"Welcome to the party pal!"
"I'll Be Back".
"Get to the choppah!"
"Go ahead, make my day".
The 1980s were a good decade for the action genre. You might automatically think about those films made by the more stereotypical action stars of that time, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, but the action genre was more diverse than that. Action-adventure films like the Indiana Jones movies dominated the box office, while sci-fi films such as The Terminator and Total Recall followed in the tradition of Star Wars, but put more focus on the action that audiences so craved. But even with those aside, the '80s action genre was filled with films that built careers and legacies remembered to this day. So how did they come about? What went into making these films? Were they as good as some people claim? How did one decade create so many iconic one-liners? Find out more below.
1. A Producing Legend is Born
One of the first buddy cop films of the 1980s was the action-comedy 48 Hrs. While it made an instant film star out of comedian Eddie Murphy, it also began another legacy. The film was the first full producing credit for a young filmmaker named Joel Silver. Silver would go on to produce many of the most successful action movies of the late 20th century, including The Matrix, the Lethal Weapon series, the D.i.e Hard series, Predator, and Demolition Man.
2. The Swear Cap
One interesting coincidence within 48 Hrs. is that there are exactly 48 uses of the F-word throughout the movie. It is, of course, a pure coincidence (or so we assume!).
3. Bravo, Monsieur Chan!
Before the smash hit 1995 film Rumble in the Bronx brought him mainstream success in North America, Chinese action star Jackie Chan first made his mark with the 1980 film The Big Brawl. Chan felt frustrated with the film’s production because his creative process was heavily limited by conforming to the conventional action tropes in Hollywood. Despite that, the film found modest success, especially in France of all places!
4. What a Woman
While Eddie Murphy’s casting certainly turned The Golden Child into more of a comedy than was originally planned, impressive action was still provided by the martial arts skills of co-star Charlotte Lewis. Incredibly, she was just 18 when she acted in the film!
5. Fighting for his Life
Although he’d found incredible success with Rocky in the 1970s, Sylvester Stallone’s attempts at following up this success became disappointments. That is, until 1982, when First Blood was released, starring Stallone as John Rambo. Stallone portrayed a traumatized Vietnam veteran who is harassed by the officers of a small town until the situation escalates to the point where he is on the run from the army, holding his own with guerrilla battle in the forest. First Blood was the first non-Rocky film in Stallone’s career which didn’t blast at the box office.
6. So I’m Having Fun Now?
The 1980s oversaw a resurgence in US patriotism and conservatism. As a result, the jaded disillusioned character of John Rambo was brought back for two sequels in the 1980s. Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III were released in 1985 and 1988 respectively. These films reversed the original film’s anti-battle message by bringing Rambo back to combat over and over, much to the delight of audiences.
In the 1970s, Clint Eastwood had found a new iconic character with the Dirty Harry film series. Eastwood portrayed Harry Callahan, a vigilante cop who cheerfully breaks the rules to bring criminals down. In the 1980s, seven years after the third film, Eastwood directed and starred in a fourth film, Sudden Impact. It was this movie that first introduced audiences to Dirty Harry’s iconic line “Go ahead, make my day!”
8. I’m Too Old for This!
The Dirty Harry series produced one more film after Sudden Impact. The D.e.a.d Pool was the fifth movie in the series, released in 1988. Eastwood, who was pushing 60 by then, retired the character and resisted any calls for a sixth entry as he felt his age would make another Dirty Harry film ridiculous. If only Charles Bronson had learned that lesson too!
9. Imitation might be Flattery, but it isn’t Profitable
With the great success of the action-adventure Indiana Jones series, there was a push to try and leech off that franchise's popularity. To do so, a film adaptation was made of the classic Henry Rider Haggard book King Solomon’s Mines. The film was deliberately made to parody Indiana Jones, despite being an adaptation of a pre-existing book. As you can imagine, it didn’t do nearly as well as the Indiana Jones films.
10. A Master’s Entrance
In 1982, future action star Jet Li made his feature film debut with Shaolin Temple, a film which was “the first Hong Kong production to be filmed in mainland China". The success of Shaolin Temple led to “a revival of popularity in mainstream martial arts in China".
11. Sounds Like a Heck of a Party!
One of the more famous action films of the early 1980s was The Cannonball Run. Directed by former stuntman Hal Needham, the movie was about a cross-country car race. It boasted a large international cast which included action star Burt Reynolds, Rat Pack members Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., James Bond actor Roger Moore, and future action star Jackie Chan.
12. Diminishing Returns
In 1974, the Charles Bronson film D.e.a.t.h Wish shocked audiences with its portrayal of a mild-mannered middle-aged man turning vigilante after the horrific assault of his daughter and ending of his wife. The film, for better or worse, was a product of its time, and its success eventually led to sequels being developed throughout the 1980s. Bronson, who was in his 50s when the first film came out, returned to increasingly violent sequels that were released in 1982, 1985, 1987, and again in 1994. While the first film was controversially received, the sequels were completely dismissed for being the shallow cash-grabs that they were.
13. Paving the Way for Fury Road
By contrast, the sequels to the 1979 cult film Mad Max have continually been praised for their great action and interesting stories set in a post-apocalyptic world. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome were released in 1981 and 1985, respectively, and gained increasingly higher box office returns. They would also influence the post-apocalyptic genre for years after their releases.
John Milius’s 1984 film Red Dawn envisions a scenario where the Soviet Union and its allies invade the American Heartland, only to be thwarted by regular Americans taking up arms and engaging in guerrilla battle. As you can expect from such a movie, Red Dawn set a Guinness World record when it came out for the most scenes of aggression in an American film.
15. Returning Champ
Before he became a movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a famous bodybuilder. After winning the Mr. Olympia contest in 1975, he retired from bodybuilding, but then he was cast in the title role in Conan the Barbarian. To prepare for the role, Schwarzenegger got into such good shape that he entered the 1980 Mr. Olympia contest, which he won again.
16. Big John on Campus
Speaking of Conan the Barbarian, one of the great figures of Hollywood filmmaking in the 1980s was John Milius. After being Oscar-nominated for his work on the grand battle film Apocalypse Now, he proceeded to co-write the first two Dirty Harry movies, as well as co-write and direct Conan the Barbarian. He would also be behind Red Dawn and even be a “spiritual advisor” behind Lone Wolf McQuaid.
17. Money, Money, Money!
For his work on Conan the Barbarian, Arnold Schwarzenegger was allegedly given 5% of the profits made off of the film. As a reminder, Conan the Barbarian made $130 million on a budget of $16 million. That's not a bad deal!
18. On a Mission from God
You might not imagine a musical comedy like The Blues Brothers would ever be put on a list of action films, but those who have seen the film will know that such a listing isn’t undeserved. In between singing blues music and cracking jokes, the main characters spend the runtime of the film being chased by the authorities and other enemies they make along the way. In total, 103 cars were wrecked during the making of the film, which was a world record for two years.
19. Let’s Just Go Solo from Here on Out
In 1984, Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood were two of the biggest movie stars around. Each of them had a successful film out which defined their most successful sort of films (Eastwood was playing a gritty cop in Tightrope while Reynolds was reprising his famous role of JJ McClure in Cannonball Run II). That same year, Reynolds and Eastwood starred in their first and only movie together: the action-comedy film City Heat. Ultimately, despite featuring two of the biggest stars of the day, the film barely made its budget back and received dismal reviews. Reynolds and Eastwood never worked together again.
20. The Prince of Action
Shane Black spent most of the '90s being paid ridiculous sums of money to write films like Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and The Last Boy Scout, and he would go on to make films like The Nice Guys, Iron Man 3, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Before all that, however, Black got his start in the '80s with the Lethal Weapon series, which helped revolutionize the action genre. Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2 both became huge hits, making a superstar out of Mel Gibson. Black also got in a little bit of acting during the decade, most famously playing Rick Hawkins in Predator.
21. At Least I Looked Cool
In 1986, John Irvin directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action film Raw Deal. While Schwarzenegger had been very reluctant to make the film, he did acknowledge that the film marked the first time in his career where he was given an elaborate wardrobe. He even joked that before Raw Deal, his wardrobe budget had never exceeded “ten dollars". We believe you, Arnold.
22. It’s Complicated
Speaking of Schwarzenegger’s reluctance to make Raw Deal, it turns out that the film’s title was quite apt for everyone involved. Producer Dino De Laurentiis had gotten hold of a project called Total Recall, which Schwarzenegger was very interested in doing. However, De Laurentiis cast Patrick Swayze instead, and arranged for a reluctant Schwarzenegger to star in Raw Deal, which De Laurentiis hoped would be a quick and simple cash grab to fund Total Recall. However, the film failed to be a triumph, leading De Laurentiis to lose the rights to Total Recall. Schwarzenegger ultimately got the last laugh when he was able to star in the sci-fi classic after all when it finally got made a few years later.
23. Sometimes It’s Worth Skipping the Action Movies
While filming the 1989 action flick Roadhouse, Patrick Swayze injured his leg. His injury was such that he had to turn down roles in both Tango & Cash and Predator 2. In fact, Swayze decided that his next film should be the relatively safe romance film Ghost, which was a huge hit compared with the flops that the two movies he turned down became.
24. Good Luck, Chuck
The 1980s were a great time for martial arts champion and action star Chuck Norris, but it was the 1983 film Lone Wolf McQuade which cemented his popularity. While it wasn’t the most financially successful film that Norris made, it did inspire a loose TV adaptation called Walker, Texas Ranger, which lasted eight seasons throughout most of the 1990s.
25. We Need Two Georges!
When it came to the third film in the Mad Max franchise, George Miller didn’t actually handle the direction alone. George Ogilvie made his directorial debut with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Some speculate that this is because Miller had lost motivation to make the film because he’d lost a close friend during pre-production (the film was dedicated to Byron Kennedy). Others have suggested it was because the grand scale of the movie; Miller focused on the action while Ogilvie was brought in to handle the performances of the cast.
26. Not a Peep This Time, Got It?!
As much fun as audiences had watching Beverly Hills Cop, it’s safe to say that this action-comedy made the cast themselves laugh more than any audience ever could! Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, and John Ashton all got the chance to improvise jokes throughout the production. The problem was that hundreds of takes were ruined because someone was unprepared for a really good bit of improv and burst out laughing. You can still see some takes in the film where the actors are hiding the fact that they’re about to start giggling.
27. Maybe if We Switch Parts?
Most people know that D.i.e Hard features a true blue American facing off against German terrorists in a skyscraper, but there is a huge irony within the casting. The supposed German antagonist who mocks John McLane for being an American was played by English actor Alan Rickman. Meanwhile, McLane’s actor, Bruce Willis, was born in West Germany to a German mother, making him arguably the most German member of the cast!
28. Rednecks vs. Mafioso
Liam Neeson has become famous for becoming an action star in the late 2000s with films like The Grey, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and the Taken franchise. Before that, Neeson stuck mostly to dramas, though in 1989, he did act in a rather bizarre action film directed by John Irvin called Next of Kin. The film starred Neeson as a hillbilly from the Appalachians whose brother, played by Patrick Swayze, is a Chicago cop. Both men seek to avenge their youngest brother (Bill Paxton) after he’s ended by a member of the Mafia. Despite Neeson’s best efforts to adopt a hillbilly accent, the film was critically and commercially panned at the time.
29. British Tony
Filmmaker Tony Scott always favored action in his films, whether they’re action movies (True Romance), sci-fi (Déjà Vu), or thriller (The Taking of Pelham 123). Before all that, however, Scott directed two smash action hits during the 1980s which ensured his Hollywood career for decades to come. One was the Tom Cruise classic Top G.u.n , which secured superstardom for its likable star. The other was Beverly Hills Cop II, which didn’t garner favorable reviews, but still became one of the top moneymakers of its year.
30. Action Saves Careers
Meanwhile, Tony’s brother, Ridley Scott, was having a very lackluster time in the 1980s after his film Blade Runner, which has since become a cult classic, received a meager reception from audiences, barely recouping its budget at the box office. His luck changed when he directed the 1989 action film Black Rain, starring Michael Douglas. From there, Scott would return to the action genre in 1993 with Thelma & Louise, cementing his comeback.
31. When Kurt Met John
One of the classic cult action films of the 1980s was John Carpenter’s 1981 flick Escape From New York. It made a star out of its lead actor, Kurt Russell, who spent the rest of the 1980s maintaining a collaboration with Carpenter on films like The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China.
32. Urban Wasteland
The plot of Escape From New York involves a post-apocalyptic future in which the US government has turned Manhattan Island into the world’s largest maximum-security jailhouse. As you can imagine, actually filming in Manhattan wouldn’t work well for the film’s setting. An alternative location was found in East St. Louis, Illinois, which was still damaged from a massive fire which destroyed parts of the city in 1976!
33. Such a Swell Guy
Despite all the heavy action and aggression of the 1985 film Commando, Arnold Schwarzenegger used his time on the film to be the nicest guy you could imagine. Despite playing adversaries in the film, he and Vernon Wells became lifelong friends while making the movie. Additionally, he took a rather method approach to Alyssa Milano, who plays his kidnapped daughter in the film. According to Milano herself, Schwarzenegger watched over her on the set, and even helped her out with her homework!
34. A Dove in the Hand
Before he came to Hollywood, John Woo spent decades building his reputation in Hong Kong and China. In the 1980s, Woo directed the record-breaking action film A Better Tomorrow and its action-packed sequel A Better Tomorrow II. However, his more far-reaching triumph during the 1980s was The Killer. The film was widely appreciated by many Western filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, and it helped pave the way for Woo’s Hollywood transition. The Killer also marked the first time that Woo ever made use of white doves, which became an essential part of his films thereafter.
35. We All Start Somewhere
By 1980, Roger Corman had well established himself as a maker of exploitation films, indie films, cult films, and any other kind of low budget movie. He’d also given many filmmakers their first breaks into the industry, and this led to such people as Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, and Martin Scorsese making films of their own. In 1980, meanwhile, a Canadian truck driver from a tiny town hidden in the forests of Northern Ontario managed to get a job with Corman on a cheap sci/fi action flick called Battle Beyond the Stars.
36. You’re Gonna Go Far
With a boss like Roger Corman, this former truck driver managed to get work making models for the film, as well as contributing to the art department and visual effects. He worked on a couple other films with Corman before parting ways to make his own sci-fi film with an action edge. In case you haven’t figured that out who I’m talking about and what that film is, it was the story of James Cameron making The Terminator.
37. A Shift in Tone
By the late 1980s, after seven movies across twelve years, longtime James Bond actor Roger Moore finally retired from the role. Timothy Dalton was cast for the 1987 film The Living Daylights. Unlike the more comedy-focused Bond films under Moore, Dalton’s Bond was far grittier and more serious, with a higher focus on the action and aggression of the Bond franchise. Dalton also impressed some critics by the fact that he was performing most of the stunts himself.
Sadly for Dalton, he only made two films as James Bond. While The Living Daylights had been a box-office triumph, the 1989 film License to K.i.l.l was less successful due to stiff competition against other action-oriented films like Lethal Weapon 2 and Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade. After that, a lawsuit against MGM caused future Bond films to be delayed. By the time things were resolved in 1994, Dalton announced that he was giving up on the franchise, just in time for Pierce Brosnan to star in Goldeneye and make everyone forget about Dalton.
39. A Long-Lasting Legacy
Despite people being put off by Dalton’s gritty take on James Bond, and despite his being overshadowed by Pierce Brosnan’s run as 007, the irony was that “it was Dalton, not Brosnan, who proved to be the prototype for the 21st century Bond". Anyone who’s seen the Daniel Craig Bond films will be able to confirm that Dalton’s era was ahead of its time, even for the action-loving '80s.
40. Fake Cash
To Live and D.i.e in L.A. was a 1984 action-thriller which followed two Secret Service agents pursuing a counterfeiter. Predictably, the crew re-enacted a counterfeiting operation for the film, even hiring actual counterfeiters to act as "consultants," but they were too successful for their own good—fake money from the set leaked into the circulation, with authorities having to round it all up. This was made more difficult because of how well-made the bills were.
41. Recycling’s the Key!
The company known as Cannon Films was in serious financial troubles when their planned hit film Masters of the Universe failed. The studio had already spent a great deal of money on costumes to be used in sequels, and they needed to find another project post haste. Albert Pyun wrote the screenplay for an original film over the course of a weekend, action star Jean-Claude Van Damme was cast in the lead role, the movie was filmed in 23 days on a budget of $500,000 and was released as a sci-fi action film called Cyborg.
42. Never Underestimate Your Audience
Amazingly, despite the low budget, low production time, and low critical opinions, Cyborg opened at #4 in the US, grossing $10 million overall. It was such a triumph that a sequel was made in 1993, starring a then-unknown Angelina Jolie, which led to her own big break into the mainstream!
43. Useful Talents
With the insane amount of stunts during Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, as well as the nature of those stunts, you have to imagine that they had a skilled doctor on hand in case there was an accident. It turns out that they did: it was the director himself! George Miller was a doctor before he was a filmmaker, and on at least two occasions, he wore both hats on the film set by looking after stunt performers who were injured.