1. K-9 (1989)
Nothing softens up—and plays off—a tough guy’s image like pairing him with either a misbehaving animal or a gaggle of small children, a gimmick that dates back well before this year's one-two punch of The Tooth Fairy and The Spy Next Door. For instance, 1989’s action-comedy K-9 partners James Belushi’s bad-ass working-class cop with a preternaturally bright police dog. K-9 puts the unlikely twosome through all the usual mismatched-buddy-cop paces; at first they can’t stand each other, but before long, mutual antagonism gives way to friendship. As the film’s tagline hilariously quips, these are the two toughest cops in town; one’s just a little smarter than the other. It’s funny because it’s true: Belushi’s character possesses subhuman intelligence. Alas, K-9 was perhaps a little too successful at shaking up Belushi’s image—it marked the end of his brief, unlikely career as an action hero in movies like Red Heat and The Principal.
2. Top Dog (1995)
One thing that never showed up on those ubiquitous Internet lists of Chuck Norris facts was this: “Chuck Norris is such a bad-ass that if he stars in a movie with a mischievous dog, it’s the dog who ends up embarrassed.” Sadly, like most Chuck Norris “facts,” this one isn’t true—not even the legendary toughness of the Bearded One could survive a collision with the tough-cop-plus-canine-scamp genre. Top Dog was, like many of his movies, directed by Norris’ younger brother Aaron, and it’s so plodding and dull, it’s easy to see it as the culmination of a lifelong plan for revenge against Chuck’s childhood bullying. The brothers Norris don’t miss an insipid cliché—they even reprise K-9 selling strategy, with the equally dumb tagline, “One’s tough… One’s smart… Together they unleash explosive action!” And on top of it all, they throw in a decidedly not-for-kids element by making the villains into murderous racist militia types. (Not helping matters: The movie came out a week after the Oklahoma City bombing.) This wasn’t C-Nor’s first flirtation with family-style entertainment; it followed Sidekicks and the ridiculous animated kids’ show Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos. But Top Dog was still bad enough that becoming the subject of a tiresome Internet meme counted as a step up for him, career-wise.
3. Kindergarten Cop (1990)
Apart from reminding moviegoers everywhere “boys have a penis, girls have a vagina,” the biggest lesson Kindergarten Cop drives home is that basic police training can be turned into a great curriculum of discipline for bed-wetters. While seeking out the estranged wife of a murder suspect, Arnold Schwarzenegger winds up subbing for his stomach-bug-afflicted partner while going undercover as a kindergarten teacher, in spite of his lack of prior teaching experience. Though the children benefit greatly from his thick Austrian accent and no-nonsense teaching approaches, the whole act is a ruse to extract information about his charges’ parents: “Now we’re going to do something extremely fun. We’re going to play a wonderful game called ‘Who is my daddy and what does he do?’” Though he employs some decidedly unorthodox educational methods, Schwarzenegger winds up leaving his gritty life as a beard-growing cop in favor of teaching kindergarten full-time, apparently unaware that his class will move on to first grade. It’s the quintessential tough-guys-in-tutus film, a strained, slapstick fish-out-of-water comedy that reduces one of film’s great bad-asses to a musclebound dispenser of bug-eyed, apoplectic reaction shots. Just remember: “Eez not a tuhmah!”
4. Cop And A Half (1993)
As of the early ’90s Burt Reynolds had already been in some comedy films, which generally involved speeding cars, plus Reynolds playing the same basic gum-chewing, mustachioed, laid-back tough guy he was in most of his other movies. But in 1993’s Cop And A Half, directed by Henry Winkler, Reynolds had the pleasure of playing straight man to 9-year-old Norman D. Golden II, whose career disappeared even faster than the film. The plot is all in the title: a plucky Miami school kid obsessed with TV police procedurals accidentally witnesses a murder and won’t give evidence until he is made an honorary officer. Naturally, this pairs him with gruff Reynolds, whose partner has recently been murdered. Imagine a cross between Diff’rent Strokes and the scene in MST3K favorite Mitchell in which Joe Don Baker yells at a youngster while sitting in his car during a stakeout, and you pretty much have this one nailed.
5. 3 Godfathers (1948)
Based on an oft-filmed Peter Kyne story, John Ford’s 3 Godfathers stars John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., and Pedro Armendáriz as a trio of fugitive bank robbers who promise a dying woman that they’ll take care of her newborn baby, even if it slows them up and gets them nabbed by the authorities. The movie is low on comedy—largely because Ford and his screenwriters were more interested in the theme of Christian sacrifice and redemption than they were in wacky hijinks—but 3 Godfathers does take a break from the chase scenes to spend time with a baby-toting Wayne questioning the child-care advice in a pediatrician’s handbook his cohorts find. Tinned milk? Booties? Baby oil? None of that fruity stuff for any godson of Wayne’s!
6. Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992)
In Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Sylvester Stallone’s life as a cop gets turned upside down by his frail, one-dimensional mother, Estelle Getty. Her embarrassing motherly antics kick in as soon as she arrives for an extended visit, from gabbing to the flight crew on the way over about how cute her son is—one attendant goes out of her way to tell him he’s “real sexy in those diapers”—to cooking him 11-course breakfasts to cleaning his filthy firearms with Clorox. Much to Stallone’s chagrin, Getty witnesses a murder while buying him a replacement gun, which, due to hazy police rules, winds up binding son and mother together as partners in investigating the case. They don’t opt for stodgy interrogation clichés like good-cop/bad-cop; Getty just tells the bad guys she’ll pull their pants down and spank them. And what can Stallone do? This is a woman who points a gun at him and threatens “Go ahead! Make your bed!” The cheesy comes out most succinctly in the tagline: “She did the laundry and washed the dishes. Now she’s cleaning up the streets.”
7. Suburban Commando (1991)
In the days before reality shows laid waste to the airwaves, there was only one way for a big tough guy like Hulk Hogan to spoof his image and let America know he was aware of his own ridiculousness: getting top billing above Christopher Lloyd and Shelley Duvall as a sort of interstellar nanny for a suburban family. On his home planet, Hogan is an intergalactic warrior who “doesn’t shop off the rack” and has an obvious fondness for hair extensions. On Earth, he’s forced to lay low and live in the garage of a timid architect and a sexually frustrated housewife. Basically, the whole thing is a 90-minute clothesline of wacky comedy bits (telegraphed by the movie’s cheesy comedy music and calypso snippets), as Hogan terrorizes a talking mime, sends a lost kitty soaring into the stratosphere, and airs his hatred of Earth and its litigious citizens.
8. Mr. Nanny (1993)
Mr. Nanny, Hogan’s second adventure in tough-guys-in-tutus territory, is an exceptionally ludicrous entry in the subgenre—and it knows it. True, few pieces of screen acting are as plainly awful as the brief scene in which Hogan—hired as bodyguard to rich brats Robert Gorman and Madeline Zima (whose namesake beverage also debuted in 1993)—puts on his Walkman, lies down in a bed whose sheets have been shredded by his charges, and says, “I hate kids!” (He could have added, “Emphatically—I hate kids!”) But the film’s real strokes of genius are giving Hogan a sidekick played by Sherman Hemsley and pitting them against villain David Johansen, whose formerly luxuriant locks have been replaced at the top by aluminum, leading to the moment when Hemsley taunts Johansen with the words, “I can’t hair you!” That moment alone places the film at the top of any reasonable Netflix queue.
9. The Pacifier (2005)
After A Man Apart and The Chronicles Of Riddick bombed, Vin Diesel took a page from the Arnold Schwarzenegger playbook and decided to broaden his appeal and revitalize his career by spoofing his tough-guy persona in 2005’s The Pacifier. As a Navy SEAL forced to look after the wild children of a slain technological genius for reasons far too stupid to get into, Diesel plays straight man to a gaggle of brats in a performance unencumbered by dignity. The sequence where Diesel wades through a rancid sewer and emerges covered in feces serves as a vivid metaphor for his participation in this film.
10. Father Goose (1964)
Cary Grant had no problem playing the sensitive lover in romantic comedies and dramas, but he rarely played paternal types, which may be why the comedy Father Goose makes sure that for every scene of a drunken, scruffy Grant enduring the company of a septet of French schoolgirls, there’s a scene of him bravely ducking Japanese fighter planes in World War II or playfully smacking around the girls’ guardian, Leslie Caron. Suave and sophisticated is one thing, but show too much of Grant as A Friend To Children, and lady moviegoers might’ve started thinking of the 60-year-old Grant as, well… old.
11. Jingle All The Way (1996)
It’s a testament to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s shortcomings as a comedic lead that the writers at Late Night With Conan O’Brien were able to turn the mere mention of Jingle All The Way into a punchline. (His Syncro-Vox Late Night equivalent eternally insisted the film was a “smash-hit, all-time holiday classic.”) Schwarzenegger’s final family comedy before his full-time return to action flicks and run at the California governor’s office briefly allows “The Austrian Oak” to play at being a superhero—before dumping him on his red-armored ass. Schwarzenegger endures that and countless other slapstick embarrassments in the film, in which the man who once bested the Predator barely beats Sinbad in a cross-city quest to find a must-have Christmas toy, the elusive Turbo Man doll. His mattress-salesman character can’t even match up to Phil Hartman in the manliness department. In the end, son Jake Lloyd declares Schwarzenegger his own personal superhero, but Schwarzenegger’s post-Jingle All The Way movies indicate the actor had tired of playing ineffectual, musclebound buffoons.
12. The Game Plan (2007)
One of the weirder aspects of the “tough guy dealing with children” fish-out-of-water subgenre is that the children are rarely actually childish—they’re generally intimidatingly precocious Hollywood super-kids. Sure, it’s embarrassing for a big action-hero type to leave his core competencies and have to deal with diapers, crying, irrational demands, and above all, emotions, but it’s far more embarrassing when the kids putting him through all this are more intellectually sophisticated than he is, capable of analyzing and judging his failures, then condescendingly explaining them to him. That dynamic runs heavily throughout the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vehicle The Game Plan, in which a football superstar suddenly has to take in the daughter he didn’t know he’d fathered during a brief marriage in his youth. The kid spends the movie doing ludicrously cutesy-poo things like bedazzling his trophies and dressing his dog in a tutu, all of which supposedly throws him off his stride because such things are at odds with his beloved macho-man self-image. Actually, he should be confused because his offspring never acts, talks, or behaves like a kid. She’s actually a robotic Plot Complication Device, brought into existence solely to set up belabored jokes, make his life miserable through awkward hijinks, and then smile when he reaches the inevitable awwwwwwwww moment of realizing that yes, he totally wuvs his widdle girl.
13. Big Momma’s House (2000)
Though the phrase “troubled funnyman” has been applied to Martin Lawrence’s name with far more frequency than “tough guy,” Lawrence has proven a popular action star, thanks to hits like Bad Boys, Bad Boys 2, and Blue Streak. 2000’s Big Momma’s House lucratively joined the goofball and tough-guy sides of Lawrence’s persona by casting him as an FBI agent and master of disguise (not unlike Dana Carvey in that one film, Opportunity Knocks) who is forced to don a fat suit and impersonate a sassy elderly woman in order to crack a big case. Oh, and he’s also forced to look after some white children, which affords him ample opportunity for shameless mugging and comically exaggerated reaction shots. Martin, you so crazy!