The 1980s were unquestionably the golden age of action flicks, and Netflix is unquestionably streaming a lot of them right now. The following 10 gems should fulfill your need... your need for speed.
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Is Tim Burton’s Batman an action movie? The ornate art direction, Prince-filled soundtrack, and wry star performance from Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/the titular superhero suggest more of a live-action cartoon or piece of gothic pop-art than many of the self-consciously macho selections that follow. But sequences such as the alley fight scene or Metropolis-inspired coup de grace have a mythic power that Christopher Nolan’s more frenzied confrontations lacked. So if we're free to call Dark Knight an action film, Batman gets the distinction too.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Director John Carpenter owned a certain corner of '80s genre films. Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Prince of Darkness, and They Live are all essential documents. Big Trouble in Little China, his rollicking adventure film starring Kurt Russell, is more of a bizarre, ambitious attempt to wrap a bunch of his idiosyncratic interests (serialized adventure stories, monster horror films, kung-fu cinema, Howard Hawks-style romantic comedy) into one sprawling artistic statement. Sadly, it flopped, but its brilliant action scenes (and possibly problematic, stereotype-driven comedy) will live forever.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Occasionally overshadowed by more enduringly popular Arnold Schwarzenegger films from the ‘80s like The Terminator (also recommended later on this list), Commando, and Predator, Conan the Barbarian deserves a special place in the '80s action pantheon. Written and directed by controversial visionary John Milius, whose writing credits also include Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn, Conan’s somewhat subdued pace makes it an anomaly on this list, but it’s worth revisiting for its patient, almost Biblical storytelling, not to mention its brutality. Plus, it will help put a few scenes from this farting Schwarzenegger video in context.
First Blood (1982)
Based on a novel by prolific thriller-writer David Morrell, First Blood is not the flag-waving, blood-soaked piece of Reagan-era propaganda that your conservative uncle might have you convinced it is. Powered by a clever script co-written by Sylvester Stallone and anchored by Sly’s most emotionally raw performance, the film is violent, exciting, and filled with explosions. But it’s also shot through with real ambiguity regarding the way veterans are treated in America, the role of the police in small communities, and the moral weight of combat. As Rambo says towards the end of the movie, “You just don’t turn it off!” You won’t be able to turn this one off either.
Here’s the first thing you should know about Kickboxer: it’s not Bloodsport, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s star-making late-night cable classic from the year prior. Kickboxer follows a martial artist with the tax attorney-sounding name of Kurt Sloane. Like the similar JCVD movie it is often confused for, Kickboxer has its share of iconic moments: an erotically charged disco-fight scene, a brutal battle with a tree, and a richly atmospheric, torch-filled final confrontation with villain Tong Po.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Perhaps less nuanced than its predecessor, Rambo: First Blood Part II is in many ways the quintessential ‘80s action film. Sprung from federal prison, our bandana-sporting hero is sent abroad for this chapter, taking the fight back to Vietnam where he’s sent to rescue POWs and, basically, retroactively win the Vietnam War for America. Is it an absurd wish-fulfillment fantasy? Yes. Will you still watch it anyway at 3am? Yes, you will.
Road House (1989)
Praise Patrick Swayze. Praise Road House. Praise James Dalton, Swayze’s impeccably named Road House protagonist, a small-town Missouri bar bouncer with a philosophy degree from NYU. Praise Ben Gazzara’s slimy villain, Brad Wesley. Praise the casting of wrestling legend Terry Funk in an ancillary role. Praise it all. There is no action film more divine or enjoyably quotable.
The Terminator (1984)
When Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800 famously declares, “I’ll be back" in this sci-fi classic, it wasn’t kidding. Hollywood has returned to this property repeatedly over the last 30 years, to increasingly less-artistic results. But director James Cameron’s 1984 original gets it all right, including stunning action set pieces -- the bar shootout, the police-station massacre, the factory-staged finale -- but the movie works best as a sleek, cyberpunk neo-noir anchored by a vulnerable Linda Hamilton. If only we could go back in time and stop the post-T2 sequels from ever happening...
Top Gun (1986)
Of all the movies on this list, Top Gun might be the most difficult to defend. To put it bluntly, it is cheesy as hell. But there are elements to recommend: Tom Cruise is the weirdly charming actor you know and love, Kelly McGillis is a worthy romantic counterpart, Val Kilmer snaps his way through all his scenes, late director Tony Scott lends his signature music-video touch, and (very old spoiler alert!) I still cry a little bit when Goose dies. It might be manipulative, and “Danger Zone” has certainly inspired a lot of horrific karaoke moments, but 30 years later it still has the power to... wait for it... take my breath away. You disagree? Let’s settle this on the volleyball court.
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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment and he wishes his first name was Dalton. He's on Twitter: @danielvjackson.