10 Great 1980s Movies You’ve Probably Never Seen

5. Man on Fire (1987)

Almost every film fan knows Tony Scott’s 2004 hit, Man on Fire starring Denzel Washington. Almost no one knows it is a remake of Eli Chouraqui’s 1987 original film of the same name. Based on the A.J. Quinell novel and adapted by Chouraqui and Sergio Donati, the project was originally slated for Sergio Leone to direct. The film tells of former government agent John Creasy (Scott Glenn) who is hired to be a bodyguard to a rich family’s young daughter. Creasy and the girl bond, as she becomes like a daughter to him. After she is kidnapped, Creasy seeks a violent revenge.

The film’s cast included Glenn, Joe Pesci, Jonathan Pryce, Brooke Adams, and Danny Aiello. While Scott’s film had a solid cast and was bigger and flashier, Chouraqui’s 1987 original is grittier and more realistic, allowing it to hold up better as the years continue. The film only received a theatrical release in Europe but earned good reviews and has maintained a positive reputation since its original release.


4. Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981)

The Western had long lost its shine with movie audiences. After the colossal financial failure and bad reputation of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate the previous year, it was no surprise that a skittish Hemdale decided to give Lamont Johnson’s Cattle Annie and Little Britches a limited release.

With a supporting cast that included Burt Lancaster, Rod Steiger, John Savage, and Scott Glenn, Diane Lane and Amanda Plummer played the title characters in the Old West tale of two thrill-seeking teenagers who fall in with a fading outlaw gang. Critics were kind but audience interest was nil. Lamont Johnson directed the film with a patient style and allowed the concentration to focus on its characterizations. The filmmaker crafted a film that paid respect to the mythos of the Old West. Pauline Kael was one of the film’s champions, praising Larry Pizer’s cinematography, Robert Ward and David Eyre’s screenplay, and most of the film’s performances.


3. Smooth Talk (1985)

Screenwriter Tom Cole adapted the Joyce Carol Oates story “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” for director Joyce Chopra’s 1985 Indie, Smooth Talk. Laura Dern starred as a 15-year-old girl who meets, and is somewhat stalked by, a mysterious and dangerous older man played by Treat Williams.

Dern’s performance made critics take notice as most of the film centers on her work as a young woman who is forced to grow emotionally much too soon. Chopra has claimed the film as her finest while critics praised the overall maturity of the piece. Smooth Talk was nominated for multiple Independent Spirit Awards for Dern and Williams’ acting, Cole’s screenplay, Chopra’s directing, and for Best Film. Most agree that the film holds some of the finest acting of both Laura Dern and Treat Williams’ careers.


2. Flashpoint (1984)

Treat Williams returns to the list in a neglected treasure from HBO Pictures and Silver Screen Partners. William Tannen’s 1984 Flashpoint is a tightly directed thriller about two Texas Border patrol officers (Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams) who stumble on a decade-old corpse and a case of money that may be linked to the Kennedy assassination. The film had a wide release but next to no promotion which hurt its chances at the box office. Critics were kind with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert giving it their patented “Thumbs Up” and claiming it was one of Kristofferson’s finest hours as an actor.

Tangerine Dream provided the score which added to the film’s tension and helped to make Peter Moss’ sun-scorched cinematography pop while Tannen kept the film moving through expert pacing and crisp editing from David Garfield.

Tannen did not have a pleasant experience with the studio, as they tried to interfere with the editing process and forced the filmmaker to tack on an out of place end credits song. Unfortunately, the film only lasted a couple of weeks in theaters and director William Tannen would only do a few more films before retreating into television work, never making good on the promise he showed with his first film.


1. Rampage (1987)

Rampage (1987)

Perhaps one of the “Great White Whales” of 80s cinema and within the filmography of director William Friedkin, Rampage had a hard road to the screen.

This dramatic thriller focusing on a serial killer and the fight over the Death Penalty vs an Insanity plea was set for release in the Fall of 1987, the film was shelved due to the bankruptcy of its distributor, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. When Miramax picked it up in late 1991, Friedkin had already rethought his screenplay’s original ending and reshot his finale. The film received an extremely limited release in 1992 before going to the home video markets with no promotion behind it.

Michael Biehn stars as a California District Attorney who goes against his beliefs to seek the Death Penalty for a man who gruesomely murders a family, a woman, and her child during the Christmas holiday. Biehn’s struggle with his liberal views come in dramatic contrast to his thoughts about prosecuting the killer. Biehn’s character and his wife, played by Deborah Van Valkenburgh, lost their young daughter during a surgery a few years prior.

During the prolonged delay on the film’s release, William Friedkin re-edited the ending of the film and changed the argument to reflect his new beliefs on the Death Penalty. Both versions work and exist as two sides of the Capital Punishment coin, with the filmmaker achieving some of his best character-driven work. The performances from Biehn, Alex MacArthur (as the killer), and Van Valkenburgh complement Friedkin’s desire for realism and depth while Ennio Morricone’s score adds to the haunting humanity of the film.