The 20 Best Action Movies of The 1980s

10. Top Gun

Top Gun (1986)

While debates still rage as to whether Top Gun is self-aware of its cheesiness or is just a haplessly sincere product of its time, it remains a thoroughly entertaining celebration of excess and bro culture. The sense of comradery between U.S. Navy Aerial pilots make for a cheeky and immensely quotable hangout movie, but the excellent dogfight sequences are thoroughly researched and impeccably shot by the great Tony Scott.

Even the corniest aspects of the character relationships are endearing, and the film was an early example of why Tom Cruise is the greatest movie star of his generation. This year will see the release of the highly anticipated sequel Top Gun: Maverick, which will hopefully capture the spirit of the original.


9. Midnight Run

Midnight Run (1988)

Midnight Run is the perfect buddy comedy. It has the perfect setup for a mismatched pair to go on adventures, as steely bounty hunter Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) is assigned to transport the shady accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin) to Los Angeles in order to appease a mafia boss. Of course, the two are pursued by cops and criminals alike, and over the course of the adventure these two polar opposites learn to find common ground.

De Niro and Grodin make the development feel natural, particularly as Walsh begins to rectify the relationship with his family. The end of the film transcends the shenanigans of most buddy cop movies because it’s just so touching.


8. Lethal Weapon


Lethal Weapon spawned a great franchise that is set to conclude with an upcoming fifth installment, but all of the magic of the series came from the brilliance of Richard Donnor’s original 1987 film. It’s the story of a family man and an outsider who are forced to become allies, and compared to the silliness of some of the sequels, the first film is surprisingly dark in how it deals with Rigg’s suicide attempts and grieving process.

Mel Gibson gives one of his best performances here; he combines Rigg’s over the top behavior with his tragic past to create a multilayered character, and he couldn’t be a better foil to the more subtle Glover. This is also the film that solidified Shane Black as the greatest buddy cop writer; he would pen every sequel, and would go on to direct such future buddy cop classics as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys.


7. Robocop

Director Paul Verhoeven has the unique ability to combine razor sharp political and social satire with visceral world building, violent action sequences, and memorable characters. It’s incredible how many topics Robocop covers; it’s a satire of consumerism and aggressive marketing, a deconstruction of political and corporate corruption, and a study at how corporations and regulations can be depleting to humanity and morality.

On top of that, it’s just a phenomenal action movie with a great hero in Alex Murphy (Peter Murphy), who is brutally murdered by a vicious gang of thugs and transformed into a cyborg detective. Seeing Robocop deployed onto the streets to solve the conspiracy behind his own murder isn’t just a thrilling mystery, but it also allows Murphy to rediscover his own humanity as he’s confronted by stagnated memories of his past. While it’s best known for its one liners and iconography, Robocop is actually a sci-fi masterpiece with bigger themes on its mind.


6. The Terminator


The Terminator franchise would eventually be associated with bombastic action and never-ending doomsday scenarios, but the original 1984 classic is quite simple and low budget compared to its sequels. It’s a relentless chase movie, as Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is forced to go on the run to protect her unborn son John, who is destined to free humanity from the oppression of the machines. Sarah’s maternal instincts are amplified by the legacy that her son will have, and Hamilton is dynamic in what would be her star making performance.

Of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unrelenting cybernetic villain would become one of the greatest figures in sci-fi history, a figure of pure horror that exists without a shred of humanity. While many would argue that the 1991 sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the superior film overall, the original The Terminator is an action classic in its own right.


5. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

The Road Warrior (1981)

1979’s Mad Max was a solid post-apocalyptic thriller that served as a great introduction to the character of Max and the world of fire and blood, but it was ultimately just a test run for what the franchise could be. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior created all the hallmarks of the franchise; it’s largely dialogue free and focuses on Max’s reluctant journey to help a group of settlers from a savage gang.

Utilizing western movie iconography with steampunk technology, The Road Warrior took the Australian desert and transformed it into a dangerous environment. The rare hints at Max’s humanity come through Gibson’s brilliant performance, and the emotional storyline involving the Feral Child served as a perfect continuation of Max’s journey. The film’s 1985 sequel Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was a solid, yet underwhelming follow up, but the series returned to its heights with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which is a contender for the greatest action film ever made.


4. Aliens

Aliens (1986)

The original 1979 Alien was unprecedented in how it combined science fiction elements with slasher film tropes, but 1986’s Aliens took the franchise in a completely different direction by transforming the series into a nonstop action spectacle. It’s a perfect companion to the first film, as Alien dealt with themes of birth and conception, and Aliens explored mothership and family.

While Ridley Scott’s filmmaking was gradual and restrained, James Cameron’s is energetic and explosive. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is now more than a survivor, but an active protagonist who must reface her trauma by returning to the moon she escaped from to encounter more Xenomorphs. Weaver gives another emotionally resonant performance, particularly as Ripley cares for the child Newt, and the film features many memorable supporting performances, particularly Bill Paxton as the wisecracking Private Hudson.


3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is downright brilliant, a joyous revision of the Arthurian legend that examines the specific bonding experience of a father and son. Much of Indiana Jones’s life is defined by his somewhat tumultuous relationship with his father, and when he crosses paths with Henry Jones Sr. once again, the two work through their issues as they search for an artifact that has defined both of their lives. Henry Jones Sr. feels much like the opposite to his son, as he shows a disdain for the adventurous, action packed lifestyle, but over the course of the film it is understood that the two share a mutual fascination with the unknown and mysterious.

The set pieces are among the best Spielberg has ever directed, but every sequence is amplified by the excellent chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery. Although it’s by far the most action packed of the series and features some of the wittiest physical gags, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is also the most emotional, as Henry Sr.’s acceptance of his son (which culminates in him finally referring to him as “Indiana”) is a beautiful closure to their relationship. Ending with a beautiful ride into the sunset, it’s a wondrous spectacle.


2. Die Hard

There’s a reason Die Hard is the pinnacle of action films, and why years later it is still being duplicated and repeated. The film contains every element that makes a great action film, specifically in creating a relatable protagonist in John McClane, the role Bruce Willis was born to play. McClane’s cocky charisma and constant one liners elevate the exciting set pieces, and John McTiernan once again shows his ability to create claustrophobic situations in which McClane barely survives.

It would be impossible to talk about Die Hard without mentioning Hans Gruber; Alan Rickman gave a hell of a screen debut as the criminal mastermind, and Rickman’s unique mannerisms, blunt humor, and menacing demeanor would become the prototype for what every action movie villain would be measured against. Die Hard showed that the best action movies are often the ones that are the most intimate and character driven, as it is essentially a race against time for McClane to save everyone. Whether or not it is a Christmas movie isn’t relevant, as either way Die Hard is one of the most influential movies of its time.


1. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark was a revitalization of the adventure serial, a tribute to classical cinematic enchantment, an introduction to one of cinema’s best characters, and remains one of the greatest films ever made. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas poured all of their love of serialized escapism into an elaborate globetrotting adventure that combines history and mythology. Every environment in Raiders of the Lost Ark has a deep history written into it, and the cheeky sense of humor gives the film a deep emotional authenticity.

This is the role Harrison Ford was born to play; the brash, nerdy, wisecracking, and somewhat jaded archeology professor has all the qualities of a classic protagonist, and these are traits that Ford amplifies with his performance. Even though Indy tries to play himself off as a cynic, he cares deeply about the search for these artifacts, and his love for Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) grounds him in a very human way.

The back and forth relationship between the two is so authentic that it transcends the already brilliant dialogue to become something even more powerful, and Paul Freeman is similarly brilliant as the villainous French archaeologist Belloq, Indy’s chief rival. Raiders of the Lost Ark is timeless in its craftsmanship, featuring innovative action sequences such as the brutal truck chase and the exhilarating beginning boulder escape that hold up to this day. It’s a film synonymous with the magic of cinematic escapism, and is most definitely the best action film of the 1980s.