If you’re interested in lists of the best cop movies, there are plenty online. Same goes for the lists of the best true crime movies. Recently, I thought I’d reference the best true police movies online and couldn’t find any such list so I’ve decided to create one.
One thing I did notice in my research: True police movies seem to have largely gone out of fashion in recent decades (most of my list includes older films). This is likely for one particularly huge reason: The large amount of so-called “reality TV” police shows.
In short, my criteria for inclusion were two-fold: the films had to be considered “biographical” or “based on actual events.” I have arranged them only by the year they were produced.
The French Connection (1971)
The true story of NYPD detectives Eddie “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo and their success in the largest-ever known drug bust (at the time-1962). Gene Hackman won his first Oscar as Popeye (Roy Schneider played Russo).
Energetically-directed by William Friedkin (who also directed the critically acclaimed Bullit and To Live and Die in LA), The French Connection was followed up with a sequel in 1975.
Al Pacino earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of NYPD detective Frank Serpico, a law man whose stand against corruption resulted in a massive probe into the department. Serpico was shot in the face during a drug raid. His injuries put an end to his career.
Directed on location in New York City by the Sidney Lumet, and based on the excellent biography, Serpico, written by Peter Maas.
Walking Tall (1973)
Joe Don Baker starred as former pro wrestler turned Tennessee sheriff, Buford Pusser. His stand against organized crime in McNair County resulted in his getting ambushed and nearly killed. His wife, who was with him at the time, was murdered.
It was filmed on location in Henderson Tennessee for $500,000 by Bing Crosby Productions and earned $23 million in North American box office revenue. Its popularity spawned several remakes and a TV series. Buford Pusser was later played by Bo Svenson.
Note: Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Sorbo were in Walking Tall movies but neither played Buford Pusser.
The Super Cops (1974)
Starred Rob Leibman and David Selby as former NYPD officers, David Greenberg and Robert Hantz.They were known for their vigilante style of getting things done and, on the streets, were called Batman and Robin. In reality however, their larger than life styles didn’t make for lasting police careers.
Greenberg subsequently became a New York State Assemblyman then served time for mail fraud and obstruction of justice. Hantz was busted while on vacation in the Bahamas for possession of marijuana and later quit the police department.
Truth be told, the action comedy style of The Super Cops didn’t serve the film very well, despite the highly compelling true nature of the subject matter.
The Untouchables (1987)
Kevin Costner and Robert DeNiro starred, respectively, as Elliott Ness and Al Capone. Brian DePalma directed.
The film was based on the Mr. Ness’ autobiographical story of his team, The Untouchables, and their work to bring Capone to justice. Sean Connery won a supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of an Irish-American member of The Untouchables team.
Starring Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rush was based on the story of a 1970s era drug scandal in Tyler, Texas where undercover operatives got so deep into their work they became drug addicts themselves and eventually served time for convictions relating to falsifying evidence.
Greg Allman made his acting debut in the film, playing an elusive drug kingpin.
Starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, written and directed by Michael Mann, Heat was based on the true story of Illinois-based detective Chuck Adamson who tracked down Neil McCauley, who ran an infamous robbery crew.
Adamson and McCauley’s exploits unraveled in the early 1960s.Heat was set in present day (at the time of filming) Los Angeles, no doubt saving millions in period film expenses.
44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shoot-out (2003)
A TV movie about a horrific 1997 gun battle between LAPD officers and two bank robbers who were armed to the hilt and clad in body armor. The shootout was one of the longest and most intense in police history. Despite the barrage of spent bullets, no one was killed.
44 Minutes starred Michael Madsen, Ron Livingston, and Mario Van Peebles.
In the Valley of Elah (2007):
Based on the actual events (though names were changed) of a military police officer, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who investigated the ultra-brutal murder of his son, a soldier who just returned from war in Iraq. Charlize Theron played a civilian detective who became personally involved in the case.
While the film did poorly at the box office, it was praised by many critics.
Actually a police/journalist movie. Directed by David Fincher and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey, Jr., the procedural thriller is the tale of the search for a San Francisco serial killer on the loose during the 1960s and 1970s. The Zodiac killer’s cases remain unsolved.
Should you have any true police movies that I might have missed, please include them in the comments section below.