Snitch comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on the 11th. In in, Dwayne Johnson plays a blue collar trucker who, through a twist of litigious misfortune, finds himself unable to get his son out of prison; his son was accused of dealing a huge amount of drugs he never wanted. The law insists that he stay in prison pretty much indefinitely, even though he had never dealt drugs and had no record.
What's a father to do, but offer his trucking company to a local drug lord in the hopes of exchanging a real criminal for his son? Hiding out amongst criminals is no new cinematic notion, but it always makes for excellent drama. Will the moment come, the audience is always asking, when the undercover cop/father/criminal will be discovered? Are the relationships he forms while undercover any less legitimate, seeing as they are based on a lie.
That got us thinking about the greatest of the undercover cop movies. Here's what we could come up with.
Eastern Promises (dir. David Cronenberg, 2007)
In a fleshy and deliberate film about the horrible dealings in the Russian mafia, Viggo Mortensen plays one of the mafia's most trusted enforcers. He is encrusted with tattoos, easy with savagery, and quick with a knife (the nude sauna fight scene is now pretty infamous). When an innocent midwife begins sniffing around the mafia's door, investigating the death of one of her teenage patients, it's all Mortensen can do to keep her away. That it is eventually revealed that he is a cop, many years undercover, makes the drama all the more tragic.
Undercover Blues (dir. Herbert Ross, 1993)
Undercover cops always live a tragic double life, often having entire secret cadres of friends and family that they only have for professional reasons. It's tempting to think that they must not have much in the way of real romance as a result. Except when they meet each other undercover and marry and have kids. Better than the high-octane Mr. and Mrs. Smith is this wonderfully whimsical crime comedy from 1993, wherein Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner play a married couple of undercover cops who take no small amount of glee in their espionage skills.
Rush (dir. Lili Fini Zanuck, 1991)
When a pair of cops (Jason Patric, Jennifer Jason Leigh) infiltrates the local drug ring attempting to bust the speed kingpins in Texas, they find themselves taking a little too kindly to their regular consumption of the drug in question. What follows is a harrowing and dirty downward spiral of addiction that reveals less about crime and more about the insidious nature of the drugs they are trying to take down. There is a scene in the movie wherein Patric must do horrible sexual things to Leigh... just to calm her down. A great movie, and one that will put you off speed forever.
A Scanner Darkly (dir. Richard Linklater, 2006)
A bizarro animated film, also about drug dealers, but this time in the future. Keanu Reeves plays a cop who is so undercover, he is even unknown to his bosses, having to don a special disguise suit when he meets them (the suit makes him look like everyone, using an amazing visual effect). He lives with weirdos and drug addicts, trying to find the source of a mysterious new drug that robs people of their minds and sanity, only finding himself losing his own mind in the process. Based on a Philip K. Dick story, it has the swerve of Noir and the sting of real-life experience.
Stray Dog (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1949)
One of Kurosawa's best early movies, Stray Dog is about a cop (Toshiro Mifune) who loses his gun on what is perhaps the hottest day in Tokyo history. Still something of a rookie, our hero must consort with an older detective to find it again on the down low – losing a gun is a big no-no for cops. While he doesn't spend a whole lot of time undercover, he does have to enter some of the seedier clubs of the city, posing as a low-life, in order to find it. There are few better films about the rigorous nature of policework.
Point Break (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
Still one of the most fun cop movies ever made, this just-campy-enough, just-homoerotic-enough thriller from the early 1990s is an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride for a generation. Reeves (there he is again) plays an undercover Fed named (snicker) Johnny Utah who has to infiltrate a laidback cadre of criminal surfers who dress as ex-presidents and rob banks. He makes good with Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) the leader of the bunch, and finds himself jibing with the surfer's laidback ethos. Corny, dumb, and amazing, it really is one of the best.
Europa Europa (dir. Agnieszka Holland, 1990)
Perhaps one of the most daring and dangerous of undercover movies, this '90s arthouse darling from France tell the tale of a young Jewish boy (Marco Hofschneider) who, at the outbreak of WWII, finds himself taking refuge with the Hitler Youth, attempting to pass as Aryan, and tool around with Nazis. He not only stands in danger of being discovered, but also perhaps skirts dangerously close to the ethos of his enemy. Painful, tense, terse, salient, and great, this is a film that will have you wincing. Especially that foreskin scene. Ouch.
The Departed (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Based on a Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs, Scorsese's Academy Award-winning crime drama offers a one-two punch of undercover action. On the one had, you have a would-be Boston cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is secretly enlisted to infiltrate the Boston mob (off the books, mind you), run by the evil Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). On the other hand, you have a squeaky-clean-looking young Boston tough (Matt Damon) who was enlisted by Frank Costello to become a cop and report back to him. The two men's dramas are parallel, and yet their differences are striking.
Cruising (dir. William Friedkin, 1980)
Notorious and perhaps offensive, William Friedkin's daring 1980 cop movie is still hotly debated to this very day. Al Pacino plays a heterosexual cop who is enlisted to track down a dangerous serial killer in the then-underground, and then-pretty-sealed-off gay S&M community. He must learn to dress the part, the lingo of gay rough sex clubs, and the details of S&M – all stuff he would rather not do. Whether you think the film encourages gay stereotypes, or heroically eschews them is a matter you'll have to discuss with friends. Either way, the film is fascinating.
Reservoir Dogs (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
One of the biggest films in the 1990s Indie Boom, and the first film to announce Quentin Tarantino to the world, Reservoir Dogs is a flip, funny, cracklingly energetic low budget crime drama that is about a heist that we never get to see. A cadre of great actors (Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, and Tim Roth amongst them) are all criminals in a diamond heist that goes horribly awry, and Roth spends the bulk of the film bleeding out. We eventually see what Roth had to go through to get here: He's actually a cop, complete with fake criminal stories. If you haven't yet seen this one, then you need to get to it.