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Yuppies, sequels, geeks and gekkos: the 10 ultimate ’80s movies

October 28, 2011

Greed is good?: Michael Douglas created an icon, Charlie Sheen was full of promise and Daryl Hannah looked pretty in Wall Street, a critique of the yuppie that was received as anything but

Ah, the ’80s… we all remember them, don’t we? On the one hand, consumerism hit top gear, the majority on both sides of the Atlantic got wealthier and ‘pooters started to take over the world; on the other hand, society became strongly politically divided, cynical pop elbowed out quality rock and people decided to dress in fashions even sillier than those of the ’60s and ’70s. But is that the whole story? Well, no. The reality was somewhat more complicated. And, despite the rose-tinted view many hold when recalling movies from that decade as easy-on-the-eye-and-brain formulaic fantasy, comedy and violent action, the cinema of the ’80s actually reflected the complicated culture of its times; it was decidedly diverse, unquestionably interesting and assuredly surprising.

Here then, peeps, is the latest post in my series looking back at the most era-defining flicks of, well, their respective eras (see the ’60s and ’70s movie posts here and here) and it offers up the dectet of pictures – in no order but chronological – that sum up cinema of the 1980s. Word-up…

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CLICK on the film titles for video clips (warning: bottom clip contains strong language)

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Risky Business (1983)

For many, there’s no more ’80s a movie than Risky Business.  And rightly so. Not only did it effectively augur how the entrepreneurial-driven, economically liberal culture of Reagan’s America would look onscreen, trailblazing the decade’s ostentatious and extravagant, MTV-friendly visual style (backed up by studio-rich, synthy pop music), but it also properly introduced to filmgoers Thomas Mapother IV, aka Tom Cruise. It tells the tale of a naïve, yet ambitious rich-kid (Cruise) who, while his parents are out of town, has an encounter with a hooker (the equally young and beautiful Rebecca De Mornay), then manages to total his dad’s car and come up with the ingenious/ dubious (delete as appropriate) idea of turning his home into a brothel for his horny schoolmates in order to pay for said motor’s repair. The plot sounds hokey, but thanks to a witty, knowing script and a lot of charm from its winning leads in star-making turns, as well as that aforementioned flashy and sexy, Miami Vice-esque look, the result is far from ropey. Many teen comedies would follow Risky Business in the ’80s, of course – hell, John Hughes built a Hollywood career on them – but none proved to be as significant (not least for unleashing The Cruiser on an unsuspecting world), smart, stylish and prescient as this flick.

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WarGames (1983)

The computer geek. Nowadays they’re ten-a-penny in the movies, but before the early ’80s their celluloid presence was as thin on the ground as a ‘pooter game more advanced than Pong. That all changed with WarGames, though. Directed by the man who’d helmed Saturday Night Fever (1977), the versatile John Badham, it brought into the mainstream the notion of the ‘hacker’, an (often amateur) computer whizz who hacks into stuff they shouldn’t owing to their sheer bonce-bulging intellect and keyboard capabilities, thus potentially bringing about all kinds of unpleasant crap for us all. Given this was, as mentioned above, the era of Reagan (with all his neo-Con foreign policy wonks), the Cold War was once more hotting up and the threat of nuclear catastrophe was again looming large. Therefore, the sh*t-storm stirred up by the pubescent hacker in WarGames (played by Matthew Broderick, shortly to become immortalised as Ferris Bueller) involved accidentally inviting the US Government’s supercomputer to unleash hell on Mother Russia. As with Risky Business, the concept is pure hokum, but its execution is handled competently, ensuring the result is taut and thrilling in all the right places and – like many of Hollywood’s best flicks of the ’80s – satisfies as far-fetched escapist entertainment in all the others. The movie’s legacy, it could be said, is the glut of ‘pooter-based comedies that followed it, including everything from Electric Dreams (1984) and Weird Science (1985) to the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986). And just 12 short years later, in the shape of Toy Story, we’d get a movie every inch of which was designed by computer – as WarGames taught us, the dull, monolithic ‘pooter really was taking over, whether we liked it or not.

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Ghostbusters (1984)

1984: the year of the ’80s Hollywood blockbuster. The evidence? That year, Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, Gremlins, Romancing The Stone, The Karate Kid and Police Academy were all released. Yes, all of ‘em. Oh, and Ghostbusters, of course. One may argue that the latter is the ultimate ’80s Hollywood blockbuster; the ultimate, if you will, ’84 Hollywood blockbuster of ’84 Hollywood blockbusters. Why? Well, not only is it one of the decade’s biggest box-office hits (making nearly $300 million; over $600 million in today’s money); is bloody brilliant with so many memorable scenes and moments (Slimer’s take-down in the hotel; the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man climax and, well, every line Bill Murray utters); is fantasy adventure of the highest order like so many of that decade’s cinematic hits; effectively features the trademark 1980s city, the Big Apple, as one its main characters; and nailed its brand maximisation perfectly (Ray Parker Jr.’s infectious theme song and that unmistakeable title card logo), but it also marvellously married the hottest comedy properties of the time with Hollywood commerciality at its most creatively competent. For Murray, his co-stars Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis (who together co-wrote the flick) and John Belushi (the intended Peter Venkman, before his untimely death) were all weaned on the late ’70s/ early ’80s TV comedy phenomenon that was Saturday Night Live (1975-present) and/ or the project that would spawn the National Lampoon movie brand, with Ghostbusters proving the hit that sent them and the latter show’s reputation supernova. Hot young TV comedians and Tinseltown largesse, eh? Now that’s you call crossing the streams.

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My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

So what was going on in British film in the ’80s then? Well, by the middle of the decade, arguably not much. Aside from, perhaps, a handful of flicks financed by George Harrison’s Handmade Films – including Terry Gilliam’s excellent Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985) – and experimental efforts from Peter Greenaway. As in the ’70s, the British film industry was suffering from a lack of finance and commercial success; flicks that caught the imagination of both the critics and the public were very few and far between. All that changed in ’85, though, with My Beautiful Laundrette. No British film of the ’80s managed to generate quite the same combination of freshness, of-the-moment urgency and controversy as this one. In 1982, Britain got a new terrestrial TV station, Channel 4, which admirably poured some of its money into a movie-making wing. Collaborating with a similarly new and progressive film company nattily entitled Working Title, it produced this flick, jam-packed full of polemical issues of the age: racism (Fascist whites versus Pakistani businessmen), homosexuality (the two male protagonists, one a young Daniel Day Lewis, lead a tentative but unashamed affair) and the politics of Thatcher’s Britain (entrepreneurialism versus education,  unemployment, class and generational divides). Originally made for TV (admittedly it shows), the keenly observed, often comic piece was instead released cinematically and launched the careers of both its helmer Stephen Frears – who would go on to direct Helen Mirren to an Oscar in The Queen (2006) – and its Oscar- and BAFTA-nominated scribe Hanif Kureishi – who would go on to write the novel The Buddha Of Suburbia (1990) and its 1993 TV adaptation. To say My Beautiful Laundrette was a breakthrough is an understatement; to say it’s one of the most important films of the ’80s is unquestionable.

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St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)

Unlike for the bright young things of  a slowly re-energising British film industry, social realism wasn’t exactly the order of the day for Hollywood. Riding the revitalisation of US confidence and self-worth under good King Ronnie, Tinseltown instead banked on fantasy. Fairytale-esque adventures for both kids and adults – i.e. the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-83), the first four Superman flicks (1978-87), the Indiana Jones series (1981-2008) and Conan The Barbarian (1982) – was what the public wanted; not tales that tried to analyse issues of the day. Indeed, when Hollywood did turn to social realism in this era, it tended to produce something like St. Elmo’s Fire. Instead of being an American My Beautiful Laundrette, this coming-of-age drama about recently graduated young ‘uns – delivered by Joel Schumacher, who a decade later would churn out the dubious Batman sequels Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997) – was instead a vehicle for Hollywood’s new golden generation of actors, banded together by the media under the moniker ‘The Brat Pack’. To give it its dues, St. Elmo’s Fire does feature drug-taking, marriage and family break-up, unrequited love, idealism versus vocational pragmatism and a nervous breakdown, but frankly, with its one-dimensional characters and ropey dialogue, it plays more like a cartoon-cum-music video of post-campus life. It’s best remembered for its oh-so iconic cast (Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson and Andrew McCarthy), its garish hairstyles and fashion, its chart-topping title song, John Parr’s St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion), and one of the characters’ mode of transportation in the urban jungle, er, a jeep. In short, it’s all surface gloss and, thus, so ’80s it aches. The public gobbled it up at the time and it’s still eerily popular. And yet, for all that (or maybe because of it), to paraphrase one of its contemporary youth flicks, it somehow really is some kind of wonderful.

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A View To A Kill (1985)

There was, mind you, one cinematic entity for which the UK and US film industries always converged – the doubling-up effort that was the big screen 007. Unfortunately, though, by now the ‘official’ James Bond film series, produced by movie dynamo Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Broccoli’s Eon Productions, was in a spot of bother. For the first time, Bond actually had competition at the flicks thanks to Hollywood’s latest love affair with action-driven fantasy adventure and, in particular, Indiana Jones. In no uncertain terms, the invention, pace, excitement and all-round quality of Indy’s first two adventures, Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) and Temple Of Doom (1984), had stolen Bond’s thunder in the first half of the decade; agent 007, in the guise of the ever suave yet now 50-ish Roger Moore, was starting to look his age, his globe-trotting escapades less thrilling and less till-ringing at the box-office than they’d once been. That’s not to say the early ’80s Bonds For Your Eyes Only (1981) and Octopussy (1983) weren’t any good, but film fans – especially young ‘uns – seemed to be more excited by Harrison Ford being chased by a giant boulder or cutting a rope-bridge in half. In an effort to address this, Broccoli and co. did the only obvious thing they could with their next espionage spectacular (Sir Rog’s last) – embrace the 1980s. So, with A View To A Kill, what we have is an adventure mostly set in an American metropolis (San Francisco) full of flashing neon, fire trucks, Corvettes and police cars with wailing sirens; a plot that sees the villain (a peroxide-blonde Christopher Walken as a demented yuppie) and his sidekick (the crazy ’80s icon that is Grace Jones) wanting to blow up the home of the microchip, Silicon Valley itself, and best of all, the hottest music act of the day, Britain’s Duran Duran, delivering the title song. Did it work? Well, the profits were no higher than for the previous Bond, but the pop-tastic theme hit #2 in the UK charts and, even better, #1 in the States. Moreover, Moore himself got to bow out as 007 in the most ’80s Bond flick imaginable – his old-school smoothie gent colliding and, somehow, complementing the flashy aesthetic-driven world of the decade that taste forgot. Some Bond flicks merge into each other; this one stands out as brashly, colourfully and rather wonderfully as the Golden Gate Bridge in the Californian sunshine.

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Jean de Florette/ Manon des Sources (1986)

Aside from for cineastes, foreign language cinema had never really properly broken through in Anglo-American culture. Yes, thanks to the media, many peeps had heard of Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, but how many in the US and the UK had actually seen one of their movies? All that, arguably, changed in the ’80s. In 1981, François Mitterand was elected French President and set about promoting the culture and history of the country by allocating financial support for films of which those were concerns. One such project that benefited was Claude Berri’s duology Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, based on a novel by Marcel Pagnol. The latter, an established filmmaker, had actually adapted his own book for the screen back in the ’50s, but this production would pull out all the stops and take all the glory. With a combined budget making them the most  expensive French film(s) made up to that point, they’re an archetypal example of ‘heritage cinema’ that the French government’s film funding made a trend of, their plot involving the inheritance of a farm in the Provence region around the time of World War One. Together they make for good viewing, but maybe except for a brilliant moment of tragic realisation on one character’s part, they deserve their place on this list for their success and legacy rather than their content. They were a huge hit in their homeland, both publicly and critically; moreover, while he’d been a massive star in France for years, it was this flick that finally made Gérard Depardieu a global name, as well as launching the career of his co-star Emmanuelle Beart. But most important of all was the flicks’ impact on the public abroad. In America Jean de Florette grossed a mightily impressive $5 million and in the UK – thanks too to the Peter Mayle book A Year In Provence (1989), later filmed as the Russell Crowe starrer A Good Year (2006) – the movies encouraged an increasingly moneyed middle class (yuppies very much among them) to holiday and buy property in Provence, eager to experience the beautiful countryside and idyllic culture so stunningly captured in the films. Yes, thanks to Depardieu and co., Francophilia had verily broken out, the symptoms of which (Brits in Provence, Gallic-themed TV ads and European film hits in the UK and US) have been with us ever since.

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Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)

Judge Reinhold espoused in a documentary about Beverly Hills Cop II I saw recently (don’t judge) that, whenever he watches said movie in which he once starred, he’s amused by the size of the sunglasses every character wears. They’re big. But then, everything about Beverly Hills Cop II is big. By this stage in the ’80s, big was in for Hollywood; as it was everywhere else. Big hair, big shoulder pads, stereos so big they were called ‘ghetto blasters’ and big profits in business. Movies are Hollywood’s business, of course, so what was the best way for it to maximise profits? How about doing exactly the thing that made millions first time around all over again? How about making a sequel to every über-hit? The fast emerging suburban multiplexes were, by the end of the decade, awash with sequels to major blockbusters – Ghostbusters II (1989), Back To The Future II (1989), Lethal Weapon II (1989) and a third Indiana Jones (1989). Oh, and Beverly Hills Cop II, of course. The latter’s predecessor was huge at the box-office, featured an obligatory US #1 chart hit and became an instant comedy classic. To direct the sequel, producers Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson turned to the helmer of their latest monster hit (the high-concept, high-octane, highly daft Tom Cruise starrer that was 1986’s Top Gun), Tony Scott. Having come to Tinseltown from the UK ad industry, Scott filled the movie with glossy, music video-like visuals and action set-pieces. This ensured the witty comedy that had so characterised the original took a back-seat; almost all of the film’s comic moments relying on star Eddie Murphy’s ad-libbing. It’s still a funny film, but only in places, and the comedy is definitely broader and swearier than the first’s. The plot, pacing and, well, overall quality are all rather ropey too, creaking under the weight of the need for the project to make major moolah. Unquestionably then, Beverly Hills Cop II fulfils that age-old movie sequel maxim: ‘the law of diminishing returns’. Still, given it, very impressively, made just shy of $300 million globally (only around $15 million short of the original’s total) and embraces every nuance of the ’80s’ garish aesthetic, for me it has to be the ultimate exponent of that decade’s addiction to the sequel – an addiction that, let’s be honest, has now grown into an epidemic. Thanks for that, the ’80s.

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Wall Street (1987)

He’s been mentioned more than once in this post already and now it’s finally time to focus on the ’80s’ most enduring icon: the yuppie. In Gordon Gekko, Wall Street not only encapsulated one of the most recognisable stereotypes of its era, but also captured that era’s culture of aspiration, social-climbing, greed and excess brilliantly. In fact, this flick nailed all that so well that many seemed to regard it as an advert for the quick-buck banking crowd, rather than as the critique of Anglo-American economic liberalism hurtling along with nobody on the brake that it actually is. Wall Street, though, is far from a perfect film and maybe that’s why its point didn’t hit home as well as it might. As Bud Fox, a young stockbroker who’s seduced by the allure of easy money and the charismatic Gekko (Michael Douglas) who’s made a career out of making it, Charlie Sheen doesn’t really impress – he only ever seems one eyebrow-raise away from Hot Shots! (1991) – and Daryl Hannah as his trophy girlfriend is mis-cast. Plus, the screenplay, although it whizzes and crackles with impressive stock exchange floor-style dialogue and terminology, doesn’t quite put enough bones on its plot (a fight between two ‘fathers’ for the soul of Fox; the corrupt corporate raider Gekko and his own father, nattily played by Martin Sheen, an aircraft union man) to prevent the whole feeling a little twee. However, as noted, Wall Street was and always will be about Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko. An amalgamation of several real power brokers at the top of US business in the ’80s, the character is essayed expertly by Douglas, despite director Oliver Stone’s original reservations about casting him. The former rightly won an Oscar for his portrayal, the most memorable moment of which being the speech he makes to a room full of suits during which he utters the immortal phrase ‘greed is good’ (which was actually inspired by a pair of speeches given by two insider traders whose jailing sparked the film’s conception). In the years since the flick’s release, Douglas has confessed young stockbrokers have told him he’s the reason they joined their profession; perhaps a legacy he’s not too happy about. Especially given the fact Wall Street and Gordon Gekko were intended as a wake-up call – one that, in the midst of our current global economic crisis, some of us may wish we’d heeded.

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Red Heat (1988)

Yuppies and big business are all very well, but there was another socio-political reality that loomed large over the decade too, namely the re-heating up and eventual burning out of the Cold War. Like WarGames, many US and UK flicks in the ’80s focused on the supposedly non-military conflict between East and West, whether they be espionage efforts (most of the Bonds, 1986’s Target, 1987’s The Fourth Protocol), comedies (1985’s Spies Like Us and Top Secret) or, well, just plain ridiculous (1984’s Rocky IV). The latter flick was an action-fuelled, mostly violent, rather sweary and utterly fantastical slice of so-bad-it’s-good cinema. Indeed, in the ’80s, Hollywood churned out so many of these sorts of films they became a sub-genre. And many can be referred to as Stallone or Schwarzenegger movies. Sly Stallone, naturally, was the star and driving-force behind the hugely, if inexplicably, popular Rambo and Rocky series. Arnold Scwarzengger’s list of flicks this decade were more varied. Sort of. He became a star playing the cyborg killing machine title character in James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), then went on to mix fantasy, sci-fi and militaristic action heroics through the likes of Red Sonja (1985), Commando (1985), Raw Deal (1986), Predator (1987) and The Running Man (1987). All these complied with the Arnie movie template of violence, destruction and bad one-liners. And so did his next effort, Red Heat. However, the difference with this ‘un was it used the, by now, cooling off of the Cold War as a sub-text to its corny-as-popcorn plot. Schwarzenegger plays a captain in Moscow’s police militia who travels to Chicago to track down a Ruskkie crimelord and finds himself buddy-buddying up – à la 1987’s Lethal Weapon – with James (brother of John) Belushi’s wisecracking cop. The clever – and, yes, it is quite clever – twist to this dynamic, though, is that it’s Arnie’s hard-as-nails Soviet who’s the ruthlessly efficient half of the pairing; Belushi’s capitalist is the profane and world-weary one that seems to live just one level up from the villains he chases. Indeed, this is encapsulated by the gifts they exchange during the film’s denouement: Belushi receives Arnie’s expensive Swiss timepiece; Arnie gets Belushi’s crappy, second-hand wristwatch. Red Heat is a silly film, no question, but it was supposed to showcase how the coming end of the Cold War was breaking down barriers; a world in which America’s capitalist model had won and the US would rule the future as the single super power. But would that be the case? Did Red Heat‘s Arnie/ Belushi dynamic, in fact, ironically suggest things wouldn’t quite turn out like that, at least, for Hollywood? Well, peeps, that may be for another post…

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Five more to check out…

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Rosanna Arquette is mistaken for the ultimate ’80s pop star Madonna in this bright and breezy Big Apple set caper

Labyrinth (1986)

The 1980s David Bowie model (big, big hair and poptastic tunes) meets The Muppets – more or less – in a cult classic family fantasy

Crocodile Dundee (1986)

Australia hits it big by sending comic Paul Hogan’s Outback stereotype to New York

Rita, Sue And Bob Too! (1986)

More smart and witty social realism from Britain as a middle-class man pursues infidelity in Yorkshire suburbia

Working Girl (1988)

Hollywood turns the Big Apple business world into an aspirational romantic comedy, with Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver along for the ride

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… And five great movies about the ’80s

The Last Days Of Disco (1998)

Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny’s young professionals cling on to the dying disco era in early ’80s Manhattan

Billy Elliott (2000)

Outstanding Cinderella-story about a disadvantaged boy who realises he can realise a dream during the ’84 Miners Strike

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives Of Others) (2006)

Espionage-themed drama that focuses on the preservation of humanity in the face of the Stasi’s (East German secret police) tyranny

This Is England (2006)

No-holds-barred but, in places, funny and entertaining account of a the conversion of a Falklands War victim’s son to the UK National Front Fascist movement

Micro Men (2009)

Made-for-TV recreation of the battle for the British home PC market between Amstrad’s Sir Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry’s Acorn Computers

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