The 10 Best Crime Fiction Movies of the 1980s

I love crime fiction movies above every other genre. Okay, Rocky is my favorite movie, and that’s a sports drama, but the sports movie genre falls short compared to crime fiction. The same goes for science fiction. I love the original Star Wars, but I’d rather watch any movie on the below list than A New Hope.

The problem with ranking my favorite crime fiction movies is that I enjoy so many. I decided to create lists by decade to get around an unwieldy situation. Since I especially love movies from the seventies onward, that means I’ll be able to share more than a few with you. And since I’m a huge fan of the eighties, we’re going to start there.

So, without further delay—

Wait—one thing. My list of crime fiction is going to have a caveat. It’s not going to include spy movies since I consider those a separate genre, and I might want to share a list with you sometime. Maybe that’s an arbitrary reason, but it’s my list, so that’s how we’re going to roll.

Okay. Now, without any further fuss—

Hold on. I should probably tell you why I picked these movies. Not only do I think they’re great, but I’ve seen them all multiple times over the years, and a rewatchable film is what matters. To move up the list, I put one move against another and asked, “Would I rather re-watch this than that?”

Now, we’re ready.  Let’s begin.

Some quick honorable mentions. I really wanted to include First Blood on this list. I put it on, then took it off, then put it back on. Ultimately, I decided to take it off. The movie is definitely a thriller so maybe it could be argued that it falls under the umbrella of crime fiction. If it was on this list, it would be number one without a doubt. I love the movie so much, but Rambo’s crime (if there was one) was vagrancy that quickly turned into police harassment. We know where it went from there. It just didn’t feel like crime fiction to me. With First Blood off the list, everything else feel into place.

Except that created a bit of problem when it came to my last movie.  I fought over three movies. You’ll read about the one I selected in just a minute, but I would like to give a quick shout out to the delightful legal mystery Legal Eagles (1986) which starred Robert Redford, Debra Winger, and Daryl Hannah. I also strongly considered the action thriller Shoot to Kill with Tom Berenger and Sidney Poitier. Both movies are great, and I’ve watched them several times over the years. With all things considered, though, I’d re-watch the following ten movies first.

And as a last-minute honorable mention (is there such a thing?), I wanted to put The Long Good Friday on here. But I only recently discovered it (and wrote a post about it). That’s a not a fair thing to include on a list due to the recency factor.


10. A Better Tomorrow (1985)

I didn’t see A Better Tomorrow until the early nineties, but when I finally discovered it, I watched it several times in a short span. This was the first movie I ever saw directed by John Woo, and it was also the first movie I ever saw with Chow Yun-Fat. It knocked my socks off. It’s about a gangster who tries to reconcile with his cop brother.


9. Gorky Park (1983)

Gorky Park was based on the book of the same name by Martin Cruz Smith. In the film, William Hurt plays a Moscow police officer investigating a triple homicide. Hurt was fantastic in the role. It also stars Lee Marvin and Brian Dennehy—both were wonderful in their performances.


8. Manhunter (1986)

Manhunter was based on Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Usually, I hate serial killer books and movies. Not because they’re scary, but because they’re played out. But this movie was terrific. Michael Mann directed it, and William Peterson of CSI fame starred in it. Peterson plays a former FBI profiler on the hunt for a serial killer.

It’s also the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter (played by Brian Cox in this movie). Just fantastic.


7. Beverly Hills Cop (1985)

Beverly Hills Cop was so fresh when it came out. Eddie Murphy played a wise-cracking Detroit police officer who goes to California to find his friend's killer. It has an amazing soundtrack, laughs, and a solid crime story. This is a movie that can be watched repeatedly without losing enjoyment.


6. Running Scared (1986)

In the vein of Beverly Hills Cop, Running Scared features two wise-cracking Chicago cops. Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines look to score one big bust before retiring to Key West.

I made a Top Five list of Buddy Cop movies, and this came in at number one, so how could it not make this list?


5. Die Hard (1988)

What can be said about Die Hard that hasn’t already been said? How about—I love it!

 Bruce Willis stars as a New York cop who battles a crew intent on robbing the Nakatomi Plaza of $640 million in untraceable bearer bonds. Alan Rickman was superb as the villain, Hans Gruber.

 This move defined a sub-genre of action flicks—trapped man versus an army. Here are some I came up with off the top of my head: Under Seige (man on a ship), Under Seige 2 (man on a train) Con Air (man on a plane), Cliffhanger (man on a mountain), Sudden Death (man in a hockey arena), and The Raid (man in a drug house). Oh, yeah, all the Die Hard sequels, too!

 The movie was based on Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever.


4. Fletch (1985)

Fletch starred Chevy Chase as a freewheeling reporter investigating how drugs are brought onto the local beach. His investigation takes a wild turn when a millionaire offers Fletch a large sum of money to murder him.

The movie is filled with laughs, a great soundtrack, and solid mystery courtesy of the original novel by Gregory McDonald.


I can’t imagine how many times I’ve watched this one!


3. Nighthawks (1981)

Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams play two New York cops on the hunt for a lethal terrorist who has shown up in the city. Rutger Hauer is menacing as the villain. Yes, the movie was made more than forty years ago, but it’s still taut and full of action.

 If you haven’t seen this flick, you’re missing out!


2. Code of Silence (1985)

A Chuck Norris movie is my second favorite crime movie of the ’80s? Hold on, hear me out.

Code of Silence is a huge surprise. First, Chuck Norris is simply fantastic in it. Does he do karate in the movie? Some but only a little. Unlike many martial arts-oriented films, the story is the most important thing here.

Even Siskel and Ebert (remember them?) gave this movie two thumbs up. I remember being a kid and watching that episode when they did that—it shocked me.

Norris plays a Chicago cop who gets ostracized by his department because he wants to take down a dirty officer. He’s also trying to protect a young woman while a gang war breaks out.


1. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

To Live in Die in L.A. starred William Petersen and John Pankow as Secret Service agents looking to bring down a counterfeiter played by Willem Dafoe. The movie is intelligent, stylish, and full of action.

It’s loosely based on the book of the same name by Gerald Petievich.

This is one of the view times where I may like a movie better than the book. I do like the book, but it’s completely different. I found the movie's ending more satisfying, especially since it wasn’t a typical Hollywood feel-good wrap-up.


That’s it for my top 10 Crime Fiction movies of the 1980s.
What did you think?
Are there any you agree with?
How about any films you vehemently disagree with?
Let me know in the comments below, or feel free to send me an email!
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