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10 Great 1980s Action Movies We’re Surprised Didn’t Become Franchises


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Summary

  • Many great 80s action movies, like Cobra and Blue Thunder, never received the sequels they deserved despite initial success and popularity.
  • The success of franchises like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon led other movies to attempt to capture the same magic, but not all were successful in securing follow-ups.
  • Surprisingly, movies like Red Dawn and Tango & Cash, which had provocative world-building and solid box office performances, never got the sequels that fans hoped for, leaving untapped potential.

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The 1980s produced some of the most iconic action movies of all time, but only a lucky few spawned the franchises that are still associated with this era. For the rest, one classic movie was not enough to secure a succession of sequels – or sometimes even a single follow-up – despite popular acclaim from fans. As a result, there are a surprising number of great 80s action movies that are yet to build on their legacy, for all their initial success.

Many of the biggest action movie franchises began in the 1980s. Hits like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Rambo, and many more all owe their success to the testosterone-drenched appetites of audiences throughout the decade. Considering the success of these multi-installment franchises, it’s no wonder that other movies sought to emulate them. However, capturing the magic of a movie like Die Hard is not as simple as it seems. Some movies introduce characters and stories that seem perfect for future installments, only for critical skepticism or audience indifference to derail the plans. However, an action movie not getting a sequel doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve one.

10 Cobra (1986)

Stallone’s violent cult classic

Like many uniquely 80s action movies, Cobra offers the winning combination of Sylvester Stallone and excessive violence. Stallone plays the permanently-grimacing Lt. Marion “Cobra” Cobretti – a maverick cop who doesn’t care for trivialities like protocol, collateral damage, and obeying the law he’s supposed to uphold. Although the film was critically panned, Cobra was a huge financial hit – making $160 million against a $25 million budget. Stallone’s character, with his signature sunglasses and submachine gun, has become an 80s cult icon, making it even more surprising that the standalone feature never spawned a franchise.

9 Blue Thunder (1983)

Roy Schieder gets to the chopper

Blue Thunder Roy Scheider helicopter

The 80s was a golden age for outrageous chase sequences, but Blue Thunder is a rare example of a movie that brings some realism to bear on all the ridiculousness. Starring Roy Schieder as helicopter pilot Frank Murphy, the movie blends classic 80s action with a cutting political message about the rise of authoritarianism and the dangers of a police state. Co-written by Alien‘s Dan O’Bannon, Blue Thunder has been the subject of multiple attempted follow-ups and remakes, yet plans have never materialized into anything concrete. However, with its pertinent themes of surveillance and conspiracy, there has arguably never been a better time for Blue Thunder 2.

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8 Red Dawn (1984)

Sheen and Swayze take on the communists

patrick swayze c thomas howell charlie sheen in red dawn

Like everything in the 1980s, the action genre was shaped by the ongoing Cold War. Many movies used tensions with the Soviet Union as background inspiration, letting the conspiratorial atmosphere and fear of nuclear war lend legitimacy to imagined dystopian futures. Red Dawn took a different approach. The movie very literally imagined an open conflict between the Soviets and America, in which the United States came under occupation. This heavy-handed plot didn’t stop the movie from finding an audience, making $38 million against a $17 million budget. Although a remake followed in 2012, it’s somewhat surprising that Red Dawn never got a sequel given its provocative world-building.

7 Midnight Run (1988)

De Niro tracks down The Duke

Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin sit on a bus in Midnight Run

Not just a great 80s action movie, but one of the best 1980s movies, period, Midnight Run won critical and commercial acclaim upon release. Starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin as a bounty hunter and his target, the movie is simultaneously touching, thrilling, and hilarious. Its success and legacy makes it all the more surprising that it never received a proper follow-up. Admittedly, three Midnight Run sequels were produced. Yet they were all made for television, featured neither De Niro nor Grodin, and contained none of the elements that made the original such a success.

6 Tango & Cash (1989)

Stallone and Russell team up

Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone in Tango and Cash

As two of the 1980s biggest action stars, Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell seemed like the perfect leads for the next major 80s action franchise. Unfortunately, their collaboration on Tango & Cash failed to deliver on the promise of its protagonists. As the titular cop duo, Stallone and Russell failed to recapture the energy and camaraderie that had made Mel Gibson and Danny Glover such a success in Lethal Weapon two years earlier. However, despite a poor critical performance, it is still somewhat surprising that Tango & Cash never got a sequel, considering its solid box office haul of $120 million.

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5 Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

Kurt Russell and John Carpenter bomb at the box office

Big Trouble In Little China

In some ways, it’s extremely unsurprising that Big Trouble in Little China never spawned a franchise. On an estimated budget of $19-25 million, the movie made just over $11 million, causing director John Carpenter to lose faith in Hollywood and the movie industry. However, despite disappointing financials, the movie remains one of the best 80s action films ever. Both a subversion of and homage to classic martial arts movies, the film has enjoyed a renaissance since its release and is widely regarded as a cult classic. Although rumors continue to circulate about a Dwayne Johnson-led reboot, Big Trouble in Little China remains a sequel-less standalone.

4 Road House (1989)

Kurt Russell wants you to be nice

Until confirmation of the Jake Gyllenhaal remake/reboot, Road House seemed destined to remain another isolated Patrick Swayze action flick. The low-budget cult classic made over $61 million against a $15 million budget, produced one of the decade’s most notorious action leads, and boasts some of the genre’s most recognizable dialogue, yet failed to lead to any meaningful follow-up – except for a direct-to-DVD sequel in 2006. While technically not as standalone as other entries on this list, it’s nonetheless surprising that a character like the original Dalton was never given the chance to reappear in a proper Road House sequel.

3 Commando (1985)

Arnie eats green berets for breakfast

John Matrix fires a bazooka in Commando

A quintessential Schwarzenegger movie, Commando has all the ingredients to make a typical 80s action flick. Schwarzenegger stars as Special Forces colonel John Matrix, who is forced to wage a one-man war against nefarious enemies after his daughter is kidnapped. Expertly mixing violence and humor, Commando was received generally positively by critics, was a major box office hit, and spawned a succession of imitators. However, Schwarzenegger’s character has not been seen since, despite Commando‘s formula seeming to be perfectly suited for replication.

2 The Running Man (1987)

Schwarzenegger wins Squid Game

the movie poster for Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Running Man

Although The Running Man failed to make as big a box office splash as many of the star’s other hits, subsequent releases have proved that The Running Man‘s premise would have been perfect for a franchise. Like Squid Game, the movie imagines a fictional violent game show, in which contestants are forced to battle for their lives to be in with a chance of escape. Rumors of a Running Man remake and/or sequel have persisted since 2021, yet for now the movie remains the series’ sole installment – a surprising shame, given its relevant social commentary and cult appeal.

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1 They Live (1988)

He’s all out of bubblegum

Despite going somewhat against the grain of the 80s action movie template by taking a deliberately slower and more satirical approach to proceedings, They Live nonetheless remains one of the decade’s greatest cult hits. Roddy Piper’s shotgun, sunglasses, and bubblegum-based threats have all become part of the pop culture lexicon, with their prevalence making the lack of a They Live sequel even more surprising. In an era where conspiracy theories and social control are key concerns, the original movie feels more timely than ever. However, while plans for a remake have been in the offing since 2010, They Live remains a major missed franchise opportunity.

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