‘Action Jackson’ (1988): A primer on all the 80s action that’s come before

A near-perfect definition of cliche ’80s action and historically significant for soon-to-be-defunct production company, Lorimar.

By Jason Hink

Action Jackson, the sleek, loud and silly 1988 action flick starring Carl Weathers, Vanity, Sharon Stone, Robert Davi, and a deliciously slimy Craig T. Nelson, gets forgotten when discussing the great action films of the ’80s, but if like me you haven’t watched it in a while you’re bound to love it more than ever thanks to its rip-roaring, explosive set pieces by first-time director Craig R. Baxley, who cut his teeth as a stuntman and stunt coordinator, and the hammy script by Robert Reneau.

The folks at Warner Bros. Archive Collection have done us action fans a solid, putting Action Jackson on Blu-ray back into print, so if you missed the original disc, there’s another option for you.

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Detroit, circa 1988: After two auto-worker union officials are viciously murdered by the stealthiest, shadowy-est group of assassins I’ve ever seen on film, law-school-educated Sergeant Jericho “Action” Jackson (Carl Weathers, the Rocky films, Predator) is stuck behind a desk following a demotion after putting away the son of a high-ranking automobile magnate (hey, he was a sexual psychopath!), Peter Dellaplane (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist, TV’s Coach). After investigating the murderous exploits of this group of super-assassins, Jackson has a hunch that Dellaplane’s behind it, and he’ll need to get back into “action” to stop him!

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(Un)luckily for Jackson, Captain Armbuster (Bill Duke) assigns him to represent the department at the local Man of the Year awards, where he’s informed that slimy snake Dellaplane is the honoree. But it’s not a total waste; while there, Jackson (and every male viewer) lays eyes on Dellaplane’s beautiful wife, Patrice (Sharon Stone, Basic Instinct, Casino, Total Recall), who introduces herself to Jackson backstage before introducing Jackson to her husband (somehow, she’s clueless as to her husband’s past dealings with the police and with Jackson in particular). That little flirtation gives Jackson an excuse to visit Patrice at the Dellaplane mansion where she confides in him after overhearing a phone conversation by one of Dellaplane’s henchmen.

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SPOILERS Frightened by what she knows and thinking her husband’s men are plotting against him, she confides in Dellaplane, who then kisses her, shoots her dead, then kisses her again while she lay dead on the bed (so romantic…). Meanwhile Jackson, still digging around for clues, hooks up with euphoric (hehe) pop singer Sydney Ash (Vanity, The Last Dragon, 52 Pick-Up), a glamorous heroin junkie who spends her nights singing with her band at the fancy, upscale Club Elite when she’s not having sex (and getting her fix) with Dellaplane as his No. 1 mistress. Sydney takes a liking to Jackson despite his not catering to her drug habit nor jumping at the chance to jump her bones (“You either gotta be queer or a cop,” she says to Jackson, who replies: “Well, I’m not queer…”).

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And it’s a good thing she’s on his side, because Jackson needs all the help he can get—Dellaplane has arranged for his dead wife’s body to be placed in Jackson’s apartment, framing him for her murder. The now-fugitive Jackson, with Sydney in tow, goes into hiding, shacking up at Jackson’s old boxing buddy Kid Sable’s (Chino ‘Fats’ Williams) dive hotel to plan how to bring down Dellaplane and clear his name.

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From the opening sequence at the skyscraper with the shadowy “Invisible Men” dispatching the auto-union officials, you know you’re in for a good time when the gunfire and broken glass crescendos to a fiery climax with a man’s body falling from atop the high-rise while lit on fire—a spectacular, comet-like human fireball falling to the spectators below. Any thought that you might be watching a super-low budget action affair is dispensed with…and this is before the opening credits roll! I think I first saw Action Jackson in 1989, likely as a new release at the local Hometown Video where my aunt worked. My uncle loved action flicks, and I saw a great deal of my childhood faves while staying over weekends at their home. Action Jackson is one of those films that’s just stayed with me all of these years.

RELATED | More 1980s film reviews

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Re-watching it today via Warner Archive‘s Blu-ray release, the cartoony aspects that seemed “normal” or “serious” to me at 13 are certainly cheesier now as a near-middle-aged adult. Silly side-characters pop up from out of nowhere and reoccur as running gags, like Albert (Stan Foster), a small-time hood who variously faints, shakes, or pisses his pants at the sight of “Action” Jackson (he’s just that badass, right?); Kid Sable, Jackson’s hotel-owning, former pro boxer buddy; and Edd (Prince A. Hughes), Sydney’s sort-of bodyguard and Club Elite’s bouncer, who eventually sides with Jackson after being dressed down one too many times by Dellaplane. And in perfect 80s fashion, all these small characters come together at the end to help Jackson carry out his final plan (Jackson can’t turn to the police because he’s a fugitive, so this ragtag bunch of losers are recruited to help win the day).

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It’s hard to tell what tone director Craig R. Baxley was ultimately after here. It’s an obvious mash-up of seminal 80s winners like Commando and Lethal Weapon (and like those two films, Action Jackson is a Joel Silver production), with star Carl Weathers aping the macho, badass aura of Schwarzenegger and Stallone…but there are some cringey bits where Weathers attempts to be funny and it comes off as, I dunno…out of place, rather than humorous. It’s akin to the fourth-wall-breaking you see in children’s cartoons (for example, when Jackson is holding on for dear life on top of a moving taxicab with a killer inside, he goofily  quips: “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”) It deflates the semi-seriousness of the scene and it isn’t funny to boot (and it’s not Weathers’ fault; he’s just doing his best with what’s written). It almost feels as if the producers wanted some Eddie Murphy-via-Beverly Hills Cop mixed in to lighten things up. But without a comedian like Murphy, it comes off forced. (Funny asides in Schwarzenegger films and cute bits in Die Hard are good examples of keeping the comedy organic with macho, non-comic actors).

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But that’s just nitpicking. While revisiting this film after some time, I smiled at every dumb joke because they’re dumb jokes. And I don’t watch a film like Action Jackson because I want it to be realistic or “smart.” In fact, the silliness of those moments many times adds to the charm of the film. And other bits are funny, like the silly, young beat cops flirting with the arrested hookers in the squad room in front of everyone, or Jackson talkin’ high intellectual law with a guest at Dellaplane’s Man of the Year reception.

And for god’s sake, the Vanity character is just a wild, off-the-wall concoction—a glamorous, heroin-addicted 80s party girl who trades barbs with Jackson about…being a heroin addict (when Jackson first sees her fancy, huge syringe when she’s about to shoot up, he deadpans: “You wouldn’t by chance be a diabetic?”). Drugs aren’t funny, kids, but this sure as hell is.

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Enough can’t be said about the performance of Craig T. Nelson. His portrayal of auto magnate Peter Dellaplane is deliciously evil (think J.R. Ewing on Dallas, if Dallas was a weekly R-rated movie). His slick, over-the-top demeanor is everything you’d expect from a greedy, womanizing, murderous tycoon, whose sole goal in life is to play puppet-master behind the scenes controlling the United States auto industry…and with it, the country itself. To do this, he sets out killing union officials that he can’t control, clearing the way for his personal acquaintances and yes men to take over those spots so he can rule the roost. He’s the flashiest of the flashy, and even has a hot sports car on the market called the Halley (in reality, an ’87 Pontiac Fiero dressed up to look Ferrari-ish), which the TV commercials describe as “Hot! Hotter! Hottest!” He’s a true James Bond villain, and he has the lines to prove it: When Sydney sings to him at a club rehearsal while he’s seated at his table, she tells him she “expected a standing ovation,” to which he slyly replies: “You’re getting one.”

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Action Jackson‘s production company, Lorimar, launched in 1969. Following their ’70s TV hit The Waltons, the company enjoyed huge success on the small screen in the ’80s with nighttime soap opera hits Dallas, Knots Landing and Falcon Crest. Action Jackson was produced under its Lorimar Film Entertainment arm. By 1988, Lorimar’s fortunes began to wane and the company was gobbled up by Warner Communications in 1993 after 24 years in business (Warner had distributed many of Lorimar’s films prior to this). But of special note, the company also dabbled in the record business, forming Lorimar Records in 1979. The Action Jackson soundtrack (featuring music by Herbie Hancock, The Pointer Sisters, Sister Sledge, Vanity and others) was the final release for Lorimar’s music brand. Additionally, all those herky-jerky dance moves by Vanity in the club were choreographed by none other than Paula Abdul.

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What more can I say? I love Action Jackson. Director Craig R. Baxley proves he can handle the job in his debut, emphasizing stunts and action set-pieces, making for a fun, thrill-packed ride in what many considered an attempt to revive the dormant Blaxploitation sub-genre. Action Jackson finished a solid 49th for the year (out of 254 theatrical releases in 1988), taking in $20.3 million against a reported budget of around $7 million.

The re-watchability factor here is high: explosions, car chases, a deliciously evil villain in Craig T. Nelson, Vanity and Sharon Stone (speaks for itself), a heroic Carl Weathers in his stacked prime, and the absolute best of 80s action-film cliches.

It’s all I’ll ever need.

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