"There's only one thing more dangerous than making them mad: Making them partners ..."
The situation is as follows: You're on a quiz show. The category is "Cop-Buddy Movies." All you have to do to win $350million is to know what film -- and which immortal duo -- the above marketing slogan refers to.
No, it's not so easy. The cop-buddy genre is, after all, one of the most popular and resilient in American films. The list of characters and films built on odd-couple casting and mismatched marriages of law-enforcement personnel constitutes a virtual pandemic. The formulae have manifested themselves in every imaginable permutation -- white-white, black-black, black-white, white-Asian, black-Asian, hipster-doofus, hipster-hipster, human-alien, human-canine and in one case female-female ("The Heat"). It is a cultural phenomenon. And it will be perpetrated further this Friday when "22 Jump Street" opens in theaters.
The original Fox TV series "21 Jump Street" introduced Johnny Depp and aired from 1987 to '91. It only became a buddy movie in 2012, when, in the movie of the same name, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum were teamed as the underachieving detectives Schmidt and Jenko, who are sent back to high school as counterfeit teenagers assigned to breaking up a drug ring.
In "22 Jump Street," they're off to college, admission standards having plummeted, and will again impersonate students in order to squash a new drug epidemic, and to give directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller an excuse to include spring break, debauchery, beer and bikinis in their movie.
But the answer to the riddle above is not, in fact, "22 Jump Street." So what is it?
One possibility would obviously be Danny Glover and Mel Gibson of the franchise-establishing "Lethal Weapon" of 1987. It was a movie that probably had too many children, but marked a significant moment in biracial casting and the marriage of comedy with serious crime drama.
It might be Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone as the eponymous "Tango & Cash" (1989), characters who felt the same about each other that audiences felt about the film.
A really solid guess would be Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in the seminal cop-buddy romp "48 Hrs." (1982). Even though Murphy's character, Reggie Hammond, wasn't really a cop (he was a convict recruited by Nolte to find the bad guys), part of the movie's charm is in Reggie's evolution from criminal to cop-like substance -- he comes to like impersonating a cop, and he comes to hate the bad guys. Unless one historiography includes such ancient TV ancestors as "Dragnet," "I Spy" and "Car 54 Where Are You?" then "48 Hrs." more or less invented the form.
A fourth possibility: Bruce Willis and Reginald VelJohnson, who played, respectively, the man of action and the man of doughnuts, thwarting the takeover of the Nakatomi building on Christmas Eve, and helping to make "Die Hard" one of the most successful films of 1988.
The '80s would be a good guess; 1988 is even the right year. But the answer is ... "Red Heat," in which a Russian detective, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is teamed with a Chicago cop, played by Jim Belushi, and director Walter Hill tried to recycle his own "48 Hrs." formula during a year that saw the release of several other would-be cop-buddy classics. Among them: "Dead Heat," in which Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo portrayed zombie detectives; and "Shakedown," in which Sam Elliott played a renegade cop and Peter Weller was a public defender. Not exactly a cop-buddy movie. And not exactly a vintage year for unbridled creativity.
But despite the existence of "Shanghai Noon," "Rush Hour" and "The Last Boy Scout," there have been some first-rate entries among police bromances -- "Men in Black" qualifies, for instance, as does "Hot Fuzz." But not all the good ones have been comedies.
You might not describe their characters as buddies, exactly, but Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman made "Seven" (1995) one of the movies' more memorable police partnerships and a breakthrough feature for director David Fincher. The thriller conformed to several conventions of the cop-casting paradigm (black-white; younger-older; seasoned veteran-brash upstart). But it still rang true.
Similarly, "Training Day" (2001), which won Denzel Washington a best actor Oscar, teamed him with Ethan Hawke in a coming-of-age tale of corruption. In some ways, that film echoed "Colors" (another from 1988!) the Robert Duvall-Sean Penn vehicle directed by Dennis Hopper about gang violence in Los Angeles. Focused on a veteran LAPD cop and his hotheaded young partner, it received both praise and criticism for its depiction of gang crime and the delicate diplomacy of the streets.
One of the cast members in "Colors" was a young Don Cheadle, who in 2011 appeared in one of the better cop-buddy comedies of recent decades, "The Guard." Directed by John Michael McDonagh, it stars Brendan Gleeson as Gerry Boyle, a slightly debauched member of the Irish constabulary, who is partnered temporarily with a fairly strait-laced American FBI agent named Wendell Everett (Cheadle).
Wendell, all business and the antithesis of Gerry, becomes the recipient of the Irish garda's casual insults and random abuse.
"Now I know what you're thinking," Gerry says to Wendell, en route to a confrontation with ne'er-do-wells. "You're thinking, these men are armed and dangerous, and you being an FBI agent, you're more used to shooting at unarmed women and children. ..."
Wendell's response is unprintable. Most of the dialogue is.
But it's also very funny, and fresh, in a way that suggests even when a genre has been arrested, abused and deprived of competent counsel, it may still have the potential for rehabilitation. Even redemption.