In the 1980s and 1990s, action flicks were king. The silver screen was dominated by stories of deadly androids waging war against the last remnants of mankind, terrorists being taken down by a tough-talking cop at Christmastime, and bloody martial arts tournaments where only one complete fighter could claim victory and honor.
In recent years, however, the practical effects and raw physical presence, and the R rating that often accompanied these has been ousted by a bevy of cape and cowl characters with new, more family-friendly stories. For example, Avengers: Infinity War is set to make over $2 billion in worldwide box office sales this week according to Forbes. The glory days of the action movie and the heroes that starred in them seem to have come and gone.
Or have they? According to Deadline, Sylvester Stallone just announced another Rambo is in the works. With a new Rambo movie coming out and the fact that the last-man-standing franchise Fast and Furious raked in over $1.5 billion in their last outing with Fast 7, it looks like the venerable and visceral genre, and the legends that built it, are ready for one last go. In a completely subjective fashion and in no particular order: here are the most iconic action heroes of all time and the bad-ass characters that defined an era.
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Terminator T-800 (Terminator Franchise, 1984)
Perhaps the most celebrated bodybuilder in history, an ex-Governor of the State of California, and arguably the most famous action star of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger has lived a life of great success. The Austrian Oak strongman event cemented his movie industry fame with his portrayal of The T-800 model Terminator, first sent to kill John Connor, and later to protect his life. 1992’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a cultural sensation, blending state-of-the-art computer animation and post-production with peak Arnold Schwarzenegger firing shotgun shells, riding a fat motorcycle, and taking on an impossibly cunning enemy made of impervious liquid metal. The man of many catchphrases had several other notable roles, including his portrayal of Col. John Matrix in Commando, Douglas Quaid in Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece Total Recall, and as a spy and loving husband Harry Tasker opposite Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies. Many of these efforts were helmed by respected director James Cameron.
Jean-Claude Van Damme as Frank Dux (Bloodsport, 1987)
The chiseled “Muscles from Brussels” began a career with his characterization of American Kumite fighter Frank Dux. Trained by an adoptive father figure in the form of Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao), and with a minor role from a very young Forest Whitaker as a detective looking to bring him in for questioning, Frank Dux proves himself to be the greatest fighter in the world and honors his shidoshi in the process. Earnest, eager, and displaying a depth of martial skill and acrobatics that had never been seen before by American audiences, Jean-Claude Van Damme became a household name after beating down the enormous Chong Li (Bolo Yeung). Runner-up role? JCVD as Luc Devereaux from the Universal Soldier franchise.
Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken (Escape from New York, 1981 and Escape from L.A, 1996)
With a raspy voice, black leather trench-coat, and a few charges of gunfighting for profit under his belt, the war-hero turned outlaw known simply as Snake Plissken was perhaps the most notable character portrayed by the always-awesome Kurt Russell. At his best when working with director John Carpenter as he did here in two outings, Kurt Russell brought a cynical, hateful sarcasm about the American dream and the world we inhabited to the forefront without making it too preachy. Instead, delivered in laconic snippets, we saw Snake take on all comers, in the wrestling ring or on the basketball court. The eye patch, the camouflage, the chrome pistols, and the perfectly coiffed hair contribute to the stylish image of rebellion. Fans still hold out hope for one last sequel for Snake. Russell’s runner-up role? The heavily bearded and heavy drinking pilot Macready in another John Carpenter classic, 1982’s The Thing.
Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo (Rambo Franchise, 1982-)
First playing as a mentally and emotionally disturbed Vietnam veteran in an action movie doused with political drama and statements about suicide and then migrating the character into a muscle-bound machine capable of dispensing death to any and all hapless victims that stood in his path, John Rambo is the ultimate film commando. Patriotic, perhaps even more-so than Stallone’s other alter ego, Rocky Balboa, and with an animal savagery to compliment a poet’s heart, Rambo became an idol to many children of the 1980s and early 1990s. Toys, comics, and most commonly the bright red headband, Rambo had the masculine mystique of military conflict and war that grew over the course of the franchise to be more commercial and less artistic. Nonetheless, Stallone’s unforgettable super soldier embedded himself deep into popular culture and may yet see another box office offering. Stallone’s smaller role that meets the bar? The match-stick chewing, hot-rod riding Marion Cobretti from Cobra. Yes, Marion.
Vin Diesel as Riddick (Pitch Black, 2001. The Chronicles of Riddick, 2004. Riddick, 2013)
The stoic criminal with glowing eyes and a penchant for getting in close with curved blades, Riddick as played by Vin Diesel was the perfect bridge between the uncomplicated heroes of the past and the more complex antiheroes that were to proliferate then and now. Getting a shine job for a pack of Kools in prison, Riddick had a complete sense of composure that made him seem immovable, unstoppable. Vin Diesel has had a storied film career that always seems to focus on his ineffable charisma and charm backed up by something deeper and more dangerous. Runner-up role? Diesel as Dominic Toretto, a worthy contender for the spot.
Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago (Rocky IV, 1985)
“I must break you,” and “If he dies, he dies,” are some of the more quotable fatalisms uttered by the towering Russian as played by the simply massive Dolph Lundgren. A Kyokushin karate student who held a 2nd-degree black belt at the time of filming, it’s little wonder that it seemed to audiences that even Rocky Balboa might not be able to drop the Russian pugilist. Dolph was also famously cast as He-Man in the Masters of the Universe film by Cannon Films in 1987 opposite veteran stage actor Frank Langella. His dark horse role? Detective Kenner in the exciting buddy-cop beat-em-up Showdown in Little Tokyo, where he partnered up with a snappy-looking Brandon Lee.
There are so many deserving to be included that haven’t yet been mentioned, such as Jason Statham (The Transporter), Jet Li (The One), Chuck Norris (Lone Wolf McQuade), David Carradine (Death Race 2000), and even Grandmaster Y.K. Kim (Miami Connection). Although most of the men above have reduced their workloads or retired entirely, their legacy lives on in the hearts of action movie buffs the world over.