Cinema’s Top 10 Most Unstable Police Officers

by Warren Cantrell on Dec.16, 2013, under Film Lists

Holy Jesus!  What took me so long?  For my money, it doesn’t get a hell of a lot better for movie cops than when they are almost completely un-hinged, and teetering between patrol duty and institutional commitment.  In the old days, motion pictures usually took the extra time to present custodians of the law as respectable, trustworthy figures who were completely consumed by their duty to protect and serve.  As the years went on, however, filmmakers realized that corruption in law enforcement was a fact of life, and that when offered films that focused on traditionally good characters gone bad, audiences ate it up!   There’s something frightening about the abuse of power.  A police officer has a fantastic amount of leverage over the average citizen: probably the most notable characteristic residing in the fact that they can take a person’s freedom away.  Yes, few things terrify people more than the prospect that they might have their comfortable life yanked out from under them, and/or be confined to a situation where they are at the mercy of others.  Law enforcement officers can do this, and if it is a really fucked up situation where corruption and greed have turned a once-proud institution rotten, things can get nasty in a hurry.


When pooling choices for today’s list, I made the distinction between corruption and what was clearly the manifestation of some form of mental psychosis.  While it’s true that a number of the choices listed below were corrupt, this alone did not a ranking selection make.  The person in question had to have clearly gone over into an unhealthy mental state where their perception of reality and the difference between right and wrong were askew.  As for the disclaimers, I allowed no Feds or government agents, for the officers in question had to be proper cops.  (And these had to be active-duty officers still pulling shifts, not renegades who used to work for the force, and then went off the rails.)  Please understand that this was a meaty list with a fantastic field of possible candidates, some of whom included Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit, Michael Douglas in Black Rain, Gary Sinese in Ransom, Brad Pitt in Se7en, Nick Nolte in Q & A, Kurt Russell in Tombstone, and the crazy British dad from Hott Fuzz.  As you can see, tough choices had to be made.  I hope you’ll forgive me if one of the above choices, or another I might have missed, didn’t seem worthy of being out-ranked by say…



10.) Denzel Washington as “Alonzo Harris” in Training Day –

This was a last-minute addition that nearly didn’t make the cut, for I struggled with Denzel’s character in Training Day, as it’s hard to say whether Alonzo was un-hinged and off his rocker, or just so corrupt and cocky that he didn’t remember where he’d started.  I ended up putting “Alonzo” into the ranking after pouring over the decision a bit more, as nobody, not even a well-connected cop, gets in deep with the Russian mob if they’ve got any sense in them.  The film opened with Ethan Hawke’s Jake Harris character, who was assigned to work with a highly decorated L.A.P.D. narcotics officer, Alonzo (Denzel).  The impressionable Jake was immediately shaken into the realities of his new assignment when Alonzo asked, then forced Jake to take a hit off a pipe stuffed with marijuana.  Not long after this, Jake watched Alonzo release two would-be rapists that the former officer had pulled off a young school girl, and was told that no arrests would be made, and that justice would be meted out on the streets by the girl’s relatives.


Understand, this was all in the same day that Alonzo took Jake to a fake drug bust to steal narcotics funds from a drug dealer, funds that Alonzo would later use to bribe the local police chief and D.A. for an arrest warrant.  Naturally, this warrant was to be served on a man that Alonzo hoped to rob, for his target had enough money to settle certain debts with certain Russian mobsters.  Jake was a party to all of this intrigue, and was expected to go along with it as something of an orientation for the naïve officer.  The fact that Denzel’s character thought that smoking weed and PCP, robbing dealers, and killing informants to repay mob debts was an entirely reasonable day for a narcotics officer put him in today’s ranking, for this kind of mind-set is anything but stable.  Yet throughout the entire movie, though Alonzo’s perception of right and wrong were clearly off, his mental faculties never seemed to suffer.  You certainly couldn’t make that claim for this next pair…



9.) 2-way Tie: Bobcat Goldthwait as “Zed” and David Graf as “Eugene Tackleberry” in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol -

Both of these fellas were in previous installments of the hallowed Police Academy franchise, Bobcat as the villainous thug and later cadet, Zed, and the unshakably stoic David Graf as Sgt. Tackleberry, who was with Mahoney, Hooks, Hightower, and Jones from the beginning.  Because this was an innocent, somewhat carefree franchise, Zed and Tackleberry never got into any of the crazy shit Denzel’s character was stirring up in Training Day, yet these boys were still on the crazy side of normal.  We first met ol’ Tackleberry in the original installment, when he was still a fresh-faced man-child looking to shoot his way into police history.  By the fourth Police Academy installment, the officer’s modus operandi was fairly well in place, as he always sauntered casually into a situation, attempted to resolve a given disturbance politely, then began shooting wildly when that didn’t achieve the given objective.  I especially liked when he shot out the change box of a payphone when an operator refused to refund a woman’s money.  Clearly, these were not the actions of a sane man, especially since he was licensed to carry a firearm (which for Tackleberry meant something just shy of a bazooka) and murder people at his discretion.


The N.R.A.’s golden goose had nothing on Officer Zed, however, who was goosing helpless bystanders for eight dollars one day, then got accepted to the Academy, and was a uniformed officer the next.  Seriously!  This guy ran with a major street gang, and was involved in brazen robberies that saw the dude pilfer a suburban grocery store in broad daylight, then became a cop pretty much overnight.  Zed got run by Mahoney and his crew at the end of the second installment, and must have walked due to some kind of legal technicality, for only a year later, after getting popped for what must have been at least eight counts of armed robbery, and twice that many assault and battery beefs, he was training to become a cop.  By the fourth film, Zed was actually an instructor for new recruits, yet had not lost much of his primal fury.  He still scream-talked, and was liable to completely lose his shit at any given moment.  This was demonstrated most clearly in #4 when Zed’s watch was busted during a drowning rescue, and the Mickey Mouse gears died from water-exposure.  To Zed, the loss proved tragic, yet fueled him for the retribution he would dispense on the heads of evil men later on in the film, when he helped quell a prison riot.  Two men who wore the badge with honor, yet never surrendered their insane dignity, their combined awesomeness nearly edged out this next gentleman…



8.) Russell Crowe as “Wendell ‘Bud’ White’ in L.A. Confidential – 

Um, yeah: I’d say that Russell Crowe’s Bud White character was a little on edge in L.A. Confidential.  During his introduction, just a few minutes into the flick, Bud sat quietly in his car and stewed about a domestic disturbance he witnessed through the window of a nearby domicile.  When his partner returned, the guy seemed to immediately understand what Bud was doing when he got out of his car and approached the house in question, for the partner actually tried to call Bud off, clearly aware of the maniac’s habit of tearing the throats out of men who beat women.  Bud stopped just short of this, however, and merely ripped the Christmas lights off the house to get the offending asshole outside.  This served the primary, short-term function of Bud’s action: mainly, to get the man to stop beating his wife.  Yet Bud was more concerned about long-term sanctions, which is why he beat the piss out of the husband and threatened to put him away on “a kiddie-raper beef,” which would assure that the man would lose his balls on the inside, a threat that seemed to resonate with the prick.


Remember, this was merely Bud’s opening scene.  Officer White put on a brutality clinic as the movie progressed, and was especially dangerous when there was any hint of violence against a woman.  Using nothing but the strength in his murderously unstable hands, Bud snapped a chair into splinters when he heard about the rape and torture of a young Latino woman, then proceeded to play Russian Roulette with the suspect until he got the information he wanted (and it was a legit game).  Later, when he found out that “Exley” (Guy Pearce) had screwed his girlfriend, Bud nearly razed a police station in his quest to dismantle Exley entire.  It seems almost trite to do a write-up of Crowe’s performance, for the dormant rage and fire that was glowing steadily beneath the man’s surface has become something of a trademark for the actor, and is readily associated with both the man and his roles.  Back in 1997, most of the world had not heard of Russell Crowe, however, and the ferocious intensity of “Bud White” astonished audiences.  A good cop that you still wouldn’t ever want to cross, Crowe cemented his professional credentials with this film, and permanently sealed his character’s standing within the crazy-cop hall of fame.



7.) Jeff Daniels as “Alvin Strayer” in 2 Days in the Valley – 

I can’t imagine what I would have done if I had forgotten to rank Mr. Daniels for his role in this film.  I own the movie, for Christsakes, and it is one of my favorites of all time, so to leave it off would have been inexcusable.  My friend Audrey was the one who reminded me about this one, and God bless her for it, as there are fewer cinematic police officers that can claim to be as unstable and dangerous as Alvin Strayer.  Partnered with an impressionable, idealistic young badge who clearly didn’t share the vindictive passion Strayer harbored about punishing criminals, Eric Stoltz’s Wes Taylor seemed a little scared of Strayer.  Shit, the guy didn’t appear to be able to put a sentence together without spiraling into a vitriolic denouncement of the vice corrupting his precious neighborhood.  Strayer seemed to take every transgression of the law personally, as if every prostitute, drug dealer, and jay-walker was fucking directly with him.  As the film progressed, the audience realized that the character was the victim of a divorce that saw his son with his ex-wife and her new beau, providing clues to the man’s inner-turmoil.


The separation clearly troubled Strayer, for every word, event, or action that did not conform to his world-view was immediately confronted.  Whether it was an innocent question from his new partner, a random golf ball crashing through his window, or a malfunctioning A/C unit: if it pissed him off, it got punished.  My only regret is that we never got to see Strayer confront James Spader’s Lee character, the central antagonist of the film.  It seemed a pity to squander all of the pent up rage in Daniels’ character when a perfectly good maniac was rolling around in the plot, in need of killin’.  Oh well.  It was still a wonderful movie, and for the limited amount of time that saw him on-screen, Jeff Daniels certainly left his mark on the film, and the un-hinged cop-genre in general, for few have done so much with so little in this regard.  It’s time to get the elephant in the room out of the way, however, for when I mentioned this list, the following role came up as a suggestion almost as much as any other…



6.) Gene Hackman as “Popeye Doyle” in The French Connection – 

I’ve read that when actual N.Y.P.D. officers saw this movie, and watched the scene where Hackman shot an unarmed suspect in the back, the cops took exception.  Men who had actually worked the streets of New York and understood the internal review process within the Department thought that Hackman’s character was cruisin’ for a bruisin’ on that one, and felt that if any of them had pulled the same stunt, they’d have been without a badge (maybe worse).  Yet Hackman and the director, William Friedkin, defended the scene, and claimed that the real-life Popeye Doyle had been on the set, and if that guy didn’t care, neither did they.  And that’s fair.  Though it was nominally connected to actual events that took place in N.Y.C. in the 1960s, this movie was all about Hackman, and the volatile thug he played (one that just so happened to carry a badge).  A racist ghoul with a twisted perspective on what his duty was as an officer of the law, Popeye Doyle was a man from a different time.  This was the type of cop that beat the hell out of you when nobody was looking, not so much for a confession, but to level the playing field, and impress upon the scum of the city that somebody was hitting back.


On the trail of a heroin ring that was bringing junk into the ports of New York via boats originating in France, Doyle and his partner clawed through every seedy bar and rattled the cages of all the low-lives with track marks and a sheet in the tri-state area.  As Doyle drew closer to the roots of the smuggling conspiracy, the room to maneuver seemed to shrink more and more.  On top of his own superiors, Popeye had to contend with a Fed. that was trying to muscle in on his investigation, not to mention a gaggle of drug dealers that were itching to snuff out the pesky flat foot.  The film’s crowning achievement was the automobile chase through Brooklyn.  Doyle was in a car, chasing an elevated train that carried the missing link to the drug investigation.  The suspect was on the train, and Popeye was determined to run the bastard down, and take the son of a bitch in dead or alive.  Possessed by his blind determination to see the job through and get his man, Popeye allowed nothing to get in his way during the chase, and even threatened the lives of innocent civilians (the ones he was supposedly protecting) during the pursuit.  Technically speaking, Popeye Doyle was a great cop, for his dedication to a given assignment and his tenacity in seeing justice done put him in a class all his own.  Yet the dude clearly had his priorities mixed up, for when you nearly run over and kill half a dozen civilians in the process of getting your guy, then maybe the job has gotten over on you a little.  For more evidence of this, I’d ask you to consider…



5.) Two-Way Tie: Ray Liotta’s “Henry Oak” in Narc & as “Pete Davis” in Unlawful Entry - 

When it comes to introductions, you’d be hard-pressed to find a film that presents its co-lead any more effectively and efficiently as in Narc.  Liotta played a cop who was introduced as being “on the edge,” something that was reinforced immediately by a scene where Oak took a billiard ball, threw it in a sock, then ambushed a man twice his size.  This kind of moxie would be impressive all by itself, yet Oak took it a step further, and committed this assault while his victim was in handcuffs and in transit from one end of a police station to another.  Being a violent maniac is one thing, but to act out in such a manner while on duty, in front of other cops: this puts somebody in the “unstable” category.  As part of a flash-back story, the audience learned that Oak had a history of violence, and that he’d beat the stuffing out of a guy who Oak and a few other cops had come to arrest (only to find that the suspect had been abusing a small girl).  Oak didn’t play that shit, and when given the chance to punish the criminal responsible, this cop went to town.  The picture portrayed Liotta’s character as a flawed, yet ultimately decent man who had lost his moral compass and replaced it with criminal blood-lust that owned every other inch of him.


Ray’s turn in 1992’s Unlawful Entry saw the actor in yet another policeman’s role, one which had none of the redeeming qualities his Oak character would display in Narc.  In Unlawful Entry, Liotta played Pete Davis, a seemingly normal L.A.P.D. cop who responded to a burglary call at a residence one evening.  The victimized couple (Kurt Russell and Madeline Stowe) were initially comforted by Officer Davis, yet quickly changed their minds once they got a glimpse of the man’s true intentions.  On a ride-along with Davis, Russell’s character actually got to see the officer apprehend the suspect who had broken into his home, and was offered a chance to beat the hell out of the guy to make up for the intrusion.  Russell’s “Michael” refused, and made it clear that he didn’t want anything to do with the cop any longer.  This was pretty much the smartest thing the yuppie could have done, for Davis was on one hell of a tear by this point.  During the rest of the movie, the audience got to watch Davis kill a woman in the backseat of a car, murder his partner, plant drugs on an innocent man, then attempt to rape Michael’s wife.  Well beyond corruption, Liotta’s Davis was clearly a psychopath, and one who had gone all the way over to the other side.  While both characters weren’t as unstable as some of the others on today’s list, the fact that Liotta pulled this trick off twice earned him a most honorable spot, one that nearly beat out…



4.) Tom Sizemore as “Jack Scagnetti” in Natural Born Killers – 

Really, how could there be a discussion about maniac cops who were two pennies short of a full stack without mentioning Jack Scagnetti?  Clearly a sociopath with homicidal urges, Scagnetti was one of the two parasitic elements within the film’s narrative, the other being Robert Downey Jr.’s “Wayne Gale.”  Both men abused their positions as figures in possession of the public’s trust, and used Mickey and Mallory Knox as a means to further their own careers.  It didn’t matter to either man that they were feeding off a cultural illness, one that celebrated vicious killers instead of vilifying them.  Though both men could have utilized their role as a police officer or television personality to influence the public in a way that turned opinions against Mickey and Mallory, Scagnetti and Gale simply enjoyed the ride.  Gale used the murders as a catalyst to generate more ratings for his television show, and brought Scagnetti in as something of a protagonist for the masses, a role the detective was delighted to fill.


In truth, Scagnetti was no better than Mickey or Mallory, and while he may have been the face of law and order for Gale’s viewers, behind the scenes, the man was orchestrating his own dark tragedy.  When hunting the serial killers, Scagnetti took a little time off to hire a prostitute, one which he saw fit to murder with his bare hands.  Later, when he had Mickey cornered in a drugstore, the detective threatened to cut Mallory’s breasts off in front of a crowd of at least twenty other people, a move that cops generally avoid if they can help it.  Once incarcerated, Scagnetti’s psychosis really stepped out to stretch its legs, for even though he had snagged his quarry, the lust for Mallory still remained.  The detective went to visit the diminutive killer on his own time, and hoped to sneak a feel or perhaps commit a felony.  Well-adjusted cops generally don’t act in this manner, what with the hooker-murder, mutilation threats, and attempted molestation.  Though this might be considered simple corruption, the pleasure Scagnetti seemed to take in each of these acts rocketed him into contention, for this was clearly one sick piggy.



3.) Mel Gibson as “Martin Riggs” in Lethal Weapon – 

Mel can be relied upon to deliver a wild-eyed screed with undeniable conviction anywhere, any time, with or without the cameras rolling.  And that’s sort of the problem, isn’t it?  It isn’t really “acting” when you are, in fact, pants-crapping insane.  I mean, if you are actually a certifiable maniac who, I don’t know, purchases castles and mansions like most people buy pants, or gets caught threatening to murder the mother of your child, then these kinds of roles probably aren’t terribly difficult to manage.  I’m trying really hard not to be hard on Mr. Gibson, for as I’ve said in the past, I too have said some questionable things after knocking back the better part of a bottle.  Yet after hearing the aforementioned murder-tapes, most would probably agree that when playing a suicidal and mentally unstable cop, Mel seemed to be drawing on some deep crazy-reserves.  Though the sequels only gave a glimpse of the madness put on display in the original installment, Gibson’s Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series proved in that first outing that he was not a cop to be trifled with.


A Vietnam veteran who had served in an elite special op’s capacity during the war, Riggs had recently lost his wife when Lethal Weapon began, and when he wasn’t at home with a gun in his mouth, he was out on the streets, taking every dangerous job available.  An honest, decent cop with impeccable morals and a fierce sense of loyalty, Riggs’ indifference to his own existence made him both an effective officer, but also a dangerous person to be around.  His new partner, “Roger Murtaugh” (Danny Glover) certainly felt this way, for it took him all of two minutes to realize that Riggs was a ticking time-bomb (one which he was now attached to).  If you’re looking for evidence as to the nature of Riggs’ qualifying marks for a spot in the vaunted top-three, I’d ask you to look no further than the “Shoot me!  Shoot me!” scene in the Christmas tree lot, Riggs’ ledge-jumper talk-off, the interrogation with Murtaugh afterwards, and the foot-race to run down Mr. Joshua after the escape from the music club.  Clearly, these were not the actions of a sane man.  For another example of a role where the actions of the lead did most of the talking, we’d be remiss to pass up a discussion of this next character, a man who pretty much re-wrote the book on the unstable-cop genre…



2.) Harvey Keitel as “The Lieutenant” in Bad Lieutenant – 

If ever there is to be a retrospective review of all films produced and released during the 20th century, I have to figure that this one will be in a special class designated as ‘too fucked up to categorize.’  The movie opened with The Lieutenant dropping his two boys off at school, where the caring father said his goodbyes then immediately started bumping hits of cocaine off his hand.  He went from there to a crime scene where he happened to witness a robbery in progress.  No, The Lieutenant didn’t rush over to halt the crime, but instead used the opportunity to shake down a local drug dealer and set up a racket whereby The Lieutenant could use the junky as a fence for confiscated drugs.  Clearly, the film didn’t want to waste any time setting up Keitel’s character as a deplorable addict with no real concern about his function as an officer of the law.  During this film, “The Lieutenant” drank heavily, out-did Tony Montana’s cocaine consumption, had a prostitute three-way, shot out his car radio, forced two women to strip while he jerked off, and made six figure bets with mob bookies.


Obviously, this film took its title of Bad Lieutenant seriously.  About the only thing that seemed to resonate with the cop in a productive, honorable way was his discovery of a crime against a nun.  The poor woman had been raped and violated by a couple of evil bastards that had got away after the incident.  Somewhat concerned with seeing some justice done in this one particular instance, The Lieutenant went looking for the suspects, and along the way seemed to pick up a few scraps of humanity that had been cast off over the years.  When this movie came out, because of the unapologetic crack smoking, Keitel’s full-frontal nudity, and the rampant police corruption presented throughout the narrative, the ratings board slapped it with an NC-17 mark.  Normally, I’m the first person to be up in arms about a shitty rating by a bunch of up-tight fundamentalists with sticks up their asses and bones to pick with the entertainment industry.  In this case, however, they got it 100% correct.  No child should ever be allowed to watch this movie.  Shit, I’m 32 and I feel violated and confused.  That this film was extended and re-imagined recently astounds me, for when it comes to this narrow franchise, seeing is believing…



1.) Nicholas Cage as “Terrence McDonagh” in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans – 

When I got the idea for this list, I put out a few feelers to loyal, trusted allies who have never sent me down a wrong path when kicking up ideas for a ranking.  When I began receiving responses about possible candidates, there was one common thread that bore itself out through all the suggestions: Nic Cage in Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans.  Like many, I’d heard the rumors about this film.  I’d read that Werner Herzog had “re-imagined” the original Harvey Kietel classic, and set his new 2009 version in a post-Katrina New Orleans with different characters.  With Mr. Cage on board, and reportedly eating through scenes like some kind of mutant piranha, about the only thing Herzog could promise was that his new version would be as ludicrous and outlandish as anything ever committed to film.  After being convinced by the 10rant faithful that if there was going to be a list about unstable cops, then Cage would have to be at the top, I considered it my duty to get out and see this film.  What I discovered to my horror and amazement was that everybody, right down to the last man and woman, was absolutely correct.  Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans is not a film, oh no.  This fucking movie is a force of nature.


Cage played “Lt. Terrence McDonagh,” a normal cop who had an accident on the job, and picked up a fairly nasty drug habit as a result.  Using his position of authority to troll the city’s underbelly for drugs and money, McDonagh rolled small-time junkies and pimps in a never-ending quest for his next fix.  In one of the film’s most astounding moments, the lieutenant detained two young kids coming out of a club and began questioning them about drugs.  Long story short, the lieutenant smoked crack with the chick, then held a gun on the boyfriend and forced the guy to watch as the lieutenant screwed his girlfriend between crack puffs.  Later, when forced to wait a little too long for his prescription at the pharmacy, McDonagh simply walked behind the counter, flashed his gigantic hand-cannon that was ALWAYS tucked barrel-first down the front of his trousers, then walked out with his drugs after throwing a pile of cash on the counter.  Now, don’t get me wrong: this movie was fucking weird.  Vignettes where the picture shifted into the perspective of iguanas and alligators gave me a headache, as did any moment where the film tried to climb off the mountain of cheese upon which it was built to capture a genuine emotion or moment.  I can’t deny that Cage, crazy bastard that he is, nailed this role, and perfectly suited the needs of a character that seemed ready to shatter into a million pieces and collapse into dust at any moment.  If nothing else, his McDonagh character did what I would have thought impossible: he out-did Kietel’s “Lieutenant” in terms of reckless abandon and commitment to the absolute abuse of his authoritative social role.  Considering the original Bad Lieutenant, this was an achievement all to itself.



Copyright Warren J. Cantrell – All Rights Reserved


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