I have had always had a fascination with the cop sub-genre. The idea of cops taking on the bad guys, keeping the streets safe for common folk like me always seemed cool. Not to mention the fact that some of the greatest action and crime films of all time feature police officers as the main characters. Unfortunately, real life almost never resembles the movies. The real life police in my country in particular have a tendency to be poorly trained, egocentric, trigger-happy and often escalate already tense situations when they’re supposed to do the opposite. The worst part being that they are almost never held accountable for any of it because of a system that goes out of its way to protect them even if the evidence against them is overwhelming. It’s truly sad that FX’s The Shield may actually be the most accurate depiction of cops in the US. Never the less, none of that ever gets in the way of me enjoying a good film and this is list of eight awesome films that focus on Police of various countries that I believe are unappreciated. Some of these might be more well known than others, especially to film buffs in general, but hell, you Gen Xers would be surprised just how many of my fellow Millennials have never seen Die Hard or Lethal Weapon.
The Naked City (1948)
Director Jules Dassin helms what is probably Hollywood’s first police procedural. A veteran NYPD homicide detective and his rookie partner are on the trail of a thief and killer who murdered a woman with wresting moves. Yeah, this film seems to think that professional wrestling is an actual martial art. A bit dry by modern standards and accompanied by an admittedly annoying voice over narration it may not be the most recommended film on this list. Without a doubt the main reason to watch this film is Barry Fitzgerald who brings a bunch of that ol’ Irish charm to make his lead role surprisingly endearing. It is also quite apparent how much the Dragnet TV series was inspired by this film.
Stray Dog (Nora inu) (1949)
While primarily known for his classic period Samurai, renowned director Akira Kurosawa has done a number of excellent of Noir crime films as well. Stray Dog follows Toshiro Mifune as a rookie detective (and WWII vet) in Tokyo who gets his service weapon pick-pocketed which is then used in a series of crimes. He therefore has to team up a veteran detective to search for it all while getting a better grasp of the city streets. The film does get a bit overly drawn out at times, such as one particular sequence at a baseball game but is certainly worth checking out for fans of Japanese Noir or anyone looking to get a glimpse of what Tokyo was like in the early post WWII years.
Image source: Movie poster,, Wikipedia.
Primarily known for having one of the first true modern car chases in cinema, Bullitt is a precursor to the grittier more modern cop thrillers like Dirty Harry and The French Connection. Steve McQueen gives a great understated performance as SFPD Lt. Frank Bullitt, trying to figure out what’s going on behind the scenes after failing to protect a witness who might not have been who he seemed. Meanwhile, power hungry politician Walter Chalmers (played with sleazy charm by Robert Vaughn) has his own ulterior motives and constantly butts heads with Bullitt. The film’s plot is actually far simpler than it’s somewhat convoluted presentation would have you believe but it’s essential viewing for fans of the genre.
The Detective (1968 film)
Okay, this just might be the very first film to depict American police in a truly honest light. Frank Sinatra plays Joe Leland, a veteran NYPD detective who stumbles into a conspiracy of corruption while investigating the murder of a wealthy and openly gay man. There is a typical romantic subplot that thankfully doesn’t take too much screen time but overall this is a solid and it’s a shame it’s not more widely known. There are some shockingly telling scenes which are even more relevant today such as when a shell-shocked patrolman confesses to getting startled and shooting and killing an innocent (and non-Caucasian judging by the dialog) person and and a rather awesome bit where Sinatra gut punches a homophobic cop (a surprise cameo that I won’t spoil). Fun fact: this movie is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Roderick Thorp who would publish a sequel called Nothing Lasts Forever in 1979. If that name sounds familiar it’s because it’s the same novel that Did Hard was based on.
Image source, Film Poster for The Detective, Wikipedia
The French Connection (1971)
This one is a little more well known than others on the list but has been largely forgotten in recent years. Loosely based on the true story of one of the biggest drug busts in US history, this is one of the first of the more modern and adult police procedural. Gene Hackman (in his first starring role) plays “Popeye” Doyle, a semi racist jerk of a narc cop in New York City who is good at what he does despite himself. Playing on a spur of the moment hunch, he and his partner “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Schieder) follow a lead and learn about a large shipment of heroine that is coming in from Europe and work to crack the case. Director William Friedkin uses a very documentary style of filming and editing which gives this movie an extra each of grit. The French Connection is primarily known for having one of the most famous chase scenes in Cinema history when “Popeye” goes after the drug dealer’s hitman (which is totally fictional by the way). It was also the first R-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The Seven-Ups (1973)
Post-French Connection but pre-Jaws, Roy Schieder was probably hoping this would be his big star vehicle. Schieder plays the leader of the titular “Seven Ups.” They are essentially a black ops unit within the NYPD who set up and plant evidence on known criminals that could lead to them being charged and eventually sentenced to seven years or more of hard time, hence the name. However, what could have been an interesting dramatic thriller about the team and their questionable ethics instead turns into a rather dull plot involving David Lynch kidnapping mob bosses and holding them for ransom. This is certainly the weakest title on the list. The one reason it’s included is one of the greatest car chases ever filmed, featuring the talents of stunt-driver/coordinator Phil Hickman (who also worked on Bullitt and French Connection).
City on Fire (1987)
Quentin Tarantino’s main inspiration for Reservoir Dogs. Chow Yun Fat plays an undercover cop attempting to infiltrate a violent gang of jewel thieves while simultaneously trying mend the broken relationship with his long time girlfriend. There are inevitably some cliches, Fat ends up becoming friends with one of the robbers, the aging undercover handler has a beef with his new young hotshot superior, etc. Definitely worth a watch for Tarantino fans, Chow Yun Fat fans or fans of John Woo’s The Killer as it features the two leads from that film in opposite roles.
Jackie Chan’s Crime Story (1993)
Loosely based on a true story and Jackie Chan’s first serious role. When a wealthy businessman is kidnapped and held for ransom by a gang of thugs lead by a crooked cop, Inspector Eddie Chan must solve the case while also battling his inner demons. Jackie is really trying to prove that he can act in a serious grounded way in this and I think he succeeds. Do not go into this expecting another Police Story or Supercop type film. There are a couple trademark Jackie Chan moments here and there (such as a brief fight scene involving a scalding hot handgun… you’ll see what I mean) but for the most part this is a straight crime thriller and essential for anyone wanting to see a more serious Jackie.
PTU: Police Tactical Unit (2003)
Hong Kong director Johnnie To is known for his John Woo inspired action crime films but this one’s a bit more grounded than many of his other works. When a Detective Sa is mugged by Triads and loses his service weapon, he enlists the help of his friend Sergeant Ho who is the leader of a night patrol squad in PTU (whom are a cut above regular Hong Kong beat cops but not quite SWAT level). The whole film takes place over one night as the Detective and the squad both try and get to the bottom of where the gun ended up (using ethically questionable methods) all the while a an Internal Affairs Inspector is constantly breathing down their necks. PTU is notable more drawn out and experimental compared to most of the others on this list, despite only being ninety minutes.
Elite Squad (2007)
If City of God was the Leftist take on how messed up the infamous Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro is, Elite Squad is the Right-winger’s take on it. Capt. Roberto Nascimento is the ruthless but incorruptible head of the city’s elite BOPE unit (their version of SWAT) trying to “clean up” the Rio favelas in preparation for the upcoming visit of the Pope. Meanwhile, he must also groom two new recruits to his team, Andre and Neto, one of whom he must choose to succeed him as leader. We spend quite a bit of time with both recruits as well, learning about their idealist beginnings in the police force and their slow disillusionment after repeatedly witnessing the rampant corruption. This is not a particularly hopeful film and the BOPE team, though not corrupted has no qualms about resorting to outright torture and execution to get the job done. Fans of Wagner Maura from Netflix’s Narcos will want to check him out out in this early leading role.
Let me know what you guys think in the comments!