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Five underrated crime films to watch in isolation

Five underrated crime films to watch in isolation

Five underrated crime films to watch in isolation
April 10
15:00 2020

“You were a cop?”

“Yeah . . .”

“So why’d you quit?”

“I didn’t like the hours, Mr. Kristo.”

“Nah, the corruption got to you, huh?”

“Not really. It would have been hard to support my family without it.”

-A Walk Among the Tombstones

So, everyone is stuck at home. Everything new is confined to streaming and VOD, meaning now more than ever is the best time for the most literate film fans and enthusiastic casual moviegoers to catch up on the classics. While some may finally take the time to watch “The Godfather,” “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Casablanca,” I feel now is an absolutely opportune time to watch some movies I feel still don’t get enough recognition.

So, why crime? There are few things I find more engrossing than journeys through society’s underbellies — from the lively slums of Oakland to the rural areas of North Carolina to the grim streets of New York. From ex-cons to ex-cops, these five films follow people from all walks of life resorting to their own personal sets of skills to subvert societal restraints on their class and identities to get what they want. This is not a top five list, these are simply some movies deserving of a second glance.

1. “Blindspotting

“Blindspotting” is directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada and written by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. It focuses on ex-convict Collin Hoskins (Diggs) who’s trying to get through his final three days of probation before he runs into his troublemaking friend, Miles (Casal). Despite wanting to relive their glory days with him, Collin realizes he needs to re-evaluate his life and his relationship with his best friend. This is more of a dramedy, balancing comedy and commentary on police brutality and gentrification. Comedic, slice-of-life storytelling combines to tell an emotionally involving story that is ultimately just as much about the city of Oakland as it is about these two characters. This is probably the most acclaimed and well-known film on this list. Not much more to add, so go watch it.

2. “Logan Lucky

This film is directed and (likely) written by Steven Soderberg of “Ocean’s Eleven” fame. This follows the titular Logan family, Jimmy (Channing Tatum), disabled war vet Clyde (Adam Driver) and Melie (Riley Keough), who are down on their luck with seemingly no way out of their generational poverty. With the assistance of two techie hillbillies and the incredibly flamboyant explosives expert Joe Boom (Daniel Craig), they plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600 race.

This is very much the most light-hearted movie on the list, a tight little heist film running on deadpan humor and sight gags. While Channing Tatum and Adam Driver are excellent, the show stealer is Daniel Craig as the incredibly entertaining Joe Boom, with a Southern accent somehow even more outrageous than the one he had in “Knives Out.” The film has some stiff tension, endearing characters and the best heist sequence in years. This is among the best heist movies in recent years and its a shame it was overlooked. I would go so far as to say it outdoes even the “Ocean” sequels and two “Ant-Man” films.

3. “A Walk Among the Tombstones”

Believe it or not, this isn’t another “Taken” wannabe starring Liam Neeson, but a grim neo-noir set in late 1999 New York. Based on Lawrence Block’s 1990 book of the same name, Neeson plays unlicensed P.I. Matt Scudder, a recovering alcoholic and former detective who is hired by a drug dealer to investigate a pair of serial killers who murdered his wife. This was written and directed by Scott Frank who went on to co-write James Mangold’s beloved “Logan.”

Rather than Scudder making like Bryan Mills and threatening every single scumbag he comes across, he has to use pragmatism and wits, making sure to question witnesses without giving too much away and relying on tech-savvy street kid TJ (Brian Bradley) to access intimidating contemporary technology. This is a private investigator movie through and through, with Scudder taking his time and mentally breaking down all the filth he has to wade through.

There’s also this constant undercurrent of both dark humor and bleakness to the story. Combining the dark subject matter with the backdrop of the fears over Y2K, the film’s universe feels almost pre-apocalyptic at times. The atmosphere is less “Maltese Falcon” and more William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” where even scenes of characters just walking or talking have this uncomfortable tension to them. Anyone could be watching them, and it doesn’t help that the killers in this are among the most believably creepy I’ve ever come across in fiction, one of them played by pre-“Stranger Things” David Harbour.

I’m also going to say that Liam Neeson also delivers one of his best recent roles as Scudder, largely understated performance as a man who’s seen the worst of humanity during his career and fights to maintain his sobriety in the face of the evil of the world. “Walk” may very be the most underrated film on this list, probably because it was marketed as yet another “Taken” knockoff. As a slice of old-school pulp, I must say there are very few better choices.

4. “Thief

The very first film from Michael Mann, who would go on to write and direct “Heat,” “Collateral” and “Manhunter” among many other classics. This character study follows Frank (James Caan), an experienced thief and safecracker who’s made a name for himself in the Chicagoan underworld. Finding love with a waitress, he plans to retire and take full control of his two legitimate businesses, only for his latest job to attract the attention of the Chicago mob.

This film established a lot of Mann’s stylistic trademarks very early on — insane attention to detail, an exploration of criminal life and experimenting with emotional lighting. The attention to detail pays off in that when Caan’s character is picking locks and breaking open vaults, the actor is using real tools and techniques he was taught by authentic thieves and police officers who served as consultants. No special effects here, these are real drills and explosives on screen.

The latter two come in through the story and acting. While the “trying to get out of the life” subplot has been done an innumerable amount of times, James Caan is very compelling as this cool yet standoffish operator whose hubris can send him into the deep end. The supporting cast is also great, with Jim Belushi doing a dramatic turn as Frank’s sidekick, Barry, and Robert Prosky as a terrifyingly spiteful and vile mobster.

All of this is backed up by beautiful, cold cinematography and a highly-charged electronic score by the band Tangerine Dream that just sends shivers down my spine whenever I hear it. This is easily one of the slower films on the list, but it is a journey worth witnessing and a fantastic near-masterpiece of 80s crime fiction.

5. “Blood Simple

To cap things off, we go back to the beginning for the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, as well as the very first film to star Frances McDormand. Like “Thief,” a lot of Coen-isms are established early — a streak of black comedy and fascination with hardboiled fiction continues beyond even “Fargo” or “The Big Lewbowski.”

McDormand plays Abby, a woman fleeing from her failing marriage to Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) and shacking up with bartender Ray (John Getz). While they hide, Julian hires sinister private investigator Visser (M. Emmet Walsh, who cameoed as the security expert in “Knives Out”). The film is essentially a meta-twist on the Dashiell Hammet novel “Red Harvest,” the title even being pulled from a line of dialogue in that book, with its intrepid investigator transformed into a slimy mercenary.

It’s not as slow as most would say, only being 99 minutes, with even the directors’ cut removing three whole minutes. The Coens really make the summer heat of Texas bleed through the screen, with a real sense of claustrophobic insanity in the minds of all the characters, each dripping with sweat from the stress they’re under. The Texas countryside and night both have this nightmarish quality to them, like everyone is trapped inside a bad dream. The biggest laugh involves no one knowing how many bullets a gun has, to devastating effect.

Like “Thief,” this is an awesome debut for both a pair of accomplished directors and a wonderful actress. While it may not have the sophistication of later Coen films, this is still worth watching, both as an examination of the Coens’ roots and as an enthralling little thriller.

It looks like all of us will be stuck inside our homes for the foreseeable future, so I hope this encourages some of y’all to check out some hidden gems and keep yourselves sane. Until then, stay safe and have a criminally good time.

Featured Illustration: Jae-Eun Suh

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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