The Dad Movies That Defined the ’90s Dad Thriller Genre

Throw your Tom Clancy book into your leather briefcase and join us for a look at the dad thriller movies of the 1990s.

Harrison Ford in Clear and Present Danger
Photo: Paramount Pictures / Getty

Few types of movies sum up the 1990s quite like “dad thrillers.” A term popularized by the brilliant Max Read a few years ago, the dad thriller is a subgenre of thriller movies that was largely designed to appeal to older male viewers or otherwise featured thematic elements associated with that demographic. Yes, such movies often feature men being really good dads, but it’s about more than that. Dad thrillers were often closer to ’70s paranoia thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, which pitted crusaders of truth against staggering odds in a slow-burn narrative. They typically featured lawyers, law enforcement officers, military personnel, and dads in other thoroughly professional fields who were very good at their jobs. Many were based on books or otherwise inspired by the fictional and non-fictional texts dads of that generation loved to read. Some were theatrical hits but most of them found a home in living rooms everywhere.

Though the phrase “dad thriller” may sound somewhat demeaning, that’s not necessarily the case. The best dad thrillers exemplify certain cinematic concepts that we’re only nostalgic for because they are so difficult to find in modern major movies. Some are good, some are bad, and some have a face only a dad could love. However, these are the movies that undeniably defined the ’90s dad thriller.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name (a statement that automatically qualifies a movie for this genre), The Hunt for Red October opened the door for the rest of the films we’ll discuss. It also arguably set a standard that few ‘90s dad thrillers would ever surpass. This movie also shows why the dad thriller genre isn’t necessarily a derogatory concept.

After all, this is a high-stakes thriller where much of the action comes through tense dialogue exchanges delivered by a cast filled with Hollywood stars (Sean Connery! Alec Baldwin!) and legendary character actors (Sam Neill! Tim Curry! James Earl Jones!). We should be so lucky to have such nice things. It’s just that the movie also exemplifies the kind of History Channel-esque military plot points and ideal portrayals of fatherhood masculinity that would prove to be the foundations of this emerging subgenre. What other movies about the Cold War and nuclear submarine showdowns end with a CIA agent bringing home to his daughter a teddy bear? 

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JFK (1991)

JFK has long been a divisive movie. Some have called it a glorification of conspiracy theories while others say it simply legitimizes them. More than a few critics of the film accused Oliver Stone of being wreckless in his depiction (and seeming endorsement) of some of the specific ideas presented in this film. However, the government paranoia this movie relies on proved to be one of the cornerstone concepts of many dad thrillers that followed. It also starred genre hero Kevin Costner and even ends with a scene of him being a family man.

What’s most surprising about JFK though is how successful it was given that it’s a three-and-a-half-hour film that relied largely on slow-burn dialogue. Though Hunt for Red October tested those waters (pun intended), the success and scope of JFK would show there was a real audience for such information-based thrillers. If said thriller happened to involve paranoia and JFK-era America, so much the better. 

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

The Last Boy Scout opens with a PCP-fueled football player shooting three opponents mid-game, and it only gets weirder from there. As you watch the truly unlikely pairing of Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans investigate a conspiracy that involves sports gambling, you will start to wonder if what you’re seeing is real or rather some kind of acid flashback triggered by consuming so many similar (yet tamer) thrillers of this era. Once you realize this was written by a slightly morose Shane Black and directed by early ‘90s era Tony Scott… well, things make a bit more sense. 

The kind of blue-collar action-hero style Willis exhibited in Die Hard proved to be a guiding light for the dad thriller genre. His ability to maintain his everyman persona without sacrificing any star power made him the ideal lead in these movies about regular dudes “getting it done.” While we’d see variations of that archetype used in many subsequent dad thrillers, The Last Boy Scout’s emphasis on the dark side of sports is a quality few subsequent dad thrillers would properly explore. This movie also arguably paved the way for ’90s sports films like The Program, Any Given Sunday, and Varsity Blues.

A Few Good Men (1992)

While A Few Good Men’s arguably perfect screenplay was inspired by a real-life military case that writer Aaron Sorkin’s sister participated in as a defense attorney, Sorkin made several changes to the details of that incident. The changes weren’t enough to prevent an eventual lawsuit, but they did emphasize the idea of separating individual soldiers from the military to examine the horror of simply following orders. Perhaps more importantly, Sorkin presents the film’s defense team as almost impossibly noble crusaders trying to find justice in a morally ambiguous world. 

It’s that last quality that makes director Rob Reiner’s all-time great legal thriller a great dad thriller as well. Military lawyers striving to do the right thing by being incredibly good at their jobs is the kind of concept that will put a tear in many a dad’s eyes. The fact to do so they had to relitigate some of the fault lines from the Vietnam War thanks to a hammy Jack Nicholson performance only heightened the dad-ness of that era. Though it followed the release of JFK, A Few Good Men stands tall as one of the best films of the ’90s regardless of genre.

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The Firm (1993)

Much like Tom Clancy, author John Grisham reached new heights of mainstream popularity in the ‘90s when studios scrambled to adapt his various works. Grisham’s bread and butter was a series of legal thrillers that soon became airport and beachside staples. The best of those stories were genuinely suspenseful and often emphasized a humanist approach that was generally easy to sympathize with regardless of your politics (though Grisham himself is a notable political activist). In short, they were perfect for the emerging dad thriller movie genre. 

The first of those adaptations (The Firm) is also arguably the best. This Sydney Pollack movie stars Tom Cruise as a fresh-eyed lawyer who is wooed by a corrupt law firm. Some find it to be a “slow” movie by modern thriller standards, but the incredible talent involved with this picture manages to make the most of its incredible premise. The Firm is also a somewhat painful reminder of a time when a dialogue-driven Pollack movie made for adults could earn $270 million at the box office. 

In The Line of Fire (1993)

Does anything more scream “dad thriller” than Clint Eastwood playing a Secret Service agent with fond memories of JFK-era America and a desire to do things his way? The sight of Eastwood struggling to keep up with a motorcade but managing to pursue young punks, while also finding time to seduce Rene Russo over a Breyers Ice Cream date, is as clear of an example of “the old man’s still got it” filmmaking that I can think of. 

However, one of the most fascinating parts of this movie is the villainous Mitch Leary played by John Malkovich. The famed actor leaves no scenery unchewed in his portrayal of an intelligent but comically deranged assassin. With his walls filled with newspaper clippings and his many pseudo-intellectual rants, Leary is one of the earlier examples of the kind of post-Silence of the Lambs unhinged genius villain that would become popular in both dad thrillers and their nastier, serial killer cousins in the ensuing decade. 

The Fugitive (1993)

Though Harrison Ford would eventually star in more overt dad thrillers (more on those in a bit), The Fugitive may be his greatest contribution to the subgenre. As Richard Kimble (a surgeon who finds himself on the run after being falsely accused of murdering his wife), Ford proves that there is no situation so perilous that he can’t eventually punch his way out of. 

While The Fugitive lacks some of the tropes most commonly associated with this genre, it hits the most important marks. Ford is a shockingly capable outlaw and aggrieved middle-aged husband whose nobility doesn’t waver, even as Tommy Lee Jones’ immortally gruff Marshal Sam Gerard closes in on him. He even finds time to moonlight as a life-saving doctor when he isn’t successfully hunting down the one-armed man who killed his wife (as well as the employer who tries to duke it out with Kimble and get away in front of thousands of witnesses). Essentially a modern Western, The Fugitive is a breathless thriller best summarized by the word “grit.”

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Rising Sun (1993)

Following the success of Passenger 57, Wesley Snipes got the chance to further his dad thriller credentials with this buddy cop movie that paired him with Sean Connery. It was a clear case of teaming a rising star with an established screen legend to see if the kid had the chops. 

The movie is… not good. By adapting another popular novelist of the 1990s, Michael Crichton, Rising Sun tries to add an international element to the typical buddy cop dad thriller by having Snipes and Connery investigate a mysterious death at a Japanese company. Unfortunately, its presumed best intentions led to some regrettable depictions—as is the case of many ’90s Crichton adaptations not about dinosaurs. Still, the movie established Snipes’ dad thriller credentials while expanding upon the idea of racial tension, paranoia, and tense pairings that proved to be so prevalent in this genre. 

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

After taking over the Jack Ryan role from Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and director Phillip Noyce teamed up to deliver 1992’s Patriot Games: a mediocre adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel of the same name (although the dad-ness of Ryan was at its zenith in that movie where he became a papa wronged). Thankfully, that movie was successful enough to lead to this far superior Tom Clancy adaptation. 

Clear and Present Danger follows Jack Ryan as he heads to Colombia to investigate a connection between the assassination of the American president’s best friend and drug cartels. At the same time, a band of special operatives led by Willem Dafoe (great casting) are waging an illegal war against the cartels at the same POTUS’ behest. Yes, despite being made in 1994, this movie retains the Reagan-era politics of its source material. The fictional President of the United States even has a jar of jelly beans on his desk. While that occasionally leads to some dated and regrettable depictions, this sweeping movie is surprisingly critical of its politicians and their shortsighted foreign policies. It’s one of the more overtly “political” political thrillers of this era.

Disclosure (1994)

Disclosure is arguably the worst movie on this list and certainly one of the strangest. (It’s also another Michael Crichton adaptation that has aged terribly.) It sees Michael Douglas portray an executive at a tech company who is falsely accused of sexual assault after rejecting the aggressive advancements of his new boss, a much younger femme fatale played by Demi Moore. It’s a simplistic portrayal of difficult subject matter, but the movie reaches new levels of absurdity during an extended sequence that sees Douglas enter a virtual reality world to secure the documents that will expose a deeper conspiracy. Seriously, that’s a way-too-long scene in this movie.

So why include this one at all? Well, mostly because it was a notable failed attempt at combining the erotic thriller and dad thriller genres. Douglas tries his… best to bridge that genre gap by portraying the world’s greatest dad/husband, but he can’t wipe off that thick layer of sliminess he was known for at this point. This movie is also a rather unfortunate (though appropriate) time capsule for baby boomer ideas of ‘90s sexual politics and technology. Hey, not every dad thriller was a winner.

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Crimson Tide (1995)

Truth be told, there aren’t a lot of things Crimson Tide does with this genre that isn’t discussed elsewhere in the article. It’s a Tony Scott movie, it takes place on a submarine, it stars a veteran actor and a rising star, and it features both racial divides and people being really good at their jobs.

However, Crimson Tide is not only a rather handy example of those concepts but a simply exceptional movie. It’s maybe the most wistful “they don’t make them like this” anymore movie on this list. You could find modern actors with the age discrepancies and talent of Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington here, but which combination of those modern performers would have the star power required to get a movie of this size made solely based on the appeal of seeing them share the screen? It’s a must-see experience that features so many of the more endearing elements of the once-popular subgenre. 

Heat (1995)

Though Heat regularly finds itself on many modern “best of” lists, its reception in 1995 was comparatively muted. The movie was successful and well-received, but it would take several years before it became the nearly undisputed cultural classic it is seen as today. Dads, however, had long put Heat on that pedestal. Fueled by the desire to watch generational heroes Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have a proper cinematic showdown, dads and the dads at heart flocked to see Heat not just in theaters but in the comfort of their homes when Heat became a cable TV repeat legend. It was sometime during those constant re-airings when the movie solidified itself as something special. 

The Rock (1996)

Though I briefly wondered if including three Sean Connery movies was too much, I thankfully came to my senses quickly enough to discuss director Michael Bay’s best movie, The Rock. Interestingly, one of the things that elevates this film above other Bay movies is also one of the things that makes it such a compelling ‘90s dad thriller: the subplot involving ex-commandos seeking proper compensation.

Yes, Connery is a Hall-of-Fame dad thriller star, and yes, he once again helps elevate another young actor to action-hero status. However, the idea to have this movie’s villains be ex-soldiers (led by a proper dad thriller veteran like Ed Harris), and the kind who occasionally make some reasonable points about the mistreatment of veterans, is one of those concepts you’d expect to find in one of the slightly more nuanced thrillers of this era… instead of a Michael Bay movie. Such was the growing influence of the dad thriller at this point in time. 

Twister (1996)

Just as the dad thriller is arguably a variant of the ‘70s paranoia thriller, the ‘90s saw the return of the kind of disaster epics that were also so popular during the 1970s. Many of those movies reached across the aisle to the dad thriller lovers out there. While Armageddon is thematically the most dad-driven of those movies, I have to give a slight nod to Twister

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As someone who grew up in the ‘90s not far from where Twister was set, I can tell you that this movie was a staple among dads of that time and place. Why? Well, besides the usual draws, this movie’s blue-collar Southern charms appealed to those who didn’t entirely trust white-coat scientists and government officials to see them through a crisis. With its mockery of the knowledge of city folk, its emphasis on family, and the suggestion that a plate of steak and eggs can cure most woes, Twister seemed to be speaking directly to titular factions of the dad thriller audience. 

Air Force One (1997)

Though Clear and Present Danger featured a more malicious portrayal of the president, movies in this genre more often suggested the leader of the free world was either a figure to be respected or a straight-up badass. Air Force One is certainly the most notable example of the latter philosophy. 

Look, watching Harrison Ford punch terrorists aboard an airplane is as good of a time as the immortal “get off my plane” line would lead you to believe it is. If it has been a while since you’ve watched this one all the way through though, then you may find yourself caught off guard by its overt and often strange political theories, and the ways that Ford’s character sometimes makes things worse by deciding to do it all himself. Ultimately, you’re here for Ford as the ultimate husband, father, and president rolling up his sleeves and balling his fists for the US of A. 

Kiss the Girls (1997)

This early adaptation of a James Patterson novel follows detective Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) as he hunts a serial killer who targets certain kinds of women. The movie has always had its fans but it’s ultimately a pale imitation of the two films it was most obviously inspired by: Seven and Silence of the Lambs

Yet as noted earlier, stories about fundamentally good cops pursuing increasingly deranged serial killers were a prominent part of the dad thriller diet. Kiss the Girls isn’t the best such movie, but it is one of the best examples of those strangely popular stories that would dryly portray some of the most horrifying concepts you’d ever dare to imagine.

Enemy of the State (1998)

With his final dad thriller of the ‘90s, the great Tony Scott delivered one of the purest old-school paranoia films of its decade. While the movie’s setup (which involves a lawyer being targeted by the NSA after accidentally receiving an incriminating tape) is elaborate even for this genre, it’s ultimately an excuse to get Will Smith and Gene Hackman together in a twisty and exceptional thriller. 

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Though Enemy of the State exemplifies some of the most important dad thriller traits, it’s the Will Smith factor that makes this movie so notable (and, ultimately, unique) within the genre. It’s difficult to watch Enemy of the State and not, perhaps selfishly, wish that Smith had made a couple more of these kinds of movies in the ‘90s and 2000s rather than getting caught in the summer blockbuster machine quite so soon as he did. Smith could have been one of the lead players in a new wave of dad movies, but things didn’t quite work out that way. 

While 1999 brought us a few dad thrillers of varying quality (from The Thomas Crown Affair to The General’s Daughter), Enemy of the State feels like the last real hurrah for the subgenre in that decade. Returns quickly diminished, and the few dad thriller concepts that lingered into the 2000s were repurposed and exported to other genres and fads. Whether we’ll ever see a return of this genre exactly as it was (or if such a return is even needed) is tough to say. Ideally, there will always be some love for what dad thrillers were at their best: dialogue-driven suspense pieces made for adults with a ton of star power that were often guided by an experienced directorial hand.