We all love the lone hero. The sole man or woman who can go up against any threat, with even the most miniscule amount of preparedness, and still come out on top. Watching John McClane, Ellen Ripley, Harry Callahan, Sarah Connor, or the like go it alone is always great. But as iconic as these figures are, the only real challenge to their credibility is their own sense of self and the villain they must go up against at the end. As much as our lone hero figures are a testament to the unbreakable spirit and drive of the individual, there’s something special to be said about the team-up, the men and women whose names alone mean nothing until they are paired with the other. I’m talking about the Buddy Cop narrative, a sub-genre defined by a pairing of two heroes (not always cops), with distinctly different backgrounds and approaches, who are taken out of their element via partnership, yet forced to put aside their differences in order to save the day.
The formula established by the classic pairings of Foley and Rosewood, Riggs and Murtaugh, Agent J and Agent K, have lent themselves to creating versatility within the Buddy Cop sub-genre. The stories of company men with dueling ideologies have largely moved beyond their beginnings as straight action and comedy vehicles. As the film and television landscape has evolved over the past few decades, the Buddy Cop sub-genre has remained resilient, its tropes easily reformatted and replaced within new genres supporting different narrative preoccupations. While there are many sub-genres that die out or become unrecognizable over the years, the Buddy Cop film has remained a stable cinematic trope, simple in its set-up and infinite in its utilization. With the second season of Nic Pizzolatto’s existential buddy cop thriller True Detective airing next Tuesday, let’s look back at how the Buddy Cop sub-genre has survived over the years, and influenced the orchestration of HBO’s hit show.
Buddy Cop as Action Film
In its most simplistic approach, the Buddy Cop film easily fits into the action film genre. Really, all Buddy Cop narratives have some element of action, but the utilization of it and with its preoccupations varies. Films like 48 Hrs. and Lethal Weapon can be considered largely responsible for the creation of the shift from cop-centric movies as procedurals and film noir to explosive franchises, and for generating audience recognition of police officers as action heroes instead of case workers. Consider the difference between Serpico and Die Hard, and you will have quantified how the rise of the action hero has changed the course of cop films. Even Dirty Harry, for all of its machoism and gunplay, falls closer to the New Hollywood side of things than that of the blockbuster era. And when our action heroes are paired together on film, there’s even less room for, or interest in, actual casework. Lethal Weapon remains the best example of a Buddy Cop film, but its police case and overall mystery are ancillary, barely memorable when compared to the relationship and action beats. Many of the films that took a page from Lethal Weapon’s formula, including Die Hard with a Vengeance, Black Rain, and Bad Boys, display an active disinterest in police work, paving the way for television drama to fill the gap.
Most of the procedural elements of cop dramas have been relegated to network TV shows like CSI and all of its numerous spin-offs and copycats, leaving much of the action to endeavors supporting higher budgets. What makes the first season of True Detective all the more interesting is that although it establishes itself as a slow-boil, dramatic mystery, it actually shares quite a few commonalities with the Buddy Cop action film. When people mention their favorite moments from the series, be it the single-take neighborhood escape sequence from Episode 4, or the attack on Ledoux’s compound in Episode 5, they are citing cinematic moments that, despite being more artfully shot and orchestrated than most blockbusters, are unmistakably action beats meant to amp-up the stakes. These moments are meant to be set pieces that stand out within the larger show. So while its long-form format allows True Detective to take a step back from the often breakneck speed of modern action films and weave a complicated narrative in the tradition of classic cop films and modern television, it also caters to some of the action tropes we’ve come to expect in blockbusters. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to call Rust Cohle or Marty Hart action heroes, their dynamic works in the service of the show’s orchestrated violence.
Buddy Cop as Comedy Film
The Buddy Cop film also allows for the volatile relationship of the film’s leads to play out in the field, usually resulting in blocks of destruction, but also a few laughs. It’s no surprise that when you stick opposites together you end up with comedy, and it’s a tried and true formula that’s worked well since before we had movies. Recent Buddy Cop comedy films, such as The Other Guys and The Heat, have focused on the low-brow hijinks of their individual pairings, the kind of easy physical comedy that most often results from those considered physically or mentally inadequate to wear the badge. But the best comedy within these types of films comes not from heavy-handed or forced moments, but from the relationship established between the characters. The genius of Beverly Hills Cop is that its comedy is relatively subdued, especially when compared to Eddie Murphy’s later films. Axel Foley’s relationship with Billy Rosewood isn’t the kind of loud, abrasive relationship we typically see in these pairings, but an observational one that gives way to mutual respect. It’s a film that allows the audience to do their fair share of the work and catch on to the observational humor provided they’re quick enough to catch it. Edgar Wright took a note from the same page with Hot Fuzz, relying on wit, observation, and audience familiarity with the sub-genre to satirize the sub-genre without destroying it altogether. It’s a testament to the Buddy Cop narrative tradition that it can still last and remain impactful even after all of its tropes have been poked fun of and revealed.
True Detective also lends itself to this kind of observational comedy. Everyone talks about the darkness and heavy themes of the show, but many fail to mention how funny it is. Once we get settled in with who the characters are, creator, writer, and show-runner Nic Pizzolatto gives the audience permission to laugh at and even mock Cohle and Hart. Some of the best moments in the show are Marty’s facial expressions after Rust goes off on one of his pessimistic tangents, or his misunderstanding of Rust’s line of dialogue “sentient meat” as “scented meat.” The show never feels a need to go the way of the Rush Hour series, as so many other Buddy Cop tales do, rubbing our faces in physical differences, or “man-out-of-country” narratives. All too often Buddy Cop movies get a pass on humor because they go for the easy differentiation of racial prejudices, or physical ones, and so on and so forth. Sometimes these outright differences work really well (Shane Black mastered it in Lethal Weapon and Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang), but to find humor on a deeper, psychological level is more challenging.
Buddy Cop as Genre Films
As the straight action blockbuster has largely fallen to the way side, giving rise to more special effects and genre-oriented features, the Buddy Cop film has had to reposition itself. Men in Black is the most notable film to take Buddy Cop elements and use them successfully within the realm of science-fiction, all while keeping the action and humor intact. The film’s sequels and Will Smith’s much maligned Wild Wild West attempted the same formula, but were far less successful. Wild Wild West suffered from poor humor and action, and the Men in Black sequels refused to let their characters change, ultimately offering more of the same without the initial novelty of the concept or an engaging plot of any kind to back them up in terms of narrative impetus. Other films have more recently utilized the Buddy Cop formula within a larger genre. Sherlock Holmes and its sequel delivered a period piece, action thriller by use of the formula which was largely successful on its own merits, but alienated some Sir Arthur Conan Doyle purists. Deliver Us From Evil attempted it with the horror genre by pairing a cop with a priest, and while the set-up was good, the payoff was ultimately too similar to the exorcism movies that preceded it. R.I.P.D. tried to copy Men in Black by using the supernatural instead of aliens and was a critical and commercial failure. And, most notably, Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 eschewed much of the traditional superhero sequel tropes to deliver a Buddy Cop film between Tony and Rhodey during the second half of the film. All of these films made strong cases for the elasticity of the sub-genre, but only a few were successful because only a few found the balance between those comedy and action foundations according to the established rules of the relatively new sub-genre to which they were taking part in.
While there was no Cthulhu monster waiting at the center of Carcosa, True Detective did borrow from a number of Lovecraftian and horror elements, leaving open the suggestion for the supernatural. What made True Detective so successful with audiences in its first season was the fact that it never delved too deeply into any one of the aforementioned elements. It managed to do thrilling action without becoming an action show. It had a deft handle on the comedic aspects without ever becoming a comedy. And it managed to delve into the odd without ever becoming something critics could call genre and accordingly turn their nose up at. It successfully navigated the course charted by Buddy Cop films from the past in order to create something that felt original, albeit immediately recognizable. Though, as a result, this notion of offering something different while delivering something familiar is also one of the reasons why some were critical of the show’s finale. But, if one of the central conceit’s of Pizzolatto’s show is being aware of the popular culture we digest, then it makes sense that the show would display such an awareness of the sub-genre that it borrows from. True Detective begins in a Buddy Cop fashion, stretches itself out into something different, and in the end returns to the familiar with the characters having been changed in the process. Whether a direct attempt or not, True Detective ultimately showcases the resilience of the Buddy Cop sub-genre.
Essentially, the appeal of the Buddy Cop set-up with audiences is the pleasure of seeing a battle of wits, words, and brawn that somehow ultimately results in a perfect, yet unorthodox, match. Perhaps it’s a reminder that going it alone doesn’t always work out for the best, and that it is possible to set aside physical, cultural, and existential differences in the service of teamwork, a cinematic equivalent of optimism. It’s a story that no matter how many times it’s used, and mixed, and matched with other elements, we never get tired of it. It’s a story we’re destined to see repeated, again and again, in film and on television over the decades. After all, time is a flat circle.