Action movies! Yeah! I love them, and if you’re reading this, you probably have some vague interest in them, too. To continue my Five Faves trend, I decided to turn my eye to the almighty 1980s action movie. In my mind of anachronisms, the 80s were the decade that defined the classic action movie. They also were full of some of the most ridiculous nonsense one could dream up. Who thought 9,000 slow motion shots of Jean-Claude Van Damme screaming “eeyah” like an orgasmic donkey would be a good idea? The director of Bloodsport, that’s who.
For this list, I’m making an arbitrary separation between “action” and “adventure.” While both usually contain action, the latter is focused on the journey to discovery; action movies, by contrast, are more focused on the spectacle of the action itself and are somewhat more contained. An alternative argument might hold that action is the big umbrella term, with different forms of action — i.e., adventure — underneath. I’m fine with that definition, too, but I desperately needed a way to put Indiana Jones in its own category for a different list. Like I said: arbitrary.
So here goes — my Five Faves list of 1980s action movies:
Rambo: First Blood (1982)
I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but I actually think First Blood is a fine example of Sylvester Stallone’s potential as an actor. The other Rambo movies increasingly move into ridiculous territory, with the most recent addition essentially turning the whole series into an unintentional parody of itself — without the usual laughter such a feat would entail. But First Blood is a fantastic movie about PTSD wrapped into an action burrito. It’s sort of a trick, except you figure out pretty quick that you’re not just getting a young Sylvester Stallone maiming local police. What you get is a story about a guy who has lost everything, from his friends in the war to the people of his home country. It’s a familiar post-Vietnam narrative, and Stallone’s emotional breakdown at the end of the film still gets to me. We know he’s wrong, but we also know he’s been betrayed and nobody can tell him why, even is commanding officer / manipulative “good boy” father.
It’s a dark movie, and the deeper into the Rambo mythology you go, the darker First Blood gets. This is, in my view, the beginning of Rambo’s end.
This is one of my favorite war movies of all time. I’ve shown it to students a few times, and each time it has led to many a discussion about the morality of war, the moral differences between Elias and Barnes, the meaning of violence and its influence on the individual, etc. The film shouldn’t hold up as much as it does given its age and somewhat heavy-handed messaging, but somehow it always delivers.
Platoon is also surprisingly memorable on the character front. Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger as two sides of the American perspective of war are simply stunning here, so much so they seem to elevate everyone else around them just a hair — even Charlie Sheen, who is just “OK” as an actor. Like a lot of war movies, there are tons of unique side characters, many of whom get what they deserve and many of whom don’t (like in any war). If you start comparing those characters to one another, you end up with a remarkably rich landscape of meaning. That’s probably why I can keep coming back to the movie: it just has so much to offer to its genre.
I’m rather partial to the Tim Burton Batman movies — both of them. When I was a kid, I watched this movie over and over just so I could see Batman beat the crap out of the bad guys with his wicked kicks and deadpan attitude. Michael Keaton was my Batman. Now, I can go back to those movies with the same wide stare of my childhood and a more adult appreciation for Burton’s vision.
One thing that I really love about Burton’s Batman is the way he incorporates the Batman we know with a new form. There’s a sense of the classic camp of the original TV show and the darkness of the Batman that was emerging/arriving/somewhat-there at the time. If you really think about it, Burton’s Batman begins the long process to get us to the Nolan films. Burton rides that camp/serious line almost perfectly in his two outings, but those middle films don’t quite maintain the balance, opting to override the darkness with absurdity. That’s part of what makes these films so good: it’s dark, delightful, strange, and introspective all at once.
Also: who can resist Keaton’s “I’m Batman”? I can’t…
Die Hard (1988)
I know. Duh. How could any top 5 list of action movies leave out Die Hard? As the only Christmas movie on the list, Die Hard is a classic that never gets old. The weird thing: I didn’t see this movie until well into adulthood. For some reason, it never appealed to younger me. No Batman? No Stallone? No robots and crazy fantasy weirdness? Nope! But then I watched it, and I understood exactly why so many people put Die Hard at the top of so many lists. It’s just good. And what makes it good isn’t the plot or the special effects. Nope. The plot is pretty basic and there is very little in terms of special effects. Die Hard is good because of its characters. Willis’ McClane against Rickman’s Gruber makes for a tense and thoroughly amusing experience. VelJohnson’s Sgt. Powell is a sort of “Johnny Everyman” counterpoint to the other two. Really, it all comes down to the contrasts; there are so many of them, and that means I get a slightly different experience every time I watch the movie.
But you knew all of that already, right?
The Terminator (1984)
The last movie on my list is also a late-viewing for me. I saw T2 a few years after it came out and loved it (I also peed my pants a bit…). It never occurred to me that there was a movie that came before it. So when I finally went to watch The Terminator, I didn’t really know what to expect. In a weird way, I think waiting to see the movie was a good thing. I came into it with a newfound appreciation for the more simplified action style. I got more out of the relationship between Sarah Connor and Reese that way.
The Terminator is also a remarkably suspenseful movie, and in a way that the sequel somewhat lacks. The more contained narrative (more “the immediate threat” than “the world will end”) makes for a tense experience as Connor and Reese attempt to flee from a machine that is seemingly impossible to kill. Schwarzenegger seems more threatening as the Terminator in this film. Later films would never quite recapture that feeling, particularly as the series became much bigger than its roots.1
This is the place I’d put a Terminator reference, but I’ll save it for later…
There you have it. So, what are your five favorite 1980s action movies?