal action favourites of the 80's
December 03, 2009
Top 10 Action Films of the 80s

I love action movies. Action comedies, action dramas, action movies with sc-fi or horror twinges, and as far back as I can remember I've been watching them. I was weaned on the James Bond Films as a child and from my love of the amazing exploits of 007 I've travelled through the gritty thrillers of the early 70's, the muscle men of the 80s, to the breakneck world of Hong Kong and the hard-edged Yakuza flicks of Japan.

It occurred to me recently as I scanned through my DVD collection that nearly all my favourites in the genre came out in my favourite decade of all time: the 1980's. The 80's was when the action film changed forever- more explosions, one-liners, ultra-violence, brilliant stunt work and all done with a wink and a nod to the audience. Just simply put, a damn good time to be at the movies and as for these days personally I think Hollywood just doesn't make these films anymore. Too much CGI, too much MTV style movie-making and too much of a need to tone down the film for PG-13 / 12 audiences has destroyed the creativity of action movies as a whole in Hollywood, and I strongly suggest for anyone who's interesting in the genre heading East, in specific Korean and Thai cinema (Tony Jaa anyone?) where theres been a somewhat rebirth for Action/Thriller flicks in the past 10 years.

It took me a bit of effort to round down to 10 films. Some made the cut, some didn't, and if you DON'T see a favourite listed, this article is a run down of MY personal picks, and there's certainly a lot of other films in this genre, from this decade I love, so stay tuned. But for now let's travel back to a time when heroes were heroes, saved the world and got the girl, and kicked as much ass as possible all under 2 hours.

10. Lethal Weapon (1987)

The 'buddy-cop' genre was very popular in the 80s. Films such as 48 Hours set the standards, but Lethal Weapon was the film that made the genre, and followers such as Red Heat and even the Hong Kong film Tiger on the Beat hoped to capitalize on its box-office success with similar routines a year later. To say the film was influential in the action genre would be an understatement. Along with the next film in my list, it's been credited with breathing new life into the genre with a gritty, urban story backed with emotion and realistic characters. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are just perfect in the film. With a great rapport and great dialogue exchange, their relationship in the film is realistic and witty and really makes the audience invest some emotion into these characters. It feels as though the action plays second fiddle to the drama, but by no means is left behind with some great chase scenes and shoot-outs, and not to forget the climatic one-on-one with Riggs and Mr. Joshua dukeing it out on Murtaugh's front lawn. The film spawned countless imitators, parodies and 3 sequels; but for me the original will always be the best film in the series. The Directors Cut, in my mind, is definitely the superior version with some great little scenes added back in and worth checking out if you're seeing the movie for the first or twenty-first time.

9. Die Hard (1988)

Probably the most iconic, famous and well-loved action film of all time, its hard to say a lot about Die Hard which hasn't been said before. The somewhat simple story of an average NYPD detective caught up in a terrorist group's plot to steal millions from a sky-high plaza's vault in L.A. and Bruce Willis's everyday-man hero has become stuff of legend for those who like their cinema with a bang. One thing that really sets the film apart from others is that the action is amped up with almost suffocating suspense. Its an edge-of-your seat, out-of-breath action film, where the set pieces come crashing and rolling one after another and it never gives you the chance to take a breather. You feel your being taken on a ride- the film is one mans quest to save the day and stop the bad guys and your there with John McClane taking every beating, explosion and fire-fight full on. Like Lethal Weapon, the films influence was felt all throughout the 90's with each action blockbuster released afterwards always finding it impossible to escape from a Die Hard comparison. The sequels for me personally ranged from fairly entertaining to unwatchable but I know they have their fans- the one key ingredient that was missing from the following films was the true heart-jumping suspense of the original. Yippee kai yay, motherfucker.

8. Code of Silence (1985)

Chuck Norris was never a favorite action star of mine. It seemed to me a lot of the films he's made, even as a kid just bored me. He never had to me anything that stood him out from the rest of the thriving 80's pack and whilst I know he was one of the first guys to bring martial arts to Hollywood film back in the 70's (after getting his ass kicked in Way of the Dragon by a certain Mr. Bruce Lee) I always favored other heroes. But that all changed when I saw Code of Silence on an old, fuzzy VHS some time ago. It's pretty much Chuck's perfect role, the maverick cop who goes against everyone else's judgement to nail his man. I just love the atmosphere and grittiness of the film- a simple crime story set in the windy city of Chicago, it's elevated by it's leading man's performance. He simply kicks ass in this film, and I'm pretty certain it's because his high-flying kicks (which sometimes are overused) are kept to a minimum and used only sparingly and realistically to enhance the action. When Chuck busts out a crime-fighting robot named ‘Prowler' to help stop the bad guys how can you go wrong?

7. Above the Law (1988)

In my opinion, Above the Law (cut down in the UK and released as Nico) is Steven Seagal's best film. Also his first film, it was directed by the wonderful action director Andrew Davis (who also directed Steve's most popular movie Under Siege four years later) and it is lifted up from the general run of the mill Seagal fodder mostly by his direction and a great, twisty plot. Seagal's just perfect in the role, and looks a lot different and more athletic than to what he'd transform to in the 90s. With some brutal fight scenes, the likes which had never been seen before in Hollywood (I think Seagal's Aikido form is displayed at it's most clearly and direct here) some hilarious one-liners, it's sort of a brother to Code of Silence, with the same director, the setting of Chicago, a lot of the supporting cast, Henry Silva as the main villain and both with quality soundtracks by action movie connoisseur David M. Frank. If your only gonna see one Seagal film, I'd suggest this one.

6. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
The James Bond films are arguably the most iconic, important and influential action films of all time. Their longevity is stunning and their ability to stick to the same Bond formula but give the audience something fresh and exciting every time is to be praised. For Your Eyes Only came at a bit of a strange time for 007. The 70's weren't kind to the franchise- after struggling to find a new Bond after Connery's last official appearance in the lackluster Diamonds Are Forever, the producers of the series decided on Roger Moore- my personal favorite James Bond. He brought a wit and tongue-in-cheek humor to the films, which still divides fans to this day on whether or not his films strayed too far away from Ian Fleming's gritty and realistic Bond, but throughout the 70's the filmmakers struggled with how much humor and how much seriousness was needed- Live and Let Die and The Spy Who Loved Me got the balance just right, and were perfect showcases for Moore's characterization. But The Man With the Golden Gun and Moonraker (although the latter was a box-office success) were too humorous and even slapstick in nature. With For Your Eyes Only, director John Glen (who directed all the Bond films of the 80's) decided to take 007 back to his roots, and the film is a serious spy-thriller with great stunt work, a who's who? plot and realistic characters which rejuvenated the franchise for the decade. With a hard-edged performance as agent 007 from Moore, it's my personal favorite Bond movie of the 80's.

5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Another influential and massively famous film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first in the popular Indiana Jones series was the top grossing film of '81 and one of the top-grossing films of all time. A team-up by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg was to produce one of the best action-adventure films ever, with exotic and eerie locations, a great cast and just the right pinch of humor, Nazi-beatin' was never as fun. Based on the adventure serials of the 30's and 40's, the film is just filled to the brim with iconic moments and death defying-stunt work. Vic Armstrong, who was a regular stunt-contributor to the Bond films, was Harrison Ford's body double and responsible for most of the brilliant action scenes throughout the film. It was, in my eyes one of the first real ACTION movies of the 80's, where the seeds of everything that would become so formulaic and ritualistic with these types of films were planted. Ford is so right in the role (which was originally intended for Tom Selleck) of the charismatic and handsome action hero, and was just at the peak of his break out as a leading man with his performances as Han Solo in the sci-fi epic Star Wars trilogy and Rick Deckard in the future-noir classic Blade Runner all clustered around this movie. The prequel, Temple of Doom isn't so great but the sequel The Last Crusade is definitely worth checking out. The latest installment Kingdom of the Crystal Skull I'll leave you to make up your own mind on it. Overall, it's just a brilliant film all round, whether you like adventure, romance or comedy, but above all, action.

4. A Better Tomorrow (1986)

The film that started it all in Hong Kong: Chow Yun Fat's career as a movie star, the start of the ‘Heroic Bloodshed' genre and it's countless imitators, and John Woo being known as a serious director of poignant, ultra-violent affairs such as The Killer and Bullet in the Head, which focused on the relationship between brothers, and the codes of loyalty and honor. For me, this was my introduction to the other side of action cinema of Hong Kong, where instead of martial arts, incredibly choreographed gunfights are the main action set pieces, and most of the prolific films of this genre come from the team up of Woo and Chow. A Better Tomorrow has always been my favorite of their team-ups and up until then I'd never scene a film that could be so violent but so beautiful. So mind-blowingly kick ass but extremely heart breaking at the same time. Mark Gor in his trench coat, shades and cigarette dangling out of his mouth has become an image etched in my brain for eternity- Chow was so iconic in the role he spawned numerous imitators and two sequels to the film which unfortunately, paled in comparison to the original. The gun fights are expertly done and paved the way for their overt-use in the latter part of the decade, showing filmmakers could equal the excitement and intensity of hand-to-hand combat with gunplay. It's an action movie with a heart, and I wholeheartedly recommend it as a starter to the world of Hong Kong cinema.

3. The Terminator (1984)

James Cameron is a man who can do no wrong for the most part. He directed two of the best sequels of all time, Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Had success with original films over the last twenty-five years like The Abyss and True Lies and also produced the 90's action-junkie classic Point Break. The film of his I consider to just be a perfect blend of genres, a perfect time capsule of when it was made, and the most enduring, is The Terminator. A sci-fi action thriller with menacing, almost horrific undertones, brilliant score, pace, direction and just a perfect performance from 80's action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger. His presence in the film is particularly foreboding, for the most part I guess that's why he was a solid action hero, but here it's cranked to 11. He's just an unstoppable killing machine who will do anything and murder anyone without a thought to complete his mission. Michael Biehn is great as well as our battle-ravaged hero Kyle Reese, who puts his life on the line to save Sarah Conner and complete his orders for the benefit of all mankind. The film works so well because both characters have the same relentless, never stop attitude in succeeding and try to stop the other at all costs to complete their individual mission. The whole film is one big nerve-wracking chase scene, where there's never any safety, only brief glimmers of hope in Reese's heroics. The big-budget sequel followed 7 years later, which is also a bit of a masterpiece, but for me the first will always be my favorite and sums up perfectly why I love these films and love the type from this decade specifically.

2. Police Story (1985)

Jackie Chan, if I really was being honest, is my favorite action hero of all time. His ability to choreograph and direct hand-to-hand combat and stunt scenes is undeniable, his sheer bravery and balls to continually put his life on the line to entertain and excite his audience is flabbergasting. And he's been doing it for almost 40 years. In all fairness, when it comes to filming fight scenes Hong Kong has always had Hollywood's number. Jackie and fellow school pals Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao were revolutionizing how martial arts looked, felt, was filmed and edited all the way back in the mid 70's. They filmed for speed, clearness and maximum impact, and the 80's was when they were making the best films of their careers, together or singularly. Police Story is Jackie's defining moment. After success with period kung fu films such as Drunken Master and The Young Master, and two massive hits with his brothers, Project A and Wheels on Meals, Jackie was out on his own to direct, star and choreograph along with his infamous stunt team his first modern-day action film. And what a film it is. Amazing high-velocity fight scenes (with arguably the most cleverly and intricately choreographed action finale ever filmed), breathtaking, hard hitting stunt work by Jackie himself and countless injured stunt men and the trademark, natural Jackie Chan humour splashed throughout, it's his most well put together and most complete film. Four sequels followed after, all with their individual merits, and all offering some more great action scenes. The first though, as a martial arts film, a stunt film, an action comedy, it succeeds on every level. And what a theme song.

1. RoboCop (1987)

RoboCop is not only my favorite 80's action movie but my favorite movie ever. Along with The Terminator and Raiders of the Lost Ark it's a film I watched over and over again as a kid and have had countless releases of the film and its sequels on VHS and DVD. For me, the character of the family-man cop brutally gunned down and transformed to a metallic, shining gladiator of the future is what I watch movies for. This film more than any created my love of cinema, let alone genre films of this kind. The film, which the sequels kind of forgot, was about a man. A man with emotions, memories and a soul, trapped inside a machine. (To be fair to the first sequel, a lot of depth was left on the cutting room floor) And it wasn't just about fighting crime meticulously; it was about trying to work out who he was. The film, though around 100 minutes long feels epic. Murphy's journey from man to machine and his battle with crime, corporation, and his inner demons is vast, bloody and brilliant. Peter Weller's mannerisms, speech and movements make RoboCop truly believable as a three-dimensional character and Kurtwood Smith is perfect as the sadisctic, brutal ultra-villian Clarence Boddiker. The action scenes, especially Robo's amazing battle with ED-209, are all done with finesse and style, and the dark humor and twisted vision of the future make the movie come alive. Miguel Ferrer's performance is also of note, as Bob Morton, the epitome of the 80's yuppie businessman, who gets tangled in the messy proceedings of Richard ‘Dick' Jones, the shady OCP Vice President. Overall, Paul Verhoevens's vision of a gritty, bleak dystopia where corporation and big money rules, underlined with it's satire of 80's American culture and politics is a film which showcases action, sci-fi, black humor, human drama and intelligent script-writing at their peak, and is a film which just oozes cool. Not only a brilliant action movie, a brilliant film.

So there we have it, thanks a lot for taking the time out to read this article. It took a bit of time, but I'm very passionate about film and I really enjoyed writing it and really poured out every single thought and feeling I had on each film. If you haven't seen any of these movies and are a big fan of the action genre like myself, I suggest checking any one of them (or all of them) out. Thank you also to Retro Junk for hosting this article, it's really a great site and a source of inspiration, and thank you to my amazing girlfriend Shannon who inspired me to start writing again and made me believe I could accomplish this.

Thanks guys, Keep it retro!
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