Top 10 Action Heroes of the 1980s

Our friends, our saviours, our knights in shining bulletproof vests (or just vests in the case of John McClane), these are the best action heroes – 1980s style!

Hollywood in the 1980s brought us some of the most memorable action heroes of all time. Through a combination of factors these were the sorts of films that endeared themselves instantly to mainstream audiences. Reagan-era politics, the emergence of a number of muscular action-men, the popularity of genres lending themselves neatly to the “hero” as well as the dominating box office presence of the high concept movie and star appeal, action heroes were our friends, our saviours, our knights in shining armour.

In this top 10 I take a look at my favourites from the decade. These include a robot, a New York City cop who hates flying, a university lecturer from the 1930s, a mentally scarred Vietnam veteran, a tough American soldier with an Austrian accent, a truck driver, a mixed martial artist, and a futuristic space traveller going by the name Ellen Ripley.

Discover More Top 10s: Action-Horror | Sequels | Tony Scott Films | Action from Hong Kong | Arnold Schwarzenegger | 1990’s Science-Fiction | James Bond | 1980’s Sequels

10. Maj. Scott McCoy – Chuck Norris (The Delta Force, Golan, 1986)


Chuck Norris kicks ass in 1986’s The Delta Force, based on the American military’s elite tactical unit of the same name.

9. RoboCop – Peter Weller (RoboCop, Verhoeven, 1987)


Let’s face it, RoboCop is the partner you’d want on the streets of a tough, crime-riddled metropolis. There’s not much this action hero can’t handle with an almost indestructible body and the mother of all semi-automatic weapons holstered in a secretive compartment located in his mechanical thigh.

8. Jack Burton – Kurt Russell (Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter, 1986)


Kurt Russell is always fun to watch, even when he’s stuck with a frown in a film like Escape From New York. In John Carpenter’s nonsensical but highly entertaining Big Trouble in Little China Kurt Russell plays serial charmer Jack Burton. He gets more than he bargained for when he gets involved with the supernatural underworld of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The film was a critical and commercial failure but has developed a cult following like many of Carpenter’s films.

7. Frank Dux – Jean-Claude Van Damme (Bloodsport, Arnold, 1988)


Jean-Claude Van Damme’s significant physical capability had to make this list somewhere and here it is. The talents of Van Damme were announced to the world with bone-splintering, blood-spilling grandeur in 1988. His physical prowess and martial arts talent compensate for a lack of range and finesse in his acting.

6. Martin Riggs – Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon, Donner, 1987)


Martin Riggs is the unruly cop with a heart of gold in Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon. However, he’s the partner-from-hell for “too-old-for-this s***” LAPD veteran Roger Murtaugh. The duo, played by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, form one of the best buddy partnerships of eighties cinema. However, they are undeniably aided by Shane Black’s sparkling script.

5. Ripley – Sigourney Weaver (Aliens, Cameron, 1986)


Sigourney Weaver was rightly applauded for her performance in Aliens, James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film. That she is the only woman on this list is both an indication of the conventions of the action hero in 1980s cinema and of the decade as whole. In Aliens she leads a well-armed, well-trained military unit to an alien planet in order to check for survivors after earth loses contact with the planet’s colony. Beginning as a relatively passive adviser, it isn’t long before all hell breaks loose and she’s the one the army is turning to for help.

4. Rambo – Sylvester Stallone (First Blood, Kotcheff, 1982)


Rambo is one of the great anti-heroes and the film sees Sylvester Stallone’s finest performances outside of the Rocky series. Here, a broken, emotionally scarred Vietnam veteran is pushed too far by an overbearing local Sheriff who doesn’t like a “drifter” coming into his town. He arrests him but when at the station the other police officers bully and taunt Rambo, forcing him to snap. He escapes to the nearby woods and, during the chase, unwittingly kills one of the deputies. What follows is a relentless pursuit by police and the military as they try to capture him.

3. Dutch – Arnold Schwarzenegger (Predator, McTiernan, 1987)


You could pick a number of Arnold Schwarzenegger performances from the 1980s for the “best action hero” category but there’s no beating the alien creature in Predator as one of the muscle-man’s greatest foes. The pair’s head-to-head battle bookends a fine military action-horror.

2. John McClane – Bruce Willis (Die Hard, McTiernan, 1988)


This is a cop from “out of town” you don’t want to mess with. John McClane is minding his own business making fists with his toes in the posh en suite of his wife’s swanky upper floor office when terrorists storm the building taking everyone hostage. They think it’ll be so easy dealing with overpaid executives and office pen-pushers but soon enough the New York City cop is knocking off the bad guys one by one. “Now I have a machine gun” he taunts the terrorists after one successful killing.

1. Indiana Jones – Harrison Ford (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg, 1981)


There are few action heroes as fun as the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas-created Indiana Jones. The whip-snapping archaeologist enjoys globetrotting adventures in the pursuit of that next great “find”. Of course, saving the girl, beating the Nazis, a sharp wit, and countless brushes with death are just par for the course.

Discover More Top 10s: Action-Horror | Sequels | Tony Scott Films | Action from Hong Kong | Arnold Schwarzenegger | 1990’s Science-Fiction | James Bond | 1980’s Sequels

Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.

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Your turn – who are your favourite action heroes of the 1980s?

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Dan Grant Reply

    I’m an 80’s boy so this list is very dear to my heart. I would take out Norris’ Delta Force and replace it with Colonel Braddock from Missing in Action.

    I’m glad you placed Rambo so high on the list. People forget how well made a film First Blood was and imo it is one of the best films of the decade.

    The top 2 are obvious and I too would have placed Indy at number one.

    Nice job Dan.

  2. Pete Reply

    What a decade, love them all! McClane’s my number one though!

  3. Evan Crean Reply

    I love every single action hero on this list and everyone’s spot feels just right. So glad that you found a great woman to add with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. That added some nice and well-deserved diversity. As an diehard Indy fan I’m also satisfied that he ended up at number 1. John McClane and Dutch are close in my mind as well. I generally remember Arnold for sci-fi action flicks like The Terminator, Total Recall, and The Running Man before I usually think of Predator.

  4. Jack Deth Reply

    Hi, Daniel and company:

    Good, solid list!

    Arnold Schwarzenegger should never have strayed from the McTiernan style, Testosterone shoot ’em ups like ‘Predator’.

    Always give credit to Kurt Russell for branching off and giving his personal take of cinematic heroes, John Wayne (Jack Burton, ‘Big Trouble in Little China’). Clint Eastwood (Snake Plisskin, ‘Escape from New York’ and L.A. And R.J. MacReady, ‘The Thing’.)

    Bruce Willis should have counted coup and called it quits after the first ‘Die Hard’. Later additions upped the actions and explosions and diminished McClane’s character to recent caricature.

    It’s always good to see Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley make the cut, but where’s Jeanette Goldsmith’s Vasquez?

  5. Castor Reply

    Ahaha I love the inclusion of JCVD, he was an integral part of the 80s action-mania 😀

  6. Jaina Reply

    Love this. The 80s has some of the most iconic action films, which is why I love that film era so much! Can’t beat JCVD! 😉

  7. Mark Reply

    I’m not exactly sure what constitutes a “finest performance” from Stallone given in most films he is (as one influential reviewer said of him in Rocky) an actor imitating a lug.

    Having said this, First Blood wasn’t half bad until we came to this climatic moment:

    RAMBO: “Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win, for somebody who wouldn’t let us win! Then I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protestin’ me, spittin’, callin’ me a baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me?! Huh?! Who are they?! Unless they been me and been there and know what the hell they yellin’ about!”

    TRAUTMAN: It was a bad time for everyone Rambo. It’s all in the past now.

    RAMBO: “For you! For me civilian life is nothin’! In the field we had a code of honor. You watch my back I watch yours. Back here there’s nothin’! Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars!!! UUHHHH!!!!! Wha… I can’t… oh, I just–oh my God. Where is everybody? Oh God… I… I had a friend, who was Danforth. Wha–I had all these guys man. Back there I had all these f****** guys. Who were my friends. Cause back here there’s nothin’. Remember Danforth? He wore this black head band and I took one of those magic markers and I said to Feron, ‘Hey mail us to Las Vegas cause we were always talkin’ about Vegas, and this f****** car. This uh red ’58 Chevy convertible, he was talkin’ about this car, he said we were gonna cruise till the tires fall off. (pause) We were in this bar in Saigon. And this kid comes up, this kid carryin’ a shoe shine box, and eh he says uh ‘shine please, shine.’ I said no, eh an’ uh, he kept askin’ yeah and Joey said ‘yeah,’ and I went to get a couple beers and the ki–the box was wired, and he opened up the box, f******* blew his body all over the place. And he’s layin’ there and he’s f****** screamin’, there’s pieces of him all over me, just like–! (he grabs at the chain of bullets strapped around his chest and yanks it off) like this. And I’m tryin’ to pull em off you know? And he.. my friend it’s all over me! It’s got blood and everyhting! And I’m tryin’ to hold him together I put him together his f****** insides keep coming out, and nobody would help! Nobody help me. He sayin’ please I wanna go home I wanna go home. He keeps callin’ my name, I wanna go home Johnny, I wanna drive my Chevy. I said well … why I can’t find your f****** legs. I can’t find you legs. I can’t get it out of my head. I ****–I dream of seven years. Everyday I have this. And sometimes I wake up and I dunno where I am. I don’t talk to anybody. Sometimes a day–a week. I can’t put it out of my mind… f******… I can’t……..”

    As I am not a fan of the super hero stuff (I find it quite dull, actually), I can put this question forward without fear of being ridiculed – WHERE IS CHARLES BRONSON?

    I mean who could forget Death Wish II (1982) and the others of the franchise that were made in the 1980s (III and IV)?

    Then we had 10 to Midnight, The Evil That Men Do and Murphy’s Law, where Charlie’s vigilanteism kind of reflected the philisophical position of the Reagan administration.

    I would argue that Bronson had well and truly established himself as a bona fide character actor by 1981. With Death Wish II, however, his career took a dive from which it never fully recovered. This was kind of ironic given the film’s director, Michael Winner, had helped Bronson become a legit Holywood superstar in the 1970s with movies like Chato’s Land, The Mechanic, The Stone Killer and, of course, the first Death Wish.

    If Chuck can get a mention on this list, then Bronson deserves one too …

  8. Fogs' Movie Reviews Reply

    Thats a really solid list, Dan, I dont know that I can find a single thing I’d change! Great decade for action movies, and I think you captured it well, here! 😀

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