When good cops go bad
Published 04/06/2011 | 05:00
In the trashy but entertaining British crime drama Blitz, which is currently showing at your local multiplex, Jason Statham plays a London police detective whose approach to crime-fighting is robust to a fault.
Over the film's brisk 97 minutes, Det Sgt Tom Brant beats suspects, shoots people, attacks a man with a pool cue and knocks the tar out of four car thieves with a hurley stick. He also drinks constantly and spouts pithy one-liners, all of which makes him a most appealing screen cop.
Statham's character is part of a long and proud tradition of bad, bent and maverick screen cops. They're often anti-heroes, men of conscience who've grown so exasperated with criminals using loopholes in the law to evade justice that they decide to become judge, jury and executioner.
They play on middle-class anxieties about crime, and pander to a popular yearning to see violent offenders being given a taste of their own medicine. They only became stock characters in Hollywood in the late 1960s: prior to that, cops were usually portrayed as either stupid, comical or deadly dull.
But modern audiences like seeing criminals gets their comeuppance, and seem prepared to embrace even borderline psychotic screen cops once they give the villains what for. Here are 10 of the very best bad cops, and a pretty salty bunch they are too.
1. Frank Bullitt
The King of Cool didn't play cops very often, but Steve McQueen did so memorably in Peter Yates's stylish 1968 thriller Bullitt. Most maverick cops spout wisecracks and catchphrases, but San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt hardly says anything.
When a prominent mob witness dies in custody, Frank smells a rat and risks all by setting out to expose the corrupt politician he believes is behind it all. Frank is quite the driver too, and Bullitt's famous car chase is justly celebrated.
2. Harry Callahan
The king of the bad cops made his first screen appearance in Don Siegel's iconic 1971 thriller Dirty Harry. Played with a permanent glower by Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan was a world-weary San Francisco cop who'd lost faith in the justice system and preferred to settle things on the spot with the help of his trusty 44 Magnum.
His idea of hostage negotiation is to drive his car through the front window of a besieged premises. "Go ahead, make my day" is his most memorable catchphrase.
He spawned five films, a series of novels, and a host of imitators.
3. Popeye Doyle
William Friedkin's The French Connection was among the first and best of a new breed of gritty and hard-hitting 1970s cop thrillers, and Gene Hackman delivered an explosive performance as New York narcotics detective Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle. Based on a real cop called Eddie Egan, Doyle is a hot-headed obsessive who breaks all the rules in his single-minded pursuit of a French drug kingpin.
His trademarks are his pork-pie hat and an eccentric method of questioning used to unsettle suspects. "Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?" is his most famous line.
4. Martin Riggs
Back in the 1980s, when he was an actor rather than a car-crash celebrity, Mel Gibson scored one of his biggest box-office hits with Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon.
The lethal weapon in question is Mel's Martin Riggs, a suicidal and psychotic LA detective. Teamed with an older family man called Murtaugh (Danny Glover), Riggs becomes a liability during a murder investigation, but his high-risk tactics yield results. Riggs is among the funniest -- and least believable -- big-screen bad cops.
5. John McClane
Bruce Willis was still a jobbing TV actor when he took on the role of John McClane in John McTiernan's 1988 comic thriller Die Hard, and it proved to be a star-making performance. McClane drinks too much, chain-smokes Marlboros and has a nihilistic approach to life, but he has a quintessentially American charm and a winning way with words. His catchphrase begins with "yippee-ki-yay" and concludes with an unprintable expletive.
6. Vincent Hanna
He's more famous for playing gangsters, but Al Pacino's Vincent Hanna, his cop character in Michael Mann's 1995 thriller Heat, is particularly memorable.
Slickly dressed and smart assed, LA plainclothes cop Hanna is every bit as colourful as the high-stakes bankrobbing gang he's pursuing.
His fourth marriage is falling apart, and at one point he throws a television out the window of his car, but he never loses focus on his investigation, and is always coming up with pithy quotes. "I say what I mean," he remarks at one point, "and I do what I say."
7. Bud White
Curtis Hanson's 1997 hit LA Confidential was a breakthrough film for young Australian actor Russell Crowe, who stole the show as an insanely violent 1950s cop called Bud White.
Traumatised as a child by his wife-beating father, White is a man with a mission: namely, to beat the tar out of anyone who hits women. His favourite conversational opener is, "Why don't you dance with a man for a change?"
His anger is manipulated by his self-serving boss until he forms an alliance with another young cop and takes on a ring of corruption that stretches all the way to the top.
8. Alonzo Harris
Denzel Washington tends to play sympathetic characters, but he shocked his fans when he portrayed rogue narcotics cop Alonzo Harris in Antoine Fuqua's explosive Training Day, in 2001.
Alonzo has been working as an undercover cop in south central LA for so long he's forgotten which way is up, and when rookie detective Jack Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) spends a day on the streets with him, things turn nasty.
Washington is brilliant as the swaggering, devious and deeply deluded Harris, who thinks he's a major player and says things like, "King Kong ain't got shit on me!"
9. Colin Sullivan
The 2006 thriller The Departed is among the best of Martin Scorsese's later films, and Matt Damon portrays the most interesting character in it.
Colin Sullivan is a seemingly upstanding Boston staff sergeant who's hotly tipped for big things, but Sullivan is actually a mole for an Irish mob boss called Costello, and as the film's plot thickens he resorts to murder to keep his cover. His ruthlessness and cunning marks Sullivan as one of the more chilling screen bad cops.
10. Terrence McDonagh
Nicolas Cage has had a checkered acting career, but when he gets it right he can be pretty impressive, and never more so than in Werner Herzog's 2009 crime drama Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
He is Terrence McDonagh, a New Orleans police sergeant whose moral compass has been thrown off by Hurricane Katrina. A cocaine addict, McDonagh's need for the drug lands him in a world of corruption, but the wired and manic cop remains strangely likeable. His least nonsensical catchphrase is, "To the break of dawn, baby!"