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Denzel Washington, wearing a white tanktop, reads the newspaper in Devil in a Blue Dress. Image: Sony Pictures

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10 great detective movies you can watch right now

Sleuths, grizzled cops, whiz kids, and everything in-between

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The Batman has been in wide release for over a week now, and by any measurable standard it’s a massive success. One of the big selling points for writer-director Matt Reeves’ take on the long-running comic book film franchise is that in this iteration, the audience finally gets to see why one of Batman’s many monikers is “The World’s Greatest Detective,” as the eternally popular DC character’s nearly superhuman powers of investigation and deduction are given much more of a focus than in previous films.

So if The Batman left you with a hunger for even more stories about sleuths and solving crimes with something other than brute force, we have a list for you. Compiled here are 10 great detective movies that you can stream right now from the comfort of your home! This list contains films from multiple countries and includes everything from old school gumshoes in fedoras to morally ambiguous cops on the edge, military investigators, whiz kids, and more. Some of them even share a little DNA with the costumed crime-fighter that inspired this list!

8mm

Nicolas Cage watching an 8mm film in 8mm Image: Columbia Pictures

Director Joel Schumacher fell out of favor with audiences after his last run at Batman led to the nearly universally reviled Batman & Robin. Since his wildly colorful and proudly cartoonish endeavor landed with such a thud, it’s hard to not see his follow-up to it, the restlessly grim thriller 8mm, as a massive overcorrection back to adult fare. Nicolas Cage plays an investigator hired by the elderly widow of a powerful businessman to determine if a “snuff” film found among her late husband’s possessions is authentic or not, and just exactly what happened to the film’s innocent victim.

This leads Cage’s investigator into the late ’90s world of underground, black market pornography. It’s clear that if Schumacher had been asked to go “grim & gritty” with his Batman films, he could have definitely made a more seamless follow up to Tim Burton’s Bat-entries. 8mm’s oppressively grim tone may be too much for some but this is a visually impressive film that contains a great central performance from Cage as a man forced to stare too long into the darkness, who tries to rise above and do the right thing against all odds. Which in the end, fits perfectly with many of the other protagonists mentioned on this list. If Cage raging isn’t your thing, the film also features a young Joaquin Phoenix as Cage’s porno book-selling sidekick plus some wonderful skeevy villain turns from Peter Stormare and the late, great James Gandolfini. In my opinion, 8mm is an unfairly slept-on piece of late ’90s pulp that deserves reevaluation.

8mm is available to watch on Hulu or for free with ads on Tubi.

Blind Detective

Andy Lau in Blind Detective. Image: Media Asia

One wonderful aspect of detective stories is they can be worked into any style of film without losing the core elements that define them. Case in point, the Chinese film Blind Detective from Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To. It has all the familiar elements you would want from this type of story but set into an unexpected type of film: a screwball romantic comedy. The plot finds a policewoman, played by the massively popular Asian music star Sammi Cheng, teaming up with a blind private investigator with unusual methods, played by the equally popular Andy Lau, to help her locate a missing friend from her childhood.

As the pair work together to find the missing person (and solve several other cases along the way), the film sets up that Cheng’s character has fallen for the comically-oblivious titular disabled investigator, and that leads to a lot of sweet, goofy comedy mixed in with the more traditional aspects of a detective thriller. So, if you enjoy a little romance and laughter with crime scene deconstructions, then Blind Detective is one worth seeking out. Be warned though, movies from Hong Kong are notorious for their extreme tonal shifts, so one moment you may be chuckling and the next you may be gripping your seat from tension.

Blind Detective is available to watch on Netflix.

Chinatown

Chinatown: Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in a car at sunset Image: Paramount Pictures

This 1974 film starring the legendary Jack Nicholson is a perfect encapsulation of why detective films are so appealing. It has a deep but soundly constructed mystery that pays off every element it introduces while never once feeling like it’s holding the audience’s hand. In a word, the plot structure of Chinatown is perfect. It’s obvious why Robert Townes’ screenplay won an Academy Award and is considered by many filmmakers and critics to be the finest one ever written.

Nicholson’s world-weary investigator is hired to look into a possible extramarital affair and in turn, ends up discovering a much more vile and sinister crime. Chinatown never rushes to these discoveries or meanders too long in getting to its point. Every scene, moment, and character matters. We as the audience observe them all as the main character does, gradually putting together the pieces with him, hoping that it all works out for the best in the end as we get more and more entangled in the film’s web of half-truths and secrets laid bare.

Chinatown is available to watch on HBO Max or for free with a library card on Kanopy and Hoopla.

Devil in a Blue Dress

Denzel stands at the door looking like he’s about to punch a guy in Devil in a Blue Dress Image: Sony Pictures

Detective films often hinge on who occupies the leading role. That character is the one the audience spends the most time with, after all. They are the audience’s “in” to the world of the story. Sometimes, the lead is even the only point of view they have for what is happening on-screen. So, casting is crucial. That is clearly one of the biggest strengths for Devil in a Blue Dress, considering the lead role of Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is occupied by none other than two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington.

The film opens in 1948 where Easy, a WWII veteran, is looking for a job after being laid off. Desperate for cash so he can keep his home, Easy agrees to take a job from a white P.I., to track down the missing fiancée of a mayoral candidate who has been known to frequent black nightclubs. Of course, it isn’t long before Easy is pulled into a larger mystery involving political scandal, perversion, racism, blackmail, and murder. The film approaches these tropes of a detective film from a refreshingly different perspective by having the racial tensions of the late 1940s be integral to a plot that would otherwise be standard noir fare. It gives the hapless Easy even more to overcome and with an actor as charismatic as Washington in that role, watching him overcome the obstacles of the plot and the world of the film around him is an absolute joy. The film also features a young Don Cheadle, as Easy’s trigger-happy war buddy “Mouse,” in a performance that is so much fun he almost steals the entire film away from the much more established star. There were plans for sequels as the story was based on a long-running series of novels. Sadly, the film failed at the box office, ending the chance for more films with Washington as Easy.

Devil in a Blue Dress is available to watch on Paramount Plus.

Joint Security Area

Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Shin Ha-kyun in Joint Security Area. Image: Arrow Media

A murder has occurred at the DMZ separating North Korea and South Korea. Two North Korean soldiers were supposedly cut down by a soldier from the South. Something doesn’t add up, though, so both nations have mutually agreed upon an impartial investigation by the Swiss/Swedish governing body that oversees the shared zone. A Swiss-born Korean officer has been tasked with determining what happened and assigning fault. This is the deceptively simple setup for director Park Chan-Wook’s Joint Security Area.

This film, which helped lead the way for the rise in popularity of South Korean entertainment in the western world, is an uncommon mystery film. It has many of the things you would expect in this type of story — clues being gathered that cast suspicion on the accepted narrative, tense interrogations, and surprising third act reveals. But it’s also one where the answer to the “whys” and “hows” of the mystery and even the investigator themselves take a back seat to the people and the emotions directly involved in the conflict. Joint Security Area is a heartbreakingly emotional film about how bureaucracy and imaginary lines in the sand do nothing but harm innocent people. It just happens to be wrapped in the window dressing of a more conventional (but still excellent) investigative thriller.

Joint Security Area is available to watch for free with ads on Tubi.

Mystery Team

Donald Glover, DC Pierson, and Dominic Dierkes in Mystery Team. Image: Derrick Comedy via film-grab.com

Every entry on this list deals with some pretty heavy subject matter. What if you need a break from it all and just want to laugh? That’s where Mystery Team comes in. This hilarious comedy from a then-mostly unknown Donald Glover and his partners in the sketch comedy troupe that gave him his start (Derrick Comedy) is about a trio of “kid detectives” who were once the darlings of their sleepy, little town ... when they were 7 years old and solving cute crimes for other children. Now, though, it’s 10 years later, and they just won’t give up on their dreams of being suburban Sherlocks, no matter how ridiculous the rest of the community thinks they are. When a very real murder case falls into their collective laps from a source no one else will take seriously, the clueless (both literally and figuratively) trio set out to prove they can be the master detectives they always dreamt of being. Full of genuinely funny asides, and good comedic performances from the likes of Bobby Moynihan, Ellie Kemper, Matt Walsh, and Aubrey Plaza, Mystery Team is a perfect film when you want some hilarity with your whodunit.

Mystery Team is available to watch for free with ads on Tubi and Pluto TV, or for free with a library card on Hoopla.

Narc

Ray Liotta in Narc Image: Lionsgate Films

At their core, detective stories are about the search for truth. That simple idea is perfectly personified by writer/director Joe Carnahan’s gritty 2002 police drama Narc. The film tells the story of a disgraced, ex-undercover police detective, played by Jason Patric, who is pulled back into service to help solve the mysterious murder of another undercover officer. He’s joined in his efforts by a bullish senior detective, played by Ray Liotta, who would just as soon smash a billiard ball in the face of a suspect as he would interrogate them. Together the pair traverse a gritty, urban hell full of drug dealers, informants, and other lowlifes looking for details about what happened and who is responsible. As they edge ever closer to the truth about the violent crime, it becomes readily apparent that the answers are never cut and dry and there are no easy outs. As a filmmaker, Carnahan has made bigger movies (The Grey) and certainly more outlandish ones (Copshop), but this early entry in his career is arguably his finest work.

Narc is available to watch on Hulu and Paramount Plus.

The Nice Guys

Nice Guys Image: Warner Bros.

This wonderfully twisty mystery from writer/director Shane Black finds Ryan Gosling as a shady private investigator in late 1970s Los Angeles who gets inadvertently sucked into a case involving arson, the death of an adult film actress, and a possible government conspiracy involving a politician played by Kim Basinger. Gosling’s only help in this situation, where he is clearly outmatched and in over his head, is a local bruiser-for-hire played by Russell Crowe (in what is his most fun on-screen performance in years). Together, the pair hilariously bumble and argue their way through unraveling how and why everything ties together while barely avoiding angry hitmen and the local authorities. If you only know Shane Black from his work on Iron Man 3, then you owe it to yourself to check out The Nice Guys and see why he is such a cult favorite among people who adore noir films.

The Nice Guys is available to watch on Hulu.

Prisoners

Jake Gyllenhaal shows Hugh Jackman a bloody photo in Prisoners. Image: Alcon Entertainment via blu-screens.net

Before director Denis Villeneuve did the seemingly impossible task of bringing a faithful adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel Dune to the big screen, the French Canadian filmmaker turned in this densely layered mystery about a child abduction and the numerous lives affected by it. At the center of Prisoners’ labyrinthine tale is one of the great screen sleuths of the last 10 years, Detective Loki, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor embodies the role with a strong feeling of determination and logic that never obscures the clearly damaged but hopeful heart underneath as he works to locate clues, and ultimately, the missing victim. Detective film protagonists are often tough as nails but here Gyllenhaal imbues that toughness with a low-key melancholy that feels perfectly suited for the grey, wintery landscape of Prisoners.

This bleak yet engrossing film also features excellent performances from Hugh Jackman, Melissa Leo, and (the new Riddler himself) Paul Dano. Yet, even with all the impressive acting talent on display, Gyllenhaal’s millennial take on the classic hard-boiled police detective archetype — with his post-punk slicked-back tight hairstyle, cryptic tattoos, and intentionally vague backstory — easily stands out as the most intriguing character in the film. In a world where seemingly everything is considered a potential franchise, it feels like a missed opportunity that Gyllenhaal hasn’t returned to the character for another case.

Prisoners is available to watch on Hulu.

Thupparivaalan

Vishal in Thupparivaalan. Image: Vishal Film Factory via Cinema Chaat

Thupparivaalan, despite perhaps being the least well-known entry to Western audiences on this list, is the one that skews closest to that most famous of fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes. In this Tamil-language film from South India, an eccentric but brilliant detective who constantly turns down cases from wealthy and prestigious potential clients strangely allows his services to be acquired by a young boy looking to solve the murder of his beloved pet dog. Not only does this shock and befuddle his Watson-like sidekick, but this seemingly simple case (of course) quickly turns out to be anything but, as a much larger and nefarious plot involving blackmail and hired assassins is discovered that will test both the mental and physical prowess of the gifted crime solver.

Thupparivaalan, which translates to “Detective” in English, makes for a great entry point into the world of Indian cinema. There are no typical Bollywood-style musical breaks in the film, and a surprising amount of very well done and exciting action scenes. If The Batman left you craving some quality fight scenes to go along with the sleuthing and you’re feeling adventurous, Thupparivaalan has got you covered.

Thupparivaalan is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.

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