From Stray Dog to Bad Boys, how the buddy cop film has evolved over the past 75 years

Blending action, comedy and drama with social commentary, the genre continues to have box office appeal

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bad Boys: Ride or Die. Photo: Columbia Pictures
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We have seen it before and we can't wait to watch it again.

Long before modern superhero films and comic book adaptations, it was the buddy cop film Hollywood relied on to produce the box office goods.

For 75 years, the genre has continued to go from strength to strength with its deft mix of comedy and action as well as its subtle exploration of societal issues like race and gender. With newly-released Bad Boys: Ride or Die destined to be another hit, let's explore the evolution of the genre's rich and zany history over 10 films.

1. Stray Dog (1949)

The buddy cop film may be a Hollywood staple, but Japan is considered to be the genre's birthplace.

Akira Kurosawa's masterful crime drama is set during a heatwave in postwar Tokyo. The film follows a pair of detectives, the newly promoted Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) and the grizzled veteran Sato (Takashi Shimura) as they attempt to solve a series murders connected to the Japanese yakuza.

While the banter and different personalities of Murakami and Sato may seem formulaic to modern viewers, it was a breath of fresh air for the crime genre at the time.

Hailed as one of the finest Japanese films ever made, Stray Dog is where all the fun began.

2. In The Heat of The Night (1967)

Viewed as Hollywood's first real stab at the genre, In the Heat of the Night helped set up various character templates used by buddy cop films ever since.

The critical and commercial success of the film also showed that Hollywood buddy cop films could be gritty and provocative, an aspect often lost amid comic book action and humour of future releases.

Simmering racial tension in America's deep south is explored in the film through the relationship between stern white police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) and the younger and brash African-American partner Virgil Tibbs, in a breakout role for Sidney Poitier.

3. 48 Hrs (1982)

The film that announced Eddie Murphy as a future star, 48 Hrs is also brilliant synthesis of the genre's main food groups: action, comedy and character.

The story pairs a no-nonsense cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte at his grunting best) and street savvy criminal Reggie Hammond (Murphy) as they attempt to solve a murder case on a short time frame.

48 Hrs is one of the first successful buddy cop films where a partner is more a sidekick than a police officer. The move allowed comic actors to flourish in the genre over the years from Chris Tucker (Money Talks) and Kevin Hart (Ride Along) to Owen Wilson (Shanghai Noon).

4. Lethal Weapon (1987)

The film that arguably spawned Hollywood's first buddy cop film series, Lethal Weapon married the elements of the genre with blockbuster panache.

Everything is here: from the diametrically opposite characters (Mel Gibson as suicidal and mercurial cop Martin Riggs and Danny Glover as the strait-laced and family-centred detective Roger Murtagh) to the comedy, pathos and plot twisting narrative.

Director Richard Donner also does a fine job of balancing the violence with more tender moments showing Riggs and Murtaugh reflecting on mortality and past traumas.

While Lethal Weapon went on to spawn four future sequels of various quality, it remains the industry benchmark for the genre.

5. Red Heat (1988)

One of the first examples of a cross-cultural partnership in a Hollywood buddy cop film, the rollicking and underrated Red Heat finds a wise cracking Chicago detective Art Ridzik (James Belushi) teaming up with tough Soviet cop Ivan Danko (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who arrives in the US during the Cold War to arrest a wanted fugitive.

The fresh cultural twist of Red Heat laid the groundwork for the Rush Hour series almost a decade later.

6. Turner and Hooch (1989)

The premise could have been a dog's breakfast but Turner and Hooch works because it pairs its then fresh premise with genuine drama.

Tom Hanks plays a meticulous detective who ends up being paired by an unruly dog Hooch.

More than the mayhem that ensues on the streets and home – yes, Hooch destroys his new family home on the first night – the emotional bond forged between the pair is what elevates the film above similar attempts such as K-9 (starring James Belushi and released the same year) and 1995’s awful Top Dog with Chuck Norris.

7. Bad Boys (1995)

While buddy cop films proved to be racially accommodating to actors over the decades, it was only in 1995 the genre boasted a major film with two African-Americans as leads.

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are in fine form as two squabbling Miami cops on the trail of a murderous drug kingpin. While the plot is standard, everything else about Bad Boys is fresh, from the kinetic visuals by burgeoning director Michael Bay to the culturally relevant RnB and hip-hop soundtrack allowing the film to reach a more diverse audience.

As well as reigniting the appeal of buddy cop films, Bad Boys' biggest legacy is to pave the way for more inclusive casting in the genre.

8. Rush Hour (1998)

A Hong Kong detective Lee (Jackie Chan) works together with Los Angeles detective James Carter to rescue a Chinese diplomat's kidnapped daughter.

Rush Hour works with its new take on cross-cultural partnerships delivered by an inspired cast. Eastern and western cultures are blended and hilariously dissected from Chinese and African-American cuisine to language, music and martial arts as both characters ultimately find out they have more in common than realised.

9. The Heat (2013)

With the buddy cop film is a traditionally male-dominated genre, The Heat proved women can do it just as well with big box office success. Sandra Bullock, an uptight FBI special agent, and Melissa McCarthy, a bashful detective, investigate a ruthless drug lord in this comedy.

The Heat defies genre norms in its depiction of female characters as tough, foul mouthed and capable of dispensing rough justice.

10. The Other Guys (2010)

While Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero subverted some of the genre's conventions 14 years earlier, The Other Guys enjoys poking fun at some of the buddy cop film’s hallmarks.

Instead of two commanding detectives, we have Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell playing utterly unheroic cops looking to crack their first big case.

Instead of driving a flash car a la Bad Boys, the duo do their investigating in a Toyota Prius as they attempt to catch an even more incompetent villain.

That said, The Other Guys knows when to stick to genre’s high points by allowing the detectives to have differing temperaments while keeping the action sequences fast and slick.

Updated: June 10, 2024, 10:16 AM