Forgotten (and undeservedly so) action films from the 1980s
Yet, the average viewer, aware that something like Predator or Terminator was made, has no idea that Michelle Yeoh starred alongside Cynthia Rothrock in the low-budget karate cinema, Yes, Madam! Or that there was once such an interesting action actor as Bryan Brown, who didn’t make a bigger career, overshadowed by giants like Arnold Schwarzenegger or even Steven Seagal. Familiarizing oneself with the titles listed below will undoubtedly bring immense pleasure to such viewers and allow them to rediscover the action cinema anew.
The Exterminator, 1980, dir. James Glickenhaus
This film could serve as an example of how awkwardly slow pacing can be used in action cinema. Pay close attention to this, especially in crucial plot moments. Exterminator is like Death Wish, just without the iconic mustache. The main characters played by lesser-known Christopher George and Robert Ginty are not a duo with any chance of becoming iconic. In conclusion, the film directed by James Glickenhaus, a specialist in B action cinema, can only be appreciated by exceptional fans of 1980s VHS tapes, where the action ranges from gunfights and brawls to more gunfights and brawls, and the blood shines brightly like an unreal substance staining the almost immortal heroes’ clothes. Although the hospital scene is genuinely powerful.
F/X, 1986, dir. Robert Mandel
Action cinema and action films occasionally delve into such a perspective on filmmaking technique as seen in F/X. The protagonist is a special effects expert, and his work is used to carry out a murder. It might sound quite standard, but the action is designed in a way that the art of creating special effects, undertaken by Rolland Tyler (Bryan Brown), is employed almost like a firearm. And with better effect than in many other action movies. It’s all about building tension, well-composed music, and excellent editing. It used to be a popular title in video rental stores. There was even a sequel and a TV series. However, this latter one contradicts the spirit of the original, much like what happened with the MacGyver TV series.
Red Scorpion, 1988, dir. Joseph Zito
What a suspense it was to watch The Prowler. I remember those impressions vividly to this day. The Prowler is one of the early films by Joseph Zito, the director known for the cult classic Missing in Action, which, despite being technically superior to The Prowler, didn’t quite match the tension. On the other hand, Red Scorpion is a later production, when the director had somewhat solidified his position in the world of B-class action cinema. He enlisted the star power of Dolph Lundgren, whose role as Lieutenant Rachenko remains in the shadow of Ivan Drago, Frank Castle, or Andrew Scott GR13. Honestly, without knowledge of this role, we won’t lose much from Lundgren’s career, but there’s something enjoyable in Red Scorpion, especially today, given the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Invasion U.S.A., 1985, dir. Joseph Zito
If we were to critically and rationally look at Chuck Norris’s portfolio, a significant portion of it would include productions similar to Invasion U.S.A. So, cheaply made, poorly acted, filled with tons of automatic weapon shots where the bullet hole effects are not visible, and gruesomely shot cinematically. Somehow, Chuck has survived into our times as a pop culture icon. It’s not the time or place for such analyses on why this happened, but it’s worth keeping that in mind while watching Invasion U.S.A. The film will likely never become a cult classic or a guilty pleasure. However, it’s worth knowing it as a reference point for equally unremarkable quality of other Norris productions made in the 1980s. Perhaps this knowledge will be useful when reflecting critically on why Missing in Action and not Invasion U.S.A. became a cult title.
Enemy Territory, 1987, dir. Peter Manoogian
This is one of those action-packed films that can evoke sadness if someone is familiar with action cinema and values the actors in it. The main star of Enemy Territory Jean-Michael Vincent is likely recognized by viewers from the iconic TV series Airwolf. He squandered his career due to alcohol and drugs, despite having the chance to become an action cinema icon. In this production, one looks at him with a heavy heart, especially since it was during times when Vincent was post-rehabilitation, which didn’t help him much. The premise of Enemy Territory is excellent. The action takes place in a skyscraper, from which the main characters must escape. A gang stands in their way, and they can’t use the elevator to descend. So, they must literally carve their way through the floors. It’s pure, meaty action in the style of a Judge Dredd remake.
Action Jackson, 1988, dir. Craig R. Baxley
When we think of Carl Weathers, Apollo Creed from Rocky or Colonel Al Dillon from Predator usually come to mind. And that’s about it. Both of these roles are supporting ones, not carrying the entire film as the main character. Action Jackson is an exception in Weathers’ career, and not a particularly infamous one. However, the film didn’t gain much popularity, as Weathers became forever associated with Predator and Rocky. The character of the highly impulsive, choleric Jackson might be humorous, but still difficult to connect with and like. Carl Weathers attempts to be both action-packed and comedic simultaneously, but he clearly excels mostly in the straightforward action genre where not much dialogue or facial expressions are required. However, I’d recommend watching Action Jackson on a Sunday when you’re trying not to think about the impending Monday workday.
Megaforce, 1982, dir. Hal Needham
Is it action cinema? Yes, but not exclusively. This title could easily be included in a compilation of underfunded science fiction productions. Furthermore, the lead role is played by Barry Bostwick, for whom the world of action cinema, especially scifi, was as exotic as the Alaskan ecosystem is for a chameleon. I would recommend Megaforce to anyone who enjoys strange, lesser-known, and aesthetically inexpensive films. Director Hal Needham, despite his clichés, knows how to construct action that keeps viewers engaged. He demonstrated this skill in the legendary production Smokey and the Bandit. Additionally, pay attention to the vehicle designs in Megaforce.
Yes, Madam!, 1985, dir. Corey Yuen
The year was 1985. Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock crossed paths on set. Almost 40 years have passed, and let’s see where the actresses are now. The first earned an Oscar, while the latter, largely forgotten, remained a star of cheap action films. To witness the two of them battling criminals in Hong Kong cinema is quite surprising, especially considering our contemporary understanding of Michelle Yeoh and her body of work – it’s a pleasure. Yes, Madam! is crafted much like most martial arts films from that period – partly dramatic, partly humorous. Antagonists in such films weren’t meant to instill fear in viewers, but rather come across as bumbling. The heroes, in this case two hand-to-hand combat experts, are practically guaranteed to defeat everyone without breaking a sweat. And Michelle Yeoh fighting in white looks incredibly sensual.
Shoot to Kill, 1988, dir. Roger Spottiswoode
As for Tom Berenger, it’s not surprising to see him in such a role during that era. However, when it comes to Sidney Poitier, it is quite unexpected since he rarely participated in action-packed cinema. What’s more, Shoot to Kill is an exceptional film in this genre, as it unfolds partly in the mountains and partly in challenging forested terrain, environments that are quite specific to cinematic representations. The escalating tension is skillfully developed. The pursuit, rather than a direct confrontation with hordes of enemies, flawlessly creates this tension, engaging the viewer in experiencing the perilous journey to an inevitable confrontation. In this compilation, Shoot to Kill stands out significantly in terms of quality, mainly due to the excellent direction of Roger Spottiswood, a much more skilled craftsman compared to all the other filmmakers in this selection combined.
Avenging Force, 1986, dir. Sam Firstenberg
Sam Firstenberg is a director who loves the ninja theme, Michael Dudikoff, making low-budget films, and maybe even David Bradley. Avenging Force is a production that was created during the wave of popularity of the American ninja, a title known to anyone who experienced childhood in the 80s. However, this didn’t help its cause. Dudikoff’s star shone brightly but briefly, as it quickly became apparent that he wasn’t much of an actor and couldn’t portray anything other than a stock action hero, which meant continuous fighting from start to finish. The same goes for Avenging Force, produced by Cannon Films, a company known for action-packed productions that generally lacked high artistic quality. Some of Cannon Films’ productions have survived over the years and become cult titles – for example, Runaway Train, Cobra, and Cyborg. Avenging Force is not one of them and likely never will be. However, it can be watched to examine just how similar it is to other films in which Michael Dudikoff starred.