Action films starring law enforcement officers have been a staple of suspenseful cinema for decades.
On the one hand, movies are a way to examine social stratification and the complexities of human nature.
Cops, then, are essential to any functioning police force and, by extension, any functioning government anywhere in the world.
As a result, films depicting their exploits in such settings and the flip side of their lives, often with a blend of realism and fiction, have consistently entertained audiences.
The intense nature of their jobs is conveyed through gunfights, car chases, and mind-boggling investigative techniques, and the viewer is made aware of the value of a police officer to society.
Here, then, is a ranking of the best police dramas of all time.
You can find both serious and lighthearted police comedies here.
The list kicks off with a Denzel Washington movie that needs no introduction and wraps up with a Robert De Niro film that many will recognize.
The good news is that some of these top-notch police dramas may be available to stream on services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
15. Training Day (2001)
Well-made and featuring excellent performances from Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, as well as a compelling tale of justice and corruption, “Training Day” is a must-see.
The first two-thirds of the film consists of the director forcing us to learn about the protagonists and antagonists.
An excellent character study is created by following two individuals who couldn’t be more different through the events of a single day.
Unfortunately, the film’s third act is its weakest. There are a lot of convenient plot points for what’s otherwise a very realistic film, and that’s where suspension of disbelief comes in.
14. Robocop (1987)
RoboCop, directed by Paul Verhoeven and widely regarded as one of the best action movies of all time, is a thrilling adventure with exciting, over-the-top action, stunning visuals, and, most importantly, a compelling narrative.
The film’s depiction of the media and consumerism is oftentimes humorous. Timeliness can be attributed to the film’s exploration of timely topics like corporate greed, privatization, and capitalism.
Even today, the “Robocop” movie character is held in the highest regard as one of the most iconic and effective movie cops of all time. It’s stood the test of time, and its equilibrium means it won’t ever abandon you.
13. Lethal Weapon (1987)
The genre of action films was forever altered by the groundbreaking ‘Lethal Weapon,’ which subsequently set the bar for a string of critically acclaimed sequels.
Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) are the two main characters, and the film’s success can be attributed to the unexpected contrasts between their personal histories, which ultimately lead to a lot of comedic payoffs.
There has never been a better buddy cop duo than Riggs and Murtaugh. The combination of Richard Donner’s keen direction and Shane Black’s acerbic script work makes for a fun movie.
It has action, comedy, and drama, so if you like all three genres, you’ll enjoy it.
12. End of Watch (2012)
End of Watch is a compelling and relentless police drama, and one of the best police movies in recent memory.
The film is regarded as one of the most authentic depictions of police work in cinematic history. Watch as LAPD officers Jake Gyllenhaal (Brian Taylor) and Michael Pena (Miguel Zavala) go about their daily duties and responsibilities.
Once you’re in, the world of drugs and violence is much bigger than you ever imagined. The film gives you that context.
The bloodshed is a welcome addition to the high tension.
The lives of the two police officers are in grave danger as they become embroiled in this larger war.
Anna Kendrick and the rest of the supporting cast are fantastic, but they’re almost overshadowed by the film’s two leads.
11. The Fugitive (1993)
In terms of sheer entertainment value, “The Fugitive” ranks among the very best movies ever made.
The film follows Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), who is wrongfully convicted of murder, escapes from prison after a prison bus accident, and goes on the run as a fugitive while he fights to prove his innocence.
Tommy Lee Jones, in the role of US Marshall Samuel Gerard, leads the search. Furthermore, the majority of the film is taken up by Gerard playing a game of cat and mouse with Kimble.
It’s a fun and exciting film with a well-balanced story that manages to keep your attention at all points.
Meanwhile, the action is fantastically over the top, with iconic moments like the train crash and dam scene.
10. The Departed (2006)
For his work on the film “The Departed,” director Martin Scorsese received his first Academy Award.
This film features one of Scorsese’s strongest ensemble casts.
The story takes place in grimy Boston, where mob boss Frank Costello runs a well-oiled machine, and an up-and-comer named William Costigan is sent undercover to expose him.
The Departed is brutally funny, but it has some forced moments and lines of dialogue that are clearly meant to please Tarantino fans.
The Departed isn’t perfect; it suffers from visual inconsistency and has some extremely clunky dialogue; however, the film’s great character acting, blazing score, and gripping story more than makeup for its flaws.
9. Serpico (1973)
The film “Serpico,” based on a biography by Peter Maas, greatly influenced future cinematic portrayals of law enforcement officers.
Lumet knows what makes a good movie, and he takes his time making sure the story and characters are compelling.
This film is based on the true story of Frank Serpico, an upstanding police officer who had to deal with a corrupt department.
Al Pacino gives a stellar performance as the lead character, and his work here is easily among his best.
It is a depiction of a classic situation, with the protagonist being a man motivated by high ideals and seeking to personify the kind of public service ethic that should characterize those who hold positions of public trust.
8. Die Hard (1988)
There is no doubt that “Die Hard” is the gold standard of action movies.
Bruce Willis stars as New York cop John McClane who travels to Los Angeles to spend time with his family (played by Bonnie Bedelia). The film was directed by John McTiernan.
John arrives at his wife’s big corporate Christmas party just in time to see the building taken over by terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his 12 henchmen, who are using a hostage situation as a cover to rob the company of its riches.
Die Hard benefits greatly from the simplicity of its execution, which is one of its strongest points.
There is never a dull moment or a sense of being out of place in this film.
Though Die Hard is essentially a good-vs.-evil showdown, the three-dimensionality of the characters, and the presence of their flaws make the film more enjoyable on subsequent viewings.
7. Fargo (1996)
‘Fargo’ is the crowning achievement of the Coen brothers’ careers because of their ability to create a fully realized world out of nothing.
This film turns out to be everything you wouldn’t expect it to be. Marge Gunderson’s “Oh ya betcha” becomes a highlight of the film as it progresses, and the black comedy elements of the story make “Fargo” both a bitter and comedic edge-of-your-seat thriller.
It’s one of the rare movies that can keep audiences engaged from start to finish and still look good decades later.
It’s got everything you could want—bleak, it’s satirical, quirky, and fundamentally original. Just the music would blow your mind by the end of it.
6. Se7en (1995)
Murder mysteries rarely challenge their readers’ minds.
To a large extent, they bank on the audience’s natural curiosity to learn “whodunit” to make a living.
“Se7en,” on the other hand, is a philosophical thriller that deals with a much deeper aspect of human nature: the age-old debate over whether or not humans are inherently evil.
Indirectly, it promotes the idea that our culture is headed down a path lined with experts in all the worst vices.
Although most people are oblivious to this course, it nonetheless persists in the world around them and eventually pulls them along.
The filmmaking, editing, and cinematography of “Se7en” are all top-notch, and the film continues to be a classic.
5. Dirty Harry (1971)
In this classic crime film directed by Don Siegel, Clint Eastwood portrays a police officer in San Francisco.
You don’t want to get on the wrong side of him, because you’ll be asking yourself, “Do I feel lucky?” sooner or later.
The film is thrilling, funny, intense, and suspenseful. The climaxes are more suspenseful because they are unaccompanied by music.
It’s also fascinating to see how realistically the corrupt police force is portrayed in this film; Eastwood’s character, Harry Callahan, frequently has no choice but to break the law in order to catch the bad guys.
So many iconic moments and lines from the film have become cultural touchstones that they are often referenced and even parodied.
When it comes to film characters, “Dirty Harry” ranks among the very best.
4. The French Connection (1971)
The bold, realistic films of the late 1960s and early 1970s radically altered American cinema and eliminated Hollywood glitz and glamour.
French Connection, in this light, is not only William Friedkin’s finest film but also a watershed moment for the evolving cinema of the 1970s.
Although the film drags a bit at the beginning, it picks up speed and delivers some truly thrilling sequences.
The cinematography, music, and performances by the main cast are all highlights.
It has interesting sets and manages to capture New York’s vibe.
It’s based on true events that took place in New York City around that time. This film was unanimously deemed the year’s best, winning every major award.
Hackman’s performance was deserving of the Best Actor Oscar he won.
3. L.A. Confidential (1997)
More than just a murder mystery movie with a wonderful cast, this film shines in a way that we quite haven’t seen.
It is an utterly engrossing neo-noir thrill ride, combining classic noir elements with stylish violence, a terrific script, a brilliant cast, and a breathtaking plot.
Adapted from James Ellroy’s novel of the same name, which was inspired by actual events, the film follows a group of LAPD officers who investigate a robbery turned murder at the Nite Owl that involves another officer as a victim, turning the case into a more personal matter for the police department.
The film has an incredible story-line that shows us that there’s more to the Nite Owl case than expected, and there is a lot of history between the characters, especially involving corruption, prostitution, celebrities, scandals, drugs, and anything that made LA the most dangerous US city in the 40s and 50s.
2. The Silence of the lambs (1991)
It is not often that a film comes along that has the dramatic and psychological weight to be considered among the all-time greats, but “The Silence of the Lambs” is one such film.
The film is bold in its approach, but it pays off almost entirely.
There are many outstanding performances in the film, but Anthony Hopkins gives one of his best.
Jodie Foster gives a magnificent performance as Clarice, making her one of the best female movie leads of all time.
The film’s creepiness is amplified by Buffalo Bill’s character. The pacing of Silence of the Lambs is excellent throughout, and the film builds to a thrilling climax.
A timeless classic, “The Silence of the Lambs.” An adrenaline rush is like a classic thriller in that it will never be forgotten.
1. Heat (1995)
This masterwork by Michael Mann was everything a police drama could want and more.
Together, the stellar acting from the ensemble cast, the expert direction, the unforgettable dialogue and confrontations, and the thrilling action sequences made for an impressive final product.
A nearly three-hour crime epic that manages to both satisfy and leave you wanting more. Not a single thing about this movie is subpar.
The plot moves along smoothly and never drags.
Heat is a demonstration of what can be achieved when a first-rate cast and crew give full throttle to the classic cops-and-robbers premise.
That’s why it’s at the top of the list and a must-see for movie buffs.