1. Tango, Brooklyn’s Finest
Cop films traffic in cliché as much as they do illicit narcotics. When the stereotypical lieutenant isn’t threatening to bust his detectives down to parking-meter duty for being loose cannons, he’s reassigning them for being “too close” to the investigation. In many cases, that proximity to the crime/victims/victims’ relatives gives the protagonist the extra drive to see the investigation through to the end, but sometimes, he should just listen to his boss. Case in point: In Antoine Fuqua’s new gritty crime drama, Brooklyn’s Finest, Don Cheadle plays a cop deep undercover in an urban drug syndicate run by his childhood friend Wesley Snipes. Cheadle inevitably feels tremendous guilt for setting up Snipes, and his attempts to stop the investigation—wherein his boss tells him he’s “off the case”—lead to tragic consequences for everyone involved.
2. Rob Ryan, In The Woods
Rob Ryan isn’t traumatized—really. Yes, he was found in blood-soaked shoes, gripping a tree so hard his fingernails fell off, lost in the woods after his two friends disappeared, but he doesn’t remember a thing. Since he doesn’t have those key childhood memories, the narrator of Tana French’s excellent crime novel In The Woods doesn’t believe the events scarred him. A homicide detective on a squad in Ireland, Ryan projects the calculated assuredness of a skilled cop. Soon, though, the murder of a 12-year-old girl pulls Ryan back to the woods where he was found 20 years prior. Links to his childhood case start to crack fissures in his ability to leave the past alone, and his involvement clouds his judgment. His partner, Cassie Maddox, steps in with worry and warnings, threatening to take it to the boss because she knows about the connection, but Ryan has managed to fool even himself. In the end, he isn’t just an unreliable detective, he’s an unreliable narrator, and readers are left second-guessing his reasoning.
3. Andy Sipowicz, NYPD Blue
Much of the run of NYPD Blue was concerned with the Job-like trials of Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz, who was haunted by the deaths of family members, friends, and partners. While some—like Jimmy Smits’ Bobby Simone—were felled by natural causes, far too many died in acts of random violence. Case in point: After his oldest son, Andy Jr., dies in a botched convenience-store robbery, Sipowicz turns into a drunken mess, falling off the wagon he fought so hard to stay on, and wandering the precinct, berating people about how little they’re working to solve his son’s murder. Naturally, he’s told to take a few days off, but during his time off (and while his partner is actually working to solve the crime), Sipowicz meanders around the city, accompanied by the specter of his son, working both to avenge his kid and to rid the city of crime. It’s haunting stuff, but really, someone probably should have locked him up.
4. Deb Morgan, Dexter
Poor Deb Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter). In the Miami-Dade Police Department, it’s a given that if a criminal is on the loose, she’s either dating him, or dating someone he’s about to kill. In season 1 of Dexter, she winds up engaged to the feared Ice Truck Killer. In season 3, she jumps into another less-than-ideal romance, dating a confidential informant who ends up as a victim of the Skinner. In season 4, she’s taken off the Trinity Killer case, this time for being “too close,” after her lover, Special Agent Frank Lundy, is killed in the field. (She returns once she discovers the Trinity Killer couldn’t have been the murderer.) Along the way, Carpenter learns that bad choices run in her family, as her father, another cop, had an affair with a confidential informant as well. Meanwhile, her lack of instinct makes her miss that her adopted brother is a serial murderer himself.
5. Jack Ryan, Patriot Games
The film adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1987 novel focuses on the dangers of personal involvement trumping professional detachment. Sure, there’s a whole bunch of IRA hullabaloo (via its stand-in, the Ulster Liberation Army), but the story’s core focuses on Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford), Sean Miller (Sean Bean), and their mutual thirst for revenge. Bean plays a terrorist whose brother is killed by CIA analyst Ford during a botched assassination attempt on the British royal family. After escaping from government custody, Bean is intent on avenging his brother by killing Ford’s family. His compatriots argue strongly against it, just as Ford’s CIA bosses order him to stand down when Bean and company attempt to gun down his wife and daughter. Both men’s obsessions lead to the same place: a dramatic (and almost laughably unrealistic) showdown at Ford’s home when he hosts the royal family. Will the good guys prevail? Um, have you ever read a Tom Clancy novel?
6. Thomas Craven, Edge Of Darkness
This 2010 remake of a highly acclaimed 1985 BBC miniseries casts Mel Gibson as a Boston policeman who watches his daughter get gunned down on his doorstep. A working theory quickly emerges: The murderer had a grudge against Gibson and killed his daughter either by mistake, or for revenge. Clearly Gibson’s participation in any subsequent investigation would be highly inappropriate, right? Yet, a few growled words to his fellow cops later, he’s back on the streets, though most of his subsequent snooping takes place on his own time and in regions well outside any regional jurisdiction for a city cop.
7. Eddie Valiant, Who Framed Roger Rabbit
In the pen-and-ink fantasia of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, cartoon characters are a racial minority in 1940s Los Angeles, and part-time PI/full-time drunkard Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) carries around one of the segregated city’s biggest racial prejudices. He wasn’t always such a “sourpuss”—he and his brother Teddy helped clear the names of several toon stars before one dropped a piano on Teddy’s head—so when Hoskins takes up the case of the wrongly accused titular toon, it seems like a return to his days of brotherly do-gooding. Of course, Roger is only a prime suspect in the murder of gag king Stubby Kaye because Hoskins snapped photos of Kaye getting fresh with the rabbit’s wife. As if that alone wasn’t enough to cloud his already-cloudy judgment, the similarity between his brother’s murder and Kaye’s leaves Hoskins open to the manipulation of Christopher Lloyd’s sinister superior-court judge. His familiarity with Toontown ends up being a boon in the end, but Hoskins is initially too broke and too pickled in Wild Turkey to realize he’s too close to the case.
8. Jim Gordon, The Dark Knight
As the only honest cop in a crooked town, Jim Gordon is constantly put in a position where the only person he can trust is the one person he should be trying the hardest to take down. It’s easy to single out Gary Oldman’s take on Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight, because he provides viewers with the sickeningly explicit example of necessary evil when he allows Batman into a cell to give the Joker a brutal beating in hopes that it will save lives. But really, this slot on this list could be filled by any interpretation of the Gordon/Batman relationship. Gordon deserves admiration for his determination to be the one honest cop in a city full of lawmen on the take, but he undermines this determination by constantly collaborating with a lawbreaking vigilante. It’s even more of a compromise in the comics, which frequently imply that Gordon knows Batman’s secret identity.
9. Lester Burdon, House Of Sand And Fog
There are many, many problems with the overly dour misery porn that is House Of Sand And Fog (both the book and the film), but there’s nothing so terribly overwrought in either version as Ron Eldard’s film portrayal of Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon. Lured under the hypnotic thrall of Jennifer Connelly, Eldard leaves his wife and kids and does everything in his power to kick the well-meaning Iranian immigrants played by Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo out of the house Connelly was kicked out of when she failed to pay property taxes. Eldard turns into an all-purpose menace to the new occupants, locking them in rooms and prompting would-be hostage situations on courthouse steps. Someone just needs to pull the guy aside and say, “Dude, she’s hot, but she’s clearly crazy.”
10. Clarice Starling, Hannibal
Normally, when a character is too deeply involved in a case, her emotional instability drives her to make poor decisions and risk lives. But in the case of Julianne Moore in Hannibal (taking over the Clarice Starling role vacated by Jodie Foster), the problem isn’t so much her judgment as the effect her presence has on her prey—the titular serial killer played by Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins had showed his emotional attachment to Moore’s character on a number of occasions, which is what gets her the case, on the mistaken assumption that her presence will cause the wily sociopath to come out of hiding. While this is technically true, Hopkins’ desire to improve Moore’s life means some gruesome, unnecessary death. Although Moore herself maintains her professionalism, it’s clear by the end that everyone would’ve been better served if she’d stayed far, far away.
11. Nick Starkey, The January Man
A simple description of the reasons Kevin Kline’s ex-cop in the bewildering 1989 comic thriller The January Man shouldn’t be on the trail of a serial killer serves as a warning not to see the movie. Kline plays a fireman who quit the force after a scandal engineered by his brother, police chief Harvey Keitel—the same cop who lures him back onto the force to hunt down a murderer whose crimes have something to do with prime numbers. Kline makes several demands to take the case. He gets to have dinner with Keitel’s wife, who is also Kline’s ex-girlfriend. His best friend, artist Alan Rickman, gets an office at police HQ even though he isn’t a policeman. And Kline gets to mack on the mayor’s daughter, whom he suspects will become the killer’s next victim. While it’s clear that Kline shouldn’t be allowed within a mile of this case, with such a convoluted backstory, it’s equally unclear who should.
12. Rick Deckard, Blade Runner
The numerous re-edits of Blade Runner have insinuated that Deckard, the disheveled bounty hunter played by Harrison Ford, is a replicant, a robotic “skinjob” like the humanoids he is assigned to track down. Metaphysics aside, the condition would seem to make him singularly unsuited for the task of assassinating his fellow toasters. Of course, not everyone is convinced that Deckard’s heart pumps oil instead of blood, and the multiple versions of the film (not to mention all that mood lighting) make a definitive resolution impossible.
13. Leonard Diamond, The Big Combo
The trope that cops are often jealous of the success of the criminals they pursue appears in many crime dramas, but nowhere is it more explicit than in The Big Combo, a gorgeous, highly sexualized 1955 film noir. Richard Conte’s fast-talking, ruthless mobster taunts detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) by reminding him that Wilde makes less money than the busboys in his hotel. Meanwhile, Wilde’s boss asks him why he’s spending more money to bring down Conte than the rest of the force spends on all their cases combined. And sure, Conte is a murderer and a moneyman for organized crime, but Philip Yordan’s razor-sharp script makes it clear that one of the biggest reasons Wilde wants to bring him down is so he’ll have a shot at Conte’s moll, Jean Wallace. It’s an ugly motivation, even for a clean cop; as the captain reminds him, “She’s been with [Conte] three and a half years. That’s a lot of days… and nights.”
14. Lou Ford, The Killer Inside Me
If there’s one guy who absolutely shouldn’t be assigned to a criminal case, it’s the guy who committed the crime in the first place. In Jim Thompson’s chilling novel The Killer Inside Me (soon to be a film directed by Michael Winterbottom), small-town Texas psychopath Lou Ford figures there’s no better way to deflect suspicion about his occasional brutal beatings and random killings than to be the guy charged with investigating them. His job as the town’s deputy sheriff, along with his carefully cultivated demeanor as a cliché-spouting simpleton, provides the perfect cover for his crimes. No good thing lasts forever, naturally, and eventually Ford becomes everyone’s No. 1 suspect but his own, but the sequences where he hides his violent mania behind the protection of his tin star are downright terrifying.
15. James Bond, Die Another Day
In 2002’s Die Another Day, James Bond’s famed license to kill—the bedrock privilege of Bond and the MI6—isn’t revoked because he’s too close to a case. No, Judi Dench (as his perpetually disapproving boss, M) blames him for a terrorist’s release and the deaths of fellow agents. Suspecting Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan this time out) talked while being tortured in a North Korean prison, M plans to exile him in the Falklands until the situation cools down. But Brosnan—always operating by his own rules—escapes, forces Chinese intelligence to get him access to Cuba, and proceeds to track down a master terrorist on his own. Sure, he gets to bang Halle Berry along the way, but the whole thing spirals into what could lightly be called an international incident. Bond prevails, of course, but only after nearly single-handedly pulling England into World War III (again).
16. John Creasy, Man On Fire
Denzel Washington plays the aptly initialed John Creasy, an ex-CIA man turned bodyguard whose hard heart is so melted by Dakota Fanning that when she’s kidnapped, he turns into a holy angel of vengeance, killing Mexicans left and right in pursuit of his ward. Frankly, because Washington plays a private bodyguard who’s specifically hired to care for Fanning, it’s hard to say he should be “taken off the case” when she’s taken, but because—spoiler alert—Fanning’s father is behind the kidnapping (to collect the insurance money), it’s hard to see why he didn’t fire Washington at the first opportunity once it was obvious the bodyguard was getting creepily close to his daughter. Also, it’s hard to see why Washington apparently decided it was high time he worked for Satan.
17. Olivia Dunham, Fringe
Few plot clichés are more pernicious than the “women in refrigerators” trope, where a man’s wife (or girlfriend, or lover) is raped, killed, or mutilated solely to motivate him to desperate acts. Fringe gets a few more miles out of this old dead horse by reversing the genders: As FBI liaison Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is investigating a case with her FBI-agent lover (Mark Valley), a fleeing suspect infects Valley with a bizarre condition that essentially starts liquefying his flesh. That leaves the case in the hands of a woman so desperate to save Valley that she throws protocol to the winds and grasps firmly at any and all available straws. Over the course of Fringe’s pilot, she flies to Iraq, blackmails a man there into coming back to the States and springing his eccentric genius father (John Noble) from a mental institution, then lets Noble use her as a guinea pig in a telepathy experiment that requires her to get nearly naked in a sensory-deprivation tank while tripping on LSD. Given her ridiculous behavior, it’s just barely possible that her objectivity has been compromised by love. Too bad Valley turns out to not be worth the effort in the end.
18. Marcus Burnett, Bad Boys II
The oddest thing about Michael Bay’s movies is that while they celebrate vast excess, they all seem to take place in tiny worlds, where only the chase sequences leave the claustrophobic boundaries of a few characters and their families. Case in point: Much of Bad Boys II concerns a Miami drug case that somehow pulls in both bad-boy cop Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and his undercover DEA-agent sister. Clearly he shouldn’t be involved in her case at all, since his efforts to protect her keep interfering in her sting operation, and their periodic meet-ups threaten her cover ID. And when that cover is finally blown and she gets spirited away to Cuba, guess who ends up heading the rescue operation? Granted, Lawrence doesn’t have official DEA or police-department backing for his highly illegal, heavily armed, personally motivated invasion of Cuba. He just has their unofficial backing and support in terms of personnel, tech, and loads of guns, which is all a bad boy really needs anyway.
19. Edward Malus, The Wicker Man
Last we checked, California highway patrolmen didn’t have police jurisdiction over privately owned islands off the coast of Washington state. And yet when Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) gets a letter from his old fiancée implying that their child—whom he didn’t know existed—has gone missing, he rushes off to the island of Summerisle, gun and badge in hand, to play bad-cop with the islands’ residents, who aren’t fooled for a minute. It really doesn’t help that he’s a terrible policeman, who asks the wrong questions (or the right ones, really loudly and quickly and repeatedly) and lets his ex get away with obvious shrugging evasions in place of answers. But his main problem is that he’s out there alone, on no authority but the authority he invents for himself, pursuing a case that he’s so close to, he has nothing resembling objective judgment. And that’s without even factoring in his nightmares, or his post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from an accident that directly feeds his fears for his missing daughter. This emotionally shattered cop shouldn’t be on any case involving kids, let alone one involving his own.