The rise and fall of the ’80s action genre

The definitive "wunza" movie: one's a cop; one's a con
The definitive "wunza" movie: one's a cop; one's a con

The 1980s was a time when action movies crashed noisily into American culture and seemed to take it over. They created a kind of film that had hardly been seen before; films where cops—for the most part—wreaked holy hell upon bad guys in the name of justice and then made snarky jokes about it.

Previously, action movies had mainly been dime-a-dozen westerns that gradually evolved into thoughtful essays on man’s propensity for violence and loneliness. From the invention of cinema to the early-’70s, you could find them any time you wanted to buy a ticket.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this  twisted rather suddenly into dark meditations on crime and the loner anti-hero, pioneered in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns in the mid-60s but matured in films like The Getaway, Dirty Harry, Billy Jack, Death Wish, and Walking Tall. John Wayne, the cowboy’s cowboy, slipped out of the saddle and into the police cruiser for some of his last films. Even James Bond movies, which had always been cheeky fun, had turned into comparative downers like Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun. Vietnam and the general economic malaise of the early to mid-70s had taken their toll.

Then, in 1977, three films changed all that: Star Wars, Superman, and The Spy Who Loved Me.

Suddenly, it was okay for action and adventure to be fun again. Sure, there were  still a few dark loners to come, like Mad Max in 1979, but the floodgates were open. Even Clint Eastwood, the man who epitomized the ruthless loner with a sense of justice in Leone’s spaghetti westerns and his own Dirty Harry movies, changed from Harry Callahan to Philo Bedoe, the orangutan-loving bare-knuckle boxer in the goofy Every Which Way but Loose.

But how did the tough guy out for justice grow out of Dirty Harry and into John McClane before disappearing into something new? Let’s take a look.


First came the lighter, wilder return of Mad Max and the jaw-dropping adventure of Indiana Jones. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York was a bit of a throwback to the crime-ridden ’70s, but the wise-cracking was all ’80s gusto.

  • Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (Gibson)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (Harrison Ford)
  • Escape from New York (Russell)


Next came the incomparable Eddie Murphy in a film that would set up the odd-couple cop-buddy dramedy: 48 Hrs. Simultaneously, Sylvester Stallone was treading the dark side with his Vietnam-damaged Rambo character that would draw the parallel line.

  • 48 Hrs (Murphy)
  • First Blood (Stallone)
  • Firefox (Eastwood)
  • Blade Runner (Ford)
  • Death Wish 2 (Bronson)


Chuck Norris finally turned from his dark and brooding martial arts shtick of the 1970s (Good Guys Wear Black, The Octagon) and entered the guns-and-ammo action world.

  • Lone Wolf McQuade (Norris)


James Cameron changed the face of sci fi and brought Arnold Schwarzenegger out into the light of the action scene while Spielberg and Lucas tried to take Indiana Jones a bit darker. Both feel older than they really are. But Eddie Murphy again ripped open the action genre with cop-buddy comedy that changed the equation and defined the genre for the next ten or twenty years.

  • Terminator (Schwarzenegger)
  • Beverly Hills Cop (Murphy)
  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Ford)
  • Red Dawn (Swayze)
  • Tightrope (Eastwood)


Stallone continued to explore the bloody revenge of Vietnam while Schwarzenegger followed suit with military action. But even so, they couldn’t help but flavor their characters with pithy one-liners in a nod to Murphy.

  • Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (Stallone)
  • Commando (Schwarzenegger)
  • Death Wish 3 (Bronson)


Stallone and Schwarzenegger again matched muscle with dark cop flicks, still working the Dirty Harry angle, but with the pithy one-liners they knew they needed to lighten the load where Dirty Harry merely spouted venom. Meanwhile, Murphy took his wiseacre-with-a-gun persona to Nepal. Kurt Russell joined the Murphy-Gibson bandwagon.

  • Cobra (Stallone)
  • Raw Deal (Schwarzenegger)
  • The Golden Child (Murphy)
  • Big Trouble in Little China (Russell)
  • Top Gun (Tom Cruise)


Eddie Murphy capped the cop comedy, and others got one board in a big way. Mel Gibson rejected the Stallone-Schwarzegger version of Dirty Harry and embraced the Murphy ideal. Likewise Paul Verhoeven offered humor and satire in his dark future cop actioner. Schwarzenegger returned to the dark military line, but still spouting one-liners. Black humor in the midst of bloody gore was clearly here to stay.

  • Beverly Hills Cop 2 (Murphy)
  • RoboCop (Peter Weller)
  • Lethal Weapon (Gibson)
  • Predator (Schwarzenegger)
  • The Running Man (Schwarzenegger)
  • Over the Top (Stallone)
  • The Untouchables (Kevin Costner)
  • Death Wish 4 (Bronson)


Cop action reached its pinnacle when Bruce Willis affirmed the Murphy-Gibson style of comedy coupled with action in Die Hard. More and more, new action stars would come out of comedy. Steven Seagal entered the fray on the Stallone-Schwarzenegger side, keeping it darker but still offering a quip for each kill. Schwarzenegger tried to move more toward comedy, not only by pairing with Jim Belushi but also by stepping outside action altogether to do Twins. Gibson and Russell, meanwhile briefly tried to turn serious again, while Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin entered the odd-couple buddy action comedy genre with a one-off instant classic.

  • Die Hard (Willis)
  • Above the Law (Seagal)
  • Red Heat (Schwarzenegger)
  • Tequila Sunrise (Gibson and Russell)
  • Midnight Run (Robert De Niro)
  • The Dead Pool (Eastwood)


The ’80s action genre came to an end with the return of Gibson and Glover in a still-lighter version (now that all that suicidal depression was worked out). Stallone finally fully embraced the lighter side of action with Kurt Russell.

  • Lethal Weapon 2 (Gibson)
  • Tango and Cash (Stallone and Russell)
  • Road House (Swayze)
  • Next of Kin (Swayze)
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Ford)
  • Batman (Keaton)

The ’90s brought more of the same from all parties, with a great many sequels and copycats, particularly of Die Hard. Seagal and Van Damme—who, a few years behind Norris, arose out of martial arts flicks—found themselves pacing the big dogs a couple of steps behind for years. Stallone and Norris (the Stallone junior) continued to flog the Vietnam backlash with jingoistic military pictures that bucked the general trend.

Slowly, the old gods faded and there arose new heroes: mainly Nicolas Cage and Keanu Reeves.

And, in 1999, there came the film that would change action movies for another decade: The Matrix. Suddenly, sci-fi mixed irrevocably with action, and a new esthetic was created that instantly dominated movie houses all thru the 2000s.


  • Total Recall (Schwarzenegger)
  • Kindergarten Cop (Schwarzenegger)
  • Another 48 Hrs (Murphy)
  • Die Hard 2 (Willis)
  • Hard to Kill (Seagal)
  • Marked for Death (Seagal)
  • Days of Thunder (Cruise)
  • Predator 2 (Danny Glover)


  • Terminator 2 (Schwarzenegger)
  • Backdraft (Russell)
  • Out for Justice (Seagal)
  • Point Break (Reeves)


  • Under Siege (Seagal)
  • Passenger 57 (Wesley Snipes)
  • Lethal Weapon 3 (Gibson)
  • Unforgiven (Eastwood)
  • Batman Returns (Keaton)
  • Supercop (Jackie Chan)


  • Hard Target (Van Damme)
  • The Last Action Hero (Schwarzenegger)
  • Cliffhanger (Stallone)
  • Demolition Man (Stallone)
  • The Fugitive (Ford)
  • Boiling Point (Snipes)
  • In the Line of Fire (Eastwood)
  • Supercop 2 (Chan)


  • Speed (Reeves)
  • The Professional/Leon (Jean Reno)
  • True Lies (Schwarzenegger)
  • Beverly Hills Cop 3 (Murphy)
  • The Specialist (Stallone)
  • Stargate (Russell)
  • On Deadly Ground (Seagal)
  • Drop Zone (Snipes)


  • Die Hard with a Vengeance (Willis)
  • Desperado (Antonio Bandaras)
  • Judge Dredd (Stallone)
  • Assassins (Stallone and Bandaras)
  • Bad Boys (Will Smith)
  • Johnny Mnemonic (Reeves)
  • Under Siege 2 (Seagal)
  • Heat (Robert De Niro and Al Pacino)
  • Money Train (Snipes)
  • Rumble in the Bronx (Chan)
  • Waterworld (Costner)
  • Batman Forever (Val Kilmer)


  • The Rock (Cage)
  • Eraser (Schwarzenegger)
  • Chain Reaction (Reeves)
  • Independence Day (Will Smith)
  • Jackie Chan’s First Strike (Chan)
  • Executive Decision (Russell and Seagal)
  • Escape from LA (Russell)
  • Glimmer Man (Seagal)
  • Mission: Impossible (Cruise)


  • Men in Black (Smith)
  • Metro (Murphy)
  • Con Air (Cage)
  • Air Force One (Ford)
  • Face/Off (Cage)
  • Fire Down Below (Seagal)
  • Lethal Weapon 4 (Gibson)
  • The Postman (Costner)
  • The Saint (Kilmer)
  • No More Mr. Nice Guy (Chan)


  • Armageddon (Willis)
  • Rush Hour (Jackie Chan)
  • Enemy of the State (Smith)
  • The Mask of Zorro (Bandaras)
  • Soldier (Russell)
  • The Patriot (Seagal)
  • Ronin (Robert De Niro and Jean Reno)
  • Blade (Snipes)
  • Who am I? (Chan)


  • The Matrix (Reeves)
  • The Mummy (Brenden Fraser)
  • Wild, Wild West (Smith)

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