Like a fish out of water, but with a gun
Films show that sometimes cops hit better action and comedy beats when you take them out of their home beats
Don Cheadle and Brendon Gleeson in "The Guard" (Alliance Films)
The process of police work is supposed to be repetitive, controlled, exacting: A cop responds to a call, a forensic team studies a crime scene until evidence emerges, a detective studies that evidence until it points him in the direction of an answer.
That's how it works in the real world, anyway. Cinematically speaking, that can be terribly dull, which is why filmmakers delight in taking top cops and throwing them into unfamiliar surroundings where their skills won't necessarily help them.
For example: John Michael McDonagh's new comedy "The Guard" stars Don Cheadle as an FBI agent thrown into the Irish countryside to track a drug ring with Brendan Gleeson's surly Garda sergeant. Their partnership does not go smoothly -- and really, why would it, given how many other movie cops have struggled with fish-out-of-water syndrome in the past?
Can't think of any? Click on the thumbnails for a refresher.
Coogan's Bluff (1968)
Clint Eastwood is one of the most intellectual movie stars Hollywood ever produced -- ever hear him talk about jazz? -- but he made his name as a simple man of action, and "Coogan's Bluff" exploits that brilliantly. Don Siegel's lean, mean actioner casts Eastwood as an Arizona deputy sheriff who arrives in Manhattan for a prisoner transfer, immediately loses said prisoner, and sets about tracking him in the concrete jungle. Siegel gets a lot of sly comedy out of watching Eastwood's no-nonsense lawman negotiate a series of Big Apple clichés, but he doesn't fail to deliver on the promise of watching our steely-eyed hero take down some punks, either.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Eddie Murphy became a movie star with that one scene in "48 HRS." where he impersonates a cop and rousts a redneck bar in San Francisco. "Beverly Hills Cop" turns that one scene into a feature film, gives Murphy an actual badge (and gun) and sends his Detroit cop to Los Angeles to investigate a friend's murder and irritates the LAPD as much as he does the actual villains of the piece. The script was originally developed for Sylvester Stallone, which explains why Murphy's comic contributions seem to explode out of another, more serious picture -- but that works to enhance the contrast between Murphy and everyone else on screen. Well, except maybe for Bronson Pinchot.
Remember when Harrison Ford used to act, instead of showing up, barking his lines and scowling until the camera cuts away? Well, if you don't, just spin up Peter Weir's terrific, moody thriller about a Philadelphia cop who becomes the sworn protector of an Amish boy (Lukas Haas) and his widowed mother (Kelly McGillis) after the kid witnesses a murder; after a shootout, the three end up hiding out in Amish country, waiting for the bad guys to catch up to them. It's in this quiet interlude that "Witness" becomes more than just a cop picture; it's the story of a man and a woman from very different worlds coming to grips with their profound and forbidden attraction, and Ford and McGillis are simply electric opposite one another. Also, they build a barn.
Red Heat (1988)
Walter Hill's goofy actioner shamelessly recycles the mismatched buddy formula of "48 HRS.," pairing no-nonsense Soviet lawman Arnold Schwarzenegger with wisecracking Chicago cop Jim Belushi. The plot is right out of "Coogan's Bluff," too, with Schwarzenegger stomping through the big city in search of an escaped prisoner. But Don Siegel was too noble a filmmaker to really wallow in the sleazy underworld scenes the way Hill does, and Clint Eastwood never could have sold the "Miranda" joke as effortlessly as Arnold.
Kindergarten Cop (1990)
After "Twins" proved Arnold Schwarzenegger was actually asking audiences to laugh with him rather than at him, the star was offered all sorts of projects for his comedy follow-up. The obvious choice was a project that surrounded him with adorable moppets who force him to embrace his softer side -- even though he's really just waiting for his chance to gun down some bad guys. That's "Kindergarten Cop," which up-ends Schwarzenegger's action-hero persona remarkably well, even though its juggling of kiddie cuteness and extreme violence can be a little jarring. But who needs to worry about spilled blood when you've got the "It's not a toomah" scene?
Demolition Man (1993)
People make fun of Sylvester Stallone's self-serious action movies -- and in fairness, "Cobra" and the "Rambo" sequels kind of demand it -- but the guy knows when to make fun of himself. (He made a movie about arm-wrestling, for crying out loud!) "Demolition Man" is perhaps the best of Stallone's sillier pictures, casting him as an overzealous 1996 cop who gets flash-frozen along with his arch-enemy (Wesley Snipes, playing a variation on The Joker) and defrosted in far-flung 2032, where the touchy-feely future culture is entirely unprepared for old-school criminals. It's hysterically funny to watch Stallone's unreconstructed cop irritate -- and be irritated by -- new partners Sandra Bullock and Benjamin Bratt, and learn to appreciate his newly programmed passion for knitting. Also, the Taco Bell joke never gets tired.
Rush Hour (1998)
Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker shouldn't be able to occupy the same cinematic space. Chan's a physical performer who's at his best when he's running away from a fight, rather than struggling with English dialogue; Tucker is a frenetic, motormouthed comedian who doesn't look like he could take a punch, let alone throw one. And yet, somehow, Brett Ratner's action comedy combines their contradictory styles without sucking the universe into a black hole, pairing Chan's Chinese detective and Tucker's inept Los Angeles cop on a politically charged kidnapping case that reaches from Hollywood to Hong Kong. Naturally, most of the jokes are about Chan's inability to navigate Los Angeles culture ("Never touch a black man's radio!"), but the joke's on Tucker; when you can take out an entire warehouse of bad guys with your hands tied behind your back, it doesn't really matter how well you blend in.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
Edgar Wright's delirious action-comedy nicely reverses the standard plot of a small-town cop finding action in the big city; here, London top cop Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the movie with Wright) gets transferred to the sleepy village of Sandford, where his by-the-book approach to law enforcement contrasts with... well, everyone, really. Except for his new partner Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who's beside himself to have someone who's actually lived the life he's only seen in action movies. Of course, when Nicholas and Danny uncover a murderous conspiracy within Sandford, their lives turn into a proper action movie -- and "Hot Fuzz" applies the principles of the Hollywood buddy-cop film to rather magnificent effect. If you haven't seen this, you really need to catch up.