MOVIE MT. RUSHMORE!!! – 80s Action Stars

Movie Mt. Rushmore is a new feature at Monkeys Fighting Robots, where we dive into genres and decades to try and disseminate who, among the collection of candidates, belong on the Mt. Rushmore of said genre and decade. Only four can make it, who will it be?

What better place to start than 80s action? The decade catapulted the action genre to new heights of excess and explosions, and birthed some of the most celebrated, muscle-bound, karate chopping action afficionadoes in cinematic history. The style of 80s action may be antiquated in this new era of subtlety and reservation, but the impact of the supreme 80s action stars resonates beyond the borders of the decade. Let’s dive in…

Place #1: Arnold Schwarzeneger – Is there really any debate? Arnie’s 80s filmography reads like a greatest hits of the decade’s action films. He came into his own as Conan the Barbarian in 1982, and the success of that film opened up the door for the Austrian Mr. Universe to star in some of the biggest blockbusters throughout the decade. Conan became The Terminator, then Commando, one of the purest action movies of the decade. Then there was the brilliance of John McTiernan’s Predator and the hokey hit thriller The Running Man.

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Interspersed between these hits were action flicks Raw Deal, Conan the Destroyer, and Red Heat, all working to solidify Arnie’s status as the leading man with the biggest biceps and the most dominant screen presence. Schwarzenegger also managed to cultivate his own cottage industry, redefining the one-liner:

Schwarzenegger’s place on the Movie Mt. Rushmore of 80s Action Stars is undeniable, as is the next person on this list, Arnie’s ultimate rival in the decade excess.

Place #2: Sylvester Stallone – Two Rocky films and three Rambo‘s anchor the career of Sly in the 80s. Stallone, who mysteriously sculpted his doughy body in the original Rocky into an Adonis, carved from wood, matched Schwarzenegger step for step at the box office. He began by throwing his acting weight around in First Blood, not only the beginning of the Rambo franchise but a well-crafted, tense blend of drama and action. Stallone was doing some legitimate action in First Blood, a film more about the detachment of Vietnam veterans from the society they were forced to defend, less a throwaway reason to blow shit up:

Stallone parlayed First Blood into the success of the Rambo franchise, which rewrote history in the most Reaganomics-influenced action movie of the decade, Rambo: First Blood, Part II. Rambo III hit in 1988, the same year Stallone may have ended the Cold War by defeating Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Scattered throughout Stallone’s hit franchises were Nighthawks, Cobra, the arm-wrestling actioner Over the Top, and Tango & Cash. Stallone’s place on Movie Mt. Rushmore is as undeniable as Arnie.

Place #3: Chuck Norris – The biceps didn’t bulge quite as much, but the baddassery from Chuck Norris was on full display in the 80s. After cutting his acting teeth with his mentor, Bruce Lee, in the 70s, Norris came into his own in a slew of increasingly excessive action flicks throughout the 80s. The list numbers in the dozens, all the way from The Octagon in 1980 to Hero and The Terror in 1988. In between were the corny classics Lone Wolf McQuade, The Missing in Action trilogy, Code of Silence, Invasion U.S.A., and The Delta Force, which, in a sense, passed the torch from the gritty war actor Lee Marvin to Norris.

Chuck Norris

While Norris’s action films may have never reached the box-office heights of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, there is no dismissing his impact on the action film landscape throughout the 80s. His machismo even created a seemingly endless lists of Chuck Norris Facts we all know and love.

Place #4: Mel Gibson – Despite the genre or the decade, the fourth entry onto Movie Mt. Rushmore will forever be the most difficult and controversial decision. There will always be a handful of candidates to place on the mountainside, and here we reach one Mel Columcille Gerard Gibson. The controversial and troubled star may have faded in recent years, and for good reason, but the 80s was his coming out party to the world. Once The Road Warrior hit the domestic box office, Gibson became a legitimate, bankable action star.

From The Road Warrior, Gibson completed the initial Mad Max trilogy with Beyond Thunderdome in 1985. Two years later, Gibson cemented his status as a loose cannon action hero with Richard Donner’s searing 1987 buddy-cop thriller Lethal Weapon. As is the case with any wildly successful film, Lethal Weapon spawned three sequels and a number of buddy-cop ripoffs. 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2 is, for my money, the best entry into that franchise, and Gibson’s unhinged performance as Martin Riggs steals the show:

Gibson also starred in smaller action/drama fare like the quirky comedy Bird on A Wire, Tequila Sunrise, and The Year of Living Dangerously in the decade. He brought something to the table Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Norris didn’t bring: sex appeal. Gibson’s impact in the 80s action landscape brought in the important female demographic, and for that he deserves his place here.

There is an argument to be made for Patrick Swayze, but his career departed from the action hero mold too often to be included. Kurt Russell will find his way onto another list, I assure you. Smaller stars like Michael Dudakoff and Dolph Lundgren didn’t cut a wide enough swatch across the pop-culture landscape, and Van Damme, Willis, and Seagal really belong in consideration for the 90s.

Do you agree? Who do you think belongs?

Coming soon on Movie Mt. Rushmore: All-Time Sci-Fi Stars! 

Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.