Every decade has its genre. In the ’50s, westerns were all the rage. In the 2010s, we got more superhero movies than we knew what to do with. And in the ’80s, we got lots and lots of action movies. Amid that glut of action movies, there were a number of genuinely thrilling films you could check out in the theater. What’s more, these movies attached themselves to a wide array of other genres. Some of these movies have science fiction or dystopian elements, and one of them is even a comedy.
What unites them all, though, is that they have plenty of heart-racing, stunning action set pieces. The ’80s were a decade when everything was big, from the hair to the movie stars, and these action movies are no different.
The movie that made Bruce Willis into an A-list star, Die Hard was such a crucial ’80s action flick that it became the kind of movie every action movie wanted to be. It’s filled with great one-liners, has a smart, sinister villain, and is perfectly paced from beginning to end.
Although none of the eventual sequels could totally measure up to this first film, Die Hard itself remains totally untarnished. It’s the simple story of one guy who finds himself trapped in a building and realizes that he’s the only hope for the many hostages inside. Yippee Ki-yay.
The year before John McTiernan made Die Hard, he made this excellent action satire that services both of its genre trappings beautifully. In addition to creating one of the internet’s most enduring memes, Predator also serves up genuine thrills, even as it lightly roasts all the ultra-masculine men at its center.
The film tells the story of a group of commandos who are sent out into the jungle on a mission, only to be hunted one by one by an ultra-lethal predator from another world. The good guys win in the end, but before that happens, we get plenty of wonderfully gnarly action.
A trenchant political satire, RoboCop is one of the best movies about policing in America ever made. The film tells the story of a regular police officer who is transformed into an android designed only to obliterate crime. As the movie progresses, though, we come to understand that RoboCop is part of a corporation’s grand design to profit off of the poverty of those in this near-futuristic version of Detroit.
RoboCop is a story about identity, capitalism, and what it was like to live through the ’80s. On top of all that, it’s a pretty great action movie with copious amounts of over-the-top violence.
Steven Spielberg makes movies across almost every genre, but at some level, almost all of his movies feel like action movies. Of course, in the case of Raiders of the Lost Ark, that’s more than appropriate.
This first installment in Spielberg’s only franchise introduces Indiana Jones, and tells the kind of pulpy, serialized story that Spielberg and collaborator George Lucas loved watching when they were kids. Thankfully, Spielberg is one of the best directors on the planet, and Raiders is filled with the kind of careful framing that few action movies possess as a result.
John Carpenter has made a number of movies that could be described as action films, but Big Trouble in Little China is his magnum opus. This is a movie so wonderfully stupid it almost beggars belief. The film stars Kurt Russell as a muscled-up truck driver who inadvertently finds himself at the center of conspiracy in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The plot here isn’t really the point, though. Instead, you should focus on Russell’s truly side-splitting central performance, and simply go along for the ride as you watch one of the silliest, most delightful movies ever made.
Whether you embrace our modern obsession with superheroes or reject it out of hand, it’s hard to deny that Tim Burton’s original Batman remains about as good as this genre gets. Although the movie has plenty of action in it, what’s most remarkable about Batman is the Burton-y stylization of the world around this central character.
Michael Keaton is genuinely excellent as the vigilante haunting Gotham’s streets, and the movie is the perfect cocktail of silly and grim, making it distinct amid a landscape of modern superhero movies that all wind up feeling exactly the same.
Sylvester Stallone is best known for Rocky Balboa, and that’s understandable, but John Rambo, his other iconic character, gets off to a pretty incredible start in First Blood.
While this movie has plenty of wonderful action, all set in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, what makes this movie special is the way it seems to genuinely address the plight of veterans in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Rambo is a soldier trained to kill everything in his path, sent back to a country that has no place for the kind of man he has become.
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