In Utah, Nancy Breyers (Kelly Lynch) is a defense lawyer who is inexplicably in love with client Michael Bosworth (Mickey Rourke), a sociopathic convict. During a break from a courtroom hearing, Nancy sneaks a gun to Bosworth. After Bosworth snaps a guard's neck, Bosworth and Nancy slip away.
Bosworth tears at Nancy's clothing and leaves her behind, where she will tell authorities Bosworth held her at gunpoint during his escape. He speeds off in a car with his brother Wally (Elias Koteas), and their partner, the hulking, half-witted Albert (David Morse), then changes cars with one Nancy has left for him in a remote location.
In the meantime, decorated Vietnam veteran Tim Cornell (Anthony Hopkins) arrives at his former home with his ex-wife Nora (Mimi Rogers), who have two kids—15-year-old May (Shawnee Smith) and her 8-year-old brother Zack (Danny Gerard). Tim and Nora separated due to his infidelity with a younger woman, and Tim shows up trying to reconcile with Nora, with whom he is still in love.
Needing a hideout until Nancy can catch up with them, the Bosworth brothers and Albert settle on the Cornells' home with a "For Sale" sign which is seemingly picked by Bosworth at random. Somehow, Bosworth picks up intimate details of the Cornells, and one by one all of them find themselves the prisoners of the Bosworth brothers and Albert.
Nancy's innocent act does not fool FBI agent Brenda Chandler (Lindsay Crouse), who puts surveillance on her every move. Nancy eventually cuts a deal with Chandler to have charges against her reduced by betraying Bosworth.
As young Zack tries to escape through a window, a friend of the Cornells who visits the house by chance meets him. Bosworth makes the family friend enter inside by force, and as they discuss, Bosworth shoots him, then makes Albert dispose of the body as Albert gets anxiety-ridden and decides to go off on his own. As Albert leaves while covered in blood, he intercepts two college girls, who expose his presence to a small gas station owner. The owner calls the authorities who chase after Albert. Albert ignores their order to surrender and is killed by the police on a river bank.
Nancy begs Agent Chandler to give her a gun, but unbeknownst to Nancy, Chandler removes the bullets. As she goes to the Cornells' house, the house gets surrounded, and as a shootout starts by Bosworth, Wally is fatally wounded in a barrage of FBI bullets and falls on top of a shocked Nancy. Wally's gun is taken away by Tim. Bosworth holds a gun on Nora and is prepared to use it if Tim interferes. He is unaware that Tim has removed the bullets. Tim then drags the criminal outside, where Bosworth ignores the FBI's order to surrender, and is fatally shot.Anthony Hopkins as Tim Cornell
Mickey Rourke as Michael Bosworth
Mimi Rogers as Nora Cornell
David Morse as Albert
Lindsay Crouse as FBI Agent Chandler
Kelly Lynch as Nancy Breyers
Elias Koteas as Wally Bosworth
Shawnee Smith as May Cornell
Matt McGrath as Kyle
Danny Gerard as Zack Cornell
The film, directed by Michael Cimino, was a commercial disappointment and received split reviews. Critic and movie historian Leonard Maltin referred to the film this way: "Ludicrous...With no suspense, an at-times-laughable music score, and Shawnee Smith as a daughter/victim you'll beg to see cold-cocked." The film holds a 36% "rotten" rating on the reviews aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes based on 11 reviews. Christopher Tookey, reviewing the film for the Sunday Telegraph called Desperate Hours: "One of those films which should never have been released, even on parole - a danger to itself."
Mickey Rourke earned a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Actor for his performance in the film (also for Wild Orchid), but lost to Andrew Dice Clay for The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.
According to some official sources, Michael Cimino's original cut of Desperate Hours was mutilated by the film's producers, resulting in a very badly edited film filled with plot holes. The only known proof of any deleted scenes are some stills which seemingly show a few of them.