Cop flicks have been around as for long as people have been making movies. Conversely, there’s something extremely satisfying about seeing hardened criminals brought to justice (or simply blown away by a maverick detective’s .44 Magnum – who needs the paperwork?) and watching flat-flooted plod being repeatedly eluded by Robin Hood-esque master thieves. We can’t get enough of law breaking and law enforcement.
For Hollywood at least, crime certainly does pay – and as a result there’s no sign of police movies going out of fashion any time soon. While that’s great for the veteran cineaste who consumes this stuff five nights a week, the amateur may find the sheer number of options a little overwhelming. Enter Team Stuff, with our picks of the 25 best police movies ever. Grab a coffee and a doughnut and enjoy.
Additional words by Sam Kieldsen
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LA Confidential (1997)
Director Curtis Hanson’s neo-noir condenses James Ellroy’s massive chronicle of 1940s LA into a tight, atmospheric thriller. The LAPD don’t come out of it particularly well, though – Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce’s detectives uncover a web of corruption reaching to the very highest levels of the force.
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)
Sergeant Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) causes mayhem wherever he goes but still manages to get the girl. In Naked Gun’s case, he also catches the killer and saves the Queen. With a plot that riffs on 1977 spy film Telefon, this spoof police movie has no shame in its juvenile puns, visual gags and slapstick. We just wouldn’t want Drebin in charge of saving our lives. Unless laughter really is the best medicine.
Dirty Harry (1971)
Dirty Harry is the granddaddy of police thrillers with Eastwood in one of his most recognisable roles. Harry Callahan is a tough San Francisco cop (in fact, the toughest) who doesn’t think twice about putting busloads of kidnapped kids in danger to get his man. That’s not to mention the infamous scene in which Harry tortures the bad guy, Scorpio. It also gave birth to one of Hollywood’s great misquotes: “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
Superhuman cop alert – it’s RoboCop time. RoboCop has three jobs: serving the public, protecting the innocent and upholding the law. Besides these, he manages to look damn cool while doing it and as such is our policing role model of choice.
Infernal Affairs (2002)
The Hong Kong original of Scorsese’s The Departed, but prepare to get confused in this thriller. A mole in the police and an undercover cop hanging about with a triad try to work out each other’s identities at the same time. Infernal Affairs is a smart world cinema flick that keeps you on edge while you desperately attempt to decide who to cheer for.
Flying the flag for lady cops, Fargo sees Frances McDormand and the Coen Brothers team up for this bizarre black comedy about a salesman who screws up a kidnapping. McDormand is the very pregnant policewoman Marge Gunderson and she, William H Macy and Steve Buscemi pull off some great faces and odd Mid-West accents.
Metropolis director Fritz Lang made his move into sound film with this crime thriller – and pioneered several innovations. Not only was it the first film to use a leitmotif for a major character – Peter Lorre’s child-murderer Hans Beckert whistles In the Hall of the Mountain King to sinister effect – it was also the first police procedural.
In the end, the police’s use of the latest technology – fingerprinting and handwriting analysis – come to naught, and it’s left to the city’s criminals to catch and try the pathetic Beckert.
The French Connection (1971)
Gene Hackman bagged an Oscar for his role as pork pie-hatted detective “Popeye” Doyle, an unconventional hero whose alcoholism and blinkered attitudes stand in stark contrast to the suave poise of heroin supplier Alain Charnier.
Charnier’s importing pure heroin to the US from Marseilles – the French Connection of the title – and it’s down to Doyle to work out how he’s getting the drug into the country.
Director William Friedkin lends a gritty feel to the film, most notably in the infamous car chase that hurtles through the New York streets at breakneck speed.
The Blue Lamp (1950)
This classic Ealing Studios effort contrasted the traditional bobby with the emergence of a new type of young criminal – hoodlums whose experiences during the Second World War have hardened them against authority, personified by Dirk Bogarde’s Riley. The paternal, traditional PC George Dixon is unprepared to deal with Riley’s spate of violent robberies – leading to his death at Riley’s hands. Ironically, the character of Dixon proved so popular he was resurrected for the TV series Dixon of Dock Green.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
Simon Pegg’s London copper Nicholas Angel finds himself transplanted to the leafy village of Sandford in Edgar Wright’s action movie pastiche. The second part of Wright and Pegg’s “Blood & Cornettos” trilogy, Hot Fuzz may not quite reach the heights of Shaun of the Dead, but its affectionate riffs on the likes of Bad Boys 2 and Point Break – relocated to a quiet country village – still bring the laughs.
Jar City (2006)
This grim crime drama follows hangdog Inspector Erlendur’s investigation into the murder of a criminal and the death of a child in the 1970s – so far, so predictable. But Jar City draws on Iceland’s unique qualities to create a film quite unlike the usual Hollywood fare. The chilly landscape, the country’s small population and the resulting strong ties between the present and past generations lend Jar City a unique quality. Probably won’t do much for Icelandic tourism, though.
The Hard Way (1991)
Six years after Michael J Fox first went back to the future, he starred in The Hard Way as a method actor partnered with NYPD cop James Woods to hunt The Party Crasher, a serial killer. The gruff cop/rookie actor combination causes friction between the two – and comedic hijinks, gun fights and a kidnapped love interest naturally ensue.
Hard Boiled (1992)
In John Woo’s final Hong Kong movie Chow Yun-fat fills the shoes of a sharp-shooting inspector called Tequila who’s not afraid to spray bullets at baddies in the name of justice. Fun fact: its video game sequel, Stranglehold, is also being made into a movie.
Tom Hanks and Dan Akroyd lead this parody homage to long-running TV show Dragnet, in which they play a typical pair of mismatched cops striving to defeat the PAGAN cult and its plans to produce a toxic gas. Masked disguises and a fighter jet chase are thrown in for good measure.
The Naked City (1948)
An early example of reportage-style film noir, The Naked City revolves around the killing of a young model and the team of cops that are hunting for her murderer. The gripping manhunt denouement alone is worth a place in this list, but we also salute its position as a frontrunner for the police movie genre.
Police Story (1985)
Capturing a notorious drugs lord has its vengeful repercussions – as self-effacing police officer Kevin (Jackie Chan) soon finds out. Framed for the murder of a dirty cop, he has to fight for his freedom and his girlfriend. Not only did this film edge Chan into the limelight, it landed him in hospital after performing a stunt in which he fell through a glass canopy and stopped breathing.
Bad Boys (1995)
Bad boys Mike Lowry (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) attempt to protect a murder witness while working against the clock to reclaim 100 million dollars worth of stolen heroin. Bad Boys is a fast-talking cop actioner that exploits the old odd couple buddy routine to the max. And, yes, we can hear you singing the title song.
Cop Land (1997)
Sylvester Stallone puts away his stock overblown cop character (see 1986’s Cobra, which missed this list by a whisker, for that) in favour of a more considered approach. And he was in good company to do a “serious” turn – Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro also make up the cast of this hard-edged, tense thriller.
Police Academy (1984)
A series of increasingly desperate sequels means Police Academy ended up with a bad rap, but the original – despite its lowbrow prankery and cast of oddballs vs stereotypes – was an engaging bit of cop comedy. It was also a massive hit, a fact that kept the franchise alive for a decade. Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow was the appalling swansong.
Stray Dog (1949)
Inspired by 1948’s The Naked City, this film noire flick is set in a bomb-ravaged post-war Tokyo and follows detective Murakami on his search to retrieve his stolen gun, which has been used to commit various crimes and murders. And we thought losing our wallet was bad…
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Eddie Murphy dialled back the scene stealing (a bit) for Beverly Hills Cop, a slick comedy that retains all the hallmarks of mid-80s Hollywood while remaining totally watchable. The infuriatingly catchy keyboard hook in the theme tune – Axel F – will stick in your head for weeks. No, make that decades – there it is again.
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Bent cops are one of Hollywood’s great themes (Serpico missed this list by a slither, if you were wondering). In Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Kietel is a gambling, crack-smoking pervert… and a policeman. Not the sort of man you’d ask for directions out of uniform. Although Abel Ferrara’s film came first, Werner Herzog’s 2009 “rethink” of Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage is equally (un)watchable.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
Danny Glover is “too old for this shit” – the shit being Mel Gibson’s suicidal approach to crime fighting. If Lethal Weapon seems now like a pastiche of the mismatched buddy cop action comedy, that’s because it’s been copied a thousand times over, three of those times in Lethal Weapon 2, Lethal Weapon 3 and Lethal Weapon 4. The second is worth watching.
City on Fire (1987)
The usual collective of ruthless criminal gangs and femmes fatales populates the rest of the credits, but Chow Yun-fat leads the cast of this gritty Hong Kong police action movie. It’s dated, yes, but it’s said to have been the basis for Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, in particular the Mexican standoff scene.
Turner & Hooch (1989)
Although it came out just after K-9, Turner & Hooch was undeniably the more charming police buddy comedy to pair man with his best friend. We’ll take Tom “Turner” Hanks’s jowled, clumsy, slobbering hound over James Belushi’s unruly German Shepherd any day of the week. Hooch’s matchmaking abilities alone make him worth the screen fee.