Unlawful Entry at 30: One of the Best Yuppies-in-Peril Thrillers of the ’90s

In 1992, yuppies-in-peril thrillers were still heavily in demand with notable movies like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Single White Female. Then, there’s Unlawful Entry, which starred Kurt Russell as well as Madeleine Stowe and of course, Ray Liotta. The movie received mostly favourable reviews, where it debuted at No. 2 during the July 26-28, 1992 weekend with US$10.0 million (Batman Returns remained at the top spot for the second consecutive week). It managed to sustain just long enough for 27 weeks and became a box-office hit at the end of its theatrical run, grossing US$57.1 million against a US$23 million budget.

Part of what made Unlawful Entry both critical and commercial success was having Ray Liotta on board. The charismatic actor, who was 38 years old at the time of its release, plays a uniformed police officer named Pete Davis. He seems like a nice guy and even goes as far as helping out the married couple — Michael (Kurt Russell) and Karen (Madeleine Stowe) —  to get someone to install a security system in their house following a break-in case.

But it doesn’t take long before Pete’s otherwise friendly and selfless demeanour reveals his ugly side. This is particularly evident during a scene when Pete manages to locate the intruder (Johnny Ray McGhee) responsible for breaking into the couple’s house. Instead of taking him back straight to the police station, he wants Michael to teach him a lesson. When Michael hesitates, Pete ends up violently beating the intruder with a nightstick.

Kurt Russell and Ray Liotta in "Unlawful Entry" (1992)

And yet, the sadistic side of Pete’s behaviour isn’t the only thing that worries Michael as Pete becomes increasingly obsessed with Karen. Liotta’s cop-from-hell role is easily among his best performances to date since his groundbreaking turn in Goodfellas in 1990. He’s an absolute scene-stealer in the movie, showcasing his acting prowess from being a good cop to an obsessive and psychopathic individual. His memorable performance landed him a nomination for Best Villain at the 1993 MTV Movie Awards, even though he lost to Jennifer Jason Leigh for Single White Female. It’s worth noting that prior to Liotta securing the role of Pete Davis, several other actors from Mel Gibson to John Travolta and Charlie Sheen were considered as well. I just wanted to say they made the right perfect choice on Liotta at the end of the day.

Re-watching Liotta’s performance again in Unlawful Entry made me realise how much I missed his acting since his untimely death at the age of 67 on May 26 this year. The last time I saw him was Shades of Blue, a TV series where he plays a corrupted cop named Lt. Matt Wozniak opposite Jennifer Lopez. Liotta pairs well with Kurt Russell, who strikes a nice balance playing the complete opposite — a role of an everyman devoid of the usual tough-guy persona (among them includes 1981’s Escape from New York, 1982’s The Thing and 1991’s Backdraft) commonly associated with the actor.

The movie also famously featured Madeleine Stowe in one of her most recognisable roles as Karen. Her role as a trophy wife could have been easily a thankless one but Stowe manages to elevate her part with above-average performance.

Madeleine Stowe in "Unlawful Entry" (1992)

As far as a yuppies-in-peril thriller goes, it pretty much follows the conventional formula. But at least, Jonathan Kaplan’s (1988’s The Accused) sure-handed direction does help a lot in maintaining a consistently engaging pace throughout the movie. He also has a knack for building tension before it escalates to an obligatory all-hell-breaks-loose finale. Lewis Colick’s screenplay may have been questionable at times (e.g. how does Pete manage to get Michael’s credit card cancelled and even cause him to pay exorbitant parking tickets that he never got in the first place?). And yet, it was still forgivable, given the stars’ excellent performances and Kaplan’s genre know-how direction overcomes some of the movie’s flaws.

Kaplan would reunite with Madeleine Stowe two years later in the all-female Western movie called Bad Girls. His last feature-length movie to date was Brokedown Palace in 1999 before he spent his latter days directing TV episodes like ER, Without a Trace and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In 2008, Neil LaBute gave us an Unlawful Entry-like yuppies-in-peril thriller called Lakeview Terrace, where instead of Ray Liotta, we have Samuel L. Jackson as the menacing cop while Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington play the interracial couple.

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