Action movies are historically built upon a foundation of ultra-masculine men performing superhuman feats. Because of this – far more than any other genre – they’re prone to being comically over-the-top and borderline campy.
These ten cheesy cult films – some intentionally goofy, others not so much – rank among the finest that action cinema has to offer.
1. Point Break (1991, Kathryn Bigelow)
Kathryn Bigelow’s surfers-versus-FBI thriller is undeniably a parade of excess, from the schlocky dialogue to the comically passionate performance by Keanu Reeves, but there’s a certain subversive brilliance to it as well.
In telling the story of Agent Johnny Utah (Reeves) and his quest to bring a gang of bank-robbing surfers led by the charismatic Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) to justice, Bigelow mocks macho action movie clichés by redirecting the hypermasculinity into decidedly unsubtle homoerotic tension.
This is a gay movie with a capital G – maybe even the definitive gay action movie alongside Top Gun – featuring such telling dialogue as “I know you want me so bad it’s like acid in your mouth.” That line is of course about making an arrest and not about, you know, Keanu Reeves hopelessly lusting after Patrick Swayze. Needless to say there are a lot of phallic symbols in this movie.
There are dozens upon dozens of academic papers on the homoerotic subtext of Point Break though, so you don’t need to hear about that here. What’s more immediately relevant is just how fun the movie is; as campy action movies go, this stands among the absolute finest.
With both Reeves and Swayze at the top of their game – backed by Gary Busey in a supporting role and Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers in a bizarre cameo – this a film that could only have been made in the early ‘90s, and the world is a better place for it.
2. Over The Top (1987, Menahem Golan)
There are few titles as direct and to the point as Over The Top. It really does summarize the film pretty neatly; this is a film that exudes excess, from the laughable Kenny Loggins theme song to the bizarre seriousness with which it treats arm wrestling. If ever there was a movie that embodied everything wrong with the 1980s, it would be this one.
Sylvester Stallone stars as the impeccably name Lincoln Hawk (can you think of a more aggressively manly name?), a tough but sensitive trucker who arm wrestles in his free time to make extra money.
By some miracle of movie magic, circumstances within the narrative dictate that Hawk must win a national arm wrestling championship in Las Vegas in order to win back his estranged son, and apparently all while incorporating as much blatant product placement as possible.
It’s a marvelously corny film, a perfect storm of ‘80s movie clichés that’s so ridiculous it transcends trash to become eminently watchable.
The soundtrack, featuring the likes of Eddie Money, Sammy Hagar, Asia, and the aforementioned Loggins, is practically a who’s-who of trashy ‘80s music – no disrespect to fans of Asia’s “Heat of the Moment”. And the film milks that trashiness for all its worth by playing rock song after rock song with almost no break in between, like Goodfellas minus the good taste.
For Sylvester Stallone at one of his lowest points (also see: Rhinestone) and an ‘80s kitschfest like no other, Over The Top certainly delivers on the promise of its title.
3. The Running Man (1987, Paul Michael Glaser)
Let’s start with this: Stephen King film adaptations reached their absolute peak in 1987 with this film. Forget The Shining, forget Carrie, even forget the seemingly unforgettable Children of The Corn; this is the definitive Stephen King film.
It’s a landmark film in some senses, as up until 1987 film history had just been building up to the point at which a film could feature Arnold Schwarzenegger strangling a man with barbed wire before calmly uttering, “What a pain in the neck.”
Arnie stars as Ben Richards, a soldier framed for a crime he didn’t commit and forced to fight for his life on a sadistic game show called (you guessed it) The Running Man. The grim reality show consists of convicts being pitted against trained killers known as stalkers as bloodthirsty audiences worldwide tune in to witness the carnage.
There are definitely some Hunger Games parallels in the plot (is Arnold the original Katniss?), but for the most part this is far more brutal and darkly funny than those books and films ever were. Arnold disposes of each increasingly formidable stalker with little mercy, finishing each one off with a punny one-liner as is apparently standard in every Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie.
The extreme violence and jokey dialogue undermine any serious message that Stephen King may have originally intended when he wrote the film’s source material, and thus ultimately it just ends up being a lot of dumb fun rather than a meaningful dystopian film. Dumb fun with Arnold Schwarzenegger is a special kind of dumb fun though, and this is among the ex-governor’s finest work.
4. Road House (1989, Rowdy Herrington)
You can’t watch a movie by a director whose birth name is Rowdy Herrington and end up disappointed that the movie is a testosterone-fuelled trainwreck. Road House is a mess, plain and simple, but it’s one of the most spectacularly entertaining messes of the late-‘80s.
Boasting a plot you really couldn’t make up if you tried, the film is impossible to turn away from. Patrick Swayze is Dalton, a PhD-educated bouncer hired to tame the wildest bar in town while also vying for the love of his beautiful doctor, fighting off local evil businessman Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara, arguably at the peak of his legendary career), and receiving training from no less than Sam Elliot.
The hypermasculinity and self-seriousness that our old pal Rowdy infused the movie with is so far overboard that, like Point Break, it becomes wildly homoerotic. You can’t watch Sam Elliot soulfully embrace a shirtless, sweaty Patrick Swayze and not wonder, “Are they gonna bang or what?” Unfortunately for us they never do, but that sexual tension certainly keeps the movie chugging along.
Even outside of Elliot and Swayze’s forbidden love though, there is more than enough vaguely flirtatious dialogue to go around between the men of Road House. In one scene Swayze walks into Ben Gazzara’s home and is enraptured by the countless animal heads mounted on the walls, to which Gazzara says, “I see you found my trophy room, Dalton. The only thing that’s missing… is your ass!” An iconic line from an iconic actor in an iconic film.
5. Speed (1994, Jan de Bont)
Speed is absurd beyond all doubt but it’s also wildly clever and, ultimately, a bona fide masterpiece of action cinema.
Police officer Keanu Reeves and civilian Sandra Bullock are trapped on a bus set to blow up as soon as it drops below 50 miles per hour, putting them in the dangerous position of managing the speeding bus until they find a way to safely get all the passengers off of it.
All of this while psychotic villain Dennis Hopper (is Dennis Hopper ever not psychotic?) tries to sabotage them at every turn from afar so that he can finally prove himself more ingenious than the LAPD.
It’s a classic set-up, and a remarkably simple one at that, but it’s nonetheless executed in brilliantly sophisticated fashion. This is action filmmaking at its absolute finest, thanks largely to it having been directed by Die Hard cinematographer Jan de Bont, a man who clearly knows his way around an explosive set piece.
Like the bus that much of the film takes place on, the film starts out faster and only gets faster, never slowing down even slightly over the course of its two-hour runtime.
A runtime that generous is a huge no-no for action movies, which typically last closer to 90 minutes simply because it’s difficult to sustain tension for longer than that, yet not a single moment of Speed is filler; it’s virtually nonstop tension from scene to scene until its pitch-perfect conclusion.
Campy thrills in abundance, Speed is exactly what an action movie should be: fun, light, and shamelessly over-the-top: this is action movie royalty.