The 1990s were a great decade for film: with a booming film industry, all genres seemed to be back on the table to be optioned and made into film, and the tightly constructed, ingenious genre of the thriller found itself gaining prominence once again.
As an antidote to the increasingly dominant blockbuster action fare that started at PG and ended at PG-13, the R-rated thriller began to appeal to adult audiences who were looking for smarter, more subtle fare for a night at the movies (or, in many cases, to rent at their local video store).
With neo-noir coming back into vogue by the mid-80s–a trend that continues to this day–filmmakers were finding new inspiration in updating the hardboiled detective and mystery films of the 40s and 50s, and now freed by ever-loosening ratings restrictions, the thriller could start playing at a level that film-savvy and adult-minded audiences could appreciate.
Just as the 80s began to take the thriller genre seriously again, the 1990s found new appreciation for the genre perfected by Hitchcock, Preminger, and Lumet, and by directors who grew up with those directors’ films. Here are ten totally awesome thrillers from the 1990s no film fan should miss.
1. Internal Affairs (1990)
As a crooked cop, Dennis Peck (Richard Gere) sets the gold standard: he bends the law to his profit, shakes down crooks for protection money, and plants evidence when necessary. While publicly regarded a hero, to the rest of the force, he’s a dangerous man they don’t want to cross. But when his partner comes up against an unbeatable police brutality charge, an internal affairs agent Richard Avilia (Andy Garcia) convinces him to testify against Peck.
That’s when Peck goes after his former partner, Avilia and his partner, and Avilia’s family. The situation turns into a cat-and-mouse game when Peck decides to terminate every connection that could jeopardize his profitable position as a crooked cop.
The thrill of Internal Affairs is not in its story–which is fairly by-the-book as far as a police procedure goes–but in the performances and character work by Garcia and Gere. Both have personal lives that are used to provide backstory (Peck has eight kids and two ex-wives, while Avilia has his own wife, which is used as a pressure point by Peck against him).
These diametric opposites push-and-pull against each other through escalating taunts and violent outbursts, which only seem to work in Peck’s favor. In Internal Affairs, the thrill comes from watching one bad cop push it as far as he can, maybe because he just enjoys playing against the law while also supposedly being a protector of it. It’s a hidden gem from the early 90s any police thriller fan should seek out.
2. Q&A (1990)
Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) is a rough cop with ties to organized crime who kills a Purto Rican criminal and threatens the witnesses to testify that it was a justified shooting. A young lawyer, Deputy Attorney Reilly (Timothy Hutton)–whose father was a decorated officer that was killed in the line of duty–is assigned to investigate, which leads him to a larger organized crime boss–whose wife is a long-lost love.
Alongside two detectives, the lawyer trace a surviving witness to Brennan’s case to Puerto Rico, where Brennan has also tracked him. A series of plot twists and revelations escalate into a series of showdowns that leave few left standing and nobody left unscathed by the end.
Another hardboiled police thriller, this film was directed by Sidney Lumet, whose work includes the classics 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network. Q&A features Lumet’s ability to create both a dramatic and complex storyline while also underlying the humanity of the characters; a film where bad guys can have redeemable qualities while ostensible heroes are the villains of a film filled with criminals.
A large thriller driven by the increasing revelations of its characters, and their reactions to these reveals, Q&A is a thriller with a story that keeps you guessing–and your attention–the whole way through.
3. Dead Again (1991)
A murder in 1949 of Margaret, a composer’s wife (Emma Thompson), sends her husband Roman (Kenneth Branagh) to jail. Before his execution, a reporter asks if he committed the crime; the husband whispers something in his ear, which we don’t hear.
Forty years later, PI Mike Church investigates the identity of a mysterious amnesiac, involving her in a past life regression technique in which she details the life of Margaret and Roman. After looking over old photographs of the long-deceased couple, Mike realizes that he is the spitting image of the composer Roman while the amnesiac looks like his wife Margaret…
The rest is a fantasy thriller involving reincarnations of the major players involved in the original murder and the mystery that surrounded it. As if replaying the events again, the audience uncovers what really happened over 40 years prior while the suspense is kept throughout as to who the actual killer is, both in the past and in the present.
This unique approach to a thriller is bolstered by a strong cast: besides Branagh (who also directed) and Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Robin Williams, and Campbell Scott also appear in the film. As the film flashes back and forth from the past to the present, the mystery unravels, and he audience is left wondering if history will repeat itself once again for these characters, who seem destined to act out their parts in a sort of supernatural play.
4. One False Move (1992)
After a brutal crime and killing spree to retrieve a cache of money and cocaine, three criminals flee Los Angeles to sell their score out of state. Meanwhile, two LA detectives trace the trio to a small town in Star City, Arkansas, where the local police chief–excited at the prospect of working on a big case–shows them around town.
But the LA detectives suspect there’s more to the story, and the police chief’s connection to one of the thieves, than he’s letting on. The thieves’ deals go wrong, and a violent–and very personal–showdown occurs in the small town with a few secrets of its own.
One False Move is a small movie that pulls off its great ambitions thanks to a sharp screenplay (co-written by Billy Bob Thorton, who also co-stars in the film) and dynamic performances by all actors involved, each of whom work on their own volition and for their own motivations.
As secrets are revealed and plans go awry, the audience can’t help but wonder–and worry–how it will end for them. Having enjoyed rave reviews upon its release by both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (who named it his favorite film of the year), this forgotten thriller is a worthy watch for fans of the crime and thriller genre.
5. Shallow Grave (1995)
Three rather cruel housemates enjoy toying with potential housemate applicants before deciding on a mysterious man who shortly dies after moving in of an overdose. Finding a large amount of money in a suitcase in his room, the three agree to dismember and dispose of the body and keep the money for themselves.
However, all three begin to exhibit signs of stress over their misdeeds. When two violent thugs whose money it is show up to look for it, they too are killed and buried in the backyard. Tensions continue to mount between the three housemates, double-crossing plans are made against each other, and it becomes a survival of the most treacherous between these three supposed friends.
The first film directed by Danny Boyle, who would follow this effort with the influential cult hit Trainspotting, Shallow Grave mixes black humor and stylish direction with a grisly tale of a criminal alliance gone wrong between three highly untrustworthy people. Featuring early performances by Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston and crackling with dark humor, Shallow Grave is a smart thriller that can be enjoyed by people who like a good antihero (or three) as their protagonists.