Top Ten Cop Movies

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Authors note:

Okay, let me just a minute to explain about my relationship with cop movies. I love them! As an ex-actor my ideal role would be that of some down on his luck, hardboiled cop! The very first feature length script I completed was a cop thriller! I did my very best at channeling QT and went to work. Let me tell you, it’s a long way from Shakespeare but it was a lot of fun to do!

So I thought I would take a moment to tell you fine folks what I’ve learned watching…nay, studying the quintessential cop movie! I’m sure nothing on this list will come as a shock to anyone but the order might. But don’t let the numbers mean too much. The list is what it was on the day I wrote it, and is one of those things that could easily change day to day!

*Disclaimer* my definition for a Cop movie. Is a movie about cops doing cop things i.e. solving a case. It is my humble opinion that Reservoir Dogs is not a cop movie. Yes, Mr. Orange is a cop but the main action of the film is not about him; it’s about the crew of gangsters dealing with a botched robbery of which he is one part. Therefore it is a gangster movie not a cop movie.

Also, anything that might qualify as a comedy won’t be found here.

1- Serpico (1973)

Directed by Sidney Lumet

    Without this film we don’t have about half the other films on my list. This features a young Al Pacino right off The Godfather and into the very capable hands of Sidney Lumet. Pacino’s performance as Frank Serpico is one of the best of his career. It’s varied and nuanced in a way that that we don’t see from him much anymore. This is the gritty true story of the one good cop in the bad town. It’s a small, uncomplicated yet ultimately tragic picture about a cop who just wants to do his job and be left alone. This 70’s classic leaves us feeling a little wiser yet sickened about the harsh realities of police work. A true depiction of the age-old saying “if you look for the bad in the world you’re sure to find it”! It gets the number one spot because it does the most, the best, the first! And even though The French Connection and In The Heat of the Night came before, those films seemed to be about bigger ideas and themes than a cop simply wanting to be cop, which this film encapsulates so well!

2- L.A. Confidential (1997)

    Directed by Curtis Hanson
    I am always one for a good old hardboiled James Ellroy novel. The true fowl owl with the death growl! This film is the quintessential L.A. crime movie, complete with gangsters, movie stars, and murder! Superbly shot, wonderfully cast and beautifully acted, this film is a symphony for film buffs and crime-story enthusiasts alike!  The chess match between Guy Pierce, Russell Crow and Kevin Spacey is really something to be witnessed! With each character attempting to out maneuver the other two. This picture was at the very top of most critics best of lists for that year. And besides the fact that I don’t think Kim Basinger deserved the Academy Award for her performance (due to the fact that she speaks about 4 times in the entire film), the performance itself is actually very good. I couldn’t actually find anything else that was even a little bit wrong with this movie. Hence number 2 on my list! And that’s off the record, on the QT and very hush hush!

3- Bullitt (1968)

    Directed by Peter Yates
    One of my dad’s favorite movies! This film has to be afforded a certain status because it did the big city cop thing before it was en vogue to do the big city cop thing! The story follows Detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) as he does his best to protect a Federal witness in his custody over one weekend. The bad guys try to assassinate said witness; car chases (one of the best) ensue! Being one of the very first to do something always has it’s own innate advantages like not trying to be something else! The characters in Bullitt ring very true. They all come off as people one might meet in San Francisco in 1968. All together a great film for the simple fact that in was making it up as it went along!

4- Heat (1995)

    Directed by Michael Mann
    Michael Mann’s modern noir crime drama, boast a lot of hits. DeNeiro and Pacino sharing the screen for the first time, notable performances by a strong supporting cast, and a great plot all make this a better than good movie! The fact that the picture is punctuated with good dialogue, has air tight action, and is topped off with one of the greatest gun battles in movie history help the film’s case on being a top ten contender. It’s not perfect, but with the exception of Al chewing up the scenery with his bad cop routine, it slides into the number 4 position!

5- The French Connection (1971)

    Directed by William Friedkin
    The classic! I know I might get some grief over the low placement of this film on my list. You can definitely make an argument for it to be higher. The raw look and foundation in reality give it an authenticity that can’t be ignored. The script and direction are top notch (winning best Picture and Best Director) and the acting is also fantastic with Roy Scheider being nominated and Gene Hackman winning a well-deserved Academy Award of his own. The things that make this picture special are unfortunately also the things that take away from it. It’s slow (sans the car chase which kicks ass) and although very realistic I have always found the ending somewhat unsatisfying. It is one of the finest films of the 20th century to be sure. I want to like it more than I do…but I don’t! So it stays in the middle of the pack.

6- Training Day (2001)

    Directed by Antoine Fuqua
    A lot of people don’t like this film. They find it formulaic and over the top and I can see where they are coming from. Maybe it’s a guilty pleasure, but this is one of my favorites! The film is big…REAL BIG! The city is big, the characters are big, the violence is big and the language is big. So you kind of have to buckle in and enjoy the ride (or not). Rollercoaster’s aren’t for everybody. But I think both Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke deliver powerhouse performances in this cop vs. cop battle of wills. There are so many excellent moments (Mr. Hawke in a bathtub with a shotgun in his face) in this film and director Antoine Fuqua uses them all to his advantage. This film has an intensity that almost crackles!

7- In the Heat of the Night (1967)

    Directed by Norman Jewison

    This film represent so much more than simply a great cop flick. This classic picture represents the changing racial attitudes in America during the late 1960’s, and cemented Sidney Poitier as the first African American movie star! But besides being a film of significant cultural value, In the Heat of the Night is deftly handled who-done-it. With Sydney Poitier and Rod Steiger battling each other for a hundred minutes just to come out on the other side a little better and a little more human. It’s a great adaptation of John Ball’s 1965 novel. Norman Jewison does an excellent job of taking us away to 1967 Mississippi warts and all, in a time when it’s might not have been as socially acceptable to do so.

8- The Departed (2006)

    Directed by Martin Scorsese

    A film based on the Asian crime hit Infernal Affairs yet seamlessly draws inspiration from true life Boston Godfather James “Whitey” Bugler. Even though I think don’t this is Scorsese’s best work (even though he won the Oscar for it) there’s nothing really wrong with either. While DiCaprio, Damon, are particularly good, Baldwin, Nicholson, Walberg, and Sheen all do excellent jobs with their respective roles as well. The script is tight. Their Southie dialects are good, save a few small scene’s that don’t quite fit in with the rest of the picture it’s a pretty damn good way to spend a couple of hours. I am a GIANT Martin Scorsese fan but the fact that he’s done at least two maybe three better movies mean that this one has to be content with 8th.

9- To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

    Directed by William Friedkin

    A classic 80’s, R rated movie! Complete with sex, violence, and William Petersen. The film centers on a Secret Service Agent who is bent on revenge, going undercover to investigate a violent Counterfeiting ring in Los Angeles. Once again William Friedkin proves that he is a fan of car chases but not of happy endings. This film is dark and disturbing and shows the very grim world of undercover police work. What makes this film so special is how L.A. is depicted as a modern day Gomorrah. The city itself almost becomes a character in the film. A place that might swallow you up in a world of violence and cocaine! Nothing is what it seems and allegiances are easily purchased in the city of Angels!

10- Narc (2002)

    Directed by Joe Carnahan

    This is one film that I absolutely love. It delves into the darkest aspect of police and undercover work and makes no apology for it! It’s grim, violent and disturbing, showing cops patrolling the thin blue line between order and chaos. Jason Patrick and Ray Liotta as Nick Tellis and Henry Oak, two narcotics detectives on the hunt for a cop killer, are brilliant. Maybe the best thing either of them has done…maybe! But even though the world and the characters of this film are painted so beautifully. The plot comes up a tad short. This is the reason it won’t get any higher than the 10 spot!
    I know Dirty Harry is not on the list! What can I say…I’m a big fan of Clint just not as big a fan of Harry and his 357!

The Wananbee’s

Now, I want to be clear: These are not bad movies they aren’t great either but they’re not bad! At their worst they are simply rip off jobs of the first ten. Other than a few obvious missteps, the acting, script and direction in all these films is solid across the board. They just don’t give us anything new!

  1. Pride And Glory (2008, directed by Gavin O’Connor)
  2. We Own The Night (2007, directed by James Gray)
  3. Brooklyn Finest (2009, directed by Antoine Fuqua)
  4. Street Kings (2008, directed by David Ayer) *

*Forest Whitaker is particularly good in this!

– Jacob Barker

3 Comments
  1. James says

    What about Donnie Brasco?

  2. Billy says

    Kindergarten Cop should be on this list!

  3. Susannah Straughan says

    Great list, Jacob. I also really like the Gerard Depardieu/Daniel Auteuil rivalry in 36 Quai des Orfevres. Richard Fleischer’s The New Centurions is worth a look, too.

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