For almost the first half of its existence, Hollywood has represented police departments in a valiant aura as a cohesive unit working together to protect the greater good. Around the late 60’s, however, numerous departments began facing convictions of corruption, damaging the medias message about law enforcement. Hollywood followed suit, and the corrupt cop film became a very popular genre, representing police departments as immoral and dishonest. Amidst these representations of corruption, however, a new character was born as a good and honest officer. This character was the corrupt cop film hero, and has since become a staple in the genre.
For my research paper, I looked at how this hero is represented in police corruption films. I analyze how it is the protagonist epitomizes the stereotypical Hollywood hero, and how he gains the audiences’ sympathy through strong morals and his commitment to seeking justice. These films are a battle of good versus evil, with the hero illustrating good, taking on police corruption, which typifies “bad” and dishonest. The hero must partake in vigilantism and push himself beyond his limits in order to clean out the corruption. I then finish by discussing why the corrupt cop film hero has become such an important character in modern day cinema.
In my Research I used three scholarly articles and four movies. The articles I used were “Assault Under Color of Authority”, by Judith Grant, “A Descriptive Analysis of Police Corruption in Film”, by Joseph Gustafson, and “How Dirty Harry was Rodney King’d”, by Travis Maruska. The movies I used were The Departed, directed by Martin Scorcese, American Gangster, directed by Ridley Scott, Training Day, directed by Antoine Fuqua, and Serpico, directed by Sidney Lumet. After reading and taking notes on each of the articles, I watched each of the movies twice. The first time I watched, I took notes on characteristics of the hero and general themes of the movies. The second time, I focused on the growth of the hero over the course of the movie, and how he inevitably accomplished his goal of cleaning up corruption. Overall, my main goal in watching the films was to characterize the hero and what makes him unique
American Gangster is based off a true story about a Harlem gangster, Frank Lucas, and his heroin empire of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Russell Crowe plays the lead detective, Richie Roberts, who is part of what seems to be the only non-corrupt team in all of New Jersey and New York City. Richie and his team eventually take down Costello. The Departed is based around two detectives in the Boston Police Department and the organized crime lord Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan who is the corrupt officer, and who also doubles as a snitch to Costello. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, an undercover detective in Frank’s ring. Training Day is about Jake Hoyt’s first day as a field detective, instructed by a corrupt officer Alonzo Harris who is played by Denzel Washington. The story takes place over the course of a day, in which Hoyt is at times forced into corruption, and if forced into breaking both his virtues and departmental rules in order to protect himself and overcome Alonzo. The last film, Serpico, is about a non-corrupt officer, Frank Serpico, in an entirely corrupt New York Police department and his struggle to find a place to work without violating any guidelines. Serpico eventually works with the media and a few other officers to clean out the NYPD.
The articles I used looked analyzed police corruption films, looking at both the corrupt officers and the non-corrupt officers. The Gustafson article helped me the most in identifying common trends of hero’s in corruption films. In this article, Gustafson analyzes numerous articles to try to define corruption films and the corruption hero. He argues how the hero is a likable character, even when he should not be. Judith Grant’s article led me to define the corruption as an institutional issue among the department, rather than behaviors of a few “rotten apples” (Grant, 2003). Grant strongly believes that the representations of corruption shown in film are reflections of real-life corruption, which tends to be institutional. My last article also helped me in identifying characteristics in the hero, however from the vigilante perspective. Although I do not agree with his argument that the corrupt cop film evolved from the vigilante film, I firmly believe that his analysis of vigilantism is a trait that is common ground with the corrupt cop hero.
As defined by Gustafson, a corrupt cop film is a “movie where the main problem that needs to be solved by the protagonist is pervasive police corruption” (Gustafson, 2007). This protagonist usually takes the form of a hero. The hero is a character who is shown to the audience as an honest and morally sound person, expressed early in the movie, usually by a single act performed by the protagonist. One of the best examples of this occurs in American Gangster.
Richie Roberts, the main detective and hero in the film, and his partner received a lead that brought them to an abandoned car, which contained a million dollars. Richie’s partner tried to convince Richie not to turn it in saying, “cops kill cops they can’t trust” (American Gangster, Ridley Scott). Richie, of course, feels otherwise, and turns in the money. This is a major turning point in the film. Not only does Richie become a hero, but it also exposes how the widespread level of corruption in the department.
In Serpico, Frank seems to be the only officer not receiving payoffs by local criminals. This shows the audience that Frank is not swayed by the pressure of his surrounding officers, even if the violation is as insignificant as a few hundred dollars. In Training Day, the audience is forced to be sympathetic towards Jake after they meet Alonzo. At their first meeting at the coffee shop, Jake shows the audience he is a well-mannered and respectful officer with a kind heart and strong intentions of cleaning up the streets. Compared to Alonzo, who came across as rude and insolent, Jake seemed like a saint. Simarly in The Departed, the audience sees Billy Costigan as an upstanding officer who is trying to put his troubled past behind him. Billy entered the force for all the right reasons, unlike Colin Sullivan, who is only an officer to be a rat for Frank Costello and so he can accomplish his own selfish aspirations of finding his way to the state house.
One striking characteristic of the hero is his involvement vigilantism. In three of the four films I viewed, the hero needed to take on a vigilante style of policing in order to clear out the corruption. When facing enemies of equal authority, it seems to be a rational solution in looking for convictions. Why that is surprising, however, is because vigilantism in itself is a form of corruption. As told by Grant, there are 3 forms of corruption: the violation of departmental rules, police brutality, and the direct violation of criminal law. In these films the hero both violates departmental rules and, at times, commits police brutality. Both of these are considered corruption, but are also acts of vigilantism. The hero commits these acts of vigilantism, but not because he wants to. “A corrupt cop film hero ultimately emerges victorious, but not before weathering exhausting moral struggles with himself and his countless enemies” (Gustafson, 2007). The hero is pushed to his limit and is forced to make sacrifices for his cause. This does not affect the audiences’ perspective of the hero, because they understand it is the only way to obtain the outcome they are looking for.
Though there are a number of comparable aspects of their approach towards police work, the vigilante cop film hero and the corrupt cop film hero are overall two different characters. This difference lies in the final objectives of the heroes involved. The vigilante hero’s main focus is on criminal suspects (I.E. gangsters, murders), whereas the corrupt cop film hero’s focus lies in corrupt officers involved. A vigilante cop film hero “disregards the procedural safeguards of the law and circumvents the criminal justice system in order to catch or otherwise incapacitate street criminals” (Gustafson, 2007), and resorts to more drastic means of corruption, whereas the corrupt cop film hero never ventures beyond brutality.
What I found most intriguing in the films I viewed was the dedication of the heroes. Throughout these films, the hero’s are pushed beyond their limits and expectations, yet never falter in reaching their objective. Though this is a key factor in cleaning up corruption, it has severe negative affects on their lives outside of their jobs. They become so engrossed in their police work that they drive themselves on the verge of hysteria, away from their normal lives and families. They isolate themselves, and become alone in this one-way, one-lane quest towards justice. This gives them even further sympathy in the eyes of the audience, however this time in the form of pity. One example of this isolation is Billy Costigan in The Departed. Costigan works undercover as a “soldier” for Frank Costello, a Boston crime lord. This is difficult for Costigan, who’s stuck in limbo between a life as a puppet for a crime lord, and a virtually non-existent police officer, as only two people in the department know he is undercover. It is impossible for him to hone a real relationship, as his entire life is a lie.
Probably the best examples are Richie Roberts in American Gangster, and Frank Serpico in Serpico. These two officers gave up their entire lives in their goals of taking down the enemy. In American Gangster, Richie is in the middle of getting a divorce with his ex-wife, who left him because he cared too much about his job. The wife not only wants full custody of their son, but also wants to move with him to Las Vegas because she believes that “you don’t have room for us” (American Gangster, Ridley Scott) Even more profound occurs in court, when she exclaims, “I’d rather you had taken (the money), or don’t, I don’t care. But then don’t go cheat on me, cheat on your kid by never being around…you think you’re going to heaven because you’re honest…but your not.” After a short pause, Richie responds, “You’re right. Being around me is no place for a kid. Take him to Vegas, I’ll see him when I can.” Richie’s wife is infuriated that because Richie is an honest and good cop, he thinks he’s an honest and good person as well. She doesn’t agree with this, and says he is just as rotten as the corrupt officers he arrests. Richie dedicated so much to his job that his family became secondary, and he eventually pushed them away through pure apathy.
A similar situation occurs in Serpico. He becomes so preoccupied with cleaning out the department that it takes over his whole life. Even when he is at home, with his very serious girlfriend, it is all he talks about. She tries to get his mind off it, and even find a new life elsewhere, but he just explodes. Although she loves him, it eventually becomes too much and pushes her toleave. That was the last relationship that Frank possessed outside of his job, and leaves him broken, and truly alone.
Although the path to get there is extremely difficult, justice is always served in favor of the hero. The hero must sacrifice everything, at times even his life, but in the end, the corruption is cleared and order is restored. What Hollywood is conveying to us is that when it comes down to it, the forces of good will eventually overcome forces of evil. Where there is disorder, forces of good will stand up because they know and believe they know it is the right thing to do. As J.K Rowling wrote through the voice of Harry Potter in The Order of the Phoenoix, “…That even though we got a fight ahead of us, we got one thing Voldemort doesn’t have. Something worth fighting for.” As innocently dramatic as that quote is, it certainly resonates with the messages portrayed from corrupt cop films. The hero has a legitimate reason for reinforcing the moral commitments of law enforcement. By having a completely unselfish and justified mission, the hero will always have the edge over corruption, whose only mission is that of personal power. The hero is willing to push the boundaries for his cause, because he knows many other people will be better off because of it. The corrupt officers, on the other hand, only act on whats in the best interest for themselves, which cannot hold nearly as much weight. This tells us that when a person acts not out of the interest of themselves but of the interest of others, they will succeed, no matter how much of an underdog they are.
The corrupt cop hero has become an integral part of corrupt cop films since the start of the genre nearly half a century ago. Through the hero, these films show that the hardest thing to do is often times also the right thing to do. The hero represents the hard work and sacrifices that it takes to reach your goals. Even when he is alone in his journey, the hero shows us that having a cause to fight for gives you the strength and dedication you must have to reach your goals. But by having that strong cause and good intentions, the hero teaches us that doing the right thing pays off in the end.