When they’re not helping little old ladies cross the streets or buried under mountains of paperwork, movie cops are some of the best there are at kicking butt. Often armed with little more than a badge, gun, and a witty one-liner, these guys take down everything from gangsters, murderers, cyber criminals, to unstoppable cyborg men (because movies).
And while some cops are depicted as corrupt or lazy, the officers in this list are up at the crack of dawn and don’t sleep until their city is safe. They never take bribes, and they always get their man in the end.
But what determines the order of greatness? Is it their character? Their tenacity? Is it the duplicity and evil of the bad guy they take down? Is it the attention to paperwork? Is it near-superhuman skills and marksmanship? C’mon, it’s the movies… it’s ALL THAT STUFF!! (Maybe not the paperwork)
Here are the 20 Best Cops In Movie History.
20 Jack Traven – Speed
Speed is the movie that changed event movies for the ‘90s. Unlike the ‘80s where tentpole movies were led by a big name, with the movie itself being secondary, Speed went back to the era of High-Concept filmmaking. Star power was out; big questions were in - What if a bus had a bomb that went off if it slowed down? What if a volcano was underneath L.A.? What if aliens attacked?
And while Speed is famous for its three set pieces, the Elevator, the Bus, The Train, it works due to the walking testament to adrenaline that is Keanu Reeves. While Keanu is an action legend now thanks to Neo and John Wick, back then he was the guy from Bill and Ted who only had Point Break to suggest he could carry an action movie. But Keanu’s Jack Traven was the ultimate distillation of action cops up to that point. He’s got the lone wolf vibe of John McClaine, the best cranky best buddy of Martin Riggs, and the sheer tenacity of Harry Callahan.
Whether it’s coming up with creative solutions (shoot the hostage), applying cop psychology (figuring out that the bad guy is going to blow the elevator anyway) or working to determine a way to defuse the bomb, Jack Traven actually combines the balls-to-the-wall action of ‘80s cop movies with the more tech-savvy (those throat mikes!!) cops we know now.
19 Elliot Ness - The Untouchables
Based on the real-life Elliot Ness’ work to take down the criminal Al Capone, The Untouchables tells the story of a small group of incorruptible cops who worked against the bootlegging industry during prohibition.
Ness (Kevin Costner) is an outsider; he lacks the knowledge of how Chicago works initially and struggles to overcome the attitude of the local police force, many of whom are either drinking alcohol, or on Capone’s payroll. Eventually, he builds a team of veterans, rookies, and book-keepers to fight Capone, and runs the risk of breaking his professional code of ethics in the process.
Initially idealistic, he’s told that getting the job done in Chicago means abondoning his principles. Ness eventually goes against everything he believes in to take down the powerful mobster, including murder to avenge the death of one of his men.
After Capone’s downfall, Ness is told that prohibition is likely to be repealed. When asked what he’ll do, he replies “I’ll take a drink.” And he certainly looks like he’ll need it.
18 Vincent Hanna - Heat
Few cops in movies have an easy time, but Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is one who has lost almost everything. His relentless pursuit of arch-rival and master thief Neil MacCauley (Robert DeNiro) has cost him his family, who essentially hate him for being absent, and respect from his fellow officers, who see his single-mindedness as weakness.
Vincent and Neil are incredibly similar, with each having poor personal lives and a dedication to their chosen professions that borders on the obsessive. It’s only when Neil breaks the most sacred rule his criminal mentor drilled into him - never have anything in your life that you can’t walk away from in 30 seconds flat - that Vincent finally has leverage over his life-long foe.
It’s fair to say that Heat doesn’t feature Pacino’s strongest performance, but his Vincent Hanna is a complex character who is given far greater depth due to Pacino’s stellar screen presence.
17 Frank Bullitt - Bullitt / David Toshi - Zodiac
The movie Bullitt is largely remembered for the chase scene between the 1968 Ford Mustang GT and the 1968 Dodge Charger R/T around the streets of San Francisco with Steve McQueen’s Mustang eventually emerging victorious. However, the movie pays close attention to detail, especially police procedure making McQueen’s performance far more realistic than it’s given credit for.
Before filming, Steve McQueen spent time working with real-life SFPD detective David Toshi, who would later become famous himself for being one of the lead investigators of the Zodiac killer and played by Mark Ruffalo in the movie Zodiac. McQueen not only learned about police procedure, he copied Toshi’s mannerisms and his signature quick-draw holster for added authenticity.
One of the few movies to fully show the protagonist follow clues, fight against political interference, as well as have full-tilt action thrown in, Bullitt is a staple of modern cinema ad director David Yates’ finest work. As for Frank Bullitt himself, like the real-life David Toshi, he’s left at the end wondering if all the pain is worth it.
16 John McClaine- Die Hard
There are some, many in fact, that would probably rather see Die Hard’s John McClaine (Bruce Willis) sitting at the head of this list. And while yes, he is a near-indestructible super-cop who seems to be able to dodge more bullets than Neo, he loses some points for doing very little actual police work in his 5 outings.
In the first movie, he’s a one-man anti-terror squad as he hunts down the bad guys one by one, barefoot and in a sweaty vest, until only super-suave ‘80s bad guy Hans Gruber remains. The fact that there’s little in the way of police work on show is down to the many first-drafts that Die Hard went through. At one time, it was pitched as a sequel to Commando with Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix pulled out of retirement. Schwarzenegger passed, so the project was re-worked into an original feature, which Schwarzenegger again passed on to make Predator.
The second movie does feature actual police work, albeit briefly, as John McClaine realises something is off and tries to alert the authorities. They fail to listen, and he uses the fingerprints of the first terrorists he kills to begin to unravel the plot. From there, it’s back to crawling through air ducts and getting hurt (a lot).
While Bruce Willis excels at the sardonic wit, and humorous luddite tendencies, in five movies he doesn’t make a single arrest. But still, in a terrorist showdown, there’s nobody you’d rather have at your back.
15 RoboCop – RoboCop
By the standards of any sane society, Robocop is a terrible policeman. He’s brutal, uncaring, and has little empathy. But Robocop doesn’t exist in a sane world, he lives in the brutal dystopia of the future world of Old Detroit. In Paul Verhoven’s deeply satirical world, Robocop makes perfect sense. In a perversion of Isaac Asimov’s three laws to ensure robots obey a strict moral code, Robocop has three prime directives: Serve The Public Trust, Protect The Innocent, Uphold The Law. While these seem benign, they do leave Robocop with a surprising amount of latitude when it comes to dealing with criminals as his version of justice is often extremely brutal. But then, he lives in a brutal world.
Formerly Alex Murphy, a devoted catholic father with a strong sense of justice, the man that became Robocop was ideally suited to be the perfect cop due to his psychological profile. After his brutal death at the hands of a criminal gang, he is resurrected in a cyborg form by his amoral employers, OCP.
After regaining his memories, he hunts down those who robbed him of his life and eventually tries to arrest the mastermind behind his downfall, the corrupt OCP executive Dick Jones. Thanks to Dick being fired, thereby freeing Robocop from the hidden fourth directive preventing him from harming or arresting an OCP executive, Robocop finally avenges himself and begins using his original name once more.
14 Harry Callahan - Dirty Harry
In many ways, "Dirty" Harry Callahan is a terrible cop. He blatantly flouts procedure in favour of lone-wolf tactics which often result in the deaths of those around him. Harry is the template for the anti-hero that would become popular in the 1970s, he’s disrespectful and has little time for the bureaucracy that poorly serves the law as he dispenses his own, often twisted, sense of justice and morality.
Harry often makes a situation worse by escalating it to the point where the use of lethal force is justified. On occasion, he even tortures criminals in order to gain further information, and at least once killed an unarmed man who was surrendering. While generally observing the law, he has allowed a criminal to go free after he realizes that she is killing her rapists, who had been unpunished, feeling that her retribution against them was morally justified. Despite the high turnover of Harry’s partners (many die or transfer quickly) he does have the respect of many of his peers for doing the dirty jobs that nobody else wants to do.
Despite his flagrant disregard for the rules of police work, Harry always gets his man.
13 Axel Foley - Beverly Hills Cop
Axel Foley from the Beverly Hills Cop series is one of the most street-smart cops but also one of the most skilled investigators. While he bends the rules on occasion, he is keen to observe proper procedure for instance, when it comes to probable cause so as not to jeopardise his investigation. His smart mouth, and tendency to avoid the truth when dealing with his superiors causes him a great deal of trouble and he is often in a jam even he finds it hard to talk his way out of. But, given his success, his superiors often look the other way so long as the arrests stick.
The role was originally far less chatty, and far more brutal. But when original lead Sylvester Stallone walked and the role was re-written for Eddie Murphy the tone shifted significantly. Murphy ad-libbed many of his lines and his legendary comic timing created an iconic on-screen cop.
12 Marge Gunderson - Fargo
Often considered to be one of the finest crime-movies of all time, Fargo succeeds for many reasons, not least of which is Frances McDormand as Chief of Police Marge Gunderson. Her performance quite rightly won her the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Marge is almost stereotypically Minnesota nice, in that she displays perfect manners and is always friendly, even when interrogating bad guys. She’s sweet, but also fiercely intelligent when it comes to her police work, often the first to pick up clues that others have overlooked. Beyond her job, she’s also a devoted wife and expectant mother.
Unlike many cops on this list, Marge manages to bring in her quarry alive. After finding Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) feeding Carl’s (Steve Buscemi) body into a wood chipper, she manages to shoot him in the leg and arrests him before casually going back to her devoted husband with whom she looks forward to the birth of their child in a few months’ time.
11 Ed Tom Bell - No Country For Old Men
There’s a reason Tommy Lee Jones is going to appear on this list a lot. He’s, in many ways, the definitive cop. He can say more with a disapproving glance, or a world-weary stare than most actors can manage with an hour of screen time. But more than that, he’s just got that hard-bitten Texas rancher thing down, maybe because he’s a real-life Texas rancher type. Either way, he’s pretty great.
Ed Tom Bell himself is a man out of his era. He questions whether his form of law enforcement, and his personal aptitude for it, are still relevant in the modern world. But he’s much more than a redneck sheriff in a hick town in a hick county. In a hick state. He’s a fully-rounded character. His sense of responsibility and duty are rock-solid, partially due to his status as a local hero due to his actions in the second world war.
Although Bell chooses to retire at the end of the movie, having failed to bring the antagonist to justice, it’s the choice to live in peace with his wife and accept his life that makes him so great. His morals, never corrupted even when faced with an ever-increasing level of violence in the world, mean he can rest easy.
10 Popeye Doyle - The French Connection
Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) was based on real-life NYPD detective Eddie Egan, who appeared in the movie in the role of Walt Simonson.
Popeye has many negative qualities that make him a pretty terrible person. He’s a bigot, who routinely womanises, he’s also an alcoholic who treats people pretty badly most of the time. As a cop, he fares little better. He’s as rough as it comes, routinely breaks whatever rules are in front of him to bring down the bad guys, and he’s often disrespects his superiors more than his enemies.
Despite this, he’s a dedicated cop and leads the NYPD narcotics squad to bring down a group of French drug smugglers. His whatever it takes attitude results in the death of Bill Mulderig a federal agent with whom he’d previously had issues. Undeterred, his single-mindedness and obsession leads him to bring down the criminals. He’s not a good-guy, but his many negative qualities have been directed towards good, that’s good enough for us.
9 Bud White - L.A Confidential
Seen as little more than a blunt instrument, Wendell “Bud” White is the cop others bring in to beat a confession out of a bad guy. His demeanour came from having a father who regularly beat his mother because of a violent temper. Bud realised as he became older that he shared his father’s violent tendencies but hating violence towards women, chose to vent his rage on their abusers instead. Forever looking for a damsel in distress, Bud earned a reputation as a punisher of wife-beaters. This reputation earned him the attention of Captain Dudley Smith, who recruited him as an enforcer.
Along the way, Bud falls for Lynn Bracken, a prostitute who resembles the film star Veronica Lake. She has been abused throughout her life and Bud takes care to save her in every way possible. When he uncovers Captain Smith’s treachery, Bud allies himself with the straight-shooting and by-the-book Ed Exley. Exley’s political scheming doesn’t sit well with Bud but the two manage to bring down the bad guys in the end.
8 Billy Costigan - The Departed / Chan Wing-yan - Infernal Affairs
Although the characters of Billy Costigan and Chan Wing-Yan differ in many ways, it’s impossible to determine which is the better character or cop, with each possessing great qualities. While purists will always favour Infernal Affairs over the remake, The Departed, there’s no debate that each are brilliant examples of crime cinema.
Focussing mainly on Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) for the moment, his job as a cop is one of the hardest on this list. Recruited straight out of the academy, he is given a near-impossible assignment. He’s asked to infiltrate the ranks of legendary mob boss Frank Costello, head of the Irish Mafia in Boston. Due to the corruption in the police force, Billy is only known to be a cop by Captain McQueen (Martin Sheen) and Sargent Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). With little support, Billy uses his high IQ and his ability to adopt a different persona (thanks to weekends with his poor father, as opposed to his better off mother) to become a darker version of himself, and one that struggles to survive in a bloody and violent world.
7 Virgil Tibbs - In the Heat of the Night
Something of a polymath, Tibbs has an extensive knowledge of the arts, sciences, and modern culture. He displays a degree of anger over issues of race after he’s detained on suspicion of murder while passing through Sparta, Mississippi simply for being black. After his identity, as well as status as a homicide detective is established he is temporarily assigned to help in the murder case. The local chief of police doesn’t take kindly to Tibbs’ involvement and is openly racist to him leading to the classic lines "Virgil is a pretty fancy name for a black boy like you," and asks what people call him at home, to which Tibbs responds, "They call me Mister Tibbs!"
6 Agent K - Men In Black
Yes, it’s Tommy Lee Jones once more. His Agent K is one of his most amusing performances as the straight-faced mentor to Will Smith’s wise-cracking Agent J. As one of the Men In Black, Agent K monitors and polices alien activity on Earth and prevents the wider world from learning about extra-terrestrial life. When asked why people cannot know aliens walk among them, he responds “Because people are idiots.”
After over thirty years as an agent, K has seen everything. He’s more than a little jaded, but his dedication is still strong. He also does a surprising amount of police work. He uses his local contacts to establish leads, follows clues, and questions suspects. While the showdown at the end of each movie generally involves the use of giant weapons, throughout the movies K generally works as a street-level cop content to make arrests and arrange deportations as necessary.
His straight-talking nature does hide a wicked sense of humour as he does provide Agent J with a “Noisy Cricket” a highly powerful sidearm that looks insignificant as a prank which knocks J off his feet when he attempts to use it.
5 Martin Riggs and Roger Murtagh - Lethal Weapon
This one pretty much HAS to be a joint entry. Without Riggs, Murtagh is a happy family man. Without Murtagh to provide stability, Riggs is a suicidal self-destructive lunatic. Together, they form one of the most effective cop partnerships in movie history.
Across their four outings, Riggs and Murtagh combat international drug traffickers, corrupt former cops, gun runners, and people smugglers. They have a tendency to cause maximum destruction wherever they go, usually due to Riggs’ more explosive character, but Murtagh has at times been equally dangerous and has put his “by the book” nature to one side to go where the bureaucracy will not allow them to go.
While the two are effective cops, despite rarely making an arrest, what makes them great is their relationship which only gets stronger with each passing movie. Riggs grows up from tortured Vietnam Vet, to expectant father, while Murtagh adapts to his kids growing up. Each is a great character, together they’re truly a lethal weapon against the criminal element.
4 Clarice Starling - The Silence Of The Lambs
While The Silence of the Lambs is generally remembered for Anthony Hopkins stellar portrayal of Hannibal Lector, it’s actually rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling who is the protagonist.
Pulled from the academy shortly before graduation, Clarice is assigned to question the incarcerated Doctor Hannibal Lector to gain his insights on the on-going Buffalo Bill investigation. Bonding with Lector, Clarice shares personal information about her life with him (despite having been warned not to do so) in exchange for his help. Lector knows Bill’s identity, but prefers to play mind games with Starling making her work it out for herself after giving her several cryptic clues.
Following Lector’s clues, Starling deduces that Bill’s first victim had a personal connection to him. Questioning people that knew the first victim, Starling stumbles across the killer and after a moment of terror, as she is stalked through darkness while he wears night-vision goggles, Starling kills him and rescues his final victim.
3 William Somerset - Se7en
Set to retire, William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is investigating his last case when he is assigned a new partner, the headstrong and impulsive, yet also idealistic David Mills (Brad Pitt). As the two connect several deaths, they realise that each one represents one of the seven deadly sins. This leads to the infamous “Head in a box” finale, which sees Mills give into the final sin of Wrath.
Mills is an old-fashioned cop and one who asks many questions, even to the point of irritating his fellow officers who would rather not look past the obvious. He has a very organised and logical approach to his job and uses a great deal of research to investigate the murders.
He’s jaded and pessimistic, having been seeing violent crime for many years. He’s also isolated due to feeling that it would be fair to raise a family in such a brutal setting, this leads him to be slightly resentful of his partner’s happy marriage. Feeling that he has not accomplished much, Somerset sees his job as hopeless and compares finding evidence to finding diamonds while stranded on a desert island, for all the good it’ll do given the situation.
Despite his jaded nature, he ends the movie hinting that he won’t retire after all. Having seen Mills fall, he realises that he’s still needed.
2 Frank Serpico - Serpico
Serpico is based on the real-life story of Frank Serpico, in the movie he’s played by Al Pacino in one of his finest performances. The movie takes place over 12 years as Frank Serpico, an idealistic young man, joins the NYPD as a patrolman.
Serpico is determined to make a difference, but soon witnesses a great deal of police corruption, which he refuses to take part in. his colleagues regularly shake down and take bribes from gambling and drug dealing organisations and Serpico refuses to look the other way. Due to his begging his superiors to take action, Serpico is bounced from one precinct to another earning the distrust of his colleagues. Serpico embraces the counter-culture of the 1960s and grows his hair and beard far longer. He is eventually transferred to the narcotics department, as he had always wanted, after speaking to the New York Times about corruption. Once there, he realises that the corruption runs far deeper than he realised and finds himself in a deeper level of hostility and corruption than before.
Due to having no allies as one of the few truly honest cops on the force, nobody comes to his aid when he calls for backup during a raid on a heroin lab. He is shot in the face, and left for dead. He survives, and later testifies at the Knapp Investigation on Police Corruption. Despite being given a medal for his bravery, he resigns from the NYPD.
1 Samuel Gerard - The Fugitive
When it comes to getting his man, nobody does it better than Chief Deputy Marshall Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones). Arguably, he can be summed up in the most famous exchange from The Fugitive, where Doctor Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) exclaims his innocence “I didn’t kill my wife!” to which Gerard simply replies “I don’t care!”. For Gerard, it’s not about guilty or innocent. It’s about finding a man on the run. The rest is a job for another guy. Truthfully though, in both The Fugitive and U.S Marshalls, Gerard helps to prove the innocence of both men who are innocent and brings down the real bad guy.
His brutal put downs are often hilarious, but he’s all business when the situation gets stressful. He has zero time for incompetence and knows everything there is to know about chasing down a man on the run, and expects his team to be every bit as dedicated as he is.
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