What is it about movie-goers’ fascination with corrupt police officers? Maybe it comes down to the dichotomy that some of the very people sworn to protect us are nothing more than wanton criminals hiding behind a badge.
These amoral individuals take delight in taking in kick-backs, dishing out savage beatings, and using their influence on both sides of the thin blue line to set up their own sprawling criminal networks. Planting evidence is the least of their crimes.
But who’s the worst of the worst? Who really is the dirtiest, most deviant corrupt cop to ever sport a shield?
Here’s our the 12 Dirtiest Movie Cops Of All Time.
12. Bruce Robertson (Filth)
The trailer for Filth wasted no time in getting into the mindset of junkie detective Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) with this memorable exchange:
Bladesey: What made you join the Force?
Robertson: Police oppression, brother.
Bladesey: You wanted to stamp it out from the inside?
Robertson: No, I wanted to be a part of it.
Filth comes from the pen of Scottish author Irvine Welsh, who also gave us that other Edinburgh-set drug-fuelled romp, Trainspotting. You can tell both films originally flowed from the same mind — especially with that poster of Robertson riding a bucking pig.
A systematic bully, cross-dresser and misanthrope, Robertson is on a desperate quest to be promoted to the rank of Detective Inspector to atone for past sins. He spots his opportunity to climb the greasy pole when he’s assigned to investigate the murder of a Japanese student. But things don’t quite go to plan, as Robertson completely loses his grip on reality — again, you saw the poster, right?
11. Norman Stansfield (Leon: The Professional)
Gary Oldman turned it up to 11 for his deliriously over-the-top performance as DEA agent Norman Stansfield in 1994’s Leon: The Professional. Dressed in a sharp suit, this junkie lawman has no qualms about murdering whole families while listening to pounding Beethoven symphonies. His actions, however, incur the wrath of vengeful 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) who employs the titular assassin (Jean Reno) to train her in becoming a “cleaner.” Oldman’s insanely unhinged performance established the British actor as one to watch, coming just a year after his scene-stealing cameo performance as Drexl Spivey in True Romance.
Leon was Luc Besson’s Hollywood calling card. By casting Oldman, the French director ensured audiences were handed one of the all-time great villains. In one of the film’s tensest scenes, Stansfield recounts his love of Beethoven to Mathilda’s father before killing him. The scene was totally improvised, with Oldman coming up with several chilling variants for each take. Oddly enough, Oldman’s other big role in 1994 was as Ludwig Van Beethoven in Immortal Beloved.
10. Marcus Belmont (Triple 9)
Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) moonlights as part of a criminal gang specializing in bank robberies for the Russian mafia. Well, everyone needs to earn some extra dough. But being in cohorts with the Russian mob, who are led by a scene-chomping Kate Winslet as Russian moll Irina? Times must be tough in the Belmont household. When Irina orders the crew to rob a near impenetrable government building, Belmont comes up with one helluva way to distract Atlanta’s finest. The proposed solution? Murder a brother officer. Luckily for Belmont, he’s just been assigned a new straight-arrow partner who’s already busting his chops.
In a role originally destined for Michael B. Jordan, Mackie’s intense performance as the morally bankrupt Belmont is a world away from his most iconic character, Sam Wilson (aka The Falcon) in the Captain America and Avengers movies. You just can’t see Wilson suggesting to the rest of the Avengers that they cap Cap and steal the Tesseract for themselves.
9. Bobby Monday (Premium Rush)
Premium Rush is an enjoyable B-movie in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s bike courier Wilee is pursued all over New York’s West Side by bent cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon). The reason for Monday’s pursuit? The unsuspecting Wilee is carrying a cool $50,000.
While the movie may have picked up a flat at the box-office, Shannon delivers a deliriously unhinged performance as Monday, channeling the kind of wide-eyed performances Christopher Walken used to deliver in his heyday, especially his little speech about the use of inappropriate language on primetime television.
Shannon is always memorable, and his performance as Monday is no exception. Even if Monday isn’t quite as corrupt as some of the other members of this list, you won’t forget him, with Shannon’s performance having the heft of a Harley in an otherwise disappointing ride.
8. Dennis Peck (Internal Affairs)
Poster boy for the Los Angeles Police Department, Dennis Peck (Richard Gere) is in fact a womanizing, malevolent plain-clothes police officer who’s more criminal than cop. When Internal Affairs’ Raymond Avila (Andy Garcia in his prime) starts sticking his nose into Peck’s business, the dirty cop decides he’s not about to let some goody two shoes ruin his fun. Especially not when he’s established a vast network of snitches and criminal enterprises that let him take home a fair bit more than a policeman’s salary.
What makes Peck truly dangerous is that he’s unafraid to intimidate Avila, whether physically or psychologically. Nothing’s off limits for Peck, including attacks on Avila’s wife, Kathleen (Nancy Myers) or the murdering of other officers in cold blood. Gere uses the charm that has served him well in rom-coms like Pretty Woman to hide Peck’s menacing intensity. Under director Mike Figgis, this is one moody, visceral ’90s cop thriller that deserves to be rediscovered.
7. Jack Wander (Street Kings)
Captain Jack ‘The King of Secrets’ Wander (Forest Whitaker) is a puppet-master, a man who has incriminating evidence on everyone from judges to fellow police officers, all of which is inexplicitly hidden in the walls of his house. Perhaps it’s good for insulation. When internal affairs come sniffing, he uses his own unit of corrupt officers to murder witnesses (including two fellow officers) and cover his tracks.
Wander was created by that writer-king of morally compromised LAPD officers, James Ellroy, who also was behind some of the other characters on our list. Street Kings was David Ayer’s second effort as director, the first being Harsh Times. Ayer is something of a dirty cop specialist, having previously written Training Day, Dark Blue and S.W.A.T. Next up, Ayer will be directing heavily-hyped superhero actioner Suicide Squad, which features its own set of highly-corrupt individuals.
6. Colin Sullivan (The Departed)
Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) isn’t so much a corrupt detective as a criminal who just so happens to be a cop. Taken under the wing of Boston crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) when he was just a young boy, Sullivan acts as Costello’s informant on the force. He’s also the counterpoint to Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a cop working undercover in Costello’s crew. What follows is a thrilling game of cat and mouse with the two rats trying to discover the identity of their opposite number. Damon lends Sullivan depth and humanity, and you almost feel sorry for his predicament – after all, he was practically born into it.
The film also finally broke director Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-duck. This long overdue nod from the Academy followed the director delivering classics in each decade of his career (‘70s Taxi Driver, ‘80s Raging Bull, ‘90s Goodfellas). Many would argue that 2014’s The Wolf of Wall Street continues this trend.
The character of Sullivan is actually based on real-life FBI agent John Connolly, who helped protect Boston Irish gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger from prosecution in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That story was told in last year’s Black Mass, with Joel Edgerton playing Connolly and Johnny Depp as Whitey.
5. The entire NYPD, except Al Pacino (Serpico)
Coming after the Godfather, Serpico captures Al Pacino at his white-hot best, playing real-life NYPD whistleblower Frank Serpico. Starting out as a uniformed patrolman, Serpico gets a sense of the corruption around him, witnessing his fellow officers take free meals and kick backs from local businesses. Yet it’s not until he’s promoted to detective and discovers colleagues taking bribes, committing violent robberies, and worse that the full scale of the NYPD’s institutional corruption dawns on him. Basically, in Serpico, if you see a cop on the screen and they’re not played by Al Pacino, they’re probably corrupt.
Serpico’s refusal to take a bribe leads to his colleagues arranging for him to be shot during a drug raid. Nice. But Serpico gets his revenge, surviving the attack and going on to testify before a government-led commission into NYPD corruption.
To reflect Serpico’s increasingly counter-culture dissatisfaction with his chosen profession, Pacino’s beard becomes increasing long and luxurious during the film. In reality the scenes were shot out of order, with the beard being trimmed for scenes set earlier in the film’s timeline.
4. The Lieutenant (Bad Lieutenant / The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans)
Harvey Keitel’s ferocious performance as the titular lieutenant in 1992’s Bad Lieutenant is one of the actor’s defining parts. This amoral cop, addicted to both gambling and drugs, tries to find redemption by investigating the murder of a nun in New York City. To say it’s a harrowing watch is an understatement, but Keitel’s tortured performance keeps you a willing witness to every single despicable act. Amazingly, this powerful film is one of director Abel Ferrara’s more mainstream films – well, the man did direct The Driller Killer.
Things took a turn for the wild-eyed when Werner Herzog cast Nicolas Cage in quasi-sequel The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. This time the character had a name, Terence McDonagh, and prowled the streets of post-Katrina New Orleans. Although both films follow a drug-addled, corrupt police officer on a seemingly downward spiral, they are completely different in tone, with unconventional German director Werner Herzog swapping out catholic guilt for black comedy (and lizard hallucinations) in the follow-up. Reimagining, sequel-in-name only, cynical marketing ploy to shift tickets, call it what you will, Port of Call reminded audiences of Cage’s mercurial talents after a slew of atrocious Z-list actioners.
3. Dudley Smith (LA Confidential)
Described as a near-demonic police detective by the New York Times, LA Confidential’s Lieutenant Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) is the corrupt cops’ corrupt cop. At first glance, Smith is a mentor figure to brutal Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe) and ambitious Sergeant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce). But in actuality, Smith heads a criminal empire trying to muscle in on the heroin business following the arrest of gangster Mickey Cohen. Even when he’s attending to actual police work, Smith’s methods aren’t exactly textbook. Here’s how he praises Bud’s interrogation technique: “I admire you as a policeman — particularly your adherence to violence as a necessary adjunct to the job.” Talk about throwing the book at them.
Smith might be corrupt in the film, but he’s even dirtier in the James Ellroy source material. Whether that’s arranging hook-ups for a young JFK, hitting his favourite opium den, or playing favourites in a Chinatown gang war, he’s into everything. And that’s just in Perfidia, Smith’s latest Ellroy-penned amoral adventure.
2. ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (Killer Joe)
When failed drug-dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) finds himself owing a not insubstantial amount of money to some shady characters in Killer Joe, he comes up with one heck of an ill-advised plan: put out a contract on his monstrous mother’s life and pocket the life insurance. Pity he hires Detective ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) for the task, a Texas police officer who just so happens to moonlight as a killer for hire. Chris quickly finds himself out of his depth with Joe, with the detective sadistically making his presence known to Chris’ trailer-trash family, including handing out horrific beat-downs and much, much worse.
McConaughey’s menacing performance as Killer Joe forms a key part of the actor’s comeback (aka the McConaissance) into the mainstream, and it’s easy to see why. The cruel intelligence of McConaughey’s Joe is so far removed from the rom-com leads the actor was once known for, the performance practically eviscerates those past roles from your memory. As for that fried chicken scene at the end of Killer Joe, well that is best left for audiences to discover for themselves.
Will McConaughey bring some of Joe to his portrayal of the Man in Black in The Dark Tower? Now that’s a terrifying thought.
1. Alonzo Harris (Training Day)
Denzel Washington finally bagged himself an Oscar for his star turn as Alonzo Harris in Training Day. Throughout his career, Washington has by and large stuck to playing clean cut characters, such as Lt. Ron Hunter in Crimson Tide, and has even been compared to golden-era actors like Gregory Peck. In Training Day, however, he couldn’t have gone in a more different direction. Here, he twice steals money from drug dealers (the second time being a cool $4 million), forces new recruit Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) to smoke a PCP-laced joint, and then, to add injury to insult, pays a local drug lord to — unsuccessfully — execute the unfortunate recruit. Remember the Titans this is not.
We might have seen Harris cajole and corrupt once again, had Washington himself not put the kibosh on the film’s original ending:
“I told the director I couldn’t justify [Harris] living in the worst way unless he died in the worst way. We made it an awful, violent ending. I thought that’s what he deserved.”
Have we missed anyone from this decidedly corrupt line-up? Let us know in the comments.