This weekend, The Rock and Kevin Hart team up as mismatched partners in the latest buddy cop to hit theaters this year, Central Intelligence. At least three other films have made it out this year—from animal cops in Zootopia to a sequel in Ride Along, and even a quirkier comedy a few weeks ago in The Nice Guys. Indeed, this is a genre that keeps on giving and that has been around for a long while.
A-List: Best Buddy Cop Films
By J. Don Birnam
June 16, 2016
So let’s look at the best such five movies of all time, shall we?
Definitional rules are tricky again. Some movies have the straight up two cops trying to help each other. Others are more ambiguous - the cops can be women (think of the recent The Heat), which of course counts, but what if one of the partners is a dog? What if one of the partners is not strictly a cop but just a sidekick of sorts like in the upcoming The Rock film? Let’s just say that if two individuals are working more or less towards the same purpose (as opposed to a good guy vs. antagonist movie like Training Day), then it counts.
Of course, there are a lot of movies here that deserve honorable or perhaps dishonorable mentions. Though I disqualified Denzel’s superb Training Day, you could also look to his turn as a paraplegic cop in the chilling Bone Collector. Arnold Schwarzenegger has his fair share of OK (Last Action Hero) to mostly bad buddy cop movies (Kindergarten Cop). The ex-Governor is a lot better at playing the leading cop all by his lonesome. Bruce Willis, too, has ventured into the genre, with at least a few Die Hard sequels featuring the trick. And who can forget Eddie Murphy’s turns in buddy cop movies from the cult hit 48 Hrs. to the genuinely funny Beverly Hills Cop.
Last, I do have to give a shout out to the most unlikely cop on the list - Tom Hanks, in his endearing and touching Turner & Hootch. Onward to the top five, but, if you tweet, tweet me your favorites.
5. Men in Black (1997)
Will Smith had a good couple of years between Independence Day and this movie (though he arguably lost some of his good will later with another buddy cop movie later, Wild Wild West). Anyway, this movie features a known buddy cop trope - older cop teaching younger, more idealistic cop what it’s like. But, there is a twist - these are secret cops, and these are secret missions. No one is meant to remember.
The concept was novel, so the twist on the old formula was welcome. And, in a little bit of trivia, MIB was the only movie to beat Titanic for a non-acting Academy Award - Best Original Makeup. Sequels did not do the original justice, but Smith’s wit mixed well with Tommy Lee Jones’ dry-pan cynicism (and he certainly had experience of his own as a cop after his award-winning turn in The Fugitive), resulting in an undeniable crowd pleaser.
4. Point Break (1992)
Remember Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win a directing Oscar? Before she was famous for directing a war movie, she made what is now considered a cult classic among buddy cop novels. In Point Break, Keanu Reeves is the idealistic young FBI agent that teams up with the experienced Gary Busey (the latter being the seasoned veteran actor among the two, as you’d expect, just like in MIB).
The two are in pursuit of a group of bank robbers that wear the faces of Presidents (was this the first movie to use that trick? I think so). Some of the plot lines are now familiar - the young cop is not necessarily welcome until he proves his worth but, following a hunch that the robbers may be surfers, he goes undercover and befriends the mysterious character played by Patrick Swayze.
The movie glorifies young men in their reckless pursuit of independence and adventures, it features comedic undertones, and one cannot deny the sex appeal of the stars and supporting case. Keanu perhaps gives one of his last good performances, and one really has to admire Bigelow’s ability to tell distinctively male-centric stories in different and innovative ways.
3. Se7en (1995)
Perhaps considered one of David Fincher’s early masterpieces, here we go again with the older cop with the less seasoned cop. While we are at it, we should recall that Morgan Freeman is no slouch to the genre - Along Came A Spider is but one of his many buddy cop or buddy detective movies.
But when he paired up with Brad Pitt for this story about two detectives on the tracks of a killer that seems to be following the seven deadly sins, he undoubtedly gave us the most bone-chilling of them all.
It is not easy in a genre that is supposed to be strictly about mystery, action, and some blood, to do what Fincher did with this movie. He gave us more than thrills, he gave us visceral, bone-curling nightmares, particularly with the gruesome but on point imagery of the victims, and of course, one of the most devastating endings in the history of these types of films.
Supported by the superb Kevin Spacey (on the heels of his similar performance in The Usual Suspects) and by a staid Gwyneth Paltrow, the two play the eager vs. cynical cop quite well. Fincher’s attention to detail is everywhere, and is topped only by the allegorical mazes that the movie takes you through. This one is perhaps the most “classic” of them all.
2. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Arguably the first movie ever in this genre, the 1967 Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards was a product of its times in many ways. Yes, once more we have a black cop with a white cop (though, in Se7en, at least, the age roles from this film had been reversed). Here, it is Sydney Poitier who plays the young but aggressive and somewhat idealistic cop. He is flanked by the racist, reluctant Rod Steiger (who won Best Actor), as they try to uncover a racially-motivated crime in the Deep South.
Of all the movies I’ve listed today, this one has by the far the deepest meanings, the most things to say. Perhaps all you need to recall is the famous scene in which Poitier’s character slaps Larry Gates’ across the face in response to his own slap, a thinly-veiled allegory to slapping away racism and racist individuals. Poitier’s hell is the small southern town that seems to be full of virulent hatred towards at the very least him, as well as other African Americans. But, at the same time, he and Steiger eventually begin a partnership that is also an obvious allegory - it is time to fix the broken race relations in America.
The film was a hit, and delved with the problem of racism much more than, say, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, also nominated for top Oscar gold that year. To say that it was all that plus a buddy cop movie with a smart murder mystery at its core is to show just how inventive and time-lasting it is.
1. Lethal Weapon (1987)
But come on, the buddy cop genre is at bottom, or perhaps, at its best, a comedy subgenre, isn’t it? Just ask Zootopia and The Heat and Central Intelligence and all the recent spate of this genre.
Lethal Weapon, with Danny Glover as the (what else) black, more settled cop, and Mel Gibson as the wild-haired, wild-eyed, and somewhat unstable rookie, is a classic of comedy, of action, and even of some drama.
Yes, the movie features the typical comedic arc you see in these films - the two cops don’t like each other at first, but grow to trust and respect each other eventually. But at least the reasons here make the characters more multidimensional than in other films - Gibson’s character is suffering from PTSD caused by the Vietnam War, and Glover’s is worried about old age and also by the fact that the victim of the crime they’re investigating is his buddy’s daughter.
Gun fights and sleuthing populate the center parts of this movie, and (who else!?) Gary Busey also makes an appearance. In between, the two provide a few laughs and somehow grow to actually respect each other until the exciting, thrilling finale.
The movie spawned a series of sequels, none, of course, ever as successful. But, arguably, Lethal Weapon set the course for what was then a still young genre by adding some of the sillier stereotypes (does it always have to be a black and a white cop?) as well as some of the more iconic and memorably funny moments. Most movies, I’d argue, that aspire to make it in the genre have to measure themselves up to Lethal Weapon.
The only real question is: does Silence of the Lambs count?