The buddy cop genre is so fascinating because it embodies conflict: Cops clash with criminals, investigators clash with each other, and cultures or personalities clash, all in high stakes environments. Frequently, the differences are so fundamental and easily explained that Robert Ebert coined the term “Wunza Movie” to summarize them. That is, “one’s a…. and the other’s a…”
Typically, one is a rookie and the other is a veteran; conversely, one might be a hot-headed iconoclast and the other is an even-tempered conformist. The films can be comedic or dramatic, so in this list of the 10 best buddy cop movies ever, we’ve included a bit of both.
10 21 Jump Street (2012)
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as Schmidt and Jenko, a pair of underachieving cops who are sent back to high school to break up a drug ring. In their own high school experiences, Schmidt had been an ignored dork and Jenko the handsome jock. Now they have to relive that and reconcile their differences in order to get the job done.
This humorous sort-of-remake of the forgettable '80s TV drama was surprisingly successful. Several actors from the original series reprised their roles, while the story worked well-enough to inspire sequels. 21 Jump Street grossed over $200,000 worldwide.
9 48 Hrs. (1982)
This action-comedy stars Eddie Murphy as convict Reggie Hammond and Nick Nolte as police officer Jack Cates. They have two days to solve a crime and catch two cop-killers, Albert Ganz and Billy Bear, all while figuring each other out. Their cop/crook dynamic that crosses racial boundaries works out surprisingly well for them and they come out on top.
48 Hrs. was Eddie Murphy’s film debut and earned him a Golden Globe nomination for New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture. It went on to win many other awards and gross nearly 80 million dollars in the box office.
8 Rush Hour (1998)
This film has Jackie Chan at the height of his fame and career. He plays Lee, a loyal, dedicated, and by-the-book Hong Kong investigator who must team up with the reckless and ridiculous LAPD detective, Carter, played by Chris Tucker. The actors have great chemistry, allowing them to exceed the typical buddy cop stereotypes.D uring their investigation to recover Soo Yun, the tempers flare as two very different cultures clash, the daughter of the Chinese consul, and stop a dangerous crime lord.
Being released the year after Men In Black means this film risked being seen as a more boring version of that space adventure buddy cop movie, but Rush Hour stands on its own hilarious two feet.
7 Men in Black (1997)
“Protecting the earth from the scum of the universe,” is the directive that a police officer gets when he joins a secret organization that protects Earth from the worst of our galactic neighbors. As Agents J and K, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are the perfect comedy duo. Lee’s straight-man act is the perfect foil to Smith’s flash and pomp. Of course, Lee’s withering looks remain timeless.
This is the movie that cemented Will Smith’s ascension to celebrity status, with this weird and fun sci-fi action-comedy proving successful enough to spawn a long franchise.
6 Hot Fuzz (2007)
Expert London cop, Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is good. So good, in fact, that he is reassigned to a quiet town in the countryside so he doesn’t make the rest of the London police department look bad. He is paired with the inept and unprofessional Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who questions the better cop’s every move. However, while life in Sanford starts boring, things quickly change after two actors are found decapitated.
This hilarious movie has a cult following. Hot Fuzz is also surprisingly thoughtful, as the satire perfectly blends the idyllic English countryside and Agatha Christie-esque narration with the Hollywood tropes of excessive violence and big gestures.
5 Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Like several classic hardboiled detective films of the 1940s and on, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang deals with a string of seemingly unrelated crimes until the crescendo at the end when things come together. It stars Robert Downey Jr. as Harry Lockhart, a petty thief who accidentally finds himself in a movie audition during an escape. When he lands the role, he is teamed up with Detective Gay Perry, played by Val Kilmer. The usual criminal/cop dynamic is given more to chew on with the addition of Harry’s live-in disguise as an actor.
The movie only got a limited release and went almost straight to home theatres, but Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ultimately achieved cult status.
4 Stray Dog (1949)
Seventy years later, the original buddy cop flick remains one of the best. It introduces almost all of the major tropes associated with the genre: The veteran teaming up with the rookie, their friction and frustration with one another throughout the case, and a girl they both vow to protect.
Detective Murakami, a young homicide detective, is on a bus when his pistol is stolen. He tries to recover it but struggles with his own demons in the seedy underbelly of Tokyo. It isn’t until the older and wiser Detective Satō steps in to help that things begin to look up.
3 Lethal Weapon (1987)
Even if you’ve never seen Lethal Weapon, you probably know its most famous line: “I’m getting too old for this sh*t.” It’s the catchphrase of Detective Roger Murtaugh, played by Danny Glover, who stars opposite Mel Gibson to form a duo that comments on the racial, age, and personality differences of two detectives hellbent on doing their job their way. Together they uncover a drug-smuggling ring.
Lethal Weapon made over $120 million worldwide at the box office and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound. It spawned three sequels and a television series.
2 In the Heat of the Night (1967)
This mystery drama directed by Norman Jewison is typically considered as the first American buddy cop film. In the Heart of the Night focuses on Virgil Tibbs, a black police officer in a small town in Mississippi. The plot covers several social issues, including illegal abortions and racism in the south. Starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger over 50 years later, their performances are still considered some of the best in film history.
The film took home multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Rob Steiger. It’s also been chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress. It’s on the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
1 The French Connection (1971)
This masterpiece from William Friedkin about two New York City cops trying to intercept a heroin shipment feels so raw and gritty. His application of almost documentary film techniques made the story feel all the more real. The French Connection was ultimate a groundbreaking movie and has influenced the detective film genre since. It was the first R-rated film and first action film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture since the introduction of the MPAA rating system in 1968.
Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider star as Popeye and Cloudy, respectively, who are based on real-life NYC detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. The cops must chase down wealthy French heroin smuggler Alain Charnier.