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The 10 best action movies of the 1980s

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.

Die Hard (1988)
Die Hard
Genre Action, Thriller
Stars Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov
Directed by John McTiernan

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.

Die Hard | 30th Anniversary Trailer | 20th Century FOX
Predator (1987)
Genre Science Fiction, Action, Adventure, Thriller
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Elpidia Carrillo
Directed by John McTiernan

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.

Predator | #TBT Trailer | 20th Century FOX
RoboCop (1987)
Genre Action, Thriller, Science Fiction
Stars Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O'Herlihy
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

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.

Robocop (1987) | Official Trailer | MGM Studios
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Genre Adventure, Action
Stars Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman
Directed by Steven Spielberg

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.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers
The Terminator (1984)
The Terminator
Genre Action, Thriller, Science Fiction
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton
Directed by James Cameron
James Cameron’s first Terminator film is a lot more grounded and small budget than you might remember, but that’s part of what’s so impressive about it. Cameron takes all the conventions of a horror film and puts them to bear on an action sci-fi movie that manages to make very creative use of its relatively small budget. Casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as an unstoppable killing machine turned out to be a brilliant ploy, and The Terminator totally works in spite of its rather heady time travel premise.
The Terminator (1984) Official Trailer - Arnold Schwarzenegge Movie
Aliens (1986)
Genre Action, Thriller, Science Fiction
Stars Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen
Directed by James Cameron
Another Cameron entry on this list, Aliens is another example of Cameron taking the conventions of horror (in this case, with specific reference to Ridley Scott’s Alien), and turning them into something much more bombastic. Aliens has way more guns and explosions than its predecessor, and it also climaxes with a huge mech fight between Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley (now a ripped, badass fighter) and the Alien Queen. Still, the movie works in large part because Cameron always grounds us in Ripley’s story, and in her fierce quest to stay alive no matter what the odds might be.
Aliens (1986) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers
Mad Max 2 (1981)
Mad Max 2
Genre Adventure, Action, Thriller, Science Fiction
Stars Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston
Directed by George Miller
George Miller deserves all the credit in the world for turning Mad Max: Fury Road into one of the great success stories in action cinema history. Decades before he returned to the Mad Max universe, though, Miller made The Road Warrior, an action movie that is stunning in its own right. This is the moment when the Mad Max universe became entirely dystopian, and it’s also the first time that Miller showed off the way his unique combination of inventiveness and filmmaking chops instantly turned him into one of the great action filmmakers of his generation.
Mad Max 2 - Theatrical Trailer
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Big Trouble in Little China
Genre Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy
Stars Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun
Directed by John Carpenter

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.

Big Trouble In Little China Trailer HD
Batman (1989)
Genre Fantasy, Action, Crime
Stars Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger
Directed by Tim Burton

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.

Batman (1989) Official Trailer #1 - Tim Burton Superhero Movie
First Blood (1982)
First Blood
Genre Action, Adventure, Thriller, War
Stars Sylvester Stallone, Charles A. Tamburro, Bill McKinney
Directed by Ted Kotcheff

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.

First Blood (1982) - Trailer (HD)

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Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance writer based in upstate New York focused on movies and TV.
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