Bleak and weirdly cool: 7 dark, hyper-stylized action-thrillers

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4) The Crow (1994)

The Crow — Courtesy of Dimension Films

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The 1990s are really when the hyper-stylized action-thriller took off, and with no apologies. How good is The Crow? Even Roger Ebert called it “a stunning work of visual style,” and he’s well-known for trash-talking plenty of movies that are equally as cool. Still, some movies just have that power to draw people in and keep them there. Partly famous for being Brandon Lee’s last movie, The Crow is also one of the best, most naturally flowing action films ever made. While the film’s tone is undeniably dark and gritty, very few viewers won’t identify with Eric Draven’s motives as he avenges the deaths of himself and his fiancé, Shelly (Sofia Shinas).

There’s also great chemistry between Lee and Rochelle Davis as Sarah, and between those two and Ernie Hudson’s Sgt. Albrecht. The villains are memorable, too. Michael Wincott is unique as a low-key, almost dignified creep, and Bai Ling’s character Myca is difficult to describe with human words. The two are almost passively evil, commanding thugs like the murderous Tin-Tin (Laurence Mason), T-Bird (David Patrick Kelly) and my favorite, Skank (Angel David).

Unlike Burton’s Batman, which was overly obsessed with Prince, The Crow has a kick-ass, varied and often hard rockin’ soundtrack (remember when raw, unpolished rock music was more of a thing?). Also, the film’s score is unique. Also, if you doubt The Crow‘s horror cred, keep in mind that it features Tony Todd, and hat Brandon Lee won a posthumous Fangoria Chainsaw Award for Best Actor.

5) Natural Born Killers (1994)

Natural Born Killers — Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Much like the unfairly maligned The Basketball Diaries, Natural Born Killers has often been blamed for copycat crimes, including school shootings and such. Part of the reason is how heavily Natural Born Killers props itself up on pop culture, while being full of sarcastic violence. Basically, it ironically tries to make murder look cool, and comes close to pulling it off. It’s also a stylistic masterpiece, and I feel bad for Quentin Tarantino for hating it (he wrote the original screenplay).

What makes it great? Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are unforgettable, crazy, sadistic and tragic characters — who are occasionally a little relatable (which is where the controversy comes in). This movie has so many different styles, often seeming like a psychedelic collage. While this alone could be considered overbearing, that’s sort of the point. It is a crime-action-suspense road movie with bleak humor and intense parody of how we turn killers into icons. It’s also a visually hypnotic film at times, playing like a demented cartoon about the savage heart of American decay.

Much like The Crow, Natural Born Killers also has a kick-ass soundtrack, featuring artists as varied as Leonard Cohen, Lard, Bob Dylan, Patsy Cline, Duane Eddy and Nine Inch Nails. Finally, I’d like to mention Rodney Dangerfield’s appearance as Mallory’s abusive and horrendous dad. Possibly the most unexpectedly dark performance by a comedian in any film, ever! There was no “Rappin’ Rodney” here.

6) Sin City (2005)

Sin City — Courtesy of Dimension Films and Frank Miller

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Written and directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez (with Quentin Tarantino directing parts as well). Some might call this the ultimate graphic novel movie, and one can understand why. In many ways, the ultra-violent, uniquely animated neo-noir style carries this film. Without it, nothing would be quite the same!  Nevertheless, the intense moral ambiguities would be harder to swallow in a more serious, less cartoon-like approach. This is a film that definitely challenges audiences expecting 100% safe, moral and conventional outcomes. The heroes can be put to death, there are constant themes of vengeance, a character gets castrated, and a rapist named Roark Junior (Nick Stahl) somehow changes into a yellow monster (called the “Yellow Bastard”).

While I could list all the stars, I’ll single three actors out for how they are depicted. Mickey Rourke is very memorable as Marv, who is brutal and hideous yet with a proverbial heart of gold. Elijah Wood’s character, Kevin, is freaky as hell as a silent, cannibalistic serial killer. Finally, this might sound creepy, but I was basically enchanted by Alexis Bledel’s character’s eyes in this film as well. They are almost like a character unto themselves in Sin City, and an oddly memorable aspect of this incredibly unique film.

7) Escape Room (2019)

(l to r) Jay Ellis, Taylor Russell, Nick Dodani, Deborah Ann Woll and Logan Miller star in Escape Room — Courtesy of Sony Pictures

At first I was hesitant to add the film to this list, but it actually fits. Adam Robitel’s Escape Room has lots of style, is a thriller, has action and horror elements, and at times almost even seems like a science fiction story. The rooms the “guests” must conquer are highly memorable, and the characters end up forced into making morally ambiguous decisions.

So, yeah, Escape Room fits the bill. It’s also just a very enjoyable film. I’d consider it a pleasant surprise for early 2019, and a reason to be optimistic about films not totally losing their edge. While some aspects of Escape Room are reminiscent of Saw, it has an odd way of standing on its own. My favorite room is the upside down one with the jukebox playing an incrementally warped version of “Downtown.” My favorite cast member? Taylor Russell. The story is highly implausible yet highly enjoyable.

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Seen any of these dark thrillers? Think some killer films were left off the list? Let the heroes and villains know what you think in the comment section below.