The Greatest Action Movies of the 80s, According to Ranker

The 1980s were a unique period in the history of cinema, where everything was right and nothing was overdone. ’80s action films best exemplified this hyperbolic style of cinema and were surprisingly diverse in genre and tone, from sci-fi horror to buddy-cop comedy and everything in between.

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Now the vast community of experts on Ranker is back, and this time thousands of people have voted for the “Best Action Movies of the 80s”.

Commandos (1985)


John Matrix wielding a rocket launcher in Commando

With 80s action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger, Commando is arguably the most “Schwarzenegger-esque” of all his films. The film follows a special forces commando who comes out of retirement to save his daughter, who has been kidnapped by a group of rogue mercenaries.

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Pulling all the stops in terms of 80s action movie tropes, from neck snaps to rocket launchers, South American jungles and plenty of sarcastic one-liners, Commando was a massive box office success, despite being rated R, and even spawned a line of action figures.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)


Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back

Although Star Wars doesn’t immediately come to mind when you think of ’80s action movies, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back fits the bill perfectly, with all of its signature one-liners, explosive action, and blockbuster battles.

A rare example of a sequel surpassing its predecessor, The Empire Strikes Back became the highest-grossing film of 1980 and was a pioneer in terms of special effects and set design. It is arguably considered the first true “Blockbuster” film, in terms of the hype surrounding its release and the immense impact on pop culture.


First Blood (1982)


Best First Blood Action Movies

The film that launched the character of Rambo in the popular imagination, first blood stars and was co-written by Sylvester Stallone. Stallone, who was still at the peak of success in the Rocky series, wanted to explore a darker, grittier persona and found one in Rambo from the eponymous 1972 novel.

The film itself follows outcast drifter John Rambo, a former Special Forces soldier and troubled Vietnam War veteran, who comes to blows with a despotic small-town police chief. The conflict escalates when Rambo uses his training to deadly effect, sparking a massive manhunt. The film was an immediate success with critics and audiences, first blood spawned an incredibly popular franchise centered around the character of Rambo, for decades to come.


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)


Indiana Jones and her dad got tied up in The Last Crusade.

The third installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is significantly less dark and graphic in terms of tone, compared to the previous two films. Directed and co-written by Hollywood duo Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, The Last Crusade follows daring archaeologist, Indiana Jones, as he teams up with his father to hunt for the long-lost Holy Grail.

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Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was a smash hit at the box office and a critical success as well, with praise going to Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, who portrayed Indy and Dr. Jones Sr., respectively. According to BNC Newsthe film also put several historic locations on the map, including the ancient ruins of Petra, which has become a popular tourist destination with over one million annual visitors.


Lethal Weapon (1987)


The ultimate action movie between cop buddies, lethal weapon stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as two “lone wolf” cops forced to work together. In this classic setup often emulated by later films, this mismatched duo team up to hunt down a gang of ruthless drug dealers.

Upon its release, The Washington Post describe lethal weapon as “a vivid and visceral reminder of the excitement of an action movie” with the famous film critic Roger Ebert giving the film 4 out of 4 stars. lethal weapon went on to spawn an incredibly successful franchise, with Lethal Weapon 5 in the works with Mel Gibson slated to direct.


Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)


The first film of the incredibly popular IndianaJones franchise. The Raiders of the Lost Ark follows enterprising archaeologist, Indiana Jones, as he travels the world, exploring exotic destinations and battling the Nazis to recover the legendary lost Ark of the Covenant.

For The Raiders of the Lost ArkSpielberg and Lucas sought to reinvent early 20th century serial films and the fictional novels of their youth, arguably the predecessors of ’80s action films. The Raiders of the Lost Ark received a lot of praise from audiences and critics upon its release. Indiana Jones’ main character was particularly well received, with comparisons to James Bond and Humphry Bogart.

Aliens (1986)


Aliens-Newt-Ripley

The highly anticipated sequel to the hit 1979 sci-fi film Extraterrestrialby James Cameron aliens starred Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ripley, one of the few female action heroines of the 1980s. The film itself follows Ripley as she awakens from cryo-sleep to save a space colony from the hostile Xenomorph alien race.

Unlike the 1979 original Extraterrestrial by Ridley Scott, which had a darker horror tone, aliens shifted to the action-adventure genre, a change that was well received by critics and audiences. The film became one of the highest-grossing films of 1986 and even earned Weaver a Best Actress Oscar nomination.


Predator (1987)


Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator 1987

Spawning such iconic lines as “Get To The Choppa!” and “You’re an ugly mother-f *****”, Predator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Vietnam War veteran “Dutch” Schaefer, who leads a team of elite mercenaries on a rescue mission deep in a Central American rainforest. What Schaefer doesn’t realize is that he and his team are themselves being hunted by an alien being, The Predator, who stalks humans for sport.

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Although initially met with mixed critical response, Predator was hugely popular with audiences, becoming the second highest-grossing film in 1987. It went on to inspire an expansive cinematic universe of movies, toys, and video games that even tied into the Alien franchise.

Die Hard (1988)


John McClane screaming with a gun in Die Hard

Considered the “ultimate Christmas movie”, die hard stars Bruce Willis as John McClane, an off-duty NYPD detective who is caught up in a terrorist operation in a Los Angeles skyscraper on Christmas Eve. McClane must face the ruthless German terrorist Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman in his first film role.

Upon its release, die hard far exceeded all expectations in terms of critical and box office success, and even earned 4 Oscar nominations. McClane’s character was particularly well received as being more approachable and realistic compared to other contemporary action heroes. The success of die hard spawned a film franchise of multiple movies, comics, and video games.

The Terminator (1984)


The Terminator after arriving in Los Angeles in 1984

Perfectly capturing the underlying tension and societal anxiety of an impending global nuclear war in the mid-1980s, The Terminator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, a robot assassin sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, the future mother of the leader of the human resistance against the machines. The Terminator established Schwarzenegger as an international movie star, James Cameron as a visionary director, and Stan Winston as a special effects pioneer.

Despite low expectations from studio executives, The Terminator had an impressive box office run. Reviews were mixed upon release, with some praising its tech-noir tone and action sequences, but others criticizing the film for being “too violent”. The Terminator became a huge cultural icon, from its one-liners like “I’ll Be Back” and “Come With Me If You Want To Live,” to the dark electronic musical score and deadpan performance by Schwarzenegger. The film currently holds a rare 100% on rotten tomatoes and has been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


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