Debate all you like, the '80s were the best decade for action movie making. From Hollywood to Hong Kong, stunt work, editing, and storytelling all caught up to real life at the right time and made legends out of guys named Schwarzenegger and Stallone. The '80s introduced the world to directors like James Cameron (The Terminator), John Woo (A Better Tomorrow), and John McTiernan (Predator). And these guys needed big stars to complete their bigger visions. The term "action star" became a part of the lexicon and studios scrambled to find the next big one.
Looking back at this glorious time in movie history, I can't remember having more fun going to theaters. I was a kid, but still, Schwarzenegger was like a god — a primal force for good that could not be denied. What's not to like about that? He, and the rest of his brethren, were like comic book superheroes, but better. They didn't need special powers. These guys knew martial arts. They were built like Greek Gods; and they were equipped with the sickest weapons imaginable. In Kickboxer, Jean-Claude Van Damme dips his hands in glue and broken glass before he fights a guy. That kind of creative violence barely exists anymore. It's all been done, and most of it was done in the '80s. Here are the guys who did it - the top nine action stars of the greatest action decade:
9. Carl Weathers
Underrated as hell, Weathers is best known as Rocky's rival-turned-best friend Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies. But he also grabbed second billing under Schwarzenegger in Predator and starred in his own camp action classic, Action Jackson, in 1988. Weathers was a charmer. He's basically playing Muhammed Ali in the Rocky movies. He's the one fully-formed character in Predator (the traitor). And he plays a Harvard law graduate/ex-sports star/Detroit cop in Action Jackson, one of the best blaxploitation homages of the decade. He lived it off the field too as a star linebacker (Weathers played for the Raiders for two seasons). He looked like a bodybuilder, but could play smart, and he was hugely likable. Plus, dude was in a movie called Death Hunt starring two of the '70s biggest action stars: Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. He was larger than life, especially for Rocky fans.
'80's resume: Death Hunt, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Predator, Action Jackson
8. Chow Yun-fat
Chow's story was never really told in the States. He was too early on the scene. Hong Kong movies were hard to find in 1980s America outside the film industry. So you're forgiven if you haven't seen A Better Tomorrow, or The Killer. But, you no doubt have seen their influence (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction). The combination of Chow and director John Woo was formidable. Woo's furious 25 cut action sequences would change how action movies looked from then on, and Chow was his hero. He was the righteous lone gunman, like Eastwood, and an explosive force with a weapon. Nobody fired dual Berettas like Chow. His imfdb page looks like the phone book. Chow was so cool in '80s Hong Kong, young men started mimicking his style, down to the trench coat and sunglasses from A Better Tomorrow. Both Chow and Woo would emigrate to the States in the '90s, but their legacies were intact. For film buffs, the image of Chow firing away, guns in both hands, is an iconic symbol of action filmmaking.
'80's action resume: Wild Search, The Postman Fights Back, A Better Tomorrow, City on Fire, Prison on Fire, The Killer, The God of Gamblers, too many to name... click here for Chow's full filmography.
7. Chuck Norris
Norris, the founder of Chun Kuk Do, started in movies across from Bruce Lee in The Way of the Dragon (1973). He seemed destined for great things. But his career was always hindered by the scripts he chose. After kicking serious ass in the revenge flicks Forced Vengeance and An Eye for and Eye in the early '80s, Norris started making the Missing in Action movies which were a little too close to Rambo for the public's approval. But Norris' little brother was killed in Vietnam, and he made those movies for him. Despite the Rambo rip-off claims, Norris kept making action movies, dedicating his career to them. He was a rare bird: a white martial artist, and his combination of hand to hand skills and affinity for giant guns made him an action legend.
'80's action resume: The Octagon, Silent Rage, Forced Vengeance, An Eye for an Eye, Lone Wolf McQuade, Missing in Action, Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, Code of Silence, Invasion U.S.A., The Delta Force, Firewalker, Braddock: Missing in Action III, Hero and the Terror
6. Jean-Claude Van Damme
Aside from Schwarzenegger, no foreign action star has had Van Damme's impact on American audiences. A former Mr. Belgium and champion kickboxer, Van Damme played an early version of the alien in Predator, but he was replaced. He broke out With Bloodsport and Kickboxer, '80s action classics that use the final boss conceit of video games to tell fight stories. Van Damme was unlike anyone else. His fight style was violent, but beautiful. After Kickboxer came out, every new Van Damme movie was an event. Teenagers loved him. He was a real-life version of their Mortal Kombat and Streetfighter 2 characters, a true martial artist who fought serious badasses. In Kickboxer, he fights a glass glove match, and in Bloodsport, he defeats Chong Li (Bolo Yeung), one of the great action villains. Van Damme was the strong, silent guy who didn't look like much, but he would kill you if you came after him. If my life depended on a fight to the death tournament of action heroes, Van Damme is my guy.
'80s action resume: No Retreat, No Surrender, Bloodsport, Black Eagle, Cyborg, Kickboxer
5. Mel Gibson
Gibson, the wide-eyed psycho of Mad Max fame, took things to another level in 1987's Lethal Weapon. Not only is it one of the best-titled action films ever made, Weapon gave us a maniacal hero in Gibson's Martin Riggs. That's really the key to Gibson that everyone forgets. He was crazy. And you believed it. It was the perfect combination of time and person. Gibson was the '80s. He was loud and brash and part of a new generation of Hollywood leading men willing to devote themselves to physical roles, as well as dramatic ones. Gibson wasn't a martial artist or a weapons expert, but he looked like the real thing double tapping bad guys or diving away from explosions. There was a wanton disregard for safety that accompanied Gibson's films and he made great ones in the '80s:
80's action resume: Gallipoli, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Attack Force Z, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Bounty, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Lethal Weapon, Tequila Sunrise
4. Harrison Ford
Ford isn't really an action star. He's more of an adventure star. But why quibble? This is the guy who played Han Solo and Indiana Jones! He might be ranked number one if he killed more guys as Indiana, but that was not to be. His truest action flick might be Blade Runner, the Ridley Scott sci-fi classic. Any way you want to cut it, Ford's resume speaks for itself. The only reason he isn't the greatest action star ever is because people came to see his movies to see the movies, not so much the star. He never had the box office seduced like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. But Ford was a rumbler. He was as natural as a streetwise hustler (Star Wars) as he was as an intellectual archaeologist (Indiana Jones). Ford's characters would fight anyone, but dominate no one. He was a real guy fighting impossible odds.
'80s action resume: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
3. Jackie Chan
The Hapkido master, Jackie Chan is Hong Kong's greatest action star and one of the all time great physical actors from any country. Some of his moves are Buster Keaton-esque. Like Norris, Chan started in the movies by getting pummeled by Bruce Lee and he worked to set himself apart from the Legend. Where Lee flowed like water, Chan chopped, like an axe. He worked with Lo Wei and John Woo in the '70s and turned full action star in the '80s, appearing in classics like The Young Master and the Police Story films. Chan's willingness to perform his own stunts has earned him enormous respect among action fans. Like Sylvester Stallone, he directed himself in many movies, but Chan took action filmmaking to the next level. He did everything on set and his movies reflect the reckless method.
'80s action resume: The Young Master, The Big Brawl, The Cannonball Run, Dragon Lord, Project A, The Protecter, Wheels on Meals, Lucky Stars trilogy, Police Story, Armour of God, Dragons Forever, Police Story 2
2. Sylvester Stallone
Stallone is the safe pick for greatest '80s action star. He made more action movies (11) than any American in the decade and most of them are mid to upper tier genre favorites. First Blood is an action classic and the Rocky sequels are endlessly rewatchable. Stallone devoted himself entirely to the action genre in the 80s. He worked out non-stop, transforming his body Mr. Universe-style and perfecting the 1000 yard stare that marks his two huge franchises (Rambo, Rocky). Stallone was a physical specimen. He came to embody the action star in the '80s with his long hair and greasy body, reflections of the personal gym craze taking over the country. There will never be another Stallone. He was wholly unique, an Italian-American from New York City who became an action star. His signature snarl, the result of slight facial paralysis, is the embodiment of the action genre.
'80s action resume: Nighthawks, Victory, Rocky III, First Blood, Rambo: First Blood II, Rocky IV, Cobra, Over the Top, Rambo III, Lock Up, Tango and Cash
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger
There's never been an actor whose films were more anticipated by the public. Schwarzenegger was a once in a lifetime phenomenon. He's the number one action star of the '80s for those reasons but also because taking him out of any of his movies immediately sinks them. Even The Terminator, which pivots on an incredible idea, wouldn't work without Schwarzenegger's raw physicality, his presence. One look at the guy and it's like, "Yeah, he's unstoppable." You can't say that about any other action star.
Then: the voice. Schwarzenegger's accent is the stuff of legend. Everything he said was quotable, sometimes hilarious, always awesome. Forget the muscles and the cigar smoking, you couldn't wait to hear this guy speak. That's a rare thing for any actor. Schwarzenegger was the one. You could put him in any piece of crap movie and he would instantly make it watchable. That's why his great movies are really great. Predator, in my opinion is a horror masterpiece. The Terminator is a sci-fi masterpiece. And Commando is an '80s camp masterpiece. Schwarzenegger brings the action to all those films, piling bodies and growling one-liners. This guy killed the Predator for chrissakes! And there's a reason Rainier Wolfcastle wasn't based on Stallone. In fact, Schwarzenegger was like a cartoon with his awesome accent and ripped physique. Nobody ever looked better kicking someone's ass or killing them. His swagger was a reflection of 1980s America. He was John Wayne for a new generation.
'80s action resume: Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, The Terminator, Commando, Raw Deal, Predator, The Running Man, Red Heat