You’re Dead to Us: Cop Movies

Written by Film, Popular Culture, You're Dead to Us

cobraThe other day on the Popdose email thread, as one is wont to do, we started spouting off old cop movie cliches for some reason—”I don’t play by the rules!” “Chief is gonna have your ass!” “Turn in your badge and gun!” That sort of thing. These are extremely familiar, instantly recognizable cultural touchstones, so much so that The Simpsons was able to milk it for years with its series of fake McBain movie clips.

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But you know what we don’t really have any more? Cop movies. These used to be a common, subgenre at the movie theater. More or less B-movies, they were predictable and formulaic, usually invovled a super-evil drug dealer, were shot in an especially seedy or dirty looking part of Los Angeles or New York, had a synth-heavy dramatic soundtrack, cops dressed in bad suits, and lots and lots and lots of superfluous, bloody violence and property-damaging car chases. A bunch of these came out every year as quick and easy vehicles for action stars, many of whom spoke poor English, whether they were native English speakers or not. It didn’t matter, because macho was driving the boat here. These guys, they didn’t play by the rules, and the chief is gonna have their ass, not to mention their badge and gun. This is the plot, basically, of:

  • Sharky’s Machine
  • Lethal Weapon
  • Hard to Kill
  • Tango and Cash
  • Red Heat
  • Death Wish
  • The Dead Pool
  • …And so on.

The plots always seemed kind of slight—solving one crime and gunning down a bad guy was a bit too little to fill two hours of screen time (which is why we usually got a subplot about a cop’s messy divorce, impending (and ultimately doomed) retirement, and some scenes in the lead detective’s messy apartment.

Movie genres come and go—we don’t have beach party movies anymore either, for example, but that felt like a fad. Why did people stop going to see cop movies, or why did they stop making cop movies? Cop movies didn’t go away—they became TV shows. CBS programs about a dozen of these each week. They call them “police procedurals” and each week, semi-colofrful characters in crime-wrecked, filthy cities track down a single criminal and punish him for his crimes. They’re so formulaic, yet so relatively cheap to make and as popular with audiences as trigger-happy cops were in the ’80s. CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Person of Interest, The Mentalist, Bones—these are the modern-day descendants of Burt Reynolds shooting coke dealers, Charles Bronson beating up a thug, or Sylvester Stallone shooting a guy 85 times.

TNT, however, still airs a steady diet of both.