Editor's note: To watch clips of each movie, click on the title. Also, read the favorites of other officers in the results of POLICE Magazine's "Best Cop Movie Ever" survey.
Lord knows I like to limit my hypocrisies, but God help me if I don't like movies. And now is the time that masochists like me reflect on the previous year's offerings. Unfortunately, 2009 wasn't a particularly high-water mark for movies in my book, and I find myself not so much rooting for any particular film so much as I find myself rooting against "Avatar." (Aside from its ridiculous script, I still haven't forgiven Mr. Cameron for his "Titanic" win over "Good Will Hunting").
Which makes it all the more tempting to reflect on another staple: the cop movie.
That cops actually have their own genre is good, because otherwise we'd be stuck as non-supporting supporting characters: Lee J. Cobb's likeable but ineffectual cop in "The Exorcist"; Herb Edelman's likeable but ineffectual cop Murray in "The Odd Couple"; Harvey Keitel's likeable but ineffectual cop Hal in "Thelma and Louise" (contrast that with his unlikeable but effectual presence in "Bad Lieutenant").
But thanks to an occasional good script and mercenary producer, we do have other icons to refer to. Harry Callahan, Virgil Tibbs, Popeye Doyle. Tackleberry.
The celluloid long arm of the law stretches from coast to coast, from an ancestral past (Rooster Cogburn) to a projected future – "Demolition Man" (which has proven prescient in its prognosticating of emasculated police forces).
It's not really surprising that cops should enjoy such prominence in the Hollywood canon. Hey, cops have one of the most interesting professions around. They are more apt to encounter people from all walks of life than just about any other profession, and often in contentious situations. Plus, they have their own distinctive personalities, sometimes endearing, sometimes not.
Couple this with a virtual guarantee of a basic story need – conflict – and it's no wonder our movie brethren can tear 'em up at the box office.
It's always tempting to put together a Top Ten list, but they're so arbitrary and I'm not even sure how permanent such a hierarchy would hold up in my own book: I'm moody and my tastes change. Besides, I'm generationally and geographically biased. You like "Fort Apache"; I favor "Colors." You like "Serpico"; give me "Dirty Harry." Your vote goes to Rooster Cogburn? Mine's for Joe Friday.
But I will say that some of the more memorable cop movies I've seen—for better or worse, and it really doesn't matter because there's not much on Oscar's calendar this year—are deserving of a second look.
"L.A. Confidential" – As a warm up for his real life hotel blow-up, Russell Crowe beats the hell out of mid-twentieth century bad guys and Guy Pearse, too. And while one is the yin to the other's yang, neither LAPD copper is one-dimensional; both have virtues the other could use, and between them, the makings for a damn good cop. Or a damn good sociopath.
Speaking of sociopaths, "Training Day" is a film I absolutely hate, despise, and abominate. Writer David Ayer and director Antoine Fuqua certainly know the cop lingo, but are incapable of producing anything other than cookie cutter villains with badges. Every single cop on screen in "Training Day" is murderously corrupt or vacuously weak-willed. The arguable exceptions – a cop tandem helping a stranded motorist – are used as a point of derision ("Do you want to be on my team," a disgusted Denzel asks. "Or theirs?"). As every uniformed being in "Training Day" conducts himself like some Rampart stereotype – another ill-deserved reputation – I can't imagine another film that has done more to hurt law enforcement's reputation than this one.
OK, I get it. Cops aren't saints, and you need drama. I'm not above portraying cops as occasionally corrupt; just don't make him the hero. That doesn't mean that he can't steal the film. He is ethically-challenged after all, right?
Here is where "Touch of Evil" fills the bill on both fronts. Orson Wells' bloated cop oozes corruption from every sweaty pore. Offering a counter-weight to the proceedings is south of the border cop Ramon Vargas, portrayed by gabacho Charlton Heston, which is one of the most curious casting jobs since John Wayne jumped into Ghengis Khan's wardrobe.
"The Untouchables" – With Ennio Morricone's driving score heralding each dramatic raid, Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith (!) kick ass and take names in this Brian De Palma-helmed epic. Yeah, Costner had that moral lapse on the rooftop at the end, but can you really blame him?
"The Silence of the Lambs" – Here's a good piece of trivia for you. Since Oscar's first presentation, only three movies have won all the top awards – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Director – in a single year: "It Happened One Night," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and "Silence of the Lambs." As such, I'd be remiss if I didn't include the adaptation of Thomas Harris' novel. Besides featuring the best low-key female bad ass this side of "Aliens" Ripley, it showcases a villain that I suspect more than a few viewers begrudgingly respect and definitely fear: Hannibal Lector.
"48 Hrs." – Often imitated, never surpassed, it was the launchpad for all manner of badged odd couples to follow (and Mutt and Jeff teams such as James Woods and Michael J. Fox; Jay Leno and Pat Morita). Moreover, it laid the foundation for its "new sheriff in town" star to take on his most famous role, Axel Foley, in three "Beverley Hills Cop" movies. Worth watching if only for Mr. Murphy's American Idol audition ("Roxanne"). Director Walter Hill never met a window he didn't want to smash.
"The French Connection" – William Friedkin's documentary background helps to offer up some verisimilitude (look it up) here, and he explores themes that would feature prominently in later works, including "To Live and Die in L.A.," another cop movie worth checking out (yeah, it features crooked cops, but they're not all bad). The chase scene is nothing worse than your average 405-Freeway commute, but still is the benchmark by which other chases are measured.
"Bullitt" – Steve McQueen made turtlenecks and shoulder holsters look cool. And you know it.
"The Departed" – So we had to rip-off China for this one's clever conceit: two guys go undercover on opposite sides of the fence and play cat and mouse with one another (kind of makes up for all those toxined toys we got from 'em). Features more head shots than a modeling agency's file drawers. Jack Nicholson does a pretty good job portraying Jack Nicholson.
I'll close with a minor flick that barely registered on the radar: "One False Move." Great film about a small-town cop coming up against a trio of bad folk, one of which he has a history with.