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The Best And Worst '80s Action Movies

Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Ford, and Van Damme were to the Reagan Era what Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael were to the Renaissance. Sandwiched between the 1970's New Hollywood and the 1990's computer-generated insanity, the '80s were the heyday for action movies. Real action movies. Muscle-bound, baby-oiled, one-man army action movies starring men with multisyllabic last names, serious roid rage, and thick accents dropping heavy duty one-liners.

Except for the rare exception like Netflix's Extraction, old-school action movies are practically extinct, as the genre has been replaced by superheroes and cinematic universes. Frankly, we didn't appreciate what we had at the time, and now we miss it. But as great as the '80s were, not every action movie was created equal. Some were downright dreadful, and not even in a "so bad it's good" kinda way. There might be more than a few surprises on this list (and definitely a lot of explosions), so join us as we take a trip down memory lane, by way of the $5 bin at Walmart, to look back on the best and worst '80s action movies!

Worst: Watching The Punisher is punishing

The Punisher is an ironically appropriate title for this dumpster fire. While The Punisher was released in the U.S. in 1991, it debuted in West Germany in 1989, so maybe it ended the Cold War. We're not political scientists, so we can't say for sure. What it definitely ended was any hope Dolph Lundgren had of being a leading man in anything but direct-to-video shclock. Lundgren made the mistake of thinking he could go from being Ivan Drago, the most hated villain ever (he killed Apollo Creed for goodness sake!), to a hero. 

First, he played He-Man in the notoriously awful Masters of the Universe in 1987, then starred in the equally atrocious Red Scorpion and I Come in Peace (yeah, we haven't seen them, either), followed by his horrible turn as Frank Castle. With a 28% critic's score and a 32% audience score, The Punisher is one of the worst action movies of the '80s (or 1991 if you want to be that person). Whatever the official year, The Punisher is an '80s action movie through and through. In fairness, there's never been a great Punisher adaptation (even the Netflix show only averaged 63%), though watching Lundgren's take is definitely the most, ahem, punishing.

Best: First Blood is a cut above its sequels

Sylvester Stallone's most famous character is Rocky Balboa, the lovable pugilist that launched him to stardom in 1976. His second most famous character is John Rambo, the violent Vietnam warrior who first appeared in a novel by David Morrell. Morrell's 1972 book was a suspenseful portrait of a soldier who suffered from PTSD and poetically died at the end. Ten years later, Stallone's 1982 movie was surprisingly similar to the book (minus the dying part). 

Hard as it is to believe, before Rambo became the poster child for action movie excess (average critic's rating: 36%), he represented the same poignant themes as the novel. Amazingly, critics and audiences are completely aligned on First Blood and have given it the exact same score — 85%. Critics noted it's "much darker and more sensitive than the sequels it spawned" and that it "takes full advantage of Sylvester Stallone's acting skills." Yes, Stallone can act, and First Blood proves it. If you're looking for the kind of action flick that thrives on TNT at 10 PM, go with any of the Rambo sequels. If you're looking for one of the best action movies of the '80s, it's First Blood.

Worst: This 1980s Schwarzenegger dud is a Raw Deal

Conan the Barbarian. The Terminator. Predator. You might think Arnold Schwarzenegger could do no wrong in the 1980s. You would be wrong. Very, very wrong. If Schwarzenegger's best movies belong in one category, Raw Deal belongs in its own section, ideally buried far underground where no human eyes will ever see it. In the film, Schwarzenegger plays a disgraced former FBI agent who fakes his own death and reemerges as an ex-con who goes undercover in the mob. So kinda like The Departed but with the T-800? 

Before you say "I must watch this movie now," remember its critic's score is an abysmal 23%. And no, this isn't just stuffy old critics being stuffy, as the audience score (28%) isn't much better. Roger Ebert put it best when he wrote, "This plot is so simple that perhaps the most amazing achievement of Raw Deal is its ability to screw it up." The only people getting a raw deal are the moviegoers who manage to sit through this mess.

Best: RoboCop is a well-oiled machine

RoboCop punches way above its weight, transcending its silly title and sci-fi/action trappings to become one of the best satires about the 1980s. Rarely has a movie so cleverly spoofed the same genre it celebrates while also giving us a cinematic hero that stands the test of time. And no, that isn't hyperbole, as Det. Alex P. Murphy is even getting his own statue in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan!

Much like Rambo, RoboCop is a character who started brilliantly before descending into the same harebrained excess he was originally criticizing. Don't get us wrong, we love the other Robocop movies as much as the next red-blooded action movie fan, but each entry is a step down from the original masterpiece. With the combined might of Basil Poledouris' roaring score, Peter Weller's relatable lead performance, and Paul Verhoeven's brilliant bravado, Robocop earned a 90% critic's score and an 84% audience score. An '80s action movie that critics loved more than moviegoers? We'll buy that for a dollar!

Worst: Iron Eagle fails to soar

The Hollywood Walk of Fame is almost as long as the Hollywood Walk of Shame, the list of Academy Award winners who followed up their Oscar-winning work with terrible movies. Yet not a lot of attention is paid to Louis Gossett Jr., who took home the gold statue for his supporting role in An Officer and a Gentleman in 1983 but followed it up with one of the worst action movies of the '80s – Iron Eagle

That said, the "star" of this movie isn't Gossett but one Jason Gedrick. Yeah, that guy, remember? Anyway, Gedrick plays a wannabe fighter pilot who wasn't accepted into the Air Force, so he has to "borrow" a few F-16s with the help of Gossett to rescue his dad, whose plane went down in the Middle East. This is soooooo '80s. Alas, it lacks any of the era's charm or entertainment value, and it was soon surpassed in the public imagination by Top Gun. Iron Eagle was successful enough to spawn a series, but that's not enough to get the original past a 20% critic's score and 56% audience score.

Best: The Road Warrior is an insanely good '80s action flick

Alien or Aliens? The Terminator or Terminator 2? The Godfather or The Godfather Part II? Most "which is better" debates concern a franchise's first and second films. George Miller's Mad Max series is unique as (so far) it concerns the second and fourth films, The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Fury Road. While Fury Road may technically win the race, with a 97% critic's score and six Academy Awards (out of ten nominations, including Best Picture), The Road Warrior definitely has its passionate defenders, as it should. 

The 1980s was a different era, when action movies were mostly meant to be seen but not heard on the awards circuit. For instance, The Road Warrior wasn't even nominated for Best Picture. Truly an injustice. We're probably not the only ones who feel that way, as Mad Max II's 93% critic's score and 86% audience score makes it one of the best action movies of the '80s. Is it better than Fury Road? Who cares? They're both among the best of their respective eras. Nuff said.

Worst: Missing in Action is missing a point

Let's get this out of the way. While Chuck Norris can pretty much do anything, he's never made a decent movie. If that observation gets us roundhouse-kicked into one of Saturn's rings, so be it. For proof, see 1984's Missing in Action. Norris plays an Army colonel who returns home after a stint in a Vietnamese POW camp (wait, that sounds like First Blood), but he's recruited to return to Saigon to search and rescue U.S. soldiers who went missing (wait, that sounds like Rambo: First Blood Part II). 

We know what you're thinking — is Missing in Action just a Rambo ripoff? Well, kinda. It came out after First Blood in 1983 but before Rambo: First Blood Part II in 1985, so judge for yourself. In any event, Missing in Action isn't as good as either of them, and this is despite having M. Emmet Walsh in a featured supporting part. Norris probably could've won the Vietnam War with his bare fists, but he couldn't win moviegoer's affections. With a 19% critic's score and a 42% audience score, Missing in Action should be missing from your '80s movie marathon. Just watch Rambo instead.

Best: Die Hard is hard to top

You're probably thinking, "Wait a minute? Die Hard doesn't belong on an '80s action movie list — it's a Christmas movie!" Yeah, yeah, insisting Die Hard is a Christmas movie is about as hot a take as saying it's really, really good. Everybody agrees. If you don't know the story, well, what are you doing with your life? 

In brief, Die Hard stars Bruce Willis, fresh off playing a wisecracking detective on Moonlighting, as another wisecracking detective, John McClane, who arrives in Los Angeles from New York to visit his estranged wife and two daughters on Christmas Eve. Alas, his wife's company's holiday party is interrupted by a band of terrorists, and now it's up to up to McClane to save the day and teach the world the true meaning of Christmas. 

With its mix of sardonic wit, spellbinding set-pieces, and fish-out-of-water setup, Die Hard became a genre in itself, inspiring numerous sequels and imitators. We're pretty sure most Hollywood pitch meetings in the 1990s were just "It's Die Hard ... but on a [blank]!" But none can match the original film, with an across the board 94% critics and audience score. Yippie ki yay, indeed.

Worst: Red Sonja is fantastically awful '80s garbage

Red Sonja is the unofficial conclusion to Schwarzenegger's Barbarian Trilogy, though the producers probably wish the 1985 film never happened. While Arnie gets top billing and takes up two-thirds of the poster, Brigitte Nielsen plays the titular Red Sonja. The story is your typical fantasy setup. An evil queen captures a mystical orb that can destroy the world, and it's up to a warrior, Red Sonja, and the orb's keeper, Lord Kalidor (Schwarzenegger), to stop the queen's quest for world domination. 

Even if you haven't seen this movie, you've seen it, as there are at least as many '80s fantasy movies as there are pages in the Necronomicon. And this is one of the worst. The movie just kind of exists, as it's neither outrageously excessive or mind-numbingly dumb. It's just a timid, uninspired mess that's supposed to function as a star vehicle for Nielsen, who's in over her head in the lead role, while Arnie is less interested in capturing a magical orb than he is in cashing his check. Red Sonja failed to make green, but what would you expect with a 15% critic's score and 28% audience score?

Best: Raiders of the Lost Ark is a treasure

Raiders of the Lost Ark is the only movie on this list to be nominated for Best Picture, and it should've won, considering its competition – Atlantic City (what?), Reds (yawn), On Golden Pond (huge yawn), and eventual winner, Chariots of Fire (lame). Raiders is better than all of these! Need more proof? Check out its Rotten Tomatoes score. It's a 95% from critics and 96% from moviegoers. Yeah, we're scratching our heads about the four critics who didn't like it (including The New Yorker's notoriously negative Pauline Kael), as Raiders is pretty much perfect.

In addition to giving Steven Spielberg his mojo back after the disappointing 1941, Raiders also made Harrison Ford a bona fide, butts-in-seats movie star, and not just "the guy who plays Han Solo in Star Wars." Adding to its accolades, AFI also ranked Indiana Jones #2 on the greatest film heroes of all time, which is more than we can say for Chariots of Fire or Reds. Even though it lost that Oscar gold, there's no denying Raiders of the Lost Ark belongs on any "best of" list.

Worst: Cobra has no bite

Sylvester Stallone can write, act, produce, and direct, but by the mid-1980s, he preferred to just cash a check. Rather than being spoken of in the same sentence as Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, Stallone had permanently changed lanes from "talented actor" to "action movie star" after Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV became the second and third-highest grossing movies of 1985. In 1986, he followed up two of his biggest hits with one of the worst action movies of the '80s, Cobra

Stallone plays Lt. "Cobra" Cobretti, a Los Angeles police officer who doesn't play by the rules (you know the drill) and who must protect a model, played by Stallone's then real-life wife Brigitte Nielsen, from an evil secret society known as the New Order, which brutally murders "weak" members of society. Maybe Cobra was supposed to be Stallone's Dirty Harry, but Stallone seems bored throughout, and the rest of the movie overcompensates by being outrageously over the top and violent. Like, imagine Saw meets El Mariachi, and directed by Robert Rodriguez. Okay, that sounds awesome, but Cobra is not, and it felt out of place even in its own era. With a 14% critic's and a 42% audience score, Cobra has no bite.

Best: Aliens is the queen of sci-fi/action movies

How do you possibly follow up the genre-defining Alien, arguably the greatest and scariest sci-fi/horror hybrid of all time? You hire James Cameron, and let him do whatever the heck he wants. Cameron cashed in his clout from The Terminator to switch up Alien's nightmare-inducing terror with Aliens' action-packed thrills, creating arguably the greatest sci-fi/action film ever. Cameron upped the ante in the much-anticipated sequel, which was made seven years after the first but takes place decades later.

As the title suggests, the story goes from Alien's one Xenomorph to an army of Xenomorphs, including the Queen. Add in lots of firepower, a feisty and funny band of space marines, pulse-pounding battle scenes, Paul Reiser killing it as a heartless corporate toad, and of course, Sigourney Weaver's Academy Award-nominated performance as Lt. Ellen Ripley, and you've got one of the best action movies of the '80s, with a 97% critic's score and a 94% audience score. The Alien versus Aliens argument will last until the end of time, and while each side has a point, there's absolutely no denying that Aliens earned its spot on this list.

Worst: Firewalker is worse than a roundhouse kick to the head

Oh Chuck Norris ... why are you so easy to admire, yet you make movies that are so hard to love? 

By 1986, Chuck Norris and Louis Gossett Jr. had already made two of the worst action movies of the decade, Missing in Action and Iron Eagle, respectively. Perhaps feeling ambitious, the two decided to combine their powers for making poor choices and star in one of the absolute worst action movies of the '80s – Firewalker. The setup is simple enough. Norris and Gossett play two adventurers who brave the Amazonian jungles to seek out legendary Aztec gold. Firewalker is clearly a lazily stitched-together ripoff of Raiders of the Lost Ark (John Rhys-Davies even shows up) but without any of that film's charm or suspense. 

Honestly, Firewalker is even worse than the old 1930s serials it pays "homage" to. Not realizing he's in a bad movie, Norris is all earnestness but little effectiveness (nobody would accuse Norris of being a great thespian), while the talented Gossett doesn't even put forth enough effort to phone it in. Even with its simple premise, the movie is simultaneously confusing, silly, contrived, and (thanks the stereotypical villainous tribesmen) a wee bit racist, though the people most likely to be offended by Firewalker are those who sit through its 103 minutes. With an 8% critic's score and 32% audience score, we'd rather walk through fire than watch Firewalker.

Best: The Terminator is one of the best '80s action movies

Hating on James Cameron became the cool thing to do after Titanic and Avatar became the then-highest grossing movies of all time. But only one director can claim to have made the two best action movies of the '80s. Not Steven Spielberg. Not George Miller. Not John McTiernan. Only James Cameron has that honor. Yes, that's according to Rotten Tomatoes, but we don't think anyone would argue about the awesomeness of Aliens or the movie that basically made Cameron's career – The Terminator

With only Piranha II: The Spawning on his resume, Cameron directed his own script about a murderous robot from the future (who happens to have an Austrian accent). Before he broke records for the biggest budgets ever, Cameron showed he could stretch a dollar to film a futuristic robot war and tense urban action scenes that still impress decades later. The Terminator made Arnold Schwarzenegger a movie star, and it's still his best movie. And according to Rotten Tomatoes, it's Cameron's best, too. It may not have won an Oscar, but with a 100% critic's score and 89% moviegoer's score, The Terminator is one of the greatest action movie of the '80s.