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Underrated '80s Action Movies

The 1980s might be the golden age of action films. In the era before CGI made anything possible on screen, and action heroes were massive mounds of muscle, some of the greatest and most iconic action films of all time were released to an unsuspecting public. From the pulp adventure of "Indiana Jones" to the double-barreled action of "The Terminator," from ring-fight flicks like the "Rocky" series to thrillers like "Die Hard" and science fiction greats like "Aliens," there was no decade like the '80s for all-time classic action films.

But for every great, there is a forgotten cult classic. A film that has been overlooked in the decades since its release. Some of these might feature unexpected action heroes; others might feature one of the greatest stars, but they are all overshadowed by other, bigger movies of the era.

Well, we're here to highlight these films, and bring a handful of overlooked hidden gems into the spotlight. From over-the-top military actioners to dark, violent thrillers, here's a list of some of the most underrated 1980s action films you need to see.

Red Heat

When you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger's '80s action movies you probably think of "The Terminator," "Predator," or even "Commando." But there are a few overlooked titles from this era in his career, the most underrated of which might be the Cold War action/buddy-comedy "Red Heat." But make no mistake, there's a lot more action than comedy here.

When most action movies had the Soviet Union as their big bad, this one took a different route. Instead of playing the villain, "Red Heat" casts Arnold in the role of a Russian militia captain Ivan Danko, who comes to the United States and teams up with a Chicago cop named Ridzik (Jim Belushi) to track down a notorious drug kingpin who's been causing trouble for both of their countries. In addition to being a guns-blazing action film, it's also Arnold's first buddy-comedy, released just months before the more classic "Twins" with Danny DeVito, whose box office success may have contributed to overshadowing this one at the time. 

But as the straight-laced, humorless Danko, Arnold — whose inconsistent attempts at faking a Russian accent can be forgiven — plays well off of Belushi's more snarky and tongue-in-cheek Ridzik. As he blows away the bad guys, the action star proves he can be just as funny as he is an intimidating presence on screen. Between his massive gun and its fish-out-of-water elements, "Red Heat" might be one of Arnold's most fun flicks of the '80s that is rarely talked about.

To Live and Die in L.A.

Before either of them was a star, Willem Dafoe ("Spider-Man: No Way Home") and William Petersen ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation") starred in the 1985 action thriller, "To Live and Die in L.A." To no one's surprise, Petersen is the lawman, while Dafoe is his sinister criminal target, as the movie follows the case of an infamous counterfeiter named Eric Masters, and the two hard-nosed Secret Service agents — including Petersen's Richard Chance — who are tasked with taking him down.

However, after Masters' goons gun down Chance's partner, he becomes obsessed with hunting Masters and delivering some cold-blooded justice. The sly and slick Masters isn't about to go quietly though, and as he repeatedly slips his way out of Chance's clutches, the government agent begins to slide further and further over the line that separates good and evil in his quest for vengeance. 

Thanks to a brilliant script by William Friedkin — who had worked on "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist" the previous decade — and with incredible performances from its top-billed cast, "To Live and Die in L.A." becomes a satisfying cat-and-mouse thriller with plenty of intense action. Somehow it has slipped through the cracks of '80s classics, but we're here to put it back on your radar.

Tango and Cash

The '80s were awash with buddy action movies, with iconic pairings like Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in "48 Hrs." and Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in "Lethal Weapon." But somehow, "Tango and Cash" flew under the radar, and has since become one of the most inexplicably forgotten buddy cop comedies of the decade. More than a superstar and a sidekick like most others of its ilk, "Tango and Cash" teamed up two of the decade's biggest action stars, Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell. That's right, Rocky Balboa and Snake Plissken together as on-screen partners is what makes the movie a delight, with their mismatched styles dazzling on screen.

In a neat subversion of their usual roles, Stallone plays Ray Tango, a clean-cut, by-the-book LAPD officer, while Russell is Gabe Cash, a sloppy, reckless ball of chaos. Together they work a dangerous case, tracking a notorious drug kingpin when they find themselves framed for the death of an FBI agent. Now it's a race against time to get the bad guys and clear their names before their fellow cops can catch them.

While it doesn't try to reinvent the buddy cop formula, it's smart not to. And though it will never be among the best movies in either of their careers, it's been buried by bigger '80s classics for too long. Because with Stallone and Russell headlining the film, "Tango and Cash" might be the most underrated action-comedy of the '80s.


The 1980s were not the best decade for the Western genre, with Wild West adventures seemingly out of favor with audiences. But look closely at the ones that did pop up, and you'll find some underrated gems among them, including the 1985 ensemble actioner "Silverado." Led by Scott Glenn and Kevin Kline, the cast also included "Lethal Weapon" star Danny Glover, a young Kevin Costner, and former Monty Python member John Cleese. Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan ("Empire Strikes Back"), the story concerns a group of gun-slinging rough riders in the Wild West, who join up after meeting in a series of fateful chance encounters on the plains.

Glenn stars as Emmett, who rides to the town of Silverado, and brings with him his younger brother Jake (Costner), a beleaguered outlaw Paden (Kline), and the tough-talking renegade Mal (Glover). They each have their reasons for being in Silverado, but when they arrive they find a devious cattle baron is terrorizing the town, aided by the corrupt sheriff Cobb (Brian Dennehy). A classic tale of Western heroes saving a small town and putting a stop to a villain's horrific schemes, it's full of sharp-shooting action and classic cowboy scrapes.

Sadly, "Silverado" flopped at the box office, but if you're looking for old-school Western action from the '80s, this is it.

The Last Starfighter

Following the smash success of "Star Wars" in 1977, there was a wave of sci-fi action movies that went well through the 1980s. They ranged in quality, and few turned out very good, but at least one has become an underrated cult classic: the 1986 film "The Last Starfighter." Like "Star Wars," we meet a teenage boy who dreams of adventure and excitement in space. But this one is Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), an ordinary Earthly high school student who spends most of his free time playing a video game called "The Last Starfighter." 

But little does he realize that the game is no game at all, but a test to locate the best star pilots in the galaxy. As the game's best player on Earth, Rogan is soon scooped up by an alien warrior named Grig (Dan O'Herlihy), who shows him the grim reality of an interstellar war fought between the Rylan Star League and the Ko-Dan Empire, a war that could soon threaten Earth if it's not stopped here and now. Facing a dangerous villain named Xur (Norman Snow), who has a new doomsday weapon, Alex and Grig must fight off an invasion and save the galaxy.

An underappreciated sci-fi adventure, "The Last Starfighter" is loaded with fun space action, and unlike most on this list is a movie that the whole family can enjoy.

The Punisher

By the late 1980s, Dolph Lundgren was a bonafide action hero, after appearing in "Rocky IV" and a series of b-grade action films. Well, when Marvel struck a deal to turn their violent gun-toting vigilante the Punisher into a feature film, Lundgren was the perfect choice: dark, brooding, and with a piercing scowl that could kill. The 1989 film that resulted, simply titled "The Punisher," introduced wider audiences to brooding anti-hero Frank Castle, a former police officer whose wife and children were killed in a mafia hit, and who was believed to have died with them. 

From his hideout in the sewers beneath Manhattan, and harboring a blood-soaked thirst for revenge, Castle wages a one-man war on the city's gangs and mobsters. His latest target is the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia who have begun taking over the streets of New York, taking advantage of the chaos that Castle has wrought in the criminal underworld. But big guns may not be enough to stop them, and Castle finds himself with an unlikely ally in the form of Italian mobster Franco (Jeroen Krabbé).

While the film takes some liberties with the source material, and will never be considered great, "The Punisher" is packed to the gills with explosive action and campy fun. Lundgren acquits himself nicely as Castle, in a new take on the comic book hero, and while the movie's dark and violent tone may have put off viewers at the time, it works just fine today and stands as an underrated '80s revenge film.

Best of the Best

Throughout the 1980s there was a rash of underdog fighting movies, likely sparked by the unexpected success of the low-budget "Rocky" in 1976. What followed were classics like "The Karate Kid," Jean-Claude Van Damme's "Bloodsport," and of course several "Rocky" sequels. But one of the most criminally under-seen is "Best of the Best" starring Philip Rhee, Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, and Sally Kirkland. With a new twist on the formula, "Best of the Best" replaces the single heroic fighter with a group of karate competitors: a team of American fighters who enter a major tournament in South Korea.

With their backs against the wall and facing the toughest opponents in the world, the team is coached to glory by a rough, tough martial arts coach named Frank Cuozo (Jones). But a new assistant coach, Catherine Wade (Kirkland), challenges his time-tested training tactics with a gentler, more spiritual guiding hand that may be the difference between an against-the-odds victory, and a devastating defeat. Overcoming every challenge, the misfit team comes together under Cuozo and Wade to win it all in the ring.

"The Best of the Best" never got the accolades of its contemporaries, nor the box office bucks. But its hard-fighting action and taut drama helped it spawn a line of sequels that focused on Rhee's character Tommy Lee, and it deserves to at least be in the conversation with other greats of the genre.

Blue Thunder

"Jaws" star Roy Scheider was a bankable actor in the early '80s, but never quite became a superstar on par with the mightier muscle-bound action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sly Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. But in 1983, he had his own action movie vehicle — literally — with the film "Blue Thunder." Scheider plays Frank Murphy, an officer with the Metropolitan Police Department, who is selected as the test pilot for an experimental helicopter equipped with all manner of bleeding-edge tech, codenamed "Blue Thunder." 

Designed for urban pacification, Murphy begins to fear the helicopter has been created for something more sinister than to respond to large-scale riots. After his investigation, he uncovers a terrifying conspiracy by government agents to use a new fleet of choppers to maintain military control and assassinate political figures who oppose them. But after uncovering evidence of their plans, Murphy is discovered and becomes their first target. Now he must steal the advanced vehicle to do battle with his own police force in order to escape and expose their diabolical agenda.

Though the technology in the film was cutting-edge at the time, it seems quaint today. But look past its outdated nature, and "Blue Thunder" is a surprisingly effective action thriller. A year after its debut, a short-lived TV adaptation hit the airwaves, but was overshadowed by the similarly themed "Airwolf."

I'm Gonna Git You Sucka

The 1988 comedy "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" was a loving send-up of blaxploitation action films of the 1970s, like "Shaft," and "Hell Up In Harlem." Written and directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans, the film starred Chris Rock, Kadeem Hardison, and Damon Wayans, alongside a cavalcade of blaxploitation veterans like Jim Brown and Isaac Hayes. The story is centered on Jack Spade (Keenan Ivory Wayans) who returns home from the army to find his old neighborhood overrun by dealers and crooks, and his brother dead from an overdose of gold chains.

But Spade isn't about to take this lying down, and vows to avenge his brother's death and rid the streets of gold chains for good. His target is the dastardly Mr. Big (John Vernon, who played plenty of '80s villains), who controls the corporate gold chain empire that has been infesting the city. Together with the help of new friends and allies like John Slade (Bernie Casey), Kung Fu Joe (Steve James), and Fly Guy (Antonio Fargas), they set out to clean up the city and take back the streets once and for all.

With plenty of laughs, "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" has sadly been remembered as merely a spoof comedy, becoming a lesser-known cult classic over the years. But there's also plenty of gang-busting violence in between the jokes, and some genuinely funny fight scenes, and it deserves to be appreciated by a wider audience.


Following the success of the "Rocky" movies, Sylvester Stallone was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in the 1980s. In between his role as the boxing champ and grizzled, violent Vietnam vet John Rambo, he'd become an action movie icon. But just a year before he'd debut as the beefed-up one-man army in "First Blood," the actor appeared in what might be one of the most underrated action thrillers on this list: the 1981 film "Nighthawks." Stallone and Billy Dee Williams — who'd become a superstar himself thanks to the release of "The Empire Strikes Back" the year before — played a pair of New York City cops, Deke DaSilva and Matthew Fox, both sergeants in the NYPD.

Within days of a devastating bombing across the pond in London that leaves scores of innocents dead, a dangerous international villain named Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) escapes to New York City with plans of continuing his campaign of chaos in the Big Apple. With British officers in New York trying to catch him, DaSilva and Fox are assigned to a newly formed unit designed to track down the fiendish criminal, and are put on the case. 

Equal parts detective story and action movie, "Nighthawks" is a thrill-a-minute adventure as the two cops hunt down the madman through the streets of New York. Tense gun battles, foot chases, and fist fights make it an unforgettable action favorite, and easily the most underrated film in Stallone's long career.

Black Rain

It's hard to imagine that a movie directed by Ridley Scott ("Blade Runner") and starring Michael Douglas ("Wall Street") would be underrated. But the street action genre wasn't exactly the wheelhouse for either of the two Hollywood icons, so it might be more understandable that it slipped through the cracks, becoming mostly forgotten today. In the 1989 action film "Black Rain," Douglas plays Nick Conklin, a sketchy NYPD cop who's being investigated for corruption by Internal Affairs. 

Along with Andy Garcia as his partner Charlie Vincent, Conklin is assigned to escort a Japanese criminal named Sato (Yūsaku Matsuda)back to Osaka where he is to be prosecuted in his homeland. But when they are fooled by fake security agents, Sato is once again in the wind. The two officers insist on remaining in Japan to join the hunt for the wanted man. In the chase, they discover that Sato is involved in a broader international scheme to produce counterfeit American bills. 

Though the movie is a gritty, neo-noir crime drama, it shares many similarities with Scott's sci-fi epic, "Blade Runner," in the tone, visual style, and even story. With some of the most visceral and graphic violence of its era, it stands out amongst its contemporaries, making for a grisly detective story with plenty of blood-soaked action. If you've never heard of this one, don't be a fool, and add it to your queue right now. 

Action Jackson

Today's audiences may know Carl Weathers from "The Mandalorian," while for decades fans knew him almost exclusively as Apollo Creed from the "Rocky" series. But those certainly were not his only roles, and it's arguable that one of his most iconic performances was as the titular hero in the 1988 movie "Action Jackson." With a cast that included Craig T. Nelson ("The Incredibles"), Thomas F. Wilson ("Back to the Future"), and Sharon Stone ("Basic Instinct"), it had a strong cast and a catchy title. But despite being a fan favorite in its day, it's been mostly overlooked when looking back at '80s action classics.

In the film, Weathers plays Sergeant Jericho "Action" Jackson, who was recently demoted after roughing up a criminal who was the son of Peter Dellaplane (Nelson), a powerful industrialist. Now, two years later, Jackson uncovers evidence that Dellaplane has been consolidating power in the city with the use of violent henchmen who have been eliminating his enemies. But when Dellaplane's wife finds out about his crimes he kills her and frames Jackson, sending him on the run. Now he'll have to find an eclectic group of allies to help him strike back and clear his name, including Dellaplane's mistress, a local boxer, and an alluring informant.

In "Action Jackson," ridiculously over-the-top action is the order of the day, and Carl Weathers proves he's more than just a rival for Rocky Balboa.

The Red Scorpion

The movie that likely got Dolph Lundgren the role of "The Punisher," the 1988 shoot-em-up "The Red Scorpion" put the actor back into a familiar role, as a violent Russian killer. Showcasing Lundgren's big muscles and bigger guns, he plays Lieutenant Nikolai Petrovitch Rachenko, a Ukrainian-born Soviet Spetsnaz special forces agent, introduced brutally gunning down anti-Soviet rebels in Africa. 

Initially dispatched on a mission to quell an uprising and assassinate the rebel leader, Rachenko's failure to take out his target leads to his torture at the hands of his Soviet superiors. Left for dead, Rachenko is discovered by wild bushmen who take him in and train him in a new kind of guerrilla warfare. With these new skills, he joins the rebels in their fight against the Soviet oppressors, becoming an unstoppable killing machine who ruthlessly mows down enemy reds.

An action film filled with fiery mayhem, the L.A. Times labeled it "a numbskull live-action comic book," and while they didn't mean this as praise, we have to say the description fits. Thin on plot but with an excess of action that's just what most fans of the genre come out for, Lundgren is at his finest in "Red Scorpion," an action movie nobody seems to remember today.

Raw Deal

Wait, another underrated movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger? How could audiences have so sorely overlooked two action films from one of the genre's greatest stars, near the peak of his illustrious career? Well, believe it or not, it's true, and "Raw Deal" never gets the credit it deserves. Admittedly it gets called out often when discussing Arnie's many famous one-liners and on-screen zingers, of which there are many in the film, but few actually talk about just how good the movie really is. 

The 1986 revenge film stars Arnold as Mark Kaminski, a small town sheriff and former colleague of aging and retired FBI agent Harry Shannon (Darren McGavin). Kaminski had been drummed out of the agency after going too far in apprehending a vile suspect, but when Shannon's son is killed by mafia goons, Kaminski is enlisted to get his payback. Going undercover in an off-the-books assignment, Kaminski infiltrates a mafia organization by posing as an ex-con. But when Kaminski's real identity is discovered he goes on a bloody, no-holds-barred rampage through a mob casino, in one of the most spectacular and satisfying killing sprees in action movie history.

Though the likes of "The Terminator" and "Predator" get all the glory for Arnold, "Raw Deal" is not to be missed.