Ah, the 1980s. The years of big hair, scrunchies, velour and dookie chains - not to mention the loudly patterned button down shirts and slogan t-shirts. But the 1980s were also known for the shoot-em-up, knock-em-down action movies that we still turn to today for enjoyment. Sure, there's the Christmas classic Die Hard and the original Terminator, but what of those films that didn't get much notice the first time they hit the box office? Those ones we've spent hours combing Netflix or our channels for that may not have been noticed much the first time, but that we secretly loved?
Well, those are always worth taking note of because if you've loved them, there are others who have as well, guaranteed. Here are 10 essential but basically underrated action flicks of the 80s, in no particular order:
1. Bloodsport, 1988
Now a beloved cult classic starring a 28-year-old Jean Claude Van Damme, Bloodsport did reasonably well at the box office, with an adjusted domestic total gross of just over $24.4 million on a fairly small budget of about $3 to $4.7 million in adjusted figures. The movie highlighted his athletic prowess and brought martial arts movies into modern times. It also featured one of JCVD's signature moves:
In a year where films like Rainman, Big and, of course, Die Hard reigned supreme, Bloodsport was at the time a poorly grossing flick for the year - it only grossed less than a tenth of what Rainman made at the theaters for the year. However, this cult classic has gained a lot of popularity over the last 28 years since its release, and you'd be hard pressed to find another movie to match its tone or its level of suspense. Plus, the final fight between Van Damme and Bolo Yeung, who makes a fearsome opponent, is not to be missed.
2. Roadhouse, 1989
In a flick where Sam Elliott set hearts ablaze with his easygoing charm and Patrick Swayze put his dance training to outstanding use in his fight scenes, Roadhouse is an underrated action flick, to be sure. The film is seething with tension throughout, whether it's while Swayze is trying to get the upper hand on corrupt businessman Ben Gazzara or while he's trying to wrestle his own demons and get the girl (Kelly Lynch). Earning $64.4 million in adjusted figures, the film earned a number of nominations for Golden Raspberry Awards, but has garnered new life on television and video, becoming a cult classic and a favorite film featuring Swayze.
3. Kickboxer, 1989
It's really hard to envision underrated movies of the 1980s without thinking of Jean Claude Van Damme. JCVD was such a huge action star in the 1980s and 90s that he seems almost synonymous with action movies. However, many of his movies tended to be underperformers at the box office; while they did well, insofar as they were generally made for very little money and earned quite a bit in return, they very rarely cracked the top 50 or so of box office grosses for the years they hit theaters. Kickboxer was no exception; having only earned $31.5 million in adjusted figures, it only ranked at #69 for box office grosses for that year.
Kickboxer is familiar territory, as it gives Jean Claude Van Damme an opportunity to once again highlight his martial arts prowess. Again, Kickboxer is another tale of seeking revenge, in much the same way as Bloodsport was, but the elements of brotherhood and friendship figure prominently. Stories like this seem to be JCVD's specialty, where he comes to the rescue of his wronged family member or friend and lays a savage beatdown on his enemies. At its core, Kickboxer is very much a story about integrity and personal strength - both qualities that Van Damme demonstrates as Kurt Sloane, the hero of the piece.
4. Manhunter, 1986
Starring a pre-CSI William Petersen as FBI criminal profiler Will Graham on the trail of Dollarhyde, and like its successor - the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs - Graham has to meet with Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecktor, who nearly counted Graham among his victims. This is a tightly directed, if sometimes cheesy, action flick written and directed by Michael Mann, who also directed Heat, Ali, Collateral, 2006's Miami Vice and Public Enemies. This film could be seen as a setup for the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs; in fact, this was the first adaptation of Thomas Harris' novel of Red Dragon; there was another adaptation in 2002, starring Edward Norton and Julianne Moore.
Manhunter did not do well at the box office at the time; it only made $18.6 million in adjusted box office figures and was 76th in terms of box office grosses for the year. However, the film has since become something of a cult classic, as it has gotten more favorable reviews over the years for the acting and the visuals - William Petersen's starring role in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation probably didn't hurt, either. Production near the end of the film became a bit inventive, as well. Since most of the crew had already left the production as a result of the time constraints, the shoot-out scene saw whatever crew remaining blowing ketchup across the set through hoses to simulate blood spatter, since there was no special effects crew, and Joan Allen said that Mann threw glass jars across the set to simulate the impact of bullets; one shard of glass became lodged in Petersen's thigh.
5. Big Trouble In Little China, 1986
Nowadays, it's hard to imagine Kurt Russell as a big action star, but in the 1980s and 1990s, he was a big name in the action industry. While some might say that Russell is virtually synonymous with Big Trouble In Little China, there was a point at which Russell had contemplated not taking the role. It wasn't until he'd spoken further with director John Carpenter that he realized that Jack Burton, the character Carpenter wanted him to play, was as flawed as he could have been appealing, thereby cementing the role for Russell.
The film was a box office flop, however; released on a budget of $54.1 million in today's figures, the film only grossed just over $24 million in adjusted figures. Part of the issue, Carpenter and Russell explained in the DVD commentary for the film, may have been the huge hype for Aliens, which was released just 16 days later. The film has gone on to become a huge cult classic, and critics have both praised Russell's performance and slammed the film due to its huge special effects seemingly without purpose. Regardless, Big Trouble In Little China has become a much-loved film; Empire ranked the film at 430 on its "500 Movies Of All Time" list in 2008.
6. The Punisher, 1989
This version of The Punisher is little known, but just as worthy as the other titles on this list; starring Dolph Lundgren and Louis Gossett Jr., this flick never actually got a United States release in spite of best intentions to do so. Put together by Australia's New World Productions, which set up the promotional material for The Punisher, New World was having some financial difficulties and opted out of a United States release. It instead opted to release The Punisher as a direct-to-video film.
This version of The Punisher actually has the unique distinction of being the only Punisher flick where Frank Castle does not wear the traditional skull t-shirt. Dolph Lundgren's Punisher is also one with a distinct sense of compassion, as he is tasked to rescue a large group of kidnapped children, which naturally occurs with a great deal of firepower and explosions. This is a not-to-be missed version of The Punisher, and while the movie did not do well on Rotten Tomatoes, The Punisher is definitely a character that continues to appeal both for his unique sense of integrity and his sense of justice.
7. Red Scorpion, 1989
Yet another Dolph Lundgren action flick, Red Scorpion was plagued by production problems almost from the outset. While trying to film in South Africa during the height of apartheid, the film was condemned for breaking the international boycott against South Africa at the time. Not only that, but there were other production issues that ultimately caused the film to go $8 million to $10 million over budget for the production.
All told, the film ultimately only made nearly $9 million in adjusted total gross and was made for a budget of around $31.4 million in adjusted dollars. While that definitely puts Red Scorpion at a significant loss, Red Scorpion has become a favorite of Dolph Lundgren fans, and has since become something of a cult classic among lovers of 1980s action flicks.
8. Red Dawn, 1984
While this became a top-20 grossing movie for 1984, Red Dawn is probably one of the few films on this list that was hugely politicized. Featuring several teen heartthrobs of the era - Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell - and a pair of 1980s beauties in Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey, Red Dawn was one of the few movies to show that teens had the power to take on the biggest enemies that would leave most adults quaking in their boots.
Of course, this was the height of the Cold War, and movies where the Soviet Union and the United States were at odds were definite draws for the box offices at the time. Red Dawn offered audiences taut action, some family drama and an opportunity for some of the younger actors of the generation to really prove that they could carry a taut action thrill ride. The film scored $97.2 million in adjusted box office take - that's serious coin, given the low grosses of the other films on this list.
9. Avenging Force, 1986
Michael Dudikoff takes on the role of Matt Hunter, played by Chuck Norris in the prequel to this film, Invasion USA. This time, it's Dudikoff taking on the role of the captain who's ready to take on any enemy forces, and this time those enemies come in the form of the Pentangle. Steve James plays Hunter's best friend, Larry Richards, who is a politician who has somehow become a victim of the Pentangle's henchmen. As is usually the case in action films like these, Hunter's sister is kidnapped to pressure him into joining the Pentangle, and this only fuels the man's thirst to take the Pentangle apart, one man at a time. The film didn't do that well in the box office - it only snagged a scant $10.7 million in adjusted box office totals.
10. Cyborg, 1989
Ah, Jean Claude Van Damme - the penultimate star of hard hitting martial arts and action films of the 1980s. Cyborg followed the tradition that JCVD had established in his previous films like Bloodsport and Kickboxer, except this time, Jean Claude Van Damme is showing the strain of carrying two of his biggest box office hits to date. As mercenary Gibson Rickenbacker, it's clear that this is a man fighting for survival in a world he did not create, but Van Damme is also at his fighting best, as he helps to ensure that cyborg Pearl Prophet ultimately completes her mission.
Like most of Van Damme's action movies of the 1980s and 1990s, these were not huge box office hits, but as always, he garnered a huge following in video and in pay per view. While this is definitely not a movie heavy on his martial arts prowess, this is a show sure to keep you on the edge of your seat.
The 1980s Were The Bomb!
While this list definitely does not cover all the great 1980s action pictures, this will definitely get neophytes started in the 1980s popcorn best. Whether it's Van Damme, or Russell, or Dudikoff, there's going to be something that keeps you charged and ready for more action.
What is your favorite 1980s action flick?