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.
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.
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.
Your turn – who are your favourite action heroes of the 1980s?
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