Any action fan worth their salt can tell you that the eighties was the decade when the genre really came into its own. The years between ’81 and ’90 were filled with a vast array of action hero archetypes, from the raided out man’s man to the everyday guy in a bad situation. What united each of these stars, though, was a swagger and skill that has since been abandoned in favor of a choice between realistic brutality and cartoonish hijinks. They really just don’t make them like they used to. Most of these heroes of yesteryear aren’t completely gone, though. Here’s an update on 15 action heroes from a bygone decade.
1. Bruce Willis
Things keep chugging along for the star of 1988’s Die Hard (aka, the best action movie ever freaking made). And while things keep getting hairier (and more far-fetched) in John McClane’s fictional slice of the planet, things have been slowing down for Willis in the fame department. Ever since the actor dropped out of a small part in Expendables 3 — for which he was set to be paid $3 million for four days work — following an on-set tiff with Sly Stallone over an extra million Willis claimed he was due, his roles have been more in the direct-to-DVD realm.
2. Kurt Russell
Beginning with the immortal Snake Plissken in 1981’s Escape From New York, Kurt Russell embodied some of the decade’s coolest action heroes. Whether he was playing things straight, like in The Thing, or playing it for laughs, like in Big Trouble In Little China, Russell always seemed to be enjoying himself as much as the audience was. Today, the charming actor is still together with long time love Goldie Hawn who he met in 1983. He also just completed a high profile role in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
3. Chuck Norris
In the eighties, this former real life martial arts star turned actor (yes, he could totally kick your butt) entered the spotlight. He played a wide range of complex characters like former karate stars, or karate teachers, or cops who knew karate, and these roles propelled Norris into superstardom. In the ’90s, Norris continued to diversify his acting portfolio, playing a Texas Ranger who could do karate. The incredibly likable (if predictable) actor was launched into legend a few years ago when some genius began telling tall tales of the actor’s American made manliness. Did you know, when ghosts sit around the campfire, they tell Chuck Norris stories?
4. Cynthia Rothrock
If you watched an action movie in the 1980s, you inevitably saw the fierce Cynthia Rothrock do something like this to some poor schmuck. In her prime, Rothrock (another real life martial artist) kicked all kinds of butt. These days, she’s still kicking ass. It’s just that the quality of the content is … well, she’s currently working on something called Enter the Fist and The Golden Fleecing, which sounds like back room porn.
5. Arnold Schwarzenegger
We all know Ah-nold’s story because the man hasn’t stopped being famous since he hacked James Earl Jones head off in Conan the Barbarian (which still totally holds up, by the way). In the eighties, the muscle bound behemoth won over audiences playing a string of stoic, infallibly macho heroes and villains alike. In the ’90s, he stayed relevant by turning that image on its ear. In the oughts, he did something with boring politics or something (and he cheated on his wife a lot). These days, Schwarzenegger is trying to revive his movie career by trading on the roles that made him famous thirty years ago. Get excited for Triplets, co-starring Eddie Murphy and Danny DeVito. Sigh.
6. Michael Biehn
You might remember Michael Biehn as that guy who was rescued by Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, or as the guy who was murdered by robot-Arnie at the end of The Terminator. Unfortunately, at the end of the eighties, things went downhill for Biehn. While he never turned into a total cliche of the fallen star, his latest acting victory was the starring role in a video game a few years back.
7. Patrick Swayze
He may also be remembered for his performance in some dancing movie, but men remember Swayze fondly as the star of some of the decade’s most iconic action flicks. Whether he was wandering the wasteland, defending his town from the Red menace, kicking butt on the ice, or surfing the big wave, Swayze was a beloved performer. Unfortunately, the actor succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2009.
8. Dolph Lundgren
You first met him as the towering steroid freak Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Your kids first met him as mother-bleeping He-Man in Masters of the Universe. Pretty quickly, though, Lundgren’s brush with stardom was relatively short-lived as he descended quickly into the direct-to-video doldrums. These days, you can see him as one of The Expendables or in any of a string of the direct-to-DVD movies he’s currently starring in. We can say this for him, he’s managed to maintain his C-level status for more than thirty years without going on reality TV. That’s something.
9. Mel Gibson
Oh Mel Gibson. Poor, alcoholic, racist Mel Gibson. The man who punctuated the eighties with a string of now-legendary action performances, like Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs, and the man who owned the nineties with box office and critical triumphs like Braveheart has had a rough go of it lately. After a series of crazy drunken meltdowns which occurred after the release of his incredibly divisive The Passion of the Christ, the controversial figure has retreated to his roots, starring in several low profile action films and B-rated grindhouse fare.
10. Sigourney Weaver
After her first film credit in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, Sigourney Weaver shot to stardom at the tail end of the seventies when she starred as Ellen Ripley in Alien. A few years later — after the actress had proven her mettle in more hard-edged roles — Ripley got an action hero makeover in James Cameron’s Aliens. Her star continued to shine for years after, her natural talent earning her three Oscar nominations. These days, her ’80s roles are coming back to help out her out, as she’s set to reprise the role of Ellen Ripley in a potential new Alien film, she’s got a bit part in the new Ghostbusters film, and James Cameron is keeping her busy in all of the Avatar sequels.
11. Harrison Ford
He may have gotten his start in the seventies, but Harrison Ford became a real action hero in the eighties, cementing his role as the seminal space rapscallion with continued work in the Star Wars series and launching himself to superstardom as globetrotting, treasure-hunting archeologist Indian Jones in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. These days, the aging curmudgeon (and big fan of weed) is enjoying pop culture’s continuing love affair with the roles that made him famous. Not only has he reprised his role as Han Solo, there are there rumors of another Indiana Jones film, as well as a new Blade Runner project. Everything old is new again.
12. Jean-Claude van Damme
The muscles from Brussels brushed at the edges of fame throughout the 1980s. He had a bit part in Missing in Action, and he was cast as an early version of the Predator (which was scrapped), but his breakout role came in the 1988 instant classic Bloodsport. Okay, can we be honest? JCVD is fun to watch on screen, but he’s never been exactly an A-lister. Taken in that context, his career is still pretty much where it was in the eighties, with him doing the same role in a series of action movies you can catch on Netflix.
13. Louis Gossett, Jr.
While he may have won over female audiences with his Oscar-winning turn in 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman, Louis Gossett, Jr. will forever be known to eighties kids as the hard-nosed leader of a rogue flight squadron out to save a young boy’s father in Iron Eagle. Of course, his prosthetic-laden turn in Enemy Mine opposite Dennis Quaid is also fondly remembered by sci-fi fans. Sadly, Louis Gossett, Jr.’s career pretty much ended when 1990 rolled around. While he is still acting, you’d be hard pressed to find any of his recent roles you’d recognize.
14. Sylvester Stallone
By 1980, Sylvester Stallone’s brief affair with artistic credibility had been exposed as a fraud and he was sinking into the action hero role he’d happily inhabit for the next twenty years (with brief instances of Copland in the mix). In the 1980s, while he was still kicking tail in the Rocky movies, he also introduced the world to John Rambo and starred in several memorable films from the decade. These days, Stallone is enjoying something of a victory lap, watching a new generation tackle his most prized character. In fact, Stallone just nabbed a Golden Globe for his performance as an aged Rocky in Creed.
15. Michael Dudikoff
For men across the country who were alive in 1985, Michael Dudikoff will forever be known as the star of the cheese-tastic masterpiece, American Ninja. That was pretty much the zenith of Dudikoff’s career. Unlike most of the actors on this list, the poor guy doesn’t even have any iconic roles to reprise for a reboot. No one’s keen to watch Joe Armstrong kick the poop out of dudes in black pajamas. Dudikoff is still finding work, though, in a sting of films that would best be categorized as “under the radar”.
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