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Whether from the perspective of an innocent man running from the evil forces to be or one focused on those seeking to put a stop to an vile individual, manhunts thrillers frequently turn out meaty and memorable.
Their grounding in fact notwithstanding (as is the case with this weekend’s Oscar hopeful Zero Dark Thirty) there have been some truly outstanding entries in this subgenre and ones that frequently turn up on “best of” lists across the spectrum.
So without further adieu let’s crank up the heat on these cinematic pressure cookers and rundown (no pun intended) the ten best movie manhunts.
10. First Blood
Not the John Rambo we’ve come to know over the last 30 years on screen, the disturbed
The structure of First Blood is a far more intimate demonstration of the manhunt film that has become the norm — both in that it is a select group of local authorities that feel as if they deserve justice and that the character of Rambo is inside his own head for the duration of the film. He is no criminal, nor is he a hero. He is simply a damaged man who snapped under duress and illustrated the troubling effects of post-traumatic stress disorder that were ignored by the media and entertainment industry for so long.
9. The Bourne Trilogy
The Bourne Trilogy (somewhat discounting The Bourne Identity) is an interesting two-way duel between spy extraordinaire Jason Bourne and the Treadstone and Blackbriar organizations that throw every available resource and equally-skilled asset at him.
Of course, from a pure manhunt angle, it is Bourne’s former handlers trying in every way to track down and eliminate this wayward weapon that fits it within this genre, not to mention in The Bourne Supremacy a gang of Russians who are not opposed to framing the man (as if he didn’t have it rough enough).
8. North by Northwest
The master of suspense’s precursor to his coup de grâce, Psycho, North by Northwest saw Hitchcock doing Bond in a stellar and unique way. It is a case of mistaken identity that fuels this cross-country trek with Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill (or is it George Kaplan?) fleeing from not just domestic authorities but also far more powerful international forces.
These instances of an innocent man getting mixed up in a world of danger always carry an additional edge, as it is many people’s fears that they will be wrongfully accused for something and sentenced to prison (or worse) just as easily as it's portrayed in the movies. It may be a cynical way of thinking but it’s nevertheless true, and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is one of the best.
7. Minority Report
Having a movie where a police force is vying for one of their own who has gone rouge is moldy potatoes, but thanks to the dystopian setting and enough slick twists to fill two films, this chase flick is anything but ordinary. And not only that, Minority Report goes one step further and raises very interesting and somewhat troubling questions about the nature of justice.
6. Silence of the Lambs
Though the sinister Hannibal Lector would go on to be the subject of fiercely dedicated men and women in uniform in later films, it was serial killer Buffalo Bill who Agent Clarice Starling had in her crosshairs, and the good doctor held the key to his capture.
Like the "rouge cop" plot device, a former baddie teaming up with law enforcement to help solve a crime is all but clichéd by this juncture, but Anthony Hopkins' iconic portrayal and the film's crisply constructed, cat-and-mouse screenplay from Ted Tally resulted in something utterly unique and memorable.
Though no longer a manhunt per se, the pursuit for the true identity of the Zodiac killer remains shrouded in mystery with no concrete perpetrator identified. However, his brutal activity in 1960’s Northern California — in particular, the obsession shared by a number of the city's residents, including novelist Robert Graysmith and reporter Paul Avery, who pursued the murderer long after the case had gone cold from an official investigative standpoint — was the subject of David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac.
The fact that this film is centered around real life events and that it takes obsession and near psychological thriller tropes into its fold only serves to make Fincher’s film more searing and memorable.
4. Zero Dark Thirty
In all the top 10 lists I’ve compiled over the years, this is the first time in which the film that inspired said countdown has made the cut. Granted, I normally craft them before the film’s release, but Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is unequivocally deserving of its position and is perhaps the truest “manhunt” film on this compilation.
Dense and absorbing, controversial for all the right reasons, and featuring a slew of standout performances (not to mention a gripping climax), this is a meticulous and grand presentation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden (not to mention more than any movie I’m mentioning today feels like how a real-life search would unfold, especially one that lasted a decade). You can read our review here.
The second David Fincher film on this countdown, 1995’s sleeper smash Se7en is a grim exercise in religiously-driven carnage and one that raises the stakes when it comes to the tale of bringing down a madman. The cruelty displayed by Kevin Spacey’s John Doe (but also the twisted elegance of it all) make us want this individual brought to swift justice (but also kind of to see what tricks he could possibly display next).
The fact that Se7en unfolds in a decaying unidentified city (one in which it nearly always rains) gives the whole effort a surreal feeling to it, not to mention a healthy dose of pulp noir. Copied to the point of desecration but never duplicated in its potency, Se7en is unlike any manhunt feature you’ll see elsewhere.
2. Catch Me if you Can
The rare thriller that allows us to care deeply for both perpetrator and enforcer, Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if you Can is a masterwork in suspense, dark comedy, and acting — and one made all the more impressive by blending those elements with ease and charm. The film’s ability to rouse in general made this one of the very best crowd pleasers of 2002.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s real-life cheque forger Frank Abignale Jr. is a tragic but charismatic foil to Tom Hank’s Carl Hanratty determined but forgiving FBI Agent, and the connection they ultimately forge is utterly satisfying in its sense of melancholy and closure. Though more of a light fable than, say, Se7en (far lighter), Catch Me if you Can never loses sight of its chase movie foundations.
1. The Fugitive
Finding myself physically unable to put any film but The Fugitive in the top spot, this adaptation of the well received 1963 television series has engrained itself into pop culture as a bonafied classic. It stands as the rare summer blockbuster to receive Academy Awards attention, snagging a win for Tommy Lee Jones and six other nominations, including Best Picture.
When Dr. Richard Kimble frees his shackles (literally), the ensuing chase is pure manhunt, with U.S. Marshall Gerard willing to (as he personally states) search every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and doghouse to get his man. Also a revenge flick, murder mystery, and straight up action picture, The Fugitive is blockbuster entertainment with brains and our pick for the best movie manhunt.