It seems like in the 80s and 90s everyone tried their hand at an action film at some time or another. Respected actors like Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Sean Connery, big blockbuster action heroes of the day like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, comedians like Jim Belushi and Whoopi Goldberg and even odd character actors like Peter Weller, Gregg Henry and Fred Ward.
There were also those legitimate action stars that, while completely awesome, never quite achieved superstar status. They may have come close to, say, the likes of Jean Claude Van Damme or, our old friend, Steven Seagal but sadly just remained under the mainstream radar, never to become household names. I am talking about regular households of course, every name on this list is a household name where we live and, I dare say, where a lot of you reading this live too.
It also goes without saying that any single one of these, or all of them deserve a role in either a future Expendables movie or if they ever get the B-Team Expendables franchise going (how this hasn't happened yet is beyond us!). So here we go, Dr.Action and the Kick Ass Kid present their TOP 20 second tier action stars of the 80s & 90s!
(in no particular order)
1. Jeff Speakman
An expert in the visually exciting and fast martial art of Kempo, Speakman, sadly, only starred in one, proper studio film A Perfect Weapon before appearing in a string of films produced by companies like the soon-to-be-bankrupt Cannon and the fine purveyors of straight-to-video, explosive, nonsense PM Entertainment. For a martial arts actor of his day, he's actually not bad at the acting part, as well as having fantastic fighting skill but a lot of his films are hampered by low production values, clunky scripts, directors who don't understand his awesome fighting ability and, in one case, even the appalling soundtrack. His film career will always be a terrible missed opportunity because, given the right partners, he could've been a force to be reckoned with.
Must See: A Perfect Weapon
Also Suggest: The Expert, Running Red and Land of the Free (just try and ignore the worst soundtrack in film history and focus on the awesome fight stunts and Shatner's villain)
Avoid: Street Knight
Check out our commentaries for the following Jeff Speakman films:
2. Gary Daniels
The original Britkicker, Gary Daniels was a black belt in Taekwondo by the age of 12, a 2nd dan by the age of 16 and, at the age of 27, won the Kick Boxing association's California State Light Heavyweight Championship and, In England, the Karate Association's World Light Heavyweight Championship within the space of a month.
He has also studied and employs a mix of Muay Thai, boxing, ninjutsu, Northern Shaolin kung fu and Siu Lum Wong Gar Kune, his preferred discipline.
So, those are some pretty hefty credentials and make for a fast and exciting fighting style on screen. He is let down, a little by, a somewhat slurry British east-end accent and, in earlier films, a stilted and awkward acting style but the one thing you can always say about Daniels is that he is always trying his damned hardest and when paired with other good actors or a director who knows what he's doing with action, Daniels can really shine.
He has made movies consistently for 25 years now and although mainstream stardom has alluded him, he must've been doing something right as he still stars in his own films, has travelled all round the world making them and was one of the extended action star cast of the first Expendables.
Must See: Bloodmoon, Rage and The Expendables
Also Suggest: Cold Harvest, Fist of the North Star and Riot
Avoid: Witness To A Kill and Queen's Messenger (sadly Gary's bid to have a Bond-esque franchise did not pan out so well as both films are pretty boring and weak)
3. Cynthia Rothrock
Cynthia Rothrock is a machine. An owner of over a handful of black belts in a variety of classical Chinese, modern Chinese and Korean martial arts disciplines and was promoted to 7th degree black belt in Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan as recently as 2011 at the age of 54.
True action is a genre sadly lacking in women. There are a handful of sci-fi/horror action films which have strong female leads - the Alien, Underworld and Resident Evil franchises for example and TV has had kick ass heroines for years! - Xena, Buffy, Alias etc. but apart from a couple of others, which we will get to later in the list, in the 80s and 90s, Cynthia Rothrock was basically it.
Between '85 and '90, Rothrock spent her time between awesome, kick ass Hong Kong actioners and slowly breaking into the American market. Considering her skill, success in the Asian markets, acting ability and, yes ok, looks, it is just baffling a proper studio didn't snap her up and make her a star. She did, though, have a rapid, successful and prolific straight-to-video career in The States throughout the first half of the 90s, with the quality dropping off pretty sharply after '96. She was often paired with Australian martial artist and close friend Richard Norton.
With an appearance in Bad Ass Showdown in 2013 and rumours of a female Expendables movie in the works (Get a script written someone please!!) we are still praying for a resurgence of Rothrock as, like so many on this list, she's yet to get the credit she truly deserves.
Must See: Righting Wrongs (AKA Above The Law), Huang jia shi jie (AKA Yes, Madam!) and China O'Brien
Also Suggest: China O'Brien 2 and Martial Law 2
Avoid: The Rage and Honor Series (Rothrock and Norton fail to bring back the charm of China O'Brien) and anything post 1996.
4. Fred Williamson
Fred "The Hammer" Williamson is a smart, tough man. When, in the mid-to-late 70s, Hollywood was done with the Blaxploitation craze that had, affectively, got it back on its feet, financially, Fred Williamson decided he would, instead, just do it his way.
Doing it his way has given the former footballer turned actor, director, producer and martial artist (Williamson holds black belts in Kenpo, Karate and Tae-Kwon-Do) a long and varied career that continues today. He currently has 8 movies set for release in the next 3 years. At the beginning of the 80s, having made, legendary 70s B-Movie Inglorious Bastards in Italy, Williamson was in Europe starring in, producing and directing a variety of action films, most prominently the Black Cobra series. This would continue into the 90s where he would, eventually, return to America to continue doing the same thing. The most prominent of which was 1996's Original Gangstas in which he teamed up with Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, Robert Forster, Charles Napier, Wings Hauser, Paul Winfield and Ron O'Neal to show the world that the old timers have still got it.
He has his famous rules of Hollywood: "You can’t kill me in a movie, I win all my fights in a movie, and I get the girl at the end of the movie, if I want her" and he makes sure, with razor sharp integrity, that he sticks to that. As he is The Hammer, he's doing it his way and it's successful for him then you can't exactly argue and you'll always know what to expect!
Must See: 1990: The Bronx Warriors, Vigilante, Delta Force Commando, From Dusk Till Dawn and Original Gangastas
Also Suggest: Black Cobra, Black Cobra 2 and Black Cobra 3
5. Sho Kosugi
All Japan Karate Champion
was the go-to ninja during the 1980s. Back then there was an insane ninja craze going on in the second and below tier action world.
, prolific Chinese director, made no less than 45 films with the word ninja in the title, in the 1980s. You can, however, thank those purveyors of fine bonkers action,
(better know to most as Cannon Films) for giving the west
. The 1981,
Enter The Ninja
on an action star career path that would last the next 13 years. Although only making 4 films with the word ninja in the title during this period and none of them directed by
, weirdly enough, the name
became synonymous with ninja. So much so, in fact, that when, recently, they tried to reintroduce the genre with
in 2009 he stepped out of film acting retirement to take his first on screen role in 11 years.
Enter The Ninja
Revenge of the Ninja
Nine Deaths of a Ninja
Ninja 3: The Domination
Pray For Death
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for the following
- The Kick Ass Kid