These movies offer some insight into the shadowy world inhabited by undercover cops.
These characters live a somewhat morally ambiguous life with repercussions on their mental health and can severely traumatise those close to them. Many are unsung heroes who successfully walk the tightrope between good and evil while others fall into the depths.
Huge spoiler alert for those who haven’t watch the movies.
15. Face/Off (1997)
John Woo’s American science-fiction action movie follows FBI Special Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) as he tries to capture domestic terrorist and psychopath Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) who, six years earlier, accidentally killed Archer’s son while aiming for Archer.
Archer soon learns that Castor has planted bomb somewhere in the city set to go off in a few days. Nobody believes the threats so Archer undergoes a highly experimental face transplant procedure by Dr. Walsh to take on Castor’s face and appearance.
Archer (now played by Cage) is taken to the same high-security prison where Castor’s brother Pollux is. Through his appearance, Archer tries to gain information on the bomb’s location.
Writers Mike Werb and Michael Colleary have cited “White Heat” (1949) and “Seconds” (1966) as influences on the plot. The film was John Woo’s first American film where he was given complete control, which is clearly shown through the highly stylised, carefully choreographed violent action sequences, as well as the thrilling emotion packed into the strange premise.
The film received universal acclaim and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing (Mark Stoeckinger), but lost to “Titanic”.
14. State Of Grace (1990)
Phil Joanou’s neo-noir crime film, inspired by the real-life Hell’s Kitchen gang “The Westies”, follows undercover cop Terry Noonan (Sean Penn), who after a ten year absence returns to Hell’s Kitchen in New York City after a 10-year absence so as to meet up with his erratic childhood friend Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman) who is now involved in an Irish crime organization, along with his brother Frankie (Ed Harris). Terry rekindles an old relationship with their sister Kathleen (Robin Wright), who learns that Terry is actually a policeman.
Sadly overshadowed by that of the similarly-themed “Goodfellas”, the heated deception and chaos of the plot is controlled by Oldman’s and Penn’s terrific acting as well as Ennio Morricone’s serene musical score.
Penn tries to handle betraying his “friends”, Frankie debates whether to deceive his brother and Kathleen feels guilty about remaining silent and feels horrified about admitting the truth. Each character has their own crisis in the urban maze where dishonesty is the one constant theme. The film is now considered to be a cult classic.
13. Prince Of The City (1981)
Sidney Lumet’s crime drama is based on real-life NYPD Narcotics Detective Robert Leuci and the Robert Daley’s 1978 book of the same name, it follows Daniel Ciello (Treat Williams), an NYPD officer who is involved in some questionable police practices and approached by federal prosecutors who instruct him that in exchange for being let off the hook, he needs to help expose the inner workings of illegal police activity.
Ciello agrees, but only if he does not need to betray his partners. The film follows the undercover hunt as well as the gathering of evidence and the multiple trials Ciello must testify in.
Lumet reportedly felt guilty about the two-dimensional way he had handled the cops’ characters in his 1973 film “Serpico” and said that this film was his way to rectify this depiction.
Prince of the City was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Jay Presson Allen, Sidney Lumet) and was also nominated for three Golden Globes, including Best Director (Sidney Lumet), Best Picture, and Best Actor (Treat Williams).
12. Rush (1991)
Lili Fini Zanuck’s crime drama, based on a novel by Kim Wozencraft, follows an undercover narcotics police officer Jim Raynor (Jason Patric) and his new, inexperienced partner Kristen Cates (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who become drug addicts themselves in the process during the 1970s as they go after an elusive drug dealer, Will Gaines (Gregg Allman).
This film is influenced by the real-life 1977 Tyler, Texas drug scandal, in which Kim Wozencraft (the author of the book the film is based upon) and her partner Craig Matthews were sent in undercover to try to arrest, and if necessary set up, a Tyler club owner.
The matter led to one of the earliest and highest profile police corruption scandals and served to several reformations in evidentiary procedures and other significant law changes.
11. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
“A Scanner Darkly” is Richard Linklater’s second animated film (the first being the philosophical and existential docudrama “Waking Life”) made mainly for adults that is set in a near-future dystopia in the midst of a new drug addiction epidemic.
Based on the original author’s (Philip K. Dick) personal drug experiences, the story focuses on an incredibly addictive and powerful hallucinogenic new drug, “Substance D” that has led to approximately 20% of the total population becoming addicted. To recover from the war on drugs, the U.S government created a extremely complex and invasive surveillance system to track down the traffickers and the creators of the drug.
Bob Arcter (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover agent whose task is to infiltrate the supply chain and discover the source, but along the way has become addicted to the drug himself, leaving his brain to degrade into ambiguity as he becomes unsure of who he is.
Living with two other drug-addicts Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), they spend their time having long, paranoiac conversations and getting their fix from Arcter’s main target, Donna (Winona Ryder) whom he develops feelings for. While Arcter is at the police station, all officers must wear “scramble suits” which protect their true identities from each other, and don’t exactly help with Arcter’s confusion about everything.
While this film is animated, all the scenes were acted out in real life and was then transferred to “Quicktime” and animated with “Rotoshop”, where they traced over the live action footage, frame by frame.
Due to the animation process, Robert Downey Jr. wrote most of his lines down on post-it notes and scattered them around the set so that he could read off them while filming a scene and during post-production, the rotoscoping team just animated over the notes to remove them from the film. While principle photography only took 23 days, post-production took a year and a half to finish the film.
10. Point Break (1991)
Kathryn Bigelow’s cult action thriller follows rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), who shadows experienced agent and veteran, Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey), in investigating a string of bank robberies committed by the “Ex-Presidents”, since each one of the four robbers wear rubber face-masks depicting former American presidents including Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter.
They soon suspect that the criminals are actually surfers and Utah goes undercover and asks the beautiful Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty) to teach him how to surf, since she saved him from drowning. As he becomes part of the surfing community, he befriends Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), the charismatic, philosophical leader of a gang of surfers, and the presumed mastermind of the robberies.
With kinetic surfing sequences and determined actors, Swayze insisted on doing many of the stunts himself and successfully did many of the skydiving scenes as well. Considered to have inspired the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, Bigelow’s efforts did not go unnoticed as she found a way to not only rely on action, but also found a way to make these men live dangerously due to their explored beliefs, that can be empathised with.
Reeves described his character as a “total control freak and the ocean beats him up and challenges him. After a while everything becomes a game…He becomes as amoral as any criminal. He loses the difference between right and wrong”.
9. Narc (2002)
Joe Carnahan’s crime thriller follows undercover narcotics officer Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) and detective Henry Oak (Ray Liotta) as they search for the murderer of another undercover police officer. Beginning with a stray police bullet that causes an accidental miscarriage, the film’s gritty tone is immediately set.
Oak is an old-school, dedicated cop who uses brutal force on criminals and believes the department want the case buried. The two investigate, and attempt to figure out the dark enigmas that surround the murder.
Carnahan’s handheld chase-scenes, cerebral plot and aggressive energy creates a new kind of cop-buddy feature; one that is cold, hard and set in an urban wasteland where the only thing a guy wants is a desk job.