The Best Cop Movies of All Time

 Ed Nowicki

The results may be surprising to some.

Hollywood has been churning out cop movies from the days of the humorous Keystone Kops silent movies of the 1920s to the “bang bang, shoot ’em up” movies of today.  So, what are the best cop movies? Why not go to the inspiration – real or imagined – and ask the cops? After all, you don’t ask football players for the best baseball movies.

“The Ten Best Cop Movies” were determined in three manners. The first two involved in-person meetings with some fellow ROCs (Retired Old Cops) for coffee and donuts in the morning or for pizza and beer in the evening. Additionally, a list of 151 movies, along with ballots, were E-mailed to about 400 current or retired cops. Well over 100 ballots were returned which included 19 write-in movies.

There are actually more than ten top cop movies, since ties are listed without skipping a number. Agree or disagree, here are the results from the voting.

The Winners

  1. Beverly Hills Cop and The Choirboys. Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of Detroit PD Officer Axel Foley interacting with straitlaced Beverly Hills cops is worth watching. Axel is a slick talker with, as you’d expect, a quick wit and there’s a great shootout near the end of the movie. The best movie quote: “You know what I keep thinking about? You know the end of Butch Cassidy? Redford and Newman are almost out of ammunition and the whole Bolivian army is out in front of this little hut?”

The Choirboys was a somewhat surprising choice. The book, The Choirboys, by LAPD cop turned author Joseph Wambaugh, showed a great and irreverent display of the various police characters and the dark humor of law enforcement. Some of the great cop names of The Choirboys include “Spermwhale Whalen” and black gloved officer “Roscoe Rules” who made people “do the chicken.” If you read the book and watched The Choirboys movie, you may be disappointed in the movie. Any personal feelings aside, The Choirboys was a top ten movie as voted.

  1. Seven and The New Centurions. The movie Seven is a 1995 crime thriller with two detective partners who are played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. In my opinion, it is somewhat depressing and it reminds me of a horror film. This is the story of a serial killer, played by a very creepy Kevin Spacey, who kills his victims for each of the seven deadly sins. The movie ends in a living nightmare which results in one detective confronting pure evil. Although well done, you may be more than a bit rattled after viewing this film.

Written in 1971, The New Centurions was Joseph Wambaugh’s first novel and the closest thing to real policing in a big city. Made into a movie which starred actors George C. Scott and Stacy Keach, the movie showed cops as more than two-dimensional boneheads. Scott’s portrayal of veteran cop Andy Kilvinsky and “Kilvinsky’s Law” showed the effectiveness of commonsense applications by a veteran street cop.

  1. Colors and Training Day. Colors stars Sean Penn and Robert Duvall as partners assigned to the LAPD’s C.R.A.S.H. (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit. Duvall is put into the unit because of his experience and an increase in gang activity. The battle for gang supremacy, reflecting reality, is between the “Bloods” and the “Crips.” There’s a great story about patience, told by Duvall, involving a young bull and an old bull.

Training Day seems to me like the most anti-LAPD, anti-cop movie ever made. Denzel Washington plays the role of a corrupt, money hungry cop to perfection. Ethan Hawke is the proverbial “deer caught in the headlights” rookie who is getting sucked into an ethical black-hole to the point where he might not make it out. It is an excellent, well acted movie from a storytelling perspective, but it has a very strong anti-cop message from the birdbrains in Hollywood! If you liked the former FX cable TV show, “The Shield,” you’ll love Training Day. This is a movie which cops either love or hate!

  1. Donnie Brasco is the story of FBI undercover special agent Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, played by Johnny Depp, who infiltrated New York City’s Bonano crime family. After Donnie Brasco’s cover was intentionally revealed, FBI informants later revealed that Brasco had a $500,000 contract on his life. This is an excellent film, but there was some creative license taken when compared to the original book. However, the movie did include many intense occurrences, such as the brutal Japanese restaurant scene.
  2. LA Confidential and The Departed. Filmed in 1997, LA Confidential tells the story of three very different LAPD cops who seek to solve murders and fight out of control police corruption in 1950s Hollywood. The cops are revealed in a raw manner, but they still try their best to do their often difficult jobs. Far from the glamour and glitz, LA Confidential reveals a seedy side of Hollywood. This movie is radically different when compared to Jack Webb’s “just the facts” TV show, “Dragnet,” of the 1950s.

The Departed, which takes place in Boston, is loosely based on the 2002 Hong Kong thriller, Infernal Affairs. This is a compelling cop versus gangsters drama with a seedy realism and blurred morality. The excellent cast includes Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon who all do an outstanding job of bringing you into the movie.

  1. Lethal Weapon. There are a total of four Lethal Weapon movies. This is a great cop buddy movie which partners a marginally crazy Mel Gibson with Danny Glover who is on the short track to retirement. No one can forget Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh telling Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs, “I was driving before you were an itch in your daddy’s pants!” Don Mihalek, a federal law enforcement officer, made the comment to me, “The original Lethal Weapon is the best. They should have never made another!” It’s a fun movie, yet there are a few deadly serious scenes.
  2. Bullitt has one of the coolest car chase scenes ever filmed, as Steve McQueen races through the steep, lofty streets of San Francisco in a 1968 Mustang GT Fastback at warp speed. This is probably the granddaddy of all chase scenes and will put butterflies in your stomach, as Bullitt’s Mustang takes on a Dodge Charger in a wild chase. The muddled plot is less interesting with Lt. Frank Bullitt tracking down the hitmen who killed a mafia witness who was in his protection. Blah, blah, blah, chase scene – WOW!
  3. The Untouchables and Heat. It may be difficult for some of the aging baby boomer cops to rid the image of Robert Stack’s stiff TV portrayal of Eliot Ness from their minds. Kevin Costner’s version of Eliot Ness was solid, but who can forget Sean Connery’s performance as a streetwise, shotgun-wielding Chicago cop Jimmy Malone. Malone’s officer survival advice to Ness still applies to every real law enforcement officer when he tells Ness (who had a bad day), “You just fulfilled the first rule of law enforcement: Make sure when your shift is over, you go home alive. Here endeth the lesson.” Gotta love Jimmy Malone’s street moxie!

It’s Pacino versus De Niro – cop versus criminal in Heat. It’s not exactly good versus evil, since Pacino isn’t all that good and De Niro isn’t all that bad. Somehow, both cop and criminal seem to have much in common. You almost (that’s ALMOST) want to root for the bad guy. If you like shootouts in movies, you’ll love Heat.

  1. Serpico. Al Pacino is honest cop Frank Serpico in a New York City PD which is infested with corruption and it almost cost him his life. Serpico tries to identify the bad apples in the NYPD without violating the alleged Gibraltar-like “blue wall of silence.” Hollywood, as usual, took significant creative liberty with the book, Serpico. This is a well done movie which may touch law enforcement viewers in many different ways.
  2. Dirty Harry and The French Connection. 1971’s Dirty Harry did more for the sale of S&W Model 29 .44 Magnums than any advertising ever could. You could not buy one. I know because I tried! Harvey Hedden, the Executive Director of ILEETA (International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association), stated, “Dirty Harry made other movies adopt a catchphrase like ‘Do you feel lucky?’ and represented a cop’s frustration with a criminal justice system which protected the criminals over victims. He is the cop we wanted to be, but couldn’t.” If you like Dirty Harry, you’ll love any of the other four Dirty Harry movies which followed, along with the line, “Go ahead, make my day,” used in Sudden Impact (which was also used by President Reagan). So, did he shoot five rounds or six?

The French Connection, also a 1971 release, created a surge in popularity of another piece of equipment: the ankle holster. Prior to Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle carrying an ankle holster, I never knew of a cop who owned one. After The French Connection, it seemed like almost every cop used one, myself included. Don’t bother with the sequel – it’s underwhelming. Officer Eric Dickinson of the Vinton, Iowa, Police Department stated, “The French Connection is a great movie with the most exciting chase sequence ever made AND [it’s] based on a true story. It’s a classic 70s cop movie.” The Bullitt chase scene aside, it’s hard to argue with a car chasing a train on elevated tracks. Now, answer this: You still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie?

Honorable Mentions

A great many movies almost made the top ten list. These, in no particular order, include: Fort Apache, The Bronx; Freebie and the Bean (great cop buddy fun); In the Heat of the Night; Police Academy (seven movies in the series); The Silence of the Lambs; Turner and Hooch; Die Hard; Super Troopers (really?); The Seven-Ups; Naked Gun; In the Line of Fire; End of Watch; To Live and Die in LA; RoboCop (both the old and new versions); and The Onion Field.

Who wouldn’t want to partner with Officer Murphy’s RoboCop and hear him say, “Come quietly or there will be…trouble.” Or, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me!” Or, Officer John McClane, played by Bruce Willis in Die Hard, yelling, “Yippee ki-yay, motherf-er!” Or, telling a terrorist, “Just a fly in the ointment, Hans. The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass.” If only real crime fighting cops could be so Hollywood cool. Yeah, right!

One movie every cop should see is The Onion Field. It’s extremely well done and does Joseph Wambaugh’s book of the same name proud. The Onion Field is a true story and it’s a movie which every cop can feel with a cascade of different emotions. Every recruit in a real-world police academy should be required to watch The Onion Field and discuss in class what happened and what lessons are learned.


No Old West lawmen movies were listed. By the way, John Wayne only starred in two cop movies: McQ and Brannigan. Good versus great is strictly a personal preference. Outside of the Dirty Harry series of five movies, most sequels aren’t worth watching.

What’s really a good police movie from a cop’s perspective? Too much of the cop film genre is typified by crooked cops, mentally disturbed cops and outlaw cops. Sgt. Rocky Warren (retired – Placer, CA, Sheriff’s Dept.) agreed, “I want to be entertained and/or amused by the cop movie. I still get angry at movies which portray cops as greedy, on the take, or vicious. I guess I lived too long with people who enforce the law and were the exact opposite. Plus, losing too many friends to police service makes you a bit sensitive about the kind of barnyard sewage so favored by the ‘Hollyweird’ crowd.”

There you have it – cop movies. From the cynical and corrupt cop, to the supercop who, like Superman, is out for truth, justice and the American way. It seems that the nation cannot get enough of the “knights in blue” movies.

The cop movie is a genre which includes a few “just the facts,” squeaky-clean men and women, and the jaded officers who are submersed in the seedy world which most of the public never sees. So, like most celluloid cops, let’s pull that slide back and chamber a live round into the empty chambered semiauto pistol which we all carry. Just remember, almost any of the “bang bang, shoot ’em up” cop movies requires a visit to a strip club, so keep your eyes open!

Ed Nowicki, a nationally recognized police use-of-force and training expert, is a retired police officer and retired police academy director. He is also the Executive Director Emeritus of ILEETA. Ed generally loves cop movies and, when not watching a cop movie with Coco, the police attack poodle, he can be reached at