The 10 Best Action/Adventure/Suspense/Thriller/Crime flicks you’ve probably never seen

Oct 20, 2004 (Updated Nov 4, 2004)

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The Bottom Line If you haven’t seen all (or any) of these films I envy you the discovery of each and every one of them.

Action/Adventure/Suspense/Thriller/Crime films are often panned by the critics, but classic flicks like Bullitt, Dirty Harry, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, The French Connection, The Terminator, and The Wild Bunch (along with hundreds of others) fully engage viewers in their fast paced stories, compelling characters, and non-stop action.

Action/Adventure/Suspense/Thriller/Crime movies share several fundamental features; the good guys don’t always triumph (in fact there sometimes are no good guys) and films of this genre are always about people at risk of death and/or violence. Movies from this genre also (usually) feature a lone wolf protagonist on a single-minded quest for justice, revenge, escape, or survival (buddy films are a variation on this theme).

The films listed below are not mainstream action flicks, in fact they are all obscure or underappreciated, but each of them is a classic example of the Action/Adventure/Suspense/Thriller/Crime genre. The movies are listed chronologically, by release date.

(1) Point Blank (1967) Directed by John Boorman
Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carrol O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner, and John Vernon

Point Blank opens with professional thief Walker (Lee Marvin) gunned down and left for dead, double crossed after a successful heist, by his cheating wife and friend Reese (John Vernon). Walker survives the betrayal and embarks on a bloody quest for revenge that takes him into the heart of the California underworld. He is assisted in his search for retribution and the stolen loot by informant Keenan Wynn (who has an agenda of his own) and the delectable Angie Dickinson as he brutally unravels the impersonal corporate structure and diverse command levels of a modern-day criminal syndicate.

Point Blank was based on The Hunter, a gritty crime novel by Donald Westlake (writing under the pseudonym Richard Stark). The story of an amoral criminal on a dogged quest for vengeance provided the perfect foundation for John Boorman’s synthesis of post new wave European experimental cinema, a dark noirish and distinctly American protagonist, and the inherent violence and rapid pace of classic American Cowboy and Gangster movies. Point Blank flopped at the box office, but industry professionals saw limitless possibilities in Marvin’s nihilistic antihero, the moody aura of existential fatalism, and the film’s surrealistic avant garde style. Boorman’s austere and violent film actually shares more with Antonioni’s cutting edge crime film Blow Up than it does with Arthur Penn’s excellent, but traditional and highly romanticized Bonnie & Clyde (both films were released the same year).

Point Blank remains one of the most influential films of the sixties and the granddaddy movie that inspired an entirely new film genre, the action flick. Skip the inferior 1999 re-make (Payback directed by Brian Helgeland) with Mel Gibson in the Lee Marvin role.

(2) Charley Varrick (1973) Directed by Don Siegel

Staring: Walter Mathau, Joe Don Baker, Felicia Farr, Andrew Robinson, Sheree North, John Vernon, and Norman Fell

Charley Varrick (Walter Mathau) is a small time hustler and crop duster pilot who supplements his meager income with occasional bank robberies. When Charley and his gang (Jacqueline Scott and Andrew Robinson) rob a bank in a small rural New Mexico town two local cops and Mathau’s wife die in the ensuing shootout. To further complicate matters the little backwater bank is a front for laundering mob money skimmed from Nevada casinos and the loot belongs to the Mafia. The local Sheriff (Norman Fell) wants the gang because they’re cop killers and the crooked bank President (John Vernon) is determined to find the robbers before the Mafia holds him responsible for the heist. If Charley is going to survive he must outwit the local cops, Vernon, and the sadistic killer (Joe Don Baker) the mob sends to retrieve the loot and kill everyone involved.

Siegel’s direction is flawless, the pace is relentless, the acting is consistently superb, the action is fast and plausible, and the final confrontation between Mathau and Baker is ingenious and satisfying. After Charley Varrick was “in the can” (ready for release) Universal Pictures management decided they were unhappy with the film’s amoral story and disturbed that Mathau (best known at that time for his turn as lovable slob Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple) played an unrepentant bad guy. Charley Varrick went straight to the drive-in circuit (the predecessor of “straight to video”) and that’s too bad, because it’s an excellent film. Mathau turned in one of the best performances of his long career in this gritty crime story.

(3) The Yakuza (1975) Directed by Sydney Pollack

Starring: Robert Mitchum, Brian Keith, Takakura Ken, and Herb Edelman

In The Yakuza, a film about honor, friendship, and obligation, Robert Mitchum plays a middle-aged Private Detective asked by an old army buddy (Brian Keith) to help get his kidnapped daughter back. In one of the best roles in his long and illustrious career Mitchum’s character returns to Japan for the first time in almost thirty years to help his friend and confront his own tortured past. Once he begins his investigation Mitchum learns that Keith’s daughter has been snatched by the shadowy Yakuza (the Japanese Mafia) as leverage in a business dispute.

Mitchum soon determines he will need help if he’s to accomplish his mission. He asks his former lover, a woman he hasn’t seen since his post war occupation days to help him convince former Yakuza Takakura to join him in freeing Keith's daughter. Takakura agrees to help because he feels an obligation to Mitchum for helping his family during the tough times after the war, but their alliance violates the Yakuza code of honor. Japanese gangsters view themselves as the modern day equivalent of the Samurai and their lives and conduct are guided by ancient warrior traditions. The clash of Western and Oriental values forms a strong undercurrent that colors everything in the film.

The Yakuza is one of the best action flicks of the seventies. Pollack’s pacing is perfect and the script by Robert Towne (Chinatown) and the Schrader brothers sensitively explores the complex clash of cultures. The violence is credible and never gratuitous. Mitchum and Takakura, as two strong warriors who don’t like each other at first, turn in equally exceptional performances, as they become allies and then friends. Remade (sort of) as Black Rain in 1987 with Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia.

(4) Sorcerer (1977) directed by William Friedkin

Staring: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou, Ramon Bieri, and Peter Capell

When William Friedkin was a young man he saw a French film called Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur) that influenced his decision to become a film director. After the great success of The Exorcist and The French Connection Friedkin had enough Hollywood clout to make any film he wanted. He chose to remake Wages of Fear.

Roy Scheider plays an American on the run from the Mafia who ends up working at a remote South American oil-drilling site. When another of the company’s wells catches fire, Scheider and three co-workers agree to haul two truckloads of volatile and highly explosive nitroglycerine across two hundred miles of hostile roadless terrain to put out the fire. The four men are desperate to escape the loneliness and oppression of the jungle and if they are successful they’ll make enough money to flee back to civilization.

Friedkin is famous for his perfect pacing and cinematic craftsmanship and Sorcerer is one of his best. The film is a taut suspenseful mixture of split second timing and death defying stunts as the two trucks navigate mountainous terrain, raging streams, slick clinging mud, and the most incredibly dangerous and unstable bridge ever. One hard jolt and the trucks (with their crews) will disappear in a tower of fire and noise. The action never lets up and the tension builds inexhorably until the riveting climax. This is one of the most suspenseful action films ever made and every cast member gives the performance of a lifetime. The score (by Tangerine Dream) and the grainy cinematography add to the atmosphere of anxiety and apprehension.

(5) Outland (1981) directed by Peter Hyams

Staring: Sean Connery, Peter Boyle, Frances Sternhagen, James B. Sikking, and John Ratzenberger

Critics have been joking for years that Sci-Fi flicks are often nothing more than slightly re-worked cowboy movies. Writer-director Peter Hyams gets in the last laugh by moving one of the most famous cowboy movies of all time, High Noon to Io (one of Jupiter’s moons) in deep space. After a number of suspicious suicides and violent deaths among the workers at a remote and very profitable commercial mining operation, Marshall O’Neill (Sean Connery) is sent to investigate. Connery quickly discovers that mine boss Peter Boyle is giving mine employees a meth-like work-drive enhancing drug that makes them more productive, unfortunately after a few months the workers snap and become extremely violent and self destructive.

When Boyle discovers that Connery is going to expose his get rich quick scheme he sends for a squad of killers to terminate the Marshall. Connery (like Gary Cooper) soon discovers that nobody is willing to stand with him against the hired killers. He must fight the most important battle of his life alone. The main difference between High Noon and Outland is that for Connery there is no possibility of escape, unlike Cooper who voluntarily stays to face down the killers because he feels that he must; Connery has nowhere to go. Mine boss Boyle controls all transport on and off the “rock” so the suspense and tension builds inexorably as the clock ticks down the hours until the arrival of the “noon train” (in this case the transport ship carrying Boyle’s thugs).

Instead of the false fronted wooden stores, saloons, and hotels along the dusty main street in High Noon, the action in Outland unfolds along miles of super functional lookingindustrial corridors in the gritty vacuum-sealed metal life support cocoon above the mine.
Hyams story and direction are completely solid. Connery is (as always) superb in a role that looks as if it were written for him. Sternhagen as the Camp Doctor is appropriately world-weary and Peter Boyle is absolutely sinister as the ultimate practitioner of corporate expediency.

(6) Into the Night (1985) Directed by John Landis

Staring: Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dan Aykroyd, Paul Bartel, Cal Worthington (famous L.A. Auto Sales Pitchman), David Cronenberg, John Landis, Paul Mazursky, Roger Vadim, Carl Perkins (Mr. Blue Suede Shoes), Don Siegel (see #2 above), Jim Henson (the Muppet man), David Bowie, Jack Arnold (prolific director of 50’s “B” Sci Fi flicks), Amy Heckerling, Lawrence Kasdan, Richard Farnsworth, Vera Miles, Irene Papas, Clu Gulager, and Jonathan Demme

After actor Vic Morrow and two children were killed during the filming of Twilight Zone The Movie director John Landis made Into the night a quirky little thriller starring rising actors Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer. Dozens of entertainment industry professionals (see cast list above) jumped on board to show their support for Landis while the L. A. D. A. decided whether or not to hold him personally responsible for the three deaths. This idiosyncratic flick is probably Landis’ best movie and completely unlike any of his other films. Into the night is an imaginative, darkly funny, and earnestly romantic film that perfectly captures a dreamy adrenaline driven vision of nighttime L.A.

Goldblum plays an insomniac yuppie who’s just discovered his wife is unfaithful. He drives aimlessly around the vast L. A. Metroplex until he ends up at LAX where he manages to ineptly but effectively rescue Michelle Pfeiffer from a group of murderous Iranian thugs. The Iranians are after Pfeiffer because she’s smuggled several historically and culturally important Iranian emeralds into the country. Supporters of the Iranian monarchy (represented by former members of the Shah’s Secret Police) and several independent crooks want the emeralds, and they’re all willing to do whatever is necessary to obtain them. Goldblum is excellent as the slightly dazed, but never at a loss for words Ed. Pfeiffer is great as well, and at her most beautiful. Other standouts are Roger Vadim (as a slick international criminal), David Bowie (as a freaky hitman), Carl Perkins (as a relentless brawler), Bruce McGill (as Pfeiffer’s Elvis impersonator brother), and Richard Farnsworth (as Pfeiffer’s former Sugar Daddy).

Into the night isn’t the Tom Hanks + Meg Ryan style offbeat romance viewers might expect, in fact it’s the ultimate “Ships that pass in the night” story. Two incredibly different strangers are thrown together by circumstances beyond their control and become friends as they run for their lives from a large group of highly motivated bad guys bent on their destruction.

(7) Trancers (1985) Directed by Charles Band

Starring: Tim Thomerson, Helen Hunt, Michael Stefani, Art LaFleur, Telma Hopkins, Richard Herd, and Anne Seymour

Trancers is like The Terminator meets Blade Runner with a healthy dose of Invasion of the Body Snatchers from a script by Raymond Chandler. Trancers is probably the best “direct to video” cheapie “B” flick ever made and the prime contender against noir classic Detour for the title of best “B” film ever made. Both these films are successful because of solid stories, first class acting, and inspired direction.

Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) is a 23rd century cop sent “down the line” to stop an army of zombies who have the ability to take over the minds and bodies of humans and to capture their leader, Martin Whistler. Whistler is living in 80’s L.A. (in the body of an LAPD Detective) seeking out and killing the ancestors of the current rulers of Angel City (the earthquake ravaged and partially submerged L. A. of the future) so that he can return and seize control in the future power vacuum.

Time travel in Trancers is a bit different from most Sci Fi flicks, so Jack Deth wakes up in the body of a twentieth century relative the morning after his one night stand with Helen Hunt (in her second acting role). Thomerson is eventually able to convince Hunt to help him track down and eliminate Whistler. They fall in love and spend the rest of the film trying to stop Whistler and his trancer minions from taking over the future.

Trancers was made by Empire Pictures (now Full Moon Video) for less than most studios budget for catering a major flick. It’s is an eclectic fusion of 40’s hard boiled Private Detective thriller and 50’s pod people Sci Fi flick set in hip 80’s L. A. Stand up comic Thomerson is perfect in the role of the hard-boiled wisecracking future cop who lives to “singe” trancers. Thomerson’s non-stop banter is usually funny, often crude, and always thoroughly irreverent.

(8) The Hidden (1987) Directed by Jack Sholder

Starring: Michael Nouri, Kyle MacLachlan, Clarence Felder, Claudia Christian and Catherine Cannon

The Hidden is a genuine genre bender. Many reviewers would classify it as Sci Fi or maybe Horror, but it is neither despite the presence of elements from both genres. At its core The Hidden is a straight-ahead cop flick. As the movie opens, the L. A. police are hot on the trail of a man who has committed several serious crimes (armed robbery and auto theft). The “perp” is driving a stolen Ferrari with heavy metal music blaring from the on board stereo. When the cops eventually force the “perp” to crash, he rolls out of what’s left of the Ferrari with a shotgun and a seriously belligerent attitude. The cops riddle him with bullets. At the hospital, the severely wounded “perp” rises from his deathbed and (in a distinctly Alien-like sequence) takes over the body of another patient before escaping.

Nouri (as the detective in charge of the investigation) arrives at the hospital to check out the “perp” only to discover he was an ordinary guy who’d never been violent or done anything wrong. To further complicate matters, there’s a mysterious FBI agent (MacLachlan) snooping around even though it doesn’t appear any federal laws have been broken. MacLachlan knows more than he is telling and what he is willing to share with Nouri doesn’t make any sense. Apparently there’s a trail of incidents with law-abiding citizens mysteriously going on looting and killing sprees, stealing expensive sports cars, and patronizing strip clubs. MacLachlan claims all the “perps” are the same guy, but that’s impossible since most of them are dead. Nouri throws MacLachlan in jail until he reveals that he is an inter-galactic cop who’s “borrowed” the body of a dead FBI agent. He’s pursuing an alien criminal escapee who can take over the body of any person or creature he encounters. This super violent parasitical space criminal loves sexy babes, expensive sports cars, automatic weapons, and heavy metal music. Since the alien can change bodies at will, he is virtually unstoppable -- forcing Nouri and MacLachlan to join forces to stop the mayhem.

What really sets The Hidden apart from the dozens of “bad alien” Sci Fi flicks that have come and gone over the last fifty years is that this alien isn’t out to take over our world, steal our resources, or enslave our populations -- instead he’s a selfish hedonistic killer who enjoys easy money, random violence, casual sex, and loud music. That nasty little distinction gives this straight to video cult flick a real edge. The Hidden has it all; an original story, solid direction, a glitzy locale, non stop car chases and bloody shootouts, a pair of winning protagonists, and a genuinely bad villain. This film is a perfect example of just how good a really solid “B” flick can be.

(9) Shoot to Kill (1988) Directed by Roger Spottiswoode

Starring: Sidney Poitier, Tom Berenger, Kirstie Alley, Richard Masur, Andy Robinson, Clancy Brown Norman, and Kevin Scannell

Movie fans often lament the fact that they don’t make movies like they used to, but the truth is they’ve always made movies (and still do) that are story and character (rather than special effects) driven and Shoot to Kill is a prime example. Sidney Poitier plays an older FBI agent who feels responsible for the death of a hostage during a daring well-planned San Francisco diamond robbery. Poitier is absolutely unrelenting in his pursuit of the killer and when evidence surfaces that the unknown suspect has joined a guided fishing trip into the rugged wilderness of the Olympic Mountains, Poitier rushes to the scene.

Kirstie Alley is the tough no nonsense guide who takes five city men (one of them the killer) on a trip deep into the wilderness. Tom Berenger is Alley’s boyfriend, also a wilderness guide. Poitier commandeers him to lead the chase after the killer. Poitier makes it clear from the outset that he’s in charge and Berenger makes it just as clear that doesn’t expect the older City slicker FBI agent to be able to keep up. Both actors play nicely off the tension, hostility, and off beat humor that’s created by their unlikely alliance.

Berenger and Poitier are a couple of days behind the fishing party so they’ll have to be absolutely relentless if they plan to catch up with the killer before he gets to Canada. The pursuers develop a great bond as they race against the clock and the unyielding wilderness in this adrenaline fueled chase flick. The good guys get heartbreakingly close only to barely miss connecting with Alley and the killer when they reach the edge of the wilderness. The killer keeps Alley as a hostage while he arranges to sell the diamonds in Vancouver.

Once Berenger and Poitier reach civilization, their roles are reversed and the old FBI agent is comfortable and on familiar ground in the urban jungle, while the young wilderness guide is now the odd man out. Spottiswoode’s direction is spare but intensely focused; he wisely allows the majestic outdoor settings and incredible scenery to become as much a character in the film as the human actors. Poitier is one of the two or three best actors of his generation, and that talent shines brightly in Shoot to Kill.

(10) One False Move (1991) directed by Carl Franklin

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams, Michael Beach, Bill Paxton, Jim Metzler, and Earl Billings

First time director Carl Franklin's One False Move is a moody and riveting neo-noir road trip that begins with a horrendous crime in L. A. and ends in a thoroughly original and unexpected way in a small town in Arkansas. Thornton, Williams, and Beach play three drug dealers who rob and murder the guests at an L. A. party before heading east, to hide out in Star City, Arkansas. Unfortunately they’ve left behind incontrovertible proof not only of their guilt, but also their getaway plans. The L.A.P.D. sends two detectives to Star City to coordinate an ambush of the three killers with Star City Sheriff Paxton.

One False Move was Thornton’s second film role (he also co-wrote the film’s screenplay) and the first movie role for Paxton. The film has the same sort of gritty-edgy amoral story, well-developed characters, and casually violent originality that made Blood Simple and A Simple Plan so fascinating.

Here are a few additional Action/Suspense/Thriller/Crime flicks that you may find entertaining.

Blow Up (1967), Performance (1970), The Getaway (1972), The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), Marathon Man (1976), The Late Show (1977), Body Heat (1981), Body Double (1984), No Mercy (1986), Slam Dance (1987), Someone to watch over me (1987), Suspect (1987), Gleaming the cube (1989)

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