5. No Way Out
One of the stronger neo-noir political thrillers of the 80s, No Way Out is a clever remixing of espionage tropes that ends with one of the most satisfying twists in cinematic history. The film stars Kevin Costner as U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Tom Farrell, who is assigned to work with Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman). Farrell becomes involved with a woman, Susan Atwell (Sean Young), who he discovers is Brice’s mistress, and when she is found murdered, he becomes a suspect.
The politically savvy plotline is able to make even the most preposterous of situations seem plausible, and successfully modernizes all of the elements of the novel. Costner is always reliable as a morally sound leading man, but the character and performance prove to be more than what they first may seem. It’s an engaging throwback to 1940s cinema that still holds up as an excellent mystery thriller.
4. Stir Crazy
Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder teamed up in multiple comedies together, including Another You, Silver Streak, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil, but Stir Crazy may have been their wildest and most entertaining buddy comedy. Pryor and Wilder play two lifelong friends who are framed for a robbery and sentenced to a life in prison. The pair must survive together in prison, befriending their fellow inmates and planning an escape.
Directed by the legendary Sydney Poitier, the film works so well because of the chemistry between Pryor and Wilder, whose offscreen friendship translated perfectly to the screen. Although the story provides a loose framework for the misadventures that the two go on, the sketch-like nature of the different situations they find themselves in give the film a sense of spontaneity.
3. Romancing the Stone
After the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, many films tried to emulate the unique success of Spielberg’s revitalization of the serialized adventure throwback, but few did it as well as Romancing the Stone. Directed by the great Robert Zemeckis, the film follows a lonely novelist (Kathleen Turner) who travels to Columbia to exchange a mysterious map in order to save her sister-in-law. During her adventure, she encounters an American bird hunter (Michael Douglas) who helps her escape the military police.
While there’s plenty of swashbuckling action, the film really excels with the fish out of water comedy and central romance. Given that Turner’s character is a novelist, the film is able to lampoon clichés in adventure stories, and the chemistry between Turner and Douglas is quite entertaining to watch. Zemeckis would later cite Romancing the Stone as the film that allowed him to make Back to the Future, and it would also inspire its own sequel, The Jewel of the Nile.
2. Mississippi Burning
Two FBI Agents, Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) are dispatched to a small town in Mississippi to investigate the murder of three activists. Anderson and Ward are forced to work alongside the local police department, who they discover was part of the crime.
Hackman and Dafoe make for a terrific onscreen duo; Hackman’s character is a former sheriff who understands local police’s control over the town, whereas Dafoe is a by the books officer with an urgent sense of justice. Brad Dourif is also excellent as the slimy Deputy Sheriff who is eager to stall the investigation, and Frances McDormand is also great as his long suffering wife who begins to open up to Hackman. While the film was often criticized for its historical inaccuracies, it works as a mystery thriller, ending on a solemn note that condemns the failings of the system to prevent the atrocity.
1. The Dead Zone
One of Stephen King’s great achievements as a novelist is his ability to intertwine complex supernatural elements with genuine human drama, and few films have captured that nuance quite as well as David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone. Christopher Walken stars as Johnny Smith, a school teacher who is caught in a traffic accident and stuck in a coma for five years. Upon waking up, Johnny discovers he has psychic powers that allow him to predict the future and see impending deaths before they occur.
Walken is just brilliant in the role, as he shows the weight that Johnny carries as a result of his powers, specifically as his loved ones slip away from him. The story really picks up when Johnny discovers that he has the power to change the future and stop these deaths from occurring, inspiring him to stop the villainous Senate candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) from rising to power and starting a nuclear war. Combining the body horror of Cronenberg, the existential fear of King, and the unique idiosyncrasies of Walken’s performance, The Dead Zone is a brilliant high concept sci-fi drama.