There’s something strangely captivating about watching the slow-moving trainwreck story arc of a crooked movie cop.
Their stories always begin with excess, hedonism, and arrogance. And they almost always end in the same ways: justice, redemption, and/or tragedy. They get what’s coming to them, or they learn their lesson and repent, or they lose what they truly care about most.
Here are some of the best corrupt cop movies and the iconic bad cops that carry their stories. These wicked cop characters are evil, and yet you can’t help but watch them start to finish.
7. Max Eckhardt (Batman)
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Max Eckhardt wasn’t a huge part of 1989’s Batman, but he leaves a lasting impression. He has the perfect comic book crooked cop look.
This unscrupulous schlub with a bad attitude was probably the first dirty cop character that I—and many others who were children in the early 90s—was introduced to.
The fedora, the cigar, the voice. It’s all part of the package that informs an entire generation’s go-to image of what a crooked cop looks like.
6. Sheriff Kretzer (Cop Car)
Cop Car has a refreshingly inventive premise that allows for a tight story with few characters and locations.
The movie begins when two boys steal a cop car that they find abandoned in the middle of nowhere. That car belongs to Sheriff Kretzer, played by Kevin Bacon.
He returns to the spot of his missing car, which he temporarily abandoned while disposing of a dead body. With it missing, he takes off on foot with a bag of money to recover his stolen vehicle.
The movie ends up being a hybrid coming-of-age road movie/heist thriller (or, more accurately, the aftermath of a heist). You never find out how the sheriff ended up in his current situation, but you know he’s desperate and in over his head.
Kevin Bacon was perfectly cast for the role and gives a really convincing performance. This movie deserves a lot more attention than it seems to have gotten!
5. Dennis Peck (Internal Affairs)
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Richard Gere’s character Dennis Peck in Internal Affairs is rotten to the core. He’s the type of villain that’s so unrepentingly malicious that he’s almost a caricature of a bad guy.
Pretty Woman was Richard Gere’s next movie after this one, which set the stage for the type of character he would play for most of the rest of his acting career. Which is unfortunate, because he plays a fantastic villain, as proven by this role.
Internal Affairs was one of the last times we were able to see an example of that. If you only know him from his leading-man roles, you will be surprised at how convincingly terrible he can be.
4. Colin Sullivan (The Departed)
Matt Damon plays infamous crooked cop Colin Sullivan in this adaptation of the Japanese film Infernal Affairs.
Sullivan isn’t quite as colorful of a character as many of the other iconic corrupt cops on this list, but his actions at the behest of his boss result in enough deceit and carnage to earn him a place on the list.
Not to mention that The Departed is full of other wicked bad cops. This incredibly thrilling cat-and-mouse story between cops and criminals is a must-watch for any fan of crime thrillers.
3. Terence McDonagh (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans)
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Thanks to his combination of massive IRS debt and poor judgment when picking roles, Nicholas Cage has given a lot of bad performances in a lot of bad movies.
But every so often, he catches a well-written role in a great movie that’s perfectly fitting for his frenetic energy. Terence McDonagh from Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is one of those roles: an unhinged, self-destructive corrupt cop losing his grip on reality.
This movie flew under the radar, but director Werner Herzog always delivers a worthwhile viewing experience—and Bad Lieutenant is no exception. Ben Sanderson from Leaving Las Vegas is the only other performance of Nicholas Cage’s career that rivals this one.
2. Alonzo Harris (Training Day)
Denzel Washington’s character Alonzo Harris in Training Day is one of most purely corrupt cops in cinema history. He’s motivated only by greed and power, and there are no redeeming qualities in him.
Washington’s performance is appropriately unnerving and makes for some really memorable scenes. Ethan Hawke plays rookie Jake Hoyt, who’s assigned as Harris’ partner. Hoyt’s day begins with Harris tricking him into smoking PCP, and things only get worse from there.
The movie slowly reveals that Harris is corrupt in every way possible and wants Hoyt out of his way. By the time Hoyt realizes what’s going on, it’s almost too late.
The only reason he doesn’t come across as naive is that Harris is such an unbelievably bad cop that you can’t blame Hoyt for not recognizing how much danger he was in.
1. The Lieutenant (Bad Lieutenant)
Bad Lieutenant’s director Abel Ferrara captured old gritty New York City better than any director, besides perhaps Martin Scorcese.
While very few of Ferrara’s movies approach the quality of Scorcese’s movies, if you’re looking for an exhibition of a dangerous and dirty New York of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, then there are no better movies than the likes of King of New York and Bad Lieutenant.
Harvey Keitel’s character in Bad Lieutenant (known only as The Lieutenant) matches the bleakness and depravity of Ferrara’s New York. And Keitel’s performance here has become legendary.
The movie can be unsettling at times due to its unrelenting depictions of violence, drug use, sexual depravity, and Keitel nudity. But despite the lurid subject matter, Bad Lieutenant is rightfully revered by many as a classic due to Ferarra’s skill and Keitel’s intensity and talent.