13 Underrated Second-Tier Movies From '80s Action Heroes

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There were lots of grade-A action stars in the 1980s, from Charles Bronson to Sylvester Stallone to Jackie Chan. They and others have delivered an insane number of thrills to audiences. Who could forget Bruce Willis taking on terrorists in an office building in Die Hard? Or Arnold Schwarzenegger coming from the future to kill Sarah Connor in The Terminator? These are the action movies we cherish because they got it exactly right.

Those same stars have been prolific enough to have their share of underrated movies. These films didn't light up the box office or make the same impression as their biggest blockbusters. Nevertheless, they contain the core elements fans come looking for. The next time you're in the mood to check out an '80s action hero in a lesser-known role, try one of these titles, which didn't get the love they deserved.

  • Payback is a remake of the 1967 Lee Marvin movie Point Blank. Mel Gibson stars as Porter, a professional crook left for dead by his cohorts after a particularly lucrative caper. Astoundingly, he doesn't expire. Instead, Porter heals and then goes on a mission of revenge. That entails getting close to a criminal enterprise known as “the Outfit” and shooting pretty much everyone involved with it.

    Anyone expecting Payback to be a generally breezy action flick like the Lethal Weapon pictures will be in for a shock. The movie is extremely dark, with violence depicted in a nasty manner. Porter doesn't hold back when he gets even. That harsh tone sets Payback apart from the pack. The idea represented by its title is explored in unflinching detail, making it perfect for viewers seeking an action movie that has real punch.  

    6 votes
  • The Last Boy Scout gives viewers Bruce Willis as Joe Hallenbeck, a former Secret Service agent who works as a private investigator. He's hired to protect an exotic dancer, and when she's slain on his watch, he teams up with her ex-football player boyfriend Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) to find the person responsible. The search allows them to uncover a conspiracy involving government bribes and legalized sports betting.

    You probably won't find a more macho mainstream film than this. Aside from action legend Willis, The Last Boy Scout was directed by Tony Scott of Top Gun and True Romance fame, and the hard-boiled screenplay was written by Lethal Weapon's Shane Black. The movie is incredibly violent, occasionally misogynistic, and filled with profanely funny dialogue. In other words, it's about what you'd expect from that trio of creatives.

    6 votes
  • Cobra stars Sylvester Stallone as no-nonsense cop Marion Cobretti. He's assigned to protect a model named Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) who witnessed a murder committed by a serial killer known as the Night Slasher. The guy has ties to a cult of psychos. They're coming after her, so Cobretti has to go to lethal extremes in order to keep her safe. 

    In 1986, Cobra felt like a gritty, hard-edged cop thriller. It feels a lot more tame today, yet that in no way undermines the entertainment value it contains. There are plenty of tense action scenes where Cobretti lays waste to bad guys. Stallone also delivers an effective tough-guy performance, investing the cop with a layer of cool. They don't make 'em like this anymore, and that old-school vibe is precisely what makes Cobra a kick to watch. 

    5 votes
  • Initially released in 1986, Armour of God finds martial arts master Jackie Chan applying his trade in a story that introduces some supernatural elements. He's “Asian Hawk,” a treasure hunter who helps a pal rescue his kidnapped girlfriend. She's been taken by a shadowy religious cult that possesses two pieces of supposedly magical armor, and they need the third piece to finalize their nefarious plans.

    What Chan accomplishes here is impressive, particularly a scene where he jumps off a cliff and lands on top of a hot air balloon that's floating by. The actor gave so much to the film that he nearly died. During one stunt that required him to jump from a ledge into a tree, a branch snapped, causing him to fall and fracture his skull. That's how bonkers the action gets.

    If you want to see the movie, be aware of title confusion. The sequel, Armour of God II, was released in America under the title Operation Condor. When that did well, the original was bizarrely released as Operation Condor II: Armour of God.  

    4 votes
  • A decade before he was Walker: Texas Ranger, Chuck Norris was J.J. McQuade: Texas Ranger. Lone Wolf McQuade finds the action star living in a remote part of the Lone Star state with his beloved .44 Magnum to keep him company. He comes out of retirement to help a state trooper track down the person who snatched his daughter. The trail leads to Rawley Wilkes (David Carradine), a drug trafficker and arms dealer. 

    Norris and Carradine both had superb karate skills in their day, so teaming them together makes Lone Wolf McQuade a must-see for fans of that style of fighting. In fact, Norris arguably has his most formidable on-screen opponent (outside of Bruce Lee) in this movie. Watching the two go mano-a-mano offers non-stop entertainment because, unlike in many of Norris's films, it isn't a foregone conclusion that his character will win in the end. 

    4 votes
  • In Lionheart, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Léon Gaultier, a soldier in the French Foreign Legion whose brother is slain. He abandons his duty and heads to America to help his sister-in-law and her children. In need of money for that purpose, he puts his muscles to work, taking part in bare-knuckle fighting matches that offer huge payouts to winners.

    Part of the issue with Lionheart may have been the title, which makes it sound like a period drama or a gladiator movie. As is usually the case with JCVD films, the plot is mostly just an excuse for a bunch of fight sequences. Even so, the star is at his peak here, delivering a series of highly entertaining beatings to his opponents. You get Van Damme doing what he does best and doing a lot of it. 

    3 votes