Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Action Movies of the 1980s

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?

Tom Landy

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.

Daniel Hirshleifer

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.

Shannon Nutt

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.

Brian Hoss

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?

Luke Hickman

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.

Josh Zyber

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.


  1. NJScorpio

    100% agree with Daniel, my favorite action movie of all time is ‘Aliens’.

    In the category of “80’s action movies”, which to me, denotes a certain feel aside from just being made in the 80’s, that would be ‘Big Trouble in Little China’. Soooo wonderfully 80’s.

  2. Drew

    ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ may be the best action film, since the ’80s.

    I don’t have any that haven’t already been mentioned.

    Nice list, Fellas.

    I especially agree with ‘The Killer’, ‘Predator’, and ‘Aliens’.

    • Chris B

      I loved Edge of Tommorow to! but that’s a pretty bold statement man, the 90’s saw the release of T2, Hard Boiled, The Rock etc. Not to mention the ’00s…

      • Drew

        I said “may” knowing that there must be some ’90s films that I was omitting. ‘T2’. If it is included in the action genre, it’s probably my favorite action film of all time. I guess I’ve just always considered it sci-fi drama.

  3. Chris B

    I’m gonna go a little off the beaten path and single out “Midnight Run” as one of my all-time faves from the 80’s…although it’s as much a buddy-comedy as it is an action movie. Robert Deniro is a no-nonsense bounty hunter on a quest to return a mob accountant (Charles Grodin) to Los Angeles from New York in the span of 3 days. Along the way he is pursued by the FBI, mob enforcers and and a rival bounty hunter (John Ashton). I’ve seen this movie probably 50 times or more and it’s still captivating. Deniro and Grodin have amazing onscreen chemistry, it’s got strong direction from Martin Brest (what the hell happenned to him?…oh right, Gigli), and a great supporting cast with Joe Pantoliano, and the late-great Dennis Farina. It’s insanely entertaining and insanely underrated, I’m still waiting for a Blu-Ray release…

    P.S. Also totally agree with all the love for Aliens, Die Hard and Predator.

      • Chris B

        Shitty…not to mention I don’t have an HD DVD player. I was gonna grab the standard def DVD off Amazon because I haven’t seen it in years and it was one of the cornerstones of my youth…hopefully there’s a BD release in the near future.

        • Josh Zyber

          Knowing Universal, if they do release a Blu-ray, it will just be a port of the HD DVD. Maybe with some additional DNR to soften the edge enhancement problems in the transfer. There is very little chance that they’d strike a new master.

          • Chris B

            I’d even be excited about that man, I grew up watching this movie countless times on plain old VHS. Even just a port with a little bit of tinkering would be a big step up from how I’ve always seen it.

          • How do these people keep their jobs? Reminds me of when I go to a movie on opening night and there is a problem with the picture or sound. WTF?!!

            These movies are a gold mine if they treated them properly. I would buy a properly restored Midnight Run BD for sure. One of the great action comedy’s of the 80’s and my favorite comedic performance of Deniro’s.

    • Pedram

      I actually hadn’t seen this movie before so I decided to give it a shot based on your recommendation. While it was a decent enough movie, I wouldn’t say it was really an action movie. It was part drama, part gangster movie, part action, part comedy (I chuckled a couple of times) – a mish mash of genres really. At the same time, it didn’t really hold a candle to the action movies mentioned here. But to each his own I guess.

  4. All time favorite, probably The Terminator. All you guys already mentioned all the greats, especially Mr. Duarte. Pretty much everything Arnie did in the 80’s was gold. I don’t think I saw any Van Damme mentioned, so I’ll throw in some Cyborg in there too.

  5. Paul J Anderson

    Not only is Aliens my favorite action film of the 80s, not only is it my favorite action film of all time, but it slots in 3rd on my list of all time favorite films right behind Casablanca and High and Low. Just like Vazquez, the film is just “too bad ass”

    • Chris B

      There’s a lot of love for Aliens on this list and I wholeheartedly agree with it. However, I’m curious to know which cut of the film people prefer? The theatrical or Cameron’s special edition? I’m kind if torn, I like the added footage in the DC where the marines set up automated machine guns to repel the aliens, but I’m not really a fan of the background story of Newt and her family. To me it kind of takes away from the emotional gut-punch of when they discover her as the inly survivor out if all the colonists. We don’t really need to see her family, its kind of unneccessary IMHO.

      • I thought it was kind of cool to see the planet or colony before it shit the bed, I also thought Ripley dealing with her daughter growing old (maybe dying?) was pretty heavy. Correct me if I’m wrong, it’s been a while.

        • Chris B

          Oh yeah, I remember her finding out her daughter died before she even woke up from hypersleep. Ok yeah that and the machine gun thing enriched the story but the colony stuff felt really unneccessary. It was way more tense in the TC when they land on the planet and you have no idea what they’re about to encounter….I can’t remember if the Blu Ray release of the quadrilogy contained both cuts. It’s sitting on my shelf like 15 feet away but it’s friday night and I have a blanket on me…and a beer beside me and basically….I’m just fucking lazy. 🙂

          • Josh Zyber

            The Blu-ray has both versions of the movie, yes. All four of the Alien movies contain two cuts each on Blu-ray. (The extended cut of Resurrection is a joke and not actually intended to replace the theatrical cut.)

          • Well, I thank you two gentlemen for giving me something to do this Friday night. I’m watching fuckin Aliens extended cut. I’m still digging the colony scene, although I get what you mean about leaving it out. Love all the miniature work. Ever notice the scene in the control center looks almost like the Avatar control center? It does to me anyway.

          • Sorry Josh, I can not disagree enough that the Directors cut of Alien III is a joke. While never reaching the height’s of the original or Cameron’s aliens the new cut is far superior to the mess that the studio made of Fincher’s original vision. It makes the movie much more palatable. The Joke is the awful 4th movie, where good actors are completely wasted and the ending is just awful.

          • Josh Zyber

            Tim, I said the extended version of Resurrection, not Alien 3. The extended version of Alien 3 is an interesting and worthy attempt to reconstruct Fincher’s original intention for the movie, but it also kind of wrecks the whole opening to the film, which is much superior in the theatrical cut.

            The alternate version of Resurrection just replaces the opening scene with a really dumb, jokey gag – and the CGI is very crude and unfinished. It was not ever meant to be taken seriously as a legitimate new cut of the film.

      • Josh Zyber

        I like everything about the extended cut except the scenes with the colonists at the beginning. An ideal version of the movie would cut that part but keep everything else.

        • Agreed. All the character work and thematics of the ALIENS director’s cut is fantastic — watching the theatrical cut after so many extended viewings makes the movie feel hollow. However, we just don’t need to see the colony/family near the beginning b/c it works better as a surprise to find out that the colony has already been infected.

        • Jonstamos

          I had a VHS tape that I recorded as kid from a TV broadcast that is basically your ideal cut, except for the cussing dubbing. It must have recorded it around 1988-90. But it had Ripley learning about her daughter, the turret sentries, and the Dwayne-Ellen scene. It does not include the extra colonist scenes, or Hudson bragging about all the fire power the marines have in the APC.

      • Paul J Anderson

        DC all the way. I haven’t watched the original version since I watched the extended version sometime back in the late 90s. I have no problem with the added footage of the colony or the Ripley scene about her mother being passed away. Oh, and I definitely LOVE the added footage with the machine guns!!

        • Chris B

          Haha a funny thing about that scene. I remember my dad talking about how cool that sentry gun footage was for years, but whenever we’d rent the movie to watch at home it was never on there and he would always say “what the hell? am I going nuts? Where’s the motion sensing machine gun stuff?”. Apparently they used to play the DC on broadcast TV but I’m thinking only the theatrical cut was the version available on home video for a long time (until the mondo LD box set but our fam never had a LD player). At any rate, I had to tell him a few years back “no you’re not losing your mind….there’s another version of the movie etc.

          • Elizabeth

            I think they aired an extended cut on TV which wasn’t the same as the Extended Edition they’ve released on disc. I watched that version on TV but with the countless times I’ve watched the movie, they’re all jumbled together. I’m certain it contained the sentry gun scene; I remember because contrary to everyone else I thought it was dull and slowed the pace (it’s basically a bunch of guns firing into darkness intercut with an ammo counter counting down). I’m pretty sure it contained the scene where Burke tells Ripley her daughter is dead.

            I really don’t think the TV extended cut contained the early colony scenes. It might have contained the extra mothering scenes with Ripley.

            Also the Director’s Cut of Aliens is the one that played in theaters. I don’t think any of the extended versions of Cameron’s movies are actually Director’s Cuts. I think the closest would be The Abyss where the extra footage restores a coherent plot to the film. That said, I really love the extended edition of T2 (minus the painful scene where Connor tries to teach the Terminator to smile). Play the extended version of T2 with the “Future Coda” ending that invalidates the non-Cameron sequels and you have an awesome movie experience.

          • Chris B

            Just read up on it and you’re right, the early TV broadcasts left out the colony scenes but still had the sentry gun stuff.

            However, the version that played in theatres wasn’t Cameron’s DC, it was a theatrical version that had 17 minutes trimmed off the running time. Those scenes were partially restored for the CBS broadcast in ’89 and fully restored for the extended edition Laserdisc in ’92.

          • Josh Zyber

            I believe what Elizabeth is saying is that the theatrical cut is Cameron’s “director’s cut.” The longer Special Edition is an alternate version for home video, but (aside from The Abyss) Cameron does not claim that the long cuts of any of his films are meant to replace the theatrical cuts.

          • Chris B

            I still have the LD box set, and on the inside is a special message from Cameron stating that he feels this newly released extended edition is the more complete version of the movie or something like that. I don’t recall whose decision it was to cut those scenes for the theatrical release i.e. his or the studios. Anyways, Im gonna dig out the Box set when I get home from work today and read exactly what it says…

      • C.C. 95

        I think mostly (mostly….) the thing I like about the DC is the preamble before Ripley goes back. We see her feelings about her daughter, and THAT explains all of her maternal feelings toward Newt. It really deepens Ripley’s actions and the story.

  6. A lot of great choices all around and I second the love for Indiana Jones, but I respectfully submit that the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is the greatest actioner not only of the 80’s but of all time. I would place “The Road Warrior” and “Aliens” as a close tie for second.

    • ‘Raiders’ is rightly credited as a landmark action film, but I saw ‘The Last Crusade’ in theaters. And not long after that, my family owned a VHS copy. Connery is just great, and the senior Jones provides a nice foil in some ways rather than just an older version of the Harrison Ford character.

    • Pedram

      Not sure about greatest actioner of all time, but it certainly was a great action/adventure classic. Much better than Last Crusade IMO (though the latter was still a good film).

  7. I’m not a big action movie connoisseur (not because I dislike the genre, but because I haven’t seen a lot of classics, including Aliens, Die Hard, The Terminator …), so I took a look at my personal top-10 to find anything action-related or oriented. ‘The Blues Brothers’ (quite a lot of action in the destruction of the mall, and the car chases, I’d say) seems to be my favourite. In this case, I also prefer the extended cut.

    • Chris B

      Wait wait….WHAT?!?!?! You haven’t seen Aliens, Die Hard, or The Terminator?!?!? Sweet mother of everything that is cinematically holy!!! Get on it man! Lol

  8. I will always regard Die Hard as the best action movie if all time. Then there’s Aliens…and Predator…Commando…Robocop…man the 80’s were awesome! I think part of the allure with these film’s for me was that I was born in 1980 and all of these films were somewhat off-limits due to my age. I still remember catching the “murder” of Murphy in Robocop and being so horrified and disgusted, but also very intrigued and feeling sneaky. I will never have that experience again so I hold all of those films in such high regard. Heck, my brother and I STILL quote Bill Paxton from Aliens.
    Is Cloak & Dagger considered action? Probably not. More like “child abuse imaginary friend thriller.” Loved that one too, but watching it now I am shocked at how mature most of the film is. I used to think it was just a fun movie about a kid and his videogame that has some importance. I should make a list of movies I loved as a kid that are surprisingly inappropriate for kids looking back. Little Monsters would be on there. Who was the villain? Wasn’t his name Boy or something? Terrifying! Ok I’m rambling, Haha.
    Die Hard.

      • Oh man I learned one of those the hard way! Took a very conservative girl out on a date in college and afterwards we watched Clash of the Titans since I loved it as a kid. PG. No worries. Wait, what?? Nudity? D’oh! Man I felt stupid. Haha.
        We did a podcast (Silver Screen Cynics) on the worst movies we have watched with our parents or loved ones and that was definitely on my list.

  9. Chris B

    Although M already mentioned it, I gotta talk about how awesome Lethal Weapon is. In the days before Mel Gibson went nuts, he was one badass mofo as Lt. Martin Riggs. Sucidal and on the edge, but hilarious at the same time “here don’t be sad, have a french-fry”, his performance alone would make the movie a blast. Factor in a great supporting cast (Gary Busey in one of his few good roles), and a killer script by Shane Black and it makes for on hell of a good time. I love the scene outside of Murtagh’s house when Riggs is describing his natural talent for killing: “I did a guy in Laouse when I was 19, rifle shot in high wind from a thousand yards out…maybe eight or ten guys in the world could have made that shot.” Little details like those made the character feel so authentic and real. Plus the end brawl between him and Mr. Joshua with the chopper circling overhead and the water streaming down onto them…..pure movie gold. I miss the 80’s…..

    • Paul J Anderson

      I am a huge LW fan as well. Every Christmas I have to watch both Die Hard and LW. Not only are they both Xmas themed, but they also have fantastic scores by Michael Kamen. I can always pick out a Kamen score when I hear it! “Man you guys are out there! You’re out on f*&^%$g Pluto man!”

      • Chris Bennett

        Haha yeah so many great lines! I actually watched it this morning and paid close attention to the score and you can totally hear the link between it and Die Hard. It’s a great soundtrack, I love the motif that plays when Riggs is going onto the roof to talk the guy out of jumping off, and when they arrive at the home of Amanda Hunsaker’s “meal ticket”. It’s such a simple little melody but it just makes the scenes pulse with energy. Or the big, foreboding melody when Murtagh and Riggs are meeting up with Shadow Company in the desert…so. damn. good.

        I noticed another link between the two films as well, both have the same Asian-American bad guy actor Al Leong. In LW he’s the dude who tortures Riggs with electric shocks, and in DH he’s one of the gunman who repel the police during the lobby assault…

  10. Pedram

    The contributors mentioned great movies (except Josh’s entry, which unfortunately I’ve never seen), but I believe a couple others deserve mention. While not straight up gun fight/explosions/car chase action, Bloodsport and Rocky IV are two of my favourite action flicks from the 80s.

    Bloodsport had some great fight scenes (and even a chase scene, albeit, on foot). It also had some good buddy relationship development, and cemented Van Damme as an action star. It was MMA before MMA was really popular, and also had a cool Street Fighter II vibe with the styles from all over the world. Though one of its greatest quotes was stolen from a Bruce Lee movie, it still had a lot of memorable lines (mattéeee!). Van Damme had some other great films after this, but it will always be his best flick to me.

    Rocky IV, while not the most critically acclaimed entry in the series, is pure machismo entertainment. It has the best montages in any film ever, one of the most quotable villains (actually, the majority of his lines are quotable since he speaks so little) and the fight scene at the end was the epitome of David vs Goliath underdog battle.

    Both these films were probably worn down pretty well on the VHS copies my brother and I watched them on over and over – to the point where we probably had each fight memorized. Both will forever be immortalized as 80s action classics to me.

  11. Pedram

    Can we also acknowledge that two of the films listed (Predator and Die Hard) were directed by the same director, who you hardly hear about? The guy deserves some serious credit for making two of the best action films of the 80s.

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