Top 10 Movie Cops
“Well, there’s some good and there’s some bad news. The good news is you’re right – I’m a cop and I’ve gotta take you in. The bad news is I’ve been suspended and I don’t give a fuck.”
– Lloyd Hopkins, “Cop” (1988)
Good cops sometimes get a bad rap. But sometimes, those cops are villainous, ruthless, manipulative, take-no-prisoners killers. For better or for worse, law enforcement characters play an enormous role in both the population’s everyday lives and serving up justice (or serving as a nemesis) on film. This list gathers together the greatest police officers in the movies – from the superhuman to the hi-tech, from the white knights to the shadier antiheroes, and from the corrupted to the downright evil.
10. Popeye Doyle from The French Connection (1971)
Gene Hackman’s rugged narcotics division detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle won him the Academy Award for best actor – and rightfully so. Determined to get his man, Doyle roughs up crooks, assaults informants, and chases an elevated train through Brooklyn while destroying nearly everything in sight. He never gives up even when the bad guy escapes and the sequel drags his good name through the mud.
Best Policework: Doyle shoots the unarmed hitman Nicoli in the back while he’s fleeing. To be fair though, Nicoli did try to kill him a few times earlier in the film.
9. Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
The biggest box office smash of 1984 finds fast-talking, heavy-bullshitting Detroit cop Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) investigating the murder of his friend in Beverly Hills. The fish-out-of-water plot is heightened by Murphy’s delirious improv and the excellent supporting cast, including John Ashton and Judge Reinhold as the by-the-books officers in charge of keeping tabs on the reckless Foley.
Best Policework disguised as an afternoon at a strip club disguised as a vacation: “Before I go, I just want you two to know something, alright? The supercop story … was working. Okay? It was working, and you guys just messed it up. Okay? I’m trying to figure you guys out, but I haven’t yet. But it’s cool. You fuck up a perfectly good lie.”
8. Dick Tracy from Dick Tracy (1990)
Sporting his signature yellow trench coat and hat, Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) wages war against a whopping 21 gangsters pulled from the pages of Chester Gould’s original comic strip, including the creatively deformed Flattop, Littleface, and The Brow. He also has to battle the innuendo-laden advances of seductress Breathless Mahoney (a still-cute Madonna), making him a tough cop indeed.
Best Police Interrogation: Dick Tracy: “You know, it’s legal for me to take you down to the station and sweat it out of you under the lights.” Breathless Mahoney: “I sweat a lot better in the dark.”
7. Inspector “Tequila” Yuen from Hard Boiled (1992)
When it comes to cinema, police in the U.S. aren’t the only bad-ass upholders of justice – as made evident by John Woo’s action masterpiece “Hard Boiled.” With a body count of over three hundred, 100,000 rounds of ammunition fired, and villains with names like “Mad Dog,” Hong Kong cop Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) has his work cut out for him (and he doesn’t even stop to dispose of his signature toothpick before engaging in two-handed gun duels).
Best Policework: Tequila and undercover cop Alan rescue babies from an exploding hospital while having a shootout with gangsters. Not a single prop baby dies.
6. T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Sure he was an evil cyborg whose mission was to kill a little boy, which would in turn bring about the destruction of all mankind. But he was still an effective cop who only used torture and murder when good manners didn’t get him anywhere. And the special effects utilized to exhibit this most formidable of sci-fi foes ensured that the T-1000 would be recognized for decades to come (particularly with his polymorphic stabbing weapons and his liquid metal reassembly skills).
Best Police Interrogation: “Have you seen this boy?”
5. Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Few people have confronted Hannibal Lecter and lived to tell about it. Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) not only milked the serial killer for info but also got a free therapy session out of it. Well, it might not have happened as smoothly as that, but at least she didn’t get her liver eaten with fava beans and chianti (a nice one).
Best Policework: Starling single-handedly deciphers Lecter’s cryptic clues and tracks down Buffalo Bill. And then she has to kill him – by herself, in his labyrinthine house, in the dark.
4. Lt. Vincent Hanna from Heat (1995)
Al Pacino is at his best when portraying weathered cops (or, perhaps, the devil). While Serpico may be his most critically esteemed law enforcement achievement, “Heat’s” Lieutenant Vincent Hanna is his most explosive. Facing off against the inimitable Robert De Niro makes this thriller quite the masterpiece in cops and robbers cinema.
Best Police Interrogation: “Who? Who? What are you, a fucking owl?”
3. Officer Alex J. Murphy from Robocop (1987)
Peter Weller’s badass cyborg cop was a true one-man army in a dystopian future Detroit, as envisioned by Paul Verhoeven and Edward Neumeier. The victim of a murderous gang of criminals (including Kurtwood Smith as an unexpectedly vile antagonist) and a secret experimental project, veteran officer Murphy becomes the titular robotic law enforcer with a mission to kick ass and chew bubblegum (or reconstituted paste). Amidst sharp social commentary and satirical commercials, he also struggles to maintain a grip on his dissipating humanity. “I’d buy that for a dollar!”
Best Police Interrogation: “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
2. John McClane from Die Hard (1988)
New York police detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) has to stop a gang of international terrorists (or thieves) led by diabolical mastermind Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), stall off the FBI, stop the Nakatomi Plaza building from blowing up, and rescue his hostage wife Holly – all while he’s on vacation. Then he has to do it all over again three more times (and counting).
Best Police Negotiation: Hans Gruber: “I assume you are our mysterious party crasher. You are most troublesome, for a security guard.” John McClane: “Ehhhhh! Sorry Hans, wrong guess. Would you like to go for Double Jeopardy where the scores can really change?”
1. Harry Callahan from Dirty Harry (1971)
Practically starting a whole genre of cop movies (along with building a sizable collection of other pictures in which Clint Eastwood would portray his standard, grimacing antihero, badge or not), “Dirty” Harry Callahan took shit from no one – including his superiors, and especially not from psychotic serial killer “Scorpio.” With his trusty .44 Magnum and an appetite for justice, he’ll kick ass whether he fired six shots or only five.
Best Police Negotiation: District Attorney Rothko: “Where the hell does it say that you’ve got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I’m saying is that man had rights!” Harry Callahan: “Well, I’m all broken up over that man’s rights.”
Martin Riggs from “Lethal Weapon,” Jim Malone from “The Untouchables,” John Spartan from “Demolition Man,” Ed Exley from “L.A. Confidential,” Bullitt from “Bullitt,” David Mills from “Se7en,” and Hartigan from “Sin City.”