Testosterone, guns, cars, “guns,” and sweat. Mostly sweat. That’s the perfect recipe for the best 80s action movies. These were propelled by none other than the most iconic action stars (who are now either museum relics or politicians). All of them helped raise a generation of millennials and boomers alike who think they can fight after watching Stallone or Schwarzenegger’s biceps flex.
Can you blame them, though? Watching those muscle-flexing scenes can grow anyone a beard and chest hair, regardless of their gender. So get those waxes and razors ready (or just the popcorn) because the following best 80s action movies are here.
Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t the best actor ever, but it’s easy to remember him as such since he chose his roles well according to his capacity. The Terminator is a prime example of such a role.
The Terminator is not just a great action movie; it’s a great sci-fi and monster movie rolled into one. Directed by James Cameron, the film introduces us to the relentless cyborg known as the Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Set against a backdrop of a dystopian future, it follows Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) as they try to survive the relentless pursuit of the Terminator. It would eventually give way to a more sensible and heartfelt sequel in the 90s.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Conan the Barbarian marked Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ascent to action stardom. From director John Milius, the film tells the epic rise of Conan, a young warrior who witnesses the massacre of his village and sets out on a quest for revenge.
This hard-R fantasy is a brutal and bloody adventure that showcases Schwarzenegger’s peak physical form. With its sorcery, swordplay, and unforgettable score, Conan the Barbarian is the quintessential ’80s action fantasy movie.
More importantly, it’s also somewhat of a statement and commentary on toxic masculinity, with Conan gradually growing into his own character after being brainwashed and indoctrinated to be an aggressive and domineering pitfighter in his youth.
Predator is the epitome of the ’80s machismo. Directed by John McTiernan, this sci-fi action extravaganza features Arnold Schwarzenegger leading an elite special ops squad deep into the Central American jungle on a rescue mission. However, their mission takes a terrifying turn when they realize they’re being hunted by a fearsome alien creature with a penchant for tearing out spines.
The film oozes testosterone (and steroids), from the memorable one-liners to the relentless action sequences. Stan Winston’s creature design and the mano-a-mano showdown make Predator a classic of the genre.
In hindsight, Predator is also an anti-machismo film when you think about it because it portrays gung-ho and tough-as-nails caricatures of army men getting slaughtered by an alien life form that’s smarter, bigger, stronger, and more skillful. And the hero of the film only won by using his wits and not relying on his brawn.
Rocky 3 (1982)
The Rocky franchise arguably reached its ’80s peak with the nostalgic Rocky 3. A passion project starring Sylvester Stallone, this installment sees Rocky Balboa facing off against the fierce Clubber Lang, played by Mr. T.
The film combines boxing action with themes of redemption and personal growth after the titular protagonist falls off from his prime due to complacency and arrogance. With memorable training montages and the return of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky 3 packed a punch in the world of ’80s sports action.
For Stallone, it was also a rather important notch in his eternal competition against Schwarzenegger as the best 80s action star.
First Blood (1982)
First Blood, or the first Rambo movie, is, surprisingly, a departure from the typical ’80s action fare, offering a more nuanced and dramatic experience.
Sylvester Stallone plays John Rambo, a troubled Vietnam veteran who becomes the target of a small-town police force due to his trauma and the authority’s prejudice. The film delves into the psychological toll of war and the mistreatment of veterans, making it a thought-provoking and relevant action movie that stood out in the decade.
It’s a shame, though, that the subsequent Rambo installments later devolved into the action movie formula with little regard for the characterization and humanity of its protagonists.
Die Hard (1988)
Die Hard redefined the action genre and introduced us to John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, a New York cop who finds himself single-handedly battling terrorists in a Los Angeles skyscraper during a Christmas party.
The film’s clever script and non-stop thrills set a new standard for action movies, especially in a rather saturated 80s genre. Bruce Willis’s portrayal of the vulnerable yet resourceful hero, combined with Alan Rickman’s unforgettable villain, makes Die Hard an enduring classic and also the best Christmas movie in the US.
Escape from New York (1981)
Escape from New York is one of the lesser-known action films here, and it presents a dystopian vision of a future where Manhattan has become a maximum-security prison.
Kurt Russell plays Snake Plissken, a former Special Forces soldier tasked with rescuing the President from the prison island. John Carpenter’s bleak and gritty depiction of this world sets the stage for a race against time, complete with gun battles, explosions, and forced fights to the death.
Despite its early ’80s release, this film’s high concept and detailed world-building still hold up these days, and it’s also worth noting that it became one of the primary inspirations for the most prolific video game franchises of all time, Metal Gear Solid.
James Cameron’s Aliens took Ridley Scott’s original horror film and transformed it into an action-packed thriller that actually works.
Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Ellen Ripley, now joined by a team of Colonial Marines as they face off against a horde of deadly Xenomorphs on the planet LV-426. The film expertly balances suspense, relentless action, and a strong ensemble cast, making it a worthy sequel.
However, if you’re looking for a horror movie coming from the original meditative Alien, you might be slightly disappointed as Aliens was intent on belonging to a different genre. It even sacrificed the mystery of the Xenomorphs and turned them into giant insects, not that we’re complaining.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a timeless adventure film that introduced the world to Indiana Jones, portrayed by Harrison Ford. He’s the James Bond of the archaeologist circle.
Created by George Lucas and brought to life by Steven Spielberg, the film combined big set pieces, humor, and thrilling action sequences. From the iconic boulder chase to the epic truck chase, Raiders is a cinematic experience that continues to captivate audiences and remains a cornerstone of the action genre.
While you’re at it, you can also follow up with the sequels, some of which were also released in the 80s.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Vehicular carnage and acrobatics in action films weren’t really mainstream back then until Mad Max came along and turned cars into action movie heroes.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is a post-apocalyptic masterpiece that solidified Mel Gibson’s status as an action icon and improved upon the first film’s vehicular spectacle.
George Miller’s film follows Max as he navigates a desolate wasteland in search of fuel while battling marauding gangs. The film’s car chases, stunts, and brutal action sequences remain a high watermark for the genre, which would eventually pave the way for modern vehicular movie action.