Greetings, Polygon readers! We’re in the dead middle of May, and you know what that means, right? Barbeques and ball games are right around the corner, and the weather is starting to heat up. And what better way to prepare for the season than watching some of the most intense action thrillers Netflix has to offer this month?
We’ve got a wealth of great thrillers to choose from in May. From Michael Mann’s 1995 classic Heat and Spike Lee’s Rashomon-like heist thriller Inside Man starring Denzel Washington and Clive Owen to contemporary breakouts like Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider and more, this month is studded with stone-cold stunners. Let’s dive into the thick of it.
Year: 1995Run time: 2h 50mDirector: Michael MannCast: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer
You’ve (hopefully) already watched Den of Thieves, described by many, including our curation editor Pete Volk, as “dirtbag Heat.” But have you ever actually watched Heat, Michael Mann’s classic 1995 crime thriller starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro? If you somehow haven’t, o-ho-ho-boy, are you in for a treat.
Described by Mann himself as “a highly structured, realistic, symphonic drama,” Heat centers on Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), a career criminal and bank robber whose crew becomes the target of LAPD detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), whose obsessive fixation on catching criminals strains his personal life. The film is well and truly epic, a pitch-perfect crime drama complete with an ensemble cast featuring the likes of Val Kilmer (Top Gun), Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan), and Amy Brenneman (The Leftovers) delivering some of the best performances of their respective careers; a pulse-pounding score composed by Elliot Goldenthal (Demolition Man); and terrific action cinematography courtesy of Dante Spinotti (Manhunter).
The sound of every gunshot pounds like a war drum, every frame is impeccably composed, and the iconic scene of Hanna and McCauley staring at each other across a diner table is only eclipsed by their inevitable and fatal confrontation in the film’s climax. Heat was literally the first movie I saw in theaters after COVID-19 pandemic restrictions lifted, and honestly I couldn’t have asked for a better experience to remind myself why I fell in love with going to the theater in the first place. —Toussaint Egan
High Flying Bird
Year: 2019Run time: 1h 30mDirector: Steven SoderberghCast: André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg
Over in the real world, we’re in the midst of a very exciting NBA playoffs. LeBron James is still improbably doing his thing 20 years into his NBA career, while blossoming superstars Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid seem set on a collision course in the NBA finals. We’re also in the midst of a strike by television and movie writers who seek to improve their security within a lucrative industry.
That means there’s no better time to watch High Flying Bird, Steven Soderbergh’s reinvention of the sports drama shot on an iPhone 8. The movie follows ambitious sports agent Ray Burke (the excellent André Holland), who attempts to put control back in the hands of the players during a lockout. This comes through his hotshot client Erick Scott (American Vandal’s Melvin Gregg), who Burke works with to create new opportunities and revenue streams for basketball outside of the organization of the league.
An exciting, stylish movie with excellent performances and a strong script by Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, High Flying Bird is a modern sports movie masterpiece. —Pete Volk
Year: 2022Run time: 1h 58mDirector: Ali AbbasiCast: Mehdi Bajestani, Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Arash Ashtiani
Inspired by the true story of an Iranian serial killer who killed 16 women from 2000 to 2001, Ali Abbasi’s film follows the story of a journalist (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) investigating the disappearance of several women in the city of Mashhad. Her search brings her directly into the crosshairs of the murderer (Mehdi Bajestani), a troubled veteran of the Iran-Iraq war whose self-appointed “crusade” sparks a heated split of opinions throughout his community about his actions.
More than a murder thriller, Holy Spider is a brutal and incisive portrait of a woman’s struggle for justice on behalf of victims whose lives have been disregarded by society, while battling misogynistic accusations and behavior aimed at her own character. The film thoroughly unpacks the mentality of its antagonist, probing into the maelstrom of religious fervor, post-traumatic anger, and gendered hatred born out of a desire to attain significance through infamy. Quietly released onto streaming last month after its VOD premiere back in January, Holy Spider is well worth seeking out and watching, though be forewarned: It features graphic depictions of violence against women. —Toussaint Egan
Year: 2006Run time: 2h 9mDirector: Spike LeeCast: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster
There’s nobody better than Denzel. There’s nobody better than Spike. And there’s nothing better than a great heist thriller. Add all of these things up, and you have Inside Man, one of the best movies of the 2000s and the rare twisty thriller worthy of many, many rewatches.
Clive Owen is the leader of a complicated bank heist, and Denzel Washington is the hostage negotiator tasked with resolving the situation. The excellent sprawling cast also features Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Written by first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz, a former lawyer, Denzel compared the dialogue-heavy role to that of Brutus in Julius Caesar, which he had recently performed on Broadway and credits with helping him prepare for the role. Whatever he did, it worked — the two leading men are both fantastic in one of the best heist movies ever made. —PV
The Raid 2
Year: 2014Run Time: 2h 30mDirector: Gareth EvansCast: Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara
The follow-up to the smash (and we do mean smash) 2011 hit The Raid, Gareth Evans’ 2014 sequel packs a heavy punch as well (and some hammers). Set just after the events of the first movie, Rama (Iko Uwais, reprising his lead role) is sent undercover to expose corruption in Jakarta’s police. This involves getting himself sent to prison, surviving a prison riot, and ingratiating himself to members of the Jakarta underworld.
Filled with high-octane action sequences, plenty of gore (there’s a kickass character named Hammer Girl who makes the most of that nickname), and jaw-dropping displays of the Indonesian martial art pencak silat, fans of The Raid should also check out the second iteration. There’s plenty of debate about which of the two movies is better, but we can all agree on this: They both rule. —PV