11. Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
Screenplay by Mann based on the Frank Hohimer novel “The Home Invaders”
James Caan delivers one the great performances of his long career as an expert thief who tries to establish a normal life for himself against all odds.
Caan’s character is an ex-convict who adopts a highly disciplined approach to his criminal lifestyle, creating a less refined version of Robert DeNiro’s Neil McCauley character that would appear in director Mann’s 1995 Heat.
12. Blood Simple (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1984)
Screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen
A love affair between a married woman and a bartender results in murder in this critically lauded debut of the Coen Brothers highlighted by the incredible performance of character actor M. Emmet Walsh as a lethal private investigator.
Having previously done an outstanding job as a parole officer in Ulu Grossbard’s Straight Time (1978), the veteran actor is usually found in smaller but memorable roles such as Deckard’s boss in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).
13. To Live & Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985)
Screenplay by Gerald Petievich and Friedkin based on Petievich’s novel
A federal agent played by William Petersen becomes obsessed with taking down a deadly counterfeiter brilliantly played by Willem Dafoe.
Not a box office success in its day, To Live & Die in L.A. holds up over time much better than Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971).
The late character actor Steve James can be seen here in a supporting role. James also appeared in Friedkin’s later collaborations with Petievich on the entertaining but almost completely overlooked television films C.A.T. Squad (1986) and C.A.T. Squad: Python Wolf (1988).
14. 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.
15. Violent Cop (Takeshi Kitano, 1989)
Screenplay by Hisashi Nozawa
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.
16. King of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990)
Screenplay by Nicholas St. John
Christopher Walken delivers one of the great performances of his legendary career in this tale of a crime boss named Frank White being targeted by a trio of police officers upon his release from prison.
The film also features a spectacular supporting cast including Laurence Fishburne as White’s trigger-happy right hand man and David Caruso, Victor Argo and Wesley Snipes as the cops targeting White.
Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) garnered high critical praise, primarily for the courageous lead acting performance by Harvey Keitel, but King of New York is a far more successful film.
17. Hard-Boiled (John Woo, 1992)
Screenplay by Woo and Barry Wong
Charismatic leading man Chow Yun-Fat plays a maverick cop gunning for a ruthless gangster in director Woo’s last Hong Kong film before starting his American film career.
Viewers who would simply classify the classic Hard-Boiled as an “action movie” are missing the darkness at its heart.
This quality is embodied by Tony Leung’s undercover cop character who becomes so lost that he commits mass murder during a brilliant sequence that captures the essence of neo-film noir.
Yes, the action scenes in Hard-Boiled are amazing but there’s a lot more going on here that’s highlighted by the great acting of Leung and Philip Kwok as the lethal henchman Mad Dog.
18. Carlito’s Way (Brian DePalma, 1993)
Screenplay by David Koepp based on the Edwin Torres novels “Carlito’s Way” and “After Hours”
The work of novelist Edwin Torres had previously been the basis for Sidney Lumet’s outstanding Q&A (1990).
Carlito’s Way frequently draws comparisons to Al Pacino’s previous collaboration with director DePalma’s Scarface (1983) but the reality is that there is no comparison.
Scarface lacks Carlito’s Way’s excellent screenplay, great Pacino performance and characters that appear to be actual human beings.
Both Pacino and Sean Penn deliver unforgettable performances as a gangster trying to leave the criminal life behind and his long-time friend and lawyer.
19. Leon the Professional (Luc Besson, 1994)
Screenplay by Besson
Centering on what still holds up as one of the best performances of the great French actor Jean Reno’s career, this film about a professional hitman who takes a young girl played by Natalie Portman under his wing remains screenwriter/director Besson’s finest work.
Previously best known for the hitwoman movie La Femme Nikita (1990), those expecting great things from Besson after Leon the Professional were no doubt disappointed by the wretched science fiction film The Fifth Element (1997) and his continuing producing/screenwriting work on the popular Transporter and Taken films which are clearly softened for wider audience appeal.
20. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)
Screenplay by Mann
Screenwriter/director Mann remade his 1989 television film L.A. Takedown and improved on the original in every way.
Al Pacino plays a police detective in pursuit of a deadly gang of bank robbers led by Robert DeNiro’s criminal mastermind character.
Most of the focus is directed at Pacino and DeNiro when the film’s acting is discussed but there are also very solid performances by Tom Sizemore, Val Kilmer and especially Kevin Gage that deserve more credit than they typically get.