It is a rainy Saturday afternoon and you’re sitting on the couch nursing a vicious hangover and surfing Netflix for something to take your mind off the gremlins jackhammering between your ears. So, what to watch? Standup? You’ve seen them all. Drama? Nah. Rom-com? GTFO here with that noise. Checking out the action genre, you realize that you have seen almost everything, and that most of them are pretty lame by action-movie standards.
So, what gives? What happened to the movies that we grew up on? You know the type where Chuck Norris kicked the bejeezus out of anyone who stood in his way, Stallone never ran out of explosive-tipped arrows, and it was an undeniable fact that some serious ass was about to get whooped by Clint Eastwood. Did Hollywood stop making these films, or did they just run out of genuine, action-hero men?
To be an ’80s action star, all the boxes had to checked: You had to be good looking, you had to have an extraordinary physique that may or may not have been helped by Dr. Feelgood, and you had to display the charisma of an early David Lee Roth. You also needed a script that even 10-year-old boys could understand, punctuated with perfectly timed one-liners such as “I’ll be back!” or “I ain’t got time to bleed” or “Make my day.” Throw in some rising starlets, a metric ton of inexplicable but oh-so-gratifying explosions, a healthy dollop of hair mousse and enough machismo to grease an M249, and you had the makings of an amazing theater (or straight-to-VHS) experience.
So this got us thinking: Why do we love the action movies from the ’80s and hate the action flicks of today?
Movies are just entertainment, but in their purest sense movies are a direct reflection of—or an escape from—society at a given point in time. Action movies are a chance to imagine yourself as a larger-than-life hero for 90 minutes, mag-dumping testosterone into the jungle or justifying vigilante justice on scumbags in the city. For a brief time, you can forget about your finances, your job or your relationship. In your mind, you ARE Jean-Claude Van Damme doing splits on chairs and winning kumites. It is just the mental vacation you need.
And that was a pretty accurate reflection of 1980s America. The wounds of the Vietnam War were still relatively fresh, and the Cold War was in full swing. We were coming out of a crushing recession, but President Reagan had us all believing in the might and majesty of our great country—the one, true global superpower.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, action movies started to shift from the dusty Westerns and car-chase dramas of the previous decades, morphing into something that was part fantasy, part anti-commie propaganda, but also every bit a dose of pure, uncut F*CK YEAH! Moviegoers couldn’t help leaving theaters feeling more patriotic than Abe Lincoln flying a red, white and blue Apache attack helicopter, and the shift in our military ranks was noticeable. U.S. armed forces increased in numbers from a strength of two million active-duty members in 1980 to 2.17 million by 1987. Compare that to the 1.34 million active-duty members in 2018, and you’ll understand just how mighty we felt and why we miss those days. To be fair, there is no way to know if action movies actually had any direct influence on recruiting numbers, but we’d like to think so.
These movies were unapologetically nationalistic, with commandos like Schwarzenegger leading teams of war-machine men into South America or Chuck Norris commanding Delta Force, roundhouse-kicking Freedom into bad guys. Rambo in First Blood (1982) was ex-special forces, as was Riggs in Lethal Weapon (1987). Charles Bronson (Murphy’s Law, 1986), Clint Eastwood (Sudden Impact, 1983) and Bruce Willis (Die Hard, 1988) were the epitome of street-hardened cops. Recruiters must have had a field day.
Along with the successes of big-budget blockbusters such as Predator (1987), Red Dawn (1984) or the Lethal Weapon series, there were an equal number of low-budget, campy “Bullets, Bombs and Babes/Boobs” (BBB) flicks. Mostly, they were straight-to-video or small-theater releases, but audiences were just as hungry for these pure, over-the-top action films with underpaid actors as they were for the multi-million-dollar, cartel-destroying mercenaries of the big Hollywood production houses.
The plots of the B-level movies were not what you would call strong. The laughable dialogue was often just a bridge to get to the good parts, including explosions, Uzi-wielding henchmen and heroes hip-firing RPGs or slinging razor-blade-accessorized Frisbees (as seen in the tropical travesty that was Hard Ticket to Hawaii, 1987).
Hard Ticket to Hawaii, directed by Andy Sidaris, was probably one of the most well-known action B-movies of the day, brought back to life today by the glory of YouTube. Sidaris was an Emmy-award-winning television producer for shows such as ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but his passion was in his film work, through which he all but pioneered the BBB genre.
No doubt influenced by legendary cult-film directors like Russ Meyer, Sidaris seemed to have an endless supply of Playboy-centerfold hopefuls looking to play roles of lethal “co-woman-dos” (see what we did there?) who could just as easily shoot an M72 LAW as take off a bikini top. Some said it would be hard to follow up his 1985 Malibu Express, but Sidaris just said, “Hold my beer and watch this” as he created Hard Ticket, Picasso Trigger (1988) and Savage Beach (1989). You owe it to yourself to watch the trailers for these films, as they will easily be the best few minutes of your life (outside of that trip to Tijuana you made that one time).
Part of what made these low-budget movies so great was the fact that they spawned a sub-genre of action movies that employed the cinematic convention of “some level of ninja everywhere.” That blonde white guy? A ninja. That model in the sauna? A super-hot ninja. That old guy at the convenience store? A master ninja. Everyone seemed to be highly trained martial artists parading around in acid-washed jeans and white linen shirts. What a wonderful time it must have been to own a dojo. If you are into throwing stars and judo chops, definitely watch the 1981 film Enter the Ninja, another Menahem Golan production starring Franco Nero. This trend lasted for most of the ’80s, peaking with the 1985 Michael Dudikoff classic American Ninja.
Despite how entertaining they may have been, the ’80s movie style has steadily declined into a shell of its former self. There will always be 13-year-old boys looking for a good action movie, but now those films are sanitized, stripped down and barely worth watching. Let’s face it, the heroes of today and those of the ’80s were decidedly different. In stark contrast to the loner-cop gravitas displayed in Dirty Harry, today’s action heroes are super-polished and almost cartoonish. Outside of the “Avengers-style” superheroes, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon and Keanu Reeves sit atop this list. Johnson is easily this generation’s Schwarzenegger, and Reeves is the more-tailored version of Rambo.
They are the same archetype demanded by the public—an impossibly athletic hero that has mastered heavy weaponry and is larger-than-life. In Rambo: First Blood Part II(1985), for example, Stallone flies a helicopter and no one questions it. He was fighting the damn Russians, after all! No one cared that it was beyond believable. (Yeah, we know that some Green Berets may have gone to flight school, but c’mon!) In stark contrast, most of today’s action heroes are forced to play these half-neutered male roles so that special interest groups don’t start social media protests. Even James Bond is more PC than ever. Hollywood has traded the ultra-macho violence of the ’80s for cookie-cutter scripts and wink-and-nod jokes. Sure, the gunplay is still there, but it is lacking much of that “edge-of-your-seat” drama.
Die-hard ’80s action fans may say that this has to do with today’s rampant culture of apology and Hollywood’s desire to not offend anyone. Certainly, the ’80s lacked the political correctness that we endure today, but in that era of film, unapologetic masculinity was central to the hero’s plot, and Hollywood responded with true action stars.
But the bravado of Han Solo has since been replaced by snarky robots in the Star Wars universe. Lest anyone get their feathers ruffled, most of today’s films have been whittled down, Disneyfied and are little more than two-hour CGI fests with a few actors in tights thrown in for good measure. Sure, the special effects are cool, but there is very little relatability for the audience that remembers ’80s cinema, even in the darkened, suspended reality of the theater. We dare you to say that anything “Transformers” is better than Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton character in Big Trouble in Little China (1986).
Detractors may argue that the ’80s action films built only a culture of hyper-violence, laying the groundwork for subsequent decades of emotionally detached men who preferred rocket launchers to romance. But hell, that wasn’t caused by bad movies—that’s just how guys are. We love that stuff. These days, you can’t go to a backyard barbeque in suburbia without hearing somebody mutter something like, “This stuff will make you a goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus … just like me” or some other movie quote that they never get right, but everyone knows exactly what they are talking about. And that was but one of the real influences of ’80s action cinema on the modern male psyche—to create movie quotes that would be used for years down the line. Without a doubt, this seemingly bottomless well of movie one-liners is one of the main appeals of these awesomely cheesy films.
It could be argued that the final nail in the ’80s-action-movie coffin was the meteoric rise of video games. Take a look at any game since the original “Halo” or “Call of Duty,” and you realize quickly that kids can create their very own action movies, over and over again. They get to be at the center of the action and play the hero in such a realistic way that there is less desire to go watch something they can’t control.
The question for today is can anyone bring us back from the brink of totally flaccid action cinema? Unlikely as it may seem, Keanu Reeves has ascended to the throne of modern-day action hero. He was always in the running with The Matrix (1999), but then he cemented his footing atop Mount Bust-a-Cap with his title role in John Wick (2014). The violence in the Wick movies is gratuitous, the thin plots remains semi-relatable, and when you leave the theater, you have the refreshing feeling that you just took part in badassery. That is probably as close to an ’80s action flick as we’re going to get in America. Way to go, Keanu! You’ve come a long way from San Dimas …
So, when talking about the ’80s heroes versus today’s, the inevitable question arises:
“Who would win in a fight between …?” Would John Wick beat John Rambo in a no-rules gunfight? Would Cobra sting the Scorpion King? You may be able to answer, but we are going to leave that debate to the real experts in the dark backrooms of comic book stores.
So, go ahead. Jump on YouTube and type in “’80s action movies.” Check out the trailers. We dare you to try to escape from that vortex of awesomeness in less than two hours—just watch out for ninjas.