Given the immense unknowable diversity of the thriving planet on which we live, statistics state that there must exist somewhere a human adult person, maybe an abandoned jungle orphan who was raised by wolves, who has never experienced a buddy cop film. Haha, just kidding, that’s absolutely impossible. From the genre’s sputtering beginnings in the '70s, the crescendo built until some sort of sociological tipping point was reached with “Lethal Weapon” in the late 80s, leading to a Cambrian explosion of renegade cops teamed with straitlaced partners much to the chagrin of their permanently choleric police captains, whose ass the Commissioner/Mayor was almost constantly riding. The decades since have seen the genus evolve its own subspecies at an alarmingly rapidly rate: the cop-and-a-kid movie, the cop-and-a-dog movie, the cop-and-a zombie movie, and so on. With this weekend’s “The Heat” bringing yet another spin on the genre (dogs, kids, zombies whatever, but women? wacky old Hollywood just won’t quit, will it!) we set ourselves the unenviable task of sifting through the literally billions of titles that fit the bill in order to pick out a manageable few high and lowlights.
Strictly allowing ourselves only 20 titles -- 10 good, 5 bad and 5 “weird,” we concentrated solely on those buddy movies which are primarily comedies, mostly English-language, or which heavily feature comedic elements (though there's a sliding scale at work there), and also on those which have at least one of the buddies as an actual law enforcement officer. So we mostly avoided the many variations that encompass everything from spies to private detectives, retirees, superheroes, bounty hunters and separated twins, no matter how well they otherwise fit the formula and still we had more movies to choose from than there are stars in the night sky. So the following makes no claim to being definitive, but instead is a handy primer in a genre that shows no sign of quitting any time soon ("R.I.P.D." will grace screens with a supernatural take in a few weeks if the ladies of "The Heat" don't deliver for you).
“48 Hrs.” (1982)
The general perception is that “48 Hrs.” was a star vehicle for young Eddie Murphy, and that’s not wrong: as an ex-con now with a badge, Murphy held sway over the screen like the 40 ft. tall legends Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree of the earlier Blaxploitation era. However, while those were hard men, Murphy’s charisma and delivery almost seemed welcoming, friendly, and if you were ignoring his words, you’d think this was just one of the guys. It’s this showman/antagonist dichotomy that makes Murphy’s role in Walter Hill’s classic something of a high watermark for all acting performances in the eighties. Though, again, that general perception doesn’t tell the whole story, namely that Murphy is provided able support from an early-crust turn from Nick Nolte. Nolte delivers a performance that’s funny without being comedic, a cop who is principled about both the law and his opposition to black men. “48 Hrs” earns its stripes as a buddy cop comedy simply because these two very different, very unpleasant, very chatty men somehow find a believable common ground with minimal dialogue, only through a dedication towards getting the job done. This was mirrored in the sequel “Another 48 Hrs”, but by then the job in question more involved Murphy and Nolte and their corresponding paychecks.
“Lethal Weapon” (1987)
While the DNA of the modern cop buddy movie seems to have its roots in the punchy, diabolically entertaining “Lethal Weapon,” one can’t help but see the first film as registering fairly darkly comical. The idea of sprinkling comedy into an action picture wasn’t new, but screenwriter Shane Black cleverly took the framework of what had been established earlier and peppered in moments of uneasy, pitch-black laughs, the kind that would soon dot the margins of works like “The Last Boy Scout” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is a family man, but he is also a friend, making his discomfort and suffering a key component in the introduction and subsequent development of suicidal supercop Riggs (Mel Gibson). Like Batman reminding himself as much as his quarry, “I’m Batman” in Tim Burton’s version of that story, it’s impossible to forget that, unlike the action figure he would become in “Lethal Weapon 2” (and the quipping old man in parts three and four), you’re constantly rooting not for Riggs to get the bad guy as much as you’re pleading for him to reject the dark side and find a new purpose for living. “48 Hrs” may have come first, and its racial edge remains sharp to this day, and still confrontational; it is the better film by far. But “Lethal Weapon” is most likely the film that brought interracial cop teams into our households as a viable, entertaining, controversy-free idea.
“21 Jump Street” (2011)
The idea of mismatched buddy cops is now deeply ingrained in popular culture, and “21 Jump Street” writer/directors Chris Lord and Phil Miller make that apparent at every single moment with this cheeky re-imagining of the cult hit television show. Forced to work under a screaming boss (Ice Cube) who nonetheless seems to comment on his own short fuse and unreasonable expectations as genre tropes, young-ish police recruits Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are tasked with what ends up being an impossible mission: infiltrate the local high school disguised as students. The natural tension between the two is obvious and familiar, Tatum as the granite Romeo and Hill the insecure, bookish nerd. But in developing the path these two must follow in order to truly become partners, a plot device that switches their intended class schedules finds them learning to appreciate and understand their differences, in a plot development that feels both Apatowian, but also very much a part of cop film dynamics.
“Police Story 3: Supercop” (1992)
So while Jackie Chan definitely deserves a top spot somewhere here, as his action/comedy chops are so perfectly suited to this genre, there was some debate over which Jackie Chan buddy cop comedy to choose. Ultimately, we felt ‘Supercop’ just won over “Rush Hour” mainly because here Michelle Yeoh (or Michelle Khan as she was then) is a more appealing foil than Chris Tucker, for our money, kicking ass more convincingly and less annoyingly, all the more uniquely for being a woman. Yet it’s still a buddy film as the essential platonic nature of the central duo is retained, with Chan’s franchise girlfriend (Maggie Cheung) returning, and Yeoh spending most of the film masquerading as his sister. There’s also some neat cross-cultural stuff in that Chan is a Hong Kong cop sent to the mainland to work with his Red Chinese counterpart (Yeoh) to bring down a drug czar, which, however cursorily dealt with here, adds a layer of interest. It kicks off in daft manner (“... We need a SUPERCOP” announces the Chinese police chief, banging the table with his fist before we cut to Chan), and is tonally inconsistent throughout with slapstick action contrasting with the more life-threatening kind, but when the fights are this entertaining, the more so for being so clearly performed by the very physically talented actors, who gives a damn?
“The Guard” (2011)
If the buddy cop comedy is usually painted in broader strokes, wherein the chalk-and-cheese partners who loathe each other at the beginning end up as inseparable best friends who possibly date each other’s family members, “The Guard” is proof positive that the formula can work even when that range is closed down to an almost imperceptible thawing instead. Here foulmouthed, racist, well-read, but abrasive and confrontational Irish country policeman (Garda) Gerry Boyle, played, wait no, embodied, by Brendan Gleeson, is teamed with urbane FBI agent Everett (Don Cheadle) and the sparks of kinship abjectly fail to fly. By the end however, it’s not that they’re close exactly, but a tiny modicum of mutual respect has crept into the prickliness of their relationship, and with the character of Boyle especially so well-drawn, we understand this tiny uptick to be as heartwarming a shift as if he was engaged to Everett’s sister by the end. With John Michael McDonough’s script pretty much defining the term “lyrically profane” and a rich vein of minutely-observed political incorrectness to be mined, the film could easily veer off into simple tastelessness, but is pulled back by Gleeson’s great performance and by the characterization of Boyle as, at the very least, an equal-opportunities bigot. Truly hilarious and unfortunately overlooked on its initial release “The Guard” is maybe more niche-y than the director’s brother Martin’s success with Gleeson-starrer “In Bruges” but it fucking owns that niche.