Our preferred notion of police work is a messy business. Never mind the reality of scrutinising paperwork as the months tick by. We want to see action and rebellion, a visceral right hook to life-wrecking hours and hollow victories. We want to see badge-wearers that, although outwardly villainous, are ultimately on the side of right.
Crusaders who understand, above all, that to catch a scumbag you need to fight dirty.
With Luther back for one final series, this is our tribute to the fictional enforcers who defy their bureaucratic bosses and stop at nothing to get their perp.
Take off your holster and pour yourself a measure of desk-drawer whisky; it’s our ranked roll call of the best and baddest on-screen police.
(Images: All Star, Rex Features)
39 John Kimble
Kimble takes on an undercover stint as a teacher and bellows his way into his pupils’ hearts.
Maverick moment: Teaching an abusive dad that abuse is wrong… by beating him up in front
of some children.
38 John Spartan
Never mind this deranged sci-fi blockbuster’s vision of a time just 19 years from now (cryogenic prisons and virtual reality sex headsets). It’s worth remembering for Stallone as a shamed cop snarling and kicking against his bosses in a sanitised, defanged future.
Maverick moment: Accruing multiple swearing citations just so he has some bog roll. The man is literally wiping his backside with the 2032 policing system’s stuffy officiousness.
37 Bud White
In preparation to portray this cop, Russell Crowe moved into an apartment he could barely stand up in, enabling him to feel like “a giant”.
Maverick moment: Snapping a wooden chair before steamrolling into
an interrogation room and treating a suspect to an impromptu game of Russian roulette.
36 Henry Oak
Taken off the case of his partner’s murder, Henry Oak is described by his captain as “not stable. He’s all of that sh*t a cop just cannot be.” Of course, the billiard-ball-wielder is quickly reassigned to the case, ready to crack some skulls.
Maverick moment: Conducting question time like Paxman. “There are no lawyers, dumb f*ck! It’s just me and you, and I am in your sh*t for the duration.”
35 Gilou Escoffier
In keeping with Spiral’s dark aesthetic, here is the not-pretty reality of the rule-bending detective.
Maverick moment: When he enters a shop without a warrant – obviously – run by a suspected sex offender Gilou scribbles a sign that reads ‘CLOSED FOR PAEDOPHILIA’.
34 Hank Schrader
His mission to nail ‘Heisenberg’ (AKA his brother-in-law, Walt) results in fist fights and severed heads strapped to tortoises.
Maverick moment: Hank goes rogue, wasting two silent-but-very-deadly hitmen. He loses the use of his legs, but regains his badge. So, every cloud…
33 Saga Noren
Maverick, or just mentally ill? It’s hard to say when it comes to the star of post-Killing Scandi thriller The Bridge. Saga doesn’t so much break the rules, as remain completely oblivious to them. An idiot savant, with no social skills at all, she’ll pick up men in bars for sex, refuse promotions and insult her colleagues. Of course, she’s also a genius detective who the department cannot afford to lose.
Maverick moment: A one-night-stand finds her looking through shots of chopped-up torsos in bed.
32 Terence McDonagh
Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans
Otherwise known as the Nicolas Cage performance that makes all his others look like a study in restraint. McDonagh is a dangerous degenerate with a habit of having public sex with detainees and his nose stuck in a bag of evidence-room drugs. But he still has it in him to be a hero.
Maverick moment: While rationalising his drug-taking: “Everything I take is prescription. Except for the heroin.”
31 Jack Cates
Never mind the gruff whisper and the holster – still worn despite the fact his gun was confiscated. It doesn’t get more maverick than hauling a wisecracking felon out of prison to help track down a cop-killer.
Maverick moment: “Be a little less of a hotdog on this one,” rants his boss in a textbook dressing-down. His retort? “Hotdoggin’s been working real well so far.”
30 Frank Drebin
Police Squad!/The Naked Gun
Frank will go to any lengths to catch a villain. Particularly if those lengths involve accidentally swimming in raw sewage.
Maverick moment: Having hopelessly misjudged an innocent situation, Frank attempts to ‘save’ HRH Queen Elizabeth II by body-slamming her on to a banquet table in front of the world’s press.
29 Stella Gibson
Stella’s contempt for authority comes from a cold disrespect for hypocritical moralising. Her response? Seizing control of a case, one compulsive swimming session at a time.
Maverick moment: Reducing her boss to a simpering wreck: “You were a married man when you spent a night in my bed.”
28 Marion Cobretti
Yes, he’s one of Stallone’s less fondly remembered characters (the script was written and rejected as a draft for Beverley Hills Cop), but here is the maverick cop to the nth degree: ludicrous name, ludicrous team name (the Zombie Squad), speaks only in oneliners and, in the first scene alone, takes out a killer in a grocery store using a can of Coors. Oh yeah, and cuts his pizza with a massive pair of scissors.
Maverick moment: Loudly declaring in front of the entire station: “As long as we play by these bullsh*t rules and the killer doesn’t, we’re gonna lose!”
27 Tequila Yeun
When not being torn a new one by his chief, he’s leaping into the air and firing pistols with both hands, making it no real surprise that the film’s sequel, Stranglehold was a video game.
Maverick moment: Unloading rounds into nameless henchmen with a baby tucked under his arm.
26 Virgil Tibbs
In The Heat Of The Night
That Sidney Poitier slept with a gun under his pillow while filming says all you need to know about 1968’s racial climate powering Tibbs’ furious swagger.
Maverick moment: “They call me MISTER Tibbs!” Virgil’s defiant response to racist chiding about his fancy name rang out through history.
25 Rick Deckard
Take away the flying police car and this LAPD detective, tasked with catching wayward androids, is as classic noir as they come.
Maverick moment: ‘Retiring’ a fembot with a volley of shots to send it crashing through a pane
of glass. As Deckard says: “They don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper. That was my profession.”
24 Nico Toscani
Above The Law
Preachy Nico established Steven Seagal’s shtick of using extremely violent films to expound his peaceful values.
Maverick moment: Lukich: “What the hell kind of high is this?” Nico: “Sky-high. Military explosives. C-4.”
23 Elliot Ness
Infuriated by widespread corruption preventing Al Capone’s arrest, Ness goes off-grid, and gathers a posse for some beneath-the-radar gangster-bashing.
Maverick moment: On bumping into Capone henchman Frank Nitti, Ness opts to skip the paperwork involved with arresting him – and simply hurls him off a roof to his death.
22 & 21 David Starsky and Kenneth ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson
Starsky And Hutch
Not the admirably daft Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller remake, but the disco-infused Seventies original. Notable for their outrageous bromance (there’s a wealth of X-rated, same-sex fan fiction online), a love of unsanctioned undercover work and a customarily cavalier approach to bellbottom-scorching collateral damage.
Maverick moment: The bonnet-hurdling roll into that iconic Gran Torino. Starsky and Hutch: refusing to even play by the conventional rules of entering a vehicle.
20 The Lieutenant
This film really annoyed people at the time, what with the nun nudity, crack and The Lieutenant letting two teenage girls off a speeding ticket as long as he can masturbate over them. Harvey Keitel’s most daring role is a guide to the basest depths of a man’s soul. Good date film.
Maverick moment: All of it.
19 Axel Foley
Beverly Hills Cop
Mouth of a sailor, wardrobe of a Fifties jock; Foley’s unique brand of policing basically involves zipping around LA to a synth-led soundtrack, directly disobeying orders (his scenes trading insults with his shouty Detroit station chief are the pinnacle of the genre) and telling people to “get the f*ck outta here”
in a high-pitched voice.
Maverick moment: On being dubbed “foul-mouthed” by a superior, Foley responds like a true maverick cop: “’Foul-mouthed’? F*ck you, man.”
18 Vincent Hanna
It’s all here: messy home life, allergy to superiors, “We’re not so different, you and I” encounter with the criminal antagonist; Pacino’s seminal creation, encapsulated in the image of Hanna running headlong into a hail of bullets, is the cop as unstoppable, floppy-haired force of nature.
Maverick moment: “I told you when we hooked up, baby, that you were going
to have to share me with all the bad people and all the ugly events on this planet.” Harsh but fair.
17 Frank Serpico
A hippie in a world of squares, Al Pacino’s undercover NYPD officer, based on a real-life cop who testified against corrupt colleagues in 1971, was already a maverick before he’d stopped looking the other way. Cutting a forlorn if righteous figure through treacherous precinct hallways, it’s impossible
not to admire his one-man crusade.
Maverick moment: “That gun takes a 14-shot clip. You expecting an army?” enquires a gun shop owner as our hero intensely scans a weapon – before coolly replying, “No, just a division.”
16 Jack Regan
The Flying Squad leader, red tape loather and eternal thief of his colleague’s cigarettes. As rough’n’ready as they come, but honest too.
Maverick moment: “Try to protect the public, and all they do is call you fascist.
You nail a villain and some ponced-up pinstripe Hampstead barrister screws
it up like an old fag-packet on a point of procedure, then pops off for a game of squash and a glass of madeira. He’s taking home 30 grand a year, and we can just about afford 10 days in Eastbourne and a second-hand car. It’s wrong, my son.”
15 Frank Burnside
He rubs his colleagues up the wrong way, especially Bob Cryer, a man whose nose seems to inflate in line with his resentment towards this renegade colleague.
Maverick moment: As he arrives at Sun Hill station while on a job deep undercover: “Hello, Bob – I think I’ve got a reservation.”
14 Jane Tennison
Sure, she was a trailblazing conqueror of Scotland Yard’s sexist culture. But, more than that, Tennison is one of the great screen icons of fallible brilliance.
Maverick moment: After a hapless detective calls her ‘sir’: “My voice suddenly got lower, has it? Listen, I like to be called Governor or The Boss. I don’t like Ma’am – I’m not the bloody Queen.”
13 Jim Taggart
Looking like football’s most maverick manager isn’t going to hurt as a cop and neither will sharing working class values of loyalty, devotion to loved ones and whisky-appreciation.
Maverick moment: When he and the younger, straighter Jardine are having a drink in the pub, he asks: “What’s that?” Jardine replies, “Mineral water.” Taggart: “And nuts? What are you planning to do, hibernate?”
12 Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle
The French Connection
His introduction sees him chase a perp across a building site while dressed as Santa. Naturally, it’s not long before he’s laying his black boots into the crook.
Maverick moment: Narrowly missing a mother with a pram when pursuing an overhead train during the infamous breakneck car chase. See, he does care after all.
11 John Luther
Tie askew, face unshaven, arm dangling a suspect off a block of flats; Idris Elba’s “Loofah” is self-destructive in every sense of the word.
Maverick moment: Stamping on the trembling fingers of murderous kidnapper Henry Madsen as he clings to a walkway in a conveniently abandoned warehouse.
10 Martin Riggs
“Riiiigggs!” Oh, how he gets under partner Murtaugh’s skin, whether it be with shoulder-dislocating antics or killing everyone he meets. Riggs is a cop bad guys fear because he plays by every instinct except the survival instinct. “You’re not trying to draw a psycho pension. You really are crazy!”
Maverick moment: “Do you wanna hear that sometimes I think about eating a bullet? I’ve even got a special bullet for the occasion… You know why I don’t do it? The job! Doing the job!”
9 John McClane
A cop who goes after terrorists (and people pretending to be terrorists). Drives armoured trucks over Russian traffic jams. Takes down fighter jets by hand. Serial killers are for wimps.
Maverick moment: Captain Lorenzo [Die Hard 2’s typically furious boss]: “You’re the asshole that’s just broken seven FAA and five District Of Columbia regulations, running around my airport with a gun, shooting at people. What
do you call that sh*t?” McClane: “Self-defence.”
8 Gene Hunt
Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes
The door-kicking, Quattro-swerving, booze-guzzler‘s techniques were subjected to a roasting from by-the-book time-travellers. Only for it to transpire that his brand of rough justice was often the only way.
Maverick moment: ”Anything you do say will be taken down, ripped up and shoved down your scrawny little throat until you’ve choked to death. Gene Hunt chapter 1, verse 2.”
7 Vic Mackey
The bolshy, blockheaded leader of Farmington District’s Strike Team. Alongside a pack of corrupt mavericks on the take, Vic is willing to bludgeon, intimidate and even kill (but only the bad guys, your honour) to clean up LA’s meanest streets, lining his own pockets in the process.
Maverick moment: Captain David Aceveda’s attempt to remind him who’s boss gets the retort: “Well maybe in your own mind, amigo. But in the real world, I don’t answer to you. Not today, not tomorrow, not even on Cinco de Mayo.”
6 Nick Curran
There’s getting “too close to the case” and there’s “getting so close to the case you end up dry-humping a murderous novelist and her lesbian lover in the world’s least convincing night club”. This horndog homicide detective is a study in sleazy, troubled effectiveness.
Maverick moment: Pretty sure departing for kinky sex in front of a Nineties-issue fireplace with a known killer isn’t in the handbook.
5 Frank Bullitt
Steve McQueen’s icy cop is mostly remembered for that chase. But his brutal style also paved the way for everyone from Dirty Harry to Ryan Gosling in Drive.
Maverick moment: The grim finale where Bullitt guns down hood Johnny Ross in a crowded airport. As timeless as a turtle neck and blazer combo.
4 Andy Sipowicz
Sipowicz was the jowly face of down’n’dirty justice on the long-running cop show. Routinely found slapping a crook around a jail cell or grumbling into a whiskey he proves, as if it needed saying, that true heroism can come in the most unlikely, irascible packages.
Maverick moment: “Yeah, I’ve heard the expression, ‘mutual respect’. You ever heard the expression ‘kiss my ass’?”
3 Sarah Lund
Whether she’s gazing into the middle distance before a Sherlock-worthy deduction or braving a bullet wound to take out a serial killer, she’s essentially an old-school sheriff in impeccable, eye-catching knitwear.
Maverick moment: Hauling her son off a plane before take-off to return to the case. Renegades: indifferent to lost air miles.
2 Jimmy McNulty
Watching McNulty’s wisecracking, womanising and whisky-fuelled antics became almost as addictive as the drugs on the streets of B-more.
Maverick moment: From flashing his badge to night patrol while having sex on his car to filling his boots during a brothel raid, he’s the detective who literally gets caught with his trousers down.
1 Harry Callahan
Dirty Harry is not a nickname you get by adhering to the rulebook; it’s one you get by using the rulebook to club a suspect to within an inch of his life. From that lip-curling snarl to his non-regulation Smith & Wesson, Callahan is the ultimate maverick. He’s judge, jury and executioner (particularly when it comes to great lines calling people “maggots”) – twisting ethics, bending rules and snapping bones in his quest for a justice that bureaucracy can’t deliver.
Maverick moment: Using the “Do ya feel lucky?” speech to taunt a killer into going for his gun and thus signing his own death warrant. The maverick moment
that began them all.