The 1980s were a unique time in cinematic history, where anything went and nothing was too over the top. ’80s action movies most exemplified this style of hyperbolic filmmaking and were surprisingly diverse in genre and tone, from sci-fi horror to buddy-cop comedy and everything in between.
Now the vast community of experts on Ranker is at it again, and this time, thousands have chimed in to vote on the “Best ’80s Action Movies”.
Staring 80s action superstar, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Commando is arguably the most “Schwarzenegger-esque” of all his movies. The film follows a Special Forces Commando who comes out of retirement to rescue his daughter, who was abducted by a rogue mercenary outfit.
Pulling out all the stops in terms of ’80s action movie tropes, from neck-snapping, to rocket launchers, South America jungles, and plenty of sarcastic one-liners, Commando was a huge box-office success, despite being rated R, and even spawned a line of action figure toys.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
While Star Wars does not immediately come to mind when thinking of ’80s action movies, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back definitely fits the bill, with all its iconic one-liners, explosive action, and blockbuster set-piece battles.
A rare example of a sequel surpassing its predecessor, The Empire Strikes Back became the highest-grossing film of 1980 and was a trailblazer in terms of special effects and set design. It is arguably considered the first true “Blockbuster” film, in terms of the hype around its release and immense pop culture impact.
First Blood (1982)
The movie that first launched the character of Rambo into the popular imagination, First Blood stars and was co-written by Sylvester Stallone. Stallone, who was still riding high from the successes of the Rocky series, wanted to explore a darker and grittier character and found one in Rambo from the eponymous 1972 novel.
The film itself follows outcast drifter, John Rambo, a former Special Forces soldier and troubled Vietnam war veteran, who comes to blows with a despotic small-town police chief. The conflict is escalated when Rambo uses his training to deadly effect, prompting a massive manhunt. The film was an instant success with both critics and audiences, First Blood spawned an incredibly popular franchise centered around the character of Rambo, for decades to come.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
The third installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is noticeably less dark and graphic in terms of tone, compared to the previous two films. Directed and co-written by Hollywood’s power duo Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, The Last Crusade follows daring archeologist, Indiana Jones, as he teams up with his father, to hunt for the long-lost Holy Grail.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was a smash hit at the box office and a critical success too, with praise leveled at Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, who portrayed Indy and Dr. Jones Sr., respectively. According to NBC News, the movie also put several historical locations on the map, including the ancient ruins of Petra, which has become a popular tourist destination with more than a million annual visitors.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
The quintessential buddy cop action film, Lethal Weapon stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as two “lone-wolf” cops forced to work with each other. In this classic setup often emulated by later films, this mismatched duo team up to hunt down a gang of ruthless drug smugglers.
Upon its release, The Washington Post described Lethal Weapon as “a vivid, visceral reminder of just how exciting an action film can be” with famed film critic Roger Ebert giving the movie 4 out of 4 stars. Lethal Weapon went on to spawn an incredibly successful franchise, with Lethal Weapon 5 in the works with Mel Gibson slated to direct.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The first movie of the incredibly popular Indiana Jones franchise. Raiders of the Lost Ark follows enterprising archaeologist, Indiana Jones, as he journeys the globe, exploring exotic destinations and battling Nazis to recover the legendary lost Ark of the Covenant.
For Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg and Lucas sought to reinvent the early 20th-century serial films and pulp fiction novels of their youth, arguably the predecessors to 80s action movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark received much acclaim from audiences and critics alike upon its release. The main character of Indiana Jones was particularly well-received, with comparisons to James Bond and Humphry Bogart.
The highly anticipated sequel to the hit 1979 sci-fi film Alien, James Cameron’s Aliens starred Sigourney Weaver as Lieutenant Ripley, one of the few female action heroes of the 1980s. The movie itself follows Ripley as she awakens from cryo-sleep to save a space colony from the hostile Xenomorph alien race.
In contrast to the original 1979 Alien by Ridley Scott, which had a darker horror tone, Aliens shifted towards the action-adventure genre, a shift that was well received by critics and audiences. The film became one of the highest-grossing films of 1986 and even garnered Weaver an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
Spawning such iconic one-lines like “Get To The Choppa!” and “You are one ugly mother-f*****”, Predator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Vietnam War vet, “Dutch” Schaefer, who leads an elite mercenary team on a rescue mission deep in a Central American rainforest. What Schaefer doesn’t realize is that he and his team are themselves being hunted by a technologically advanced extraterrestrial being, The Predator, who stalks humans for sport.
While initially met with mixed critical response, Predator was extremely popular with audiences, becoming the second most profitable film in 1987. It went on to inspire an extended cinematic universe of movies, toys and video games that even tied into the Alien franchise.
Die Hard (1988)
Considered the “ultimate Christmas movie”, Die Hard stars Bruce Willis as John McClane an off-duty NYPD detective who gets caught up in a terrorist operation in an LA skyscraper, on Christmas Eve. McClane must face off with ruthless German terrorist, Hans Gruber, who is played by Alan Rickman in his first film role.
Upon its release, Die Hard far exceeded all expectations in terms of critical and box office success, and even garnered 4 Academy Award Nominations. The character of McClane was particularly well received as being more relatable and realistic compared to other contemporary action heroes. The success of Die Hard spawned a cinematic franchise of several movies, comics, and video games.
The Terminator (1984)
Perfectly capturing the underlying tension and societal anxiety of an impeding global nuclear war during the mid-1980s, The Terminator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, a robot assassin sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, the future mother of the leader of the human resistance against the machines. The Terminator established Schwarzenegger as an international movie star, James Cameron as a visionary director, and Stan Winston as a special effects pioneer.
Despite low expectations from studio executives, The Terminator had an impressive box office run. Critics were mixed upon release, some praised its tech-noir tone and action sequences, but others criticized the film for being “too violent”. The Terminator became a huge cultural icon, from its one-liners like “I’ll be back” and “Come with me if you want to live”, to the dark electronic musical score, and the deadpan performance of Schwarzenegger. The film currently holds a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
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