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The best cop movies of all time

Put your hands where I can see 'em, punk...

The best cop movies of all time
Jon Mundy
05 July 2024

Hollywood’s fascination with law enforcement knows no bounds. Whether it’s a Wild West sheriff, a hardboiled detective on the trail of a serial killer, or a space cop stalking robotic criminals, the cop movie format lends itself to pretty much any genre or tone.

One timeless form of cop movie is the glossy action-comedy, as typified by the new Netflix movie, Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F. It sees Eddie Murphy returning to one of his star-making roles some 30 years after he last donned the badge.

Murphy plays Axel Foley, a sharp-tongued Detroit cop who once again applies his unorthodox street smart style to get to the bottom of a conspiracy in sunny California. It’s a blast of pure nostalgia for a certain kind of cop movie, though Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Taylour Paige join the returning cast to keep things fresh.

All of which got us to thinking about the greatest cop movies of all time. Given the aforementioned genre-spanning scope we’re dealing with, this was a daunting list to compile. We’ve narrowed it down to films that either feature iconic fictional lawmen and women (just like Beverly Hills Cop), or that have something to say about law enforcement itself.

Which of these cop movies is your favourite? Be sure to vote below.

Best cop movies of all time

Best cop movies of all time

1. Dirty Harry

Stream now on Amazon

The whole archetype of the trigger-happy law enforcer may have its roots in the classic western, but in 1971 Dirty Harry gave it a ‘modern’ face and thus spawned a new sub-genre of reactionary cop movies. Clint Eastwood plays the titular Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan, whose taciturn nature and preference for an overpowered Smith & Wesson Model 29 pistol makes him the bane of San Francisco’s criminal fraternity. When a psychopathic sniper starts killing innocents and making ransom demands, Harry sets to work.

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Often lauded as the greatest action movie ever made, and sometimes even the greatest Christmas movie ever made, Die Hard is also an absolutely fabulous cop movie. Rough and ready New York detective John McClane (Bruce Willis, of course) finds himself neck deep in trouble when he visits his estranged wife in her swanky LA office on the eve of a deadly heist. There’s even a pinch of buddy movie magic when McClane secures radio support from local beat cop Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson).

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Michael Mann’s epic 1995 crime thriller may run to almost three hours, but its central premise can be boiled down to a very simple phrase: super cop vs master criminal. The former is played by Al Pacino, all wide-eyed swagger and unpredictable cadence. The latter is played by Robert DeNiro in full measured intensity mode. The beauty of Mann’s film, aside from it featuring at least two all-time great scenes, is that you still won’t be sure who you should have been rooting for as the end credits roll.

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Best cop movies of all time

4. Beverly Hills Cop

Stream now on Netflix

Here’s the movie that introduced us to wise-cracking Detroit cop Axel Foley, played in inimitable style by Eddie Murphy. At the outset of the film, Murphy’s character goes rogue in California following his friend’s murder. It’s tempting to call Beverly Hills Cop ‘classic fish-out-of-water stuff’, except for the fact Murphy’s ‘fish’ is never in anything other than complete control of the situation, with a ready supply of both quips and cunning.

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Seven stands as a perfect illustration of the genre-straddling potential of the cop movie. It’s part police procedural, part dark thriller, and part ghoulish horror flick, as well as being an early calling card for director David Fincher’s grimy signature style. The movie starts out with the classic cop movie set-up of a wily vet (Morgan Freeman) and a hot-headed rookie (Brad Pitt) hot on the trail of a serial killer (Kevin Spacey), but it rapidly descends into altogether darker and more twisted territory.

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Best cop movies of all time

6. The Silence of the Lambs

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If you needed any further evidence we hit peak cop movie in the ’90s, consider the case of The Silence of the Lambs. Jonathan Demme’s police procedural – for that is essentially what this film is at heart – won the Big Five at the 1992 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. All were richly deserved, as Foster’s green yet brilliant FBI agent turns to Hopkins’s darkly charismatic psychopath for help in psychologically profiling a gruesome serial killer.

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Best cop movies of all time

7. Lethal Weapon

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The late ’80s saw an explosion of so-called buddy cop movies – glossy action-comedies that typically pitched two mismatched law enforcement agents together and stood back to watch the sparks (and bullets) fly. Lethal Weapon wasn’t the first of its kind, but it may just be the preeminent example, throwing Mel Gibson’s maverick hothead and Danny Glover’s world-weary veteran into an uneasy partnership. Shane Black’s rapid fire dialogue really zings here, while director Richard Donner strikes the perfect balance between laughs and shoot outs.

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Best cop movies of all time

8. LA Confidential

Stream now on Prime Video

LA Confidential may just be the cop-est cop movie on this list. There are cops everywhere in Curtis Hanson’s star-studded adaptation of James Ellroy’s neo-noir crime novel: good cops, bad cops, maverick cops, cynical cops, and cops on the take. The film itself is essentially a 138-minute deconstruction of a deeply corrupt Los Angeles police force, which found itself mixing with Hollywood’s seedy underbelly in the ’50s. Beyond that, it’s just a fantastically timeless crime thriller.

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Best cop movies of all time

9. The French Connection

Stream now on Disney Plus

One of the most highly thought-of cop movies ever made, The French Connection follows NYPD detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo as they run down an international drug smuggling operation. It’s a fictionalised retelling of a contemporary real-world case, and there’s a palpable sense of the unglamorous (and often deeply unheroic) nature of such mid–20th century police work as our two detectives roughhouse their way through the New York underworld.

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Best cop movies of all time

10. Training Day

Stream now on Amazon

Denzel Washington has had his fair share of iconic performances over a prestigious career, but his role as corrupt cop Alonzo Harris in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day is as intense and charismatic as they come. Washington’s seasoned LAPD narcotics officer is tasked with showing new recruit Jake Hoyt (played by Ethan Hawke) the ropes on his first day, but it gradually becomes apparent this street smart veteran holds an unhealthy amount of sway over the neighbourhood he’s paid to police.

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While Chinatown’s protagonist is private investigator Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), his past as an LAPD cop on the Chinatown beat informs the cynical heart of Roman Polanski’s neo-noir mystery – not to mention giving the film its name and famous final line. Roman Polanski’s film delves into the murky waters (quite literally) of municipal corruption in the early 20th century, featuring a memorable turn from Nicholson and an outstanding screenplay from Robert Towne.

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Best cop movies of all time

12. The Departed

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There’s still some argument over which is best – Hong Kong cop thriller Infernal Affairs or this Martin Scorsese-directed Hollywood remake. We’ll go with the latter for the sakes of this piece, as it homes in on the police corruption angle a little more acutely across its extended run time. Leonardo DiCaprio and Mat Damon play two sides of the same coin, the former a diligent young cop working undercover in the ’80s Boston underworld, the latter a young criminal working the opposite angle for his mob boss mentor.

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Not all cops have to be macho, trigger-happy smack talkers. Not in the slightly off-kilter world of the Coen brothers, at least. Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson is a disarmingly gentle small town police chief rapidly approaching the start of her maternity leave. When she stumbles upon a strange case of kidnap, embezzlement, and murder, however, her keen mind starts to work overtime. Gunderson’s methodical reeling in of William H. Macy’s frazzled car dealer and a pair of dim-witted goons results in one of the best films the Coens ever made.

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Paul Verhoeven’s riotous sci-fi action film sees the Dirty Harry-like lawman evolved to its ultimate state – a ceaseless, pitiless, incorruptible walking tank with bulletproof armour and a perfect aim. Of course, the script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner is much cleverer than that, and the movie hides a sharp dose of satire in amongst all the hyper-violence. Peter Weller plays the implacable lawman to perfection, combining machine-like physicality with heart-breaking glimpses of his underlying humanity.

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Best cop movies of all time

15. End of Watch

Stream now on StudioCanal

David Ayer certainly knows his way around a cop movie, having written Training Day and directed Street Kings. He both wrote and directed End of Watch, a 2012 thriller about a pair of LAPD officers played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. The film focuses on the pair’s close friendship and effective partnership, as well as the varied demands and dangers of their job. It ultimately turns into a hugely tense and effective buddy cop action movie of sorts, albeit with a much grittier edge than usual.

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Best cop movies of all time

16. Serpico

Stream now on NOW

Sidney Lumet’s searing biopic features a career-best performance from Al Pacino as Frank Serpico – seemingly the only honest cop in his section of the NYPD during the ’60s and early ’70s. Pacino’s Serpico is a fascinating paradox, his straight arrow integrity contrasting with his man-of-the-people appearance and bohemian lifestyle. It’s a clash that ultimately sees him ostracised by his peers for refusing to take bribes, then by his superiors for exposing the department’s corruption to the press.

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Keanu Reeves’s Jack Traven is precisely the kind of cop you want on the case when there’s a bomb on your bus. Never mind the fact that he’s an LAPD SWAT officer rather than a bomb disposal expert – this guy jumps from (and onto) moving vehicles first, and asks questions later. The evil genius planting the plot, which will explode if said bus drops below 50mph, just happens to be - SPOILER ALERT - a disaffected former cop himself. The result is one of the finest cop vs cop action movies of the ’90s.

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Cop Land is perhaps most notable for the central performance of Sylvester Stallone, playing very much against type as the overweight and out-of-his-depth sheriff of a small New Jersey town dominated by corrupt New York cops. Robert De Niro is in similarly unfamiliar territory in a supporting role as a diligent internal affairs officer seeking to build a case against Harvey Keitel’s bad lieutenant. Ray Liotta fills out an absolutely stacked cast as the rogue cop with unclear allegiances.

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Best cop movies of all time

19. Hot Fuzz

Stream now on NOW

Hot Fuzz earns its place on this list not merely for proving cop movies needn’t be so serious (see also: Beverly Hills Cop, The Naked Gun), but also for the way it pays homage to an entire (sub)genre of buddy cop action movies. Simon Pegg plays super cop Nicholas Angel, who gradually overcomes his despair at being exiled to a sleepy English town when he uncovers a murderous conspiracy. This being an Edgar Wright film, it’s tightly edited, quirkily hilarious, and shot through with pop culture references.

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Best cop movies of all time

20. Bad Lieutenant

Stream now on BFI Player

As the title of Abel Ferrara’s seedy 1992 film suggests, the unnamed NYPD cop played by Harvey Keitel is not a good police officer, nor is he a remotely good man. He’s a coke-snorting, crack-smoking, evidence-tampering, heavily indebted bundle of vices careering towards one of any number of dark ends. And yet, our pitiful protagonist seems to hold out some kind of forlorn hope of redemption in his efforts to get to the bottom of the movie’s hideous central crime.

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