10 great cop movies of the 1990s

One decade. A ton of police dramas. A rookie with no idea where to start. Until now.

Matthew Thrift
Updated:

The Glass Shield (1994)

The Glass Shield (1994)

The cop movie has maintained a constant presence in genre cinema ever since Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops first exercised their right to remain silent. Whether portraying rogue mavericks or comically inclined buddies, examining corruption or against-the-odds heroism, it has proved fertile ground for filmmakers working across the political and dramatic spectrum.

Like any genre with long-established rules, trends emerge and disappear. If the 1970s became synonymous with some of the genre’s grittiest thrillers, such as Dirty Harry (1971) and The French Connection (1971), the 1980s amped the spectacle and the gags, from the one-man wisecracks of Beverly Hills Cop (1984) to buddy-cop pair-ups – as often canine (Turner & Hooch, 1989) as human (Lethal Weapon, 1987).

The 1990s introduced a postmodern spin – to little commercial success – with the likes of Dick Tracy (1990) and Last Action Hero (1993), but they hardly defined the decade’s approach to the genre as a whole. In any given year, there was plenty more going on elsewhere.

One lesser-known entry in the 90s canon is Charles Burnett’s 1994 take on police corruption, The Glass Shield, which is now released on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD. It’s taken more than 20 years for this film to get a decent release on UK home video, with this edition one of the better things to happen to the film during its troubled history.

The Glass Shield is a sombre study of race and corruption, which begins as mock-heroic comic-book fantasy before charting the moral decline of a wide-eyed rookie recruit. But, despite the reputation of Burnett as one of the finest modern American filmmakers, following landmark releases such Killer of Sheep (1978) and To Sleep with Anger (1990), Miramax effectively buried the film on release, having already taken the director to task for his ending. The film was pitched to audiences as a gangland thriller, in order to capitalise on Ice Cube’s Boyz n the Hood (1991) success, while a contemporary trailer entirely misrepresented the picture, putting Ice Cube – who effectively cameos – front and centre.

With the Burnett film in mind, the following list foregoes some of the more obvious choices (sorry, Fargo and L.A. Confidential fans) in favour of smuggling into the mix some titles that – while hardly unknown – are perhaps deserving of promotion in the cop-movie ranks.

Internal Affairs (1990)

Director Mike Figgis

Internal Affairs (1990)

Tag-line: Charming. Seductive. Deadly. Your deepest secret – his most dangerous weapon.

From the Newcastle noir of his big-screen debut, Stormy Monday (1988), through to erstwhile London Film Festival closer One Night Stand (1997), director Mike Figgis specialised in the kind of sultry, adult drama that’s increasingly rare these days. Internal Affairs may not be his best film, but it’s an inspired corrupt-cop yarn that pits internal affairs investigator Andy Garcia (shouty) against roughhouse patrolman Richard Gere (pouty) in a sexy, samba-accompanied game of cat and mouse.

For all the peacocking on display, there’s zero time spent on what must amount to serious beauty regimens for these boys in blue. Their toxic displays of macho amorality are secondary to a just-so bouffant, while their off-duty shirts are crammed into high-riding jeans with studied offhandedness. Gere’s bad guy manoeuvres with a weaponised sexuality, making moves on his opponent’s wife (nothing carbon dates an early 90s picture like Nancy Travis), despite an inescapable sense that it’s Garcia to whom he’d rather be showing his truncheon.

Miami Blues (1990)

Director George Armitage

Miami Blues (1990)

Tag-line: Real badge. Real gun. Fake cop.

Like Mike Figgis, director George Armitage has been missing-in-action of late, at least since his troubled Elmore Leonard adaptation, The Big Bounce (2004). He’s on much surer footing with this hilarious, stylish take on the first of Charles ‘Cockfighter’ Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels. There are two Sgt Moseleys careering their way through Miami Blues, but only one (Fred Ward) is the real deal. The second is a finger-bending impostor (played with irrepressible charm by Alec Baldwin in one of his greatest early roles), an imaginative rip-off artist who is quick to role-play his way into suburban comfort.

Amplified by ‘Spirit in the Sky’ on the soundtrack, the opening moment’s God’s-eye view gives a sense that events are bigger than Baldwin’s Frederick Frenger Jr, signaling an inescapable fatalism that’s suggestive of a pastel-hued variety of film noir (that costume and  production design!). Armitage mines plenty of eccentric detail from proceedings, much of it down to Baldwin’s winning larkiness, though it’s the magnificent Jennifer Jason Leigh – as none-too-bright hooker, Pepper – who proves to be the film’s beating heart.

Blue Steel (1990)

Director Kathryn Bigelow

Blue Steel (1989)

Tag-line: For a rookie cop, there’s one thing more dangerous than uncovering a killer’s fantasy. Becoming it.

With the world of the cop movie so often a boy’s club, Kathryn Bigelow’s third feature serves as something of a restorative. Beset by wildly implausible narrative contrivances it might be, but Blue Steel remains a slick study in female empowerment. “Do you carry a gun?” enquires a disbelieving suitor when Jamie Lee Curtis fills him in on her profession at a friend’s BBQ. “You’re a good looking woman, why would you want to be a cop?” asks the douchebag. “I like to slam people’s heads up against walls,” badass Curtis replies, without missing a beat, swiftly reducing him to a stuttering mess.

Bigelow establishes a series of male antagonists for her unlucky-in-love, blue-collar hero to cut down to size. From the colleagues who can barely conceal their disdain to the abusive father taking swipes at her mum; from the stick-up artist that costs her her badge to the rent-a-wacko serial killer with an unhealthy crush – all are psychologically besieged by the notion of a woman in uniform. Bigelow in turn overtly fetishises the blues and gun (much as she had for her 1981 biker-flick debut, The Loveless), as her camera salivates over every crevice of JLC’s service revolver and open shirt during the title credits. Ninety minutes later the uniform is reclaimed, and the scales are tipped from objectified to empowered.

Q & A (1990)

Director Sidney Lumet

Q&A (1990)

Tag-line: When the questions are dangerous the answers can be deadly.

In this third part of Sidney Lumet’s unofficial trilogy examining police corruption, following Serpico (1973) and Prince of the City (1981), Timothy Hutton is Al Reilly, a young police lawyer recruited to report on what appears to be an open-and-shut case: the killing of a small-time Puerto Rican dealer by larger-than-life NYC cop, Mike Brennan. Nick Nolte plays Brennan like a cornered, wounded bear, an unreconstructed product of what he sees as simpler times, when everyone knew their place in his racially defined world order. “I want it the way it used to be,” he cries as his uncontested grip on the city begins to slip. “You lose control of this jungle, you’re fucking finished.”

Portraying a police culture of fossilised racial hierarchies and loaded interactions, Q & A is a film rooted in its language. It was the first of just two screenplays for which Lumet took sole writing credit, and he took his name off TV edits that neutered the toxicity of its linguistic charge. The Q & A itself is a statement of record, and Lumet lays out the facts of the matter in typically no-nonsense style, directing with procedural clarity. That this shabby, shady world feels so authentically inhabited – and cultivates such sensational performances – is a product of the director’s commitment to extended rehearsal periods, as detailed in this wonderful clip from a 1991 episode of the BBC’s Omnibus.

One False Move (1992)

Director Carl Franklin

One False Move (1992)

Tag-line: There was no crime in Star City, Arkansas. No murder. And no fear. Until now.

Directed by Carl Franklin from a terrific script by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, One False Move is a superlative exercise in narrative and directorial simplicity that deserves better recognition, not just as one of the great cop movies of the 90s, but as one of the great movies of the 90s, period.

The opening scenes provide an effectively nasty introduction to the first of the film’s opposing trios, as hair-trigger Thornton rips off a drug dealer with his girlfriend and psychopathically taciturn accomplice. Soon on their trail are a pair of LA cops, who team up with Arkansas lawman Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon (Bill Paxton), a puppyish small-town sheriff who is thrilled at a shot at the big time. They’re a brilliantly rendered ensemble, but the soul of the film belongs to Paxton. If he initially earns our sympathy as the object of the city cops’ derision, his casual racism and past ties to Thornton’s girl see his flawed humanity laid bare. It’s this attention to character detail across the board that imbues the final showdown with, if not the weight of tragedy, at least a fatalistic sense of wastefulness.

Police Story 3: Supercop (1992)

Director Stanley Tong

Police Story 3: Supercop (1992)

Tag-line: In the crime capital of the world, there’s never a cop when you need one. But when this cop’s around, one is all you need.

Who knows what the Weinstein brothers were thinking when they released Supercop into US cinemas, dubbed into English, re-scored and with seven scenes excised and nine reduced in length. While a subsequent DVD release by the studio would revert to the original Cantonese and do away with the dreadful new soundtrack (take a bow, Tom Jones), it remained the shorter cut. It goes without saying that if you’re going to track down a copy of this Tarantino favourite, avoid the dubbed version and, if possible, see the Hong Kong cut.

While it’s always a pleasure seeing Jackie Chan do his thing, it’s the addition of Michelle Yeoh to the franchise that elevates this entry. Lightning-fast fight scenes are choreographed to even faster dialogue, with verbal and physical cues combining the panache of Howard Hawks and Buster Keaton. But it’s the final, Kuala Lumpur showdown that leaves jaws agape, in which cars, trains, motorbikes and helicopters serve as the playground for an array of visceral, breathtaking stunt work. The closing credit outtakes illustrate some close calls. You can imagine the army of insurance men presumably holding their breath just off camera.

Deep Cover (1992)

Director Bill Duke

Deep Cover (1992)

Tag-line: He’d be the perfect criminal… If he wasn’t the perfect cop.

The second feature from one-time Predator-fodder Bill Duke, following a sizeable stack of TV directing credits, Deep Cover afforded an about-time-too lead to Laurence Fishburne, a year before his Oscar-nominated turn in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993). Fishburne plays teetotal cop John Hull, who swaps his badge for the streets, kits himself out in triple-denim, and makes a play to infiltrate Jeff Goldblum’s drug ring.

Playing on the age-old cliché of the thin line between cop and criminal, as well as themes of class and race, Duke employs a number of stylistic devices to illuminate Fishburne’s fracturing sense of self. But it’s the actor’s somnambulant narration that implies a waking dream – a straight-laced cop’s criminal-kingpin fantasy as he acts out the sins of a long-repressed father. Deep Cover is a neglected gem, long out of print on UK home video, which is positively criminal for a film that gives Jeff Goldblum one of the great Shabba Ranks soundtrack cues.

Hard Boiled (1992)

Director John Woo

Hard Boiled (1992)

Tag-line: As a cop, he has brains, brawn, and an instinct to kill!

The bonkers excesses of Face/Off (1997) notwithstanding, John Woo’s decade-long American sojourn didn’t yield stellar results, as anyone who’s seen Paycheck (2003) can attest. He’s seemingly entered a new phase of his career since, returning to Hong Kong to recast himself as action cinema’s answer to David Lean with two four-hour epics in the form of Red Cliff (2008/9) and The Crossing (2014/15). You need to jump back 25 years to see Woo at his peak – indeed,  arguably to see the action film at its peak – in what must have been halcyon days for the squib industry.

A stylistic tour de force, the bullet ballet that is Hard Boiled features some of the greatest set-pieces committed to celluloid. From the flour-coated kiss-off of the opening tearoom fight to the monumental blitzkrieg of the hospital showdown, Woo doesn’t confront the cost of violence as aggressively as he had with Bullet in the Head (1990). Instead, he serves up a symphonic sensual assault of kills and coolness led by a camera as dynamic as his protagonists. With a basic framework in place, populated superficially with archetypes, Woo finds nuance in characterisation that works against the hyper-masculine genre norms.

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Director Abel Ferrara

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Tag-line: Gambler. Thief. Junkie. Killer. Cop.

If Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) cast its personal and communal anxieties in spiritual terms (en route to a Brooklyn Bridge Golgotha) and Raging Bull (1980) answered questions of masculinity with a bellow into the void, Abel Ferrara’s 1992 masterpiece sees God’s lonely man reach his nihilistic apotheosis. The raw power of Bad Lieutenant remains undimmed 25 years later. While it’s available in remastered high definition, Ferrara’s film is the kind of picture that should ideally be viewed on the scuzziest 16mm print you can find. From an opening that sees Harvey Keitel’s unnamed copper bumping coke under a rearview-mirror crucifix, while parked outside his kids’ school, Ferrara charts the path to grace with an unflinching eye for deviance.

Captured in long, unbroken takes, Keitel gives the performance of his career; his very soul seemingly bared like an open, infected wound. Ferrara’s once-removed, documentarian’s gaze more than unsettles, it lends a physical charge to his protagonist’s recriminatory houls at God’s absence (“Where were you? You rat fuck”). For all the squalid hallmarks of exploitation cinema that earned the film its NC-17 rating, this is spiritual, transcendental filmmaking of the highest order: a vision of New York City presented as the last days of Sodom.

Heat (1995)

Director Michael Mann

Heat (1995)

Tag-line: A Los Angeles crime saga.

Famously bringing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together on screen for the first time, Michael Mann’s Heat is a multi-faceted crime saga that sees the oppositional cop-criminal dynamic at its centre in inseparable terms. There’s no question of good versus evil here, nor of a blurred line between the two. These are simply men – like so many of Mann’s protagonists – who are driven by an unwavering, if incompatible, sense of purpose. Capability is their only currency. “It’s like I said: all I am is what I’m going after,” Pacino’s cop tells his wife, with a sigh of resignation. That’s the bottoming out of “the down slope of a marriage”, a soft exit that’s counterpointed by the film’s emotional highpoint: the last-minute about-turn that De Niro’s master thief makes on a relationship that’s still in the throes of blind passion.

It’s not just the celebrated coffee shop encounter that illustrates the adversarial empathy that draws cat and mouse together as two parts of the same whole. The film’s final shot opts for yin-yang symmetry as the two men clasp hands, De Niro facing towards the camera, Pacino away. This mutual, inseverable determination – and determinism – cuts like a bullet through Mann’s epic canvas, with only the incalculable hell of other people infecting the single-mindedness of the pursuit.

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