The action genre came to prominence in the 80’s. Someone figured out that you could save a lot of money if you had a leading man with either martial arts skills or a buff physique, preferably both. Enters stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude van Damme, Dolph Lundgren and Steven Seagal.
The films starring these men may have been scoffed at by contemporary critics and it’s true that most of these films have a cheesy dialogue, bad acting and sub-par effects. But one can’t deny that some of these films are exciting and are full of engaging action sequences.
This list consists of films of this subgenre that are worth your time, all made between 1985 and 1995, which could be called this genre’s most popular era. Films that are excluded from entering the list are big budget productions (like Terminator 2: Judgment Day), films that were made by visionary directors (like The Terminator) and films starring Sylvester Stallone.
Because even if Stallone made films that could place on this list, like Cobra and Lockup, he was also nominated for two Oscars in 1977 for Rocky and his role as John Rambo in First Blood was critically acclaimed.
10. Under Siege (1992)
Steven Seagal kicks off this list with his only entry. After establishing himself as a hard hitting martial arts cop with his own set of ethics and morals in four movies, all with titles consisting of three words (Above the Law, Hard to Kill, Marked for Death and Out for Justice), he got a chance to appeal to a broader audience with this film, that had a pretty generous budget and co-starred competent actors like Gary Busey and Tommy Lee Jones.
Per usual, we get to see mr. Seagal kick some ass and look grim, often both at the same time. The plot can be described as Die Hard on a navy battleship, which literally makes the recipe: Die Hard, just add Steven Seagal and water.
This stands out as the best Seteven Seagal movie not only because his character, Casey Ryback, is a real badass, but because Jones gives us a memorable bad guy and also because of Andrew Davies’s direction. The following year Davis would direct The Fugitive.
9. Universal Soldier (1992)
What’s better than a Jean-Claude van Damme movie or a Dolph Lundgren movie? Answer: A movie starring both of the European martial arts experts with buff physiques. Although one could argue that these two gentlemen have made individual films that are better than Universal Soldier, one can’t deny that this film, which pits the two action stars against one another, is well worth one’s time.
In this movie they play revived Vietnam war veterans who are part of a secret military program that send programmable soldiers on secret missions. Things start to go wrong when the programming starts to fail and two of the soldiers, GR44 (van Damme) and GR13 (Lundgren) start to remember who they were. The result is that GR44 rescues an innocent reporter (Ally Walker) while GR13 starts killing people and collecting ears (again).
Once again we see a competent man in the director’s seat. This time it was Roland Emmerich, now mostly known for disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day. He plays off van Damme’s character as a somewhat dimwitted terminator figure with amnesia while relying a bit more on Lundgren’s acting skills, which actually works.
Action sequences worth mentioning are a bar brawl with a hungry van Damme, a sequence in which van Damme runs through walls and, of course, the showdown between the two European martial artists at the end of the movie. And what a showdown it is!
8. Commando (1985)
Fresh off the success of The Terminator Schwarzenegger starred in this film that contains large muscles, unbelievable action sequences and cheesy one liners. But they’re the best muscles, unbelievable action sequences and cheesy one liners.
Schwarzenegger plays a retired black ops operative. When his daughter is kidnapped by a former colleague, Bennett (Vernon Wells), he must do everything he can to get to the island where Bennett is keeping his daughter. He, of course, encounters a number of enemies on the way. It doesn’t get more complicated than that. And it doesn’t have to.
This film is the epitome of this genre. It’s not the best one in the genre, but you can learn all you need to know about the genre from watching this film. Schwarzenegger’s ammo never runs out when he mows down wave after wave of bad guys. And the one liners are unbeatable in their cheesiness. A couple of noteworthy one liners are “I eat green berets for breakfeast” and “You’re a funny guy, Sully, I like you. That’s why I’m going to kill you last” (turns out he was lying).
And to top things off, it doesn’t take itself too seriously; it knows it’s cheesy. It just doesn’t mind.
7. The Running Man (1987)
This is pretty relevant today, since Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, Ben Richards, is forced to compete in a game show called The Running Man, where convicts (supposedly) get to go free if they can outrun the hunters, who, you got it, try to kill them. One could claim the movie has more in common with game shows than reality shows of today, but it’s still pretty close.
Even though the film fails to satirize the future in the same way as for example Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop and Total Recall (disqualified from this list because of visionary Verhoeven and a high budget), it’s still pretty entertaining with the over the top hunters and an overzealous game show host, magnificently over acted by Richard Dawson, who was the host of the real life game show Family Feud.
And let’s not forget the one liners, who were, at this point, obligatory in a Schwarzenegger film. Among others he uses his then familiar “I’ll be back”. Another classic is “Here’s your Sub Zero, now plain zero” (doesn’t even make sense). Not to mention the action sequences when Schwarzenegger faces off with the hunters. Buzzsaw probably really regretted he ever laid eyes on a chainsaw.
6. Army of One (also known as Joshua Tree) (1993)
Dolph Lundgren stars as small time criminal Santee who is wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. When the people who got him convicted stage an assassination that fails, Santee escapes and takes Rita Marek (Kristian Alfonso) hostage. Now he must stay one step ahead of the cops while trying to clear his name. And shoot bad guys, of course.
Lundgren doesn’t use his martial arts skills that much and the budget for this film is the lowest on the list (9 million). They still managed to make a pretty entertaining action movie. Even though the budget is so small, they have a high speed pursuit with expensive cars (in reality expensive looking custom built cars).
What really stands out in this movie, and earns it the sixth place on this list, is the action sequence in the garage. The garage may look small, but it still has room for at least thirty bad guys.