From thrilling true crime stories to gut-busting buddy cop comedies, Hollywood has spoiled our screens with a multitude of great law enforcement films over the years.
While it’s usually the gun fights, car chases and menacing bad guys that keep us coming back for more, some entries in the genre explore the more human side of policing and the challenges faced by officers on the job.
Whether you’re looking for a raw and honest insight into the gritty world of law enforcement, or something a little more light-hearted, there’s a cop movie that’s worth a watch. But among the countless films the genre has produced over the last few decades, there are certain titles that have left a lasting impression on their viewers.
Listed below are the ten best cop movies of all time, be it for their top-notch production, master-crafted storylines or incredible action scenes.
Released: 7 April 1995
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Martin Lawrence, Will Smith, Theresa Randle
Starting with what is perhaps the most popular buddy-cop movie to ever hit the big screen, Bad Boys is everything you’d expect from a film in its category and then some.
After having to switch identities, Miami cops and best friends Marcus (Martin Lawrence) and Mike (Will Smith) experience what it’s like to live each other’s polar-opposite lives. The married friend gets to relive the single life, while the bachelor discovers the challenges of domesticity.
The precursor to a highly successful sequel was an important milestone for both Smith and director Michael Bay, having played a major role in building the foundation of their respective careers. While not without a fair share of generic shoot-’em up scenes, the main character’s comedic talents did a good job at making up for it.
Released: 15 September 1995
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow
If you were at the cinema in 1995 and you wanted to see a cop movie truer to the harsh reality of policing the streets, you’d buy a ticket for Seven. This dark, uncompromising thriller follows the story of two mismatched partners who experience an increasingly unnerving relationship during their time in the force.
The premise of an old and weary officer (played here by none other than Morgan Freeman) learning to respect the more idealistic approach of his younger partner (Brad Pitt) is nothing new. But the way it’s told in Seven is unlike anything you’ve seen before. It’s the anti-buddy cop movie – when things go all but right.
The French Connection
Released: 9 October 1971
Director: William Freidkin
Starring: Roy Scheider, Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey
The French Connection is considered by many as nothing short of a masterpiece. You can also credit it for laying the groundwork for all buddy cop films to come. The much-imitated premise was simple: a pair of tough cops steadfast in their own beliefs who have no desire to work together, but have to, leading to many lessons learned.
With the main character’s grouchy and scuzzy demeanors, it’s easy to forget that Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider) are the good guys. Most viewers will remember The French Connection for its thrilling car chases, while others will admire the way its fictional storyline feels so true to life that you’d think it’s a documentary.
In the Heat of the Night
Released: 2 August 1967
Director: Norman Jewison
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Warren Oates, Rod Steiger
Moving even closer to the very beginnings of the cop movie, In the Heat of the Night is a critically-acclaimed crime drama for which director Norman Jewison is eternally and deservedly credited. The two-time Best Picture winner is an adaptation of the John Ball novel about a Philadelphia cop investigating a murder in Mississippi.
Said cop, played by Sidney Poitier, is reluctantly assisted by a local police chief (Rod Steiger), whose relationship revolves around the reconciliation of racial and cultural differences. In the Heat of the Night showed the movie industry how presenting your characters as nuanced human beings can send a far more powerful message than a cast of symbols.
Released: 5 April 1996
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Frames McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William Macy
Ageing well enough to still be enjoyed today is just one of the many things Fargo did right. The Coen Brothers classic also offers a generous helping of humor, action and suspense. Plus, it doesn’t take a thorough analysis of the script to understand why the movie won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay – not to mention a myriad of other awards.
The iconic cop movie packs a ton of trivia. For example, did you know that not a single scene was actually filmed in Fargo? Even the bar exterior shown at the start of the film was located in Minneapolis. Despite that, the actors did a standout job at speaking like the locals, thanks in no small part to their study of the book “How to Talk Minnesotan.”
Released: 23 March 1984
Director: Hugh Wilson
Starring: Steve Guttenberg, Kim Cattrall
Police Academy takes place in 1984, which marked the removal of personal criteria requirements to join the force. No longer were weight, height, orientation and other personal attributes a factor, leading to an insurgence of applications. This includes a select group of misfits that the movie follows as they begin their quest to become police officers.
Colorful and captivating characters abound, including gun maniac Tackleberry, hedonistic Callahan, and an aptly named Hightower who stands far above his accomplices. Police Academy is also a great way to delve into the intriguing history of policing in Canada, which you can learn more about on this Wilfrid Laurier University blog post.
Released: 6 March 1987
Director: Richard Donner
Starring: Danny Glover, Mel Gibson, Gary Busey
Easily one of the most recognizable entries in the genre, Lethal Weapon is a cop movie with a textbook premise and masterful execution. Everyone has their favorite rendition, but the dark and dramatic recipe of the original tends to be the first choice among critics and moviegoers.
The Oscar-nominated thriller details the story of suicidal police officer Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), to whom an unlucky Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is assigned a partner. As their uncovering of a major drug-smuggling operation develops, their success rate grows and with it, their friendship.
Ending with a bit of trivia, did you know that Lethal Weapon was the first film to have a modern cell phone? Said device is the Portable Radio Shack Model 17-1003, which launched around the same time as the movie.
Perhaps more interestingly, Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis were both considered for each other’s roles in Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. Both actors turned down their respective offers. As if that wasn’t enough, the movies in question were produced by the same person, Joel Silver, and both featured a score composed by Michael Karmen.
Beverly Hills Cop
Released: 5 December 1984
Director: Martin Brest
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Josh Ashton, Judge Reinhold
Beverly Hills Cop is the perfect example of why great movies are sometimes best left alone. The trio of sequels that followed the first film maintained a downhill trajectory, failing to touch the commercial and critical success of the 1984 original. But that doesn’t take anything away from the Eddie Murphy classic.
It was this film that helped the comedic legend achieve superstardom, playing the role of a street-smart cop who travels to Los Angeles for a murder case. While the film mostly focuses on utilizing the side-splitting talents of its main character, there’s also plenty of action – a recipe that was liberally adopted by future movies like Rush Hour.
End of Watch
Released: 21 September 2012
Director: David Ayer
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Kendrick, Michael Peña
Coming back to more recent releases, End of Watch is easily one of the most thrilling and suspenseful movies of its time, never mind its genre. This underrated gem follows the superbly-acted day-to-day lives of Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), partnering officers whose relationship is key to survival.
End of Watch provides a detailed and realistic look into themes like the drug trade, gang membership and the violence that follows. While perhaps deserving of greater success at the box office, director David Ayer and his cast were met with endless critical appraise for the culmination of their work.
Released: 20 April 2007
Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman
An absolute essential, Hot Fuzz tells the distinctly British story of two very different police officers tasked with solving a series of mysterious murders. Simon Pegg’s character is relocated from the city to work with a local officer played by Nick Frost, whose unbelievable incompetence creates a hilarious relationship between the partners.
In scenes where there isn’t a healthy dose of clever comedy, the film incorporates plenty of action and suspense to keep you captivated. The combination of a great story, excellent camerawork and masterful acting ensured the movie’s commercial and critical success.
This list should satisfy your craving for exciting cop movies for plenty of weekends to come. That said, it’s by no means complete, so don’t hesitate to do some investigative work of your own.