Top 10 Movie Cops

Rob Keeling enjoys a night in the cells as he takes a look at movieland’s best law enforcers. From wise-cracking Axel Foley to tough nut Harry Callahan, this is the top 10 movie cops.

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From loose cannons to by-the-book boy scouts, the spectrum of movie cops is most definitely a broad one. While some make this list through their exceptional police work and commitment to the cause, others are in just because, to use a technical term, they are a bit of a badass. Some are rough and tumble mavericks who don’t necessarily play by the rules, but dammit, if they don’t get results. Others however, are just borderline psychotic.

It was tough narrowing this list down to just ten and I’m sure there will be some big hitters you will feel I’ve foolishly missed off. There have been so many movie cops down the years that a few classics had to fall by the wayside. There’s no place for Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris, Russell Crowe’s Bud White, Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah or Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling. I know what you’re thinking folks, why couldn’t the website be called Top 20 Films instead.

Here at the ten lawmen (and woman) who made the final cut:

10. Axel Foley (Beverley Hills Cop series)

A fast talking fish-out-of-water, Axel Foley is a Detroit cop who finds himself in the unfamiliar surroundings of sunny Beverly Hills. He may not endear himself to the local social elites, or indeed his senior officers, but his incomparable street-smarts certainly prove effective. Never short of a wise-crack or two, Foley is certainly unconventional, but his dogged determination and fearless attitude proves a winning combination. Interestingly, Eddie Murphy’s big film break was very nearly given to Sly Stallone, who luckily passed to make Cobra instead. I think it’s fair to say the decision to go with Murphy and let his foul-mouthed comedy loose on the role was a wise one.

Choice Line: “Disturbing the peace? I got thrown out of a window! What’s the fuckin’ charge for getting pushed out of a moving car, huh? Jaywalking?”

9. Marge Gunderson (Fargo)

The only female entry on our list is good old quiet and unassuming Marge Gunderson. Away from the big city boys who make up the rest of the ten, she is out in small town Minnesota chasing down leads and unravelling a complex chain of events, all while heavily pregnant. While the many men involved in Fargo are busy scheming and murdering, she’s focuses on the case and getting the job done. She’s never better than when scorning one of the movies’ criminals with a tone not of anger, but of genuine disappointment. Frances McDomand quite rightly won an Oscar for Best Actress for the role and created a likeable and moral character in a movie populated by fairly detestable kidnappers and murderers.

Choice Line: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”

8. Rick Deckard (Blade Runner)

Stalking the rain soaked dystopian LA streets hunting down illegal replicants, Deckard is part cop, part bounty-hunter. He’s the only future cop on our list and perhaps deserves special credit as if police work wasn’t difficult enough, Deckard faces the added danger of dealing with super-strength androids on a day-to-day basis too. Like so many of the best screen cops he’s not without his inner demons but his cold and unemotional demeanour suits his policing style perfectly. Harrison Ford has made a career out of iconic roles and his turn as Deckard is right up there with the best of them. Even if he and Ridley Scott can’t quite agree in the trifling matter of whether or not he’s actually human.

Choice Line : “They don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-cop. Ex-blade runner. Ex-killer.”

7. Harry Callahan (The Dirty Harry series)

“Dirty” Harry Callahan was never one for the rules. Across five movies he made Popeye Doyle look like a bit of a boy scout. He has his own vision of what justice really means and won’t let any pencil pushers get in the way. Long story short, he has no qualms with killing a bad guy instead of bringing him in. To protect the innocent, he took the law into his own hands and through gritted teeth, snarled his words of wisdom at the scum of San Francisco. In pretty much every Dirty Harry film, Callahan starts off by being transferred or suspended, and quite how he stays out of jail himself is a mystery, nevertheless, when it comes to doing the real dirty work that no one else wants to do, he’s the man to call. I mean, clearly he’s mentally unstable and a borderline fascist, but in terms of gritty police work, he’s undeniably effective. Clint Eastwood’s iconic performance was as steely-eyed and unflinching as one might expect and it was yet another legendary anti-hero from Clint.

Choice Line: “I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

6. Popeye Doyle (The French Connection 1+2)

He’s definitely not the most likeable cop on this list, but The French Connection’s Popeye Doyle is certainly one of the most effective. Short-tempered, ill-disciplined and prone to using violence, he was a cop who played by his own rules but was allowed to get away with it thanks to his incredible results. The New York City of 1971 in which Popeye operated was a very different place to modern day New York. It was a dangerous city with countless unsafe streets and no-go areas. Doyle would no doubt therefore argue that his actions were made necessary by the unruly state in which the city found itself. In other words, he felt the ends justified the means. You wouldn’t necessarily want to spend much time with Popeye, but if there’s a dangerous narcotics case you need cracking, he’s you’re man. Gene Hackman brought a great intensity to the role and quite rightly won a Best Actor Oscar for his troubles.

Choice Line: “All right, Popeye’s here! get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!”

5. William Somerset (Se7en)

He may be close to retirement, but Detective Somerset shows that there’s no substitute for a wise old head who’s willing to use his brains. Despite the shocking nature of the case at hand, involving several grisly murders based on the seven deadly sins, Somerset remains unruffled and level-headed throughout. His considerable intellect is put to great use as he begins to crack the case through tireless research and hours spent in his local library. A million miles away from the likes of Popeye Doyle. Morgan Freeman was seemingly born to play this role giving Somerset a calm yet authoritative demeanour which contrasts sharply with Brad Pitt’s gung-ho young hot-shot.

Choice Line: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” I agree with the second part.”

4. Vincent Hanna (Heat)

Slick Vince Hanna is a cool and calculating cop who uses his quick wits and tireless determination to hunt his man down. Like most cops on this list, his personal life may suffer as a result of his commitment to the force (3 marriages and counting), but for him, the job comes first. He is happy to wield a hefty old fire arm when the situation calls for it, but Hanna is a sharp and intuitive thinker who is very much the match for even the trickiest of criminals. Undeniably though, he does have a barely contained hysterical streak, see such outbursts as, “because she’s got a GREEEEEEEEEEAT ASS”, but he knows how to utilise this to work to his advantage. Pacino is on fine form as the obsessive Lieutenant and that scene where he and Robert DeNiro share a quiet cup of coffee is quite rightly regarded as a master class in acting and more crucially in reacting to the person sat opposite you.

Choice Line: “I gotta hold on to my angst. I preserve it because I need it. It keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be.”

3. Frank Serpico (Serpico)

A man of unimpeachable integrity and moral standing, Serpico went undercover to expose the corruption which was rife among his fellow police officers. After witnessing first hand the illicit activities his fellow cops got up to when they were meant to be upholding the law, Serpico decides to expose them at great personal risk to himself. He is threatened and harassed by his fellow officers but has the resolve to persist regardless. A trustworthy and honest cop who you can guarantee will act beyond reproach. Al Pacino gives another impassioned performance as the vilified loner and once again proved there are few actors out there who can immerse themselves into a character like he can.

Choice Line: “What’s this for? For bein’ an honest cop? Hmm? Or for being stupid enough to get shot in the face? You tell them that they can shove it.”

2. Martin Riggs (The Lethal Weapon series)

Riggs seems to attract trouble wherever he goes and is most definitely willing to put his body on the line in the name of the law. Battling with suicidal thoughts and pining for his lost love, Riggs is a cop with a death wish and thus one who is willing to go any lengths, including being tortured by the guy who played Ghengis Khan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, in order to get his man. Over the course of four movies, Riggs was beaten to a pulp by Jet Li, shot by South African diplomats and left to drown in the ocean, yet somehow he always bounced back. Mel Gibson was at his peak for the first two Lethal Weapon outings perfectly balancing the smart-alec cockiness with dangerous inner demons. No doubt a great stretch for old level-headed Mel.

Choice Line: “I don’t make things difficult. That’s the way they get, all by themselves.”

1. John McClane (The Die Hard series)

Nobody in all good conscience could make a list of top movie cops and not include the great dirty-vested one. Across 4 movies of admittedly varying quality, McClane blasted, smacked, smirked and wise-cracked his way past pretty much everything those damned criminals could throw at him. He’s very much a blue-collar guy who has a love/hate relationship with his job, fervently committed to upholding the law, but frustrated by the bureaucracy that surrounds him.

The one thing McClane doubtlessly excels at is making himself a thorn in the side of bad guys. First at Nakatomi tower, then at Dulles Airport and then across the entire city of New York, he stops at nothing to get the job done. Holly Gennaro circa Die Hard With a Vengeance may not agree, but there are few men we’d rather have around when the chips are down. Bruce Willis was at his very best in the first three Die Hard movies, with the first outing quite rightly revered as a landmark in action cinema. Willis the action hero came to be known for his wise-ass every-man persona and never would it be put to better use than here.

Choice Line: “Nine million terrorists in the world and I gotta kill one with feet smaller than my sister.”

Written and compiled by Robert Keeling.

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About the Author
Rob Keeling is a freelance writer and film fanatic based in Manchester. As well as contributing to several blogs, website and magazines, he also has his own blog (Cinema Paradiso). Follow him on Twitter at

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  1. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    Man, this must have been a hard list to pick the postioning on – the majority of these (with the exception of Morgan Freeman) are all hardball characters with little time for subtlety, almost identical in nature if not personality. Pacino is awesome every time he does this kind of thing, and of course Riggs is just a nutcase.

    Still finding it hard to come to any alternative conclusions, Rob, which is indicative of a well organised list!! Nice work!

  2. Avatar
    Scott Lawlor Reply

    I was thiking to myself I would have had Dirty Harry in the top spot… then I remembered John McClane

    Nicely done!

  3. Avatar
    Nostra Reply

    Alright, I have to say that this top 10 is perfect. I was thinking of a couple of them and all of them are in this list. Just imagine these guys hooking up in the same police department, it would be one to be very afraid of.

  4. Avatar
    Rob Reply

    Cheers guys! It took me ages to choose who to include,and then again to decide who should go where. There’s been some amazing screen cops down the years.

    Frank Drebin from Naked Gun almost made the cut too at one stage. I do regret not finding room for Frank.

  5. Avatar
    Louise Reply

    Brilliant list – such a good idea and I totally agree with your top two. How could McClane not be top? I might have made room for Jack Vicennes from LA Confidential but I’m not sure who I would bump to put him in…

  6. Avatar
    mark Reply

    May be a wee bit US-centric, but here’s an almost alternative list(in no particular order)…

    (10)Harvey Keitel in Clockers – after playing the worst of the worst law enforcement officer for Abel Ferrara some years before, Keitel turned the tables in what could only be described as a truly compassionate performance … the scene where he is helping the boy prepare his confession after the kiddie has just shot a drug dealer is both mesmerising and touching … an absolutely beautiful and unrivaled cinematic moment from Mr Keitel and director Spike Lee.

    (9) Gene Hackman in The French Connection – see above; not much more to say really, except I’ve never picked my feet in Pookepsie.

    (8) Roy Scheider in The Seven Ups – if Dan had his way he’d probably nominate Roy for the chief Brody character in Jaws … however, in the D’Antoni film (which some have said is a kind of unofficial sequel to the Friedkin film), he shows once again that he is tough as nails. Aside from surviving one of the most underrated car chases in Hollywood history, Scheider is actually quite funny in a laconic kind of way when he is interrogating a bed-ridden gangster in hospital, gleefully pulling the oxygen tube out of the poor man’s nose when he doesn’t get satisfactory answers.

    (7) Steve McQueen in Bullitt … too iconic to ignore, although, having watched it a few times, I’m still not so sure I fully understand it.

    (6) Chow Yun-Fat in Hard Boiled … the shoot out scene with the baby is a hoot.

    (5) Ray Liotta in Cop Land – when it was released some raved about Stallone, saying he had proven that he could hold his own against heavyweights like De Niro and Keitel. Personally I couldn’t see it – he still looked like a lug imitating an actor. Liotta, on the other hand, is great, especially when he comes to the rescue in the big final shoot out. Regardless, it is still a film that is too full of its own self importance to have made a real mark.

    (4) Benicio Del Toro in Traffic – I keep forgetting he won the Oscar (TM) for this; I just like the ending, when he’s watching some kids playing baseball as the closing credits roll. Now here’s a cop who really cares …

    (3) James Woods for either The Hard Way or Cop – not a fan of John Badham, but THW is arguably one of Wood’s best ever performances. And while Cop is interesting, it does pale when compared to James Ellroy’s source material.

    (2) Bruce Willis in Mercury Rising – if I had been drunk and watched it in the theatre when it first came out, I would have stood up and cheered when Brucie started dropping Baldwin’s vintage red wine bottles. And despite being a formula film, it has a great, great final scene. Another reason for telling the critics to piss off and giving Willis the thumbs up …

    (1) Tim Roth in Resevoir Dogs – talk about your grey areas … he shoots an innocent woman (admittedly after she’s shot him), kills the meanest bastard in the film despite the fact it’s a massive strategic (not to mention pointless) blunder and then fatally confesses to being a traitor just as he’s on the verge of being saved from bleeding to death by the cops.

    The glaring omission from this rant is Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character. Admittedly the first film was great – and intelligent to boot. But then we got Magnum Force (watch out – Cimino co-wrote it!), followed by the dire The Enforcer, the even more dire Sudden Impact, and the not-so-bad, but still kinda mediocre, The Dead Pool. Sorry Det Callahan – you were killed by the franchise.

    As for Gibson and the Lethal Weapon series, I wish someone would string him up on the cross. The South Park boys got it right – although, having said this, Apocalypto was pretty out there.

  7. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    A fantastic list. As others have said, definitely hard to come up with alternatives. I feel like just about any of the cops from LA Confidential, Steve McQueen from Bullitt, or Pep Streebek from the comedy Dragnet could have been potential additions on my own list. Well done sir!

  8. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    Excellent list. The first names that came to mind when I saw the headline were Martin Riggs and Vincent Hanna. Glad to see Serpico so high, and you can’t go wrong with Popeye Doyle and John McClane. I’ll second the comment above about L.A. Confidential, especially Crowe as Bud White. However, it’s hard to say who I’d remove to add him, so I can’t really complain too much. I might drop Rick Deckard and add Bullitt, but it’s really hard to disagree with any of these. Nice work.

  9. Avatar
    Jack Deth Reply

    Hi, Robert and company:

    Great list!

    I’d add Ben Johnson as G-Man Melvin Purvis. From the John Milius written and directed ‘Dillinger’ with Warren Oates from 1973.

    Honorable Mentions would include Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge as Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones in ‘Cotton Comes to Harlem’ and other adaptations of Chester Himes novels.

  10. Avatar
    Pete Reply

    McClane HAD to be number one, no contest here! I’d have Axel Foley at number 2 personally. I’d also like to put Nic Cage’s Bad Lieutenant in there too. Reckon I could sneak Johnny Utah on here too!

  11. Avatar
    Matthew Liedke Reply

    Awesome list, figured John McClane would be number 1. Liked how you included Marge Gunderson in there from Fargo too, just remember not all of us from Minnesota talk like that though.

  12. Avatar
    Jaina Reply

    Excellent list. Glad to see John McClane in the top spot. Aww, but Axel Foley deserved to be a little higher up. What with his going deep, deep, deep, deep undercover.

  13. Avatar
    Eric Reply

    Excellent list, with so many memorable characters. I was hoping RoboCop would make an appearance though. 🙂

  14. Avatar
    ruth Reply

    Awesome list Robert! The only one I haven’t seen is Serpico. I’d add Bud White and Exley from L.A. Confidential and also the Pegg/Frost duo from Hot Fuzz as the funniest cop combo! 🙂

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