A Brief History of Buddy Cop Movies

Ashley Clark

David Ayer’s End of Watch stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as a pair of L.A. cops pounding the dangerous streets. It’s a down n’ dirty look at the day-to-day experiences of being on the beat, full of suspense and earthy humour based mostly on the guys’ racial and cultural differences. 

End of Watch is really notable for breathing life into the “buddy cop movie” template; a Hollywood formula that took off as a genre in its own right in the 1980s. Mixing action, drama and comedy, these films would pair up two male characters - sometimes two cops, sometimes a cop and a crim - who would often butt heads on their way to pursuing a common goal.

Though the roots of the buddy cop movie can be found in the likes of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) and Norman Jewison’s 1967 classic In the Heat of the Night, the big buddy cop breakthrough was Walter Hill’s 48 Hours (1982), which pitched a gruff white cop (Nick Nolte) alongside a wisecracking black ex-con (Eddie Murphy). It was so successful at the box office that loads of other filmmakers began to imitate it. 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop, also starring Murphy, allowed its star (playing a streetwise, out-of-town cop) to hog the limelight, while a pair of bumbling by-the-book cops played joint-second fiddle. Other 80‘s classics of type are Lethal Weapon (maverick and by-the-book family man) and Tango and Cash (slick cop and shambolic partner). 

Buddy films didn’t always go for laughs: some went gritty. Dennis Hopper’s Colors dispensed with chuckles for its tale of the efforts of a veteran (Robert Duvall) and a rookie (Sean Penn) to combat escalating gang violence in East L.A.. Eric Red’s severely underrated Cohen and Tate was another to play it straight. Point Break threw Buddhism, beaches and, um, Patrick Swayze into the mix.

Eager to find fresh angles on the formula, filmmakers cooked up all sorts of crazy variations. One barking mad subgenre was the cop-dog buddy movie. Turner and Hooch was fun, while James Belushi was acted off the screen by a mutt in K-9. Meanwhile, if you looked very closely, you could see the lights going out behind Burt Reynolds’ eyes as he struggled opposite the supremely irritating child actor Norman D. Golden II in Cop and a 1/2, (directed by Henry Winkler aka Happy Days’ The Fonz!)

In the 90s, the king of the buddy cop movie was Will Smith, who aced it in big-budget franchise-starters Bad Boys and Men In Black. The former used action as a basis for buddydom, the latter sci-fi, and both were properly funny. The other big cop buddy comedy smash was East-meets-West lark Rush Hour.

Laughs were light on the ground in David Fincher’s Seven, which bolted the hoary old veteran/rookie cliche to a horrifying tale of murder and a nightmarish visual style. Darkness prevailed again in 2001, when End of Watch’s Ayer struck paydirt with the screenplay for Training Day, a cracking thriller about a beyond-dirty cop (gleefully played by Denzel Washington) who stretched the word “buddy” about as far it would go in his appalling treatment of rookie Ethan Hawke.

As the genre grew more well worn, it became popular for buddy cop films to poke fun at their own cliches. 1993’s The Last Action Hero, starring Arnie Schwarzenegger, kicked off this trend with berserk glee, and nudge-wink postmodernism was par for the course. Over in England a few years later, Edgar Wright’s relentlessly referential Hot Fuzz showed a pop cultural magpie flair, and illustrated that the genre had made a big impact on British viewers and filmmakers.

Sadly, despite the occasional hit, it looked like the genre might be on its way out. Sequels were being churned out (Lethal Weapon made it to four instalments), and it reached its low point with Kevin Smith’s horrific Cop Out (2010), which was reportedly as tough an experience for the director as it is for the viewer: "...I might have either killed myself, or someone else in the making of Cop Out", said Smith. Other examples of buddy cop failures include National Security (not funny), White Chicks (not funny) and Righteous Kill (plain terrible).

But there have been signs of life recently. The Other Guys had its cake and wolfed it down, finding time not only to satirize the macho cop stereotype, but also take on the global economic crisis. John Michael McDonagh’s ace The Guard took the template to Ireland, and made great use of an outsider figure (Don Cheadle’s slick cop clashing with Brendan Gleeson’s idiotic slob). Earlier this year, 21 Jump Street did retro/pomo comedy to a tee.

And End of Watch - which derives humour from the characters instead of the situations - might just be the final reviving breath in the kiss of life that the genre needs.

Follow Ashley on Twitter: @_Ash_Clark

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