Buddy-cop is a loose genre that is characterized for featuring two or more members of the police force (or law enforcement in general) who bond together as they solve a mystery or hunt down criminals. One defining trope is that they tend to have clashing personalities, with contrasting ages, background and demeanors as they both slowly learn to trust in each other.
This niche genre can be traced back to 1949, when Japanese director Akira Kurosawa released Stray Dogs, a postwar noir set in Tokyo’s underworld, in what is considered to be the stepping stone in the genre. It was further popularized in the West around the late 80’s thanks to classics like Lethal Weapon and 48 Hours, gaining a lot of traction in the following decades. Ever since, it has become a staple in action cinema, and it is as recurrent today as it has ever been. The success of buddy cop movies can be narrowed down to the great blueprint they provide, which opens up for a lot of high-octane set pieces and spotlight for two charismatic leads to show off their chemistry and comedy chops together. Up next are ten of the finest in the genre.
10. Hot Fuzz (2007)
Hot Fuzz is the second installment in Edgar Wright’s irreverent Cornetto Trilogy, the British films that chronicle the adventures and misgivings of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Hot Fuzz’ predecessor, Shaun of the Dead, is a comedy that masterfully picked apart the clichés and caveats of arguably the most oversatured genre ever; zombie slashers. In the same vein, Hot Fuzz tackles the buddy-cop genre, putting a new spin on it with yet another adventure from the British duo.
Simon Pegg portrays Nicholas Angel, an uptight London cop who finds himself relocated to a modest little village called Sandford, where he befriends Nick Frost’s character. The pairing proves to be ideal with Frost’s clumsy and over-enthusiastic persona balancing out Pegg’s old-fashioned moodiness as they discover an increasingly puzzling conspiracy. Hot Fuzz is generally considered to be the funniest entry in the trilogy, which was rounded out in 2013 with The World’s End. It certainly has no shortage of running gags and Wright’s signature sharp references coming at full speed, but for all the bombastic twists and deliberately convoluted plot, nothing outshines the on-screen ‘bromance’ and flawless chemistry between its two oddball leads.
9. Hard Boiled (1992)
Set in Hong Kong’s underworld, this unapologetic thriller has stood the test of time thanks to its sheer creativity and innovative stunts. Even though it is purely a ‘genre’ film, it manages to feel fresh in no small part because of John Woo’s incredible attention to detail and flawless execution, thoroughly choreographing every action sequence and using clever framing while still being charmingly self-aware of its over-the-top nature.
The movie follows an undercover cop who has infiltrated the local crime syndicate and gained the confidence of its ringleaders, as he tries to sabotage a big operation with the help of the police. Meanwhile, an honest hard-boiled cop loses his partner in a shoot-out with the same gang and swears vengeance on them. Both cops eventually join forces in a memorable second half featuring one of the most jaw-dropping action sequences ever put to film as they face off with the gang in a public hospital. But for every bit as awesome as the explosive climax is, Tony Leung and Chow Yun-Fat’s charm and comedic delivery is what gives this classic unmatched rewatchability.
8. The Nice Guys (2016)
This 70’s themed noir stars Ryan Gosling as a private eye and Russell Crowe as a hired goon, who are eventually hired to investigate the disappearance of a missing girl and the mysterious death of a porn star. The movie is a playful mystery with a similar throwback flair to The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice in that it keeps a lighthearted approach with lots of blink-and-you-miss-it references to early noirs and homages to detective flicks. Similarly, it knows how to employ its humor and goofiness to tackle serious themes like depression, loneliness and hopelessness. Add that to the mid-70’s Los Angeles setting and a labyrinthine conspiracy discovered by a laid-back, easy-going protagonist and the parallels become apparent.
The movie is directed by Shane Black, a man who knows all the ins and outs of the genre. He is notably known for writing Lethal Weapon at age 22, a movie that kickstarted the buddy-cop euphoria in North America, also penning its sequel and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
7. Se7en (1995)
This David Fincher nail-biting thriller is no lighthearted comedy, but it can’t be understood without the bond and dynamic between its two leads. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman play two homicide detectives who join forces to track down a sociopathic serial killer who murders people in retribution for committing one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Freeman’s character, Somerset, is a hard-nosed and poised veteran on the verge of leaving the force. Throughout the movie he mentors Mills, a cocky but erratic rookie with a lot of temperamental issues that cloud his judgement.
What sets this film apart is how Fincher decides to slowly shift the focus from the mystery at hand to the heavy toll it takes on the two people solving it, in a similar fashion as in his own Zodiac. They progressively begin to hunt down their macabre culprit, but the real thrill comes at how the duo copes with the awareness of his twisted agenda, and how it fundamentally changes them. The nihilist motif of the movie culminates in one of the most gut-wrenching and clever plot twists ever.
6. Lethal Weapon (1987)
Lethal Weapon is often revered as the godfather of buddy-cop films, and for good reason. The seismic impact that the movie had upon release can’t be overstated. In a genre that was filled to the chore with early 80’s cheesiness and comedic undertones, this solidified its place as a legit type of storytelling that could lend itself to most grounded narratives. Nowadays it’s easy to disregard the original after an array of watered-down sequels that tread self-comedy territory. But this actually gave birth to the combo of a troubled, rogue cop matched up with the laid-back, family man.
The director Shane Black mentions The French Connection and Dirty Harry as some of the inspiration when coming up with his own police procedural, and the dynamic between its two characters owes a lot to such films. Mel Gibson unhinged character carries most of the movie, but it is Danny Glover who elevates it with a more subdued performance and a deeper character arc. Everything from the endlessly quotable lines, the glossy coloring and daring set pieces, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more influential buddy-cop movie than Lethal Weapon.