Following the recent release of Triple 9, Joe Ryan takes Redbrick through his ten favourite gritty cop dramas.
A staple of cop films is corruption and criminality within the ranks of the police department itself. However, whilst many such films include corrupt cops (for example The Negotiator or Leon), few have these despicable characters as leading roles, Harvey Keitel’s Lieutenant is beyond reproach; a gambler and drug addict using his authority to embezzle and sexually harass. His search for redemption through tracking down a rapist drags the audience kicking and screaming through the seedy streets of The Bronx, and the conflicted motivations of a man precariously balanced on the edge of madness. Whilst Werner Herzog’s 2009 remake is a strong piece of work and Oren Moverman’s Rampart showcases Woody Harrelson at his best, it is Abel Ferrara’s 1992 original that most effectively confronts the darkest consequences of giving these men badges.
End of Watch
There aren’t many movies about uniformed ‘beat’ cops outside of comedies such as Hot Fuzz, The Guard and the abysmal Let’s Be Cops. However, the daily routine of partners Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala (two pitch-perfect central performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) and their accidental involvement with a vicious drug cartel on the streets of South Central LA made for one of the best cop films of recent years. David Ayer’s semi-documentary style filming (justified as part of a college course taken by Brian) gives the film an immediacy that places the viewer on the streets with the two partners, with all the danger and adrenaline that entails. The chemistry between the two leads is fantastic and we sit on the edge of our seats during the tense house raids and frenetic action scenes, willing the two on as they patrol one of the most dangerous districts of Los Angeles.
With Thief, Michael Mann demonstrated that he could make a fantastic heist movie. 14 years later, he perfected his craft with Heat. The first (and, to date, only good) on-screen pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino has become the template for all heist movies. Triple 9 owes pretty much everything to this excellent crime drama, as do The Town, Point Break and Inside Man. The cat-and-mouse game between Pacino’s veteran L.A.P.D. officer and De Niro’s veteran thief, set amongst Mann’s unique depiction of Los Angeles, is a sight to behold as the two attempt to beat each other whilst developing a mutual respect for the other’s work. The famous street shoot-out is a masterclass of virtuoso action filmmaking, with the deafening gunfire and lack of music adding to the grit and punch of the film as a whole.
In American cinema at least, some of the best cop films take place within the realms of science fiction. Dredd is an excellent and stylish action film, Robocop is a timely satire on capitalism and greed, and Minority Report is a taut Orwellian nightmare. However, a spot on this list could not go to any other than Ridley Scott’s neo-noir thriller. Equal parts police drama, dystopian thriller and concept piece, Blade Runner is ranked amongst the greatest sci-fi films ever made. Additionally however, this film, following a cop’s search for 4 escaped ‘replicants’ in yet another unique depiction of Los Angeles, is also a wonderfully oppressive and open-ended police drama. Blade Runner is beautiful in its bleakness and Harrison Ford’s Deckard is a textbook example of a great, tortured movie cop.
Despite L.A.’s seeming monopoly on police dramas, America isn’t the only country that knows how to pull off a great cop film. Great offerings from the likes of Brazil (Elite Squad) have widened the net for police action films. An honourable mention has to go to Gareth Evans’ Indonesian martial arts films, The Raid and The Raid 2; I really cannot recommend these films enough. However, it is Hong Kong’s approach that wins for sheer, visceral thrills. John Woo’s 1992 action masterclass is fast-paced and entirely ridiculous. 3 or 4 set piece shootouts amongst the bustling teahouses, dockyards and hospitals of Hong Kong are the film’s biggest draw. Wang Wing-heng’s camera shoots these sequences with an infectious energy and playfulness that works in conjunction with the balletic yet violent choreography. However, beneath all this lies a compelling narrative about shifting loyalties and trust in an extensive and dangerous undercover operation. Hard Boiled is one of the best of the HK action films and a true masterpiece of visual filmmaking.
Silence of the Lambs
Not all cop films however, are as fun as John Woo would have you believe. In more recent years, we have seen a move towards police dramas that share more in common with horror than with action. David Fincher’s Se7en or Zodiac, Villeneuve’s excellent Prisoners and Kim Jee-Woon’s I Saw the Devil could all be on this list. But it is Jonathan Demme’s take on the Hannibal Lecter saga that started it all and his film is yet to be bettered. Clarice Starling’s hunt for a vicious serial killer, assisted by the incarcerated “Hannibal the Cannibal,” stills sends chills down the spines of those who watch it. Filmed predominantly in super close-up and with some inspired performances from the central cast that often come across as dissonantly camp and over-acted, the films consistently heightens the unnerving and downright creepy atmosphere up until the nerve-shredding climax. An occasionally difficult film to watch, those who can stomach it will find a disturbing yet enthralling experience.
A slightly more grounded portrayal of police work for number 4. In my humble opinion, Sidney Lumet is one of the finest filmmakers who ever lived and Serpico is one of his finest films. His based-on-a-true-story police drama about the eponymous New York cop working to expose corruption within the police force is a sort-of anti-Bad Lieutenant. Frank Serpico’s relationships, career, principles and, ultimately, life are under threat in a 12 year story, from Frank’s inception as a newly uniformed beat-cop to an assassination attempt during a drugs bust. I was tempted to place Brian Helgeland’s L.A. Confidential here as the seminal police corruption film, but Lumet’s direction and Al Pacino’s gripping central performance has resulted in a film that has stood the test of time as a near-perfect drama.
Scorsese is undoubtedly one of the most prolific directors of crime films, however much of his work centres on the criminals themselves. Much can be said for 2006’s The Departed being no different, but at least the cops play a central role in this one. Not, to my mind, Scorsese’s best film, The Departed certainly beats the likes of Infernal Affairs (the Hong Kong film upon which The Departed is based) and the impressive yet largely forgotten State of Grace. The complex, winding tale of deceit and double-crossing during an undercover investigation into the Irish mob in Boston definitely shows a more measured and mature side to Scorsese than much of his earlier, angrier work. Enjoyable performances across the board (notably Jack Nicholson playing a mob boss doing a bad Jack Nicholson impersonation throughout and Mark Wahlberg demonstrating he can actually act really quite well when he’s trying) and Scorsese’s distinctive style make this one of the standout gritty cop films of the 21st century so far.
Memories of murder
The top 2 were a tough choice. Bong Joon-Ho’s dark, violent retelling of the investigation into South Korea’s first serial killings is a phenomenal piece of work. Local detective Park is dumbfounded by a spate of horrifying murders in his district and calls in Detective Seo from Seoul to assist in the investigation. Park and Seo clash over their respective methods as Park’s violence and incompetence jeopardises the investigation. The cinematography in this film is assured and quietly astonishing. Bong Joon-ho uses measured camera movements and ensemble staging to incredible effect, allowing the confident performances to speak for themselves. The pitfalls and deficiencies of the police in this film offer a different perspective on the thin blue line from most others, leading to an unconventional, understated yet subtly breath-taking ending. An honourable mention goes to Diao Yinan’s 2014 Chinese film Black Coal, Thin Ice, but nothing beats Memories of Murder for its depiction of seemingly hopeless homicide detectives.
Was there any doubt? It really couldn’t have gone to anyone else. William Friedkin’s thriller about narcotics detectives is the grittiest police drama I’ve ever seen, but more than that, it is one of the greatest films ever made. “Popeye” Doyle and “Cloudy” Russo’s hunt for the man behind the largest heroin-smuggling syndicate in the world through the immediately recognisable streets of 1970’s New York could hardly be any better if it tried. A huge hit for everyone involved, this film has taken its place as a classic of American cinema. Gene Hackman’s Doyle is now of the most iconic movie detectives, alongside Fran Bullitt, Marge Gunderson and Virgil Tibbs, and rightly so. He’s scruffy and unlikeable, but he’s tenacious and resourceful. The investigation takes both him and his partner to some dark places and we’re their alongside them through thick and thin, even if that involves being strapped to the front of Doyle’s car during one of the most famous car chase sequences in history.
Article by Joe Ryan