Hidden Gems: 15 Gritty and Overlooked Crime Movies from the 1990s

If you ask me, every crime movie should be grittier than a three-dollar sirloin. Some crime movies make you forget that the camera is there, transporting you into a criminal underworld that's seedier than an uncut watermelon.

I promise to lay off the corny similes if you keep reading about 15 gritty and underrated crime movies from the 1990s.

1. Carlito's Way (1993)

Carlito's Way Al Pacino
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

It's not as if Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way is a complete unknown, as it has endured among cinephiles and remained a recognizable callback in popular culture. But Carlito's Way is overshadowed by another De Palma-Pacino project, Scarface. Yet, scene for scene, Carlito's Way is arguably the better film.

2. A Simple Plan (1998)

A Simple Plan Gary Cole
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan has some serious Fargo vibes, especially with the just-quirky-enough Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton taking the lead. They play two of three sad sacks who unexpectedly come across a fortune. Surely nothing will go wrong.

3. Payback (1999)

Payback Maria Bello
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Film technology improves slowly (and sometimes rapidly) but surely, and 1999's Payback takes advantage of the best cameras the decade had to offer. Mel Gibson stars in a revenge-fueled heist film with a double dose of darkness.

4. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Jason Statham, Nick Moran
Image Credit: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment.

Guy Ritchie does his own brand of gritty, with vivid visuals, slow-motion scenes, and plenty of working-class British cockney blokes muckin' up the joint. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels remains one of Ritchie's best and one of the best films of the 1990s of any genre.

5. King of New York (1990)

King of New York Christopher Walken, Janet Julian
Image Credit: Carolco Pictures.

You'll hear the occasional reference to “Frank White” in popular musical culture, but only those well-versed in 90s crime cinema get the reference. Those rappers refer to Christopher Walken's kingpin character in King of New York, a film you might accuse of being too gritty for its own good.

6. Cop Land (1997)

Cop Land Robert De Niro Sylvester Stallone
Image Credit: Miramax Films.

What happens when cop Sylvester Stallone discovers his town is a mob front? Sylvester Stallone takes matters into his own hands, as Sly.

7. Miller's Crossing (1990)

Miller's Crossing John Turturro
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

It's good that Miller's Crossing hit theaters in the 1990s because this list suffered from a glaring Coen Brothers deficiency. We're now officially CB-positive.

8. True Romance (1993)

True Romance Patricia Arquette, Christian Slater
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Tony Scott's True Romance rates accurately among critics and niche fans, with a 7.9 IMDb score ranking it among the best crime movies of all time. But when you talk about the grittiest crime films of the 1990s, how often do you hear True Romance?

9. Sleepers (1996)

Sleepers Brad Renfro, Jonathan Tucker, Geoffrey Wigdor
Image Credit: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment.

How many people have Sleepers on Robert DeNiro's list of greatest movies? What about Brad Pitt's? Or Dustin Hoffman's? Because all of these legends are in Sleepers, an underappreciated revenge film often lost in the '90s shuffle.

10. Fresh (1994)

Fresh Daisy Edgar-Jones
Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures and Disney+.

Fresh features Samuel L. Jackson as a speed-chess wiz (a truly fresh role for SLJ) whose expertise might help his son escape a life of crime. You'll also recognize actor Giancarlo Esposito, who played Gustavo Fring in Breaking Bad.

11. Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Bad Lieutenant Harvey Keitel, Frankie Thorn
Aries Films and LIVE Entertainment.

Harvey Keitel plays a corrupt New York City detective in Bad Lieutenant. Director Abel Ferrara, a Bronx native, convincingly brings his firsthand experience of New York City's mean streets to the screen.

12. New Jack City (1991)

New Jack City Judd Nelson, Ice-T, Mario Van Peebles, Russell Wong
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City is far from a perfect crime film, but it's definitely a fun one. A cast of Ice-T, Judd Nelson, Chris Rock, and Wesley Snipes seems almost cartoonish. OK, New Jack City is cartoonish, but its campiness is worth appreciating.

12. 8mm (1999)

Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

8mm is about a private investigator who is hired to figure out if a film reel is a legit “snuff” film or not. But as this case gets deeper and deeper, the more it pulls everyone in and away from the lives they knew. The movie stars Nicholas Cage and Joaquin Phoenix.

12. South Central (1992)

south central
Image Credit: Enchantment Films Inc.

After getting out of prison for gang-related crimes, Bobby (Glenn Plummer) is determined to not let his 10-year-old son repeat his mistakes, even though it seems he's already chosen to be in a gang. 

12. Juice (1992)

juice 1
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Starring Tupac Shakur, Juice is about four teens growing up in Harlem who get caught up in proving themselves. But when they decide to rob a grocery store, things don't turn out as they planned at all.

Source: Reddit

Sam Mire is a freelance writer who has manned a variety of beats over nearly a decade in the literary biz. He has spent weeks in the Alaskan wildlands, immersed himself in the world of Florida's homeless population, covered live sporting events, and served as a linchpin for media outlets in the legal, tech, and entertainment spaces. Sam has been published in Fast Company, Forbes, Entrepreneur, AP News, Fox News, and, most notably, Wealth of Geeks. In his free time, he enjoys boxing, woodwork, petting his dog, and reveling in good company.