The Nineties decade produced a bounty of stand-out thrillers that ruled the box office, stood the test of time and are now regarded as timeless masterpieces. David Fincher, Michael Mann, the Coens, David Lynch, among many others put their personal stamp on the genre and did their part to keep its essence alive into the new millennium. But perhaps you’ve blazed through all the usual suspects — “Se7en”, “Heat”, “The Silence of the Lambs”, just to name a few — and are looking for something that will scratch that itch. Or maybe you’ve grown tired of doom-scrolling through Netflix looking for some edge-of-the-seat thrills to no avail. If that’s the case, we’ve got you covered.
For the purpose of this list, we’re digging a little deeper to focus on masterpieces hidden in plain sight that slipped under the radar but deserve a second look. From neo-noir to erotic potboilers, from slow-burner chillers to over-the-top guns blazing extravaganzas, keep reading for ten ’90s gems you may not have heard much about but won’t want to miss.
1. Red Rock West (1993)
John Dahl’s shadowy neo-Western about a down-on-his-luck drifter who ends up caught between a rock and a hard place after being mistaken by a hitman is worth watching if for no other reason than to see prime Nic Cage and Dennis Hopper (in full Frank Booth mode) hamming it up together for 98 glorious minutes.
And if the prospect of watching this high-wattage Hollywood dream pairing pitted against each other in an intricate game of cat and mouse across rural Wyoming somehow isn’t enticing enough to get your adrenaline pumping, it’s worth noting that this curious case of mistaken identity combines the black-comic sensibility of early Coen brothers and the narrative hijinks of David Lynch with enough twists and double-crosses to make Alfred Hitchcock’s head spin. Okay, maybe we are overselling it a bit, but that’s only because if you haven’t watched “Red Rock West” yet, you’re legitimately missing out on one of the most woefully overlooked ’90s thrillers.
2. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
As Easy Rawlins, a careworn WWII vet-turned-self-styled gumshoe who is hired to track down the missing lover of a wealthy mayoral candidate in late-1940s Los Angeles, Denzel Washington delivers a tour de force performance for the ages.
One of the countless titles to hit the multiplex in the 1990s that freely updated the classic noir template by retooling its timeworn genre tropes with striking visuals and pointed social commentary, Carl Franklin’s big-screen adaptation of the hard-boiled novel by Walter Mosley offers rewards galore for fans of stylish, intricately woven whodunits.
The film might draw its primary weight from Denzel’s ice-cool charisma — the actor sure seems to be having a blast as Rawlins’ perpetually out-of-his-depth amateur sleuth — but “Devil in a Blue Dress” works just as well as a saw-edged parable for post-war America that effectively plays on themes of racial prejudice and political corruption. Tom Sizemore and Don Cheadle set the screen aflame in small but memorable supporting roles.
3. Bullet in the Head (1990)
No one provided ’90s moviegoers with more bang for their buck than John Woo, the trailblazing Hong Kong auteur who made his name and reputation with explosive cocktails of gun-fu action ecstasy before leveraging his newfound international clout into a successful career stateside.
As much as we enjoy watching Chow Yun-Fat fight back a horde of enemies with a baby in his arms in “Hard Boiled” — let’s be honest here, cinema doesn’t get any cooler than that — it’s a crying shame that not enough attention has been paid to this epically engineered bullet ballad about three longtime friends who find their bond tested after being caught up in the thick of the Vietnam War.
Bouncing from one high-octane set piece to another, each more exhilarating than the last, “Bullet in the Head” is a blast of unadulterated thrills and soap melodrama that keeps you on the edge of your seat before slowly opening into a genuinely moving and ultimately profound study of camaraderie and loyalty. Seriously, any diehard fan of the John Wick series out there who hasn’t seen this unsung gem yet has some serious homework to do.
4. Bound (1996)
Before they announced themselves on the world stage and set the standard for modern Hollywood blockbusters at the century’s close with an inventive fusion of cyberpunk sci-fi, martial arts and cutting-edge VFX, the Wachowskis kept things a bit more grounded with this stripped-down, ultra lo-fi nail-bitter about a hard-edged female ex-con (Gina Gershon) who plans to steal $2 million from the mob with the help of her seductive neighbor, the ex-girlfriend of a local gangster (Jennifer Tilly).
When talking about the plethora of assured directorial debuts that played like gangbusters during the Nineties, conversations usually begin with Quentin Tarantino’s 1992s “Reservoir Dogs” and end with Spike Jonze’s 1999s “Being John Malkovich”. Sandwiched between both is this sensual, smart and provocative slice of gangster-noir, which may get a little lost in the shuffle but endures as a masterclass in suspense that ratchets up the erotic tension until it seeps from every frame. If you ever need proof that the Wachowskis’ directorial bravura existed long before “The Matrix”, we suggest you keep this one on your radar.
5. Miami Blues (1990)
Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh star respectively as a recently released ex-con prone to violent outbursts and a gullible part-time hooker who shack up and embark on a wild crime spree across South Beach in this gonzo urban caper that channels the cocksure irreverence of Quentin Tarantino, the urban grit of Abel Ferrara, and the postmodern self-awareness of the Coen brothers.
The bristling chemistry between Baldwin and Leigh alone elevates George Armitage’s scuzzy cult favorite above its crowded competition, especially in the 1990s’ slate of shockingly violent, dirt-cheap genre pastiches that would become hard currency in American indie cinema in the wake of “Pulp Fiction”. Throw in a whip-smart screenplay and an outrageously funny, career-best turn by Fred Ward as a world-weary Miami cop at his wits’ end desperately trying to retrieve his stolen badge and gun, and you have a cracked-up vision of Americana that doesn’t let up till the final frame.