“It was a simple plan…” Exciting crime thrillers from our DVD collection.

Here are some old reviews (from 2006!) of classic crime movies from our DVD collection. that we dug up from our old webpages. We still have these titles on DVD because they are not currently available on streaming platforms. And because they’re still awesome!

To live and die in L.A.
Fans of CSI’s William L. Peterson (Grissom) may well be surprised by this 1985 movie, based on the novel, by former Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich. Peterson plays Richard Chance an arrogant & cocky Secret Service agent on the trail of a ruthless counterfeiter (one of Willem Dafoe’s best roles). When Peterson’s mentor, a fellow agent about to retire, is killed by Dafoe, he becomes obsessed with bringing down the clever counterfeiter- and will do anything to do it. Directed by William Friedkin (French Connection) this cynical, yet thoroughly entertaining movie blurs the line between the law enforcement officers & the criminals, as Peterson’s character is prepared to do anything from manipulating his informant (Debra Feuer), corrupting his new rookie partner (John Pankow), stealing, & even murder to get the job done. Features one of the greatest car chases ever filmed – going the wrong way up a freeway in rush hour traffic – and a bleakly cynical ending.

Wild things
Can lurid trash ever be raised to an art form? If so this movie probably comes closer than anything else. Matt Dillon is a high-school guidance-counsellor Sam Lombardo in humid Blue Bay, South Florida. When two students turn up to wash his car for a charity drive things take the first of many turns when one of them, (Denise Richards) accuses him of rape. Soon he’s shunned by the town, fired from his job, sent pacing by his rich fiancé, & harassed by Kevin Bacon – the cop investigating the rape. Soon another girl (Neve Campbell) a white trash swamp dweller comes forward to say he raped her as well. Desperate he hires a shyster lawyer (a scene stealing Bill Murray) and the case heads to trial – where the twists start to begin. What follows is so convoluted that it’s not even worth going into, suffice to say that it involves a series of twists that you really won’t see coming. A weird cross between a soap-opera, a 50’s B-movie Film, it’s filled with amazing over the top performances, catfights and cameos. Somewhat infamous for the ‘three-way’ scene hallway through the movie, it’s actually so entertaining that even without it, it would be a classic. Don’t miss the end credits – which include scenes that cleverly explain all that has gone before. A very guilty pleasure.

Manhunter
Another one for CSI fans, this 1986 Michael Mann movie was the first Thomas Harris ‘Hannibal Lecter’ movie filmed. CSI’s William L. Peterson gives a brooding performance as Will Graham (the name of his CSI character, Gil Grissom, is a nod to this film) an FBI Agent who is coaxed out of semi-retirement to catch an elusive serial killer. Graham’s reluctant first move is to seek the advice of Hannibal Lecter, a notorious serial killer that he helped catch, & the initial scene between them reveals the psychological torment that caused him to quit the FBI. Lecter is played by Brian Cox, and his performance has a subtly and menace that was overshadowed by Anthony Hopkins more showy performance 4 years later – and dovetails more with the book’s (the movie is based on Harris’ novel Red Dragon) depiction of Lecter’s character. The movie then follows Graham as he joins forces with his old boss & the FBI’s methodical investigation to catch the ‘Tooth Fairy Killer’ before he strikes again. The movie also focuses on the killer himself, played with an outsider’s edge by Tom Noonan. Mann was fresh off the success of TV show ‘Miami Vice’ when he made this, and its distinctly ‘80’s’ feel in some parts may not suit all tastes as, always a fan of the pounding rock score, Mann incorporates Iron Butterfly’s ‘In a gadda di vida’ during the movie’s final climatic scene’s. Arguably as good, if not better than Silence of the Lambs, this was remade in 2002 with Edward Norton as Will Graham, Hopkins as Lecter, & Ralph Fiennes as the Tooth Fairy killer; and while the remake was more faithful to Harris’ novel, Peterson’s edgy performance gives this version the edge.

Kiss, kiss, bang, bang
Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is a small time petty thief who literally stumbles into a Hollywood audition for a big budget Private Eye movie. Digging his ‘authenticity’, the producers fly him out to L.A for a screen test and foist him on consultant Perry Van Shrike (Val Kilmer) – a gay private eye who goes by the nickname ‘Gay Perry’. At a party in L.A he meets high school crush Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), and together they drag Kilmer into a convoluted mystery involving Perry’s latest case, a murdered girl, a rich ex-B Movie actor, & Harmony’s little sister- all the while inspired by their childhood hero Johnny Gossamer, a 50s paperback Private Eye. Written & directed by Shane Black who was one of the highest paid (& youngest) screenwriters in the late 80s & early 90s with films such as ‘Lethal Weapon’ & ‘The Last Boy Scout’. Burning out, after the commercial failure of ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’, Black spent most of the next 10 years as a semi-recluse before making this critically acclaimed comeback. Black delights in turning the tables on all the Hollywood ‘buddy-movie’ conventions that he helped create, sending up Hollywood while paying homage to the pulp fiction novels he was inspired by growing up. A great movie where it’s all in the details: the way Kilmer’s cell phone’s ring tone is ‘I will survive’, the ‘meta-narration’ where Harry rewinds the movie to explain bits he left out, the rat-a-tat dialogue. Stylish credits and chapter titles, outrageous scenes, and great chemistry between Kilmer & Downey make this one of the most original movies to come along in a long time. Great for DVD watching as you can rewind and catch all the bitchy, dead pan dialogue between the leads.

Heat
Written & directed by Michael Mann this is arguably his finest work, an engrossing character study truly epic in its construction, wrapped up in a seemingly simple ‘cops’ vs. ‘robbers’ guise. Also this was the first time legends Robert De Niro & Al Pacino appeared on screen together (they play Father & son in The Godfather, Part 2). Based on Mann’s 1989 TV movie L.A Takedown (which he envisioned as a the prospective pilot for a series and which is regarded as well filmed & written but poorly acted) De Niro is Neil McCauley, a master thief with a loyal and expert crew (including Val Kilmer & Tom Sizemore). The latest job he is planning catches the attention of obsessive cop Vincent Hanna (Pacino) & the famous scene halfway through the movie, sees the two characters meet at a coffee house and size each other up. An intricate story, ‘Heat’ has many sub-plots involving the personal lives of the main characters and clocks in at nearly 3 hours, but it’s such a tour de force of storytelling that it never really drags. Essentially ‘Heat’ is a story about the people who commit crimes and those who investigate them, rather than the crimes themselves (though a spectacular bank heist/siege/gunfight sequence centres the movie). It’s about the duality of the two main characters. De Niro is the professionals professional, a man whose visceral love of planning and executing crimes distances him from experiencing anything else – until he meets a woman in a bookstore (Amy Brenneman). Pacino has an even worse personal life, onto his third failing marriage, his obsessive devotion to his job distancing him from his wife (Dianne Venora) & troubled step-daughter (Natalie Portman) until it all implodes. In the scene where the two characters meet, each see a reflection of himself in the other, & the price they pay for living the way they do, and the rest of the movie plays out as a prelude to the climatic end.

The sting
Winner of 7 Academy Awards (including best Director, Picture & Screenplay) this 1973 film reunited Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid stars, Robert Redford & Paul Newman. Set in late 1930s Chicago, Redford plays Johnny Hooker a young con artist, or ‘grifter’. When he and his partner/mentor ‘grift’ someone who works for vicious local mobster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), Lonnegan’s reaction is to have his partner killed. Eager for revenge, & with the corrupt Police in Lonnegan’s pocket, Redford teams up with aging con-man Harry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to pull the ultimate ‘sting’ on Lonnegan. Heavily stylised (the film is divided into chapter headings like ‘The Hook’ & ‘The Line’) with great cinematography & rich period detail & dialogue. The film’s tone is never ‘dark’ like Film Noirs, which may be expected given the plot, but rather light & amusing with a series of ingenious scenes, and you’re never quite sure what is ‘real’ & what is part of the ‘con’, until the very end. Clever and entertaining, it’s the kind of old-fashioned movie making that is attempted today (Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven remake) but never equalled. Watch out for the classic scene where Newman pretends to be drunk while playing poker with Shaw. Features a litany of great supporting roles & an engaging score that led to resurgence of interest in the rag-time music of Scott Joplin.

The French connection
One of the greatest crime movies of the 70s (which means it’s one of the best ever) also won a handful of Oscar’s (Best Picture, Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor for Gene Hackman). Based on real events ‘The French Connection’ is about two New York Police Detectives played by Hackman & Roy Scheider, & their investigation into the heroin pipeline flooding New York from the French port of Marseilles which, at the time, resulted in the biggest drug seizure in Police history. Hackman is ‘Popeye’ Doyle, an unapologetic, arrogant, rule breaking cop who sees the job, and the fight against drug-pushers, as nothing short of a war – and one in which he’ll put innocent lives in danger to win. Hackman & Scheider play a cat & mouse game as they struggle to bring down French drug kingpin Alain Charnier, the titular ‘French Connection’. Everything in the film looks dirty – the streets, the people, the leads, the city itself – giving the movie a grainy edgy feel. Directed by William Friedkin, with a screenplay by Ernest Tidyman (creator of the ‘Shaft’ novels/movies) the movie is fast paced and suspenseful, and there a few out and out ‘action’ scenes in it, including the famous car chase, where Hackman pursues a train under the elevated subway tracks – which still ranks as the best car chase ever filmed. And the gritty inconclusive ending, filmed in a decrepit building still jolts.

Fargo
This classic Cohen Brothers farce succeeds on all levels, as a bumbling kidnap heist/caper & a salute to the good old fashioned middle-American work ethos. Due to some ‘creative’ book-keeping fumbling car salesman Jerry (a brilliant William H. Macey) has the bank breathing down his neck and needs a quick cash infusion – so he sets up a scheme to have his wife kidnapped & his wealthy father-in-law tapped for the ransom. The two crooks, a snide Steve Buscemi & the man of few words – but much violence – Peter Stormare (recently seen as Abruzzi in Prison Break). Things, of course, don’t go as planned as the behaviour of the incompetent criminals gets out of control & the helpless Jerry is left to squirm as ‘Margie’ Gunderson, the seven months pregnant Sheriff of Brainerd, Minnesota (Frances McDormand in an Oscar winning performance) makes an appearance. Slow and steady she seems (especially to Jerry) a minor impediment to his plan, a small town officer in over her head. However her homespun aphorisms, extremely broad Minnesota vowels ‘Yah’, & gentle recriminations ‘I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou’, hide an astute mind & dogged determination to unravel the case. Worth watching just for the local-yokel accents delivering deadpan lines like ‘And I guess that was your accomplice in the woodchipper’, ‘You’re darn tottin!’, & ‘So, uh, you married old Norm son-of-a-Gunderson?’, and also if you like watching people do bad things with woodchippers.

Se7en
Viewed by some as just another horror flick, or a high end Serial Killer movie, ‘Seven’ is one of the few movies of its subject nature that can be interpreted on several levels (it garners comparison to The Silence of the Lambs quite often, but that is essentially a film that exists on one level only – a series of plot driven reactions & interactions). Directed by David Fincher ‘Seven’ is firstly unique because of its print process as Fincher’s approved theatrical release print used the process of ‘silver nitrate retention’ – a method of film development in which the silver of the film is retained rather than discarded, giving the bright moments of the film a edgy luminescence. This 2002 2-disc DVD edition is a new visual version, reframed & re-coloured. Whatever the case the film’s backgrounds are so grainy and dark that it has to be watched without any ambient light present to reveal the film’s real textures. Set in an unnamed decaying urban city where it seems to be always raining & dark, ‘Seven’ follows an aging, weary (& about to retire) Police Detective ‘Somerset’ (Morgan Freeman) & his new partner ‘Mills’ (Brad Pitt) as they become involved in the hunt for a sadistic serial-killer ‘John Doe’ (an un-credited Kevin Spacey) who has set out to teach society a moral lesson, by re-enacting the Seven Deadly Sins in a series of gruesome murders. Somerset recognises this after the second killing & wants little to do with the investigation and with his impulsive cocky new partner, but gets drawn in despite his reservations. What follows isn’t really a ‘police procedural’ type investigation as they never come anywhere close to catching the killer (until he turns himself in to enact his final ‘lesson’) but rather a prolonged philosophical debate between the two men, opposites in manner and thought, & later between Somerset & the killer ‘John Doe’, characters deliberately written to be similar in their viewpoints. Full of gorily posed deaths ‘Seven’ isn’t about solving/changing any thing, but recognising the world & surviving it with your ‘self’ intact. ‘What are we doing if we’re not investigating’ asks Pitts character at one point, to which Freeman’s character replies ‘Picking up the pieces’, & this is the dichotomy that drives the movie towards its grim conclusion.

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