10 Actors Who Are Great At Playing Cops & Detectives

Summary

  • A good cop movie needs a protagonist who is compelling and easy to support.
  • Not all actors have the right style or appearance to play cops and detectives.
  • Great actors have helped to create iconic movie detectives, including Jake Gittes and Sam Spade.

Some actors are better suited to playing cops and detectives than others, and they often appear in tons of movies playing similar characters. Dating all the way back to the film noir era, crime movies have revolved around detectives, with the biggest stars always being drawn to such roles. Actors need a certain style and authority to play law enforcement, and those who have it can add variations to keep their cop movies fresh.

Great detective movies must be about more than just a compelling mystery. The detective at the center of the case also needs to be an interesting character who the audience wants to spend time with, and good acting is essential. Many of the best actors in film history have played detectives and cops, because these roles allow them to engage in exciting plots while giving them plenty of intrinsic human drama to explore. Cops and detectives in movies can reveal a lot about society’s relationship with law enforcement, and how people respond to power and stress.

Chinatown Shaft The Nice Guys Related 15 Best Private Detective Movies, Ranked

Private detective movies exude mystery while captivating audiences with tales of intrigue, but only a select few stand out as the genre’s best.

10 Denzel Washington

Training Day (2001), Inside Man (2006), The Little Things (2021)

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Although Denzel Washington’s best movies encompass a broad range of genres, showcasing his versatility as an actor, he has returned to the crime genre more than any other. Starting with 1989’s The Mighty Quinn, he has rarely gone more than a few years without playing a cop, detective or other law enforcement agent. This trend eventually landed him his first Oscar win for Best Actor with 2001’s Training Day.

Washington’s trend of playing law enforcement eventually landed him his first Oscar win for Best Actor with 2001’s
Training Day.

Another of Washington’s most successful cop movies is Inside Man. One of his many collaborations with Spike Lee, Inside Man is a twisty heist story which stars Washington as a detective trying to figure out who is staging a bold daylight robbery on a Manhattan bank. Like many of Washington’s most memorable cop roles, he bends the rules a little to get what he wants. Washington’s most recent cop movie is The Little Things, which partners him with Rami Malek.

9 Harrison Ford

Blade Runner (1982), Witness (1985), The Devil’s Own (1997)

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Although neither of Harrison Ford’s two most iconic characters, Han Solo and Indiana Jones, are cops, he has played law enforcement surprisingly often throughout his career. Ford has the perfect gruff, no-nonsense look that has helped movies such as The Devil’s Own and Hollywood Homicide. His most successful drama movie as a detective is Witness, in which he plays a cop who seeks refuge in an Amish community.

Although Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece may look like a steampunk dystopia, there are parts of
Blade Runner
‘s script which wouldn’t look out of place in a film noir detective drama.

Harrison Ford is instrumental in bringing the right tone to Blade Runner. Although Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece may look like a steampunk dystopia, there are parts of Blade Runner‘s script which wouldn’t look out of place in a film noir detective drama. Ford plays Decker, a cynical ex-cop who is dragged back in for one last case. Blade Runner also features a corrupt business executive and a femme fatale to complement Ford’s film noir archetypal hard-nosed gumshoe.

8 Clint Eastwood

The Dirty Harry movies

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Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is one of the most famous movie cops of all time. Appearing in five Dirty Harry movies, Harry dispenses his own brand of justice with his .44 Magnum revolver as his closest ally. He set the blueprint that many other cop movies have tried to follow whenever they need a tough anti-hero to sort through a morally ambiguous world, but few actors have managed to emulate Eastwood’s steely-eyed intensity.

Harry Callahan set the blueprint that many other cop movies have tried to follow whenever they need a tough anti-hero to sort through a morally ambiguous world.

Harry Callahan isn’t Eastwood’s only cop character. He also plays law enforcement in The Rookie, Tightrope, A Perfect World and many more dramas. Eastwood’s detectives are usually the types of characters who shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. However, he always provides enough emotional backstory in his movies for these characters to mean something more than pure action.

7 Bruce Willis

The Die Hard franchise, Sin City (2005)

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Right up there with the likes of Harry Callahan, Die Hard‘s John McClane deserves his spot in the list of iconic movie cops. As John McClane, Willis embodies the never-say-die spirit that makes the Die Hard movies so tense and exciting. McClane is the kind of cop who is easy to root for. He’s brave and dedicated, and he always has time for a funny quip or two, even while he’s battling through an entire skyscraper filled with terrorists.

As John McClane, Willis embodies the never-say-die spirit that makes the
Die Hard
movies so tense and exciting.

Bruce Willis has played other police officers throughout his career to varying degrees of success. While movies like Cop Out, Striking Distance and Hostage failed to impress critics, he also has hits like Sin City under his belt. Willis is an action star with many iconic roles beyond cop dramas, but his grizzled appearance and his wry comedic timing have always made him stand out as a police officer.

6 Tommy Lee Jones

The Fugitive (1993), No Country for Old Men (2007), the Men in Black franchise

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There’s something about Tommy Lee Jones that makes him the perfect fit to play senior detectives. Perhaps it’s his stone-faced demeanor or his gentle Texan baritone. He has an unwavering authority that helps him play respectable and upstanding lawmen. No Country for Old Men uses this to full effect, as Jones plays a pragmatic cop from a bygone era who can’t understand the new strand of violence tearing through his community. Many of Tommy Lee Jones’ best movies see him playing similar characters.

There’s something about Tommy Lee Jones that makes him the perfect fit to play senior detectives. Perhaps it’s his stone-faced demeanor or his gentle Texan baritone.

The Fugitive stars Jones as a similarly businesslike law enforcement agent, but this time he exerts more control in a nationwide manhunt. Men in Black offers Jones the chance to play a detective of a different kind, one that deals with matters of intergalactic security. He is the perfect partner for Will Smith as the senior man who shows the rookie the ropes. He also acts as a guide for the audience into the bizarre world of the franchise.

5 Leslie Nielsen

The Naked Gun movies

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Leslie Nielsen’s Naked Gun movies are arguably the best detective spoofs ever. Nielsen plays Frank Drebin, an incompetent but self-assured detective in the LAPD. The Naked Gun was created by the same team that made Airplane and Top Secret, and it does to cop dramas what those films did to the disaster genre and spy thrillers. The key to The Naked Gun‘s success is the way that Nielsen plays it straight.

Nielsen’s understanding of the tropes of the detective genre allows him to play around a little, but he makes a better cop than most actors.

Nielsen never winks at the camera or acknowledges that what he’s doing is absurd. He simply plays the part of an inept cop tangled up in a case that he doesn’t have the capacity to understand. His understanding of the tropes of the detective genre allows him to play around a little, but he makes a better cop than most actors. The Naked Gun is being rebooted with Liam Neeson taking over as Frank Drebin. Neeson has the seriousness required for the character, but Nielsen will be a tough act to follow.

4 Samuel L. Jackson

Shaft (2000), Lakeview Terrace (2008), The Other Guys (2010)

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Samuel L. Jackson faced a tough challenge following Richard Roundtree’s performance as John Shaft, but 2000’s Shaft was a crowdpleasing hit. Jackson has also played tough cop characters in The Negotiator and XXX, while Lakeview Terrace allows him to play a corrupt police officer. Jackson has often played villains in his career, and many of his characters in law enforcement seem just as dangerous and volatile.

Jackson has often played villains in his career, and many of his characters in law enforcement seem just as dangerous and volatile.

Samuel L. Jackson has also had the opportunity to leverage his bad cop persona for a few laughs.Snakes on a Plane has a gloriously absurd premise, but Jackson approaches the script with as much sincerity as any of his other cop dramas. He and Dwayne Johnson make a fun duo in The Other Guys as supernaturally heroic cops. Their pathetic death scene is a great punch line about the difference between the fantasy of cop movies and real life.

3 Al Pacino

Serpico (1973), Heat (1995), Insomnia (2002)

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In a career spanning several decades, Al Pacino has had the chance to play a number of great law enforcement characters. Serpico was one of his first big hits, and it remains a classic cop drama. Pacino plays the real-life New York City police officer Frank Serpico, who worked to expose corruption within the NYPD. Pacino has also played gangsters and criminals, but he often returns to playing cops.

One of Pacino’s great strengths is that he can show the emotional toll that detective work takes, making it seem more real than the aspirational fantasy some detective movies prefer to depict.

Michael Mann’s Heat stars Pacino as a detective in an intoxicating game of cat-and-mouse with a bank robber, played by Robert De Niro. Heat brings the best out of both men, and Pacino’s performance lends a lot of humanity to an erratic character. Seven years later, Pacino played a similarly troubled detective in Insomnia, arguably Christopher Nolan’s most underrated movie. One of Pacino’s great strengths is that he can show the emotional toll that detective work takes, making it seem more real than the aspirational fantasy some detective movies prefer to depict.

2 Jack Nicholson

Chinatown (1974), The Pledge (2001)

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One of Jack Nicholson’s best movies, in a career packed full of great performances, is the 1974 neo-noir detective drama Chinatown. Nicholson plays a persistent private eye who doesn’t know who to trust in the ever-shifting landscape of 1930s Los Angeles. Jake Gittes fits the mold of a film noir detective in some ways, but Nicholson gives the character a more emotional core that lies just beyond reach.

Jake Gittes fits the mold of a film noir detective in some ways, but Nicholson gives the character a more emotional core that lies just beyond reach.

Nicholson reprized the role of Gittes for a relatively disappointing sequel in 1990. Now, 50 years since it was first released, a Chinatown prequel series is in the works. Finding another actor who can play Gittes will be a huge challenge. Nicholson didn’t play detectives very often, which is a shame considering his natural aptitude for it. 2001’s The Pledge was a rare mystery drama that once again showed what Nicholson can do.

1 Humphrey Bogart

The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Big Sleep (1946)

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Humphrey Bogart was an icon of film noir. He made several classic gangster movies, but he could just as easily play characters on the other side of the law. With The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, Bogart brought two iconic literary characters to the big screen. His performances as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade set the gold standard for film noir detectives.

With
The Big Sleep
and
The Maltese Falcon,
Bogart brought two iconic literary characters to the big screen.

Bogart’s detective movies have lost none of their impact in the decades since, but they seem familiar even when they are being watched for the first time. This is because they inspired so many of the genre’s most popular tropes, from Bogart’s hard-boiled persona to the customary femme fatale characters he comes into contact with. As one of the biggest movie stars of all time, it’s no surprise that Bogart perfected the film noir genre.

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