We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10. The fight for justice can sometimes be an internal struggle, thanks to the character of the dirty cop. They abuse their power while disregarding their duties to protect and serve; these crooks tend to be the worst of all criminals. In both comedic (the forgotten Blue Streak), and dramatic action forms (the totally wrong Righteous Kill), the story of the dirty cop has been told time and time again (Pride and Glory included). Films concerning such crooked bearers of the badge are scattered throughout cinema history, but the past twenty years have given us plenty to talk about.
Sometimes playing a cop, good or bad, can bring the best out of certain actors. This list is dedicated to those top (dirty) cop performances, good and evil, in recent films.
7. Steven Seagal as Nico Toscani in Above The Law
The best performances in dirty cop movies don’t always have to be from the bad guys. By no means is Seagal as great as the other actors on this list (or is it the other way around?), but he deserves recognition for creating some of the best dirty cop action movie junk in recent history. Above The Law, was Seagal’s shining debut and a great re-boost for the cop movie when it came out in 1988. It blesses us with dialogue that only Seagal could make both laughable and badass at the same time: “If I find out you’re lying, I’ll come back and kill you in your own kitchen.” Such greatness could only be matched by 2001’s Exit Wounds, which featured a stellar performance from DMX as a hustler who earns his massive payload…by running a website. Think of Seagal’s placement on this list as the truly non-credible “biggest effort” or “hardest worker” award.
6. James Cromwell as Dudley Smith in L.A Confidential
Cromwell takes the back seat in this knockout cop film with an incredible cast. But Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger, and Danny Devito have nothing on the third-act-stealing Cromwell. The script uses his sidecar character to sneak up on its audience. The fantastic story (which is worth witnessing itself) juggles its complicated plotlines and successfully diverts focus from its star cast to Cromwell almost instantly. The turn the film makes is strictly Confidential, but recognition for Cromwell’s performance isn’t.
5. Mark Wahlberg as Sgt. Dignam in The Departed
Though it comes after many of its dirty cop ancestors, this is one of the sub-genre’s best films. Easily, one of its best performances comes from Marky Mark. He barks like a rabid Boston Terrier in his role as Sgt. Dignam, giving his scene-stealing lines a tough and subsequently hilarious bite. Wahlberg, who was arrested a reported fifty times when he was growing up in Boston, gives a cementing homegrown performance that withstands its short screen time. The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences caught him red-handed stealing many scenes in The Departed, and put him up for an award. Only Wahlberg could get nominated for an Oscar by playing Marky Mark.
4. Ray Liotta as Det. Lt. Henry Oak in Narc
Ray Liotta tears up/chews up/shoots up the screen as the bearded, f**k-spouting Det. Lt. Henry Oak. Narc is a great film on its own level, but it owes a great amount of intensity to its brawny, bearded performances - especially from Liotta. With other films, (from Goodfellas to In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale ), he’s proven that he plays explosive anger with only one note. But in Narc, he bangs on that damaged and out of tune metaphorical piano key as loud and as long as humanly possible.
3. Matt Damon as Colin in The Departed OK, we've got to use the same movie twice. It's not my fault, it's Scorsese's for making these characters so good. Scorsese’s film is well rounded in its greatness, but the focus here is on Matt Damon’s character Colin. As a mole in the Massachusetts State Police, he violates the trust of his fellow “troopahs” to protect his surrogate crime father Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Unlike many of his fellow dirty-cops, who deteriorate into their deviousness, Colin is brainwashed at a young age into his life of deceit. His performance is an excellent balance of vulgar Beantown tough guy-ness (“Go rescue a cat off a tree, ya f**king homos”) and vulnerable daddy worship. Matt Damon, a proud product of the city heavily contributes to an essential dirty cop film. The full force of this film's gloriousness can’t be encapsulated by mere words.
2. Denzel Washington as Alonzo in Training Day
The almighty Denzel screams and cusses his way through one of his best performances ever to knock its audience into the next day, (pun somewhat intended). As much as we were horrified to see good-guy Denzel do all of this, we were equally magnetized by his craziness. Memorable moments are when he forces rookie cop Jake (Ethan Hawke) to smoke weed in the police cruiser, or when he exclaims at the end: “King Kong ain’t got s**t on me!” By no means a practice for his tad-weaker role in American Gangster, Training Day is one of Denzel’s best and beautifully deviant moments.
1. Harvey Keitel as The Lieutenant in Bad Lieutenant
This underrated independent film from King Of New York director Abel Ferrera features an absolutely insane performance from Harvey Keitel. Unlike most dirty cops (and some on this list), his character isn’t a type of Benedict Arnold. The Lieutenant is a wholeheartedly self-destructive human being, who engages in all vices like snorting coke, gambling, or shooting up heroin, right after dropping his kids off at school. A key scene is when he abuses the power of his badge and his presence as a police lieutenant to blackmail two girls for sexual favors. The filthiness of Bad Lieutenant is something to be witnessed, if not to realize simply that cops truly don’t get any dirtier than Harvey Keitel’s despicable character in Bad Lieutenant.
There’s the Top 7, now what should be in the Top 10?