Action is one of the most popular movie genres, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better decade for fans of explosive, over-the-top action than the 1980s. It was the decade of out-of-this-world action stars like Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Mel Gibson. Not only was it a decade chock full of blockbuster action films, but it is also the 10-year period where many well-known franchises like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Predator got their start.
But the 1980s was a long time ago. To some, it feels more like the 1880s. Since the decade began more than 40 years ago, there’s a good chance you haven’t seen all of the star-studded action romps the ’80s has to offer. Now is the time to right that wrong.
Since the ’80s was so loaded with action films, there are quite a few that you don’t need to see. But there are a handful that you honestly shouldn’t miss.
The Running Man (1987)
Based on the Stephen King novel, The Running Man, which takes place in 2019, is centered around a man named Ben Richards who, while in the military is made the scapegoat of a massacre of protestors. Instead of jail, he’s made to compete in a brutal reality show where, if he survives, he’ll gain his freedom. While the ’80s version of what the world would look like in 2019 doesn’t hold up in all ways, it’s an interesting present-day look at what one imagined 2019 could have been.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
Los Angeles detective Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is grieving the death of his wife. He’s spiraling out of control when he’s given a new partner named Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover). Even though they don’t get along at first, the duo begin to form a friendship after discovering a major drug smuggling operation. This movie is classic buddy cop flick that in many ways set the tone for the entire genre.
Road House (1989)
This movie seems like a pretty straightforward story about a bouncer at a rowdy nightclub. But it’s so much crazier than that (someone rips a bad guy’s throat out in one scene, for one). The late Patrick Swayze plays the role of John Dalton, the aforementioned bouncer who, after starting a romantic relationship with a local doctor, gets himself in the sights of a seemingly untouchable local crime boss.
The Terminator (1984)
One of the most famous action movies of all time, The Terminator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg who time travels from 2029 to 1984 to kill a woman named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The reason the Terminator travels back in time is to stop Conner’s unborn son from leading a revolution against the robots that have taken over the world in the future.
Proving that Arnold Schwarzenegger was the king of the 1980s, Predator was one of the most exciting, action-packed movies of the decade. Dutch (Schwarzenegger) and a group of soldiers are sent to Guatemala to save a group of hostages. When they arrive, they realize something much worse than a kidnapping is going on as they run afoul of an extra-terrestrial hunter who wants to add them to his collection.
Red Dawn (1984)
This movie sums up the fears about the Soviet Union and its power in 1980s America. In this star-studded film, the Soviets invade a Colorado town. Brothers Matt (Charlie Sheen) and Jed (Patrick Swayze) and their friends must fight back to save the rest of the town (including their parents) who have been taken prisoner.
Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The first film in the Indiana Jones series stars Harrison Ford as the titular world-traveling archeologist. In this movie, his goal is to stop some Nazis from acquiring the Ark of the Covenant which they plan to use for nefarious purposes. If you, like Indy, have a fear of snakes, you might not want to watch the beginning.
Die Hard (1988)
Anyone who claims that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie is either a liar or has never seen it. A New York policeman named John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting his wife and daughters on Christmas Eve. He goes to her office Christmas party and is enjoying himself until terrorists take over the building. It’s up to McClane to save the day in the first of many Die Hard films.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
This action comedy stars Eddie Murphy as a Detroit police officer named Axel Foley. He visits Beverly Hills after a friend is murdered, pretending he’s on vacation. His investigation sends him toward an art dealer who he believes is involved in the murder. During the investigation, Foley has run-ins with the local police who don’t want him there.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Director by John Carpenter, Big Trouble in Little China might be the wildest, most unique action movie the decade has to offer. A truck driver named Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) finds himself involved in the strange underbelly of San Francisco. This includes finding his friend’s kidnapped fiance, an ancient Chinese curse, and an evil sorcerer. Things get pretty spooky, to say the least.