The 25 Best '80s Action Movies Ranked

"There is no such thing as an action movie," says Steven E. de Souza, writer of more than one film venerated below, "'Action movie' is a term that was invented in the '80s." He's not wrong. Before the MTV age, action was diversified. Swashbucklers. Westerns. War epics. Crime thrillers. Fists of fury. All the way back to Buster Keaton, audiences thrilled at feats of derring-do, but action was just another tool in filmmakers' boxes.

1982's "First Blood," the cinematic debut of John Rambo, contains only a single kill. "Rambo III," released just six years later, boasts a body count of 132, averaging about one-and-a-half murders per minute. At the time, the "Guinness Book of World Records" deemed it not only the most violent movie ever made, but also the most expensive at $69 million. $16 million of that went to Sylvester Stallone's paycheck, granting him further Guinness bragging rights as the highest-paid actor of all time.

The '80s belonged to action. Pectorals rippling with heavy recoil. Entire neighborhoods disintegrating in pyrotechnic displays. No end too grisly for a one-line eulogy. The decade produced some of the greatest action films ever seen, but the following movies represent the very best of their iconic era.

25. Octopussy

The James Bond franchise has been around long enough to double as a pop culture barometer, always a few years behind. Blaxploitation begat "Live and Let Die." The kung-fu craze begat "The Man with the Golden Gun." "Star Wars" begat "Moonraker." "Raiders of the Lost Ark" begat "Octopussy." 

Its title does it no favors. Roger Moore, then 55, wanted to retire after the previous film and only returned after James Brolin threatened to replace him. "For Your Eyes Only" is a better thriller. "The Living Daylights," better espionage. But "Octopussy" is a go-for-broke barnburner that marks the height of Bond's crowd-pleasing excess. 

Moore's climactic clown disguise is not an insult, but a mission statement. Forget the nouveau riche blockbuster class — the 007-ring circus had been touring for decades, and could still show them all a thing or two. Marvel as the spy with a painted tear on his cheek defuses a nuclear bomb. Thrill as he threads the needle of an airplane hangar in a one-man jet. Snicker through popcorn as he invades the enemy compound via alligator submarine. Not only can he swing through the jungle higher and faster than Harrison Ford's dusty archaeologist, but Bond yells like Tarzan as he does it. A serious Cold War story lurks among the gags, but there's enough of those to be found in the films ahead. "Octopussy" is all about old-fashioned pomp and circumstance — even the nail-biting finale is just a gussied-up wing walker act.

24. Runaway Train

No discussion of '80s action films would be complete without mentioning Cannon, the studio that Chucks Norris and Charles Bronson built. Schlock was its calling card and lifeblood. Lurid B-pictures made for peanuts and pre-sold into the black on home video rights kept the lights on. Today, its legacy glows in cheap neon with beloved junk like "Death Wish III" and "Enter the Ninja," but between those efforts, Cannon funded projects by renowned filmmakers who were no longer bankable in the blockbuster age.

"Runaway Train," the one-time pet project of Akira Kurosawa, splits the difference as an existential rumination on the same bitter, sometimes nihilistic resilience of the human spirit that also taught "Speed" everything it knows. Jailbirds Jon Voight and Eric Roberts make their escape aboard a locomotive headed across the Alaskan tundra. Almost immediately, the conductor dies, condemning the pair (and eventual trio) to a one-way trip sans brakes.

Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky boils the journey down to its rawest materials. Blistering wind. Severed fingers. Relentless momentum. Life and death. "Runaway Train" is the only action movie on this list — and perhaps cinema as a whole — that not only ends with a quote from "Richard III," but earns it.

23. Rambo: First Blood Part II

In the future tradition of "Lethal Weapon 2," "First Blood Part II" is a lesser film than its forebearer. "First Blood" is a Frankenstein story, a sad and violent lesson about patriotic hubris. "Rambo: First Blood Part II," with the monster's name moved out in front, lets the creature loose to wreak the exact havoc he was broken and rebuilt for — for the same country that broke and rebuilt him.

And what spectacular havoc it is. Rambo's defensive playbook gets thrown out with his most expensive gear; he's a slasher villain reunited with his campground of choice. Rambo doesn't just hide from patrols. He disguises himself as a mud bank and waits for the most dramatic moment to crack open an eye. Instead of ducking when a lone soldier opens fire on him, Rambo takes the time to string up an explosive arrow. The resulting viscera is documented with all the flair of a building implosion. Not that there's much time to waste on reflection — an entire mountain blows up 25 seconds later. 

For the first and last time with his runner-up franchise, Stallone attempts to circle a square. Rambo is both a state-conjured ghost and a GI Joe — a Saturday morning cartoon starring Rambo premiered the following year. In just over an hour and a half, he single-handedly starts, ends, and wins a second Vietnam War. "First Blood Part II" is a Rosetta Stone of American pop culture during the Reagan years. It's not the best action film on this list, but it's arguably the most definitive.

22. The Untouchables

Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables" might not feel like an action movie, but its two-hour running time keeps the adrenaline flowing. David Mamet's screenplay takes inspiration from Eliot Ness' autobiography, but like any good Hollywood adaptation, it paints well outside the margins of that book's truths to deliver a rousing tale of corruption, integrity, and tax fraud. It ends with the court case that took down Al Capone (played in the film by Robert De Niro), but getting there involves plenty of shootouts and bloody action.

From a horseback ride along the Canadian border as part of a raid on bootleggers to a later sequence where Capone's right-hand man, Frank Nitti (Billy Drago), kicks off a courthouse shootout that moves to the roof and ends with a mighty (and messy) fall to his death below, the action is beautifully crafted. A key element lifting these scenes beyond the norm is De Palma's suspense-oriented direction.

The best example of this sees Ness (Kevin Costner) and fellow lawman George Stone (Andy García) attempting to intercept a witness at Union Station. Inspired in part by Sergei Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin," the set piece is a masterfully crafted exercise in tension, punctuated with explosive violence. Good guys and bad guys exchange gunfire while a baby carriage, accidentally jostled during the shootout, rolls down the station's sprawling steps. De Palma shows off his meticulous nature through slow motion, a montage of perspectives, and precise sound design. 

21. Road House

There's a "Road House" remake on the way, but no matter how solid it might be, it stands little chance of dethroning the original's cult status. The premise is simple: A legendary cooler is hired on at a troubled bar, and things only escalate from there. Think "Kitchen Nightmares" if Gordon Ramsay busted out the occasional throat rip. Bar fights make up the bulk of the action, but appropriately named director Rowdy Herrington ensures there's a messy appeal to the carnage as beer and blood paint the walls.

Patrick Swayze stars as Dalton, a guy who gets the job done (despite everyone thinking he would be bigger), and he brings a balletic approach to justice. We get the expected fist fights with moves culled equally from martial arts and wrestling, but as tensions build, so does Dalton's repertoire. He tears out one dude's Adam's apple, unleashes a graceful jeté into a guy's face, and uses the palm of his hand like a hammer. We also get things blowing up, an explosive car stunt, and some monster truck action.

Ben Gazzara plays the big bad, and like Craig T. Nelson below, he's fun and menacing, despite never convincing us for a second he could take a hit from Swayze. Kelly Lynch, Sam Elliott, and Jeff Healey are along for the ride, ensuring a sexy, sweaty good time with great music, too.

20. Cobra

According to the writer, star, and alleged ghost director himself, the inspiration for "Cobra" was a simple question: "What if Bruce Springsteen had a gun?" Sylvester Stallone's answer is not only incorrect even by the wildest of imaginations, but actually approaches modern art in its wrongness. 

This is '80s Americana reduced to its basest perversions and arranged in a poppy montage. Mirrored aviators. Room-temperature Coors. Chromed-out muscle cars that are unsafe at any speed. Ax-wielding maniacs. European supermodels no wider than a sniper rifle's crosshair. Unexpected robots. Marion "Cobra" Cobretti lives under a giant, neon Pepsi ad and carries a gun with an illustrated grip that can only be seen when holstered like surrogate genitalia.

Every decision can be justified by an even simpler question — "Is it cool?" — and Stallone never misses. Why does Cobretti cut the tip of his pizza off with scissors? Why do three open freezers fog out most of a grocery store? Why does the murderous cult meet solely to clang axes together over their heads?

After the one-two punch of "Rambo: First Blood Part II" and "Rocky IV," Stallone had reached his personal event horizon. What he made with that unimaginable power is absurdist, fascist, and honest to its leather-and-denim soul. But boy is it cool.

19. Above the Law

In the decade's twilight, as muscle-bound supermen lost ground to special effects, two unlikely challengers entered the ring. They were Ferraris, not Hummers, making up for their standard humanoid proportions with bone-breaking speed. While Jean-Claude Van Damme wouldn't find his best showcase until the '90s, the case could be made that Steven Seagal never bettered his debut.

Seagal, an aikido expert who claims to have a past with the CIA, plays Nico Toscani, an aikido expert who has a past with the CIA. It's no stretch — note Segal's "Story By" credit — but here, the man has something to prove. Uber-agent Michael Ovitz believed he could make anybody a star, even his (alleged) martial arts instructor. So, as much as he ever would, Seagal tried. 

Director Andrew Davis, fresh from wringing a performance out of fellow action hero Chuck Norris in "Code of Silence," presents Seagal as the punching man's Dirty Harry. He talks just as softly, but forgoes the .44-caliber stick. All Nico needs are his hands, held approximately steering wheel-width apart, and something he can flip the next scumbag into. The moves are still novel and the speed still impressive, but the biggest thrill is Seagal himself. When he monologues an old friend to pieces about the Agency's unchecked evil, it plays like a bounced check; he could've been a contender, or at least not Steven Seagal.

18. Action Jackson

We've covered the lack of action franchises with Black leads before, and "Action Jackson" absolutely deserved to become one. The damn thing just cooks with an entertaining mix of action, character, and humorous charm. Key to it all is a charismatic turn from Carl Weathers, who delivers beatdowns and fun quips with abandon. Saying, "I have to catch a cab," and then running and leaping onto the roof of a moving taxi? Ridiculous, yet you believe the guy could do it. The "Rocky" franchise gave him the longest-running character, and "The Mandalorian" introduced him to a brand new audience, but this late '80s gem remains a favorite for us action fans.

It's also a "Die Hard" reunion of sorts, with at least six actors returning, including Al Leong, Robert Davi, and De'voreaux White. Add in performers from "Predator," 'Demolition Man," "Tango & Cash," and "Commando," and watching this film becomes a fun game of action movie bingo. Craig T. Nelson isn't an action regular, but his turn as the white-haired villain is wonderfully mean and entertaining, and leading ladies Vanity and Sharon Stone are no slouches either.

Stuntman-turned-filmmaker Craig R. Baxley ("Dark Angel," "Stone Cold") is the driving force, crafting some memorable set pieces on a small budget. Explosions and fire stunts litter the film, alongside shootouts, chases, and more. It's as smooth and good-looking a 96 minutes as you could hope for.

17. Escape from New York

Ask a John Carpenter fan for their three favorite Carpenter films, and you're likely to get at least six titles in response. The odds are good that "Escape from New York" will be among them, and it's easy to see why. The premise remains killer as we're introduced to a near-future America (that's right, it's 1997) where the island of Manhattan has been walled off and turned into a prison. "Once you go in, you don't come out." Except, of course, when Air Force One is hijacked, and the president (Donald Pleasence) is taken hostage in the city.

Snake Plissken (a one-eyed Kurt Russell with a five o'clock shadow) is sent in on a rescue mission that starts with a tense glider landing atop the World Trade Center and ends with a fast-paced chase across the 69th Street Bridge. Gunfights, foot chases, and a death match with a hulking man named Slag (Ox Baker) are just a few of the stops along the way, with engaging set pieces on a budget and thrills and personality to spare.

Carpenter brings the world to life through convincing production design and a funky cast of characters. Isaac Hayes plays the power-hungry "Duke of New York," Harry Dean Stanton plays self-described criminal genius Brain, Adrienne Barbeau is Brain's moll, and Ernest Borgnine is a cabbie just happy to be along for the ride. And the score is top three Carpenter too!

16. Millionaires Express

"Millionaires' Express," the first of six Hong Kong classics to make this list, takes a particularly Eastern approach to the Western. The expected tropes are firmly in place, but the legendary Sammo Hung directs, co-writes, stars, and coordinates stunts for a hugely entertaining tale of the good, the bad, and a career criminal who sabotages a train, forcing its occupants to spend time and money in his dusty little town. Unbeknownst to him, there are deadly criminals on board, more riding in on horseback, and three Japanese samurai with a secret of their own.

The film is a terrific action comedy that sees Hung and his cast juggling numerous story threads and characters in pursuit of laughs and thrills. Hung gives a sizable role to his longtime friend Yuen Biao, a stellar fighter and an even more impressive acrobat, and the pair have a fantastic fight before joining forces against the film's real baddies. Cynthia Rothrock and Richard Norton are on tap as two of the lead bandits, with Hung and Rothrock also delivering a solid scrap.

We get plenty of fights, both big and small, but Hung also spices things up with some impressive stunts, including shenanigans on a moving train and an epic flip off a two-story roof by Yuen. It's all in one take as Yuen jumps, flips, lands on his feet, and walks away. Wild stuff.

15. Aliens

James Cameron knows a great trick. He's pulled it off three times, with "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Aliens," and the script for "Rambo: First Blood Part II." How do you build a better sequel? Make it an action movie.

"Aliens" is the most daring of the bunch, not just for its harsher genre whiplash, but the professional context. Most of the British crew hadn't seen "The Terminator" yet, reducing fearless leader Cameron to the visionary director of "Piranha II: The Spawning." If the pressure or daily stalemate over tea time got to him, it doesn't show. If anything, that helps his case for stretching the world's worst shift into the world's worst career. Ellen Ripley just cannot catch a break. Sure, her coworkers brought guns this time, but the Xenomorph brought more Xenomorphs.

Dread is measured in ammo counts and blinking dots in the dark — a sentry gun standoff reinstated in the Special Edition rhymes with the wasted rounds of "Predator." This is Cameron's Vietnam, the "Rambo" serial numbers slicked over with goo. Only Ripley knows how it ends. Her miserable tour of duty, which she never wins, just begins losing slower, is as tense as '80s action gets.

14. In the Line of Duty IV

The road to "In the Line of Duty IV" is convoluted. The franchise starts with "Yes, Madam!" and "Royal Warriors," both starring Michelle Yeoh but as different characters, and they're followed by up to seven more tenuously related films, usually featuring Cynthia Khan in the lead. The details are unimportant, as all that matters is these first few films deliver some blistering fights and stunt work. Any of them could have taken this spot, but "In the Line of Duty IV" stands tallest and hits hardest.

Khan and the great Donnie Yen star as cops in Seattle, working a drug ring case. When they end up with a witness in need of protection, their efforts take them to Hong Kong. Director and famed action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping fills the film to bursting with fights, chases, and stunts, and his beautifully crafted set pieces are in good hands with Khan, Yen, Yuen Yat-chor, and Michael Woods.

Yen unleashes some truly stunning beats, highlighted by two face-offs against Woods (the pair reunited for great rematches in "Tiger Cage II" and "Crystal Hunt"), a tiring amount of high kicks, and a motorcycle chase. Not to be outdone, Khan also lets loose with fists and feet and fights atop a moving ambulance. This one is Hong Kong action nirvana.

13. Predator

This is the most contentious inclusion on this list because, as much as it does scratch the genre's primal itches, "Predator" is more of a high-tech insult to greased-pec action cinema than a proud example.

The testosterone airs out early. The now-immortal bicep measuring contest. Jesse Ventura coining the phrase "sexual tyrannosaurus." Bill Duke dry shaving on a shuddering helicopter. To director John McTiernan's continued annoyance, the village assault even looks like second-unit business as usual. But then the one-liners disappear in the lush desolation and the supermen do something unthinkable: They panic.

Muscles are no match for lasers, cloaking devices, or similar special effects. One of the toughest ensembles ever collected on celluloid dies horribly, man by man, until all that's left is the least-killable action hero in history. Arnold Schwarzenegger meets his impossible match and gives his best performance of the decade. The horror bona fides of "Predator" may dilute its standing, but there's no more potent representation of '80s action than the buffest actors in the world unloading thousands of rounds into the empty jungle just to hear the reassuring sounds they make.

12. Righting Wrongs

The legendary Three Dragons — Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao — are responsible for some of the greatest action films ever made, together and apart. Of the trio, compatriots since their days at the Peking Opera School, Biao remains the most obscure to western audiences. That's a tragedy, especially considering that he's the best mover of the bunch.

In "Righting Wrongs," Biao puts that agility to brutal use as a lawyer who moonlights as judge, jury, and executioner. Anyone expecting prop comedy and pratfalls is in for a rude awakening — the wrongs here are very wrong. The villains incinerate children because their parents saw something they shouldn't have. The heroes kill with extreme prejudice and unflinching cruelty. They're all free radicals condemned to the same terminally corrupt system. In the complete absence of justice, blood makes do.

The simplest confrontations escalate at blinding, occasionally nightmarish speeds. An attempted hit-and-run in a parking garage turns into a lop-sided demolition derby with Biao at one point dropping between the fenders of two crashing cars. A routine arrest by eventual ally Cynthia Rothrock, among the most unsung of '80s action heroes, climaxes with a 30-foot diving tackle off a balcony. The final showdown defies all expectations of bodily capability and happily-ever-after. Seek only the original Hong Kong cut — the rest pull the fiercest, final punch.

11. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

All of the "Star Wars" films are action heavy, but for kids at the time, "The Empire Strikes Back" first showed us what a true action epic looks like. (It also taught us about downer endings and the need for patience, but that's a separate topic.) We still get laser blasts and space battles, but director Irvin Kershner ups the ante with a large-scale battle on the ice planet of Hoth.

Soldiers dot the landscape, firing guns and cannons while giant mechanized machines march toward them. Outposts and trenches explode in balls of fire as the rebels struggle against a superior, better-funded military, and everything is dwarfed in the shadows of the huge (and arguably impractical) AT-AT walkers. The action shifts from power to strategy as the rebels topple the hulking armored beasts, and the screen shakes with the impact of their fall. Stop motion brings much of it to life, and it remains a fantastic example of crafting a big spectacle with miniatures.

"Empire" also has the temerity to give viewers an action sequence that ends the film with the hero's defeat, as Luke Skywalker engages in a lightsaber battle with Darth Vader. The lengthy, steam-enshrouded duel shows how action can shape both story and character.

10. To Live and Die in L.A.

Some will scoff at the inclusion of William Friedkin's tale of criminal obsession on a list celebrating action, and that's a fair point if you're valuing quantity over quality. Take the opposite tack, and you'll see this stylish and sweaty gem for the propulsive masterpiece that it is.

William Petersen's Agent Chance is intensity personified, and it's not just because he loves to bungee jump off suspension bridges. He's quick to fight, fast on the draw, and a foot chase through the airport shows him to be a movie runner nearly on par with Tom Cruise. Chance is a force to be reckoned with, but the film's unafraid to show us that he's every bit as human as everyone else, as a sudden and unexpected act of violence shatters the screen.

The film's highlight is a car chase that ranks among the best in film history. Chance and his partner are pursued by armed baddies through alleys and bustling streets. Faced with an impossible choice, the reckless but determined agent guns his car onto the freeway — against the oncoming traffic. It's a nail-biting ride as cars swerve, crash, and narrowly avoid major collisions. Friedkin's biggest film may be "The Exorcist," but between this and "The French Connection," he's proven himself a master of car chase cinema.

9. RoboCop

"RoboCop" was rejected by the MPAA eight times over its sloppy-joe gore. "The violence in the film is amplified because I thought it had to do with Jesus," defends director Paul Verhoeven. "RoboCop's an American Jesus." 

Corporate interests bring officer Alex Murphy back from the dead. His first and, for a time, only surviving personality trait is cribbed from children's television. To paraphrase a later cinematic cop well-acquainted with bulky costumes, RoboCop was the toyetic hero Detroit needed. Only through self-discovery, stop-motion animation, and several thousand squibs does he become the hero it deserves.

The beauty of "RoboCop" lies in its straight-faced hyperbole. As much as it's a caustic commentary on hyper-violent American action movies, it, too, is a hyper-violent American action movie. Verhoeven never winks. Peter Weller studied Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible" to play his computerized half properly. Basil Poledouris' score doubles as an operatic mockery of the genuine article. It's a miraculous piece of work, and not just for the part where RoboCop walks on water. Then again, sometimes a sniper rifle that explodes sports cars is just a sniper rifle that explodes sports cars.

8. Project A

While the vast majority of Jackie Chan's films heading into the early '80s were period pieces, "Project A" sets its sights on a (relatively) more recent time, with its focus on pirate attacks in the late 19th century. Chan plays a member of Hong Kong's Coast Guard, who's eventually transferred into the local police force to combat the dual evils of piracy and corruption. He succeeds, obviously, but how could he not with Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao by his side?

Chan, who also directed and co-wrote the film, kicks things off with an elaborate bar fight. While "Road House" celebrates the messy brawl, here we get elaborately choreographed mayhem designed to look sloppy, with the result being a gloriously constructed set piece. The action is fast, frequently stunning, and crafted with multiple comedic beats that flow along with the fight.

The film only escalates from there, with thrilling chases on foot and bicycle, both blending physical entertainment with near-slapstick hilarity. Hung and Yuen get in plenty of licks along the way, another beautifully constructed fight unfolds around dual winding staircases, and the big finale sees our heroes going head to head with the always reliable Dick Wei as the lead pirate. Add in an epic stunt involving a fall from a clock tower that echoes Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last," and you have one of Chan's best movies.

7. The Killer

Once, while shooting "The Killer," director John Woo showed up on set and asked his producer to find 30 stunt performers and over 100 extras. When asked why he needed them, Woo said, "I don't know." 

Woo made the film without a script or storyboards, a product of pure instinct. The result is the first Woo-brand bullet ballet, doves and all. It's cut from criminal myth. Chow Yun-fat is the kind of hitman who goes to church for the atmosphere. Danny Lee is the kind of cop who's either dedicated or deranged, depending on the commissioner's patience. The hitman wants to retire and make amends to the lounge singer he accidentally blinded. The cop can't believe a killer would care. Emotions are expressed through jabbed pistols and squeezed triggers. Friendship is earned in self-defense, back-to-back, against shared targets. The only forces of nature in Woo's Hong Kong are love and ammunition.

Though "Hard Boiled" has since taken the gold as the filmmaker's bullet-hell masterpiece, there's more to "The Killer" than its perfectly choreographed mayhem. This is opera as much as it is action. Woo's lifelong obsession with Jean-Pierre Melville finds its most powerful outlet here — not only does he tap the same ice-cold vein, but he manages to find a bloody, beating heart at the end of it.

6. Commando

"It's the granddaddy of action films as we know them today," says director Mark Lester, "and Arnold was the reason it got made." Any confusion over its inspiration is cleared up before the opening credits — Mr. Universe walks out of the woods with an entire tree perched on one shoulder. He's not Rambo. He's not Conan. He's Paul Bunyan resurrected for the Reagan age, his axe traded in for a belt-fed M60 machine gun and his name rechristened by the Commodore 64 — John Matrix.

Its purity transcends all cultural barriers. "You don't need to read the subtitles to know it was a bad idea to kidnap Arnold Schwarzenegger's little girl," says screenwriter Steven E. de Souza. The kidnappers awaken a force as simple and inevitable as death itself. Mall security. Air traffic control. Physics. Nothing can stop John Matrix, an ontological truth only former squad mate Vernon Wells, an eleventh-hour replacement worth his weight in weirdo gold, understands. He will jump from planes that are taking off, roll down mountains in Chevy Blazers with their brakes cut, and gun down hundreds of foreign soldiers somehow stationed on an island off the California coast in order to get Alyssa Milano back.

And he does, all to the percussive beat of James Horner's steel drums. Not a second or shell casing is wasted. Any given line could be sold on a t-shirt. The obligatory pop song at the end describes Arnold's daughter as "a mountain that dreams are made of." This is the ultimate '80s action movie, a rocket-propelled time capsule that still blows up with the best of them.

5. Lethal Weapon 2

"Action movies before then," recalled "Lethal Weapon" director Richard Donner, "[were] all generic characters and gratuitous violence." His awed then refers to Shane Black's script for the original film. This awe does not extend to the script Black co-wrote with novelist Warren Murphy for the sequel, preliminarily called "Play Dirty." Donner found it too dark, and Black quit. Without Black's corrosive wit, the franchise could only get sillier — beware the Warner Bros. logo, now scored with a Looney Tunes taunt.

"Lethal Weapon 2" is an R-rated cartoon. Martin Riggs, a formerly broken soul mended just barely by his surrogate family, makes his entrance while gleefully destroying said family's station wagon. Roger Murtaugh, too old for this the last time, almost dies on a toilet. Joe Pesci plays Porky Pig. There's just enough darkness to leave a bruise, but not enough to rule out decapitations-by-surfboard or the quip that always follows.

"Lethal Weapon" is the better movie, but "Lethal Weapon 2" is the better action movie. Donner reduces the original's neo-noir nihilism to window dressing and spends his doubled budget totaling entire car dealerships. This is the buddy cop blockbuster supreme, sold on a tagline so cocky it didn't even try: "The Magic Is Back." And how.

4. Raiders of the Lost Ark

For the first and last time in history, Steven Spielberg was in trouble. Between "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he'd earned a reputation for running over schedule and budget. Studios didn't mind until "1941," a similarly extravagant production that only grossed a third of his earlier blockbusters. Even with a story and oversight from "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, Spielberg could barely get hired. His next project had to count.

"Raiders of the Lost Ark" cost about half of "1941" and came in 12 days ahead of schedule. It also happens to be the greatest adventure film ever made. In their nostalgic distillation of the pulpy '30s adventures that inspired them, Spielberg and company managed to usurp the very definition in pop culture; when anybody talks about "adventure serials" now, they really mean Indiana Jones.

The boulder. The truck. The swordsman. The flying wing. The action in "Raiders" is nothing short of iconic. Every set piece doubles as a self-contained silent film, just as effective when left to John Williams' orchestral lonesome. Harrison Ford's natural gift for frustration pays dividends with each punch. Lucas and Spielberg set out to make "something better than Bond." Against all odds, they did.

3. The Road Warrior

With "The Road Warrior," director and co-writer George Miller forged a legend. The nuked-out horizon. The leather-punk fashion. The wandering mute on a road to nothing and nobody. Sure, the component parts came from somewhere. But the view, damned and dirty, seems like it has always existed as-is. Even the original "Mad Max" looks like a smudged Xerox by contrast.

The plot is exactly one-word-long: survival. Max needs gas and dog food. The rest, humanity included, is a detour. In place of heroics, there are deals. In place of compassion, there's desperate trust. "You want to get out of here?" he asks the latest pocket of delusional civilization. "Talk to me." It might as well be a hug. Max's one smile is sarcastic, seen only when his luck runs out and the status quo settles down again.

Reducing "The Road Warrior" to its climactic chase is disingenuous only because Miller did that himself 34 years later with the superlative "Mad Max: Fury Road." Even in that considerable shadow, this film's vehicular carnage stands the tests of time and imitation — nothing beats a marauder accidentally flipping end-over-end three times in mid-air. "Fury Road" is the superior smash-'em-up, no question, but atomic westerns don't get any better than "The Road Warrior."

2. Police Story

"Police Story" is the product of a man possessed. Jackie Chan was running out of time and patience. Both of his attempts to woo audiences in the United States, 1980's "The Big Brawl" and 1985's "The Protector," failed. His frustrations with American directors are best summarized with a single grievance, aired when the latest potential stunt was dumbed down for coverage: "No one's going to pay money to watch Jackie Chan taking a stroll." If Chan wanted a true showcase for his abilities, he'd have to build his own and throw himself through it repeatedly.

The story is a cops and robbers tale pitting the determined Sergeant Ka-Kui versus omnipotent crime lord Chu Tao. The plot is an excuse; Chan and co-writer Edward Tang reverse-engineered it from a list of props and playgrounds. By the director-star's estimation, the film cost a little less than $2 million American dollars, a quarter of the budget of that same year's "Police Academy II: Their First Assignment." Chan made up the difference in blood.

"Policy Story" opens with Ka-Kui leveling a shantytown in a compact car, and only gathers speed from there. Any given set piece, any given shot, would earn far lesser works a prime seat in the action movie pantheon. The sum total, furiously alive with a breath Chan never lets himself catch, approaches the sublime.

1. Die Hard

"Terrorist movies are usually mean, filled with all sorts of mean, nasty acts," admits director John McTiernan on the "Die Hard" DVD commentary. "I didn't say yes to this project until we figured out some ways to put, in essence, some joy in it." That fleet-footed contradiction produced not only one of the greatest action movies ever made, but the most influential — how many films can claim an entire knock-off genre?

But there is no substitute for "Die Hard," not even its sequels. The original is among the finest Swiss watches ever crafted and blown to smithereens. The script, feverishly rewritten by Steven E. de Souza mid-shoot to accommodate Bruce Willis' "Moonlighting" schedule, should be studied in film school. The rhythm, co-conspired by McTiernan, cinematographer Jan de Bont, and editor Frank Urioste, changed the visual language of American action cinema. It also signaled the superman's twilight, substituting the reigning gym rats for ragdoll Bruce Willis.

John McClane is a '70s cop in an '80s plight. He wounds — oh boy, does he wound — and winces at every muzzle flare. Most importantly, he thinks. Not once does McClane get the upper hand in any physical sense. Instead, he starts on the back, bare foot and never quite recovers. His only advantage is that the wily villains, led by Alan Rickman in one of the all-time greatest acting debuts, assume that they're wilier than he is. What makes "Die Hard" work is that McClane would probably agree with them. But that's never stopped him before, and now he's got a machine gun. (Ho. Ho. Ho.)