During the early 1980’s the movie business was forever changed by the rise of VCR’s and premium movie channels such as HBO and Cinemax. The number of feature films expanded to meet spiking demand and consumer taste. There were many stellar Comedy films in the 1980’s; however, most impressive was the surge in high quality, blockbuster action-adventure films. The film snobs of the beard, pipe and beret crowd (think Academy voters) bemoaned and ignored action flicks, but they could not dismiss the huge Box Office numbers. I think it is way past time to show some respect for the genre; therefore, I have built a highly subjective list around my favorite action-adventure films, with a few horror and guilty-pleasure thrillers added to kick up the fun. Also I picked only one film per director for the top 13, so as not to be chided as a “Director Fan Boy”. Actually it was a simple chore to select this list, since there are so many genuinely entertaining movies created by outstanding Directors in their signature styles during the 1980s decade.
Listed by order of ascending release dates.
1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 1980 Action adventure Sci-Fi
As every film fan knows, this movie is one of the very rare sequels that rival the original famous films they followed. Empire Strikes Back took all the advanced F/X of Star Wars, and joined it to an adult storyline that feels truly epic. Luke Skywalker's voyage of discovery is a journey not to be missed. The heroes struggle with tragedy and adversity, especially Han Solo, and it makes them deeper and more charismatic characters. This is one of the most enjoyable and rewatchable movies, in any genre.
2. The Shining 1980 horror
This is the BEST crafted horror film of the 80's – and perhaps in the top five of all time. The haunting beauty of the stunning visuals throughout the movie is a feast for the eyes: from the grandeur of the mountains on the drive to the haunted Overlook Hotel, to the final murderous chase in the wintry hedge maze. We watch this psychological horror with a sense of dread as a seemingly normal family man descends into total madness. Classic shock scenes abound: eerie atmosphere of dreadful ghosts, smooth transitions from reality to illusions, Jack Nicholson at his all-time evil best, hysterical woman screaming her lungs out, always dark, dark, dark and do not look into those mirrors. Only for the bravest of movie fans. Very Scary stuff.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981 action adventure
This is the original and best movie of the Indiana Jones series. The famous opening scene sets the pace and tone of this classic adventure tale. Our favorite archaeologist travels the globe in search for the fabled Lost Ark of the Covenant. He battles Nazi villains in brilliant set pieces, employing dozens of intrepid stuntmen. Few films move so fluidly from one great action scene to the next. Often copied but never equaled or surpassed, Raiders is still the King of the Action/adventure genre. Some parts may be too violent for the younger ones, especially the ending.
4. The Road Warrior - Mad Max 2 1981 action adventure thriller
My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a time of chaos. Ruined dreams. This wasted land. But most of all, I remember the Road Warrior... One of the best sequels ever made. It's everything the original was and more. See Mel Gibson at his acting zenith. Good ensemble cast of unknowns, with intense car chases sequences that have yet to be rivaled. One of the best futuristic sci-fi films ever made – an essential film for your private DVD collection and still the best one of the Mad Max series. The 2015 muddled remake (Fury Road) pales in comparison to this classic movie.
5. Dogs of War 1981 action adventure
A third-world regime change is accomplished in this movie without spending billions of taxpayer’s dollars. An interesting flick as it relates to a cost-effective foreign policy, and the mastery of organized violence. Christopher Walken stars as the ringleader of a band of mercenaries, and delivers an intelligent, gripping performance. This little known, underrated film ranks as one of Walken’s best, unheralded lead performances. The Rambo style ending is a little too Hollywood, but who wouldn’t love to fire a grenade launcher from the hip – just like Chris did.
6. Thief 1981 suspense thriller crime
One of the most underrated movies of the 1980s. James Caan has remarked that this movie contains his finest lead performance. He is dynamic throughout, but also delivers a subtle, complex performance. The film works both as an exciting caper movie, and a drama about the human heart. In many ways it is the best crime film to make that difficult combination. The script rings true and is almost too good to believe. A talented supporting cast, led by veteran character actor Robert Prosky, delivers excellent work. Prosky is best known for playing kindly, grandfather types, but here he is a ruthless, silver-tongued gangster. Cool, moody soundtrack too. This is another one for the private DVD collection.
7. Blade Runner 1982 suspense thriller sci-fi
The late 1970's and early 1980's were the golden age of sci-fi movies - Terminator, Star Wars, RoboCop, Superman, Aliens and Star Trek- Wrath of Khan, to name a few. But Blade Runner is my top choice for the golden age. The acting, imaginative storyline and soundtrack were all outstanding. The film is still just as visually unique now as it was when it came out. I have a Blade Runner poster on the wall in my home theater with the famous tag line: Man has made his match, now it is his problem. That ominous phrase warns the viewer that he will be in for a wild ride on the subject of AI. The cast is one of the best ever assembled in movie history, and is duly credited to the skill of Ridley Scott. My favorite character actor, M. Emmet Walsh, shines as the boozy, cornpone Police Captain Bryant. He is the perfect foil for Deckard, the tight-strung Blade Runner. The gals amp-up the voltage – wild-eyed, witchy Daryl Hannah and flamboyant, prissy, drop-dead gorgeous Sean Young – add style, beauty and grace. And finally, Rutger Hauer, as Roy Batty, brings to life one the most memorable and complex villains to grace the silver screen. It is his career best performance by a mile. Finally there is endless jibber-jabber on the internet about which is the best DVD version of the film. I prefer the Director’s Cut, without the voiceover. But that is a minor deal and you can go figure it out for yourself.
8. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan 1982 action adventure Sci-Fi
As a loyal fan of the original Star Trek TV series, it was a pleasure to see the old gang back together on the Enterprise. All the flaws of the previous Star Trek movie are fixed and instead of boredom, we have an interesting storyline together with a powerful, evil villain hungry for bitter revenge. Many people overlook Bill Shatner’s subtle performance in this film: (the scene near the end) when Kirk hears McCoy's soft, broken voice over the intercom and then notices Spock's empty seat. The look on Kirk's face says it all. It is a punch in the gut I did not see coming. That’s great acting. Skip the awful 2013 remake (Star Trek Into Darkness) and watch this 1982 movie to see how it should be done.
9. Terminator 1984 Action adventure Sci-Fi
This time-travel tale raised the bar for action sci-fi flicks. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wooden acting style and foreign accent was pitch-perfect for the role of a relentless, unstoppable killing machine, aka Terminator. The film was a huge box office success with solid acting, cool special effects and catchy one-liners such as: "I'll be back."
10. Body Double 1984 crime thriller
This underrated movie is a true post-modern classic. Better than any other film, it shows you that Hollywood is indeed one of the craziest places in the world. Ignore the negative reviews, and give this one a spin in the DVD player. It is a wild mix of campy Vampire B-movies, voyeurism, satire, and murder. The cool soundtrack is an extra bonus. This erotic masterpiece has a look and feel all its own, and features a career best performance by Melanie Griffith as unforgettable bad girl, Holly Body.
11. Live and Die in LA 1985 Action Crime Drama
This is one hard-hitting cop movie, yet was panned by the TV critics. Why? This movie blurs the line between the good guys and bad guys. The police protagonists are not particularly noble, and indeed display varying degrees of violence and lawlessness. The news gadflies were uncomfortable with the characters, obviously preferring the bullshitty, moralistic Good guys often featured in Buddy Cop flicks. They expected a cookie cutter crime movie and were disappointed and angry. Sorry, get over it. I thought the characters were psychologically well drawn, and believable. Willem Dafoe creates one of the best villains in cinematic history, Rick Masters, the artist-counterfeiter, and the cop duo team together, but it never turns warm and cutesy. Like most male relationships, it turns on instrumental behavior, a joint effort at work. This is a brutal, tough, and underrated movie, with perhaps the most exciting car chase scene of all time. The film refuses to soften its blows or coddle the audience, and that’s the way it ends.
12. Runaway Train 1985 action adventure
Ice covered locomotives racing through Alaskan woodlands – the bleak wintry images are powerful, and as good as cinema gets. The movie really belongs to Manny (Jon Voight) and Buck (Eric Roberts), two hardened criminals with not much in common except desperation, fear, and bitter cold. This is a forgotten, underrated movie with a relentless chase plot that never drags nor stumbles into a needless subplot. Just great acting and pure action for you adrenaline junkies.
13. RoboCop 1987 Action adventure Sci-Fi
A corporate version of the Frankenstein fable, if you please. In this case, the modern Dr. Frankenstein is a slick, hyper-ambitious, nasty tempered executive lacking a moral compass. The man/machine is product: Robocop. This film obsesses with corporate fascism and creates some of the most memorable villains in movie history. The back story is profound and RoboCop is a living example of science fiction's struggle between AI technology and humanity. This film questions about how far we'll go to keep society safe from crime. A surprisingly well-written film with timely subject matter and great action scenes.
Honorable mentions 1980’s action/adventure:
ET, Predator, Highlander, Conan the Barbarian, First Blood, Lethal Weapon.