8. The Chaser (2008)
South Korea has a surprising number of films about crooked policeman. Some of them have a more comic bent, but it is a theme that comes up frequently. This film is far from humorous and is filled with ultra violence. Sometimes, the police in these films have to rely on their corrupt ways to make the best out of a miserable situation.
Eom Joong-ho is a corrupt, former detective turned pimp who has found himself in dire financial straits as two of his girls have gone missing. He sends one of his last few girls, Mi-jin to a man who he later believes to be pimping out his missing employees. Eom Joong-ho has minutes to spare to be able to find this man and save these women. The film is fast-paced and some of the scenes may make you squirm.
This is a gut-wrenching tale from Na Hong-jin. South Korean directors continue to elevate the stylish crime drama to terrifying heights. The narrative is fantastic and instead of being predictable like some run of the mill cat and mouse thrillers, this corrupt ex-cop takes you to some places you will not see coming. Again, not for the faint of heart but it is a very bold piece of filmmaking that those with fortitude should see.
7. L.A. Confidential (1997)
As much as we can fantasize about what it would be like to know what went on behind the scenes in early Hollywood, our imaginations probably couldn’t come close to what actually happened during that time. L.A. Confidential gives a small glimpse as to what that scene might have looked like. Confidential was a celebrity gossip magazine in the 1950s that was a precursor to many tabloids today.
Kevin Spacey (Jack Vincennes), Russell Crowe (Bud White), and Guy Pearce (Ed Exley) are all interesting choices in these roles for a variety of reasons. L.A. Confidential tells the story of three policemen who follow their own paths to investigate a series of murders in the city. White is the one who is the most violent and willing to break the rules to get justice. Vincennes is more concerned about star chasing than he is about solving crimes. Exley is the straight-laced one, dedicated to solving crime the right way.
Kevin Spacey is always masterful at his craft and he really brings Vincennes’ character to life. Kim Basinger also stars in this film. The dialogue captures the vernacular of the day and the characters are extremely well developed. If Titanic were not released that year, this film would have been a contender.
6. The Sting (1973)
Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in this comedic crime drama. The two of them are quite the pair in this film. Both are acting powerhouses but they complimented each other well in this film. It is Charles Durning who plays the crooked cop in this caper.
Robert Redford (John Hooker), unbeknownst to him, steals from Robert Shaw (Doyle Lonnegan). Hooker is a small time con and is a little out of his depth at this point. Lonnegan seeks revenge for the affront to him. Charles Durning plays Snyder, the corrupt cop who threatens to turn Hooker over to Lonnegan.
After Hooker’s partner, Luther is killed, he seeks out the help of Paul Newman (Henry Gondorff) who happens to be the master of the long con. The two team up to con Lonnegan out of a huge sum of money for Luther’s death.
The con is complicated and the movie is excellent. Naturally, Redford, Newman, Shaw, and Durning give great performances. The Sting won Best Picture of the Year in 1973 and rightfully so. There’s no shocking violence here. It’s a throwback to a 1930s gangster film that is executed to perfection.
5. Touch of Evil (1958)
Orson Welles is almost unrecognizable as the corrupt Police Captain Hank Quinlan. This film is yet another standout for Orson Welles as he wrote, directed, and starred in the film. Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh also give strong performances but it is the slow, lumbering, corrupt Hank Quinlan that keeps this film noire going.
Charlton Heston is Narcotics Officer Miguel (Mike) Vargas who is on his honeymoon in the sleazy Mexican border town of Los Robles. Shortly thereafter, an American building contractor is killed when his car explodes. The contractor was killed on the U.S. side of the border but there is reason to believe that the bomb was planted on the Mexican side.
Quinlan and his men soon have a suspect but Vargas catches them planting evidence to frame him. He becomes suspicious of Quinlan’s earlier cases, as Quinlan is as corrupt as they come.
There is a lot going on in this film, as is the case with film noir but Orson Welles weaves the tale together seamlessly and without extraneous plot devices. The use of light and shadow in the action scenes really gives the film a suspenseful atmosphere. This is one of the last classic film noir to ever touch the screen and you might be better served watching the original theatrical version over the 1998 restored print.
4. The Departed (2006)
Scorsese returns to form in this remake of Infernal Affairs. Scorsese has always captured the culture of the place that he’s exploring and he does an excellent job depicting the ‘Southie’ characters one would see in Boston’s criminal underworld. As an auteur, he takes his time with his epics. When the film ends, however, you don’t even realize how much time has passed.
The Irish American mob is in control of the streets in south Boston. The state police are targeting Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and his crime syndicate. Hot head cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is sent in to infiltrate Costello’s organization. On the flipside, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is part of the syndicate and manages to become a member of the Special Investigations Unit to act as a mole for Costello.
Sullivan is corrupt but disciplined in an almost uncanny way. Costigan’s heart is in the right place but his head is everywhere else. The two risk being exposed, as they have to make the right moves to avoid detection and achieve their objectives.
Remakes are often overwrought in the director’s agenda to alter or fix what he or she might have erroneously seen as flawed in the first place. That is not the case here as everything is delineated perfectly in this film. The performances are solid and the attention to detail is magnificent. Fans of Scorsese or any detective thrillers will love this adaptation.
3. Léon: The Professional (1994)
This film naturally is on several “Best of” lists and with good reason. The tight storyline, riveting performances, and sharp action sequences make this an amazing film. We also see Natalie Portman beginning to emerge as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Gary Oldman plays the corrupt DEA agent, Norman Stansfield. He’s a ruthless dirt bag in this film and there’s nothing sympathetic about him.
Natalie Portman is 12-year old Mathilda. Her father works with crooked DEA agents. When her father takes some liberties with the product, Stansfield has Mathilda’s family killed. She is not there during the tragedy and manages to seek refuge in the apartment of a neighbor, Léon, who is a professional hit man. Mathilda wants Léon to show her the ropes of his trade in order to seek vengeance on those who killed her brother.
This movie really has it all. The plot is straightforward and simple enough but the film is executed flawlessly. The emotional draw sucks you in right away watching a child losing her family and seeing the relationship develop between Léon and Mathilda. Gary Oldman is almost over the top sinister as the corrupt cop in this film but everything else is so effective, it is just a brilliant piece of filmmaking.
2. Infernal Affairs (2002)
As previously mentioned, this is the film that inspired The Departed. The Chinese title of the film translates to ‘The Unceasing Path’. The plot revolves around two organizations trying to ferret out a mole in their midst. It is almost cyclical, incessant, and the Chinese title aptly describes the journey.
Officer Chan Ying-wan infiltrates a triad and subsequently, a triad member; Lau Kin-ming infiltrates the Hong Kong police force. Each man has the missive of gathering intelligence to give his organization the advantage. The more they delve into their undercover lives, the more pressure they soon feel to please their real bosses and maintain relationships with the rank and file comrades around them. They have little time as the pressure mounts to avoid detection and escaping with their lives.
This film is a classic hardboiled thriller. Hong Kong crime thrillers are very stylized but the storytelling is lean and the pace is still very quick. There are two sequels to this film but it stands on its own. One thing is for sure, fans of both The Departed and this movie will incessantly debate about which film they liked the most.
1. Godfather (1972)
There are indeed a handful of films that are perfect from start to finish. The Godfather is an exemplary film of this nature. Few films come this close to perfection. Adapted from Mario Puzo’s novel, this is one of the greatest movies ever made. The corrupt Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) messes with the wrong family in this epic mafia tale. The earnest Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) shows everyone what he’s made of in the famous showdown with Sollozzo and McCluskey.
Marlon Brando stars as Vito Corleone, the aging patriarch of a New York crime family who picks the unwilling Michael Corleone as his successor. Michael has recently returned home a decorated WWII soldier. It’s his sister’s wedding day. In Sicilian culture, no Don can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day. He wants nothing to do with the family business as he explains to his girlfriend.
All of the exposition for the film takes place during the wedding. Vito’s eldest son, Sonny (James Caan) should be next in line for this position but he has a temper and does not possess the real forethought to be successful as Don the way Michael does.
After an attempt on Vito Corleone’s life, Michael accuses Sollozzo of paying McCluskey to set him up. We all know what happens next. McCluskey plays the role of the typical corrupt cop that we see in many mafia crime dramas, but the film succeeds because it is so much more deeply layered than that.
It’s about complex relationships, loyalty, respect and what happens when it is cast aside, and transcending one’s own personal values if they are in conflict with the family. It’s also about the brutal violence that will ensue if you get in the way of the Corleones. Watching Michael make the agonizing decision about leaving civilian life to join the family is intense, but the reality is it’s inevitable that he takes on this role.
This film won Oscars for Best Actor, Screenplay, and Best Picture, not to mention several nominations for the supporting cast. It will forever be in the upper echelons of cinema history as one of the greats. The sequel was also magnificent. That’s it. There’s no need to mention what happened in 1990. Do yourself a favor and stick with the first two.
Author Bio: Edwanike Harbour has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an avid film buff and currently writes for Madison Film Forum. When she’s not in front of a movie screen, she is usually listening to indie rock and reading Don Delillo novels.