The flashy, high-octane cinema of the 1980s gave rise to some of the most iconic action heroes of all time. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger became A-list stars in the roles of gun-toting cops and mercenaries. Bruce Willis’ everyman cop John McClane offered a sharp counterpoint to these musclebound supermen in 1988’s Die Hard.
The decade’s action movies had plenty of iconic villains to face off against these iconic heroes. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber took on 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 films of the 1980s were filled with fantastic villains.
10 René Belloq (Raiders Of The Lost Ark)
The first major adversary faced by Harrison Ford’s ice-cool archeologist-turned-adventurer Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark – René Belloq, played by Paul Freeman – is characterized as the anti-Indiana Jones who seeks 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 the Nazis’ 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 God’s wrath.
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 for 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 takes things a step too far and targets fellow cops, Riggs and Murtaugh go rogue and leave the law behind to take him down.
8 Boba Fett (The Empire Strikes Back)
After the original Star Wars movie 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 that Vader hires to do his dirty work: Boba Fett.
Fett is a quintessential Star Wars gunslinger; a softly spoken sharpshooter modeled after Clint Eastwood’s ice-cool “Man with No Name” antihero from Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti westerns.
7 Carter Burke (Aliens)
The main villain in 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 be even more hateable. The queen just wants to protect her kids, but Burke lets a facehugger loose near a sleeping Ripley and Newt in an attempt to impregnate them with a xenomorph to bring back to Earth to increase Weyland-Yutani’s profits.
Ripley makes the point that Burke might be even worse than the bloodthirsty aliens: “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them f**king each other over for a g**damn percentage.”
6 The Joker (Batman)
Tim Burton gave the Caped Crusader a gloomy, expressionistic makeover in his groundbreaking 1989 Batman movie. Michael Keaton reinvented Bruce Wayne as a lonely bachelor with a dry sense of humor, while Jack Nicholson reinvented the Joker as a gun-toting boogeyman.
Nicholson’s performance in Batman leaves Cesar Romero’s eccentric take on the Clown Prince of Crime behind and reimagines the Joker as a full-on horror villain.
5 Franz Sanchez (License To Kill)
Timothy Dalton’s James Bond was defined by his brooding darkness, but by far his darkest Bond film is License to Kill. It sees 007 embarking on a personal revenge mission 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 movie could be described as “Bond versus Scarface.”
4 Sheriff Will Teasle (First Blood)
While the Rambo sequels were defined by unapologetic bloodshed, the original movie First Blood introduced John Rambo as a sympathetic, misunderstood war hero. The crooked cop antagonist, Sheriff Will Teasle – played by legendary character actor Brian Dennehy – embodies the harsh treatment faced by American veterans of the Vietnam War when they came home.
He tries to run 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 egg on his face as Rambo continues to outwit and outmatch his reinforcements.
3 Emperor Palpatine (Return Of The Jedi)
Emperor Palpatine is the big bad of the Star Wars trilogy. He was teased from the beginning, with Darth Vader hinting that there was an even more evil puppet-master 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-like menace and Ian McDiarmid’s deceptively camp performance, the character didn’t disappoint. He brings out the darkness in Luke, then unwittingly inspires Vader to return 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 movie is a taut, tense sci-fi thriller whose blood-soaked, neon-drenched storytelling skews somewhere between a noir and a 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 singular goal of assassinating Sarah Connor to prevent the birth of John Connor, who is destined to lead the Resistance against the machines. This exposition is set up nice and succinctly, so Cameron can dive right into the terror of the Terminator’s relentless pursuit.
1 Hans Gruber (Die Hard)
Just as Die Hard is widely regarded to be the ultimate action movie, its antagonist Hans Gruber is widely regarded to be 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 a relatable everyman; his arch-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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