It’s terrible, but there’s something hot about bad cops. They’re authoritative, powerful, within arms reach of the worst villains life can throw and, they’re only occasionally redeemable. What a challenge.
In honor of David Ayer‘s Street Kings we did a little bad-to-worse survey of the boys who soil their blue. Some of them are hot, some of them caustic, but all of them are fascinating. The cops on this list might shame those who loyally “Protect and Serve” but you know what they say, it’s hard to look away from a train wreck.
Web Smith (Wesley Snipes) is a good cop. He’s mostly clean, except for one little incident in his past, involving a drug dealer, a crib, and a small stack of bills. Web’s been walking around with this secret for a long time, and the bad news is that someone else knows about it, and it eventually gets used as leverage against him. But compared to the plans and conspiracies surrounding the murder he’s investigating, the old bribe is really just small change.
Frank Serpico was an honest cop in a sea of corruption. The entire NYPD may not have been completely corrupt, but in Serpico it sure feels like it. Even the low-level officers are on the take, and hush money from bookies and dealers is passed around between cops with such banality that when Frank refuses a bribe, his brother officers think that there is something wrong with him.
It’s one thing when a cop goes bad, seduced by the power and authority that comes with the job. But it’s something else entirely when the cop in question wasn’t good to begin with. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) becomes a police officer so that he can work as mole within the Boston PD, and feed information back to his gangster pal Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). So instead of making the streets safer, he’s just making them safer for crooks.
The only thing more frightening than a bad cop is a bad cop responsible for others. When Alonzo (Denzel Washington) takes Jake (Ethan Hawke) out on his Training Day the day looks more like a trip into a nightmarish revisioning of The Wizard of Oz than a beat cop instructional tour. Some crimes seem easy to overlook (Alonzo’s incessant drinking while driving) but others (like extortion or drug trafficking) are harder to overlook. And it’s this play between the upholding of the law and its use that makes the situation between Alonzo and his pupil such a challenging one.
Before Ray Liotta played Hank Hill in Goodfellas he used that baby face to play Officer Pete Davis in Unlawful Entry. Kurt Russell and Madeline Stowe play happy and successful couple who open their doors to Davis just in time for him to slowly devolve into a stalking, hooker-brutalizing monster. Liotta plays his cards close to his chest, alternating between irksome and alluring, conscientious and reckless, honorable and deviant, all without skipping a beat.
We meet Cobb early on in Silverado, and it’s clear than he and one of the heroes, a somewhat reformed outlaw named Paden (Kevin Kline) have a history together. Cobb comes off as menacing, and since he’s played by Brian Dennehy, you know he’s going to come back later. Sure enough he does come back, as the sheriff of Silverado, and the other members of his gang are now his deputies. But in spite of his position, Cobb isn’t much of a tyrant; he may be sheriff, but the cattle baron that’s bribing him is the one that’s really calling the shots.
After multiple turns playing crooks in Noirs from The Asphalt Jungle to The Killing, Sterling Hayden had perfected the diligent working-class villain. Who then could be more evocative as the mob-complicit Captain McCluskey in Coppola’s Godfather? Hayden’s establishment in the industry along with his kindly good looks made him an easy choice for McCluskey, and his performance in this part is short but leaves a lasting impression (on more than just the tablecloth).
Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) is corrupt on almost all levels. He’s a pill-popping, mob-affiliated DEA agent that uses his position to run his own little drug empire. He uses his own officers to rub out the competition, but he’s not above hiring a professional from time to time either. And he’s not simply ruthless; he’s crazy enough to really enjoy hurting or killing anyone that stands against him. Between this film and Romeo Is Bleeding, Gary Oldman seemed to embody the half-crazed cop role in the early 1990s.
Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) isn’t as crazy Oldman’s Stansfield in LÃ©on, but he’s working on a much larger scale. The seemingly upstanding Captain Smith asks purist recruit Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) to rat out corrupt cops, in what seems to be a genuine effort to clean up the department, but Smith is merely covering his bases. He’s also using the brutish Bud White (Russell Crowe) on a goon squad that runs mobsters out of L.A so that Smith can maintain control of the city’s drug traffic. James Cromwell is frighteningly believable as the “man in charge,” especially once we see how corrupt he really is.
The title for Abel Ferrara‘s completely unredeemable drama is perfect: unambiguous, straightforward, and completely without explanation. This Bad Lieutenant abuses his power in the most unrelenting and disturbing ways, offering us only slivers of insight into his conscience. (Perhaps this is because he only has a sliver of a conscience.) In addition to watching Keitel wantonly abuse his authority by randomly pulling guns on cops and citizens alike, you can actually catch him smoking stolen crack, naked. In fact, you only need to see the poster art to get the idea — and to see proof he’d been working out. He may not be working on a grand scale, but his behavior is so shocking that you can’t imagine any cop being worse that this.
That’s our list of the 10 most corrupt cops in the movies. Who would you add to the list? And do you think any cop is more corrupt than Kietel in Bad Lieutenant?
If you want Cinematical’s take on the subject, check out their Cinematical Seven feature on Out of Control Cops.