Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The best '90s thrillers according to NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour


The weekend is almost here. And if you are looking to spend some of it curled up on the couch with a great movie, well, you're in luck, especially if you're a fan of '90s thrillers. Pop Culture Happy Hour hosts Stephen Thompson and Linda Holmes have picked three of their favorites from what they say is the genre's heyday, complete with frantic car chases, wild twists and plenty of courtroom drama.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: So this whole entire genre, to me, is so rich that I felt like every one of these picks - to pick three - had to stand for more than just itself. So these are all here to represent a larger idea within the realm of '90s thrillers. The first one that I picked is "The Pelican Brief" from 1993. It is directed by Alan J. Pakula, and it is also an adaptation of a John Grisham book. And so this stands in for a few things. A - there were a bunch of John Grisham adaptations which make up a lot of the '90s - what I think of as the trenchcoat thriller - the kind of...


HOLMES: There's always, like, FBI guys and other mysterious guys walking around in trenchcoats - but also because Denzel Washington is, in many ways, the king of the '90s/aughts tense thriller. You know, he appeared in this. He appeared in "The Bone Collector." He appeared in - if you count "Devil In A Blue Dress," which is...


HOLMES: ...More of a mystery, maybe, than a thriller, but it still counts. He is kind of my ideal thriller dude of this era. So I picked "The Pelican Brief" for that reason. And also, Julia Roberts is one of the sort of - not - maybe not at quite the level that he is - but also somebody who showed up in a bunch of thrillers, especially the unforgettable "Sleeping With The Enemy," which is both a very tense and exciting movie and also an extraordinarily silly movie.

So "The Pelican Brief" is the story, if you're not familiar with it, of a young law student, played by Julia Roberts, who accidentally figures out via speculation who killed two Supreme Court justices. And, you know, it becomes clear that her life is in terrible danger because the people who did it realize that she's onto them. So there's a lot of kind of running around, and then she connects with this journalist, played by Denzel Washington. And then they kind of team up to go out and both uncover the conspiracy and get the guys that were responsible, but also to save her life and save his life.

There is all kinds of great stuff in this movie in terms of skulking around at different institutions, pretending to be somebody you're not in order to get information from a bank or a hospital. There are just all these great scenes of just trying to dig up information. It's very exciting in that way. So I love "The Pelican Brief." Also, Pakula, of course, is a distinguished director of '70s paranoid conspiracy thrillers, so he comes with this rich resume of things like "All The President's Men" and stuff like that. So you know that you're getting kind of one of the greats in the director. So this, "The Pelican Brief" from 1993, is my first pick for '90s thriller.

THOMPSON: An outstanding choice. Give us your next one.

HOLMES: All right. So my next choice is "The Fugitive."

THOMPSON: Woo (ph).

HOLMES: This is also from 1993, directed by Andrew Davis. This is here to represent the kind of prestige thriller because there are thrillers in this category that wound up being, like, more kind of recognized as terrific movies than some of the other ones. So "The Fugitive" was actually nominated for best picture. Tommy Lee Jones won for best supporting actor. This is the movie in which Harrison Ford - and this is based on an old TV series - but Harrison Ford plays this man who is wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife - RIP, Sela Ward. And he knows that the person who actually killed his wife is this one-armed man. So he manages to escape in a very wonderful sequence involving a bus and train, goes on the run, trying to find the one-armed man. And Tommy Lee Jones plays the U.S. Marshal who is sent to collect him. This is where you get Tommy Lee Jones giving this speech about I want you to - outhouse, penthouse, doghouse - whatever it is. Love that speech.


TOMMY LEE JONES: (As Samuel Gerard) What I want out of each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area.

HOLMES: Tommy Lee Jones actually went on to play this character again in "U.S. Marshals" 'cause it was such a, like, fun and interesting performance. But I love this movie because it is a - this really tense, terrific story that leads to this very ridiculous ending where, you know, Harrison Ford is walking into this fancy banquet and confronting somebody.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: I love this movie. If you've never sat down in front of "The Fugitive," it is a absolute delight. It is, again, kind of weird and of its time, but it has great performances. Love it. Harrison Ford didn't make enough thrillers like this for me, so "The Fugitive" - prestige thriller - that is my second pick.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And this movie is a perfect example of the kind of thing that can get swallowed up by references to it...


THOMPSON: ...Where you see so many echoes of this movie in other pop culture - so many parodies of it. Go back and rewatch it. It still holds up so, so, so well on its own. Great pick - give me the last one.

HOLMES: All right. So if you're going to indulge in '90s thrillers, you have to leave some room for the really silly ones - the really sort of - I'm sorry, what happened? - kind of thriller. As I mentioned earlier, "Sleeping With The Enemy" has some elements of that, but the one I picked to represent this idea is "Double Jeopardy." "Double Jeopardy" is a 1999 thriller starring Ashley Judd as a woman who is, again, wrongfully convicted of killing her husband. While she's in prison, she finds out that her husband is actually still alive and that she was framed. This is all sort of the setup, so I don't feel it's spoiling anything, really. Also, it's a 1999 movie. But anyway, so while she's in prison, her friend, played by the great character actress Roma Maffia, tells her - (laughter) it's a great legal theory - now that you've been convicted of killing your husband, if you ever get out and you find your husband, you could actually kill him in the middle of the street and they can't do anything to you because of double jeopardy.

THOMPSON: Airtight (laughter).

HOLMES: This is not a sound legal theory, I just want to say. I am not your lawyer. Do not rely on that advice.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: So she eventually goes kind of looking for her husband. And, again, the hilarious thing is her parole officer, who is trying to track her down since she's now broken her parole, is played by Tommy Lee Jones basically playing the same person that he played in "The Fugitive."

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: This is a movie that not only has an absolutely ridiculous central premise, but it also has a bunch of really weird and goofy sequences in it. And one of the sequences that I love the best - there's a chase. I'm just going to say there's a chase that involves somebody getting trapped in a coffin, as you do, and shooting your way out...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...Because, of course, that's the sound thing to do when you're inside a small, enclosed space. What you want to do is fire a gun right next to your head.


HOLMES: It's absolutely great. So "Double Jeopardy" - very goofy, but lots of fun, and kind of in the great tradition of very goofy '90s thrillers.

SUMMERS: That was Pop Culture Happy Hour's Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson.

(SOUNDBITE OF L.A.B. SONG, "TAKE IT AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)