Initially, Owen carved out a career in television: in 1988 Owen starred as Gideon Sarn in a BBC television production of Precious Bane and the Channel 4 film Vroom before the 1990s saw him become a regular on stage and television in the UK, notably his lead role in the ITV series Chancer followed by an appearance in the Thames Television production of Lorna Doone.
He won critical acclaim for his performances in a 1991 Stephen Poliakoff film called Close My Eyes, about a brother and sister who embark on an incestuous love affair. Due to personal conflicts with the press, Owen decided not to appear in television programmes for a while. However, he subsequently appeared in The Magician, of '61, Century, Nobody's Children, An Evening with Gary Lineker, Doomsday Gun, Return of the Native, The Turnaround and then a Carlton production called Sharman, about a private detective. In 1996 he appeared in his first major Hollywood film The Rich Man's Wife alongside Halle Berry before finding international acclaim in a Channel 4 film directed by Mike Hodges called Croupier in 1998. He played the title role of a struggling writer who takes a job in a London casino as inspiration for his work, only to get caught up in a robbery scheme. In 1999 he appeared as an accident-prone driver in Split Second, his first BBC production for a decade.
He then starred in The Echo, a BBC1 drama. He also starred in a film called Greenfingers about a criminal who goes to work in a garden, before appearing in the BBC1 mystery series Second Sight, in which he played DCI Ross Tanner. In 2001 he provided the voice-over for a BBC2 documentary about popular music through the years called Walk On By, as well as starring in a highly-acclaimed theatre production called The Day in the Death of Joe Egg, about a couple with a severely handicapped daughter.
He became well known to North American audiences in the summer of 2001 after starring as The Driver in the The Hire, a series of short films sponsored by BMW and made by prominent directors. He then appeared in Robert Altman's Gosford Park, alongside an all-star cast including Helen Mirren and Ryan Phillippe. He has also appeared in The Bourne Identity with American actor Matt Damon. In 2003, he teamed up with Hodges again to make I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. He also starred in Beyond Borders and took on the title role in King Arthur. He took horse-riding lessons for the latter role.
Owen appeared in the West End and Broadway hit play Closer, by Patrick Marber, which again became a film, and was released in 2005. It is interesting to note that he played "Dan" in the play, but was "Larry" the dermatologist in the film version. His blistering, darkly comic portrayal of Larry in the film version earned him a lot of recognition as well as the Golden Globe and BAFTA award and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He noted that the expectations of him since the Oscar nomination have not changed the way he approaches film-making, stating "I try, every film I do, to be as good as I can and that's all I can do.
After Closer, he appeared in Derailed alongside Jennifer Aniston, the comic book thriller Sin City as the noir antihero Dwight McCarthy and as a mysterious bank robber in Inside Man. Despite public denials, Owen had long been rumored to be a possible successor to Pierce Brosnan in the role of James Bond. A public opinion poll in the United Kingdom in October 2005 (SkyNews) found that he was the public's number one choice to star in the next installment of the series. In that same month, however, it was announced that British actor Daniel Craig would become the next James Bond. In an interview in the September 2007 issue of Details, he claimed that he was never offered or even approached concerning the role. In 2006, Owen spoofed the Bond connection by making an appearance in the remake of The Pink Panther in which he plays a character named "Nigel Boswell, Agent 006" (when he introduces himself to Inspector Clouseau he quips that Owen's character is "one short of the big time").
In 2006, Owen starred in the highly acclaimed Children of Men. He received widespread praise for his role as the former political activist-turned-reluctant hero Theo Faron. The film was nominated for various awards including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay; Owen worked on the screenplay, although he was uncredited. The next year he starred alongside Paul Giamatti in the film Shoot 'Em Up and appeared as Sir Walter Raleigh opposite Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth I of England in the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
In 2007, Owen appeared in the Christmas special of the Ricky Gervais show Extras, as revealed in the video podcast teaser. He also uttered the immortal phrase "F*ck off, I'm Clive Owen, That's mental" when presented with a woman who he was supposed to have slept with in a film.