There's something about the police character archetype that makes cinema thrilling—from ones who stick tightly to the rules, to ones who break free and operate on their own terms while using their badges as shields to protect them from criticism.
The chase can be relentless, and small details can make the difference between success and failure. Following a cop on their journey to pick up scattered clues? It's almost like a game for the audience.
Whether it's Clarice Starling meeting Hannibal Lecter for the first time or Vincent Hanna having coffee with his nemesis Neil McCauley, the dynamic between cops and criminals can define a movie's success.
Here are some of the best cops, police officers, and law enforcement officers in cinema and what makes them great characters.
8. Billy Costigan (The Departed)
Leonardo DiCaprio's Billy Costigan remains the best undercover cop in cinema, as the young rookie is sent into Frank Costello's crew to destabilize the gang from the inside.
He's gritty and always hyper-alert because of the situation he's in, which is made worse when the crew discovers that there's a rat in their organization—leading them to hunt down the man on the inside.
There's a touch of Serpico to DiCaprio in this film, and his downfall is one of the most shocking moments in any cop movie.
7. Frank Serpico (Serpico)
What's the craziest thing about Al Pacino's Frank Serpico? The fact that the story is all true. Yeah, seriously.
Serpico's determination to expose the corruption and bent nature of a 1970s NYPD ended up costing him. He was shot, chewed out, threatened, and ignored for years, all while he was slowly unravelled by the weight of his undercover investigation.
As a cop, Serpico is the good guy in a sea of bad apples. He refused to take money from stashes that his colleague cops were hoarding for themselves, and his fight against what he knew to be wrong ended up bringing about the complete reform of the NYPD.
6. Vincent Hanna (Heat)
Another great cop portrayed by Al Pacino, we have Vincent Hanna from Heat, the experienced and ruthless detective who takes down crews of thieves. While he has little in common with Frank Serpico, he shares a determination to see justice prevail—and Pacino exudes it.
Hanna is sharp, with the instincts of a wolf, never underestimating his opponents and always trying to think two steps ahead. That's why his face-off with De Niro's Neil McCauley is such fascinating cinema.
Of course, Hanna gets his man in the end, even if somewhat unwillingly. The famous conversation he ends up having with McCauley makes them both garner respect for the other.
5. Virgil Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night)
Sydney Poitier's Virgil Tibbs may not be the role for which he won his Oscar, but it's the one that will last forever as his greatest role.
When Tibbs—a homicide inspector from Philadelphia—passes through Mississippi, he becomes involved in a murder case that's entangled with the racism that runs through the police department there.
Poitier and Rod Steiger prove to be a fearsome team as the two cops who solve the case, with both showing nothing but disdain for the other. However, due to the officer's dedication, the pair form a bond of trust.
Poitier steals every scene and dominates the film, while showing the skills of a homicide inspector through the lens of a racially charged town.
4. Alonzo Harris (Training Day)
Cinema's ultimate crooked cop character coupled with Denzel Washington's charming charisma is a match made in cinematic heaven.
The story of Alonzo Harris—a wiley and scheming detective—is full of malice beneath the surface as he attempts to pull off an elaborate plan to pay off his mafia debt, which he incurred by killing a made-man.
Harris operates with abundant confidence and swagger, never letting on that he's manipulating every situation to his own ends. Even when his trainee catches him counting and putting away stolen money, he commands control over the scenario.
Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning performance is a memorable one, as he pulls viewers into his game—and we even almost feel sad for Alonzo when he's in over his head by the film's end.
3. Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs)
Clarice Starling is a young woman who, in some way, gets taken under the wings of the ultimate caged animal: Hannibal Lecter.
She doesn't need lessons in how to be a cop; rather, she needs help thinking like a criminal, a hunter, a killer—and there's no better mind to pick than that of psychopathic serial killer Hannibal Lecter.
Starling grows into The Silence of the Lambs as the film unfolds her, and she gains more confidence throughout the run of the story. It's something Jodie Foster brings to the role with intricate precision.
And by the time we leave her as an audience, she better understands how to hunt killers. It's thanks to her instinct, which has been finely honed by her relationship with Hannibal.
2. Marge Gunderson (Fargo)
The character of Marge Gunderson feels like a small-time police chief at first. She smiles a lot and doesn't go out of her way to make waves with the people around her.
However, underneath that sweet exterior, she's no rube. Marge is a woman who has instincts similar to those of any great tracker: she understands the narratives that criminals try to spin, all while maintaining her innocent bumpkin facade.
Frances McDormand's character becomes a fox hunting in the wilderness as she tracks down the killers who murdered a state trooper and two witnesses to the crime. In cinema, Marge remains a police chief uniquely full of cunning despite her small-town image.
1. Samuel Gerard (The Fugitive)
Hunting down an intelligent and wiley doctor convicted of murder, who's trying to prove his innocence, requires a cop of equal intellect. Step in Tommy Lee Jones' Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive.
He's a sarcastic, funny, and devilishly dedicated US Marshal who uses his skills and team to uncover the truth of Dr. Richard Kimble's arrest and conviction for murder, all while trying to find him in Chicago.
Jones is electric in the role and over-shadows everyone around him. He demonstrates Gerard's prowess in the field while using his cunning to outwit anyone in his way. Gerard knows the truth before anybody else, and has a nose for lies like a dog has for treats.