If our review is anything to go by, this week’s “The Nice Guys,” which sees Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as a P.I. and an enforcer trying to find a missing girl in 1970s L.A, is going to be one of the purest movie pleasures of the summer. And if you’re not sold on cast and premise alone, you should be a little tantalized by the presence behind the typewriter and camera of Shane Black, returning to the genre he’s most associated with — the buddy cop movie — for the first time in over a decade.
Films pairing two unlikely, mismatched detectives (or a cop and someone drawn from elsewhere) have been popular for well over half a century, but became almost omnipresent in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks in part to the success of the Black-penned “Lethal Weapon.” They’re not the monsters that they used to be, but with “The Nice Guys” winning rave reviews, and a “Lethal Weapon” series airing in the fall, plus Max Landis’ fantasy/buddy cop hybrid “Bright” being the biggest spec script sale of the year, it feels like a comeback is in the making.
So to honor Black’s latest, and perhaps greatest, film, we’ve picked out the 25 best buddy cop films of all time. Not all buddy movies are buddy cop movies — “Midnight Run,” “Stir Crazy” and “Toy Story” are the former, but not the latter — so we’ve kept this only to films where at least one half of the partnership is either in a police officer, an FBI agent or a P.I. But not all the films that we’ve picked out are necessarily comic in tone. Take a look below to see what made our final list of 25, and what topped it, and let us know your favorites in the comments.
25. “End Of Watch” (2012)
David Ayer clearly loves the buddy cop movie (on the grittier side): He made his name with his screenplay for “Training Day,” went on to direct “Harsh Times” and “Street Kings,” and will next helm a fantasy spin on the genre with Will Smith and Joel Edgerton in “Bright.” But his best contribution to the genre is this low-budget affair, something of a sleeper hit four years back and which revived his career as a director. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña star as a pair of L.A. cops who become targeted by the Sinaloa Cartel after busting a human-trafficking ring. It’s atypically, for the genre, light on plot: Ayer plays up a sort of found-footage conceit, painting the film as a sort of documentary-style take on L.A. policing. One shouldn’t mistake it for realism, in part because Ayer’s sloppy (even by the standards of the found footage genre) about how he deploys it, in part because that doesn’t seem to be his intention: It’s just a different way to approach the genre. But this character-based approach, pulled along by two tremendous performances from the actors, makes it feel lived-in and fresh in a way that even now is rare for the genre.
24. “Bad Boys” (1995)
By now, the story had been told dozens of times, but “Bad Boys” began life as a buddy cop comedy so malleable its original stars were supposed to be Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz. While that would have been an appealing duo to a certain section of old “SNL” fans, few knew what to expect from the teaming of sitcom rapper Will Smith, standup comedian Martin Lawrence, and a little-known commercials director named Michael Bay. In some ways, Bay’s lack of agenda proved subversive: This was movie with only the desire to showcase fast cars, big explosions, and sleek gunfights, and the fact that both of its leads were African-American was beside the point. What resulted was a modest crowd-pleaser that put Bay on the map and turned Smith and Lawrence into major movie stars (though each would have different levels of success). By the time “Bad Boys 2” came around, Bay was one of the biggest directors in Hollywood, Smith was an Oscar-nominated headliner, and Lawrence was… available, and so the second film allowed the camaraderie to take a backseat to some of the most breathless and complex action sequences of the modern era. But it’s in that first film where Bay established himself as an un-ironic appreciator of fast-moving action interspersed with comedic interplay that served a strong legacy of buddy cop comedies.
23. “Running Scared” (1986)
Unfairly overlooked in the annals of “the Captain’s gonna have our asses for this!” biracial buddy movies, “Running Scared” with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines is actually great fun, even if it breaks one of the basic founding rules of the genre in that the two cops in question actually like each other from the get-go (they’ve been partners and best friends a long time already, it seems). Since there’s no “I’m not working with this rookie!” or “My partner is out of control!” conflict for the two to overcome, it could be suggested that as a duo they don’t have much of an arc, nor are they particularly differentiated from each other — they’re two quick, witty wisecracking sides of the same coin. But really, it hardly matters when the dialogue is this rapid-fire and the chemistry between the leads is this convincing. The plot’s silly enough and a little convoluted (Jimmy Smits’ bad guy is not given much in the way of script), but really this is more comedy than action movie, and all the drug busts and subplots about a pair of cocky young undercover cops are just there to provide hooks for Hines and Crystal to hang some one-liners off. And Dan Hedaya turns in something of a definitive angry-boss-who’s-really-on-their-side performance too. So everyone delivers the banter with the timing and precision of pros, with Hines really showing the mettle that nearly had him cast in the Eddie Murphy role in “48 Hrs.” (he had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with “The Cotton Club” — what could have been!), and between the repartee and the nice Chicago-y feel, with a car chase that happens on the L a special action highlight, it’s kind of an irresistible package — which marks it out as a neglected high point in the erratic career of director Peter Hyams, too.
22. “The Other Guys” (2010)
A cop chained to his desk after shooting Derek Jeter. A mild-mannered forensic accountant looking to get some respect. A police chief who moonlights at Bed Bath & Beyond and has an uncanny knack for quoting TLC even though he has no idea who they are. What could possibly go wrong? Well, in Adam McKay‘s “The Other Guys,” everything goes wrong and that’s the point. The balls-out hilarious comedy teams mismatched detectives Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell, wonderfully earnest) and Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg, perfectly Huckabees-esque), but don’t ask us what the plot is, because we forgot, and it doesn’t matter (though the film’s focus on the financial world makes it an intriguing forerunner to McKay’s later Oscar-winning “The Big Short,” though we’d argue this is the better movie). Ferrell and Wahlberg are simply magic together, barreling through a movie that has no qualms stopping for metaphors about lions and tunas, or for a ridiculous tableau of a drunken night on the town — not to mention random running gags about hobo orgies led by Dirty Mike And The Boys and more. In short, this movie just strings along an endless supply of great scenes and gags, powered by two actors who are totally game, hinging on a story about an evil businessman or something. But you’re too busy laughing to care what it all amounts to.
21. “Freebie And The Bean” (1974)
From underrated auteur Richard Rush comes this absolutely chaotic buddy cop actioner that seems to predate the genre by a good few years. How else to explain all the ingredients in place as if someone traveled through time and took notes? In James Caan and Alan Arkin, you have the two mismatched title characters, a cheap Jewish smoothie and a hot-wired Mexican cop (Arkin playing a Mexican one of a whole number of things in this film that you rightly couldn’t get away with today, including a particularly grim streak of homophobia). There’s also an over-extended, apoplectic police chief played by a memorably exasperated Alex Rocco. And the action doesn’t even seem of that era, a wild kaleidoscope of foot and car chases, crashes and fisticuffs that proved Rush was far ahead of his time, showcasing the braininess and anger of Arkin’s neurotic husband, along with Caan’s sideburned ladykiller. Even for a film that wasn’t considered a box-office hit, and didn’t hit DVD until relatively recently, the DNA of “Freebie And The Bean” can be found in almost all ensuing buddy cop comedies.
20. “Miami Vice” (2006)
When you think of cop pairings, you think of Starsky & Hutch, Cagney & Lacey, and then, probably in that immediate grouping, Crockett & Tubbs (sorry, Rizzoli & Isles fans). Michael Mann, who had produced the 1980s TV show, attempted to reinvent the Florida-dwelling heroes for a new era, away from the pastel suits and stubble that the show had become endlessly associated with. His 2006 film version, with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx stepping into the shoes of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, and which saw Crockett & Tubbs taking on a Colombian cartel in league with the Aryan Brotherhood, didn’t entirely succeed, at least financially. And it has admittedly dated in its own way as quickly as its source material, its soundtrack and fashion feeling very much a product of the mid-’00s in a slightly naff way. But it’s also a cinephile’s delight, arguably the defining statement of the later period of Mann’s career, the lo-fi digital photography giving an immediacy to the action and a beauty to the romance (and only “The Last Of The Mohicans” can rival this in Mann’s canon for love story). The director specializes in making films about the ultra-professional, and in Farrell and Foxx’s minimalist performances, he finds a pair of buddy cops who are virtually telepathic in their understanding of each other.