There are few characters in film that are more glorified than police officers. Whether honest or corrupt, to be a cop on screen is to add flair and poignancy to a job that, while noble in actuality, is hardly ever glorified in the same manner.
Throughout film history, cops have been romanticized, cast as saviors or sometimes even condemners. The new film Brooklyn’s Finest, which opens today, continues this feverish trend of Hollywood.
Brooklyn’s Finest depicts the lives of three Brooklyn police officers whose erratic presence — both positive and negative — as law enforcement demands they each face the same violent resolution. Richard Gere plays a cop with a severe drinking problem who is on the verge of retirement, Ethan Hawke is a desperate officer questioning the benefits of corruption and Don Cheadle is an undercover narcotics officer with numerous connections in the drug world.
All three must decide how best to serve and protect their community, since each officer’s decision will greatly impact his reputation as a civil servant.
This is what cop films are all about: the struggle and absolute weariness that comes from working such a strenuous job and how it affects their ability to be the police officers they are supposed to be. The prestige Hollywood has so long bestowed upon figures charged with keeping the peace — moral and immoral alike — comes from this turmoil: In big-screen portrayals, cops seem to embody great service while always contending with the possibility of an even greater loss.
One of Hollywood’s classic cop films is director William Wyler’s 1951 Detective Story, starring Kirk Douglas as detective Jim McLeod. The film depicts a single day in the lives of hardboiled detectives at the crime-plagued 21st precinct, but, most specifically, the film revolves around McLeod’s endless pursuit of an abortionist.
Turmoil and its effect on the officers is the focus here, but social issues like abortion make the job more than just a job, especially for McLeod, who slowly loses his patience and his morality as the overwhelming strain of upholding the law begins to set in.
Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) assembled one of the most stellar ensemble casts for his 1997 film Cop Land. Sylvester Stallone portrays a somber sheriff who must govern a small New Jersey town that has been designed specifically for cops to live in, including New York Police Department officers portrayed by Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro.
Stallone’s character, who was unable to join the NYPD, envies all of his friends and neighbors who head into the city everyday to live out his dream. He builds them up in his mind until he discovers that his cop friends and the town they call home are nothing more than a front for the Mafia.
Mangold’s illustration of corruption toys with the very act of glorification, suggesting that it can sometimes be enormously misdirected, a theme echoed that same year in director Curtis Hanson’s 1997 contemporary noir L.A. Confidential. The glamour and celebrity lifestyles of 1950s Hollywood are played out in the lives of the many police officers who must investigate a brutal homicide that unravels into a ruthless police conspiracy.
The glorification present here goes beyond all others because it literally depicts police officers — Kevin Spacey’s character in particular — as having fame on par with the real-life celebrities they’re investigating. The police officers in L.A. Confidential eventually become famous to the point at which distinguishing between the cops and the celebrities is impossible, and as a result, legitimacy is lost.
More and more contemporary cop films deal with police corruption as well as citizens’ unending disappointment in the service.
Director Antoine Fuqua (who also directed Brooklyn’s Finest) parallels this trend of romanticizing brutality in 2001’s Training Day. A young narcotics officer must learn the ropes from a veteran detective played by Denzel Washington who also happens to use his power as a ruthless weapon, governing both criminals and civilians in Los Angeles.
Washington’s character — whose portrayal garnered the actor an Oscar for best actor — is a violent man whose misuse of power are glorified with the same vigor that an honest police officer’s actions would be, but, as many cop films throughout film history have proven, the characters that are truly put on a pedestal are those officers who see themselves as more than just civil servants.
It’s with this same mentality that Fuqua unveils Brooklyn’s Finest, and, in relation to cinema’s most recognizable detectives of the past who always seem to have more fun being bad than good, the newest depiction of law enforcement will incorporate honesty as well as corruption. It’s a safe bet that Brooklyn’s Finest will only perpetuate Hollywood’s fascination with police officers: Decent or not, cops will always be cinematically engaging.
Christopher Byars is a senior majoring in English (creative writing). His column, “Cinerama,” runs Fridays.