Partners in Crime, Caught on Tape

Michael Connelly’s The Dark Hours avoids stereotypical police partner dynamics, as do these five films.

cop movies

Besides Michael Connelly’s attention to the current political and cultural moment, one of the most impressive parts of The Dark Hours—the California Book Club’s April selection—is the partnership he creates between Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch, especially as both characters distance themselves from the LAPD. Ballard is far from the bleeding heart that readers might anticipate in a novel that contemplates whether reforming the police force is necessary. Neither excessively emotional nor cold, she isn’t written according to stereotypes of femininity, but she wasn’t written as traditionally masculine either. Her most telling moments as a character are the ones that reveal her loyalties, which tend toward the victims of crimes rather than toward institutions or her fellow officers.

Bosch, the fan-favorite detective who is now retired, collaborates with Ballard in a less-than-official capacity to solve two major mysteries in the novel. Their partnership, not their first, is beyond that of colleagues but not as instinctual as a father and daughter’s might be. There is no clear leader or follower: each character furthers the investigation in their own way, even as Ballard emerges as the protagonist (and indeed, her name is first on the cover).

The complex dynamic between an officer of the law and his (or, occasionally, her) partner has spurred its own genre of film. Immersed in drama and the thrill of the chase, these characters each bring a distinct set of skills or personality traits to the case, learning from the other’s techniques as the story line progresses. Buddy-cop movies tend to be comedic, but a number of dramas and thrillers take a similar approach. The easiest way to get a laugh in buddy-cop movies is to rely heavily on stereotypes and allow the comedy to spew from the mismatching of the pair, and perhaps add in a life lesson about unexpected friendships. And their thriller counterparts find their gripping pace through disturbed villains and dramatic shoot-outs. Even the best of these movies tend to be filled with excessive violence, objectified women, and simplified morals and exclusively feature the perspective of police and law enforcement. But some films dare to contort the buddy-cop formula, adding gender commentary, unexpected bad guys, and heart-thumping plot twists. Often these are the most interesting.

Here are five movies to watch that dramatize the buddy-cop dynamic differently.

BlacKkKlansman (2018) is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, played by John David Washington, the only Black cop on the Colorado Springs police force in the Seventies, who attempts to infiltrate the local chapter of the KKK. His phone calls to the Klan get him an in-person introduction, so he partners with Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go undercover—Stallworth as the voice on the phone and Zimmerman as the man at the meetings. The disagreements between the two on identity and the purpose of their investigation, paired with a gripping plot, drive the movie forward and create an accidental but tight-knit team.

An on-screen partnership between an aloof FBI agent and an unruly cop isn’t new. But what makes 2013’s The Heat unusual is that the officers are women—Sandra Bullock plays the agent, and Melissa McCarthy plays a Boston police officer who is not so thrilled to have a fed following her around. But even in a role typically written for a man, neither officer loses her outrageous character. The film’s jokes occasionally hinge on the characters’ femininity (or lack thereof).

In The Bone Collector (1999), after beat cop Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie) uses her keen observation to conclude that a serial killer may be terrorizing New York, she teams up with forensics expert Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington). An accident on the job has confined him to his bed, but he tentatively returns to police work, decoding the puzzle of the killer. In a genre where men often capture the big action scenes, Donaghy is the center of most events, with Rhyme’s voice guiding her along the way. Jolie’s character is also, unfortunately, full of self-doubt, but she’s nonetheless intelligent and driven.

The movie that launched David Fincher’s career, 1995’s Se7en stars Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in the predictable roles of seasoned cop on the verge of retirement and new kid on the force, respectively. What makes this movie remarkable is its psychological complexity. As the pair track down a serial killer hunting victims based on the seven deadly sins, the horrible violence of the kills prompts both men to reconsider their staunch beliefs on good and evil.

Running Scared (1986) throws out most elements of the blueprint of ’80s buddy-cop movies: no mismatched partners, no gore, and only a few stunts and explosions. Instead, the film finds success in the pairing of Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal as two longtime partners on the Chicago police force contemplating retirement. The dialogue between the two (and later their trainees) is excellent, especially for the genre, making this movie the wittiest pick on the list.•

Connelly will join the California Book Club on April 21 at 5 p.m. Pacific time to discuss The Dark Hours with host John Freeman and a special guest. Join us in the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book and let us know what you think! Register here for the event.


michael connelly
Dustin Snipes


Michael Connelly discusses chasing his heroes. —Alta

dark hours, michael connelly
Grand Central Publishing


Alta Journal books editor David L. Ulin calls The Dark Hours “a detective novel for the post-pandemic, post–George Floyd era.” —Alta

noir detective


Critic Colette Bancroft writes a sharp, insightful essay on the influence of Raymond Chandler’s detective fiction on Connelly’s books. —Alta

one shot harry, gary phillips
Soho Crime


Gary Phillips’s One-Shot Harry, set in 1963 Los Angeles, is the first in a planned series that revolves around a veteran who works as a freelance photographer for Black newspapers while also hustling as a process server. —Alta

april book picks


Here are 13 titles by writers from the West that we’ve got our eyes on this month.Alta

chelsea bieker
Jessica Keaveny


Chelsea Bieker’s short story collection Heartbroke focuses on the underbelly of the Central Valley and the urge to destroy. —Los Angeles Times

eve babitz
Mirandi Babitz


A personal essay honors author and artist Eve Babitz, who died in December. —Los Angeles Review of Books

katheryn bigelow, david koepp
The Hollywood Reporter


Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) will be directing an adaptation of David Koepp’s forthcoming Aurora for Netflix. —Hollywood Reporter

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Jessica Blough is an assistant editor at Alta Journal.
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