This is the latest of a whole series here at Grizzly Bomb. For each feature we will examine an individual genre and the quality of its films produced within a specific decade. These lists will be compiled from a point system determined by votes from each member of the staff. It’s very scientific, we used Excel.
For this topic, in addition to my list, I asked 13 members of my staff to give me a list of their “Top 10 Action Movies of the 1980s”. The action movies of the 80s, more than any other decade or genre, have an identity. Big muscles, big explosions, and witty one-liners. There are even movies that came out in other decades that you could consider 80s Action. Stuff like Point Break (1991), Cop Out (2010), and The Expendables (2010). Though we’re only counting stuff actually from the 1980s, you get the idea. Now, Schwarzenegger and Stallone of course owned the decade, but it wasn’t just them kicking ass back in the day, but several other action stars will pop up on this list as well.
Anyhow, as for the results: From the 13 people asked to make a Top Ten list, plus my own Top 10, it resulted in 43 different movies being named. I’ve tallied up the points, and I now give you the Top 25 of them…
25. Highlander (1986)
24. The Protector (1985)
23. Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade (1989)
22. Escape from New York (1981)
21. Above the Law (1988)
20. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
19. No Holds Barred (1989)
18. The Untouchables (1987)
17. The Running Man (1987)
16. Bloodsport (1988)
15. Rocky IV (1985)
14. Mad Max 2: Road Warrior (1981)
13. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
12. Cobra (1986)
11. Roadhouse (1989)
And the TOP 10….
*Something new this time around is the AFI Box Office, which is ‘Adjusted for Inflation’…
10. Tango and Cash
Ray Tango and Gabriel Cash are narcotics detectives who, while both being extremely successful, can’t stand each other. Crime Lord Yves Perret, furious at the loss of income that Tango and Cash have caused him, frames the two for murder. Caught with the murder weapon on the scene of the crime, the two have alibi. Thrown into prison with most of the criminals they helped convict, it appears that they are going to have to trust each other if they are to clear their names and catch the evil Perret.
This movie so full of one-liners and unnecessary violence it amazing Schwarzenegger isn’t in it.
US Release: December 22, 1989
Director: Andrey Konchalovskiy/Albert Magnoli
Notable Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Teri Hatcher, Jack Palance, Billy Blanks, Clint Howard, Glenn Morshower, Michael J. Pollard, James Hong, and Brion James.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/0
US Box Office: $63,408,614 (AFI: $127,136,667)
Best Quote: “Rambo? Rambo’s a pussy.”
Trivia: Patrick Swayze was originally cast as Cash, but he dropped out and went to star in Road House.
This one is where some debate came in, mostly from Rev Kaiser who argued this movie was more Sci-Fi than Action, but to me there are just too many great Action elements present to leave this off the list. That, combined with Kaiser’s main motivation for his argument being he wanted Roadhouse in the Top Ten, he was outvoted. Aliens is so much more than just Sci-Fi, as Alien delivered us one of the greatest horror/thrillers ever, here we were given some of the most heart-pounding action scenes ever filmed.
This is 57 years after the first movie and Ripley must once again face off against the alien menace, but this time she’s backed by an entire team of Marines.
US Release: July 18, 1986
Director: James Cameron
Notable Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 2/7 (Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects)
US Box Office: $85,160,248 (AFI: $182,715,788)
Best Quote: “We’d better get back, ’cause it’ll be dark soon, and they mostly come at night… mostly.”
Trivia: The Alien nest set was kept intact after filming. It was later used as the Axis Chemicals set for Batman. When the crew of Batman first entered the set, they found most of the Alien nest still intact.
‘New Detroit’, a hell hole spawned by the predicted progression seen in the 1980s real Detroit. It was only logical in the late 80s to assume Detroit would get worse, and so it made sense that one day they would look for an answer to crime though technology. Hence Robocop. The fact that Officer Murphy is killed and then resurrected in a Jesus like fashion to right the wrongs of the city, is only made sweeter by the fact that his killer was Red Foreman. This is a story about corruption at the highest levels and an underdog desire to do whats right and fix a once great city. And the fight was so bloody and violent, this marks the first time ever that a movie was rated X for violence. Oh how I miss the 80s, I‘d but that for a dollar!
US Release: July 17, 1987
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Notable Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Leeza Gibbons, and Ray Wise.
Oscar Wins/Nominations 1/3 (Sound Effects Editing)
US Box Office: $53,424,681 (AFI: $108,762,266)
Best Quote: “Bitches, leave.”
Triva: The repeated line ‘I’d buy that for a dollar!’ comes from Cyril M. Kornbluth‘s short story ‘The Marching Morons’, which presents a similarly cynical view of an over-commercialized future that’s desensitized to violence and war. A radio game show in that short story uses the line ‘I’d buy that for a quarter.’ as its signature phrase.
7. First Blood
In a departure from the source material, which saw John Rambo ultimately killed in the end of the book, this ended up being the franchise that saved Stallone’s career. And the funny part is, after shooting he hated the movie so much he tried to stop its release. This movie turned into a direct message about the treatment of soldiers returning from Viet Nam and say what you want about Stallone’s acting ability, but the end scene in which we see Rambo break down and cry in front of Col. Troutman is both powerful and moving. That, combined with one man, manhandling an entire police department made for the birth of a pop-culture icon. “Rambo” is now synonymous with ‘Badass”.
US Release: October 22, 1982
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Notable Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy, and David Caruso.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/0
US Box Office: $47,212,904 (AFI: $127,828,135)
Best Quote: “If you want some friendly advice, get a haircut and take a bath. You wouldn’t get hassled so much.”
Triva: At one point, the studio wanted Kris Kristofferson for Rambo, Gene Hackman as Sheriff Teasle and Lee Marvin as Col. Trautman.
TONI X: “I’ll be the first to admit that Die Hard is a better movie, hell, it’s the greatest action movie of all time – But Commando is the 80’s. It has a fantastic soundtrack that is all about the decade, slick cars, slick scumbags in slick clothes, a pre – Who’s the Boss? Alyssa Milano and most importantly – It has Schwarzenegger in it. No movie can be the definitive ’80’s Action Movie’ without Schwarzenegger. Not only this, but Schwarzenegger starts this movie by carrying a tree – for reals. They had to show this dude being such a beast in his first goddamn shot just so you know he means absolute business.
Commando also created the Schwarzenegger archetype, granted, there were other movies where Arnie showed superhuman feats of strength, but in those flicks he was playing either a macho fantasy warrior, a killer cyborg or Hercules himself. Commando implies he was just a human being who could rip a pipe out of a wall and impale Wez with it. This is the starting point for the now classic Arnold one liners and insane logic bending shootouts.
Not only that, but every great 80’s action movie trope is here-the pointless nudity just for the sake of it, the hardass military brass trying to recruit Arnold, the country of Val Verde, a palatial mansion where all hell breaks loose and Bill Paxton – Straight Up 80’s.
But the most significant reason that Commando trumps Die Hard as an 80’s action movie is this. Die Hard is actually an adaptation of a novel called “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp, Hollywood initially adapted the novel into a screenplay as a sequel to Commando. If it wasn’t for Schwarzenegger turning down the role and retooling the script for Bruce Willis – Die Hard would have been Commando 2. Commando is not only the greatest 80’s action movie of all time, but it is responsible for the greatest Action Movie of any decade. That’s why it’s number one in my book.”
US Release: October 4, 1985
Director: Mark L. Lester
Notable Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Hedaya, Vernon Wells, Bill Duke, David Patrick Kelly, Bill Paxton, and Alyssa Milano.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/0
US Box Office: $35,100,000 (AFI: $78,703,098)
Best Quote: “Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last? I lied.”
Trivia: Arius (Dan Hedaya) is said to be a deposed dictator from the country of Val Verde. Val Verde was a fictionalized South/Central American country used by Hollywood from the 1980s to early 1990s to depict a Spanish-speaking country similar to Cuba or Nicaragua without encountering diplomatic problems. It is also referenced in the films Predator, Die Hard 2, and the made for TV movie Deadly Enemies (Pilot).
5. The Terminator
Arnold was already known in some circles. Multiple winner of the ‘Mr. Universe‘ competition 4 times, and he had just stared twice as ‘Conan the Barbarian’, but it wasn’t until he played a near unstoppable killing machine in 1984 that he became a household name. The movie itself changed the genre forever, and kick started the career of James Cameron. The mythology sprouted from this movie led to 3 sequels, a TV show, and countless comic books and parodies. The Terminator is sent back in time to assassinate the mother of the still unborn leader of the future’s human resistance. That’s badass. This was a bad day to have middle name starting with the letter ‘A’…
US Release: October 26, 1984
Director: James Cameron
Notable Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Dick Miller, Bill Paxton, and Brian Thompson.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/0
US Box Office: $38,371,200 (AFI: $90,903,200)
Best Quote: “Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”
Triva: O.J. Simpson was considered for the role of the Terminator, but the producers feared he was “too nice” to be taken seriously as a cold-blooded killer. In 1990, (years, ironically, before Simpson’s first trial) Dark Horse Comics printed issues using his likeness.
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indiana Jones is one of the greatest action characters of all time, and Raiders of the Lost Ark was fresh and exciting, and it achieved that by looking to the past for inspiration. George Lucas wrote this movie based of the old serials he would watch as a kid. Constant action throughout, from fleeing booby traps to fighting Nazis to poisonous snakes and ancient desert prisons, Dr. Jones time and again beats the odds and achieves the impossible. And unlike most of the movies on this list, this was actually marketed to the whole family, so I think people in their late 20s and into their 30s have a special nostalgia attached to these movies having grown up on them. It’s as good as an action movie can be without gratuitous boobs and swearing.
US Release: June 12, 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Notable Cast: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, and Alfred Molina.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 5/9 (Art Direction, Visual Effects, Editing, Sound, Sound Editing)
US Box Office: $242,374,454 (AFI: $693,993,041)
Best Quote: “The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste in entire regions. An Army that carries the Ark before it… is invincible.”
Triva: Renowned British wrestler Pat Roach gets killed twice in this film – once as a giant Sherpa left in the burning Nepalese bar and once as the German mechanic chewed up by the plane’s propeller.
3. Lethal Weapon
The pinnacle of Buddy Cop movies, this is the king of mismatched partners at the start – the suicidal young hot-shot cop, paired with old crotchety about-to-retire veteran. This is the movie that created the clichés we now recognize in almost every cop movie released in the last 20 years. Riggs and Murtaugh investigate the apparent suicide of a friend’s daughter, and end up getting sucked in for more than they expected. The whole case culminates in a Christmas season street brawl between Riggs and Mr. Joshua (Busey) in a hydrant downpour out in front of Murtaugh’s house. The movie would spawn 3 more sequels and prove to make Mel Gibson one of Hollywood’s biggest stars over the next 15 or so years.
US Release: March 6, 1987
Director: Richard Donner
Notable Cast: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitch Ryan, Grand L. Bush, and Al Leong
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/1 (Nom. – Best Sound)
US Box Office: $65,207,127 (AFI: $132,749,036)
Best Quote: “Well, I’ll tell you what. You make it through tomorrow without killing anybody, especially me, or yourself, then I’ll start trusting you.”
Triva: Film’s soundtrack includes Elvis Presley song I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Darlene Love, who plays Murtaugh’s wife, was background dancer in Elvis’ production Elvis.
After The Terminator made him a star, and Commando created his archetype, then it was Predator that made him an icon. The story of an elite group of commandos that are sent into the jungle on a rescue mission, only to soon discover they were sent there under false pretenses and find themselves under attack by an unseen assailant. It is here, even more so than in Commando, that we see Arnold Schwarzenegger in the fight of his life. This movie is all about survival and it was a shocking experience in ’87 to see something hunting Arnold, and not the other way around. From the gratuitous bicep closeups to the frequent use of mini-guns, this is about as “Guy Movie” as it gets.
US Release: June 12, 1987
Directors: John McTiernan
Notable Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, and Shane Black.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/1 (Visual Effects)
US Box Office: $59,735,548 (AFI: $121,609,965)
Best Quote: “Get to the Chopper!”
Triva: Shane Black, who plays ‘Hawkins’, is far more famous for his screenwriting than his acting. His writing credits include stuff like The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and our #3 on this list – Lethal Weapon.
1. Die Hard
This is, sure-fire, without debate, the single greatest action movie of all time. Due on to the fact that this came out in 1988 and not 1990 that Predator misses out on topping our list. The ultimate story of the wrong time – wrong place, this time it was the right guy. A seemingly average cop from New York, without the muscles and armory of Schwarzenegger and Stallone (both of whom are referenced in the movie) John McClane must save his wife and her co-workers from a group of terrorists, and he has to do it barefoot.
John McClane has become the standard for actions stars since, and this is the movie that ushered in the beginning of “90s Action”. After this, even in Stallone and Schwarzenegger movies, it was no longer about shirtless bodybuilders cutting down trees with bullets. This was a cop, with kids and marital problems and he was forced to handle a situation. He wasn’t called in because he was the best (IE: Predator, Rambo II, ect…), he just happened to be there.
Now with the announcement of a 5th Die Hard movie coming, the franchise is still relevant over 20 years later. This movie made Bruce Willis. But who doesn’t get enough credit is Alan Rickman. A hero is often times measured by the strength and quality of his villain, this is maybe what hurts Commando’s legacy. This was Rickman’s film debut, and he delivered one of cinema’s all time great villains. It was Hans Gruber than made John McClane great, and that is what spawned the sequels.
US Release: July 15, 1988
Director: John McTiernan
Notable Cast: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Paul Gleason, Bonnie Bedelia, Hart Bochner, William Atherton, Reginald VelJohnson, Al Leong, Robert Davi, Grand L. Bush, Anthony Peck, and Rick Ducommun.
Oscar Wins/Nominations: 0/4 (Nom. – Film Editing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects, Sound)
US Box Office: $83,008,852 (AFI: $160,766,536)
Best Quote: “Yippee-ki-yay, motherf–ker. “
Triva: Bruce Willis was also shooting Moonlighting concurrently which accounts for why nearly all of McClane’s scenes take place at night. Willis would shoot his TV series during the day and then come to the Fox lot in the evening to work on this film.