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7 underrated 1980s action movies that still kick butt in 2024

Man points his gun in Big Trouble in Little China.
20th Century Fox

There was no better time to be an action star than in the 1980s. The decade produced three iconic action performers: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis. Those three action legends starred in a number of classic films, including First BloodCommando, The Terminator, and Die Hard. Those three names weren’t the only action stars to come out of the decade, as Harrison Ford, Jackie Chan, Dolph Lundgren, Mel Gibson, and Sigourney Weaver also made their presence known in the genre.

Though the high number of action films led to an abundance of hits, the sheer  amount meant quite a few films slipped through the cracks. Over time, these films have developed cult-like followings and have aged very well. Here are seven underrated action movies that should be next on your watch list.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Kurt Russell stands with a gun.
20th Century Fox

From 1978 tp1983, John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13) directed Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, and Christine. I have no problem going out on a limb when I say that’s one of the best five-year stretches from a director we’ve ever seen. Yet, his 1986 fantasy action film, Big Trouble in Little China, has gone under the radar in the nearly 40 years since its release because it flopped at the box office.

Kurt Russell (Monarch), who starred in Escape, headlines Big Trouble as Jack Burton, the cocky, bold truck driver who gets mixed up in a mysterious underworld below San Francisco’s Chinatown. Jack helps his friend, Wang Chi (The Last Emperor’s Dennis Dun), in rescuing his green-eyed fiancée from David Lo Pan (R.I.P.D.’s James Hong), who kidnapped her to remove a centuries-old curse placed upon him. It’s an over-the-top kung fu homage that oozes entertainment and charisma, along with Carpenter’s signature special effects.

Cobra (1986)

A man holds a gun on a truck in Cobra.

The most ridiculous and over-the-top film on the list is Cobra, the 1986 cop film starring Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) as Lieutenant Marion “Cobra” Cobretti, the cop who plays by his own rules in a futuristic Los Angeles where crime runs rampant. Cobra’s mission is to stop “The New World,” a group of radicals who kill the weak and despise modern society.

Stallone, who wrote the script, gives the most committed performance for an actor in an absurd movie. There is a scene where Stallone’s Cobra, with Aviators covering his eyes and a match between his teeth, grabs a slice of pizza out of the freezer and cuts off a piece with scissors. Considering the multiple scenes of the radicals banging axes over their heads in an empty pool as they cheer in unison, the wild pizza cut seems normal. Embrace the ridiculousness of Cobra, and you’ll be laughing throughout its 89-minute runtime.

Action Jackson (1988)

Carl Weathers in Action Jackson.
Lorimar Film Entertainment

Sometime between fighting Rocky Balboa and conversing with the Mandalorian, the late Carl Weathers (Rocky) starred as Detective Sergeant Jericho Jackson, better known as Action Jackson. The Detroit cop kicks major butt, but his use of excessive force on a powerful businessman’s son leads to his demotion. Two years later, the same businessman, Peter Anthony Dellaplane (Parenthood’s Craig T. Nelson), kills his wife after she finds out about his scheme to murder union officials that hinder his wealth.

Dellaplane frames Jackson for the murder of his wife, forcing the cop to go on the run. Jackson teams up with a Dellaplane’s mistress, Sydney Ash (The Last Dragon’s Vanity), to prove his innocence. Action Jackson was panned by critics, but it has now found a second life. Weathers thrives in the role of Jackson, capitalizing on his physical gifts and innate charm. Watching the film makes you question why Weathers did not rise to the status of Stallone in the ’80s because the Apollo Creed actor had all the tools to be a star. He just needed better roles.

Road House (1989)

A man looks ahead in Road House.
United Artists

Road House may be too popular to be called underrated, considering that a remake starring Jake Gyllenhaal was just released. However, Road House is often forgotten as one of the quintessential action movies of the ’80s. When you think of an ’80s action movie, you think of an alpha male on the poster. Cobra with Stallone, Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Die Hard with Bruce Willis, etc. Road House with Patrick Swayze should be grouped with those legendary action stars.

Before he was Bodhi in Point Break, Swayze (Ghost) was James Dalton, the best bouncer in the country. Dalton is recruited from New York City to work at the Double Deuce, a rowdy, out-of-control bar in Jasper, Missouri. The town is run by the corrupt businessman Brad Wesley (Run for Your Life’s Ben Gazzara), so, naturally, Dalton disagrees with Mr. Wesley’s principles. Dalton refuses to cooperate with Wesley’s demands, leading the businessman to hurt those closest to him. From shirtless tai chi to barroom brawls, Swayze is magnetic in every scene, further cementing his status as a leading man. Also, Dalton can rip your throat out, so I wouldn’t get on his dark side.

Nighthawks (1981)

A man stands in an office in Nighthawks.

Sylvester Stallone has had a fascinating career. He’s a global superstar best known for playing characters in two franchises: Rocky Balboa in the Rocky films and John Rambo in the Rambo movies. However, there are roles between Rocky and Rambo where Stallone takes more dramatic chances to prove he’s more than just a boxer and a war hero. Cop Land is the best example of this. Stallone also teamed up with Billy Dee Williams (The Empire Strikes Back) in 1981 for the action crime thriller Nighthawks, which may showcase Stallone’s most underrated performance.

Stallone and Williams star as New York City cops Deke DaSilva and Matthew Fox, respectively. They are assigned to track down an international terrorist named Wulfgar (Blade Runner’s Rutger Hauer), who arrives in the Big Apple after he successfully bombs a London department store. The film was originally planned as The French Connection III, but was later reworked into Nighthawks. Production was notoriously troublesome, so much so that Stallone had to step behind the camera and direct. However, Stallone morphs into an action star in Nighthawks thanks to bloody exchanges, fistfights, and gun battles, the same actions he would bring to 1982’s First Blood.

Blow Out (1981)

A woman screams in Blow Out.

This might be stretching the definition of “action movie,” considering Blow Out falls more under neo-noir/murder mystery. However, there’s a frantic car chase toward the end, and that’s enough for us to put the film under the action umbrella. Semantics aside, Blow Out is the best film on this list. If you pick one movie to watch after reading this article, make it Brian De Palma’s thriller about a sound technician who unearths a conspiracy to assassinate a presidential hopeful.

John Travolta (Grease) stars as the technician ,Jack Terry. While recording sound effects at a park, Jack witnesses a car drive off the road into the creek. Jack manages to save the female passenger, Sally Bedina (Carrie’s Nancy Allen), but the driver, who happens to be the governor, dies. When Jack listens to his recording, he hears a gunshot before the crash, leading him to believe the accident was an assassination. This sends a paranoid Jack on a witch hunt to piece together what happened that fateful night. Travolta may be best known for Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction, but Blow Out is the best acting he’s ever done. The film is suspenseful, traumatic, and bleak, but there’s a sense that you’re watching a master at work behind the camera. If you don’t take my word for it, trust Quentin Tarantino, who chose Blow Out as one of his three films to take to a deserted island.

Running Scared (1986)

Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal in Running Scared.

The buddy cop movie was revolutionized in 1982 with 48 Hrs., starring Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides) and Eddie Murphy (Coming to America). The rest of the decade saw multiple movies attempting to replicate the magic of 48 Hrs. Films like Beverly Hills CopLethal Weapon, Tango & Cash, and Turner & Hooch all found success within the genre. One film from the decade that is often forgotten when good buddy cop movies are brought up is Running Scared, the 1986 action comedy starring Gregory Hines (Will & Grace) and Billy Crystal (When Harry Met Sally…).

Ray Hughes (Hines) and Danny Costanzo (Crystal) are two Chicago police detectives on the hunt for drug lord Julio Gonzales (NYPD Blue’s Jimmy Smits). The two cops catch Gonzales, but their sloppiness on the case leads to their suspension. While vacationing in Florida, Ray and Danny agree to retire and open a bar. When they return to inform their captain, they learn that Gonzales has been released from prison. The two cops put their bar plans on hold to bring down Gonzales once and for all. Running Scared plays to its strengths by focusing more on the friendship and comedy between Hines and Crystal than the actual action. However, the two leads are so believable as partners that Running Scared becomes an enjoyable adventure that only gets better upon rewatch.

Editors' Recommendations

Dan Girolamo
Dan is a passionate and multitalented content creator with experience in pop culture, entertainment, and sports. Throughout…
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