The 80s were a great time for action movies. With bankable stars like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Bruce Willis, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, you only needed to know who starred in a film to decide if it was worth watching. Lots of film franchises were born in the 80s as well. The budgets were bigger than those of the 70s which meant the explosions were bigger and the advancements in film effects and editing, meant you could wow audiences more.
So what are the best action movies of the 80s?
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) recently asked this question on Facebook and the community responded. This post isn’t a list compiled of my favorites but is based on the responses of the commenters to the Facebook post.
The responses fall well in line with what is generally put out by other publications about the best action movies from the 80s. No big surprises here. It’s what you would expect.
Here are the 15 best action movies of the 1980s, according to the IMDb community on Facebook.
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15. The Killer (1989)
The Killer is the only foreign language movie on this list and is a personal favorite of mine. It’s a classic action movie from the 80s and one of director John Woo’s best, containing all of his signature elements. It’s hard to find anyone who has seen this bloody, bullet-blazing, action-ballad that would disagree. The Killer currently has a 98% tomato rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 92% audience score.
Filled with action from beginning to end, The Killer isn’t only about violence. The stylistic action scenes and story also contain many philosophical undertones.
In the movie, Jeffrey (played by Chow Yun-Fat) is a hired killer who accidentally blinds a woman during a shootout with mobsters. He decides to retire after one last job that will earn him the money to pay for an operation to restore the woman’s sight. He is double-crossed after the hit and must reluctantly join forces with a policeman hot on his heels to make things right.
14. Bloodsport (1988)
Jean-Claude Van Damme became a bonafide action star after his appearance in this martial arts film from 1988. The film was purportedly based on the true story of Frank Dux, who told Black Belt Magazine in 1980 about his participation in a secret Kumite tournament much like the one in the film. His claims were disputed after the release of the film.
Van Damme plays Dux in the movie, showcasing his real-life martial arts talents as he fights his way through a deadly Kumite. The action sequences are mainly fights between tournament participants which usually end with deadly results. And the climax with Bolo Yeung as Chong-Li (who is known to ruthlessly kill his opponents) will have you biting the tips of your fingers.
Fans of martial art movies will love this film which was widely copied after its release and even served as the inspiration for modern-day full-contact and mixed martial arts competitions. Former US president Donald Trump named Bloodsport as his favorite film.
13. The Running Man (1987)
Arnold Schwarzeneggar was one of the biggest action movie stars of the 80s. Four movies in which he starred appear on this list. Besides the ones mentioned here, he has even more great action films from the 80s and 90s.
In The Running Man, which was released in 1987, he plays a police helicopter pilot who is framed for the murder of rioters in a dystopian society. He is forced to participate in a brutal game show where convicts must battle ruthless killers in order to gain their freedom.
The Running Man is 100 minutes of fun action with Arnold doing what he does best. He even uses his signature one-liner – “I’ll be back”.
12. Escape From New York (1981)
Director John Carpenter collaborated with Kurt Russell on three big movies in the 80s, two of which are on this list. Escape From New York, The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China are three of Kurt Russell’s most memorable appearances from that decade.
Escape From New York is a classic dystopian science-fiction film set in 1997 where Kurt appears as the character Snake Plissken who would get revived for a 90s audience in the sequel Escape From L.A.
In the movie, Manhattan is a walled maximum security prison that the government hires a convicted Snake Plissken to break into to rescue the president after his plane is hijacked and deliberately crashed there. Donald Pleasance, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau, and Ernest Borgnine also star.
After its release, Escape From New York received mostly positive reviews and has held up as one of the best action films of the 80s. The sequel released in 1996 had the opposite effect on critics and was considered a flop.
11. The Road Warrior (1981)
The sequel to Mad Max from 1979, The Road Warrior, is better in every way than the original. With high adrenaline, nail-biting action which takes place on a highway in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, this movie set the template for other post-apocalyptic films that would follow in the 80s. None of those imitators could ever outdo this action masterpiece from George Miller with Mel Gibson as the title character Max. That is until Miller himself went back to this series and did Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015 and made one of the best action movies in recent times.
The Road Warrior is known for its long thrilling and brutal highway chase with Max battling a barbarian group that is hell-bent on destruction. He must help a defenseless community protect their precious petrol from getting into the hands of these barbarian thugs.
The action in this film never lets up, with lots of combat and explosions to satisfy the pickiest of action fans.
10. Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
John Carpenter hooked up with Kurt Russell for the fourth time in their career to make this weird, fun, fantasy martial arts action-comedy which was originally supposed to be a western. It’s their second action movie on this list after Escape From New York. Originally, the film flopped at the box office which drove Carpenter, dissatisfied with the studios, to stop making movies in Hollywood and instead choose to go the independent route.
In Big Trouble In Little China, Kurt plays a trucker, Jack Burton, who must help his Chinese friend Wang Chi rescue his green-eyed fiancée who had been kidnapped by bandits in San Francisco’s Chinatown. They go on a mysterious adventure in Chinatown’s underworld facing off with an ancient sorcerer who requires a green-eyed woman to marry him so he can be released from a centuries-old curse. Magic, brawls, and hilarity ensue.
Despite having flopped at the box office, the movie gained a cult following and is truly one of the most enjoyable action movies of the 80s era.
9. Robocop (1987)
Robocop is one of the most iconic science-fiction characters of the 80s. The film itself is often cited as one of the best science-fiction and action films of all time and also one of the best films of the 80s. It was directed by Paul Verhoeven who later did Total Recall with arguably the biggest action star of the time Arnold Schwarzeneggar.
Peter Weller plays Alex Murphy, a Detroit cop who is murdered in the line of duty and revived as a heavily armed cyborg called Robocop. This machine was designed to serve the public trust, protect the innocent and uphold the law all with no memory of his former existence. This is until he starts having dreams of his death and a former life and has to take down the shady company that made him.
Robocop was a blockbuster hit upon release and even received multiple awards including an Oscar for sound editing. It spawned two sequels and a 2014 reboot film.
8. Commando (1985)
Commando isn’t one of those movies made for awards consideration. Sometimes audiences just want to sit back and watch henchman after henchman get taken out and see stuff blow up. This Arnold Schwarzeneggar vehicle from 1985 is a great example of the type of action movies the 80s were known for. And that is what made it perfect.
The movie was built for the big screen and with barely a plot, it was a showcase for the hulking Schwarzeneggar to show off his action-hero status. It was a blockbuster when it was released, opening at #1 at the box office and staying there for three weeks. The one-man army template has been copied numerous times.
In Commando, John Matrix has retired in seclusion to the mountains with his daughter Jenny (played by a young Alyssa Milano) until mercenaries, who are killing members of his former team, come to kidnap both of them. Their leader, Bennett, wants to force Matrix to carry out a political assassination and they take his daughter to ensure that he does so. Matrix escapes his captors and with the help of a reluctant air hostess (Rae Dawn Chong), he takes out Bennett’s men in his quest to get his daughter back.
The last act is full of bullets, explosions and a high body count as Matrix goes in on a one-man rescue mission to get his daughter back. It is the definition of action, especially 80s action.
7. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Though there were many action stars in the 80s, the two biggest ones were Arnold Schwarzeneggar and his rival Sylvester Stallone. People would sometimes refer to both actors by two of their most popular characters, Commando and Rambo, respectively.
John Rambo first appeared in the 1982 film First Blood, in which the Vietnam war veteran uses his survival and combat skills to survive a massive manhunt carried out on him by police and government troops in Hope, Washington.
First Blood Part II was an entirely different type of action film taking Rambo back to Vietnam on a mission to document American POWs with strict orders not to rescue them. Rambo defies orders and has to rely on his combat skills to survive and rescue the POWs.
The movie was a major blockbuster and one of the more memorable installments in the Rambo series. It has inspired countless other action movies rip-offs, parodies and video games and made Rambo into an 80s icon.
6. Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Made in 1981 by Steven Spielberg and writing by George Lucas, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is the only PG rated movie on this list. It’s a fun, adventure with lots of action for all ages. The first in the Indiana Jones franchise, it is also considered the best in the series of 4 movies and is also considered one of the best movies ever made.
Indiana Jones is introduced in this movie, played by Harrison Ford, as a globe-trotting archaeologist who must stop a rival archaeologist helping the Nazis to recovering the lost Ark of the Covenant and unleashing it’s power to make their army invincible.
Raiders is a thrilling adventure joy-ride with exciting action set-pieces and practical effects (no CGI). The movie garnered a host of awards including 5 Academy Awards.
5. Lethal Weapon (1987)
Lethal Weapon was not the first buddy cop action movie to be made but it perfected the sub-genre and laid the template for future buddy cop films back in 1987. The Richard Donner film was a blockbuster when it was released and spawned three sequels and a television show. Critically it was very well received and even nominated for an Academy Award for sound mixing.
The mismatched Los Angeles detectives, Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh, work together to uncover a big drug smuggling ring and end up becoming friends in the process.
Lethal Weapon stars Mel Gibson as Riggs and Danny Glover as his partner Murtaugh, and both actors would go on to star in all three of the sequels. Gary Busey plays the bad guy in this installment of the franchise while other big name actors would join the cast in the sequels. Joe Pesci entered the franchise in the funnier Lethal Weapon 2 as Leo Getz and Rene Russo joined in Lethal Weapon 3 as Lorna Cole, Riggs love interest.
4. Aliens (1986)
Many of the entries on this list are either the first film in a future franchise or part of a film franchise. Aliens, like The Road Warrior and First Blood Part II is a direct sequel to the original film in the franchise, in this case 1979’s Alien.
While Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, was a horror, science fiction which introduced the character of Ripley, Aliens, directed by James Cameron is more of an action film. Aliens continue the story 57 years after the events of the original film with Ripley who is awaken from her cryogenic sleep after drifting in space for so long.
Both Alien and Aliens are among the best movies ever made with both having Oscar nominations and wins. More sequels would follow as well as spinoffs which merged the worlds of Predator and Aliens.
3. Predator (1987)
Speaking of aliens and predators, 1987’s Predator is director John McTiernan’s first big action movie of his directing career. His second action film ranks even higher on this list.
Predator was a guaranteed success because it starred the biggest action star of the 80’s Arnold Schwarzeneggar who also starred in The Running Man that same year. The action in Predator is also outstanding featuring a jungle setting and an almost invisible enemy.
In Predator, Dutch (Schwarzeneggar) and a team of commandos are sent on a mission to a jungle in Central America where they end up being hunted by an extra-terrestrial predator. The movie spawned a franchise that is still ongoing with the release of an origin story called Prey in 2022.
2. The Terminator (1984)
Arnold Schwarzeneggar holds down more than a few spots on this list and the list wouldn’t be complete without his signature role, the iconic Terminator.
Written and directed by James Cameron (who went on to do Aliens ), The Terminator introduced one of the biggest science fiction and action franchises in movie history with 5 sequels, a television series and video games.
In The Terminator, the title character is an android sent back from the future of 2029 to 1984 in order to kill Sarah Connor whose unborn son John would save the world from Skynet, an artificial intelligence that becomes aware and causes an apocalypse. Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn) is a resistance fighter sent back to save Sarah Connor from the terminator.
The movie would get bigger and more badass in the 90s with the sequel, Terminator II: Judgement Day which expands on the story even more. Schwarzeneggar’s terminator, the T-800 would return but rather as the one trying to save Sarah Connor’s son John from an even more advanced terminator, the T-1000.
Both The Terminator and The Terminator II are heralded as two of the greatest action movies even made and the former is definitely one of the best and most memorable from the 80s.
1. Die Hard (1988)
The best action movie of the 80’s goes to another franchise starter, the Bruce Willis actioner directed by John McTiernan, Die Hard. This was McTiernan’s second action film of the 80s with Predator being the first. To have both movies end up on a list of best action movies of the 80s is a great accomplishment for a director.
Die Hard stars Bruce Willis as an NYC detective, John McClane, who is thrust into action as terrorist take over a Los Angeles skyscraper where his estrange wife works. Initially, Alan Rickman’s portrayal as the villain Hans Gruber was highly praised while the film was met with mixed reviews. However, it has been re-evaluated over the years and is now hailed by many as one of the best action movies ever made. Its status as a Christmas movie is also debated. I would definitely say it’s a Christmas film.
Die Hard was so good that countless other movies have hijacked the formula, some of them doing it very well. For example, one of Steven Seagal’s best films, Under Siege is basically “Die Hard on a boat” and Jean-Claude Van Damme faced off against terrorists in Sudden Death which you might say is “Die Hard in a stadium”.
The franchise has some very good films as well that would satisfy any action fan looking for thrills, explosions and fast-paced plot. 1995’s Die Hard With a Vengeance is one of the better sequels while critics and fans did not care too much for 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard.
There are so many other great action movies of the 80s that could be here. I might edit this post and make it longer some day to include films like:
- Beverly Hills Cop
- Tango & Cash
- Raw Deal
- Streets of Fire
- Top Gun
- Running Scared
- 48 Hours
- Road House
- Police Story
- Runaway Train
- Above the Law
…and more action films that were too many to mention here without making this post more than what it should be. For now, these are the honorable mentions and the list above are the best action movies of the 80s.