Best and Worst 80s Action Movies

Arnold, Indy, Kirk and Cruise round out action movies in the 80s.

There was plenty of action in the 80s, and Hollywood was no stranger to getting in on the the freewheeling. Here’s the top five best and five worst action movies of the 1980s. Enjoy!

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Given Kate Capshaw’s rendition of "Anything Goes" to start the movie and Raiders of the Lost Ark, how could I lead with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? But you barely get the chance to blink as the action takes its cue right off the musical number. Chasing down a poison antidote as a priceless diamonds skits across the floor, Indy goes out a window, disembarks from a crashing plane (with only an inflatable raft to soften the blow) and falls off a thousand foot cliff to surf the Indian rapids. Of course in between each beat your heart skips, Harrison Ford provides plenty of punchline to sustain your arrhythmia, and his little cohort rides the coattails perfectly. The same goes as the trio twists, turns and jumps the miniature rail system, which doesn’t look fake until the third or fourth time you shimmy through the Temple of Doom. The crocodiles below get theirs, though, and you go bottoms up as Indy comes out on top again.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

After Star Trek: The Motion Picture lulled us to sleep and actually gave true Trekkies what they wanted introspectively, The Wrath of Khan reminded us that Captain Kirk could kick some ass and do it loud and boisterously. Throw in a little Industrial Light and Magic and Captain Kirk made us feel young as Khan Noonien Singh chased him around the Moons of Nibia and through Perdition's flames. To no avail, the three dimensional thinking and patented Kirk gamesmanship left us soaring and gave the first generation plenty of fodder to laugh off the franchise’s signature villain and his superior intellect. But while the tears at the end brought us back down to Earth, we knew they were only temporary and that the human adventure was on again.

Aliens

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Alien is a gritty science fiction movie that slowly lets the terror unfold. “It takes its time. It waits,” wrote Roger Ebert on RogerEbert.com. But the 1980s action movie sequel, Aliens, has none of the pensive qualities of the solitary xenomorph that left Ripley the only man standing in 1979 and serves the popcorn over flames and on the run. This leaves a company of gung ho marines - untempered by the Ripley’s restraint - biting off more than they can chew, and going on a full retreat race to the top. But each herd dwindling one by one, motherhood proves the most powerful force in nature, and just because the airlock settled the difference, doesn’t mean either matriarch gave us closure. The franchise still thrives and, “We’re all going to die.”

Die Hard

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Who knew you could add a terrorist attack to the Towering Inferno and create an iconic action movie that is still spawning sequels. Yes Roderick Thorp got the idea for his novel, Nothing Lasts Forever after watching the 1975 disaster movie and eventually Hollywood went into adaptation mode. 80s icon Bruce Willis turned the page and played a pyrotechnic game of Where’s Waldo with Alan Rickman. In his first feature film, the recently passed actor was catapulted to international prominence, but not before the blood, sweated Willis sent him a loft for the ages and gave us a Christmas gift we’ll never forget. 

Predator

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The most dangerous game is still man, and when it comes with movie star muscle like Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Predator in question must learn the hard way in the 1987 action film set in the Latin America jungle. Jessie Venture, Carl Weathers and Bill Duke don’t do the creature’s blood sport any good either as the special forces team sent in on an extraction mission of a communist revolutionary. But all the testosterone falls prey to the unexpected guest and his thermal tracking system. In the end, though, its brains not biceps that allow Arnold to do the superior foe in on home court. “You are one ugly MF,” Arnold rubs it in, but to no future avail of the Predators that just won’t stop coming.

And now on to the worst action movies of the 80s.

Commando

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A shirtless Arnold hauling off little Alyssa Milano from ruthless terrorists in Commando doesn’t exactly evoke elation like Richard Gere’s rom-com rescue in An Officer and a Gentleman. More importantly, it doesn’t even come close to conjuring the Terminator either as Arnold delivers his signature curtness in lines like, “Blow off a Little Steam, Bennet” or “He’s dead tired.” The 80s action movie just kills with villains as flat as the cartoon pages they are lifted from, a simplistic script that gives you little choice but to focus on Arnold’s acting and a finale rife with bad guys willingly running into the future governor’s machine gun fire. No help either is a score that runs incessantly and was probably found on the “stock” pile under frantic music. But you can’t help wonder, whatever happened to Rae Dawn Chong.

Flash Gordon

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If you haven’t noticed, Max Von Sydow is pretty much in every movie ever made. That must then include 1980’s Flash Gordon. But you have to give him credit that he actually showed up and acted the part of Emperor Ming. This, unlike many actors today, who see a bad script and just phone it in until the check clears. A campy execution that tried to appeal to the original TV series, the production must not have realized that most of those people were dead or in mental institutions. Throw in Flash, who actually is QB for the Jets, and you know Ming’s minions can’t really be all that up to speed at destroying the Earth and ruling the Galaxy. Still, you have to give props to Topol who was fresh off James Bond and For Your Eyes Only. Putting aside all that gushy love stuff that usually gets our heroine to stick her neck out, she’s a little more down to Earth in her motivations and affections for Flash. “I saved you because I like you,” she defers on the outer worldly considerations. Nonetheless, I can save you some time. The scene takes place at 31:40 seconds of this forgetful disaster. You’re welcome. 

Top Gun

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Sometimes science fiction movies go a little too far for the viewer to sign off on the fantasy world the film is trying to create. And in terms of Top Gun, I’m not talking about some of the jet moves that probably defy the laws of physics. The moment in question goes to Kelly McGillis. “I see some real genius in your flying Maverick but I can’t say that in there. I was afraid that everyone in that classroom would see right through me, and I just don’t want anyone to know that I’m falling for you,” the smitten fight instructor somehow says with a straight face. Wow, I want to spend some time on a planet with women like that. But not too much, because it wouldn’t be long before you’d want to take a hell fire to the whole place. The same sentiment arises of the bar room Righteous Brother’s scene. One that must have been written by someone who’s never actually gotten the attention of a girl by doing something over the top in a public venue, and this was all they could dream up as they pined on their couch. The acting doesn’t help either. It’s like someone told the actors, who’ve all demonstrated competence in their careers, that just flexing their muscles will do. I’m sorry all the admittedly riveting fly by stuff cannot overcome the shlock this film drags you down with. 

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

A little boy asks Superman to get rid of all nuclear weapons, and despite the misgivings of Krypton to not interfere, our hero is forced to deliver. How silly but there is a surprising redemption at the end as Superman realizes peace is not his to give. Gene Hackman returning and earning his paycheck is worth recognizing, too. But that’s a lot to ask in the face of pitiful special effects, fight scenes that descend into the typical midair tumult and the tired love triangle between Clark, Lois and Superman. Of course, they can’t help one upping the rom-com by turning the forced romance into a square with the addition of Margot Kidder. It’s also hard not to notice that the tight budget this time around seized the chance to save on hairstylists by not letting Jon Crynor’s “do” play out from Pretty in Pink. At least, #4 sealed the franchise’s fate until the prerequisite amount of Hollywood time forced Superman Returns on us in 2006. Hopefully, there’s one more to go before The Man of Steel goes on long hiatus again.

Rocky IV

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Rocky, on the other hand, believes his punch can deliver the peace that is beyond even Superman’s reach. How silly. Of course, we get the epic set up as Apollo Creed receives the ultimate knockout blow from the big, bad Russian bear. Dolph Lundgren literally towers to represent all that is evil about the Soviet Union, and Drago can deliver the grunts as well as any 80s action hero. So once again Rocky is all in and national honor intends to indoctrinate us in the East-West clash of civilizations. The indomitable training sequences follow and seem to matter little as Drago’s reach does more than keep Rocky at arm’s length. So what could Stallion have up his sleeve to turn history on its head. Nothing, he lands a punch, cuts the big Russian and the entire eastern bloc realizes Drago is human. The well orchestrated fight scenes follow and when the monstrosity finally goes down to the inevitable, Rocky takes aim at the Iron Curtain. “If I can change, we can all change,” Rocky confesses no longer to hating the man who killed his friend. “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky,” the crowd is won over and even the Gorbachev look alike sees the chance for a new beginning by joining in. Are we done yet? Apparently not, as we await Rocky 8.

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Best and Worst 80s Action Movies