Is there an action movie tradition more established and loved by action fans than the Rogue Cop? The only one that could even compete is the “ex-whatever brought out of retirement because he’s still the best,” but I think rogue cop wins. Besides, this is the Rogue Cop column. The best “ex-whatever called out of retirement” column will come later. We all know this trope, and name a million movies that do it; Dirty Harry, Die Hard, Cobra to name just a few. But the question here is why do we love it so much? Why do movies keep doing it?
Let me start by giving my opinion on cops. Like, real life, actual police officers. I don’t like them. I grew up in a sleepy suburb where the cops frequently had nothing better to do than fuck with kids who looked like they might be “trouble.” I was accused of crimes I never committed and ran from cops a fair amount. The suburb I lived in was adjacent to one of the most racially segregated cities in the US, and the cops there don’t hassle kids for being out after curfew, but they have made a go of matching the LAPD in terms of police brutality. I recognize that they are necessary, and I appreciate that many of them are honest and good and do a dangerous job. This does not change the fact that nearly every cop I’ve had a run in with was a serious dick with an inferiority complex.
So, why do we root for them in films? The short answer is because it’s fiction. That’s also kind of the cop-out answer. It’s also the way Americans in particular view rebellion against authority. Our identity was built on a bloody revolution against the English Monarchy. It’s ingrained in us that revolution and freedom are positive things, so when we see a cop on screen tell his commanding officer to stick it because he’s had it with the bureaucratic red tape, dammit, and he’s going to get justice no matter what, we enjoy it. We see a man (or woman, in some cases) who is driven to serve justice at any cost.
Which brings me to the second reason we root for the rogue cop; we know that the criminals and scumbags to whom he metes out justice are guilty of their crimes. We see them on screen. Part of what created the traditional action hero is a sense of morality. Harry Callahan is accused of being brutal in the first minutes of Dirty Harry because he attacked an alleged rapist. Callahan justifies this by saying the man was naked with “a butcher knife and a hard-on.” We trust Harry, though we didn’t see this first hand, and so his actions are justified. When we see him take out the Scorpio Killer at the film’s climax, we know that Scorpio has committed all the crimes he’s accused of, and only gotten away due to the aforementioned bureaucratic red tape. We revel in Harry taking the law into his own hands, because we know, without a doubt, that Scorpio is guilty.
In life, things are not so. We have to observe due process and the Fourth Amendment, because these things prevent innocents from being sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. We were not eye witness to the crimes that any given person is accused of, so we cannot accept a police officer taking action, because next time it could be any one of us that is a victim of police brutality for some crime we did not commit. The movies, though? They make it much easier, much more black and white. And as long as we know the difference, I think that’s fine.