The Art of the Buddy Cop Genre

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“You said bullshit and experience is all it takes, right”, says Reggie to his partner Jack in 48 Hours, a film that set the groundwork for all future buddy cop films.

The buddy cop film has been defining part of mainstream cinema for decades, combining both action and comedy around two contrasting characters — often so different from each other, we can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next.

The formula is simple: two very different people have to work together to solve a particular crime. One is the wild gun, an over the top eccentric and comedic character who is always getting into trouble. The other is a hard hitting by-the-rule-books guy who guides the “wild gun”. It’s a simple premise, but very hard to get right (as many bad buddy cop films have proven).

Now, get this! We ain't partners. We ain't brothers. And we ain't friends

“Now, get this! We ain’t partners. We ain’t brothers. And we ain’t friends.” – Jack, 48 Hours

Locked & Loaded: The History of the Buddy Cop Genre

The buddy cop genre has an unusual origin. It wasn’t wise-cracking American cops who introduced it as a proper genre to the film world, it was none other than Japanese filmmaker Akira Kuriosawa with 1949’s Stray Dog.

Stray Dog isn’t classified as a comedy by any means. It’s a dark and gritty noir where its two main characters have little time to crack jokes. Centered around Detectives Murakami and Sato, Stray Dog introduced the idea of the buddy cop genre pairing a young rookie cop with a hardened and experienced veteran. Each character has a different, but distinct personality that work together to solve a crime. Kurosawa’s Stray Dog showed that two contrasting characters working together adds dramatic tension: not only is there an external conflict (solving the crime) but an internal conflict as well (the tension between the two detectives). This sets the stage for future buddy cop films.

Stray Dog buddy cop film

Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) properly introduced us to the buddy cop genre

With the introduction of television, a wider audience began to appreciate the genre. The genre began to move from serious tones in TV shows such as Dragnet and Adam 12 to a more comedic format with Starsky and Hutch and Miami Vice. Finally, in the early 1980s, the buddy cop genre got its formal debut. 1982’s 48 Hours came to the big screen, and it immediately set the tone for future buddy cop films. Through the comedy of Eddy Murphy and the serious banter of Nick Nolte, the buddy cop film became a proper genre.

Getting it Right: What Makes a Good Buddy Cop Film?

While 48 Hours formally kicked off the the buddy cop genre, Lethal Weapon (1987) took the torch and carried it even further. A commercial and critical hit, Lethal Weapon set a new standard for the genre, pairing Danny Glover as Roger Murtaugh and Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs. Murtaugh is the classification of the “I’m too old for this shit” type of cop. He works by the book and can’t wait to cash his first retirement check. Riggs on the other hand, is the unorthodox and wild personality, and to top it off, he’s got suicidal tendencies. There is conflict and fun as soon as the two meet, and it carries to the end of the film.

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Lethal Weapon (1987) rocketed the buddy cop genre to new heights

What makes the Lethal Weapon such a defining example of the buddy cop genre is how the characters interact with each other. Like all good on-screen relationships, the two grow to respect and love each other, which ultimately results in teamwork and getting the case solved. Additionally, the film does a great job at balancing comedy and serious tones throughout the film — it’s hard to pull off a comedy where one of the characters is suicidal.

In buddy cops films, the heroes working together to overcome an obstacle is vital, but not just for the sake of solving the case, but for their own personal survival. At the end of Lethal Weapon, the heroes are able to rise above their own personal demons through the finding of friendship between each other. A prime example of this is Rigs giving a hollow point bullet to Murtarugh. The bullet represents that Riggs no longer is contemplating suicide and found something better: a friend. This figurative gift is the closing of the differences that brought the heroes together and starts a reliable friendship.

british take

Hot Fuzz (2007), a very British take on the buddy cop genre

Other buddy cops films may not always on touch these elements, but it can be a driving force for the heroes to need each other. In Die Hard the relationship between John McLane and Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson) is a different aspect of working together for survival. McLane (Bruce Willis) is in need of help to survive and take down building full of terrorists. In Hot Fuzz, Stg. Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) needs the help of Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) to survive the change from big city policing to small town crime. Each of these characters develop a friendship through surviving the problems they all have to face. Whether it’s a village conspiracy or a building full of terrorists, a friendship will form between the two characters to guide them through the major problem.

If a film can get it right by blending comedy, action, and drama between two contrasting characters, you got yourself a buddy cop film. But as all the bad buddy cop films have shown, that’s pretty tough to pull off.

Shift Change: Altering the Norm of Buddy Cop Genre

As the buddy cop genre grew, the age-old Hollywood problem appeared: when a genre is overcrowded, you need to stand out. You need a “spin”, and new take on it. A “buddy cop film, but with X”. As a Hollywood studio executive once said, “Give me the same, only different”.

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In order to survive, buddy cop films had to expand into new territories. In the late 1980’s the cop and dog genre came to light through films Turner & Hooch and K-9. Other films turned to paring up criminals and authority to work together as seen in the film Midnight Run and Bulletproof. Spies Like Us parried two spies together to stop a soviet nuclear missile. All these films still presented the vital elements of friendship, dependence and mix comedy/action all within the film.

But “putting a spin” on the genre also resulted in some serious duds.

Getting it all Wrong: What Makes a Bad Buddy Cop Film?

One example of how “putting a spin” on a genre isn’t always the right way to go is Hollywood Homicide. Iconic actor Harrison Ford was paired with then-newcomer Josh Hartnett. Harnett is a detective/yoga instructor and Ford is a detective/real-estate agent (there’s your “spin”). However, while having a yoga instructor and real estate agent is a novel idea, these conflicting careers eat up much of the plot and take the film nowhere. Worse, the secondary careers of the characters doesn’t do much to further the story and their relationship. The yoga/real estate agent might have worked great in a pitch meeting at the studio, but in reality, it was dead on arrival.

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Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992), arguably the worst buddy cop movie ever made.

Other buddy cop films have tried wild things to differentiate themselves from the genre, only they went too far. Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot (cop and his old mother), Theodore Rex (cop with a dinosaur), Hard Way (cop and movie star), Cop And a Half (cop and a kid), Taxi (cop and cab driver), and so on.

Then there are buddy cop films who took an entirely different route. Films such as Seven, pairing newcomer Brad Pitt with seasoned detective Morgan Freeman, as they have to work together to solve a series of violent crimes. While Seven has a very clichéd setup and inter-character conflict (new cop and the old guy who’s retiring), it draws us in with its gritty style and its violence crimes. Training Day also has the same clichéd setup, featuring hardened detective, Denzel Washington with newcomer Ethan Hawke, but it nevertheless managed to draw us into its gritty world of crime, drugs, and corruption.

If there’s one thing that all good buddy cop films have in common, it’s that the two characters are well-developed on their own. Lethal Weapon could have easily been made with just Mel Gibson as a lone cop, or Danny Glover as a lone cop, because their individual characters were fully developed and interesting. But when you pair them, you get something extraordinary.

Written by on October 18th, 2015. This article is part of Screenhead .