The Guys’ Guide to Action Movie Stars of The 1980s
Some of them rocked. Some of them sucked. And some of those who rocked sometimes sucked and those who sucked sometimes rocked. But they were always a blast to watch on the big screen. If you missed any of these stars, you’ve got some movies to watch. And if I missed any stars you think should be included, please let me know and I’ll add them in alphabetical order.
This action actor was pretty old by the time the 1980s rolled around, and he is probably best known for his roles in such movies as the original “Death Wish” in 1975, “The Dirty Dozen” in 1967 and “The Magnificent Seven” in 1960. Still, Bronson continued to work until his death in 2003, and he churned out plenty of action fodder in the 1980s. Sure, most of his stuff in the ’80s was kind of cheap action flicks, but such films can be fun to watch at times. And they probably paid the bills for the actor. Below is a poster from 1985’s “Death Wish III.” Altogether, there were eventually five “Death Wish” movies, the last coming out in 1994.
Clint was a holdover action star from the 1970s, but he still had some pretty solid action roles in the ’80s even as he was aging and before he became better known as a star director in the ’90s. Known for a long time as a Western actor, especially because of his Spaghetti Western roles from the ’60s including such movies as “Fistful of Dollars,” Clint continued his Western persona in “Pale Rider,” pictured below. And who could forget the two Dirty Harry films from the ’80s, “Sudden Impact” in 1983 and “The Dead Pool” in 1988. During this period, Eastwood starred in plenty of other movies, some solid and others clunky, but many of them action-oriented.
Before he became a big-name director and was embroiled in his own personal situations that always seemed to become public, this actor did a solid string of action movies in the 1980s. In fact, Gibson will always be remembered as the troubled, iconic figure of police detective Martin Riggs in the “Lethal Weapon” series, the first of which came out in 1987 and is still a great movie to this day. But even before that, Gibson played another iconic figure, the apocalyptic future cop Max in the “Mad Max” series of films. The first “Mad Max” came out in 1979, almost making it into the ’80s, but the other two films did come out in the 80s, “The Road Warrior” in 1981 and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” in 1985. To this day, I still think “The Road Warrior” might just be the best action movie ever created. And rumors are there’s a fourth “Mad Max” film in the works.
Rutger Hauer was never the biggest of movie stars, likely best remembered for his stunning roles in movies such as 1982’s sci-fi thriller “Blade Runner” and the original 1986 horror classic “The Hitcher,” though there are some who fondly remember him in the 1985 fantasy flick “Ladyhawke” and in other films from the era. Still, Hauer could bust heads when he needed to in movies, and he had a comical side, as could be seen in 1989’s “Blind Fury,” as seen below.
Harrison Ford isn’t generally thought of as an action star, or at least as a hardcore action hero, mainly because he’s done so much other stuff. But Ford has had plenty of action roles, the most memorable being his character Indiana Jones is the series of movies based around that character, the best of which is still the original, 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” And don’t forget Ford played the action-oriented Han Solo in the original Star Wars trilogy, including 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back” and 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” Along with Rutger Hauer, mentioned above, Ford was also great in “Blade Runner” from 1982.
Poor ole Dolph Lundgren never quite made it into big-time stardom, but he’s done he’s fair share of movies over the years, nearly all being action flicks to some extent. Film audiences first really noticed Lundgren in 1985’s “Rocky IV” in which he played the menacing Soviet boxer Ivan Drago, but he also got to play He-Man in 1987’s “Masters of the Universe.” During this time period Lundgren also appeared and starred in numerous lesser known movies, but he ended the 1980s with the title role in the original “The Punisher” movie alongside actor Loius Gossett, Jr.
Eddie Murphy is usually remembered as a comic, and that makes sense since he used to do stand-up comedy, was on Saturday Night Live and has done so many comedy movies. But back in the ’80s Ed was doing plenty of action-oriented, though usually quite funny, movies that topped the box office. To kick off Murphy’s action career, 1982’s “48 Hrs.” provided the laughs while also including plenty of gun battles, chases, thrilling moments, etc. Upping the action factor, but still keeping with comedy, one of Murphy’s best roles, even to this day, is his Axel Foley character from 1984’s “Beverly Hills Cop.” Murphy as Foley returned in 1987’s “Beverly Hills Cop II” and even later in “Beverly Hills Cop III,” though that didn’t come until 1994.
Now we are in serious action hero territory. Chuck Norris was still riding the high of his martial arts movie stardom from the 1970s as the ’80s kicked in, and things couldn’t have started better than with 1980’s “The Octagon” in which Chuck takes on an army of ninjas. And wins. By himself. Chuck went on to do a ton of action movies during the ’80s, my personal favorite being “Lone Wolf McQuade” from 1983. Also, he began starring in the “Missing in Action” series with the first movie in the series in 1984; sequels followed in 1985 and 1988. “The Delta Force” films also kicked the tail, the first one coming in 1986 and the second in 1990.
Sorry that Kurt isn’t prominent in the image below, but I’ve always thought the original poster for 1981’s “Escape from New York” was awesome and I wanted to include it here. Besides, that particular movie was one of Russell’s earliest action flicks. This actor has been known for a lot of different roles over his career, from his Disney films of the 1960s and ’70s to his dramatic roles of the last couple of decades, but I’ve always remembered him fondly for much of his work in the 1980s. How could one forget such characters as Snake Plissken in “Escape from New York” (and the 1996 sequel “Escape from L.A.”), truck driver Jack Burton in the hilarious “Big Trouble in Little China” from 1986 and helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady in the horrorfic “The Thing” of 1982?
A-h-h-h-nold! He’s perhaps the biggest action star of all time, and currently he’s the governor of the state of California. Who knew? But back in the day, there was nobody bigger than Schwarzenegger (Stallone came came close, but not quite). Arnold had done some earlier film work, but he really became known to audiences with the Sword and Sorcery fantasy classic “Conan the Barbarian” in 1982; a big guy swinging a big sword and taking care of business, nothing could be better. Then along came 1984 and “The Terminator;” this film would skyrocket Schwarzenegger to stardom. He played the bad guy in “The Terminator,” and still you loved his character, even if he only had something like five lines (and short ones at that) in the whole movie. Arnold then continued to churn out action flick after action flick, some weak but most pretty strong. A couple of the most memorable Arnold films from the ’80s include “Predator” in 1987 and ”The Running Man,” also in 1987.
As a teen watching action films in the 1980s, aikido black belt Steven Seagal seemed to come out of nowhere when his first film hit theaters in 1988. That movie? “Above the Law.” Sure, it wasn’t the greatest action or martial arts film of all time, but it wasn’t too bad. I’ve always felt the scene that sealed Seagal’s fate as a martial arts figure was towards the end of the movie when he broke a guys arm by snapping that arm backwards. Anyway, Seagal went on to make plenty of other movies, none of them released until the 1990s but which included such decent action flicks as “Hard to Kill” in 1990 and “Under Siege” in 1992.
With the exception of Schwarzenegger, Stallone is perhaps the biggest action draw of all time. First drawing audiences’ attention with 1976’s “Rocky,” Stallone went onto a huge action career, starring in six “Rocky” films altogether (so far). Besides his Rocky character, Stallone is probably best known onscreen for his portrayal of John Rambo, the tortured Vietnam veteran who comes home to more trouble in the unforgettable “First Blood” from 1982. Stallone went on to appear as Rambo in a total of four movies (again, so far), including “Rambo: First Blood Part II” in 1985 and “Rambo III” in 1988 (the fourth film, simply titled “Rambo,” didn’t come out until 2008). Throughout the years Stallone has done all kinds of movies, including comedies and straight dramatic roles, but he is usually remembered for much of his action work in the 1980s. One of my favorite movies of his is 1986’s “Cobra,” which is kind of cheesy but still fun; the poster for that movies is pictured below. I also want to point out another action-oriented Stallone film from this era, the seemingly forgotten “Nighthawks” of 1981, also starring Rutger Hauer and Billy Dee Williams; admittedly “Nighthawks” isn’t the best movie ever, but I have fond memories of watching it late-night on cable as a young teenager.
Though Jean-Claude had done a little earlier screen work, it was really 1988’s “Bloodsport” when he became an action and martial arts star. He went on to fill out the ’80s with more memorable action roles, including 1989’s “Cyborg” and “Kickboxer” (also from 1989 and pictured below). Throughout the ’90s Van Damme continued to make solid, thought not always fantastic, action movies, and he’s still at it today.
Carl Weathers is probably more remembered today as golf coach Chubbs in Adam Sandler’s “Happy Gilmore” of 1996, but he appeared and starred in a ton of action movies in the 1980s. First off, Weathers was Rocky’s opponent and later friend in Stallone’s “Rocky” movies. And Weathers also had a big role to play in Schwarzenegger’s “Predator.” Carl finally got a shot to go out on his own with 1988’s “Action Jackson,” but unfortunately it didn’t draw a big enough audience to make Weathers a top action star. Still, many remember Weather’s action role from the ’80s with a lot of fondness.
America really first began to take note of Bruce Willis in the television show “Moonlighting” in the mid-80s, so he was a relatively familiar face by the time he hit it big in 1988 playing a cop taking on terrorists in the never-forgettable “Die Hard,” which has since spawned three sequels. “Die Hard” is really Bruce’s biggest action hit of the 1980s, but it’s such a good and important movie (at least to the action genre), it and he have to be mentioned here. Besides, Willis went on to plenty of other movie roles, many of which had action elements, such as in 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” or 1995’s “Twelve Monkeys.”
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