Before there was 21 Jump Street… there Freebie and the Bean. And 48 Hours. And Bad Boys. And Rush Hour. In fact, as soon as filmmakers figured out that putting two mismatched cops on the same case was comedic and dramatic gold, they jumped on the bandwagon like nobody's business. But we're only here to talk about the very best. If you liked 21 Jump Street and haven't seen any of these buddy cop classics, then you have some catching up to do before the Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum comedy arrives on DVD/Blu-ray on June 26.
5. Training Day (dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2001)
Denzel Washington got more press, not to mention an Academy Award, for his unhinged performance as Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day, but make no mistake… this is a buddy cop movie, subverted to a powerful degree. Ethan Hawke co-stars as Officer Jake Hoyt, a rookie assigned to share a car with Washington’s decorated lawman. The usual buddy cop rhythms of getting to know each other, saving each other’s lives and learning the dangerous ropes are followed, but then smashed completely as Washington turns out to be a corrupt sociopath with a disturbing plan for his young partner. Hawke earned himself a well-deserved Oscar-nomination for giving Washington the perfect dramatic foil, and Fuqua directs his best film to this day, capturing the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles as the noose tightens around his protagonist’s neck.
4. Se7en (dir. David Fincher, 1995)
We’ll get to the funny buddy cop movies soon, just relax. First we have to look at the film that put David Fincher back on the radar after his troubled cinematic debut on Alien 3. Morgan Freeman stars as Detective Lt. William Somerset, saddled on his last days in the homicide division with his replacement, Detective David Mills, played by Brad Pitt. They catch a series of shockingly elaborate murders inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins: a greedy man is forced to cut off a pound of his own flesh, while a gluttonous man is forced to eat until his stomach bursts. They have to set aside their differences – Freeman’s a quiet intellectual, Pitt’s a powder keg who goes by his gut – in order to stop the madman before he completes his masterpiece. The ending, now famous, remains as shocking as ever, largely because the main characters are so impressively realized, thanks to the inventive screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and the powerful performances from the dramatic leads.
3. Hot Fuzz (dir. Edgar Wright, 2007)
Hot Fuzz is the best kind of satire: it sends up all the clichés of the cop genre and somehow manages to get away with using all of them. Simon Pegg stars as Detective Nicholas Angel, a supercop who makes all his co-workers look bad. So he’s transferred to the sleepy town of Sandford, a tiny community with no crime to speak of… or is there? Angel is teamed up with the lovable oaf Danny Butterman (longtime Pegg associate Nick Frost), who doesn’t know anything about law enforcement that he didn’t learn from Bad Boys II. Together they do tons of paperwork and engage in a tender bromance that pokes gentle fun at the male bonding inherent to every buddy cop classic. By the end, a real criminal enterprise is revealed, and the entire town gets shot to hell in a hilarious and surprisingly exciting shootout. Although not as popular as Edgar Wright’s first genre satire, Shaun of the Dead, it’s still a modern comedy classic that works on just about every level.
2. Hard Boiled (dir. John Woo, 1982)
John Woo brought the action genre kicking and screaming into the 1990s with a series of “gun fu” spectaculars like 1989’s The Killer and 1990’s Bullet in the Head. But his most action-packed movie to date is Hard Boiled, a tour de force of bullets and machismo starring Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung as police officers on opposite sides of the law. Kind of. Cow Yun-fat, playing the implausibly named Inspector “Tequila” Yuen, thinks that Tony Leung is working for his enemy, triad leader Anthony Wong, unaware that Leung is an undercover cop. They soon team up for one explosive action sequence after another, culminating in a showdown at a hospital that puts practically every other action movie ever made to shame. Hard Boiled is big, it’s melodramatic, and it kicks a ton of ass.
1. Lethal Weapon (dir. Richard Donner, 1987)
It wasn’t the first buddy cop movie, but whenever people think of mismatched law enforcement officers, they think of Riggs and Murtaugh. And with good cause: although the formula already seemed stale by 1987 – particularly the black cop/white cop angle – Lethal Weapon reinvigorated the subgenre with an unexpectedly moving screenplay by Shane Black that took the characters seriously, even though their adventures existed in the over-the-top action land of director Richard Donner, the man who brought you Superman: The Movie. Mel Gibson, long before the scandals, stars as a suicidal detective paired with straight-laced family man Danny Glover, investigating a suicide that turns into a homicide that turns into a homicide, that turns into an outrageous plot involving drugs, explosives and criminal special forces teams.
Lethal Weapon spawned two excellent sequels and one really crappy one, Lethal Weapon 4, but even that had incredible action sequences to its credit. They’re all worth a look, but the first is the best buddy cop movie ever made.
Full Disclosure: This article has been sponsored by Sony Pictures Studios.