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The 25 Greatest Buddy-Cop Movies Ever

Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by New Line Cinema

Much like the romantic comedy, the buddy-cop film follows a familiar emotional trajectory: I can’t stand you … I hate that I have to be around you … Well, maybe you’re not so bad … Hey, we actually have a lot in common … You know what, deep down, maybe we’re not so different … Wow, I think I love you. Okay, sure, maybe that last line isn’t actually spoken in many buddy-cop movies, but it’s implied — these films’ mismatched partners traditionally forge a platonic bond, putting aside their grievances to develop a begrudging mutual respect. Buddy cops don’t kiss, but maybe they’ll high-five. These movies are the original bromances.

The latest addition to this most macho of subgenres is Hobbs & Shaw, in which two rivals — Dwayne Johnson’s federal agent and Jason Statham’s assassin — are forced to team up. Will they start out hating each other’s guts? Certainly. Will they eventually come to admire one another? Sure seems likely.

As that Fast and Furious spinoff hits theaters this weekend, we decided to go back and rank the 25 best buddy-cop films. First, though, we had to establish some ground rules. For one thing, in order to qualify, the movie’s two main characters have to be involved in law enforcement — or, as in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, at least pretending to be. (Midnight Run sometimes shows up on lists like this. But only Robert De Niro’s character is a cop, so we’re not including it.) Also, we elected to focus only on films in which the cops eventually do bond. (It was a controversial decision, but we ultimately chose not to consider Training Day, which is like the dark underside of the buddy-cop film. Hey, they never really do end up buddies in that movie.) Last, dogs totally count as cops.

Looking over this list, you’ll see a healthy dose of Shane Black, Jackie Chan, and Michael Bay — as well as several comedies that lovingly spoof the very tenets of the genre. Also what becomes readily apparent is that, by and large, the buddy-cop film has been a way for characters — mostly men — to discuss their issues, whether it be masculinity or race or class. (These touchy subjects are so much easier to bring up when there are guns around, apparently.) And, every once in a while, these guys even find time to solve the occasional case or save the day.

25. Tango & Cash (1989)

Oh, come on, like we weren’t going to start the list with this. The Über-buddy-cop movie, the platonic ideal of a mediocre buddy-cop flick that really isn’t anything but a buddy-cop movie, a movie so short on imagination that they just went ahead and made the names of two cops you’d never heard of before the name of the movie … yep, Tango & Cash! The movie had a famously chaotic set — several directors and producers were fired during filming, and one crew member said, “From the first day we started, no one knew what the hell anyone was doing” — and while it shows from the very first frame, we are not immune to the charms of an extremely dumb movie whose primary innovation is putting Sylvester Stallone in glasses. It wasn’t the only way to differentiate him from the mullet-sporting Kurt Russell, but it was the quickest one. (The two actors appear to be in two different movies, in a way that’s oddly not all that unpleasant.) Fittingly, this was the very last studio movie released in the ‘80s.

24. Running Scared (1986)

Not the 2006 Paul Walker movie (though that might actually be better), this is a Peter Hyams “action comedy” about two “tough” Chicago cops who want to retire to Florida but have to finish (all together now) one … last … job. Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal are an unlikely set of police officers, but Running Scared goes a long way on their unlikely chemistry, which is really all you can ask from a buddy-cop movie. Credit for having Dan Hedaya play their frustrated captain, a role he should have played at least 100 times in his career.

23. The Last Boy Scout (1991)

Famously the most money ever paid for an original script up to that point ($1.75 million to Shane Black, the maestro of the buddy cop movie), The Last Boy Scout feels like an inflection point, the transition from the irony-free world of Tango & Cash into the wisecracking, faux-grizzled world of, well, Bruce Willis’ Second Act period of his career. Tony Scott’s action flick is all tough-guy posing, though Black does that better than anyone, and the film is appreciably scuzzy throughout in a way that is not without its appeal. Willis and Damon Wayans have a good not-give-a-shit vibe, even if Wayans didn’t get much of a career bump out of it. They don’t make movies like this anymore … and that’s probably a good thing.

22. Turner & Hooch (1989)

Made right before Tom Hanks because America’s Actor — back when he was still transitioning out of wacky, thinly premised comedies — this is an aggressively silly comedy about a frustrated cop (Hanks) and the dog he doesn’t want to accept as his partner but, dammit, can’t help but love. It’s impossible to imagine this movie working with any other actor (it had actually failed just a few months earlier with Jim Belushi in K-9), but Hanks, because he’s magic, makes it work: This was a surprisingly huge hit. A sequel was never made, though. Turns out Hanks had more ambitious items on his dossier.

21. Stakeout (1987)

A movie about two male cops (Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez) staking out the home of a woman, resulting in one of the cops falling in love with her, feels a little … creepy today and probably should have felt so then. (Then again, this is true of a lot of movies on this list.) But Dreyfuss and Estevez have an amusing comedic friction, and the idea of casting the famously nervous and ranting Dreyfuss as a cop leads to its fair share of laughs. Still, Stakeout is way, way too violent for no apparent reason. Well, there might have been one reason: A sequel, Another Stakeout, with the original duo and Rosie O’Donnell, was PG-13, and no one went to see it.

20. Bad Boys (1995)

Buddy-cop movies rarely play around with themes of masculinity quite the way that Bad Boys does — which just makes you wish this action-comedy were better. Best friends Marcus (Martin Lawrence) and Mike (Will Smith) are Miami cops on the hunt for the crooks who stole millions of dollars in heroin, which leads them to protecting Julie (Téa Leoni), a witness who saw the bad guys. But soon — and here’s where Bad Boys starts getting dumb — Marcus has to pretend to be Mike, and Mike has to pretend to be Marcus. Suddenly, the married man learns what life is like as a single dude, while the bachelor gets a taste of domesticity. The film has grown in stature thanks to Smith’s later superstardom and the fact that this was Michael Bay’s big-screen debut, but despite the rapport of its leads, this remains a somewhat junky, generic shoot-’em-up. It also serves as a time capsule for a strange bygone era in which Martin Lawrence was a bigger name than his co-star.

19. The Heat (2013)

Bridesmaids director Paul Feig reunited with Oscar-nominated actress Melissa McCarthy, who went from scene-stealer to movie star for this less-great follow-up. The Heat boasts the considerable chemistry between McCarthy’s uncouth Boston cop Mullins and Sandra Bullock’s stiff FBI agent Ashburn, but the script’s action-movie spoofs tend to be pretty de rigueur, leaving the actresses to will the movie into hilarity. Feig and McCarthy would have more luck sending up another musty genre — the James Bond thriller — with 2015’s uproarious Spy, but here they never quite transcend the buddy-cop conventions.  

18. Rush Hour (1998)

Rush Hour arrived at a pivotal moment for director Brett Ratner and stars Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Chan was in the midst of enjoying a long-overdue crossover success, while Tucker was the up-and-coming comic dynamo who had powered the previous year’s Money Talks, which had been Ratner’s feature debut. But this movie sent them all into the stratosphere, capitalizing on the familiar but deeply enjoyable friction between Chan’s by-the-book cop and Tucker’s motormouthed lawman. Neither the plotting nor the set pieces are particularly inspired — although it’s always a kick to see Chan do his thing in fight sequences — but this was always an action-comedy with the emphasis on the comedy. The duo’s onscreen chemistry is dynamic in this installment, although it wouldn’t last — the sequels are what happens when stars just cash paychecks.

17. The Guard (2011)

The pleasures are modest but dependably consistent in this smart, low-key crime comedy in which a racist small-town Irish cop (Brendan Gleeson) is forced to work with a black FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to hunt down some drug dealers. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh (Calvary) has a knack for funny dialogue, precise character portraits, and off-kilter rhythms. Where other films on this list mock buddy-cop tropes, The Guard treats them as a launchpad for a screwy narrative that flirts with the thriller and even the Western. And both leads are superbly deadpan, letting every wry joke and tense exchange hang in the air for maximum impact.

16. End of Watch (2012)

One of the few dramas on this list, writer-director David Ayer’s somber portrait of LAPD partners went deep into its characters’ daily grind — the emotional and physical demands on cops who are dedicated to protecting and serving. Admiring without being hagiographic, End of Watch goes a long way on the no-nonsense performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, who play these policemen as ordinary guys who are good at their job and just want to get home safe at the end of their shift. As a result, the film isn’t as thrilling, twisty, or lively as other procedurals, but the emphasis on blunt realism has its own rewards. For years, Hollywood has used law enforcement as grist for tales of derring-do or corruption — Ayer (who years earlier wrote Training Day) simply sought to show the scarred souls behind the uniform.

15. The Nice Guys (2016)

Here’s Shane Black again, and this time he discovers that his knack for manly bro patter and mismatched partners who both love and loathe each other works a little better as a period piece. Russell Crowe is the muscle — his role has shades of L.A. Confidential — and Ryan Gosling is the struggling private eye with the adorable daughter, and they team up to take down a pornography cabal, or something. The Nice Guys is witty and clever and also a little exhausting; you can tell it was initially supposed to be a TV show, and it leaves you wanting more than it gives you. But Crowe and Gosling are a surprisingly agile team, and the film is agreeably old school. Tellingly, on its opening weekend, it finished a disappointing fourth behind three sequels.

14. Hot Fuzz (2007)

Angel (Simon Pegg) is a hypervigilant London cop who lives his life like he’s in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Butterman (Nick Frost) is a slow-witted small-town cop who’d rather watch Bruckheimer movies than get involved in actual car chases or shootouts. In Hot Fuzz, they become unlikely partners when Angel gets reassigned to Butterman’s sleepy burb, and much of the fun of director Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead follow-up is watching these two actors play polar-opposite policemen. In typical Wright fashion, Hot Fuzz is a send-up of a genre that doubles as an over-the-top example of said genre, which gives the suspense and action an extra layer of meta cheekiness. Probably not surprisingly, then, the film doesn’t quite reach the heights of the movies it’s spoofing/celebrating, but who would complain about spending two hours in Pegg and Frost’s endlessly enjoyable company?

13. The Rock (1996)

This early Michael Bay hit came out back when Nicolas Cage was making the transition from Leaving Las Vegas award-winning actor to gonzo action star. By his standards, he’s relatively subdued as Goodspeed, an FBI agent who teams up with a former spy, Mason (Sean Connery), who is the only man to have escaped from Alcatraz. In The Rock, they must break into Alcatraz to stop a deranged soldier (Ed Harris) from killing a bunch of hostages and unleashing some deadly chemical weapons on San Francisco. Downright charming in comparison with Bay’s later hyperbolic work, The Rock benefits greatly from Mason’s eternally dismissive attitude of his younger partner. “When I was a kid,” Cage said at the time, “I would go see [Connery’s] movies and think, ‘That’s what a man should be.’” Connery wore his macho swagger well in The Rock — and has a ball putting Goodspeed on blast.

12. Supercop (1992)

Technically Police Story 3 — the Jackie Chan series would run six films long — this is by far the best thanks to the onetime addition of Michelle Yeoh (known as Michelle Khan in the credits), who matches, and even one-ups, Chan in both charisma and action chops. Like with all Chan’s films during his prime, the post-credits are as much fun as the movie, but what’s notable here is how much more alive Chan, and the film, seem with Yeoh around. In a perfect world, they would have made dozens of movies together.

11. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Shane Black, as you’ve seen from this list, is the king of the buddy-cop flick, so it wasn’t shocking that, when he made his directorial debut, the screenwriter returned to his narrative wheelhouse. But with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he found an interesting wrinkle, casting a pre–Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. as Harry, a two-bit East Coast thief who screws up a burglary, runs from the cops, and stumbles into an acting audition, where he unexpectedly lands the role of a detective. Soon, Harry is sent to L.A. to shadow an actual cop, Perry (Val Kilmer), so he can learn the ropes. Black’s patented guy’s-guy humor and inventive action sequences are given extra juice by Downey and Kilmer’s smart-ass chemistry. And special mention to Michelle Monaghan as Harry’s childhood crush who ends up back in his life — she’s as sharp and fun as her male cohorts, which hasn’t always been the case with Black’s female characters.

10. The Other Guys (2010)

A few years before director Adam McKay won an Oscar for The Big Short, he took his first crack at condemning Wall Street corruption and the inequality in our financial system. But that’s not why people remember The Other Guys — they’re more likely to laugh at the memory of Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg playing mismatched cops whose routine investigation leads them down the path of a dark conspiracy. The Other Guys has never been embraced by the culture as much as previous McKay-Ferrell pairings, but with all due respect to Anchorman and Talladega Nights, this movie might be just as funny and quotable. Plus it gave Wahlberg the opportunity to play an ignorant hothead who feels like a before-the-fact parody of the strutting, square heroes he’d go on to portray in earnest Peter Berg action-dramas like Patriots Day and Mile 22. And if all that’s not enough, The Other Guys synthesizes the stupidity of high-octane cop flicks in about two minutes, thanks to Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson’s hilariously on-brand cameo.

9. Miami Vice (2006)

Most big-screen cops start off at loggerheads, but Miami Vice’s Crockett and Tubbs are already a close-knit team by the time this film starts, as writer-director Michael Mann plunges us into their perilous world of drug dealers, thugs, and neon-lit clubs. Based on the 1980s series, the movie continues to spark debate: Is it a completely indigestible mélange of law-enforcement speak, brooding macho self-pity, and smeary nighttime digital photography? Or, as Vulture’s own Bilge Ebiri put it back in 2015, is the movie really just “a dream” — a brilliant hypervivid dance of images, sounds, and sensations that boil the crime drama down to its hallucinatory essence? We prefer the latter reading, while acknowledging the former’s compelling case. But unlike Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx have a cooler-than-cool swagger and authority that pulls you along from hypnotic sequence to hypnotic sequence. Even when you don’t quite understand what’s happening in Miami Vice, they’re your suave escorts into the story’s sexy, seedy undertow.

8. 21 Jump Street (2012)

Normally in buddy-cop movies, one partner’s the cool guy and the other one sure isn’t. But what if those roles reversed over the course of the film? That’s the clever conceit — one of many — in directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s adaptation of the negligible ’80s TV drama, which cast Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as bumbling policemen who go undercover in high school to catch a drug dealer. Back when they were teens, Tatum’s Jenko was the popular jock and Hill’s Schmidt was the pushed-around dweeb, but they’re going to discover that high school — and the culture at large — has changed a lot since then, prizing Schmidt’s sensitivity while scorning Jenko’s meathead cockiness. Both 21 Jump Street and its equally funny sequel ingeniously exploit the differences in its stars’ personas, all the while spoofing cop movies, Hollywood franchise glut, and John Waite’s “Missing You.” These films torpedoed the buddy-cop genre in order to rebuild it.

7. Men in Black (1997)

“That kid is funny. Very, very funny.” That was stoic Tommy Lee Jones’s assessment of his co-star on Men in Black, which cemented Will Smith’s
A-list ascension. Of course, the trick to this sci-fi action-comedy, based on the comic book, was that both of its leads were very funny in very different ways. As Agents J and K, Smith and Jones were a happy mixture of buddy-cop conventions — J was hip and flashy, K was crotchety and reserved — but even when these partners didn’t get along, the actors’ camaraderie was clear. Men in Black captured Smith at the peak of his blockbuster appeal — that effortless ability of his to make summer popcorn movies feel like such giddy pleasure — but it also caught Jones in a more playful mood than usual. The Oscar-winning actor sometimes seemed utterly lost when doing big-budget movies — he’s so miserable in Batman Forever, which came out two years earlier — but here he’s the perfect straight man. Jones gets laughs just by looking witheringly in Agent J’s direction.

6. 48 Hrs. (1982)

This may have been the original Hollywood buddy-cop action comedy, with Walter Hill in full-on gritty-urban-nightmare mode, but 48 Hrs. had an ace up its sleeve that no other buddy-cop movie could pull off: Eddie Murphy, in his film debut, 21 years old and crackling with such comedic energy that the screen can barely contain him. Nick Nolte is the perfect slow-burn foil, but this is Murphy’s movie: He’s technically the supporting character, but the movie is entirely about him from start to finish. Most of his movies for the next 20 years, for better or worse, would be no different.

5. Lethal Weapon (1987)

Take your pick of which Lethal Weapon you prefer, but we’ll go with the original recipe, which is darker and scarier and sadder and has considerably less Joe Pesci yapping. (Pesci is great, but by the third movie, whew, enough is enough.) Danny Glover and Mel Gibson were such fundamental opposites — Murtaugh tired and defeated, Riggs manic and out of control — that the film is juiced along by their awkward, kinetic energy; you feel that both men want to die but for entirely different reasons. The sequels lost that sense of danger, but the original is a live wire … and it turned Gibson into the biggest movie star in the world. Which we suppose is something it will have to answer for forever.

4. Stray Dog (1949)

Probably about as close to the Big Bang of buddy-cop movies, this Akira Kurosawa classic introduces every trope: the veteran teaming up with the rookie, the friction as they delve deeper and deeper into a case they don’t understand, the showgirl they both are bewildered by but vow to protect … you name it, Kurosawa got there first. Stray Dog thus feels both familiar and fresh to watch today, but Kurosawa’s empathy and attention to detail sets it apart from so many films that would copy and draw inspiration from it.

3. In the Heat of the Night (1967)

The first of two Best Picture winners on this list, In the Heat of the Night is a crime drama and “an issue film,” and it’s to director Norman Jewison’s eternal credit that he favored the former over the latter. Not that this adaptation of the John Ball novel isn’t concerned with the political and social subtext of this tale of a black Philadelphia cop (Sidney Poitier) who investigates a murder in Mississippi, reluctantly assisted by a local white police chief (Rod Steiger). But Jewison and his talented stars understood that the message would go down smoother inside a genre piece, which gave the characters plenty of room to reconcile their racial and cultural differences. (It’s not just that Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs is black — it’s his elegance and brilliance that make Steiger’s Gillespie feel like a hick.) Hollywood movies seeking to address racial divides are always going to be a bit simplistic and overly hopeful, but In the Heat of the Night is so much better than its ilk because Poitier and Steiger made these people real — these characters were nuanced human beings, not symbols.

2. Seven (1995)

Certainly darker than anything else on this list, but that’s of course the point: The genius of David Fincher’s uncompromising thriller is that it takes all you think you’re going to get from two mismatched cops working together and turns it against itself. Every story beat ends up being increasingly more terrifying and, ultimately, horrifying. You’ve seen the older, world-weary cop (a fantastic Morgan Freeman) learn to respect the younger, more idealistic but intense cop (Brad Pitt) a million times before … but you’ve never seen it play out quite like this. This is the photo negative of the buddy-cop movie; this is what happens when it all goes wrong.

1. The French Connection (1971)

William Friedkin’s masterpiece laid the groundwork for an essential aspect of any buddy-cop film: two tough cops who don’t want to work together, have to, and are better because of it. But because the film is so stark and grouchy and scuzzy, you barely even remember that Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle and Roy Scheider’s Cloudy Russo are supposed to be the good guys. The car chases remain the standouts, but for our money, it’s the streets of New York that star. The movie is fiction — though based on real events — and yet the film feels so true to life that it almost plays like documentary. This particular moment in time was captured perfectly by The French Connection … and it would never feel more urgent and raw. 

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

The 25 Greatest Buddy-Cop Movies Ever