Bullets and Badges: The 10 Best Cop Films of the Past 30 Years

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Jul 1, 2001 (Updated Aug 4, 2001)


The Bottom Line Excellent movies that should be on everyone's must see list.

Cop Movies. From the jaded cynic on the take, to the golden boy out for truth, justice and American way, to the screwball, we canít get enough of our boys in blue. The cop movie is a genre that extends well beyond your average shooting match and delves into the darker underbelly of society. Or sometimes itís just plain old cowboy fun. Either way, in itís endless incarnations; itís a story we can all be enthralled by. Hereís my list of my favorite 10 Cop films (a good amount which feature Al Pacino):

10 - Lethal Weapon
Who says a great cop movie has to be serious? One of the great buddy pics of the 80ís teams up Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as two police men from opposite sides work together to beat the bad guy Gary Busey. (Gary is never better than when heís playing a total psychoÖ) Where Glover is the average family man just trying to balance his home and career, Gibson is the wacko new detective with a suicidal complex who turns his life upside-down. Despite their differences, they soon learn that they actually make a good time and go out to kick some Busey buttÖ The sequels are pretty good, but they never stood up to the original.

9 - The Untouchables

ďThatís the Chicago Way.Ē Sean Conneryís famous speech is just one gem in a fabulous movie and probably one of the most famous speeches in a cop film. (The only one more famous is Dirty Harryís ďDo you feel lucky, punk?Ē; a movie thatís not on my list because Iíve actually never seen it all the way through.) An over the top retelling (do not look for historical accuracy hereÖ) of Elliot Nessís endeavor to smash Al Caponeís stranglehold on Chicago, this movie never gets old every time I watch it. Fabulous performances by Robert DeNiro, Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and the guy whose name I canít remember who played the little Treasury agent who gets killed abound. The sets are amazing and bring 1930ís Chicago to life. And the dialogue is dead-on perfect, not suprising since David Mamet wrote the script. Itís a gangster film, a cop film, an action film, and a little bit of buddy pic thrown in and good old shoot-em-up fun.

8 - Donnie Brasco

Most might consider this to be a mob movie, but I think it fits into the cop genre well, too. Johnny Depp gives an amazing performance a Joe Pistone (a.k.a. Donnie Brasco), an FBI agent who infiltrated the mob so deeply that they actually made him a made man. Caught up in a situation that often seems beyond his control, he attempts to hold on to his real self and do his job, despite the fact that heís trying to bring down the one man whoís actually become his friend. Getting in too deep, it seems almost impossible to extricate himself and he loses everything in the process, as he is forced to do some awful things in order to be accepted and believable. The scene where he has to beat down a waiter in an attempt to prove himself to his mob buddies and keep from blowing his cover is both frightening and sad. Al Pacino does a terrific job as Lefty Ruggiero an old mobster whoís never quite made it to the big time that takes Donnie under his wing. Also featured are Bruno Kirby and Michael Madsen who turn out excellent performances.

7 - Heat

Proof that yet again, cop movies and crime movies go hand in hand, this story of the face off between a tortured and obsessed cop (Pacino) and the thief (DeNiro) heís determined to bring down is wonderful. Telling the story from the perspective of both, we soon discover that the two have much more in common than they might think at first. The scene where they verbally spar in a coffee shop just crackles with intensity. This epic film is long, but youíll never notice the time going by, youíll be so drawn into the story as you routinely switch sides on who you root for to win out.

6 - The Border

A movie where Jack Nicholson isnít playing a total psycho?!? What a concept! Seriously, Nicholson does an absolutely amazing job with an understated performance as a border patrol agent in Texas looking for some shred of meaning in his life. Working in a job where he doesnít seem to make a difference and corruption abounds, he seems hopelessly beat. Soon, he finds himself in a situation where he can save the life of a child sold on the black market and possibly save his soul at the same time, as well. It also features Harvey Keitel as his best friend, whoís pretty much given up looking for justice and simply looks out for himself. This is a sadly underappreciated movie and I urge you to seek it out.

5 - Serpico
Al Pacino gives a fabulous performance as one of the only honest cops in the entire NYPD. Itís based on the true story of Frank Serpico, a police officer who couldnít be bought and eventually paid for it when he was shot on duty. Watching the trials Serpico goes through and his alienation by the rest of the force is depressing. Especially since itís such a realistic portrayal of the law enforcement community, where a person is so bombarded with the worst aspects of society they often give into the same corruption. Thereís not much of a happy ending, but itís gritty, realistic story and Pacinoís standout performance will stay with you long after.

4 - LA Confidential

American police in the 50ís werenít like Dragnet and this movie shows that perfectly. The stories of three very different cops who have to solve murders and attempt to fight rampant police corruption in 50ís Hollywood. The characters are shown warts and all, but they still try their best to do the right thing. Mixing fantasy and real-life events, this movie portrays the darker side of Hollywood. Again, itís a movie chock-full of great performances, my personal favorite as Kevin Spacey, the jaded detective whoís just trying to make some extra bucks in TV land as a consultant, but still manages to find a little bit of good left in him. And Kim Basinger was suprisingly good as the Veronica Lake lookalike prostitute with a heart of gold.

3 - The Thin Blue Line

The only documentary on the list, Errol Morrisís masterpiece details the story of convicted cop killer Randall Adams. The only problem is that Adams was framed due to intense pressure to bring somebody to justice as quickly as possible, whether theyíre guilty or innocent. The murder of a police officer can leave the public and especially the rest of the force out for blood and vengeance. By reenacting the murder and police investigation, Morrisís film uncovered glaring errors and inconsistencies and the film eventually set Randall Adams free. The last scene where the truth is revealed is an absolute shocker. A powerful film with a powerful true story, it is another one that will stick with you for a long time.

2 - The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad
Two words: Leslie Nielsen

Honestly, I really donít need to expound too much on this one, since itís already considered a comedy classic, but I will a little bit anyway. This could be in the top ten lists of so many films (and is in fact, #2 on my Best Spoofs list, as well. Airplane! Is #1, of course.) and just one viewing proves why. Leslie Nielsen is Lt. Frank Drebin, a good cop with a heart of gold and without a brain in his head thatís trying to stop the assassination of Queen Elizabeth. Just watching the wake of destruction he leaves in his path is absolutely priceless. This is a must see film.

My favorite quote (I couldn't resist):
Frank Drebin: When I see five weirdos dressed in togas stabbing a guy in broad daylight, I shoot the bastards. That's my policy.
Mayor: That was a Shakespeare In The Park production of Julius Ceaser, you moron! You killed five actors! Good ones!


1 - Copland

Sylvester Stallone plays Freddy Heflin, sheriff of a small New Jersey town thatís literally been taken over by a small contingent of NYPD officers. There literally isnít one bad performance in this entire movie, with other standouts being Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta. And the story is heartbreaking. Freddy grew up believing that he would someday be an NYPD officer and due to an injury, he was unable to. Instead he turns into a loser and a small town joke, with nothing but his dreams. He never let go of the belief that NYPD was truly where the best went. And watching the dream shattered by the harsh realities of the corruption he witnesses is absolutely heartbreaking. In the end, Freddy has to step up to the plate and prove his worth to himself, but is he able to or will he just prove that heís the loser everyone else believes he is? Also, I gotta give the film an extra star for mentioning my hometown of Elmira (a.k.a. home of Mark Twain and Tommy Hilfiger).

Honorable Mentions
Beverly Hills Cop (just the 1st one...)
Paradise Lost (an HBO documentary)
Die Hard

So thatís my list, hope you enjoyed them and if you have any youíd films or thoughts like to share with me, leave a comment! PS Ė I have never seen any Dirty Harry film, so theyíre not on the list.

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