Normally, as viewers, we ought to be on the side of good cops, not bad. But are we really? Does anyone really prefer proper, buttoned-up, fedora-sporting Jack Webb as Sgt. Friday yes ma’am-ing through those 1950s Dragnet TV dramas, in favor of tough, flyaway cops like Popeye, Harry Callahan, Michael Brennan and The Lieutenant, coming out of such fly-speckled movies as The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Q&A and Bad Lieutenant respectively?
I hope so. I’m going to discuss four rough-and-tumble cops in this piece on my way to The Guard, which is the film we’ll run at The Tower on Oct 14. It’s about a cop, too, played by fadeless Brendan Gleeson. Gerry Boyle isn’t quite in the same nastiness league as Gene Hackman’s Popeye, who is a NY terror after a notorious French drug dealer. Hackman’s role was one of the first to question the tiresome Jack Webbization of cops, probably nurtured through all those “This Is Your FBI” radio and TV dramas. Hackman slaps people around, drinks too much, is an outed bigot, and even kills an innocent person with apparently no remorse. This was heavy-duty police brutality for 1971.
Dirty Harry—Callahan, played famously by Clint Eastwood—was just plain involving (funny now) to watch as he tortured suspects, scorned topless dancers, gave the finger to namby-pamby police chiefs, mayors, and (mutedly) to sociology majors. Eastwood made it so. The film is high on my list of guilty cinematic pleasures, not because of its politics, but because Eastwood makes such a good Harry.
The French Connection and Dirty Harry both came out in 1971. It was quite a year. One contributor to imdb.com commented:
Something about Harry Callahan’s political incorrectness resonates in a disturbing way with people who have only examined police work and the justice system through their televisions. The reality of this aspect of modern life is far less interesting, dramatic, and straightforward. And the critique of “American justice” is at least as powerfully made in The French Connection as it is here. Furthermore, The French Connection was an extremely innovative film, while Dirty Harry was a fairly typical stylized police-fantasy. The only explanations for the on-going popularity of this film, then, are Eastwood’s charisma and the sheer entertainment value of this gutsy, gritty, hardcore crime drama.
A more interesting bad-cop film perhaps is Sidney Lumet’s little-praised Q&A of 1990, which stars Nick Nolte as detective Michael Brennan, a man who threatens to kill people who rat on him. What makes this film so engrossingly joyless is Nolte himself, at his best, playing off the young Timothy Hutton as a naïve Assistant D.A. Normally Lumet’s films are full of regret and anguish about doing the right thing. But not Brennan.
The champ bad-cop film is The Bad Lieutenant (1992), directed by Abel Ferrara. Harvey Keitel plays the drug-addicted, gambling-hooked, girl-hassling cop working on a case involving the rape of a nun. No cop in filmdom comes off as lonely and despicable as Keitel’s nameless lieutenant, always making mud of the waters of morality. Ferrara is reaching deep down here and ends up with a moving story of redemption.
You find redemption in a lot of Lumet films—Prince of the City, Network, even in the foul Even the Devil Knows You’re Dead. But not in The Guard. Brendan Gleeson’s cop doesn’t need redeeming. He’s bad, but not evil, as Roger Ebert points out. Mainly he’s a funny piece of wooly realism Sure, he drinks too much and visits hookers too often, but he displays a kind of cop-smart solid grip on life. He’s a good guy to drink with, and he visits his ailing mother in a nursing home with commendable regularity. That’s the kind of thing writer-director John Michael McDonagh aims for— irascibility, bearishness, yet always around for Mum.
Need more story? It arrives in the form of Don Cheadle, an FBI agent working on an international drug thing. He wants to ride around in Gleeson’s cruiser. Gleeson says “I’m Irish, sir, racism is a part of me culture.”