Common crooks have the police to bring them in. But for the smart criminals, the ‘masterminds,’ or those planning crimes too despicable, destructive or deadly to abide, entire arms of law enforcement give chase before they get a chance to act – or in Zero Dark Thirty‘s case, act again.
Whether it’s the police, military or the FBI, manhunts are the stuff great films are made of. Not to mention how compelling a film can be if the story tells things from the hunted’s point of view as well.
Be they based on fiction, fact, or something in between, we’ve assembled our list of The 15 Best Movie Manhunts.
“Understand: you will never see this money. Not one dollar. So you still have a chance to do the right thing. If you don’t, God be with you, because nobody else on this Earth will be.”
There is nothing more terrifying and primal – and capable of bringing the most powerful figures to their knees – than the abduction of a child. In Ron Howard’s Ransom (based on an earlier film) it’s Manhattan millionaires, The Mullens, who find themselves at a kidnapper’s mercy. The price of their son’s return: $2,000,000.
Mel Gibson and Rene Russo’s performances as distraught parents are pitch-perfect, but it’s Mullen’s defiance of the kidnappers’ demands that makes this a classic. Instead of a ransom, the money is offered as a reward for the capture of the lead kidnapper: dead or alive. Needless to say, things only get more interesting from there.
“What a collection of scars you have. Never forget who gave you the best of them. And be grateful; our scars have the power to remind us that the past was real.”
A novel previously adapted on the big screen in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, Red Dragon follows FBI profiler William Graham (Ed norton) in his pursuit of a serial killer known as the ‘Tooth Fairy’ (Ralph Fiennes).
To catch him, Graham must turn to Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) – a cannibalistic murderer he has previously captured. Hopkins portrays Lecter for the third time (although the film is a prequel) – well enough, in fact, to steal the spotlight from the tattooed Tooth Fairy.
Sadistic killers on the sides of both good and evil make this one truly disturbing manhunt from beginning to end, and a must-see for any Lecter fan.
“I think killing’s not his ulterior motive. This guy’s a collector. I bet these women are alive.”
Based on James Patterson’s novel of the same name, Kiss the Girls pits forensic psychologist/detective Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) against the twisted ‘Casanova,’ a collector of young, talented women – Cross’ niece, Naomi, among them. A masked abductor killing young women is one thing, but keeping them locked up for enjoyment is a completely different level of depravity.
Ultimately, the movie plays out in keeping with the thriller/whodunnit formula. But solid performances from Freeman and Ashley Judd (an escaped victim) make the film – and its many twists – worthwhile, not to mention capable of making your skin crawl more than the Alex Cross reboot ever could.
“We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow.”
Michael Mann’s Public Enemies doesn’t just offer a standard cops vs. crooks tale; rather, the film explores the evolution of the manhunting process within American law-enforcement (the rise of the FBI), and the impact that evolution had on both dutiful lawmen and the often-celebrated American outlaw.
While guilty of wanton criminality and brutality, iconic figures like John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) still manage to achieve a sort of celebrity status amongst the masses. Public Enemies posits the notion that in some ways, hedonistic crooks are freer and happier (and more loved) than “good” men like FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who would ultimately take his own life after bringing down Dillinger and many other high-profile crooks of the 1930s era.
“Two little mice fell into a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned, but the second mouse, he struggled so hard that he eventually churned that cream into butter and he walked out. Amen.”
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Frank Abagnale Jr.’s real-life story of disguises and deception may have messed with the facts a bit, but its quality has never been in question. Pitting FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) against check-forger Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), Catch Me if You Can achieved the rare task of making audiences fall in love with the fleeing fraud, while simultaneously sympathizing with the lawmen trying to bring him in.
Cat-and-mouse stories have been favorites since storytelling first began, and when both parts are played by two of the greatest living actors, you know it’s a winning result. And, when the chase is as fun as it is captivating, you’re twice blessed.
“I’m the mother****er who found this place.”
Advertised as the story of “history’s greatest manhunt for Osama bin Laden,” Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a contemplative, steady-paced look at the men and women who spent a decade putting their own lives in jeopardy to find America’s most wanted fugitive, and bring him to justice.
It may not be the most action-packed film in the genre, but Bigelow’s commitment to realism and the determination of Jessica Chastain’s ‘Maya’ earns the story a place in our memory – not to mention a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
Ultimately, it’s the raid on bin Laden’s compound that leaves viewers with the sense that heroism lies in the prolonged efforts of counter-terrorism agents, not only those with their fingers on the trigger.
“I… I Need to know who he is. I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye. And I need to know that it’s him.”
Based on the non-fiction novel of the same name, David Fincher’s Zodiac follows author and main character Robert Graysmith in his personal account of the fear and paranoia surrounding the ‘Zodiac Killer’ – one of the most prolific unsolved murder cases in American history.
A political cartoonist at the time, Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) witnesses firsthand the killer’s taunting riddles and letters sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, triggering his own investigation that would soon become an obsession.
While failing to gain mass appeal, Fincher’s taut mystery (and conclusion) prove that digging into the depths of depravity can have consequences for all involved.
“It’s funny how all living organisms are alike. When the chips are down, when the pressure is on, every creature on the face of the Earth is interested in one thing and one thing only: its own survival.”
It’s the perfect answer to the problem of violent assault and murder: find the attacker, and put them away before they can commit the crime. And in Minority Report, orphans gifted with precognitive abilities make it a reality. They see the attacks before they occur, and John Anderton (Tom Cruise) and his fellow PreCrime officers bring in the would-be offenders.
All is well until it’s Anderton the ‘precogs’ name as a soon-to-be murderer. Proving that “everybody runs,” Anderton must flee from the very officers he trained to never question the system. Based on a Philip K. Dick short story (like all good science fiction), Spielberg’s vision of the near-future makes it a must-see for fans of sci-fi and chase films alike.
“It’s not a mistake. They don’t make mistakes. They don’t do random. There’s always an objective. Always a target.”
Proving that a sequel can still be better than the original, The Bourne Supremacy takes the pulse-pounding conspiracies and gritty realism of The Bourne Identity to a new level. Now it’s not just the CIA that former ‘Treadstone’ operative Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) must run from, but a group of Russians framing Bourne for murder and espionage.
In Supremacy, Bourne makes good on his promise to punish those who refused to let him disappear, pursued by Americans while trying to track down those behind the Russian frame-up. That’s two different manhunts simultaneously!
“I can’t get it out of my head. A dream of seven years. Sometimes I wake up and I don’t know where I am. I don’t talk to anybody…I can’t put it out of my mind.”
‘John Rambo’ may have become synonymous with musclebound, machine-gun-wielding action heroes, but in First Blood, he represented much more. Not an embodiment of violence, but the suffering of Vietnam veterans returning home to jeers and insults, not compassion, or an understanding of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
When pushed too far, Rambo sees the forests of Washington as the jungles of Vietnam all over again, and cruel townsfolk as ‘the enemy.’ Enter the National Guard for a scathing critique of post-war care. First Blood stands out most on our list because it truly said something. That the sequels strayed so far is, in some ways, a shame. But the original remains as good as it ever was, and every bit as poignant.
“A guy told me one time, ‘Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.'”
Like Public Enemies, director Michael Mann’s primary concern with Heat appears to be the subversion of standard conventions regarding cops and crooks. Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) has little life beyond his skill as a predatory investigator – which is why he sees master criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) as something of a kindred spirit. When Hanna is put on the case to bring McCauley’s crew down, sparks (and bullets) fly all over the City of Angels.
With a fantastic cast led by two powerhouse actors, and some of the best heist/chase sequences ever produced in the ’90s, Heat has since been solidified as a manhunt movie classic. It’s a prime example of how sweet it can be when opposing sides are so evenly matched that the line between predator and prey is blurred beyond recognition.
“We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it… Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example. What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed… forever.”
It’s clear director David Fincher has a knack for exploring truly disturbed individuals, but the premise of Se7en isn’t entirely unfamiliar: newly transferred cop (Brad Pitt) pairs with nearly-retired detective (Morgan Freeman) to hunt a meticulous serial killer committing a string of murders that embody the seven deadly sins.
A relentless rain storm mirrors the inability of either detective to stop the twisted killer at work, and his punishments doled out for gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, pride, lust, and envy are ones we’ll never forget (believe us, we’ve tried). The film’s finale illustrates the mark of a truly terrifying manhunt: that catching the killer doesn’t always end the insanity.
“Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but I have tickets for the theater this evening. To a show I was looking forward to. And I get, well, kind of unreasonable about things like that.”
We all know the shots of Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) fleeing from an attacking crop-duster plane – but believe us, the entirety of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is just as intense. Even the dialogue is as mile-a-minute and sharp as most gunfights, and in this case, every bit as deadly.
Essentially a case of mistaken identity, Thornhill – believed to be in reality George Kaplan – finds himself the target of a far-reaching criminal organization, pursuing him along planes, trains, and yes, automobiles. It’s hard to name a single movie manhunt that hasn’t cribbed from Hitchcock in one way or another, and North by Northwest is a veritable master class in cinematic suspense.
“When I came home, there was a man in my house. I fought with this man. He had a mechanical arm. You find this man. You find this man.”
It’s not every day that a film based on a 1960s TV series is nominated for Best Picture – let alone considered one of the best ‘chase’ movies ever made. The Fugitive even earned Tommy Lee Jones an Academy nod as Best Supporting Actor.
But it’s Harrison Ford’s performance as Dr. Richard Kimble, and his pursuit of “the one-armed man” that people most remember.
The Fugitive has it all: a look into the mind of escaped convicts and the US Marshals who pursue them; an honest-to-goodness mystery; unexpected twists; narrow escapes, and even a dummy being tossed from a hydroelectric dam. What more could fans of a good manhunt movie want?
“If I help you, Clarice, it will be turns with us too. Quid pro quo. I tell you things, you tell me things. Not about this case, though. About yourself. Quid pro quo. Yes or no?”
Hannibal Lecter has been chilling and unsettling in every film he’s appeared in, but The Silence of the Lambs takes the cake. It would be enough to say that Lecter’s role as consultant to the FBI’s Clarice Starling stole the spotlight from the real man being hunted, Jame ‘Buffalo Bill’ Gumb (Ted Levine); but in truth, Anthony Hopkins turned in one of the most iconic and chilling performances in movie history.
Besides reinvigorating Hopkins’ career and proving his range, the film itself left an indelible mark on all who saw it, as well as the Academy. The Silence of the Lambs took home Oscars for Best Picture, Directing, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. An impressive feat – especially for a movie largely considered to be in the horror genre.
Those are just 15 of our favorite films featuring organized searches for nefarious characters, or the fear and drama of being pursued every waking moment.
Now we ask: which movie pursuits or manhunts are the most memorable for you? Were they ones known for their action, their actors, or their commitment to realism?
The dramatization of the 21st Century’s most well-known manhunt (so far) can be seen when Zero Dark Thirty releases this Friday.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.