When discussing the subject of police films, there are a few obvious films that always seem to come up. One of the most common of those films is The Departed, a film that seems to have a huge fanbase for some reason. It currently holds an 8.5 rating on IMDB, and ranks at #45 in their top 150 list. It also won Best Picture somehow. Nearly every other person I've talked to seems to believe this is some kind of masterpiece. Why do people like this movie? I don't know. All I saw was an overly convoluted mess in desperate need of greater gender diversity (seriously, five billion cops and five billion crooks and the only woman they could fit into the cast was the love interest?).
So to vent some of my frustrations I have taken the time to assemble a list of police movies I would argue are in every way superior to The Departed (or at least a lot more entertaining). Here are twenty films about cops that I would rather see than have to sit through The Departed again. Also, here's a surprise for everyone; for once I'm mainly judging these films on the overall quality and not just on whether they have strong female cops in them (though that does help). Several of these films actually do lack strong female characters (at least in the police force) or only have them in small supporting roles but are still worth mentioning.
Honorable mentions for this list include Eraser (my original #20 pick) and The Naked Gun (which only failed to make this list because I saw it in middle school and my memories of it are somewhat vague). I have also received recommendations to see L.A. Confidential, In the Heat of the Night, Heat, and The French Connection. Unfortunately I have not yet had the chance to see any of these movies so I am unable to confirm if they are are in fact better than The Departed.
20. The Last Stand (2013)
Schwarzenegger's big comeback movie after might not be his greatest accomplishment, but it works for its purposes. There is definitely some influence from Rio Bravo (see below), and it works as a modern homage to old westerns. It's not exactly Oscar material but it's still a fun movie with some great (if at times over the top) action and Schwarzenegger being Schwarzenegger. It's an enjoyable movie and worth the time.
19. Sabotage (2014)
It's funny how Schwarzenegger seems to keep appearing on this list. His other big comeback film is a bit more serious and a lot more intense than The Last Stand, given there is a greater emphasis on the growing tensions between the main characters as they are forced to question which of their colleagues can be trusted. It's a lot more suspenseful and harder to predict, with even Schwarzenegger himself becoming more of an anti-hero.
18. Speed (1994)
Finally, a film without Schwarzenegger in it. The "Die Hard on a bus" premise makes for a very intense movie, complete with Dennis Hopper (unsurprisingly) playing a deranged villain who seems to be determined to cause as much trouble for the police as humanly possible. It does still manage to work with a few creative ideas (a lot of the tension comes from finding ways to prevent the bus from stopping) and even Keanu Reeves doesn't do too bad (at least for this type of movie). It's not exactly Oscar worthy but it is an exciting adrenaline-packed thrill ride.
17. Ghosts of Mars (2001)
A more science fiction/horror take on police work but still an enjoyable movie nonetheless. John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars was widely criticized when it first game out (so much so it would be a decade before he made another feature) but it is a decent action thriller if one with some strange ideas. Carpenter has a long history of making films that start off being criticized but end up finding their own audiences years later. Ghosts of Mars is arguably the latest in that series. It already has a small fanbase so it may become better recognized in the near future much like his earlier films did before.
16. Dirty Harry (1971)
Okay, I'll freely admit this one isn't exactly one of my favorites, but it is worth putting on as it is the other film everybody remembers when discussing movies about cops. Personally, Dirty Harry is a film I'd say I more respect for its historical significance than admire for anything within the film itself. Still, it is a very well-crafted movie for its time, with Clint Eastwood playing the tough cop who constantly struggles to navigate the bureaucracy of the police force while also pursuing a deranged serial killer. The character of Harry Callahan is certainly an interesting one, and making the whole film a character study centered around him makes it much easier to follow than The Departed. Of course, this really only applies to the original film, the sequels are a waste of time.
15. The Usual Suspects (1995)
14. Hot Pursuit (2015)
This strange buddy film with lesbian undertones makes for an entertaining if at times flawed experience. While admittedly the large number of jokes about Reese Witherspoon's height can be irritating at times the overall film is a captivating experience with two very strong characters in the lead. It's a lot of fun, even if it's not necessarily the greatest achievement as far as police movies go. Reese Witherspoon plays a tough cop who gets into trouble when she realizes she has been set up after trying to pick up a witness to testify at a mob trial, and inevitably gets into trouble as she works to clear her name while also protecting her somewhat troublesome witness.
13. The Silence of the Lambs (1990)
Yes, everyone always remembers Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of the notorious psycho therapist Hannibal Lector, but the film is really about Clarice Starling tracking down a different serial killer. I'm putting this one lower on the list mainly because it never scared me the same way it did so many people when it came out (personally, I'd say Mads Mikkelsen's Hannibal is a thousand times more terrifying) but it is still an expertly crafted piece of work. Clarice does make for a strong leading role and there is some heavy tension.
12. The Gauntlet (1977)
Clint Eastwood once again plays a tough cop. This time he is given the seemingly simple task of escorting a witness to the courtroom where she is supposed to testify... only to end up on the run when he discovers that he has been set up and most of the other cops are either in on it or tricked by the corrupt cops into thinking he is the real villain. Okay, so this is basically Hot Pursuit without the lesbian undertones; but it is still an exciting and enjoyable action film.
11. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
We can't forget about John Carpenter's second feature film, a low-budget thriller centered around a group of characters trapped in a police station. In addition to being action-packed and filled with tension, there is even a fairly diverse group of characters. The main character is a black man who also happens to be a very capable police officer, and the female lead (despite starting as a secretary) also has to prove her worth holding out against an army of gangsters.
10. Rio Bravo (1959)
For those of you interested in perhaps seeing police work of a different era, you can check out Howard Hawks' classic western. This one obviously influenced Assault on Precinct 13 and The Last Stand and features John Wayne as a old-fashioned sheriff who has to figure out how to keep things orderly in a town that is becoming increasingly populated by suspicious characters while also trying to hold a dangerous criminal. Filled with action, drama, and comedy, Rio Bravo makes for a very entertaining two and a half hours.
9. Die Hard (1988)
Of course we can't discuss police films without bringing up John McTiernan's classic 1988 action thriller. This one is slightly more critical of the police than some of the others on the list (seeing as McClane himself and Al are the only cops who can actually get anything done), but they are integral to the plot so it still counts. Die Hard has the interesting twist in that the villains were actually counting on the police showing up so that they could exploit their various procedures and turn it against them as part of their plan. Meanwhile, most of the police are too bureaucratic to get anything useful done leaving it up to McClane and Al to figure out what's really going on.
8. The Heat (2013)
Of course in a list about police movies the whole "buddy cop" sub-genre would have to make an appearance. Buddy films have come in a variety of forms but The Heat is a very good example. This one offers a twist on the buddy formula by making the two buddy cops women, but it is also full of great humor and some strange twists and turns. The Heat is a lot of fun as far as police movies go, and it is definitely a more enjoyable film than The Departed.
7. Hot Fuzz (2007)
Edgar Wright's hilarious satire of 90's buddy cop movie clichés makes for one entertaining experience. They even exaggerate the homoerotic undertones for comedic effect, but the relationship between the two central characters is still very genuine. It is really about how Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's respective characters come to recognize each other as capable officers and friends (as well as eventually help the other cops learn to actually do their jobs).
6. S.W.A.T. (2002)
We've had a variety of different types of cops appear on this list, from detectives to patrol officers to FBI agents, so naturally it makes sense that we should hear about S.W.A.T. officers on this list, something that is usually more of a background role. This one places them front and center, giving us a small group of interesting characters who have to form a unit and learn to work as a team. Once again, this is a lot of fun, and it's definitely an exciting action movie.
5. Fargo (1996)
The Coen Brothers seemed to like telling stories about cops, don't they? They've done a few movies with police officers as major characters but perhaps the best known of those is Fargo. This one is a pretty straight forward crime thriller; but it is largely memorable thanks to Frances McDormand as the extremely pregnant cop who also happens to be very good at her job. Most of the film naturally consists of her investigation, and the perpetrators' desperate efforts to get out of the mess they've suddenly found themselves trapped in the middle of. It's a brutal movie for sure, but also a great one.
4. Blue Steel (1990)
This tense character study marked Kathryn Bigelow's third feature film, and it is brilliant. Jamie Lee Curtis is strong as the rookie cop who finds becomes determined to catch a deranged serial killer while also trying not to let him into her mind. There is definitely some influence from Dirty Harry in this one but that is hardly a problem. Blue Steel is a bit more of an art film than some of the others on this list, so it does take a certain mindset to watch, but it is an amazingly compelling experience worth whatever trouble one has to go through to find it.
3. No Country For Old Men (2009)
How could we forget a classic like this one? The Coen Brothers' strange film (which concerns a chase between three people who never meet) sees Tommy Lee Jones take on the role of an aging sheriff who struggles to keep up with the rising crime rate. In fact, the film is really about this guy and his struggle to keep up with the rising crime rates. Ultimately, Sheriff Bell just can't handle the pressures of being a cop and eventually has to retire (in his opening monologue, he even states "my grandfather was a lawman, father too" suggesting he only became a police officer because of a perceived family obligation). In that sense, this is the other side of being a police officer; namely the kinds of people who try to do the job but ultimately just are not cut out for it. It's like Mark Wahlberg said in The Departed; "Do you want to be a cop or do you want to appear to be a cop?" This was one of those people who wanted to appear to be a cop.
2. Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner is more often remembered for its bleak vision of Los Angeles four years from now and the choking urban atmosphere reminiscent of old fashioned film noir, but it is easy to forget that this is also a police procedural of sorts (though admittedly a futuristic one). Most of the film centers around a single cop (Rick Deckard) trying to finish that one last case only to get mixed up in something bigger and getting into trouble. In the end, questions are raised about what defines "being human" and true to its noir roots we are never totally sure if Rick is truly doing the right thing.
1. End of Watch (2012)
As far as films dealing with the day-to-day life of a police officer go, this is probably one of the best. This is a more unusual look at the life of a police officer seeing as it opts not to focus on the obvious action of stopping crime but more on the mundane lives of the officers in between cases. It turns out being a cop can be a very dull job at times. Of course when we do get to the action the film doesn't disappoint but those are very sparse moments when the bulk of the narrative either centers on the relationship between the two main cops in their car waiting for something to happen or their relationships with other police officers back at the station.