With James McAvoy tearing up the screen as an insane, drug-addicted detective in terrific new drama Filth, there’s never been a better time to look at the best ‘bad cops’ that the movies have to offer.
From cocaine-snorting oddballs to ruthless, scheming villains – Mark Butler picks out 8 of the greatest dirty cops in cinema history.
Warning: Major LA Confidential spoilers below
Norman Stansfield in Leon: The Professional (1994)
Gary Oldman’s monstrous, unhinged family-slayer is pretty much as twisted as it gets. A true nightmare of a man, in Oldman’s phenomenal hands the character proves a simmering volcano of psychotic tension and wild-eyed menace – veering between dangerously soft eloquence and startling, window-shattering outbursts.
After his violent rampage leaves Mathilda (Natalie Portman) orphaned and under threat, loner hitman Leon takes her under his wing and Stansfield finally meets his match. The beautifully-shot, poignant showdown between the pair is simply unforgettable.
Captain McCluskey in The Godfather (1972)
The man who re-alignes Michael Corleone’s jaw for him is a perfectly believable portrait of police corruption: an outwardly respectable lawman who accepts money to protect drug dealers and facilitates murder.
It is McCluskey’s arrogance and pomposity that’s most memorable. He’s in league with heroin traffickers – but the man is so affronted by Michael’s accusations that he beats the young man viciously, before changing tact to a ‘butter-wouldn’t-melt’ friendliness when business demands it. A true scumbag.
Alonzo Harris in Training Day (2001)
The role that deservedly won Denzel Washington the Best Actor Oscar, charismatic LA narcotics detective Harris is a remarkable whirlwind of charisma, confidence and ruthlessness.
From the very off he shocks rookie Ethan Hawke – and the audience – with his antics; terrorizing teenagers and robbing drug dealers, before things get even more sinister. Smart, cocksure and supremely intimidating, Alonzo makes for a terrific bad guy, while Washington’s fire-and-brimstone performance is possibly his best yet.
The Lieutenant in Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Abel Ferrara’s shocking, sordid crime drama follows the despicable cop of the title – played with real power by Harvey Keitel – as he steamrollers his way through a horrific series of events in search of unlikely redemption.
Binging on crack; sexually-exploiting young girls and getting in way over his head with the bookies, the Lieutenant is an amoral wreck of a human being locked in a downward spiral amid a torrent of sleaze, depravity and Catholic guilt. An utterly mesmerizing anti-hero.
Colin Sullivan in The Departed (2006)
One of the most subtle and measured characters on this list, this softly-spoken, intelligent informant for the mob is a key reason why Martin Scorsese’s gem – a remake of excellent Hong Kong flick Infernal Affairs – works so very effectively.
Played to watchful perfection by Matt Damon, he’s ambitious, he’s corrupt, and his cold self-serving actions have terrible consequences, yet there’s a haunted vulnerability behind those eyes that suggests he’s being tormented by a troublesome, unwanted sense of conscience. He’s a man who’s lost his soul – and he knows it.
Gerry Boyle in The Guard (2011)
Unlike most of the figures here, Boyle is no bad guy. Instead, he’s the unconventional hero of John Michael McDonagh’s sublime off-the-wall comedy. It’s just that he happens to snort cocaine, bed prostitutes on duty, and possess some very un-PC views on race.
Played with delicious relish by the ever-wonderful Brendan Gleeson, the eccentric, well-meaning Garda oddball is a terrific foil for Don Cheadle’s straight-laced and incredulous FBI agent. He’s the beating heart of this great buddy cop movie.
Peter Deluca in The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)
Arguably the finest film of the year so far, Derek Cianfrance’s poignant drama boasts many striking characters. And though corrupt detective Deluca (Ray Liotta) is very much a supporting player in the saga that unfolds, his presence lives long in the memory.
Initially he’s charismatic, warm and commanding all at the same time. He’s just the friendly veteran who wants to take Bradley Cooper’s ‘hero’ under his wing. It isn’t long before we see a steely menace to him, however; but best of all is the sad-eyed defeat that greets his unceremonious downfall. The shot is over in a matter of seconds, but we see a genuinely broken man.
Captain Smith in LA Confidential (1997)
The ultimate wolf-in-sheep’s clothing, Captain “call me Dudley” Smith may sanction the beating of criminals and turn a blind eye to ‘aggressive policing’, but he’s nonetheless presented as the cuddly grandfather figure of the force. That is until he blasts Kevin Spacey’s flamboyant favourite to death, of course.
Smith’s wisdom, patience, and desire to rid LA of the mob takes on a whole new meaning when we discover he is in fact styling himself as the new drug kingpin in town. A terrific role for the splendid James Cromwell, this high-ranking devil betrays his boys, and us as an audience, with a twinkle in his eye.