They don't look all that similar on the surface. One is bleak science-fiction, the other a found footage thriller. One is set in a dark, distant future, the other the present. But 'End of Watch' and 'Dredd,' both opening in theaters today, are buddy cop movies through and through. Both feature sets of mismatched partners thrown together by circumstance and targeted for assassination by drug dealers looking to protect their business interests. It's odd any time two movies of the same genre open in theaters opposite one another. It's stranger still when you realize that only one other buddy cop movie has opened during the previous eight months of 2012 ("21 Jump Street"), or that only one appeared in all of 2011 ("The Guard"). Which begs the question: whatever happened to the buddy cop movie?
Nothing good, it seems. It takes a week like this one to highlight the fact that recent years have seen a distinct drop in both the quantity and quality of buddy cop movies. If I asked you to rattle off some classic buddy cop movies from the genre's heyday in the 1980s, you could probably name half a dozen without breaking a sweat — "48 Hrs.," "Lethal Weapon," "Lethal Weapon 2," "Dragnet," "Red Heat," and "Running Scared," just to name a few of the best and most obvious examples. Now try to name even half that many from the last decade. There's "Hot Fuzz" for sure. "The Other Guys," if you're a McKay/Ferrell fan. And then… uh… well, I guess "Cop Out" wasn't completely horrible. "Starsky and Hutch" was decent. When did "Lethal Weapon 4" come out? 1998? Hm.
Clearly this generation is suffering from a distinct shortage of tough, sarcastic guys who drive around in '70s muscle cars making wisecracks. But why? The core elements of buddy cops are still the core elements of most blockbusters: big, dumb action featuring big, dumb guys saying big, dumb things while shooting big, dumb guns. It's not like there's been a movement away from the sort of disposable popcorn cinema that buddy cop movies represent. If anything, movies have only gotten dumber lately. So why the scarcity of buddy action movies, once the height of great dumb cinema, in an age of mediocre dumb cinema?
It's definitely true that specific tropes of the buddy cop movie — the oil-and-water partnerships, the uptight commanding officers threatening to take away the heroes' guns and badges, the blend of brutal violence and ridiculous one-liners — became so popular in the first wave of the genre's big hits, and then so rigidly codified and copied through the second wave of knock-offs and imitators, that they aged into cliché very quickly. There's only so many times you can see two dudes who don't get along bicker while shooting blood diamond smugglers before it starts to feel a little stale. At that point, the genre has to achieve a state of self-awareness or die — and it did in movies like "Hot Fuzz," "The Other Guys," and "21 Jump Street," which all tried to have their cake and read it its Miranda rights too. All three films are both deeply satirical and deeply nostalgic. "Look at how ridiculous these movies were," they say, " and look at how awesome they were as a result."
After years of derivative dreck, this weekend's two new releases suggest a brighter future for the buddy cop movie, one in which most of the genre's worst clichés are tossed aside in favor of a more streamlined approach. "End of Watch" injects a much needed dash of realism to its contrviances by separating the wisecracks and the shootouts. When Officers Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña) are on the job, they're focused, efficient professionals. When they're waiting for a call from dispatch, they wander around the streets of Los Angeles in their squad car, playfully insulting each other's heritage and trash talking their girlfriends and in-laws. It feels much closer to the way real cops must do their jobs — hours of tedium and bullshitting punctuated by moments of deadly serious violence. "Dredd" — which is obviously far too fantastical to describe as "realistic" — nonetheless does represent a more believable interpretation of the hoary old dynamic between the no-nonsense veteran and the wet-behind-the-ears rookie. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) doesn't complain about having to train a new recruit, not even when he learns she almost failed her judges' training course. He just throws her in the deep end and watches her swim.
Neither film acknowledges the existence of previous movies about buddy cops. Neither winks at the audience as if to say "We know you know this all a goof, but we like this goof and let's all enjoy it." They actually take the idea of buddy cops kind of seriously. In these movies, the buddies' relationships, tested and solidified in battle, become almost poignant. They're more than friends — they're brothers in arms.
We'll have to see these movies' box office grosses before we know where the buddy cop movie goes from here. The genre's next high profile entry will be 2013's "The Heat," which offers at least one big twist on the tired formula (that has, admittedly, been tried at least before): the buddy cops are women — Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. That sounds intriguing, and also like a return to the more self-aware model of the recent past. In order for a full-fledged buddy cop movie revival, some loose canon filmmaker who breaks all the rules and doesn't play by the book will have to come along and do something really fresh with the genre. Maybe we can even get him a straight-laced, by-the-book producer to partner up with.