This weekend, you could go to the theater to watch a bunch of has-been action stars trying to relive past glories, or you could just stay home and watch a real ’80s action movie rather than a glorified knock-off. In today’s Roundtable, we look back at the greatest era in action cinema. What are your favorite action flicks from the 1980s?
I think it’s pretty safe to say that that defining action movie of the decade for myself and countless others is unquestionably ‘Die Hard‘. The film is loaded with terrific action sequences, has plenty of humor, and it was the first movie I can remember where the hero actually took the bad guys’ weapons after dispatching them. I’m not sure how many times I’ve screamed at a movie screen when the main character just leaves a fully loaded Uzi lying there and continues on his (or her) merry way with a knife. All I know is that it was A LOT. And of course, Bruce Willis was at the top of his game, delivering one of the most memorable lines in movie history.
You can drop the ’80s modifier, because my favorite action film from that decade is also my favorite action movie of all time: James Cameron’s ‘Aliens‘. As a young child, I was obsessed with ‘Alien’. H.R. Giger’s design, the sickening life cycle, and everything else about the creature fascinated me. When I discovered there was a second movie, and it had loads of aliens, I could have died on the spot.
But what makes the film great isn’t nostalgia. James Cameron was riding high off the success of ‘The Terminator’ when he made ‘Aliens’, and the film was proof that he was not just a one hit wonder. Continuing Ripley’s story could have been contrived, but Cameron humanizes her by making her a blend of protective mother and reluctant heroine. The space marines aren’t the most fully developed characters in movie history, but they’re developed enough that when they finally encounter the aliens, you feel terrible. And of course the action was thrilling, showing that even big guns are no match for this deadly organism. The result is a film that not only stands proud among the ’80s action pantheon, but may ultimately be the best action film ever made.
Although my feelings about Bruce Willis personally have changed over the years, given all the bad press he’s gotten from his colleagues (primarily Sylvester Stallone and Kevin Smith), there’s no denying that not only is ‘Die Hard‘ the best action movie of the 1980s, but it’s pretty close to being the best action movie ever made. The film, of course, turned Willis from a popular television actor into a full-fledged movie star, and it pretty much set the litmus test for every action movie that followed. (How many films that came later were described as “Die Hard on a bus,” “Die Hard on a boat,” etc.?) Although Willis has made dozens of action flicks since ‘Die Hard’ (including four sequels), he’s never been able to match the tension and fun of the original – nor have countless other actors or directors who’ve tried to do the same.
One film brought together some of the action genre’s best elements in the ultimate family friendly package. Let’s see… killing Nazi’s around the globe, check. Tank versus horse, check. Train chase, check. Big boats crushing little boats, check. Zeppelin, check. Dogfight and plane crash, double check. Underground rat armies, check. The penitent man trials, check. Han Solo, check. James Bond, check. Choosing poorly, check. I could go on, but if there was ever a doubt about just how awesome ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade‘ was and is, the horrid ‘Crystal Skull’ made it quite clear by comparison.
M. Enois Duarte
Choosing my favorite ’80s action movie must be the toughest choice of my life. (I’m just joking, of course.) How to decide from some of the best like ‘The Road Warrior’, ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Lethal Weapon’, to some of the wonderfully worst like ‘Commando’, ‘Cobra’ and ‘The Running Man’?
If only it were released a year earlier, my immediate choice would be Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Total Recall’. However, in the end, I finally decided on the exuberantly berserk ‘RoboCop’, another marvelously entertaining Verhoeven classic. What makes it one of the best actioners of the ’80s is the lavish superabundance of ultra-violence on display, so exaggerated and over-the-top that it becomes comical and cartoonish. With very perceptive allusions to corporate America and our insatiable cultural hunger for material possessions, the film also cleverly conceals a darkly twisted sense of humor. Decades later, and after numerous visits, Verhoeven’s violent action bonanza remains one of my all-time favorite movies of the 1980s.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
I know everyone’s gonna say ‘Die Hard’, and I respect that. You’re wrong, but I still respect that. ‘Predator‘ is the single best action flick of all time, let alone the 1980s. I’ll take it a step further: ‘Predator’ is about as flawless a movie as has ever been made. It’s the reason you can spell “Arnold Schwarzenegger” without cheating. Everyone on the bill is perfectly cast, stuffed with oversized, unforgettable personalities. ‘Predator’ boasts the most superhumanly quotable dialogue of pretty much anything, ever. Its pacing never eases up on the throttle. I can’t get enough of its blend of high-octane action, sci-fi, and blood-drenched horror.
‘Predator’ is one of those movies that I’ve owned on basically every format you could name, but I still find myself entranced whenever I stumble on it while channel surfing. Its creature design is about as iconic as they come. Its best moments are still unnervingly suspenseful even after my thirtieth or fortieth time through. The gruesome effects work, much like everything else about ‘Predator’, holds up spectacularly well more than a quarter-century later.
Now all we need is someone at Fox who loves the movie as much as I do and is willing to pony up for a proper high-definition remaster. I know we have three (ugh) substandard Blu-ray discs already, but maybe the fourth time will be the charm?
As someone born in the ’80s (1980 to be exact), I didn’t get to view too many of the decade’s awesome action movies during the actual decade. It was a few years out of the ’80s that I finally got to see ‘Die Hard’ and other greats, but there’s one that I got to watch – although my parents didn’t know that I had.
During my early years, my mom ran a daycare out of our home. The parents of two of the kids owned a mom-and-pop video store in our hometown. Since they supported our business, we supported theirs and always rented movies from them. If business was slow and they didn’t require the machine, they would loan the VCR to us for free. (Remember the days when most people rented the players?) And if we wanted to watch titles that weren’t in demand, they’d loan those out to us for free too. Me and my three brothers often chose the same movies over and over again, but my parents would get the movies they wanted to watch and pop them in once we were all in bed… well, when they thought we were in bed.
I remember one Friday night where we watched the usual family-friendly movie. It was probably ‘Mac and Me’ (don’t judge) or Disney’s ‘Robin Hood’ or something like that. Our parents thought that the four of us boys had gone to sleep, but we secretly sneaked into the hall (which had a straight-shot view of the television) with our pillows and blankets and watched ‘The Terminator‘ from beginning to end. We all loved it so much that we had no problem keeping quiet throughout. Four boys lying in a hall would typically result in elbows in the ribs and other uncomfortable fight-inducing actions, but none of us wanted to screw up this viewing experience. To this day, we still talk about how awesome that night was.
Hollywood certainly made a lot of great action movies in the 1980s, but I need to turn my gaze internationally to find my pick for the best of the decade.
While any number of other directors had used slow motion to add some tension to action scenes, John Woo made an outright art form out of it, pulling entire dramatic arcs from simple body movements and precisely choreographed mayhem. ‘The Killer‘, released in 1989, is Woo’s masterpiece, an operatic tribute to the brotherhood of violent but honorable men. The great Chow Yun-Fat stars as an assassin with a rigid code of ethics who is drawn to protecting a beautiful young singer he inadvertently blinded during a gun fight, even though this puts him at odds with his employers.
The film is a virtual checklist of all Woo’s favorite images and themes: romanticized action and violence, heavy-handed religious iconography, white doves fluttering in slo-mo, standoffs with multiple characters pointing guns at one another’s heads, acrobatic stunts, and thousands upon thousands of bullets fired. The action scenes are amazingly well staged and choreographed, as beautiful as they are bloody. ‘The Killer’ is not just John Woo’s best movie, but arguably the defining work of the Hong Kong action movement of the era.
Tell us about your favorite 1980s action movies in the Comments.