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Beyond the MCU: The 10 Best Action Flicks of the '80s

By Jen Maravegias | Film | June 12, 2023 |

By Jen Maravegias | Film | June 12, 2023 |


Everything old is new again. And everyone old is an action star again.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is starring in FUBAR on Netflix, having a great time spitting in the eye of the failed CBS True Lies series. Sly Stallone killed it on Taylor Sheridan’s Tulsa King and his reality show, The Family Stallone, premiered earlier this month.

There’s a FOURTH Expendables movie coming out later this year. The franchise has added some new faces but has mainly been a clearing house of 80s action heroes and villains to showcase how well they’ve maintained their abs and the surgeries they’ve had done on their faces.

But why are these guys still kicking around? Anyone one of them, and almost all of them could be living nice, quiet lives of retirees. Rolling around in money like Scrooge McDuck. Or living on a yacht off the coast of a Caribbean island somewhere, sipping champagne while surrounded by bikini-clad models. But it’s hard to call it quits, and it’s hard for us to quit them when they’ve saved the world, or the city, or the president as many times as they have, collectively.

The 1980s were a heyday for the Action, Action/Adventure, and Action/Comedy genres. High concept and easy to explain, these movies fed into the conservative narrative spun by politicians that made us feel like we needed the type of heroes Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Russell portrayed. Hollywood was reflecting our socio-political fears back at us. After Vietnam and Watergate, we lost faith in our leaders. There was a recession, triggered in large part by an oil embargo. Long lines for the gas pump made it much easier to envision a dystopian future of all kinds of shortages. And a 1979 trade agreement with China heralded the era of production globalization, making it much easier to fear foreigners - from other countries and other worlds.

How does one go about selecting the ten best of the genre in a decade that gave us such a rich bounty? It’s entirely subjective and mutable. But as summer starts to heat up, and the Northeast catches its breath after a couple of days on Air Quality lockdown, here’s the list, almost 40 years in the making.

10. Lethal Weapon
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Pre-dated by Beverly Hills Cop (1984), 48 Hrs. (1982), and Running Scared (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987) is still a solid classic in the Buddy Cop Hall of Fame. Released well before Mel Gibson outed himself as an anti-semitic jackass, it has more action and explosions than its predecessors, placing it solidly in the Action Movie category. Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) are a mismatch made in heaven. The chemistry between them was strong enough to carry four movies in the franchise, although the law of diminishing returns does apply (Joe Pesci excluded.) Lethal Weapon is more grounded in reality than the films Richard Donner had under his belt as a director at the time (The Omen, two Superman movies, The Goonies, and Ladyhawke). But Donner was a master of his craft so it’s no surprise he was able to take a story as pedestrian as two cops chasing down bad guys and turn it into a certified blockbuster.

9. Escape From New York
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There are plenty of arguments to be made about where Escape From New York should be placed on this list. It was everything we were scared the future would be when the movie was released in 1981. And Snake Plissken was the anti-hero we needed to defend us not only from criminals but also from a corrupt law enforcement system. Plissken’s adventure through the hazardous labyrinth of a city ruled by “The Duke” is probably how a lot of people who lived outside of NYC saw the city at the time. Garbage strikes, porn theaters lit up all night in Times Square, and a budding crack epidemic were real things happening in New York. John Carpenter’s vision of the city as a prison island is something MAGA Conservatives still dream about. And also feels true sometimes, depending on how well the subways are running.

8. Rambo: First Blood Part II
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Already well known for Rocky and Rocky II when he made First Blood in 1982, Sylvester Stallon took the John Rambo character to a whole new level of action and bloodshed in 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II. The first movie, like 1978’s The Deer Hunter, examined the struggles Vietnam Vets were having re-assimilating into post-war society, albeit with way more violence. Part II is among the pantheon of 80s Action Flicks and almost serves as a re-introduction to the character, letting him loose on a mission to rescue POWs from the jungles of Vietnam with a heavy arsenal. Stallone has been riding high on the reputation of this character’s ability to kill bad guys with maximum force for decades.

7. Big Trouble In Little China
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If this were any other website, I might have put Top Gun here instead. But I think this is a safe place to admit that this campy action fantasy about ancient Chinese curses and evil spirits is way more entertaining and fun. Kurt Russell is a titan of 80s and early-90s action movies. While Big Trouble In Little China (1986) has less firepower than the others on this list, it ranks high in action and adventure. It’s more akin to The Golden Child, which was released the same year, than it is to Rambo. The fourth of five projects director John Carpenter worked on with Kurt Russell, it’s more cohesive and less a vehicle for Murphy’s sometimes problematic humor. And it gave us Kim Cattrall as a kickass lawyer, Gracie Law. OK, the name needs some work.

6. Highlander
Trading guns for swords, Highlander (1986) did not do well in the box office. But it was an instant cult classic in the golden age of VHS rentals. Blending sci-fi, fantasy, action, and romance into a tale spanning centuries, Highlander tells the story of Connnor MacLeod. Exiled by his Scottish Highland clan in 1536 when he’s revealed as an immortal, Conner lives and loves his way through time until he has to fight the final battle against Clancy Brown’s terrifying Kurgan in present-day New York City. Christopher Lambert plays MacLeod with more gravitas than the character deserves but mines the script for comedy moments well. And he is the perfect playmate for Sean Connery’s Spanish (ish) swordsman, Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez. The film launched three theatrical sequels, two TV series, and a made-for-TV movie. You can hate it all you want, they definitely did something right.

5. Die Hard
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Should Die Hard be number one on this list? Maybe! Is it the best Christmas movie of all time? Definitely. Regardless, it is Bruce’s legacy and when we think about his long career this is the movie we should be thinking about. Not all of those direct-to-VOD garbage piles he got roped into at the end there. I could teach a class on The Hero’s Journey using only this script as a guide. John McClane is the perfect Every Man hero. And in a stroke of casting genius, director John McTiernan paired him with Alan Rickman who chews up all of the available scenery, as Hans Gruber. Chef’s kiss. No notes. Go watch it again right now.

4. RoboCop
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If the decade itself wasn’t violent enough for you, Paul Verhoeven bathed the future in a spectacular level of blood and guts with 1987’s RoboCop. What could have been a gritty, nihilistic movie about police violence was actually more of a satire and commentary on how desensitized we become to violence when it is all around us. The story feels very prescient now, with school shootings, police violence, and robot police dogs being deployed. But at the time, it was a shocking amount of gore paired with a bit of Benny Hill.

3. Predator
The best in a long, complicated franchise, until the most recent entry came along, Predator relies so much on the classic war movie tropes laid out by other films in the 80s that it’s almost interchangeable with Commando on this list. But it leveled up our “fear of others” into an existential threat from other-worldly hunters. Hunters who were stronger, smarter, and more powerful than our country’s greatest warriors. Well, except for one of them, who wasn’t even played by an American actor. But in the intervening years, Schwarzenegger has proven he’s a better American than a lot of us both on and off-screen. Predator is a spectacular game of cat-and-mouse in a fictional Central American jungle that pits literal heavyweights against the terrifying hunter armed with advanced weapons, tactical gear, and an uncanny ability to disappear into the foliage. Each kill is unique and horrible until it’s just Arnold and The Predator, mano a mano, in a fight where the safety of the world is at stake. The story gets more complicated as the franchise rolls on. But that first movie is sheer perfection for its brutal simplicity.

2. The Terminator
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Before he beat back alien invaders in Predator, Arnold was The Big Bad in 1984’s The Terminator. Living tissue over a nearly indestructible robotic exoskeleton, The Terminator traveled back in time from the future to kill the woman who would give birth to the leader of the human resistance against Skynet. Timey-Wimey, Wibbly-Wobbly stuff that doesn’t make much sense if you think about it too hard or try to make too many movies about it. But the first film in the long-running franchise is an absolute beast of an action flick. James Cameron can make as many dumb Avatar movies as he wants. He’s got a lifetime pass from me for The Terminator. Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in their breakout roles are chased through the streets of L.A. by the time-traveling cyborg, an unstoppable machine who will kill anyone who gets in the way of his mission to destroy Sarah Connor. There isn’t a lot of blood in this one, but there are a lot of car chases, and the underlying anxiety behind the idea of being chased by an unstoppable monster makes up for any perceived deficiencies created by the practical, low-tech effects of the time.

1. Aliens
That’s right, I said it. In the sea of testosterone-fueled machismo that was the 1980s, Sigourney Weaver’s Lieutenant Ellen Ripley reigns supreme. She is the Queen Of Action Movies in 1986’s Aliens. The sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Alien, and also directed by James Cameron, Aliens is bigger, badder, and about a million times more terrifying than the original. It also managed to improve upon the stellar cast of the first film with an ensemble that includes Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, young Carrie Henn (in one of only two film roles she ever played), and Paul Reiser as a real f’ing turkey who deserves whatever happened to him. The aliens run through this crew of certified badass Marines with unparalleled speed and acid secretions. Everything gets blown up (because it’s the only way to be sure.) And just about everyone dies. But not before the ultimate space showdown between the Alien Queen and Ellen Ripley, who outfits herself in a power loader to defend her surrogate daughter, Newt, from becoming just another alien incubator. It’s a movie that begs to be seen with a large audience where everyone can feed off of each other’s reactions to the jumpscares, explosions, and tense moments that lead up to that final fight.

The ’80s spawned some of our greatest heroes. As you watch your way through all of the new offerings by these old action heroes when they hit theaters and streaming services, remember, they all had to start somewhere - battling aliens, immortals, corrupt governments, or just plain ol’ bad guys.