The Most Underrated Action Movies Of The 1980s
It's time to dig deep, past the Rambo movies, Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, The Terminator, and Die Hard. Let's delve into the nitty-gritty and examine some of the less-heralded action cinema bonanzas of the 1980s, possibly the best decade in the history of movies.
Unsurprisingly, there are a ton of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies on this list (and, no, Raw Deal is definitely not one of them). Vote up your favorite underrated action flicks to see which ones rise to the top!
- 15,365 VOTESPhoto: 20th Century Fox
Upon its initial 1986 release, John Carpenter's action-comedy Big Trouble in Little China landed with a resounding thud at the box office. The flick grossed just $11.1 million worldwide, less than half of its reported budget.
Carpenter took a unique approach to the lead character in the script, originally written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, as he explained years later in an Uproxx interview:
Jack is a character who doesn’t know he’s a sidekick. He thinks he’s the hero of the story, but he’s not. He’s a sidekick.
Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), the star of the show, is the muscle - the dumb, wisecracking associate of the narrative's true hero, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun). It is Wang Chi's fiancee, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), who sets the plot in motion when she gets abducted by the goons of psychotic, ancient sorcerer David Lo Pan (James Hong). It is Wang Chi who leads Jack through their local Chinatown; Wang Chi is the brains and the proactive character.
Jack and Wang Chi, along with Wang's buddy Eddie (Donald Li), circumstantial tagalongs Gracie (Kim Cattrall) and Margo, and magician Egg Shen (Victor Wong), find themselves battling lightning-summoning sorcerers and navigating through brothels, caverns, and Lo Pan's labyrinthine headquarters in a strange, funny, rollicking adventure. Why the movie didn't land with 1986 audiences is hard to gauge now. But it's their loss!
- 24,603 VOTESPhoto: 20th Century Fox
Commando is the most 1985 movie to ever 1985. One-man wrecking crew John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a former United States Special Forces colonel raising his loving preteen daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano), all on his own in an idyllic mountainside home. When Jenny is abducted by a crew of mercenaries led by John's former work colleague, Captain Bennett (Vernon Wells), John goes on the warpath. Upon confronting Bennett, John is supposedly coerced into carrying out a political assassination on behalf of Bennett's superior, ex-South American dictator President Arius (Dan Hedaya).
John, who apparently subsists on a diet of Green Berets, will obviously be no one's pawn, and is soon going full John Rambo (the character John Matrix was clearly modeled upon) against Bennett and Arius, opting out of his assassination task and instead systematically taking down their goons. With the help of a pretty flight attendant, Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), John works his way back to Arius's sprawling estate for an epic confrontation. Let's not spoil what happens here - suffice it to say that Arnie typically survives his non-Terminator roles.
Commando is incredibly violent and delightfully goofy, but it also is quite aware of how goofy it is. This is not nearly the level of a classically "good" Arnie flick, along the lines of Predator or the first two Terminator films. If you engage in the experience with your brain turned off, you should thoroughly enjoy yourself.
- 34,260 VOTESPhoto: TriStar Pictures
The first cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's dystopic novel, The Running Man, might boast cheesy production design and over-the-top performances, but it's also ominously on-point, the tale of a lower-class family being forced to duke it out for everyone else's televised entertainment. Just recently, several South Dakota teachers were forced to fight each other for cash to finance their classrooms during a break in a hockey game, broadcast far and wide. It's just a matter of time until we go full Running Man out there, folks.
In 2017 (30 years into the future of the movie's release), the US has devolved into a police state after an economic collapse. That, too, was not far off the reality of 2017. After police chopper pilot Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) gets framed for killing folks in a food riot, he ultimately escapes his labor camp sentence and takes composer Amber Méndez (María Conchita Alonso) hostage while trying to flee California. When he is recaptured, he is placed in the US's top survivalist reality/game show, The Running Man, where convicts try to escape captors for the prize of an expunged record.
In Schwarzenegger's memoir, Total Recall, he reveals that director Andrew Davis was originally hired to direct this project, from a script by Steven de Souza (writer of Commando and Die Hard). Davis was fired after two weeks, a decision Schwarzenegger bemoaned in retrospect. He was replaced by Paul Michael Glaser, a working TV director at the time.
The eerily prescient Running Man gets a lot of stuff right about its eventual future (right down to Mick Fleetwood's exact look in 2017), despite a host of necessary '80s-futurist aesthetic trappings. Once again, Arnold helped cement his status as a superstar by choosing an interesting movie project in the world of the fantastic.
- 44,162 VOTESPhoto: United Artists
Road House ranks right up there with Point Break and Tall Tale: The Legend of Pecos Bill as one of the wildest movies in a filmography that never played it safe. The inimitable Patrick Swayze, who often performed his own stunts throughout his movies, plays the world's greatest bouncer, James Dalton, recruited from New York to oversee a rollicking Missouri bar. Dalton, who lives by his own weird code and loves to do lots of shirtless yoga exercises, is soon joined by his mentor-bouncer, Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott).
Dalton strives to avoid a direct conflict with evil local businessman Brad Wesley (John Cassavetes regular Ben Gazzara, a bit overqualified for this gig), but eventually, he has no choice. After Red Webster (Red West), the uncle of his girlfriend, Dr. Elizabeth Clay (Kelly Lynch), sees his auto shop burned down by Wesley's goons when he refuses to cooperate with Wesley's demands, Wesley begins to intensify their conflict, hoping to provoke Dalton. Several skirmishes abound, but things reach a violent crescendo after Wesley orders the murder of someone close to Dalton, prompting an all-out showdown at his sprawling estate.
This is another relentlessly silly action movie that is way more violent than you remember. The star of the show, of course, is Swayze's magnificent mullet. That thing carries the darn show.
- 53,956 VOTESPhoto: Warner Bros.
Martial arts movie superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme enjoyed his big cinematic breakout with the original Bloodsport, a Rocky-esque "tournament movie" about an underground ninjutsu fight ring in Hong Kong, the Kumite. The flick was adapted loosely from the possibly fictive stories of US Army Captain Frank Dux (played by JCVD in the film).
Dux goes AWOL to partake in the Kumite, where he evades a pair of dogged-but-inept US Army Criminal Investigation Command agents, Helmer (Norman Burton) and Rawlins (future Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker), befriends his injured fellow fighter Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb) and comely American journalist Janice Kent (Leah Ayres), and fights his way into one of the most epic final battles of all time, against heavy favorite Chong Li (Bolo Yeung). What happens there to make it so epic? You'll have to see for yourself.
The movie is fairly cartoonish and silly - more Rocky IV than Rocky, if you catch our drift. The intensely '80s-core synth soundtrack by composer Paul Hertzog, some gorgeous photography, and some self-aware comedy bits make for a stew of solid action fun well worth your time.
- 62,804 VOTESPhoto: Orion Pictures
The Bryan Brown thriller F/X is a clever action-adventure chock-full of the kind of clever face-swapping identity fraudulence on display in early James Bond and Mission: Impossible adventures.
Justice Department Colonel Edward Mason (Mason Adams) commissions film special effects tech Rollie Tyler (Brown) to supposedly stage the murder of mobster-turned-informant Nicholas DeFranco (Jerry Orbach) so that DeFranco can go into witness protection safely. However, it turns out that Tyler has actually been framed for the murder of DeFranco, which Mason is attempting to sell as real, though in reality, he and DeFranco have conspired together to enact this plot.
After Mason and DeFranco's team kills Tyler's girlfriend, Ellen (Diane Venora), Tyler teams up with local cop Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy), who doesn't quite trust him, in an effort to bring DeFranco and Mason to task, employing Tyler's special-effects wizardry along the way.
This is a smart, windy action-adventure that did produce a belated 1991 sequel, but seems to have been (unfairly) marginalized among other 1980s actioners.