6. Commando (1985, Mark L. Lester)
Commando is the cinematic equivalent of a pixie stick; it’s all action, mindless violence, and self-aware excess that unpretentiously aims solely to entertain rather than aspire for anything meaningful.
Arnold Schwarzenegger tears through henchmen almost nonchalantly, casually murdering dozens upon dozens of criminals in innovatively gruesome ways while tossing off unforgettable one-liners as if it’s just another day on the job for him.
As John Matrix – a fittingly macho name for such a comically over-the-top character –, Schwarzenegger finally found the perfect role as an action movie caricature for someone who already looked and sounded like an action movie caricature.
Matrix is a former black ops commando who finds himself back in murder-everyone-in-his-path mode when South American criminals kidnap his daughter, because this is the ‘80s and America was still afraid of all the South American governments we violently interfered in (oops!).
There are countless ridiculous action movies out there – for example, every movie on this list –, but few are as lean and focused in their assault as Commando. It’s a gut-punch of a film that aims low but hits hard, delivering the most hilarious dialogue with the most brutal violence and the least plot. For pure thrills and no frills, there is no better option.
7. They Live (1988, John Carpenter)
Calling They Live goofy or campy is hardly criticism, as that’s always John Carpenter’s modus operandi for action movies. It’s a paranoid thriller drenched in a sci-fi B-movie aesthetic, never taking itself more seriously than its high-concept premise demands. Even amidst Carpenter’s many successes as a director it stands out as his biggest, cheesiest non-horror triumph.
WWF wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as construction worker John Nada, a man who discovers glasses that let him see the subliminal messages surrounding him; billboards are revealed to simply say things like “OBEY” and “SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY,” while a vast majority of the people wandering the streets are secretly aliens that keep mankind subdued with this secret propaganda.
Nada, with the help of a handful of human friends (including Keith David, who also starred in Carpenter’s remake of The Thing), assumes his role as the savior of humanity and plans a violent overthrow of the alien regime.
The plot and cheap special effects feel lifted straight from a ‘50s Red Scare film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or, maybe more aptly, an ‘80s cold war film like The Thing), but Carpenter’s critical gaze is aimed squarely at consumer culture and capitalism rather than communism.
It’s hardly subtle in its critique of consumerism, but the absurd plot and incredible one-liners (especially the now-iconic “all out of bubble gum” line) make it a sharply funny satire disguised as a campy sci-fi/action movie.
8. Face/Off (1997, John Woo)
There’s an underlying absurdity to most John Woo movies, regardless of how brilliant they are; the liberal use of slow motion, the acrobatic gunfights, and the Mexican standoffs in abundance would all be borderline comical in the hands of a less skillful director.
Woo’s third Hollywood film Face/Off, however, achieves a new level of self-aware excess. Nicolas Cage and John Travolta – playing a terrorist and an FBI agent respectively – literally trading faces is an incredible premise on its own, but by some miracle the movie rides that wave of absurdity and, in its own way, ends up genuinely being an incredible, stunningly eccentric action movie.
Without John Woo’s guiding hand, a film like this would have easily and swiftly flown off the rails and descended into campy action movie hell. With him at the helm though, the movie’s overblown premise is balanced by balletic action sequences and a surprising degree of narrative sophistication for a movie with such a ridiculous concept.
It really has no right to work so well, yet somehow every single anarchic scene delivers and, against all odds, it’s a spectacularly clever movie that stands among Woo’s absolute best.
9. Escape From L.A. (1996, John Carpenter)
John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is dark, gritty sci-fi at its absolute finest. It’s a film only a director as confident as Carpenter could have made and it still holds up remarkably well 35 years later, despite its dystopian future of 1997 never having come to fruition.
When Carpenter set out to craft a sequel to one of his most beloved films, however, he decided that a traditional approach wouldn’t do; instead Escape From L.A. is a thinly veiled remake of Escape From New York but with a drastically different tone. Whereas New York took itself fairly seriously despite some clear B-movie inspirations, L.A. is a high-camp dark comedy that pokes fun at itself at every turn.
Carpenter makes no attempt to hide the fact that this sequel is essentially a do-over of Escape from New York; Kurt Russell is back as hardened ex-soldier Snake Plissken, this time assigned to track down the president’s daughter in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles instead of the president himself in post-apocalyptic New York City.
From that similar starting point the two films diverge wildly; this is more a parody of action movies than it is a sincere action movie itself, and it shows in the giddily over-the-top set pieces. Snake surfs a tsunami wave down Wilshire, is captured by a cult of plastic surgery-obsessed maniacs, and hang-glides with Pam Grier into Pasadena, guns blazing.
Needless to say this is a no-subtlety-allowed satire that few other directors would be brave enough to make, simply because it was destined from the start to be misunderstood by audiences expecting a gritty sequel to Escape from New York.
Carpenter has publicly said that he thinks Escape From L.A. is the better film, and he may be right. Unlike its undeniably brilliant predecessor, it’s not weighed down by self-seriousness and instead is simply honest about what it is: a goofy, ridiculous action movie designed to dazzle audiences for an hour and a half without requiring much brain power.
10. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985, George Miller and George Ogilvie)
Three decades before Tom Hardy took over the lead role in Fury Road and only a few years after the series’ international breakthrough in 1981’s The Road Warrior, there was Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Not as innovative as The Road Warrior or marked by as much technical brilliance as Fury Road, Thunderdome is arguably not the Mad Max franchise’ highest point yet still stands as a remarkably fun movie in its own right.
Mel Gibson’s third outing as grizzled ex-cop Max Rockatansky picks up an unspecified amount of time after the second film as Max visits the corrupt Bartertown, takes on its tyrannical leader Aunty Entity (played by none other than Tina Turner), and works to help a party of orphaned plane crash survivors.
Squeezed into the narrative between Max’s arrival in Bartertown and the introduction of the orphans, however, is a spectacular gladiator fight in Thunderdome, Bartertown’s massive arena. Max and his rival, the-little person-giant-person duo Master-Blaster, face off in the dome while suspended from the ceiling by wires. It’s viscerally thrilling in a way no other scene in the series is, and is arguably among the best fight sequences in action cinema as a whole.
While the Thunderdome scene is the film’s undeniable highlight, Tina Turner’s performance is pure pulpy perfection and her screen presence elevates the film greatly. Although it’s hard to the top the S&M nightmare that was Lord Humungus, the iconic villain of Mad Max: The Road Warrior, Tina Turner’s Aunty certainly gives him a run for his money with a powerfully charismatic performance.
The film’s best moments are all in its first half, before the group of orphans is introduced and the film plateaus without any action for a good 40 minutes. It’s ironic that as soon as the film gets beyond thunderdome is when it starts to fall apart, but even despite that lackluster second act the film is hardly a disappointment.
Far from it actually, as it features some of the finest moments of the original trilogy of Mad Max films; it’s widely known as the most commercial entry in the Mad Max series (it is PG-13 instead of R-rated, after all), but Tina Turner’s gleefully sinister performance and the brilliantly gruesome Thunderdome fight together elevate it in a big way, making this a better-than-average action movie and a worthy – if slightly less consistent and distinctly more campy – follow-up to The Road Warrior.
Author Bio: Joey Shapiro is a film student at Oberlin College in scenic Northeast Ohio, the cornfield capital of the world. His dream date would be watching all thirty Godzilla movies in a row.