The Thrill of it all: Top 20 Greatest Crime Thriller Movies Of All Time.

Kendall Rivers
11 min readJan 29, 2022

Nothing quite puts a jolt into your body or stimulates the mind quite like a good crime thriller. The best of the genre dissects the very nature of crime in such a puzzling, finely crafted and complex way that really gets us caught up in the story as much as the heroes are caught up in the solving of the crimes. Powerful acting, incredible writing as well as memorable crimes and bad guys that are metaphorical Rubix Cubes are the essential tools needed to make a perfect crime thriller. These are twenty of the greatest crime thriller films of all time. Now remember, these are all just my personal opinions. That being said, I’m sure at the very least some of these if not most of these are on your own personal list. Now…. Hereeeee we go!

20. Kiss The Girls. 1997.

The first Alex Cross movie starring the immortal Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd is a well made adaptation of the James Patterson novel. When a serial kidnapper and killer abducts a bunch of beautiful, smart and strong willed women it’s up to famous forensic psychologist and police detective Alex Cross to find and rescue the girls with the help of escaped abductee Dr. Kate McTiernan before the killer gets out of dodge.

19. Along Came A Spider. 2001.

Dr. Alex Cross is back and better than ever in the strong sequel to Kiss The Girls. In Along Came a Spider Dr. Cross is paired up with secret service agent Jezzie Flannigan to rescue a kidnapped Congressman’s daughter. This film was even more gripping than Kiss The Girls and had one of the greatest twists in cinema history.

18. Training Day. 2001.

This popular and beloved crime thriller earned Denzel his first Best Actor Oscar and deservedly so. His performance as crooked detective Alonzo Harris showed the fans a different side of Denzel. Jake Hoyt’s first day on the job as a new Narcotics officer unexpectedly takes a turn for the worst as Detective Alonzo Harris shows him the ugly and corrupt side of police work. “KING KONG AIN’T GOT SHIT ON ME!”

17. Heat. 1995.

This is the film where the iconic pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro finally happened. A gripping and deep story about two completely different men, a cop and a criminal, followed two different paths but are the same person underneath it all. Following Pacino and De Niro you had Val Kilmer, John Voight, Mikelti Williamson, Ted Levine, Ashley Judd and Dennis Haybert. The diner chat scene between De Niro and Pacino became one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history.

16. Metro. 1997.

Part action film, part romantic comedy, part buddy action comedy, part mystery and part cat and mouse crime thriller; Metro had all the elements that you wouldn’t think would jive together but somehow this all came together spectacularly. The chemistry between Murphy and his co stars was phenomenal, and the cat and mouse game between Scott Roper and the psycho jewel thief murderer Michael Korda is nothing short of compelling. One of the greatest films Eddie Murphy has ever done in my own opinion. Also Scott Roper is one of his all time greatest roles.

15. The Fugitive. 1993.

A movie adaptation of the classic 1960’s hit tv drama of the same name starring David Janssen and Barry Morse. A very good adaptation at that, though not quite better than the series, it nailed the core of Dr. Richard Kimble’s horrible situation and Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones were at their very best. A gripping chase film that helped mature the action thriller genre going forward.

14. The Taking of Pelham 123. 2009.

If there was ever proof that a remake can actually be as good as its predecessor the 2009 Denzel Washington and John Travolta version of The Taking of Pelham 123 is a fine example. Every man Subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel) finds his mundane, ordinary life thrown into catastrophe when psychotic and methodical Ryder (Travolta) and three of his gang of thugs take hostages aboard a subway car. Denzel Washington and John Travolta had amazing chemistry in this film and the late great Tony Scott might have done his finest job directing. One of the best Tony Scott\Denzel Washington pairing films along with Man On Fire, Deja Vu and Unstoppable.

13. Dirty Harry. 1971.

“You have to ask yourself… Do I feel lucky?” An iconic phrase to go with an iconic movie. Inspector Harry Callahan’s unorthodox tactics are just what the doctor ordered when deranged serial killer known as Scorpio is tearing the city of San Francisco apart. It’s a game of chess between the bad and the badder and only one can come out on top. Clint Eastwood was well known for westerns but this film is what launched him to super stardom and made him a household name. The classic cop film that influenced future cop films as well as crime\action films after it.

12.The Bone Collector. 1999.

Lincoln “Linc” Rhyme was the world’s sharpest forensics cop until an accident rendered him confined to his bed. When a psychopathic and methodical serial killer comes onto the scene it’s up to Linc and patrol cop Amelia Donaghy to stop him. This often overlooked but really well done adaptation of the John Grisham novel grips you with its dark, complex mystery and impresses you with the fact that they were able to have Denzel Washington in a bed for two hours and keep you entertained. I say it’s the power of Denzel’s immeasurable skills as an actor; As well as a great cast including Angelina Jolie, Michael Rooker, Ed O’Neill and Queen Latifah. The movie’s strongest point besides the mystery and performances is the believable chemistry between Denzel and Angelina as their characters develop a interesting teacher\student bond.

11. Memento. 2000.

One of the most original ideas for a film. Before the Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece was and still is Memento. The story of a man with short term memory (who also can’t retain new memories) trying to figure out who killed his wife. The genius and originality of the film is that it is told backwards starting with the ending and ending at the beginning.

10. In The Heat of The Night. 1967.

They called him Mr. Tibbs. One of Sidney Poitier’s most recognizable and memorable films and roles. The late Sidney Poitier and the late Rod Steiger along with director Norman Jewison created a classic police crime thriller that would both challenge the racial tension of the times as well as enlighten audiences with showing two entirely different men come together and develop a respect and understanding of each other. The mystery is very solid and the tension of a black police detective stuck in a town full of bigotry and animosity for his very presence gives the film as much tension and suspense as much as the murder mystery does.

9. In The Line Of Fire. 1993.

Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan has been haunted for years by his screw up during the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in 1963. But when psychopath Mitch Leary plans to assassinate the current president during the re-election campaign Frank finds himself in a deadly cat and mouse game that he simply cannot lose this time. Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich and Renee Russo star in this amazing action\crime thriller. Also one of Eastwood’s rare films that he didn’t direct.

8. Collateral. 2004.

Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise are an incredible team in 2004’s Collateral directed by Michael Mann of Heat fame. A classic story about professional Hitman Vince co-opting a regular, average Joe Cab driver Max into driving him around as he conducts business. The movie is a true suspenseful treat as we fear for Max’s life and try to figure out how he’s going to get out of this situation. The performances of Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise were top notch and their onscreen dynamic was something special to watch.

7. Inside Man. 2006.

In Spike Lee and Denzel’s fourth and final collaboration together, we all got a heck of a thrill ride with this classic hostage film. Detective Kevin Frazier and his partner play a game of a cat and mouse with a notorious bank robber whose master heist has everyone fooled. The all star cast includes Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Plummer. A brilliantly executed plot and strong, interesting characters with a perfect cat\mouse game between Frazier and Dalton Russell makes this a thriller for the ages.

6. Se7en. 1995.

Everyone remembers “What’s In The Box!?” But as a whole this film is something to behold. Completely dark, methodical and gritty, it definitely strays from the typical cop movie formula. Detectives William Somerset and David Mills are two Homicide cops with completely different worldviews of good and evil and those views are challenged when John Doe, a brilliant and sadistic serial killer chooses victims using the seven deadly sins. Captivating performances from Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. McGinley, R. Lee Ermey, Richard Roundtree and Kevin Spacey elevate this film beyond the typical cop\crime thriller.

5. Law Abiding Citizen. 2009.

Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler have never been better than as ADA Nick Rice and widower\murderer Clyde Shelton in a legal crime\action thriller that captivates you with its powerful moral\legal message as much as it does with it’s incredibly suspenseful action sequences. In a story about a man who sought justice but didn’t get it after his family had been killed, Clyde Shelton seeks revenge against the legal system and all involved in the case, including Nick Rice who made a deal with the murderers for a shoo in win in court. This film challenges and informs viewers of both the flaws and the legalities of the justice system The all star cast includes Bruce McGill, Viola Davis, Colm Meaney and Regina Hall.

4. Out Of Time. 2003.

This was Denzel’s second collaboration with director\writer Carl Franklin and it’s one of the most slept on great thriller movies. Out of Time was a joy to watch in all its suspense, humor and mystery. Police Chief Matthias Whitlock has to wiggle his way out of being arrested for murder after a huge set up. If that’s not enough hi ex wife, a homicide detective is put on the case. Watching Chief Whitlock slyly cover himself during the investigation is just incredibly fun to watch. Great twists and pay offs as well as the strong chemistry with Denzel and Eva Longoria as well as the off the wall comedic chemistry between Denzel and John Billingsley as loyal buddy and quirky medical examiner Jay makes Out of Time a underrated classic.

3. The Negotiator. 1998.

Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey were simply at their very best in this overlooked but goldmine of a film. Hostage Negotiator Danny Roman is set up for the murder of his partner and stealing money from the Police fund. He has no choice but to take things into his own hands to clear his name and holds the IA agent he thinks is involved as well as a few bystanders as hostages in his office. Chris Sabien, another negotiator may be the only person who can help Danny clear his name. The film is exciting, intense and compelling all the way through and the cast from Jackson and Spacey to David Morse, Paul Giamatti and the rest of the supporting cast are one of the all time great ensembles in cinema history in my humble opinion. Everyone’s just perfect here and the direction by F Gary Gray is exquisite. It’s one wild ride ’til the finish line and I promise you won’t want to get off.

2. Devil In A Blue Dress. 1995.

Devil is a truly great classic Noir mystery thriller that is personally one of Denzel Washington’s greatest films and roles as Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. The performances of Jennifer Beals, Tom Sizemore and especially the breakout performance of Don Cheadle elevates the film to legendary status. A strong, tight mystery with characters you get invested in. The script and direction by Carl Franklin was done with such care as Franklin digs into the warmth of the black neighborhood community of the 1940’s. Easy Rawlins as played by Denzel is one of the all time great movie heroes and deserves more recognition as such.

  1. The Dark Knight. 2008.

You might be thinking: “A comic book\superhero movie is your number 1 choice for greatest crime thriller?” Ah, but you see, The Dark Knight has never been just simply a comic book\superhero movie. While it does have a caped hero and a colorful array of villains the film is a pure gritty, dark and mean streets crime drama with a far more grounded and raw story and acting performances than any comic book film since. The rich depth of the storytelling and characterizations by Christopher Nolan elevates beyond the comic book shoebox it was in. This was at the end of the day not a story about a man in a bat suit or superhero vs. supervillain, it was all about the chaos one man, one monster can bring down on a city until they turn on each other. The Joker set out to make a point that anybody can be corrupted and in that sense he won with the fate of the white knight Harvey Dent. The city of Gotham may just have been more the main character of the film than Batman or Joker. You also gotta love the incredibly nail biting moments where the music ratches up more and more in this excruciating high pitch whenever something big’s about to go down. I’m always at the edge of my seat whenever I watch this movie and I always appreciate how much it dissects crime and human nature. So yes, The Dark Knight is definitely the ultimate crime thriller film and if you got a problem with that a certain psycho clown might have something to say about it.

The cast is legendary with iconic performances by Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and the late great Heath Ledger who won a post humus academy award for his truly legendary performance.

’Til next time, folks.

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Kendall Rivers

Kendall is a screenwriter who’s a huge fan of classic tv and movies. He enjoys creating good stories and characters. https://www.facebook.com/kendall.rivers.3