The 19 Best Action Movies Of The 1980s
GameSpot may receive revenue from affiliate and advertising partnerships for sharing this content and from purchases through links.
The Best Action Flicks of the 1980s
The 1980s was a unique time. For the world. For you. For me. And for movies! Theaters were huge, of course, but home video was growing rapidly in popularity. Movies at the time could enjoy a long, sustained run in theaters and then keep pushing ahead with a second life on home video.
The 1980s was also the heyday of bombastic action movies starring muscle-bound heroes chomping on cigars and one-liners.
The decade belonged to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kurt Russell, John Carpenter, and James Cameron, to name a few. Some of our favorite fictional worlds came to life, including Aliens, The Terminator, and Indiana Jones. There were so so many big action movies in the '80s, so it's hard to narrow this list down to just 19 items. But these movies are our favorite action flicks of the 1980s.
19. Road House (1989)
This Patrick Swayze cult classic didn't make a splash at the box office. Like so many beloved '80s movies, it found a second life on VHS and cable television, where it became a fan favorite while laying the groundwork for all of the '90s "guy comes to town and does jump kicks" TV shows and movies. Road House is a martial arts action movie, but sets itself apart from other martial arts fare by filtering most of it through bar fights. The movie treats its main characters, Dalton (Swayze) and Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott) like living legends, with characters whispering about their exploits right in front of them--a world where being a bouncer is simultaneously a legendary and shameful profession. Also, he rips a guy's throat out. This is one of the cheesier movies on this list, but it's a lot of fun to watch.
18. Bloodsport (1988)
America's obsession with Japan in the 1980s meant we got a glut of martial arts movies, from truly corny fare like American Ninja to the iconic Karate Kid. Among them is Jean Claude Van Damme's breakout film, Bloodsport. Based on the now-debunked claims of martial artist Frank Dux, Bloodsport tells the story of Dux's participation in the massive underground martial arts tournament called Kumite. It might be a load of bunk, but screenwriter Sheldon Lettich was right: the story makes for a rad movie, and Van Damme carries it along with his sharp moves.
17. Commando (1985)
Commando is the most Arnold Schwarzenegger of all of Arnold Schwarzenegger's films. He spends much of the movie covered in camo. He chomps on a cigar while firing high-powered military weapons. His name is John Matrix. And of course, there are the quips Schwarzenegger is well known for. "You're a funny guy Sully, I like you. That's why I'm going to kill you last." Commando was written with the muscle-bound actor in mind, and it shows in every frame. The movie is about as silly as you can get, but it's an absolute blast to watch.
16. Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Is there any actor who defines the films of the 1980s more than Arnold Schwarzenegger? The Austrian body-builder-turned-actor brought Robert Howard's barbarian to life in Conan the Barbarian and turned himself into a star in the process. The movie does a stellar job capturing the bloody, bleak world of Conan of Cimmeria and has all the swords and sorcery you could ask for. Also, the scene where James Earl Jones' Thulsa Doom transforms into a snake is still creepy, forty years later.
15. Lethal Weapon (1987)
The Lethal Weapon, in case you didn't catch it, is Mel Gibson's character, Martin Riggs. Back in the 1980s, Mel Gibson was known for playing deeply troubled but likable characters like Mad Max Rockatansky and Martin Riggs, thanks to both his proven acting chops and his intense blue eyes. Danny Glover and his character Roger Murtaugh are both almost a decade older than their partners, and Murtaugh's tired veteran acts as a perfect foil for Riggs' unhinged behavior. You've seen cop characters called loose cannons in countless parodies, but Riggs is the quintessential loose cannon.
14. Top Gun (1986)
Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" is one of the coolest songs in all of human history, and it's all thanks to Top Gun. This film was a top-tier '80s movie with its afterburners running full blast. From the great soundtrack--"Danger Zone," "Take my Breath Away," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'"--to the countless quotable lines, and of course that iconic volleyball scene. What really sends it over the top though are the aerial dogfight scenes that turned every '80s kid into a fan of fighter jets for at least a few months.
13. Batman (1989)
Not only is Batman one of the most popular comic book superheroes in pop culture, he's also one of the most bankable. That's been the case for a long time, but it kicked into high gear in 1989 when Warner Bros. released Tim Burton's Batman, all but inventing the modern blockbuster in the process. The movie was a huge success with fans and critics alike thanks to the film's iconic art direction and set design, and great performances by Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson that actors playing Batman and Joker are still compared to over three decades later.
12. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Action flicks of the 1980s were marked by ultra-competent, muscle-bound heroes who had a one-liner for every situation. It was inevitable that a few movies would try to break that mold. On the one hand is the ultra-cool Die Hard. And then there's Big Trouble in Little China, a film that asks "what if Kurt Russell was a dumbass?"
The opening scene of the film, in which Victor Wong's character Egg Shen talks about how brave Russell's Jack Burton is, was added to the film at the request of the studio financing the picture because they were afraid that Burton looked like too much of a doofus for people to get behind. But that's the whole point: John Carpenter has once again teamed with Kurt Russell, with whom he already worked on The Thing and Escape from New York, but for this movie, he flips the script. Burton is a fish out of water and is in way over his head from almost the beginning. He approaches every situation with the confidence of an 80s action hero but almost never gets the same result.
While some elements of this movie are probably problematic these days, it stands out simply for fully committing to making its protagonist look like a goofball.
11. Evil Dead 2 (1987)
Evil Dead 2 is a weird combination of a remake and a sequel. A Remakequel. It starts out covering roughly the same events as Evil Dead, a classic horror movie in its own right, but shifts from pure horror to a mashup of horror, comedy, and action that shouldn't work--but definitely does. The movie helped turn Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell into household names among genre movie fans, and turned Ash Williams from a simple horror protagonist to an action hero that is all at once a genuine badass and a parody of all of those other movie badasses.
10. Escape from New York (1981)
When Escape from New York came out in 1981, the year 1997 felt like the distant future. The movie imagines a crime-riddled world where the most populous city in America has been abandoned and turned into a walled-in prison city. The movie did well when it came out, but became a cult classic thanks to Kurt Russel's Snake Plissken and John Carpenter's characteristically spartan direction and ability to stretch a budget so thin that you can see through it.
9. Terminator (1984)
It must've been good to be Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980s. It seems like about half the movies that made it big starred him. So many of them appealed to his ability to deliver quippy one-liners while chomping cigars and firing heavy weapons. Terminator, meanwhile, just wanted to know what would happen if he was an unkillable robot from the future. And just like Arnold makes multiple appearances on this list, this is the first of two entries from director James Cameron. Cameron loves building out fictional worlds in his movies so that our imagination can keep chewing on the movies long after the credits roll, and Terminator is some of his best work, using the absolute minimum to create an idea that is still exciting even today. Judgment Day, when Skynet would go active and reduce humanity to a rebel force, has long since passed in the real world, but the Terminator still won't die, having spawned five more movies and a (surprisingly good) 2-season television series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and it's thanks to Cameron's worldbuilding and Schwarzenegger's intense performance.
8. Predator (1987)
One of the best parts of '80s genre films is how many of them casually laid out awesome worldbuilding. The Predator character has lived on for decades thanks to a character design that is equal parts cool and horrifying, packs a Batman-level loadout of gadgets, and of course has that awesome heat vision. It all comes together to make a fascinating character that you can drop into other stories and just see what happens. Add onto that some great one-liners and all of Arnold Schwarzenegger's (there he is again!) charisma and you have an endlessly rewatchable sci-fi action flick.
7. Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
This is where the legend started, and it's still the best movie in the Indiana Jones series (yes, even better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). That scene where the guy is swinging the sword around and Indy just pulls out his gun and shoots him is enough to make it worth putting on this list. Or when Indy steals the golden idol and outruns the giant boulder. Or when the airplane propeller changes the tide of a fight that isn't going well for our hero. Or the truck chase. In other words, just about every scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark is iconic in one way or another, and so many of the scenes in this movie have influenced the action-adventure scenes that would follow.
6. Die Hard (1988)
There's a reason that this movie was Jake Peralta's favorite movie across all eight seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It's an almost perfect action movie in every way, from the casting and premise to the pacing. When Bruce Willis was cast in the role, he was a TV actor and didn't look anything like the leading men in other action movies--Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme. John McClane was a regular guy, and he had a life outside of just Doing Action Stuff; he and his wife are separated and he's still processing it even as he's crawling through the ducts of Nakatomi Plaza. This gave the hero pathos and made the action that much more substantial. This wasn't a veritable Superman we were looking at, just a tired dude trying to handle a bad situation. Die Hard is considered by many to be
a Christmas movie one of the best action movies of the '80s for all these reasons and more.
5. First Blood (1982)
Before Rambo was a jingoistic symbol of the worst of the American military's worst excesses, he was an indictment of the country's schizophrenic treatment of Vietnam veterans. Released in 1982, this movie is one of the earliest depictions of post-traumatic stress disorder and abuse of power by police. Army veteran and Green Beret John Rambo is drifting about, trying to find the last remaining members of his unit when an overzealous cop sets his sights on him. First Blood is some of Sylvester Stallone's best work, giving us a tragic action star that is as much a victim as he is a hero.
It's hard to imagine an action movie ending the way First Blood does: With the hero sobbing into his father-figure's uniform about the way the army trains soldiers to use million-dollar hardware but then, when they return from war, won't give them enough assistance to hold down a job washing cars. The Hollywood system would later twist Rambo until he barely resembled this character, but this movie still stands out as some of the best cinema of the 1980s.
4. Aliens (1986)
The first Alien film was an out-and-out horror movie that, like Predator, gave us the simple premise of a group of plucky humans facing off against an alien that outmatches them in every imaginable way except, of course, our dogged determination to survive. The James Cameron-directed sequel, Aliens, is an action movie that takes that premise and blows it out into an entire universe of evil corporations, androids, colonies on distant planets, decades-long cryogenic sleep, and--most importantly--space marines. Like the next entry, Aliens' influence on genre fiction has expanded far past its original premise, with space marines and pulse rifles populating countless video and tabletop games.
3. The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2) (1981)
Most films--even great ones--are forgotten or left behind by time within a few years. The Road Warrior, also known as Mad Max 2, is one of the exceptions. George Miller's gasoline-powered vision of the post-apocalyptic wasteland has influenced just about every form of media. From Max's iconic Interceptor car to the S&M-meets-sporting-goods fashion, you can find its influence all over popular culture. For its influence alone, the Road Warrior belongs on this list, but it's also a banger of a movie that holds up perfectly decades later.
2. RoboCop (1987)
While its sequels would lose the plot, the first RoboCop is lowkey one of the smartest movies on this list. Director Paul Verhoeven initially rejected the script on the name alone, but when he took control of it he turned it into a satire of American capitalism and all the concerns that came with it at the time. It is, if anything, more relevant than ever: Set in 2028, it imagines a (even more) run-down version of Detroit in a world struggling with climate change. It features themes of overreliance on technology, police overreach, gentrification, bodily autonomy, identity, and more. Also, it's about a cop, who is a robot. It's everything you could want.
1. The Killer (1989)
While American audiences were drowning in muscle-bound action heroes, Hong Kong moviegoers were meeting professional hitman Ah Jong, played by Chow Yun-Fat. This tragic action movie is one of director John Woo's best-loved films, alongside Hard Boiled, which would come out just a few years later in 1992, and it has all the hallmarks of his trademark style: brotherhood, heroes wielding dual pistols, white doves, huge gunfights, and lots of slow motion.