The action movie, as we understand it today, is a pretty recent phenomenon. There were movies with shootouts or car chases before the 1980s, but that was the decade when the idea of the action movie truly solidified. It’s also not coincidentally when we started to see movie stars whose entire careers were built around starring in these kinds of movies.
The excesses of the 1980s have given way to a movie landscape today that is defined, in large part, by what the action movies of the 1980s had to offer. That’s not to say that Top Gun is the reason we have Avengers: Endgame, but they aren’t unrelated. The 1980s also featured loads of terrific action movies, and the best of the genre stands up with the best of what action has to offer.
10. Top Gun (1986)
Even today, the action in Top Gun is still pretty astounding. The movie, which follows a group of elite navy pilots, features plenty of actual flying, and that flight is the most thrilling thing about the film. Unlike many of the movies on this list, though, Top Gun is pretty light on plot. Instead, the movie is defined by a kind of masculine energy that’s only punctured when tragedy strikes unexpectedly. It’s a brutal gut check and a reminder that there are stakes behind every mission that these pilots undertake.
9. Predator (1987)
About as straightforward as action movies get, Predator is great because of its simplicity. The movie follows a group of commandos who are sent on a mission to save hostages in a group that’s under guerilla rule. When they get into the jungle, they find a deadly alien who picks them off one by one. The movie is basically one extended action sequence, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance may not be subtle, but it is thoroughly compelling. Add in John McTiernan’s expert hand in the director’s chair, and you have a recipe for pure cinematic bliss.
8. They Live (1988)
John Carpenter has made movies across a wide array of genres, but They Live is one of his lesser-known masterpieces. Telling the story of a construction worker who discovers that the world is controlled by aliens disguised as humans, They Live is both nihilistic and utterly thrilling. It’s an action movie that takes some time to make fun of the conventions of the genre, but the movie is also plenty thrilling on its own terms. Roddy Piper and Keith David make a great team, They Live lands blow after blow as their characters try to free the world from the control of their alien oppressors.
7. The Terminator (1984)
The Terminator is technically an independent film, and it’s also one of the signature achievements of director James Cameron’s career. This movie is the perfect blend of action and horror, and it manages to create genuine menace out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, using his deadpan affect to great effect. Given how much money this movie cost, it’s fairly remarkable how much Cameron and his collaborators were able to accomplish. Plenty of people prefer T2 to the original, but The Terminator is much more grounded and gritty, and it’s all the better for its blend of action and horror tropes.
6. Batman (1989)
The first movie in an early comic book boom, Batman would have been viewed as a much riskier gamble if it hadn’t been such a tremendous success. The movie, which expertly casts Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in its central roles, is as much about the Joker as it is about Batman. While you may find the plot a little ridiculous, it’s hard to deny that the movie feels polished and cool in a way that superhero movies are still trying to ape. Director Tim Burton has made more personal movies than Batman, but you can still feel his oddness infused in every frame of this movie, and especially in his vision of a retro Gotham City.
5. Robocop (1987)
A remarkably prescient action movie about the militarization of the police, Robocop feels even more relevant today than when it was first made. Telling the story of a policeman who becomes a half-robot, half-human cop, the movie is both more and less outlandish than that premise may sound. Ultimately, though, Robocop succeeds because it’s both a thrilling action movie and a pointed piece of political commentary. Paul Verhoven, the film’s director, came to the U.S. in the 1980s, and his opinions about American culture are all embedded expertly in Robocop‘s bleak vision of a dystopian Detroit.
4. Aliens (1986)
James Cameron has two entries on this list, and that’s because the 1980s were the decade when his skill as an action director became readily apparent. With Aliens, Cameron was given the impossible task of following up on a perfect horror movie, and in doing so he decided to bring the franchise into a new genre. Aliens is a full-on action movie, filled with plenty of horror but also lots of gunfights and even a climactic battle between a big boss and our hero. Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Ripley is a tour de force, so much so that she earned an Oscar nomination in spite of the movie’s genre trappings.
3. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
The first Mad Max feels like a dry run for what was to come in The Road Warrior and eventually in Fury Road. The Road Warrior tells a simple story. Max comes across a community of survivors in the wilderness and decides to help them fend off the raiders that are coming to destroy their home. Like Fury Road, most the movie is basically one extended action sequence, and that’s part of what makes it so thrilling. Miller knows how to establish his characters with total economy. Every major player is finely drawn, even though there are massive stretches of this film where nobody says a word.
2. Die Hard (1988)
The movie that made Bruce Willis a superstar, Die Hard is great, and not just because of Willis. The film, which follows a regular cop who finds himself engaged in an individual effort to take down a group of professional criminals who are posing as terrorists. Die Hard has what is basically the perfect structure for an action movie. There’s an emotional backbone, plenty of well-paced action, and a remarkably great, villainous performance from Alan Rickman. It’s easy to reduce what makes Die Hard great down to just Willis, but without every other element, Die Hard wouldn’t have been the phenomenon it became.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
On a list of great movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark is unlike any other. Not only is it set in a different era than the rest of the movies on this list, it’s also a movie more about mysticism than science fiction. Harrison Ford may be the greatest movie star of all time, and Raiders is his definitive statement. He’s a perfect physical comedian, an effortless romantic hero, and an action star all rolled into a single package. Add director Steven Spielberg’s expertise into the mix, and Raiders becomes a perfect combination of rollicking action and sweeping emotion.