The 1980s may have perfected the action movie genre: with censorship having been relaxed throughout the 70s and audiences becoming more accustomed to darker and edgier content in their films, action movies of this decade took a decidedly more violent turn.
Although this decade produced some of the most beloved action films of all time–Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Rambo among them–this was also a decade that produced a huge volume of action movies in general. And while they may have found popularity and critical acclaim upon their release, over the decades many of these genre pictures have sunk into obscurity.
The emerging action market in Asia also began producing some fine action films that have been underseen outside their market save for cinephiles that had sought them out–which is unfortunate since many of these films hold their own when compared to their Western counterparts. Meanwhile, Europe’s action film market tended to ape larger budget American action films, only synthesizing and putting their own unique spin on these stories.
For a decade that was all about excess, now 30 years onward only the biggest and most well-known action films have been remembered. But this decade produced a number of great gritty, violent, and action-packed films that are well worth reconsidering. For this, here are 10 great action films from the 80s that you may have missed.
1. Sharky’s Machine (1981)
Tom Sharky is a narcotics officer for the Atlanta police department who is demoted to vice squad after a bust gone wrong. There, he uncovers a prostitution ring that a gubernatorial candidate is involved in. Using his “machine” (the vice squad) to investigate further, Sharky finds a powerful crime kingpin behind this drug and prostitution ring and corruption in the police force. What follows is a spectacularly violent and intriguing hardboiled thriller.
Directed by and starring Burt Reynolds, Sharky’s Machine has developed a small cult following since its release in 1981. With Reynolds proving himself an able director and the film featuring some spectacular stunts–including the highest free-fall ever performed for a commercial film–Sharky’s Machine will appeal to fans of the 80’s macho action aesthetic. Meanwhile, Reynolds performance is surprisingly muted in the film, playing against action movie conventions.
2. Shaolin Temple (1982)
Action movies are produced with such regularity that they seem to blend together without leaving much of an impact on history or culture. But 1982’s Shaolin Temple actually became an important part of history, as its popularity led to the re-opening of the actual Shaolin Temple in China.
Following the story of a young man (Jet Li) who tries to put his violent and tragic past behind him to become a Shaolin monk and study kung fu, instead he must confront the man who killed his father, General Wang, while also rallying the Shaolin monks to use their martial arts skills to save the ancient temple from the general’s wrath.
Featuring incredible martial arts sequences–performed by authentic wushu champions–the entire film is itself a masterpiece that provides a glimpse of life in the Shaolin Temple and the monks’ practices, an aspect of Chinese culture that had been banned and denounced in China in the 1960s.
Putting Jet Li on the map as a future action superstar, the incredible popularity of this film also led to the re-opening of the actual Shaolin Temple and the Chinese government sponsoring wushu demonstrations to the delight of audiences across the globe. Shaolin Temple is a can’t-miss movie for martial arts enthusiasts and admirers of Asian culture in general.
3. Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)
Before he was a meme, Chuck Norris was one of the world’s biggest action stars, and the 1980s was his decade. Playing macho, stoic characters who are underestimated until they perform fast and hard-hitting martial arts against their enemies, Norris became synonymous with “macho tough guy” to the point where this became his sole identifiable trait, as is evident in the deathless Chuck Norris Facts meme that portray him as a supernaturally powerful man.
Lone Wolf McQuade is perhaps the archetypal Chuck Norris film. Playing J.J. McQuade, a former Marine and current Texas Ranger who prefers to work alone, when his daughter is kidnapped by an illegal arms dealing cartel, McQuade assembles a law enforcement team to bring her back home and take out the bad guys.
It may not surprise you that this character would become the inspiration for Norris’s best-known character, Walker, Texas Ranger, a decade later. Lone Wolf McQuade is a hardy by-the-numbers action movie whose familiar tropes will be enjoyed by savvy action fans, and Norris delivers one of his best action movies in his trademark style. After all, Chuck Norris once pulled out a gun and killed an army of 50,000–then he started shooting.
4. Endgame (1983)
New York City, 2025: a nuclear holocaust has irradiated the city, leaving it overrun with mutants, scavengers, and an elite survival caste that hunts them. A reality show where gladiators fight to the death called Endgame keeps the populace pacified. A telepathic mutant is recruited into this show, and along with another gladiator leads her mutant group to freedom.
If it sounds like two or three action movies mashed into one, that’s because largely it is: Endgame is an Italian production that takes many elements from Escape From New York, Mad Max, and Le prix du danger. This B-movie is a lot of fun, filled with motorcycles, guns, mutants, and lots of low-budget violence. For fans of the genre who enjoy their action with a little kitsch thrown in, Endgame is a satisfying treat.
5. Uncommon Valor (1983)
Retired Marine Colonel Jason Rhodes (Gene Hackman) is obsessed with finding his son, who has been missing in action in Vietnam since 1972. After an extensive search of Southeast Asia, Rhodes believes his son is being held captive in Laos. Finding no help from the American Army to rescue his son, instead Rhodes puts together a ragtag group of vets, including some soldiers from his son’s platoon, to invade the country and rescue a group of POWs.
Part of the revisionist Vietnam War films that flooded the American market in the early 1980s, Uncommon Valor was one of the biggest hits of 1983 but soon sunk into obscurity. Which is unfortunate considering it’s a solid action film populated by first-rate actors. Besides Hackman, Patrick Swayze and Fred Ward are on-hand as part of Rhodes’ rescue team. For war movie fans, particularly those with sympathies to the MIA/POWs of the Vietnam War, Uncommon Valor is a kind of action movie that just isn’t made anymore.