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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.