Ah, the 1980’s, an era of rapidly increasing budgets and musclebound screen heroes like Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Norris, Lundgren; a time when Jason Voorhees and John Rambo simultaneously captured the world’s collective imagination.
It was also the decade of Cannon Films, a production house that cranked out low-to-medium budget action films with astonishing regularity. Led by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Cannon was a force to be reckoned with and no discussion of the genre during this period would be complete without them (three of the entries on this list come from Cannon). Below are ten hugely entertaining 80’s action films that haven’t received the attention they deserve.
1. Contraband (1980)
When Lucio Fulci’s film Zombie was released in 1979, it earned the highest profits he’d ever seen and basically dictated the course of the man’s career until his death in 1996. After decades of hopping between genres with incredible ease, gory horror flicks became Fulci’s stock-in-trade. He did, however, manage to sneak in one action movie before diving head-first into the world of nightmares. Easily one of the most violent gangster pictures of all time,
Lucio Fulci’s Contraband deals with smugglers in Italy. The main character, Luca, and his brother, Michele, are mobsters who use speedboats to smuggle stolen goods. After the brothers lose a boatload of hijacked cigarettes, angry bosses decide to have Michele killed; this sends Luca off on a brutal warpath which takes us through the Italian crime underworld.
Shot on the sloping streets of Naples, Contraband is an action-packed mob movie as only Fulci could give us, chock full of nihilism and exaggerated carnage. We’re talking true savagery here, expertly realized by FX wizard Gino DeRossi: death by machine gun, blowtorch, meathook, drowning in a sulfur pit.
Sergio Salvati lenses all the havoc in a forceful, unflinching manner, his camerawork heavy on zooms and diffusion (as was Fulci’s preference, especially during the 80’s). Sensationalism aside, the story is fully engaging and Fabio Testi puts in a commendable performance as Luca. Even in the dubbed American version, Testi’s capable acting shines through.
The gangsters in Contraband are given some depth, aren’t mere cardboard cutouts. Fulci even tosses in a sly commentary on the culture of violence by having his mobsters constantly watch and reference old Westerns (one is reminded of Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog, where the old mafia guys are forever gazing at cartoons).
As always with Italian films, the music is a character in itself; Fulci’s regular composer, Fabio Frizzi, lent his talents to Contraband and the funky score works wonders. Easily one of the strongest efforts from a master filmmaker whose entire filmography cries out for reappraisal.
2. Raw Force (1982)
Raw Force is a Filipino-American exploitation flick, the sort of churned-out effort that was released straight to dingy movie houses on 42nd Street and never heard from again. Or, so we thought. The plot involves three Americans, members of the Burbank Karate Club, on their way to an island off the coast of China.
Unbeknownst to them, Warrior Island is home to a Hitler-look alike (played by a Filipino actor sporting a ludicrous German accent) who operates a female slavery ring. The island also houses cannibal monks, machete-wielding zombies, piranhas, necromancers and, of course, lots of naked girls. Raw Force (a.k.a. Kung Fu Zombies) is junk-food cinema, offering little in the way of substance or technical skill.
The acting is wooden, the cinematography artless, the end product feels rushed and sloppy; instead of character development, we’re given a man getting kicked in the head through the closed drivers-side window of a moving car.
A breathless barrage of T’n’A, flying fists, cheap gore, and beefed-up silliness, Raw Force has a serious case of attention-deficit-disorder, feeling like a movie written by a 15-year-old hopped up on Pixy Stix. Kung-fu and zombies were big box-office draws at the time and Raw Force attempts to mash these genres together with a bare minimum of style or grace.
This results in a ridiculously entertaining experience, provided the viewer can dial their intellect to ‘absolute zero’ and embrace the sleaze. Exploitation regulars Vic Diaz and Cameron Mitchell make welcome appearances, lending the film proper grindhouse credentials.
Unlike the rest of the cast, Diaz actually gives an effective (albeit brief) performance as one of the aforementioned flesh-eating monks. Even Mitchell, one of the hardest-working thespians of the 70’s and 80’s, appears lost and confused. These flaws don’t detract from the overall experience, instead perfectly meshing with the movie’s whacked-out sensibilities.
Not meant to be taken the least bit seriously, Raw Force is manna from B-movie heaven. If you like kung-fu violence, gratuitous nudity, and action, Raw Force amply provides all three. It was recently given Blu-ray treatment from Vinegar Syndrome, and looks splendid. This should be on the shelf of every discerning trash-film fan.
3. Vice Squad (1982)
At first glance Vice Squad appears to be a run-of-the-mill piece of schlock, yet nothing could be further from the truth. This is unusually thoughtful pulp, exploitation with a conscience and an admirable adherence to realism.
Taking place over the course of one balmy summer evening in Los Angeles, Vice Squad tells the story of Princess (Season Hubley), a single mother and moonlighting prostitute who is used by a police detective (Gary Swanson) to lure in a monumentally sadistic pimp named Ramrod (Wings Hauser).
Director Gary Sherman had previously helmed two excellent horror pictures (Death Line, Dead and Buried), and with Vice Squad he makes all the right moves. Dialogue, especially, is used to great effect; the script is a thing of beauty.
There are countless memorable lines and exchanges, and the film is sprinkled with fascinating insights into the seamy world of prostitution: working relationships, legal troubles, appointments with bizarre fetishists. All of this drips with authenticity. John Alcott’s cinematography is tasteful, damn near elegant, almost entirely made up of moody night-time exteriors: Sherman utilizes a minimum of indoor locations, wisely choosing to remain on the streets for the bulk of his picture.
Every single performance, from top to bottom, is exceptional. Season Hubley (who stated that Vice Squad was the most emotionally demanding role she’d ever taken on) gives a powerhouse performance, and Gary Swanson matches her every step of the way as the driven law officer, but the picture belongs to Wings Hauser. Ramrod is as reprehensible as they come, a thuggish, misogynistic, murderous slime-ball, and Hauser goes all-out bringing this loathsome character to life. He’s magnetic, creating a truly menacing presence while never veering into parody or melodrama.
Vice Squad technically falls more into the ‘crime-thriller’ category, but contains enough fight scenes, gun battles, and car chases to warrant inclusion here; I should add that none of these moments are gratuitous, instead evolving naturally from the storyline. Sherman allows events to smoothly lead from one to another, not once asking his viewer to suspend disbelief. Joe Renzetti’s score works brilliantly, almost subversively, underscoring these real-life horrors with music that wouldn’t feel out of place in a slasher film.
Vice Squad is a masterful piece of work, possessing countless virtues that went largely ignored by audiences and critics at the time of its release; it remains a neglected classic to this day. Gary Sherman, much like Hauser, went on to do very little of value.
One could argue that the subsequent sub-par efforts of both the director and lead actor may have sullied this astonishing films reputation, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. For what its worth, Martin Scorsese once opined that Vice Squad should have won the Best Picture Oscar in 1982.
4. Ninja III: The Domination (1984)
Ninja III: The Domination is one terminally weird movie. Just utterly bananas, a motion picture so detached from logic and reality that it almost seems to have created itself. It’s hard to imagine any human person writing this thing, let alone a vast group of them casting it, staging it, and discussing character details.
The film opens with a lone ninja storming onto the grounds of a golf course, in broad daylight, and killing everyone in sight. Naturally, he attracts the attention of police and a massive manhunt ensues. Within the first ten minutes of Ninja III, you’ll witness car chases, motorcycle stunts, a helicopter crash, death by blowgun, and the rapid-fire execution of about fifty people.
The murderous assassin is shot down by authorities and his spirit passes into the body of an attractive aerobics instructor(!); now possessed, our pretty young protagonist (Lucinda Dickey) sets forth to wipe out all those responsible for the evil ninja’s death. The only way to rid herself of this ghostly presence: combat with another ninja. Domination is the third (and final) entry in the Ninja series from Cannon Films.
The first two, Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja, are barely related to the third; having seen them is not a requirement when approaching Ninja III. While the other installments focused on an East-meets-West culture clash, this one decided to go supernatural and probably disoriented a lot of fans in the process. Dickey ain’t no Meryl Streep, but she looks spectacular and remains consistently watchable.
Director Sam Firstenberg, returning from Revenge of the Ninja, instills the proceedings with appropriate energy, never allowing boredom to set in. Yet another splendidly entertaining offering from Menahem Golam and Yoran Globus, the undisputed kings of low-brow 80’s action.
5. Death Wish 3 (1985)
The worldwide success of Michael Winner’s Death Wish led to four sequels, all now widely regarded as dated products of their time. Winner returned for the second and third installments; J. Lee Thompson took the reigns for Part IV, then Allan Goldstein finished out the series with The Face of Death.
Star Charles Bronson remained on board for each entry, hair greying and interest visibly waning. He was uncharacteristically vocal about his distaste for the cartoonish style of Death Wish 3, which ended the fruitful collaborative relationship between Bronson and Winner (they’d done five films together at that point). He vowed to never work with the director again, and stayed true to his word.
The first two Death Wish pictures had a dour, bleak tone: Bronson’s Paul Kersey character hit the streets with a grim vengeance, serving up vigilante justice for any and all manner of street scum. In the initial film, his motivation was pointed and crystal clear. With Death Wish 2, it required some suspension of disbelief; the idea of his family being viciously attacked again, on the opposite coast, was tough to swallow (“boy, that Kersey clan sure has some bum luck!”).
When another sequel was green-lit, Winner realized that ‘gung-ho’ was the way to go, and Death Wish 3 soars straight over the top as few films ever have, before or since. It’s a vibrant, explosive live-action comic book that sees Kersey (back in New York after the events in Part 2) given a pass by law enforcement. In the interest of lowering crime rates, the local police chief has agreed to turn a blind eye to Kersey’s violent antics.
Free to wipe out hoodlums with impunity, Kersey earns the ire of a street gang that regularly terrorizes the elderly; their growing dispute leads to a climactic shootout that must be seen to be believed. Winner created a mini-apocalypse within the last twenty minutes of Death Wish 3, a mad smorgasbord of firepower (including rocket launchers and MG-42’s), flying bodies, and explosions that’s still impressive to this day.
In its last reel, Death Wish 3 literally goes insane. Michael Winner was a supremely underrated visual stylist, and this film is expertly shot and lit (something hardly anyone seems to mention). Every frame pops, sizzles with color and energy. The pacing never flags, and Winner’s inventive style of shooting, staging his scenes breathes life into even minor dialogue exchanges.
Bronson, 64 at the time of filming, is clearly going through the motions, his unhappiness with the material plainly evident. Miraculously, this enhances the film’s droll sense of humor.
Watching Chuck strut through each scene, halfheartedly dishing out vengeance like a sleepy executioner, is undeniably amusing, and one is left with the strong impression that Winner wanted it that way. It’s crass, mean-spirited, gratuitous, and knowingly stupid, but also one of the most entertaining movies you’ll ever come across, aging with an awkward grace.
6. Runaway Train (1985)
Runaway Train flaunts quite the pedigree. The script (co-written by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel, and ex-con Edward Bunker) was based on an original screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, and the directorial reins were taken by Andrei Konchalovsky, a distinguished Russian filmmaker who had frequently collaborated with the great Andrei Tarkovsky.
A riveting mixture of American blockbuster action and intimate art-house sensibilities, Runaway Train tells the story of Manny (Jon Voight) and Buck (Eric Roberts), two incompatible prison escapees in Alaska who board a four-car train, destination unknown, stowing themselves away in a rear compartment. Moments after the locomotive begins its journey, the conductor suffers a heart-attack and the train furiously plows ahead, overriding the automatic stop mechanism and gradually picking up speed.
The film hops between Manny and Buck on the increasingly dangerous train (eventually joined by a stowaway railroad worker played by Rebecca DeMornay), transit authorities frantically trying to stop the out-of-control machine, and an angry warden (John P. Ryan) who is dead set on recapturing his two escaped prisoners.
What truly sets Runaway Train apart from other 80’s action films (particularly those from Cannon Group) is a strong emphasis on story and character. Manny is a hardened, ruthless bank robber, respected by his fellow criminals and destined for grand failure. By comparison, Buck is youthful, excitable, talkative, possibly holds some glimmer of hope in his future: he’s Manny’s polar opposite.
Voight and Roberts (both of whom received Oscar nominations for their work here) create two extremely compelling characters, and their dialogue is wonderful. Runaway Train didn’t short its characters in favor of non-stop excitement, but its careful to deliver both.
The action scenes, unbearably tense and impeccably crafted, are as riveting as those in any other film. No CGI, real metal and steam, real locations, a legitimate heap of hulking metal barreling towards the camera; you can practically feel the heat from the diesel engine.
Runaway Train is a class act, across the board. It suffers from a few minuscule flaws (Rebecca DeMornay’s character is 100% disposable), but they don’t keep Runaway Train from being a towering classic of cinema. Unquestionably the finest feature ever released by Cannon, it’s one of the best action films ever made. Movies in this particular genre don’t get much better. The final shot will stay with you forever.
7. No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)
No Retreat, No Surrender was a ‘first’ for many involved in its creation. It was the debut stateside effort from Hong Kong actor/director Cory Yuen. The writer, an American named Keith Strandberg, had never before written a screenplay (by his own account, he hadn’t even read one). It also marked the on-screen debut of Jean Claude Van Damme, and practically everybody else in its cast. Upon viewing the finished film, none of this comes as a surprise.
As entertaining as No Retreat is – and trust me, it’s an absolute blast – it’s very poorly made. Example: the main characters discuss an upcoming move to Seattle. We then cut to a shot of their car passing a roadside sign, ‘Welcome to Seattle’, and next a shot of the world-famous Space Needle, accompanied by a title card reading, ‘SEATTLE’. That’s the kind of film we’re dealing with.
The (wildly derivative) plot involves Jason Stillwell, a teenaged Bruce Lee fanatic who desperately wants to win a local Kickboxing tournament. He’s aided by his pal RJ, a breakdancin’, rappin’ cliche straight outta 1987, and the actual ghost of Bruce Lee (who, weirdly, is kind of a jerk).
Standing in Jason’s way are an overweight neighborhood bully (Kent Lipham, easily the film’s best performance), cocky rival martial artist Dean Ramsay, and an organized crime syndicate seeking to control all dojos in the country.
No Retreat, No Surrender provides more genuine laughs than most intentional comedies. As far as so-bad-it’s-good goes, this is top shelf material. Furthermore, the fight scenes are fairly well-choreographed and Cory Yuen knew how to keep things moving; his film is brisk, lively, and fun. More than anything, though, it’s hilarious. Painfully hilarious.
Released in the summer of 1986, No Retreat was a modest hit and spawned two sequels. Both are more easily described as straightforward ‘action’ pictures, but neither comes close to matching the harebrained original. Cornball (and vaguely homoerotic) training montages, bizarre slapstick, inept dialogue: No Retreat, No Surrender is bonehead cinema at its finest.
8. Fortress (1986)
Originally released on the HBO network, Fortress is an Australian film starring Rachel Ward as Sally Jones, an elementary school-teacher. Along with her pupils (ranging in age from 6-12), Sally is kidnapped and held for ransom by a band of armed criminals wearing Christmas-themed masks.
Led to the remote wilderness and forced into an underground cave, the teacher and her students refuse to play along and make the most of limited resources to fight back against their captors. Adapted from a novel by Gabrielle Lord (itself loosely based on a true incident that occurred in 1972),
Fortress was penned by Ozploitation legend Everett DeRoche, writer of such gems as Long Weekend and Roadgames. There’s a palpable sense of danger that’s never downplayed or softened due to the presence of minors.
The villains are vile creeps who think nothing of pointing a shotgun in a child’s face, and the kids are impeccably cast, believable, don’t once grate on the nerves. The level of graphic violence on display in Fortress was highly unusual for a television production in its day. When characters are hurt or killed, its especially impactful as there’s always an audience of terrified youngsters around to witness it.
Locations are gorgeous and nicely used; Fortress goes deep into the Australian countryside, offering a glimpse at caves, underwater lakes, lush forests, and desolate back roads. Ward is excellent, her character compelling and sympathetic.
Trapped in a terrible situation and responsible for the lives of multiple children, Sally doesn’t always make the right decisions but she does her best. HBO has always shown remarkable taste in original dramatic programming, and Fortress stands as strong proof of this. A thrilling little sleeper.
9. Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)
Writer/director/producer/actor Jim Van Bebber’s Deadbeat at Dawn took four years to complete. Sort of like a scuzzy, extra-violent riff on The Warriors, it centers on a rivalry between two street gangs, The Spiders and The Ravens.
Goose, leader of The Ravens, has a girlfriend who begs him to leave the criminal life behind; unfortunately, she’s murdered by several rival thugs just after Goose agrees to go straight. After shacking up in a squatters nest with his junkie father to recuperate, Goose sets out to avenge the memory of his slain lover.
Deadbeat at Dawn is an ultra low-budget labor of love with an undeniably goofy premise: grown men in suburban Ohio with names like Bone Crusher who spend their days knife-fighting in cemeteries and battling over turf. Van Bebber is fully aware of this inherent silliness and embraces it, aiming to provide a quick-moving revenge tale and nothing more.
The film is ragged in a technical sense but charmingly so; Deadbeat starts out especially rough and eventually settles into a pleasant, bloody groove. The film, at its best in the second half, never lags. Fight scenes are tightly edited in a dynamic fashion, the violent effects gruesome and relatively well-achieved. Van Bebber moves in close and makes the wounds feel real. He knows how to keep your attention and it doesn’t hurt that his performance, as Goose, is actually quite good.
There’s an enormous amount of raw talent on display here, and sadly it’s gone largely unrealized; aside from one other feature (The Manson Family, a profound achievement) and a handful of shorts, Van Bebber been unable to get most of his projects off the ground. He’s a supremely gifted auteur who really ought to be given the money to make more movies.
10. Troma’s War (1988)
Lloyd Kaufman, founder of Troma Team Studios and America’s leading schlockmeister, considers Troma’s War to be his masterpiece. He regularly states that the concepts for films like The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High came straight from newspaper headlines; indeed, beneath the rampant gore and scatological humor of his work (unquestionably Lloyd’s top priority), a social message can often be found.
Troma’s War was Kaufman’s response to the Reagan administration, to Rambo and the macho glorification of war. When a commercial airliner crashes on an uncharted island, the surviving passengers (all U.S. Citizens) come to realize that they’ve landed smack in the middle of a terrorist infiltration camp.
Led by a pair of horribly disfigured siamese twins who are conjoined at the head, this terrorist group is hellbent on global domination and plans on using America as its starting point. The terrified civilians, after their numbers are significantly thinned, assert themselves and mount a counter-offense. Kaufman and his co-director, Michael Herz, waste little time in turning this island into a hellish war zone; Troma’s War is relentlessly paced. It’s a parody, though, and aims to amuse rather than thrill.
The Troma brand of humor, best described as, “aggressively juvenile”, is certainly not for everyone. Lloyd Kaufman has an extreme fondness for hammy overacting, bodily fluids, flatulence, and over-the-top vulgarity. This predilection runs strongly through every film in the mans oeuvre, and has cost him respect, mainstream acceptance, and viewers.
Troma’s War is possibly Kaufman’s most gleefully offensive picture. Nothing is sacred in Tromaville, no taboo subject off-limits, and Kaufman stuffed as many topical items into Troma’s War as he could (a running plot thread involving the AIDS virus is particularly dicey, even for him).
Beyond the obscene whimsy, this is a staggeringly violent movie that rivals any John Woo flick in terms of sheer body count. So many people are shot, skewered, eviscerated, blown up in Troma’s War. Like most of the entries on this list, its main draw is sheer entertainment value.
The in-house productions from Troma are very divisive works amongst film fans; either you enjoy Kaufman’s style, or you don’t. For those willing to surrender to his giddy brand of mayhem, there’s ample fun to be had. Troma’s War is a hyperactive whirlwind of bad taste and bullet wounds.