The flashy, high-octane cinema of the 1980s spawned some of the most iconic action heroes of all time. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger rose to stardom as cops and armed mercenaries. Bruce Willis cop John McClane offered a sharp counterpoint to these muscular supermen in the 1988s die hard.
Action movies of the decade had plenty of iconic villains to take on these iconic heroes. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber faced McClane in die hard. Jack Nicholson played a terrifying version of the Joker opposite Michael Keaton’s Batman. James Bond took on a ruthless drug kingpin in the mold of Scarface. The action movies of the 1980s were filled with fantasy villains.
ten René Belloq (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
The first major opponent faced by Indiana Jones, the archaeologist-turned-adventurer of Harrison Ford, in The Raiders of the Lost Ark – René Belloq, played by Paul Freeman – is characterized as the anti-Indiana Jones who seeks out the titular Ark at the same time as Indy. He’s just as cunning as an explorer, but not a noble hero.
Indy wants to keep the Ark out of Nazi hands; Belloq wants to give it to them. The character gets an unforgettable death scene in the finale when he opens the Ark and his face is melted by the wrath of God.
9 Arjen Rudd (Lethal Weapon 2)
Gary Busey gave an unforgettable turn as Mr. Joshua, the psychotic henchman who terrorizes Riggs and Murtaugh in the first lethal weapon movie, but Joss Ackland gave an even more memorable performance as the sequel’s villain, Arjen Rudd.
Rudd has a unique twist on an action movie villain: he’s a government official with diplomatic immunity. So even when Riggs and Murtaugh catch him in the act, there’s nothing they can do about it. When Rudd goes overboard and targets other cops, Riggs and Murtaugh go rogue and leave the law behind to bring him down.
8 Boba Fett (The Empire Strikes Back)
After the original star wars the film introduced Darth Vader as a faceless embodiment of evil and oppression in 1977, the equally acclaimed 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back introduced the bounty hunter Vader hires to do his dirty work: Boba Fett.
Fett is quintessential star wars gunslinger; a soft-spoken sniper inspired by Clint Eastwood’s icy anti-hero “Man with No Name” from Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti westerns.
seven Carter Burke (aliens)
The main villain of aliens is, of course, the Xenomorph Queen (the “b***h” of the iconic quote, “Get away from her, you b***h!”), but Paul Reiser’s corporate suit, Carter J. Burke, might even be more detestable. The queen just wants to protect her children, but Burke drops a facehugger near sleeping Ripley and Newt in an effort to imbue them with a xenomorph to bring back to Earth to increase Weyland-Yutani’s profits.
Ripley points out that Burke might be even worse than bloodthirsty aliens: “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other for a fucking percentage.
6 The Joker (Batman)
Tim Burton gave the Caped Crusader a dark, expressionistic makeover in his groundbreaking 1989 Batman movie. Michael Keaton reimagined Bruce Wayne as a lonely bachelor with a dry sense of humor, while Jack Nicholson reimagined the Joker as an armed boogeyman.
Nicholson’s performance in Batman leaves behind Cesar Romero’s eccentric take on the Clown Prince of Crime and reimagines the Joker as a full-fledged horror villain.
5 Franz Sanchez (License to Kill)
Timothy Dalton’s James Bond was defined by its brooding darkness, but by far his darkest Bond film is License to kill. It sees 007 embark on a mission of personal vengeance against Latin American drug lord Franz Sanchez, played to sinister effect by Robert Davi.
After Sanchez kills Felix Leiter’s wife and seriously injures Leiter himself, an enraged Bond abandons his official MI6 mission and goes rogue to pursue Sanchez. This film could be described as “Bond vs. Scarface”.
4 Sheriff Will Teasle (First Blood)
While the Rambo the sequels were defined by a shameless bloodbath, the original film first blood presented John Rambo as a sympathetic and misunderstood war hero. Crooked cop antagonist Sheriff Will Teasle – played by legendary actor Brian Dennehy – epitomizes the harsh treatment American Vietnam War veterans face when they return home.
He tries to chase Rambo out of his small town, then his police brutality triggers Rambo’s PTSD, leading to an intense manhunt in the woods. Teasle constantly has eggs in his face as Rambo continues to outwit and outmaneuver his reinforcements.
3 Emperor Palpatine (Return of the Jedi)
Emperor Palpatine is the big bad of the star wars trilogy. It was teased early on, with Darth Vader hinting that there was an even more evil puppeteer controlling his actions, but the Emperor didn’t appear in the flesh until the third movie, Return of the Jedi.
And thanks to his horror menace and Ian McDiarmid’s deceptive camp performance, the character didn’t disappoint. He brings out the darkness in Luke, then unwittingly tricks Vader back to the light side as he throws his master into the Death Star’s reactor core.
2 T-800 (The Terminator)
James Cameron’s original terminator is a taut, taut sci-fi thriller whose blood-soaked, neon-soaked storytelling hovers somewhere between noir and slasher. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave one of the greatest performances of his career as an emotionless killing machine.
The T-800 travels back in time with the sole purpose of assassinating Sarah Connor to prevent the birth of John Connor, who is destined to lead the Resistance against the machines. This exhibit is put together nicely and succinctly, so Cameron can dive straight into the terror of the relentless Terminator pursuit.
1 Hans Gruber (Hard Walls)
As die hard is widely considered the ultimate action movie, its antagonist Hans Gruber is widely considered the ultimate action movie villain. Played beautifully by Alan Rickman, Gruber is the mastermind behind the Nakatomi Plaza heist.
Bruce Willis’ protagonist, John McClane, is an ordinary man; his nemesis is a sadistic terrorist. Unsurprisingly, Rickman captivates audiences every time he appears on screen in die hard. Gruber is chillingly calm in his interactions with characters like Harry Ellis and Mr. Takagi before killing them in cold blood.
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