28 January 2013

Action - 80s style

The 1980s were a great decade for over-the-top action. Big explosions, big guns, fast vehicles, and big (and often muscle-bound) stars. Arnie, Sly, JCVD and Chuck Norris each average about a film a year over the decade.

This list features:

  • 3 starring Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • 2 directed by John McTiernan
  • 2 directed by James Cameron
  • 3 with police officers as main characters
  • 5 with soldiers/pilots/marines as main characters
  • 2 featuring deadly aliens

10. ROBOCOP (1987)

A terminally wounded cop returns to the force as a cyborg, fighting crime and corruption in a future Detroit. It features some dated effects, but is enjoyable enough to scrape in at number 10.

Over the top action and a healthy dose of satire are something Paul Verhoeven would bring back to the screen in the 90s with "Starship Troopers".


A this-close-to-retirement veteran cop forced to partner up with a younger, crazy (and in this case, suicidal) cop. One's black, one's white. One has a family, the other has a dog. It's a formula that's seen a lot of screen time, but Lethal Weapon is a highly entertaining film, with great chemistry between its stars, and is perhaps the best example of the buddy cop sub-genre.

8. FIRST BLOOD (1982)

Sylvester Stallone plays Vietnam veteran John Rambo, who has the bad luck of arriving in a Pacific Northwest town run by a sheriff with an intense dislike of "drifters". With his battle-worn army gear and long hair, Rambo is immediately categorised as a drifter by the sheriff, who tries to run him out of town. After getting arrested, Rambo suffers war flashbacks, and escapes to the woods where he sets about evading capture and fighting back against the police who try to bring him in.

Stallone gives a great performance as the tortured veteran, someone we can feel sympathetic towards. Brian Dennehy is excellent as the sheriff, playing the part with the right amount of arrogance to make us think of him as a real jerk. "First Blood" has its share of action and violence, but is also a more philosophical and thoughtful film than its sequels.

7. ALIENS (1986)

While Ridley Scott's original "Alien" was a horror movie in space, James Cameron's sequel is blatantly an action movie in space. Woken from stasis over fifty years after the events of the first film, Ripley partners up with a team of Marines on a rescue mission to the colonised alien planet.

I've said it before, I'll say it again, there's something I just can't resist about the formula...
  • Limited cast
  • Confined space
  • Kill 'em off one by one...

6. TOP GUN (1986)

Tony Scott's "Top Gun" stars Tom Cruise as a young fighter pilot competing to be the best of the best at an elite flying school. Like a cross between a Navy recruitment video and a flight simulator game, it's an adrenaline ride of machismo and jet fuel.

Love him or hate him, Tom Cruise (a baby-faced 24 here) is the only actor I can imagine playing the part of Maverick, the cocky fighter pilot who's too cool for school.

I haven't seen the movie in quite a few years, so I'm re-watching "Top Gun" as I write this post. Listening to "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling", it's clear that Tom Cruise needed every minute of singing lessons he undertook before playing Stacee Jaxx in last year's "Rock Of Ages".


Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the title Terminator, a cyborg assassin from a future war between humans and machines. He who travels back in time to assassinate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), whose son will grow up to become the leader of the human resistance. The only man who can stop him is Kyle, a soldier sent back in time by her son to protect Sarah.

With half the estimated budget of RoboCop (according to IMDb figures), this could be considered a "low-budget" film, but it's also highly impacting. Arnold Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast as the steel-jawed killer.

4. COMMANDO (1985)

Yes, another Schwarzenegger movie on this decade's list. And it's not the last.

Arnie plays Matrix, a retired special forces soldier who launches a one-man war against a group of soldiers who have kidnapped his daughter. As is common in films like this, the leader of the bad guys is someone from our hero's past, and revenge gets personal. But mainly, Schwarznegger loads up with a whole lot of camouflage paint and weaponry, and then attacks.

With a body count of 81, "Commando" is one of the best examples of an ultra-violent, over-the-top vehicle for its main star.


Fresh off the success of "Star Wars", George Lucas took time out with his buddy Steven Spielberg to create the character of Indiana Jones, a part-time archaeology professor, part-time treasure hunter, played by Harrison Ford (also fresh off "Star Wars"). Echoing the adventure serials of the 1930s and 40s, it's a thrilling ride of good vs evil, with Indy racing Nazis on the trail of the Ark of the Covenant.

I actually find Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade to be a better movie (having Sean Connery helps), but Raiders gets its place on this list by coming first, and establishing a template that was basically repeated in the Last Crusade.

2. PREDATOR (1987)

John McTiernan's second film is a great mix of sci-fi and all-out action. "Dutch" (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the leader of a group of black-ops commandos who are sent into the Central American jungles on a mission to rescue the crew of a downed chopper. But once they arrive, they find they are the hunted, not the hunters. An extraterrestrial warrior, the Predator of the title, has them in its sights.

See the formula laid out above under "Aliens" for why I love this movie.

"Get to da choppa!"

1. DIE HARD (1988)

Prior to this, Bruce Willis was best known for being one of the leads on TV's "Moonlighting". As John McClane, a cop in the wrong place at the wrong time, he made his name as an action star. It's Christmas Eve, and NYPD Detective McClane is a last-minute guest at his wife's company Christmas party in a Los Angeles skyscraper. When the party is interrupted by terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (the always impressive Alan Rickman in his first feature role), it's up to McClane to be a spanner in the works and save the day.

So many movies after this tried to follow a formula of "It's Die Hard... on a boat!", "It's Die Hard... in a school!", and so on, but the original remains an action classic. One of my all-time favourites.

This is also my wife and I's annual Christmas movie. "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow..."

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