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America was a volatile place in the 80’s, marred by corruption and crime. The “War on Drugs” saw a largely futile attempt by law enforcement to stomp out narcotics dealers, drawing complaints of abusive and deceptive tactics in the process.
This left the crack cocaine epidemic in free fall, influencing organized crime and rampant street gang warfare, leaving a trail of bodies and broken lives in the process.
White-collar crime was prevalent as well, be it illegal insider trading on Wall Street, The Keating five scandal that rocked Washington, or the Iran-Contra affair – an illegal arm sales scandal that forced president Ronald Regan to testify before congress.
As Gordon Gekko claimed in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film ‘Wall Street’: “greed is good”. But many didn’t understand that he was the villain…not the hero.
Click here for my itcher list of Good Crime Movies (1980-1985)
Stone’s film was a notable example of how cinema reflects society. Let’s look at some other excellent crime movies from 1985-1990 that illuminated America’s underbelly.
When a man pulls shit on me he is either very brave or very stoned. Which one are you?
Frankeheimer’s (‘The Manchurian Candidate’) lurid adaption of Elmore Leonard’s classic novel stars Roy Scheider as Harry Mitchell, a wealthy industrialist targeted by blackmailers.
If he doesn’t pay up, they’ll leak his affair to the public, which will jeopardize his wife’s (Anne Margaret) budding political career.
This raises the stakes to violent levels, with Harry going to dark depths to protect his interests.
‘52 Pickup’ is one of Frankenheimer’s lesser-known films, but with a star turn by Scheider and John Clover excelling as sleazy blackmailer, it’s well worth a look.
Mr. McKussic, it seems, has been engaged in his business for purely romantic reasons, whilst you have been engaged in romance for purely business reasons…
Mac (Mel Gibson) and Nick (Kurt Russell) are good friends with striking dualities: Mac is a drug dealer trying to go clean, while Nick is a detective using questionable tactics to do his job.
Their complicated relationship becomes even more strained when Nick falls for Jo-Anne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who happens to be Mac’s girlfriend. This entanglement leads not only to betrayal, but dire consequences, when the three are drawn into a war with a ruthless DEA agent (J.T. Walsh) and a Mexican drug lord (Raul Julia.)
‘Tequila Sunrise’ is full of masterful plot twists and exceptional dialogue, courtesy of writer/director Robert Townsend (‘Chinatown’). This leaves its mixed critical reception a mystery, but a must-see for fans of 80’s neonoir.
A laundry service. Could be five million dollars worth…
John Sedley (Mickey Rourke) is a small-time crook with a disfigured face. After being double-crossed by a pair of criminal cohorts (played by Ellen Barkin and Lance Henrikensen), he’s sent to prison, but vows revenge upon his release.
Thanks to a surgeon looking for a guinea pig, Sedley emerges from prison with a new face, giving him an element of surprise in retribution. But nothing comes easy in this tale of violence that holds repercussions for all involved.
‘Handsome’ is a lean, mean thriller that also feels eerily prescient, given Rourke’s extensive cosmetic surgery after his boxing career tarnished his marquee good looks.
You’re so fucking easy, Raymond. Like a big baby with buttons all over. I push the buttons…
While LAPD officer Richard Peck (Richard Gere) is beloved by his peers, an air of corruption surrounds his every move. This leads Internal Affairs agent Raymond Avila (Andy Garcia) to investigate charges of abuse.
But he soon learns Peck plays for keeps: witnesses to his evil deeds keep disappearing and Avila fears that his and his wife’s lives are in peril, leading to a violent conclusion.
A brutally intense and visually stylish thriller, ‘Internal Affairs’ is one of the best corrupt cop dramas since ‘Serpico,’ feeling prophetic in light of the Rodney King beating and Rampart scandals that would tarnish the LAPD in the decade to come.
She needs me, Doc. You know what that means, to have someone really need you for the first time in your life?
This uncompromising adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1955 pulp novel stars Jason Patric as drifter “Kid” Collins, a mentally unstable ex-boxer. He soon falls for Faye (Rachel Ward), an alcoholic widow who gets him a job doing maintenance at her estate.
But Collins is unaware that he’s a pawn in a much bigger game, drafted by Faye and her Uncle Bud (Bruce Dern), who use him as muscle in a kidnapping scheme. But Collins proves a wild card: not as dumb as he looks, but prone to unpredictable violence, which sends their scheme off the rails, leading to a dark and tragic finale.
‘After Dark My Sweet’ didn’t find an audience upon its initial release, most likely due to its dark tone and bleak ending. But it’s pure nirvana for fans of uncompromising crime fiction.
While the 80’s were ending, violent crime (and our fascination with it) would continue into the 90’s, reaching its peak in 1991 before reducing gradually in ensuing years.
And thanks to cinema, the dangerous 80’s remain etched in our memory, leaving a slate of crime films so vibrant that it’s inspired present day “neon-noir” films like ‘Drive’, ‘Nightcrawler’ and ‘The Place Beyond the Pines.’
So, that concludes my list of good crime movies from 1985-1990. Be sure sound off on some of your favorites in the comments! And keep a look out for my next installment, where I’ll explore the best crime films from 1990-1995.
In the meantime, be sure to check out my lists of movies like ‘Strangers on a Train’, movies like ‘Nightcrawler’, and TV shows like ‘Forensic Files’ for more similar recommendations.
I’ve also included a list of notable crime movie honorable mentions below.
Honorable Mentions: ‘Drugstore Cowboy’, ‘The Untouchables’, ‘Wall Street’, ‘8 Million Ways to Die’, ‘Criminal Law’, ‘Prizzi’s Honor’, ‘At Close Range,’ ‘Manhunter’, ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘No Way Out’, ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Blue Steel’, ‘Year of the Dragon’, ‘Crimewave.’