The Top 10 Action Films of 1981!

By: Cam Sully

I continue my mission to rank the best Action films by year. I start with 1980 and continue my route into present-day. As cool as DTV and TV can be, I’m requiring that these films have at least been given a festival or limited theatrical run, contain plentiful action (no brief combat here!) and if there are any sequels the same year then the better of the two gets picked (not both).

10. Nighthawks

While there were other intense yet thrilling cult films this given year, I’d still say this film plods away in a far more entertaining fashion. Predating the likes of Die Hard With a Vengeance, Speed and Lethal Weapon, this film is both relaxed and comfortable with its display of cat-and-mouse and no-holds-barred tension. Featuring a neat buddy duo with Billy Dee Williams and Sylvester Stallone and showcasing Rutger Hauer in one of his earliest American cinematic villain roles, every inch of talent is also utilized here.

9. Fort Apache, The Bronx

Windwalker is more of a slow-burn, spiritual Western so I put it on the best Western films for the year. Zorro, the Gay Blade is more of a spoof so I excluded it for now. Death Hunt was a like-it-or-hate-it Lee Marvin/Charles Bronson versus match so it was excluded from this list. The Prodigal Son wasn’t either Sammo Hung or Yuen Biao’s best hour in Hong Kong due to the humor not delivering and the action feeling far too static despite no Hollywood studio interference. Nope, instead I chose a latter-day Paul Newman procedural that not only was rather gritty but also ended up inspiring the hit show Hill Street Blues that same year! The film doesn’t try to make bold statements and instead lean into documentary style filmmaking while hailing the perfect amount of sharp, crispy wording and never give any character less to do as it’s a multi-character study. The car chases and various locations also stand out as well (if not always the most accurate as it’s trying to portray).

8. Lion of the Desert

Das Boot is a classic but it’s action is mainly towards the end so I’ll just put it on the war film list for 1981 instead. Nope, here taking its place is a stellar Libya-set conflict about Italian forces and local rebellions with the never-ending conflict between Mussolini (the always excellent Rod Steiger) and tribal leader Mukhtar (Anthony Quinn in once again another nomadic Arab role). Much like Lawrence of Arabia and The Battle of Algiers, the film is well-structured, well-choreographed battles and nice over-the-top depictions of the historical figures- all without being repetitive or ridiculous. It may be pedestrian to today’s viewers but for history buffs and fans of layered yet definitely tragic battles, it’s a perfect pay-off.

7. Attack Force Z

While many might prefer the Walter Hill classic Southern Comfort, I found slightly more appeal with another flick so I decided to just put that on the Best War Films for ’81 list instead. This alternative pick isn’t an original oyster but I dig another Seven Samurai/Akira Kurosawa type formula of soldiers struggling to save a village during WW2. The plot twists, while miniscule, often deliver and the score and scenery add much more to the various mayhem. It’s also helped by the earlier cast, led by young Mel Gibson and Sam Neill, all being game and not tripping over easily avoidable acting mistakes.

6. Sharky’s Machine

A solid conspiracy film, unnerving witness protection film, a wonderful vice cop flick and a relentless slice of grit neo-noir at times, this film is hardly what you could call low-brow. Burt Reynolds gives the film crew solid instructions as he gives a rather serious yet unrecognizable anti-hero role as opposed to his usual stud nature. The film flows so naturally while never letting up and suspense/mystery lovers will be beyond content as well with this genre mash-up.

5. The Bloody Bushido Blade

More epic than even Excalibur, you’ve never seen anything this bloody fantastic since? A vast array of different fights, more East meets West intrigue and embracing its inner cliches, this is indeed a bloody good time! After many betrayals, this rare CBS theatrical film manages to have a no-holds barred showdown that will make you exclaim “Holy shit, that’s cool!” many times over!

4. Thief

A solid Michael Mann film done prior to his other hit shows and films but one that truly resonates with its soundtrack, plot twists and gritty realism. An uncanny yet rather expert cast was inspired by real-life crimes of ex-con turned author Eddie Bunker while also incorporating other neat slow-motion edits. Mann was the man here and it shows in every scene.

3. Escape from New York

While we had French spy films like The Professional, it was hard to find something as eventful or notable. Enter this pre-Die Hard type film by primarily mystery-horror filmmaker John Carpenter and featuring eye-catching visual designs by pre-Terminator James Cameron. A simple premise: ex-con is hired to rescue the kidnapped POTUS for a deal which may or may not actually happen (his freedom). The actual film decides to implement its own creative difficult obstacles and, like any Carpenter film, it knows how to let the music do the talking and world building instead of focus on typical filmmaking. Def see it with your older filmbuff pals too if it’s your first time watching it.

2. For Your Eyes Only

Knightriders was a solid action-drama from George A. Romero but it also was an acquired taste of a film so I’ll give it a mild mention while we skip to the cream of the crop for this year. Rather bizarrely edited at first, For Your Eyes Only nonetheless still has some fun trap escapes, charm from Roger Moore as protagonist 007 and once it stops dragging, it never dares to slow down again. The villains aren’t poorly constructed if not the most memorable but the hijinks more than make up for that.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Captivating adventure and containing more noteworthy car chases than The Road Warrior wishes it had, this is one film that never gets old to rewatch. What else can we say? This film has everything that anyone would ever want. A perfect throwback to serials with James Bond type villains and Treasure of the Sierra Madre type design, it has always stood the test of time with its many characters, different types of action sequences and surprisingly snappy yet dry dialogue retorts. On rare occasions, I’ve seen people claim that they couldn’t get into it, saying it was far too slow; those crazy moviegoers are clearly watching a different film as this is no slog, this is a gem (or shall we say, a treasure?). For a film that made one afraid to look at the screen (you’ll know when you get to the end), it was a blast and is still a cinematic treasure.

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