The 1980s were a transformative decade for action cinema. While Die Hard is commonly referred to as the pinnacle of action films, the entire decade was filled with influential action movies that transformed the medium and captivated audiences. These films weren’t just great for their time; they still hold up today.
Defining what exactly an action film is can be difficult, as many of these films intersect with other genres, including comedy, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but at their core they are still telling an exhilarating adventure story that includes traditional hero and villain archetypes.
Due to the great number of action films released in the 1980s, there were many great films that had to be left off this list. However, the films that did make it represent the best and most culturally impactful moments in cinema that decade. Here are the top twenty best action films of the 1980s.
20. 48 Hrs.
Eddie Murphy was without a doubt one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s, and 48 Hrs. provided him with his first feature film role. Murphy made his cinematic debut as Reggie Hammond, a convicted robber who is unexpectedly paired with veteran cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) to solve a case involving the murders of police officers.
These two actors couldn’t be any more different, and they formed an instantly iconic screen duo as two men on opposite sides of the law who are forced to work together. In many ways, 48 Hrs. was the instigator of the “buddy cop” subgenre, which would inspire many future action-comedies, including the Lethal Weapon franchise.
19. License to Kill
The James Bond franchise had been on somewhat of a downward spiral in the 1980s; Roger Moore’s films For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, and A View To A Kill descended into cornier shlock, and Timothy Dalton’s first Bond film The Living Daylights was a somewhat mismatched vision that tried to incorporate darker themes with the sort of humor more common in the Moore films. However, Dalton got a second chance with The Living Daylights, a fantastic revenge thriller that perfectly honored the darker roots of Ian Fleming’s original novels.
In this film, Bond is on a mission of revenge after the wife of his friend Felix Leiter is murdered by drug dealers. Bond must work outside the law, and this stripped down approach was able to differentiate the film from the campiness of its predecessors. While it is unfortunate that License to Kill was the last Bond film that Dalton did, his series is in many ways the inspiration for the grimmer Daniel Craig films today.
18. Lethal Weapon 2
Few sequels can justify their existence, and there’s even less franchises that remain consistent until the end. Lethal Weapon is the rare action saga where every film is at least good, and 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2 is almost as strong as the original film.
In the sequel, Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) are tasked with protecting the federal witness Leo Getz (Joe Pesci), and Pesci’s performance added a greater sense of comedy to the already shaky relationship between the two cops. However, the film also carries the power of the original’s emotion, as it dives deeper into Rigg’s tragic backstory and how the demons of the past continue to haunt him.
17. Escape From New York
Few cinematic partnerships are as legendary as John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, and Escape From New York was a high point for both of their careers. Snake Plissken is in many ways the role Russell was born to play; he’s a tough modern gunslinger who has survived in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of New York, but he’s nonetheless forced to do the right thing when the President’s daughter is kidnapped by rival gangsters.
It’s a slick, cool action thriller that contains some of Carpenter’s most elaborate and unique sets, and features a lived in world with many colorful characters. Combining pointed social satire with visceral set pieces, Escape From New York has transcended its cult status to become a genuine classic.
Another film that goes beyond just being a “cult classic,” Highlander is the sort of fantasy epic that just simply doesn’t exist anymore. The film is absolute in its dedication to its own mythology, which follows the mythic warrior Connor McLeod (Christopher Lambert) as he recounts his history as an ancient warrior and battles enemies in modern day New York City.
The sword fighting sequences are incredibly choreographed, and the film shows the art of the duel through Connor’s tutelage under the legendary Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez (Sean Connery). Of course, the film is perhaps best known for the brilliant score by Queen, and the booming vocals from Freddie Mercury capture the vast scope and exhilarating storytelling of this immortal clash of warriors.
15. The Running Man
The Running Man is a peculiar film, as although it deals with some truly groundbreaking subject material and offers some surprisingly pertinent satire of media consumption, it’s also deeply silly and has a definite camp element. This is the joy of the film; it’s both ahead of its time conceptually and deeply rooted in 1980s action cheesiness, and the synthesis of Stephen King’s philosophy with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unparalleled charisma makes for a unique experience.
Schwarzenegger stars as Ben Richards, a cop falsely accused of murder by a dystopian society that revolves around a violent game show that executes criminals on live television. The different competitors Richards faces are completely ludicrous, as are the various eccentric action sequences that combine extreme sports with spirited bloodshed.
14. First Blood
While the Rambo series would later go on to be associated with hyper masculine, shoot ‘em up sort of mindless action entertainment, the original First Blood is a very stripped down and emotional character piece. Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a veteran grappling with PTSD, and over the course of his journey to the secluded town of Hope, Washington, he’s forced to survive in the wilderness once again as he’s hunted by law enforcement.
It’s a tragic story of a man who is unable to cope with his experiences and is misunderstood by society, and while Stallone is often an easy target for film critics, he gives a completely understated and natural performance.
There are not many action films as stripped down and effective as Predator, a film that is so loaded with adrenaline that it’s impossible to not be engrossed in its journey to a climactic showdown.
Director John McTiernan is one of the most notable action directors in history, and Predator contains a lot of supernatural and horror elements that make the titular creature even more terrifying. Dutch became one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most iconic characters, and seeing the combat veteran slowly become isolated as his team is killed makes for a supremely satisfying showdown.
12. Beverly Hills Cop
Even if 48 Hrs. was Eddie Murphy’s first film, Beverly Hills Cop was the one that solidified his star status and created his most iconic character. Combining fish out of water comedy with a great crime movie premise, the film follows Detroit detective Axel Foley as he handles a murder investigation in Beverly Hills.
Murphy is the rare performer who can light up the scene with his very presence, and seeing his big personality bounce between suspects and set pieces makes for a clever satire of procedural action films. The terrific supporting performances by Judge Reinhold as Billy Rosewood and John Ashton as John Taggart give Foley a great team to work with.
While the Superman franchise had been the dominant superhero movie franchise since 1978, Tim Burton’s Batman provided a completely different approach to the genre that redefined what a comic book film would feel like.
It’s a surprisingly dark film that only gives Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) glimpses of humanity, and Burton weaves in the character’s now iconic backstory in as he explores the sadistic nature of Gotham City. Of course, the film’s major drawing factor was Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker, as Nicholson’s manic behavior and over the top expressions couldn’t be a bigger contrast to Batman.