The 20 Best Neo-Noir Films Of The 1980s

11. Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)

Screenplay by Mann based on the Thomas Harris novel “Red Dragon”


William Petersen followed up his leading role in the superb To Live & Die in L.A. with a career best performance as an FBI agent with unique skills hunting a serial murderer. Edward Norton and Hugh Dancy subsequently played the Will Graham role but the perfectly cast Petersen is by far the definitive interpreter of the character. Character actor Tom Noonan is fantastic as the killer Francis Dollarhyde, one of the most impressive villainous performances of the 1980s.

The box office failure of this film and the previous year’s To Live & Die in L.A. effectively spelled the end of the promotion of William Petersen as a cinematic leading man but both films are excellent and have gained critical stature over the years.


12. Best Seller (John Flynn, 1987)

Screenplay by Larry Cohen


A professional assassin teams up with an ex-cop turned author to investigate a powerful businessman in this outstanding, overlooked film from Rolling Thunder director John Flynn. James Woods, in his career best performance as the hitman, has genuine on-screen chemistry with co-star Brian Dennehy. The clever screenplay was written by Larry Cohen, best known as the screenwriter/director of the blaxploitation favorite Black Caesar (1973) and the It’s Alive horror film series (1974, 1978 & 1987).


13. Extreme Prejudice (Walter Hill, 1987)

Screenplay by John Milius, Fred Rexer, Derek Washburn and Harry Kleiner

Extreme Prejudice

A tough, uncompromising Texas Ranger played by Nick Nolte clashes with a childhood friend turned drug kingpin played by Powers Boothe in this too often overlooked film.

Extreme Prejudice is very ambitious as it combines this core story with the arrival of a group of military operatives who are also targeting Boothe’s character. A romantic subplot featuring Maria Conchita Alonso unfortunately falls flat but there is much to like here including the performances of Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown as members of the military group.

Director Hill is most famous for the well-liked 1970s neo-noir The Driver (1978), The Warriors (1979), Southern Comfort (1981) and the 48 Hours films (1982 & 1990). After Extreme Prejudice, Hill returned to the neo-noir world in 1989 for the less memorable Johnny Handsome with Mickey Rourke and Lance Henriksen.


14. Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987)

Screenplay by Shane Black


Too often simply lumped into the “1980s action movie” category, Lethal Weapon has a much darker essence than most of the films one would expect to find with that label such as Mark L. Lester’s entertaining but incredibly goofy Commando (1985).

Incorporating elements of 1970s men’s action/adventure books such as Don Pendleton’s The Executioner series, Lethal Weapon features outstanding performances by Mel Gibson as a suicidal cop with advanced combat skills and Mitchell Ryan and Gary Busey as deadly mercenaries. Also on the acting front, great character actor Tom Atkins is featured in a brief but important role.

Unfortunately, the Lethal Weapon sequels drop the ball and fail to take the series in any truly interesting direction. No viewer realistically expects all the films in a franchise to be outstanding, but Dirty Harry at least had one truly great sequel in Magnum Force.


15. No Way Out (Roger Donaldson, 1987)

Screenplay by Robert Garland based on the Kenneth Fearing novel “The Big Clock”

No Way Out

Fearing’s novel had previously been adapted for the big screen twice, once by director John Farrow in 1948 as The Big Clock and then by French director Alain Corneau in 1976 as Police Python 357.

Director Donaldson’s version features a typically bland lead performance by Kevin Costner but what make this film an absolute must-see is the incredible acting by Will Patton as a ruthless politician’s right hand man in one of the great villainous performances of the 1980s.

Patton’s later outstanding performances in producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s Armageddon (1998), Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000) and Remember the Titans (2000) are the best parts of each of those films.


16. The Big Heat (Yeung-Wah Kam & Johnnie To, 1988)

Screenplay by Gordon Chan

The Big Heat

Years before establishing himself as a solo directing force with the Triad films Election (2005), Triad Election (2006) and Exiled (2006), Johnnie To co-directed an overlooked gem of Hong Kong New Wave genre cinema The Big Heat. Waise Lee stars as a police detective with a severe hand injury who teams up with a group of other cops to investigate the murder of a fellow officer.

The films of John Woo tend to dominate conversations about Hong Kong crime films of this period in the same way the films of Dario Argento dominate conversations about the golden age of Italian giallo films, but don’t miss the lesser known The Big Heat.


17. Black Rain (Ridley Scott, 1989)

Screenplay by Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis

Black Rain

Heavily influenced by Sydney Pollack’s overlooked 1974 “West meets East” crime film The Yakuza, director Scott’s film even goes so far as to cast the noted Japanese actor Ken Takakura from that film in a major role.

Michael Douglas, in one of his best performances, stars a New York cop with suspect ethics who tries to track down a Japanese gangster with the help of his partner played by Andy Garcia. Tomisaburo Wakayama, star of the classic Lone Wolf & Cub samurai film series of the early 1970s, appears in a brief role as a powerful Yakuza boss.


18. Hit List (William Lustig, 1989)

Screenplay by Aubrey K. Rattan, John F. Goff and Peter Brosnan

hit list 1989

This film about a family man whose child is kidnapped shares a lot on common with the aforementioned No Way Out in that both films center on a weak lead acting performance but feature an unforgettable villain. In this case, Jan-Michael Vincent is the lead and the villain is a deadly hitman played by the great character actor Lance Henriksen.

Best known for highly memorable roles in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), Bruce Robinson’s Jennifer Eight (1992) and John Woo’s Hard Target (1993), veteran actor Henriksen’s committed performance in Hit List is one of his most overlooked and is the reason to see the film.


19. The Killer (John Woo, 1989)

Screenplay by Woo


Having helped usher in the New Wave of Hong Kong genre cinema with the success of his 1986 gangster film A Better Tomorrow, director Woo delivers a classic about an ethical hitman played by Chow Yun-Fat being pursued by a cop played by Danny Lee. Issues of honor and loyalty, very common in Asian crime films, are a Woo trademark and The Killer is no exception as it comes off as a modern day samurai film highlighted by the director’s famous, expertly choreographed action sequences.


20. Violent Cop (Takeshi Kitano, 1989)

Screenplay by Hisashi Nozawa

Violent Cop

While known primarily for his later work as director and star of the crime films Sonatine (1993), Fireworks (1997) and Outrage (2010) as well as his role in Kinji Fukasaku’s violent dystopian classic Battle Royale (2000), Kitano’s first film as director holds up incredibly well. Violent Cop is aptly named as Kitano’s police officer character finds himself heading for a showdown with a lethal gangster. The film’s grim conclusion is one of the classic sequences of 1980s neo-noir.

Author Bio: Terek Puckett is an actor, screenwriter and film writer based in Los Angeles. He is a graduate of Wright State University in Ohio and his areas of film expertise include horror cinema and neo-film noir. More of his film writing can be seen here: