Best Cop Films (1)

The Departed (movie)

1. The Departed (2006).

Give it up to Scorsese and company on this one. The elevator scene, with an intensity and swiftness that smack you like a sledgehammer. The dual morality of the modern lawman — and modern man for that matter — excellent fodder for the old noggin. And then the cast, the character dynamics, and the dialogue… “You want a smoke? You don’t smoke, do ya, right? What are ya, one of those fitness freaks, huh? Go fuck yourself.” Well said. All around, well done.

The French Connection (film) 2. The French Connection (1971).

This film is mean, gritty, highly suspenseful, and it feels more real than any other film on the list. Gene Hackman’s character is a complete asshole, the kind of cop that gives the willies to potheads and kids out past curfew. More than that, he embodies the old-school, sadistic, mad-dog cop spirit that’s reared its ugly head throughout American history (i.e. 1968 Democratic Convention, Rodney King, labour strikebreakers, etc.). But in this telling, you’re with the lawman the whole way, and you really want him to bust that sly Frenchy after you watch him struggle through all the tedious stakeouts, violent footraces, and that legendary car chase.

Chinatown 3. Chinatown (1974).

Like The French Connection, this film swings towards tragic realism, reminding us that the 1% consistently come out on top, that hope is a fool’s paradise, and that humans are bewildering and often deplorable creatures. You could write a dissertation on many aspects of this film, but my mind always goes back to the final scene. It’s one of the most staggering on the books. In this corrupt and familiar world, no cop or private eye — not even Jack Nicholson in top form — can scrape the corrosive sludge that’s long clung to the scales of justice.

Serpico 4. Serpico (1973).

While The French Connection and Chinatown ultimately lean towards pessimistic, Serpico tells the true story of an unconventional, yet firmly honest cop who fights through hell and high water to uncover police corruption and right the scales in favour of fairness and decency. Al Pacino is fantastic as the lead. He transforms the character into a timeless archetype good enough for a spoof on It’s Always Sunny. He captivates the whole way through, and in the end the audience is rewarded as Serpico averts martyrdom and restores sanctity to the NYPD, America’s most revered police force.

Dirty Harry 5. Dirty Harry (1971).

How do you stop a crazed, crafty serial killer from terrorising the citizens of San Francisco? Give Clint Eastwood a hand-cannon and set him to work. And while Eastwood’s role in Dirty Harry has been rightfully immortalised for all time, props are also due to the villain, played by Andy Robinson, whose ruthlessness and depravity match that of the most acclaimed villains to befoul the big screen. Beyond that, the vigilante storyline is highly compelling, the music is funky, and the action scenes hold up quite well.

No Country For Old Men (movie) 6. No Country For Old Men (2007).

In Dirty Harry, it takes a bad guy to beat a bad guy, but in No Country For Old Men, the bad guys are way beyond the reach and understanding of local authorities. In the Coen brothers’ stirring depiction of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, the cops are “out-gunned” and the villain is the “ultimate badass”. It’s the “dismal tide”, and the Coens’ artfully concoct a world where there’s little to stop the monstrous forces of evil set to work by malicious free enterprise, spite, and chance.

The Fugitive 7. The Fugitive (1993).

Somebody’s put the finger on you, the judge is all fire and brimstone, and you’re sentenced to prison. Worse… death. Now how the hell do you escape? We’ve all roleplayed this fantasy, which is curiously alluring — a metaphor for individuals trapped in society? Perhaps. Whatever it is, The Fugitive plays it out masterfully. With the world against him, how can Richard Kimble escape, hide out, and prove his innocence? And on the other side of the coin, how can Deputy Gerard hunt down such a clever escapee? It’s a great story and it draws me in every time.

Heat (film) 8. Heat (1995).

This film starts with Pacino vs. De Niro. Two rockstars of cinema. Two guys the audience is always rooting for. But as convention demands, the audience is looking for a good guy and a bad guy.  Director/Writer Michael Mann makes the split, but he keeps it blurry, enticing the viewer to empathise with both characters. As such, Mann complicates the classic dichotomy between good and evil. While tonnes of cop movies beat this theme to death, Heat keeps it fresh and invigorating with its probing dialogue and depth of character. Plus, it helps when interspersed between the reflective moments are completely bad-ass action scenes that give ripe fodder to campaigns for gun control and censorship of movie violence. So it goes.

Reservoir Dogs (film) 9. Reservoir Dogs (1992).

The centre of this much-loved Tarantino film is the story of a rookie undercover cop who schmoozes his way into a crew of hotheaded heisters prone to small talk and high-minded bickering. Tim Roth, who plays the cop, does an excellent job toeing the line between anxiety and self-assuredness, and he establishes a dynamic rapport with Harvey Keitel, who plays the veteran hard-ass that gets suckered in by the bacon patrol. In my mind, their dubious character relationship gives rise to the emotional high points of the film. Beyond that, Reservoir Dogs is an all-around kick. A real gift for under 100 minutes.

The Naked Gun 10. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988).

You have got to give a nod to police comedies, and this one takes the grand prize. The goofy, slapstick, anarchic scenes cooked up by the Zucker brothers haven’t gone stale one bit. “Sexual assault with a concert dildo?” Yes. This film’s endlessly quotable. More than that, it’s a refreshing counterweight to the overabundance of hard-edged cop movies; it’s a fine tribute to the old-school comedy greats; and it’s always there to rejuvenate one’s affection for the absurd.

Written by Max Dulberger

3 thoughts on “Best Cop Films (1)

  1. Great list. Awesome to see Serpico on here. And The Naked Gun is one of my top few favourite comedies of all time. Who knows how it will hold up over time, but End of Watch from a year or two ago would be on my top 10 cop films. I thought it was the best entry in the genre for quite some time.

    • End of Watch was a solid flick. Very enjoyable. But I don’t know if it has the weight to dislodge any of the current listees. Tough choices.

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