Action! Our Favorite ’80s Movie Heroes That Ruled the Box Office

1980 Action hereo collage
Everett Collection

Action movies were among the rulers of the box office in the 1980s; in particular, a certain style of action movie. Often featuring muscled-up, superhuman cops or other hero types who couldn’t seem to be stopped as they themselves mowed down armies of drug dealers, terrorists and other baddies while uttering cool quips and puns, the films tended to feature hyper-realized violence. The genre became increasingly populated by unrealistic, but fun, films and personalities. Some of the actors who became huge stars in this genre are still household names today, and have gone on to work in other genres. But fans of the era still fondly recall them as action stars, and are probably the types who still go to see them in such roles every time a new Expendables movie gathers those actors together as they are still very relevant today, just not as young. It’s no secret the last installment of the Indiana Jones saga used a little AI or CGI magic to make Harrison Ford appear younger.

Here are some of our favorite action movie heroes of the 1980s:

Harrison Ford


Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Ford entered the ’80s with a bang, reprising his swashbuckling Star Wars (1977) role of Han Solo in the 1980 follow-up The Empire Strikes Back. But it was his role as daring, globetrotting archaeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones in three films of the decade that made him an action mainstay of the era: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

Memorable badass line:

“You want to talk to God? Let’s go see him together. I’ve got nothing better to do.” (Raiders of the Lost Ark)


Bruce Willis

DIE HARD, Bruce Willis, 1988

20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection.

At the tail end of the ’80s, Willis exploded onto the action movie scene as a more “everyman” sort of hero in 1988’s Die Hard, where he played cop John McClane, a normal guy who finds himself battling terrorists at his estranged wife’s Christmas Eve party in a high-rise. McClane has gotten less and less “normal” and more superhuman in the four Die Hard sequels made since then, but the original is a classic and set Willis up as an action star throughout the ’90s.

Memorable badass line:

“Yippee ki yay, mother****er!” (Every Die Hard film)

Chuck Norris

DELTA FORCE 2, Chuck Norris, 1990,

MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

Before all those “Chuck Norris facts” about how tough the martial artist/actor is became the rage on the Internet, Norris demonstrated why so many people think he is so indestructible in his ’80s movie roles. The Missing in Action films (the 1984 original and a 1985 sequel) along with the Delta Force features (1986 and 1990) are probably among his best remembered from the era. But it should be noted that in none of his films is it actually revealed that his beard is there merely to hide a third fist.

Memorable badass line:

“Sleep tight, sucker!” (The Delta Force)


Sylvester Stallone

RAMBO III, Sylvester Stallone, 1988

Everett Collection

Following his Oscar-nominated high of Rocky beginning in the 1970s, Stallone went on to star in, and sometimes write, some pretty stupid (but fun!) action flicks in the ’80s. As an ’80s action hero, Stallone is most remembered as John Rambo in 1982’s First Blood, 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II and 1988’s Rambo III. But he also had Cobra (1986), Tango & Cash (1989) and Lock Up (1989) for good measure.

Memorable badass line:

“You’re a disease — and I’m the cure.” (Cobra)


Arnold Schwarzenegger

CONAN THE DESTROYER, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1984,

Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

The poster boy for ’80s action stars — complete with the exaggerated physique and cool/groan-worthy catchphrases — Arnie was usually untouched at the box office when it came to films with lots of explosions and gunfire. But he actually kicked off the decade in a different sort of action film, 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. He followed that up in 1984 with Conan the Destroyer, the same year in which he really took off among American audiences in The Terminator, his most iconic action role. His role as Dutch in 1987’s Predator might be Arnold’s next most famous ’80s role. Schwarzenegger’s other titles from the decade include Commando (1985), Raw Deal (1986) and The Running Man (1987).

Memorable badass line:

“If it bleeds, we can kill it.” (Predator)


Jean-Claude Van Damme

CYBORG, Jean-Claude Van Damme, 1989,

Cannon Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

Studios were perhaps eager to find the next European action star in the wake of Schwarzenegger’s success, and by the end of the decade Belgian martial artist Van Damme had begun making a box office name for himself in films like Bloodsport (1988), Cyborg (1989) and Kickboxer (1989) before really hitting it big in the ’90s.

Memorable badass line:

“I now truly believe it is impossible for me to make a bad movie.” (Real life)


Mel Gibson

LETHAL WEAPON, Mel Gibson, 1987,

Warner Brothers/Courtesy Everett Collection

Gibson honed his action-hero cred in the ’80s first as post-apocalyptic warrior Max Rockatansky in the Mad Max (1979) sequels Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), before really exploding onto the American action movie scene as Martin Riggs in 1987’s Lethal Weapon and 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2 (two more sequels followed in the ’90s).

Memorable badass line:

“You call me crazy, you think I’m crazy? You wanna see crazy?” (Lethal Weapon)


’80s Where Are They Now
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’80s Where Are They Now

March 2023

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