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6 Detective Movies From the '80s You Should Watch

Before the internet and the explosion of mobile phone use, detective work was … well, work. Modern detectives do a difficult job, of course, and it’s not all about keyword searches and internet archives. But when it comes to movies and entertainment, sometimes we want to put aside the phone calls and triangulation of signals in favor of something more hands-on.


Welcome to the '80s, where watches told the time and brick-sized mobile phones would only have slowed cops down. Check out these retro detectives and some ear-to-the-ground detective work.

Whether you like old-fashioned police techniques or you just enjoy the '80s aesthetic, here are 6 of the best '80s detective movies that entertained, kept their audiences in suspense, and paved the way for detectives to come.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

This is the first of a franchise of 3 and the film that launched Eddie Murphy from an incredible stage comedian to international stardom. It does so with a solid storyline, script, and style. Critically acclaimed, the movie remains endearing and watchable to this day.

Murphy plays Axel Foley, a streetwise cop from Detroit who is on “vacation” in California. He is actually investigating the murder of his best friend. As he follows leads, he upsets the local police department. His suspects are not too happy about the rocks he turns over either.

There’s a reason this film was among the highest grossing movies of 1984. Murphy brings Axel Foley to life as a likable, persistent, courageous, and sometimes hilarious detective. But it’s not all laughs. He’s up against some really nasty baddies, including a villain played by renowned actor Steven Berkoff.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

Two disparate cops are thrown together. They don’t want to work together. One can’t stand the other.

“I work alone.”

Over time, they become inseparable and would do anything for each other.

Lethal Weapon follows a very familiar formula here, but this buddy cop movie does it so well. Mel Gibson’s portrayal of wild-eyed-former-green beret-with-a-death-wish Riggs is captivating. Danny Glover is believable as the contrasting veteran cop who wants to push papers around his desk and go home to his couch at the end of the day without firing his weapon or blowing up a building.

When Glover’s character, Sergeant Murtagh, attempts to help an old friend’s daughter escape a life of drugs and prostitution, they are too late to help her. At first, it appears that she has committed suicide, but Riggs and Murtagh discover that she has been murdered. Together, the cops investigate a series of dark events that might have been missed if they hadn’t become involved.

Columbo (Seasons 8 and 9 from 1989)

Known primarily as a TV series, the Columbo empire nonetheless includes plenty of TV movies. Look out for seasons 8 and 9 for a particularly '80s flavor.

Running from the '70s to the early 2000s, Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo charmed viewers and made villains sweat in equal measure. Columbo’s trademark crumpled raincoat, cigar, feigned forgetfulness, and references to his wife all contributed to the eventual downfall of his enemies, many of whom were played by big names such as William Shatner, Vincent Price, and Patrick McGoohan.

Unlike most detective movies, a Columbo movie begins with the murder and the murderer. The audience then watches as Lieutenant Columbo figures out the who, how, and why. While it eliminates the “audience participation” of working out who committed the crime, it ramps up the suspense as you get to watch the murderer squirm. And they would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for that pesky detective.

Blade Runner (1982)

Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a blade runner - someone who kills runaway synthetic humans.

Yeah, this film was pretty out there. It’s not just a visually and audibly astounding, complex, cult science-fiction drama that pushed the boundaries of filmmaking … it’s also an excellent detective story. It’s a tale of discovery and self-discovery, in which Deckard is hired to kill those runaway “replicants” but ends up digging deeper into an ever-darkening mystery.

While they couldn’t verify people’s identities with Nuwber in this 1980s vision of the future (this would have been very helpful), they do have some interesting resources, gadgets, and hairstyles. You should also check this movie out to see what kind of cars 1980s film directors thought we’d be flying in by 2019.

Witness (1985)

In Witness, we get to watch both Harrison Ford and Danny Glover again. (Also, look out for Viggo Mortensen in a supporting role). This time, Ford plays Sergeant John Book, a detective investigating a murder witnessed by an 8-year-old Amish boy. As he gets deeper into the case, he ends up going into hiding with the young boy. He also ends up finding love while the bad guys seek the boy.

Nominated for and winning a host of awards, this film has a great storyline, a meaningful ending, and did we mention Harrison Ford? Check it out for a detective movie that makes you think not only about piecing together the clues but also about witnessing violence and how we can react.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

The Library of Congress selected this live-action/animated mystery to be preserved in the US National Film Registry, considering it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It also has 97% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing. It’s an extraordinary movie and a great technical achievement that doesn’t lose sight of its engaging detective storyline.

Theme Park Tourist, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Set in a 40s Hollywood where people and cartoon characters co-exist, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? follows private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins). He chases clues to clear the eponymous Roger Rabbit’s murder charge and ends up in the shadow of sinister Judge Doom, played by Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future).

Conclusion

If you’ve been searching for clues regarding what '80s detective movie to watch tonight, any of the films in this post should satisfy you. With great craftsmanship, excellent storytelling, and plenty of twists and turns, these flicks should have you on the edge of your seat.

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