There isn’t a genre more steeped in clichés than the cop movie. From gritty "Dirty Harry" to buddy movies like "Lethal Weapon" and "Bad Boys," they all get trapped into the same plots and characters that we’ve seen time and time again.
Some movies try to stay as far from them as possible, like "End of Watch" (opening Friday), the gritty Jake Gyllenhaal/Michael Peña thriller that follows life as an LAPD officer patrolling South Central. With its shaky handheld camera work and realistic plot, it is unlike most cop movies you’ve seen. But we’ll be honest, as much as it tried, a couple clichés did find their way into this one too. We won't tell you which ones, though. You'll just have to see for yourself.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, here’s 15 that always seem to pop up.
1. Who Needs Backup?
Perhaps help would make a cop feel a little less powerful, but when the odds are against the tattered hero cop, he powers through in a blaze of glory instead of looking for reinforcements. Who could forget Eddie Murphy in "Beverly Hills Cop" going rogue and leaving his department in Detroit for sunny L.A. to track down his friend's killer? And not only does he find his buddy's killer, but he takes out a drug kingpin to boot.
2. I’m on a Boat!
For some reason, cop movies with retired officers (or those close to it) spend their time on a boat, building a boat, living on a boat or saving up for a boat. The most popular has to be Murtaugh's boat in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise. In part three, Murtaugh (Danny Glover) goes back to his boat to lick his wounds after his son's friend is killed. Then in part four, the film starts with Murtaugh, Riggs and Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) fishing on the boat until a vessel approaches, its occupants starts shooting at them and then blow up Murtaugh's beloved boat. Yes, Murtaugh, you are getting too old for this sh*t.
3. Breaking the Law
Police don't really need to obey the laws they're enforcing in cop movies. Hero cops never play by the rules to get the villains. In fact, they often can’t, because the only way to get the job done is to act as bad as the criminals. The cop who epitomizes this cliché has to be "Dirty" Harry Callahan. Clint Eastwood's legendary Smith & Wesson-carrying San Francisco cop doesn't care much for protocol, famously telling his captain after being grilled about using too much violence to catch the bad guys, "What did you want me to do, yell trick-or-treat at 'em?"
Top Offenders: "Dirty Harry," "Beverly Hills Cop," "L.A. Confidential"
4. Against All Odds
Often, one or two (at the most) rogue cops take down the bad guy. Seems like they always come out on top, even when storming a compound or a heavily fortified office building filled with bad guys. And when you talk about this cliché, who else has played up the one-man-gang persona more than Sylvester Stallone? Playing shy, out-of-shape New Jersey cop Freddy Heflin in "Cop Land," he takes down the mob that runs the town by blowing away all comers as he approaches (on foot) the villain's house and works his way though it.
Hollywood has prided itself on suspending disbelief, and there’s no better example of that than with people shooting guns in cop movies. In fact, even when the bad guy thinks the cop has run out, there’s always one left in the chamber just for him. A classic example from this is the bloody landmark ending in "Bonnie and Clyde." Hiding in the bushes waiting to strike, the cops unload on the famous outlaws for what seems to be an eternity.
Top Offenders: Pretty much any cop movie
6. You Killed My Partner!!
We’ve seen them ride together, get drunk together and confide in each other, but in the end there can only be one hero, which means someone is going down. The killing of the hero’s partner is usually the driving force he or she needs to finally catch their big bad, or, sadly, the partner is the last heart-wrenching fatality in their fight against the evil-doers.
7. Get in My Office
There’s nothing like the pissed-off superior officer in cop movies. The boss is often in a glass-encased office with files piled willy-nilly, and he or she hates our heroes for not doing things by the letter of the law. However, when the job is done, the big boss is the first to hand out congratulations. One of the more entertaining in recent memory is Captain Conrad Howard from "Bad Boys." Joe Pantoliano gives him the perfect amount of snark and intimidation.
8. Wise-Ass Supporting Character
To bring a bit of comedy to intense police dramas/thrillers, most cop movies have a character (often a pencil pusher back at the station) who will break the tension. He or she often has a comical comment for anything the protagonist is talking about. The hands-down poster boy for this Leo Getz in the "Lethal Weapon" films. Joe Pesci's annoying informant turned best buds of Riggs and Murtaugh is a by-the-letter example of this, from doing stupid things that tip the bad guys off to what the heroes are doing to talking constantly that you just wanted to jump through the screen and slap him... until you realize that is Joe Pesci.
Top Offenders: "Lethal Weapon 2," "3," "4," "Die Hard," "Beverly Hills Cop," "Demolition Man"
9. A DIY Police Force
Forget forensics, fingerprints or the whole CSI. In fact, if the case hits a dead end, there’s no reason to gather the department’s resources because the hero is only a few scenes away from solving the case. Of course, RoboCop quickly comes to mind. Built to be the super cop of the future, he instantly comes on a crime in progress and defuses the situation. Well, if you mean destroying everything in sight and killing the suspect. They're still working out the kinks.
Top Offenders: "RoboCop," "Dirty Harry"
10. Turn in Your Badge
Sometimes, our heroes go a little too far and get their hands slapped — in this case, that means turning in their badges and guns for a little time out. Soon enough, though, the sergeant is begging them to come back. In the comedic movie version of the classic TV show, "Dragnet," Joe Friday (Dan Aykroyd) does just that. He's even forced to pull on the side of the road as a police caravan drives by him. However, by the end he's back to reading the perp's rights.
11. The Ol’ Double Cross
Ooh, there's nothing that stings as much as a good double cross. Sometimes the audience knows it, sometimes they don’t, but it’s always a shock to our hero. Of course, this means someone is going to meet an early and rather ugly end... We'll let you figure these out for yourself.
12. The Loner
Another big cliché is that our hero is divorced and possibly estranged from his or her children because such dedication to the force has made it impossible to live with. Michael Mann loves showing how difficult it is to reconcile having a family and dealing with crime, regardless if you're a cop of criminal. In "Heat," Al Pacino plays a hard-nosed detective who is so focused on getting the bad guy that he's blind to the pain of those he loves most, and nearly misses a desperate cry for help.
13. Battling Demons
The hero cop's an alcoholic and spends his time off duty at a bar or stuffing things up his nose. Maybe he gambles a little (or a lot). The crime and sleaze are getting to him, and things are going downhill fast. No one has done this better (or more disturbingly) than Harvey Keitel in "Bad Lieutenant." Yes, Nicolas Cage was his usual wacky self in Werner Herzog's reboot of the film, lucky crack pipe and all, but nothing can top Keitel's no-name lieutenant with his degeneracy and total mental unraveling.
Top Offenders: "Bad Lieutenant," "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans"
14. Greener Pastures
A classic trope is the aging cop who is close to retirement but has one more big case to solve before he punches the clock for the final time. He may be a step slower, but he’s wily enough to get his man. Robert Duvall dove headfirst into this cliché when he played an LAPD sergeant who, on his last day before retirement, has to track down a looney (Michael Douglas) who has gone on a violent rampage around town in "Falling Down." Then there's Morgan Freeman's Det. Somerset in "Seven," who is tasked with a truly horrible case to send him off into the sunset, knowing all too well what was in the box.
Top Offenders: "Brooklyn's Finest," "Lethal Weapon," "Falling Down," "Seven"
15. Inside Man
The hero cop can’t be everywhere, and that’s when informants come in handy. Often, they have priors, and for some reason they're old or handicapped. Snoop Dogg has a memorable cameo in "Training Day" as a wheel-chaired informant. Although he wasn't that receptive to helping our protagonists at first, he changes his tune after being chased and throwing up the drugs he'd tried to swallow. However, he doesn't lose any street cred. As he tells rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), "Put me in the front seat with him, I bet I'll whoop his ass."
Top Offenders: "Colors," "Training Day," "Rampart"