The drug war’s most enthusiastic recruit: Hollywood

DRAGNETS, DIRTY HARRYS AND DYING HARD: PART IV

The drug war’s most enthusiastic recruit: Hollywood

Published on October 27, 2016

Santa Claus is running down the street, arms pumping, hat lost, beard blowing back over his shoulder. But he’s not in a hurry to deliver overdue toys — he’s on the hunt. His quarry trips and falls in an abandoned lot. Santa pulls a gun from an ankle holster and begins to pistol-whip the man.

This scene, early in “The French Connection,” perfectly captures not only the film’s grim, sardonic attitude but also a bitter national mood. Just a few months before the movie’s October 1971 release, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy Number One” and vowed an “all-out offensive” against the scourge. “The French Connection’s” tough-cop protagonist, “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), who battled a French heroin cartel, was one of the first cinematic foot soldiers in a war that would stretch on for decades.

About the series: Police influence played a powerful role in shaping early Hollywood. The entertainment industry has since spent decades advancing ideas about policing that play out in some of our most agonized public debates.

PART I: How police censorship shaped Hollywood

PART II: How pop culture’s cops turned on their communities

PART III: In pop culture, there are no bad police shootings

PART V: Blue lives: Pop culture’s minority cops

Doyle shared a pessimistic outlook, a propensity for violence and racist views with Dirty Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), who would follow Doyle to the big screen just two months later. Both men saw themselves as warriors rather than as civil servants. Yet where “Dirty Harry” pitted Callahan against a counterculture that was already beginning to fade even without police intervention, “The French Connection” pitted Doyle against the cultural and political enemy of the future.

Above: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider and Alan Weeks in “The French Connection.” The 1971 movie, released just months after Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy Number One,” set a model that cop action movies would follow for use of extreme force against foreign, dangerous villains. (20th Century Fox/Everett Collection)

Just as Jack Webb’s partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department on “Dragnet” and “Adam-12” benefited both Hollywood and the police, the drug war united pop culture and real law enforcement agencies in a new common purpose. The prospect of foreign drug traffickers invading American shores gave pop-culture cops a new and more dangerous enemy to fight, one that justified fast driving, explosive shootouts and all sorts of audience-thrilling rule-breaking. In return, Hollywood promoted the idea that drugs posed a grave threat that justified new, frightening police tactics and the erosion of basic rights.

Now, at a moment when the United States is attempting to reckon with the consequences of a militarized style of policing that has turned some American neighborhoods into occupied zones and normalized the idea that police officers might burst into private homes without warning, the rise of the action cop looks less entertaining and more sinister. In fighting narcotics, real police departments and the entertainment industry developed a damaging habit of their own, glamorizing gun-slinging cops who treat the citizens they serve like a dangerous enemy.

Above: Steve McQueen as Frank Bullitt in “Bullitt.” The 1968 movie’s breathtaking car chase through San Francisco is a classic of the genre. (Everett Collection)

Even before “Popeye” Doyle started chasing down French drug dealers, police stories were already including the kinds of action scenes that Sheriff Andy Taylor would have seen as unnecessary and that would have given Joe Friday an unaccustomed dose of adrenaline. Most famously, in 1968’s “Bullitt,” the titular hero (Steve McQueen) pursued a mob hit man through the winding streets of San Francisco in one of movie history’s defining car chases.

The rise of the blockbuster era in Hollywood storytelling provided a strong incentive to continue this action-oriented trajectory. “Jaws,” Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie about a great white shark terrorizing a New England beach town, shook up the movie business. Previously, movies tended to debut in just a few markets and then roll out across the country, propelled by word of mouth. “Jaws” was bolstered by what was then a huge advertising campaign and opened in more than 400 theaters simultaneously. The movie proved that Hollywood could turn out huge audiences on an opening weekend. Often the best way to do that was with violent spectacle, whether a killer shark chewing up a whole boat or the intergalactic clash of “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” two years later.

1971

President Richard Nixon
declares drug abuse “public enemy Number One.”

In 1975, the same year “Jaws” crunched its way through the box office, two new shows from super-producer Aaron Spelling experimented with more action-oriented police stories.

“S.W.A.T.” followed a group of Vietnam veterans who were now part of a Los Angeles Police Department Special Weapons and Tactics unit as they fought what their leader, Lt. Dan “Hondo” Harrelson (Steve Forrest), openly described as a war on crime even more dangerous than the one in Southeast Asia. It was terrific publicity for the real SWAT units, which had drawn live national coverage as they battled the Symbionese Liberation Army a year earlier.

And while the cops in “Starsky and Hutch” eschewed fatigues for hip casualwear and favored a red Gran Torino rather than a tricked-out van, they, too, were action heroes, sliding over car hoods during chases and shooting it out with assassins.

For Joseph Wambaugh, whose anthology series “Police Story” premiered in 1973, such action sequences started to feel mandatory.

“The network always felt that one had to retreat to the tried-and-true money-making techniques in telling a police story. And that would be lots of action, chases, fights, shootings, sirens. Sirens when you didn't even need sirens,” he said. “The network always wanted to stop this damn talking! ‘Talking! Crying! Weak cops! Wounded cops, emotionally wounded cops. Enough, already,’ they would say. ‘Come on, let's have a cop that can chase somebody down and beat the hell out of them.’ ”

1975

Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is a huge hit, shaking up the movie business and ushering in the action-driven summer blockbuster. The same year, Aaron Spelling’s “S.W.A.T.” debuted on television, introducing audiences to cops who fought a war on crime after coming home from Vietnam.

International drug traffickers proved to be the perfect villains for police stories that aimed to match the stakes and action of blockbusters such as “Jaws” and for network executives who wanted their fictional cops to have someone worth beating. Drug kingpins’ crimes had a corrosive impact on society — one of the drug dealers in “The French Connection” describes the cartel’s heroin as “Grade A poison” — and they ran their syndicates like corporations, operating for profit. And traffickers were often foreign, or in some way traitors to the United States, which allowed movies and television to set aside concerns about the police prosecuting a war against American citizens.

“The French Connection,” for example, was advertised with the tag line “Doyle is bad news — but a good cop.” Doyle’s antagonists were smart and frightening. They hid heroin in secret compartments in cars and also hijacked subway trains. The movie treated Doyle’s inclination to beat suspects, and even a scene in which he shot a fleeing French drug dealer in the back, as evils necessary to combat those who wanted to flood New York with $32 million worth of heroin. If the French drug dealers were going to kill New York cops, then at least one cop was going to fire back.

The drug trade has often brought with it considerable violence. One of the cases that inspired “The Wire” involved a Baltimore drug crew that killed seven people and shot 14 others in a high-rise housing project over a single summer in the 1980s.

But Hollywood painted the violence associated with this latest riff on the gangster trope in increasingly baroque and macabre terms — long before the escalation of the drug war in Mexico. In 1983, “Scarface” offered American audiences a menacing vision of the cocaine trade in which people were dismembered with chainsaws and hanged from helicopters, while “Miami Vice,” which premiered the following year, presented Florida as awash in machine guns and even missile launchers, not to mention pet alligators. In circumstances like these, fictional cops could evolve into full-fledged action heroes.

There was still some ambiguity about such antics at the beginning of “Beverly Hills Cop,” released in 1984. After an extended car chase involving a truck full of stolen cigarettes, Axel Foley’s (Eddie Murphy) Detroit captain told him, “You want to play some [f------ b-------] cowboy cop, you can do it in someone else’s precinct.” But in Los Angeles, Axel went up against heavily armed cocaine smugglers. His courage and penchant for adventure were exactly the inspiration two enervated Hollywood cops needed as they engaged in shootouts with drug dealers and rescued a hostage.

In the 1987 movie “Lethal Weapon,” Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) took on a ring of Vietnam veterans who murdered the daughter of one of their number when he wanted to quit smuggling heroin and laundering money. Along the way, houses and cars full of grenades exploded, Riggs resisted torture and Murtaugh proved his manhood by defending his family from cartel money launderer Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), shooting the man dead on his own front lawn.

Above: Martin Lawrence as Marcus Burnett and Will Smith as Mike Lowrey in Michael Bay’s 1995 action movie, “Bad Boys.” (Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection)

And by the time Michael Bay’s “Bad Boys” hit theaters in 1995, pitting Miami detectives Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) against yet another French heroin smuggler, the movie’s high-speed chases, exploding trucks full of liquid ether and shootouts on airport tarmacs seemed unexceptional — and unexceptionable. If “Popeye” Doyle’s execution of a dealer was gritty and shocking in 1971, by the mid-1990s such things were part of the routine vocabulary of police action movies.

Even in stories about crimes other than drug trafficking, cops would often go up against villains who shared characteristics with drug lords: foreign-born, sophisticated and inclined to extreme violence.

1983

“Scarface,” about a cocaine cartel in Miami, promotes the idea that extraordinarily macabre violence is associated with the drug trade, upping the stakes for war-on-drugs cop movies.

“Die Hard,” the greatest of the action-cop movies, pitted John McClane against Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), a suave robber who initially presented his takeover of the Nakatomi Plaza high-rise in Los Angeles as a political act in order to distract the cops from his real aims. Countless movies have taken “Die Hard” as a model, and fictional cops often cite McClane as an idol.

But these imitators, and even the subsequent “Die Hard” sequels, often miss what made “Die Hard” such a tense and exciting movie: The sort of violence and the class of criminal McClane faced off against at Nakatomi Plaza were unusual rather than common.

Gruber taunted McClane as “another orphan of a bankrupt American culture who thinks he’s John Wayne.” He was wrong about McClane, but the gibe unintentionally predicted how other storytellers would misread “Die Hard,” re-creating and normalizing its explosive action sequences and lionizing the aggressive style of policing practiced by the reckless glory-seekers from other law enforcement agencies who get in McClane’s way.

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Hollywood’s increasing fetish for action-oriented police stories and wild theatrics echoed the sentiments behind Washington policymaking. In 1989, at the end of the decade in which police action movies had reached new heights of violence, Bill Bennett, then head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said he thought Saudi Arabia-style beheadings of drug dealers would be “morally” plausible, if politically difficult, in the United States.

The country never went that far, but the drug war gave rise to a number of other crime-fighting maneuvers that looked good on screen, even as police terrorized innocent civilians.

Police justified abandoning warnings and breaking down doors on the grounds that even a few seconds’ notice gave suspects opportunities to destroy drugs. But they ignored the prospect that such raids could invite a violent response from terrified people, traumatize innocent citizens and result in the destruction of property. These were high prices to pay for small amounts of narcotics, if cops even recovered any drugs at all.

1987

Mel Gibson and Danny Glover go to war with drug smugglers in “Lethal Weapon,” a seminal action cop — and buddy cop — movie.

The publicity given to SWAT teams in large cities encouraged smaller ones to start their own units, even if it had been years since these municipalities had experienced the kinds of violent crimes that would justify “special weapons and tactics.” And in the 1990s, the Law Enforcement Support Program was created to, as The Post’s Radley Balko put it in his history of police militarization, “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” “grease the pipeline through which hard-core military gear flows to civilian police agencies.”

Sometimes Hollywood didn’t just imitate this militarized style of policing; it made active contributions to it. The squads that were a precursor to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Weapons and Tactics units trained on Universal Studios sets.

Aaron Spelling claimed in his memoir, “A Prime-Time Life,” that the department changed the way its SWAT units operated after Spelling’s show “S.W.A.T.” premiered. Spelling had his SWAT cops travel around together in a van. The LAPD apparently liked the idea so much that the department set up its own dedicated SWAT vehicles.

Action stories about policing also glamorized tactics that police departments are trying to restrict.

“You would not want your officers in a car, rushing through the streets of New York City or San Francisco … endangering the lives of innocent bystanders … over a stolen car,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which makes recommendations to law enforcement agencies about policing techniques.

And police recruiters have grappled with the temptation to suggest that life imitates art. Lee Brown, commissioner of the NYPD from 1990 to 1992, had a saying that captured the tension between two different visions of policing: “We preach service and we hire adventurers.”

Wexler said some police departments, rather than contesting the Hollywood image, have courted it by running recruiting ads that use the visual language of action movies to attract potential officers.

One video from the Denison, Tex., police department primes potential recruits with the idea of an apocalyptic confrontation and makes the case for police work with throbbing music, blaring sirens and tense chases. The closing quote, misattributed to George Orwell, leaves no ambiguity: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

The idea that cops are drawn to police work by the promise of action has actually become something of a trope in police fiction.

Above: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in Edgar Wright’s policing comedy, “Hot Fuzz.” The movie plays with the gap between pop culture’s ideas about policing and the reality of most police work before bringing them together in a highly bloody fashion. (Rogue Pictures/Everett Collection)

In Edgar Wright’s 2007 police comedy “Hot Fuzz,” rural British Constable Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) peppered Sgt. Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) with questions about city policing after Angel was transferred to the countryside. “You ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?” Butterman asked hopefully. “Have you ever fired a gun whilst in high-speed pursuit?”

Five years later, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s reboot of “21 Jump Street” as an action movie began with two newly minted cops, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), on bike patrol. “I really thought this job would have more car chases and explosions,” Jenko said mournfully.

In the real world, the idea of recruiting officers who want to live out their favorite action movies is a less humorous affair. The reaction to dozens of shootings of black men and women suggests that Americans want cops who are less quick to pull the trigger and more inclined to speak to cafeteria supervisors and caregivers than to shoot them.

“These agencies are deliberately appealing to people who are likely to be lured by the thrill-seeking, adrenaline-producing, butt-kicking aspects of law enforcement,” Balko wrote. “Build an entire police force of people who fit that description and you have a force of cops who seek confrontation instead of avoiding it.”

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For all that Hollywood has contributed to the image of policing as an action-oriented, militarized profession, artists have been poking vicious fun at action cops for almost as long as the genre has existed.

1988

Working-class New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) squares off with the suave robber Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in “Die Hard,” the greatest of the action cop movies, as the two men struggle for control of Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles.

Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 science fiction satire, “RoboCop,” brilliantly captured the blurred lines between military and police. At the time of the movie’s release, police departments were using the war on drugs to apply for surplus military equipment and to build weapons such as the battering ram touted by LAPD chief Daryl Gates as policing’s new frontier. “RoboCop” envisioned technology flowing in the opposite direction: When OmniCorp official Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) rolled out a giant robot he wanted to deploy in place of human cops, he told his colleagues he expected that they would be able to sell the machine to the military for use overseas if it succeeded in Detroit.

“The Naked Gun,” which came out the following year, spoofed the James Bond-ization of policing in the person of Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), who put Mikhail Gorbachev in a headlock and clocked Ayatollah Khomeini, even as his partner, Nordberg (O.J. Simpson), constantly blundered into life-threatening situations.

“The Wire” is most famous for its critique of the drug war, but it was also full of sharp barbs about action cliches. In one episode, Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), a talented but troubled detective, drunkenly announced “I’m police” to a couple of troublemakers and promptly fell down a hill, making a less-than-glamorous entrance. Later that season, rather than crash into an office to arrest a prominent drug dealer (Wood Harris), McNulty and his supervisor, Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), meandered past a team of armored cops with guns and battering rams and walked through the unlocked door.

David Simon on SWAT teams: 'It's like all the play toys of the militarized drug war’

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“This [was] our chance to mock the SWAT unit,” said series creator David Simon. The scene is an expression of contempt for police officers so afraid of their suspects that they need to burst in on them, rather than coolly apprehend criminals in person. As Simon put it of his reporting on Baltimore cops: “The best thing you could say about a good cop is ‘Man, he likes to hear the handcuffs click.’ ” The scene is tragic, too, showing us the alternative to the no-knock entries that have resulted in so much property damage — some of which police departments never try to make right — and physical and emotional violence done to innocent people whose addresses have gotten mixed up in police databases or been the subject of bad tips.

But some action-cop parodies bought into the idea that the police are fighting a war on crime. Where earlier entrants in the genre mocked the pretensions of police officers who dreamed of shootouts and international intrigue, now the comedy comes from seeing even unlikely action heroes save the day, with guns blazing.

1989

Drug czar Bill Bennett says that he would have no moral problem imitating Saudi Arabia and beheading drug dealers but that such a solution would be too unpopular to implement in America.

In the 2012 remake of “21 Jump Street,” Schmidt and Jenko didn’t exactly cut dashing figures. During one climactic chase with the drug dealers they are chasing, Schmidt was wearing a Peter Pan outfit, and they were driving a student-driver car equipped with an extra set of brakes, rather than Bullitt’s Ford Mustang. But they overcame these stylistic deficits to take down the biker gang that bedeviled them starting in the movie’s earliest moments. By the final scene, Schmidt exultantly declared, “We’re, like, in the end of ‘Die Hard’ right now, but it’s our actual life!”

There’s a sobering reality behind that exuberance. Police work may be, as Joseph Wambaugh described it, “endless hours of boredom, punctuated by terror.” But both the entertainment industry and law enforcement have tried to turn it into something else, a profession where police officers are so tough that their partners muse about registering them as lethal weapons. And sometimes, it seems as though both Hollywood and heavily armed police departments would be lost if they won the drug war, or any war on crime.

In pop culture, it’s fun for individual cops to beat individual villains. But if police defeated crime on a national or international level, they would choke off the sequels and reboots that have become Hollywood staples. Without the rise of ecstasy to replace heroin in Miami, there’s no “Bad Boys II.” The enterprising chemists behind the designer drugs in the “Jump Street” movies guarantee that Schmidt and Jenko will get to go from high school to college and beyond. Last year, after four “Die Hard” sequels, Fox announced that it is developing a story about a young McClane so that he can keep fighting crime even after Bruce Willis ages out of the role.

In a similar way, the drug war and militarized policing acquired their own internal momentum. As military equipment and SWAT teams spread across the country, departments had to find some use for them rather than acknowledge that they were simply caught up in what Balko called a “masculinity-infused arms race.” And when they didn’t have villains with the grandeur of the “French Connection” smugglers or Hans Gruber, they crashed through doors in pursuit of small-time criminals instead.

As Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam), one of the narcotics cops on “The Wire,” described the drug war during the first season of the show: “You can’t even call this [s---] a war ... wars end.” If this particular crime story comes to a close, fictional cops will have to find a new enemy, one that makes them worthy to stand beside a new generation of superheroes and action stars. Meanwhile, real police departments will be left with piles of military equipment and broken door frames, wondering why victory doesn’t seem as flashy or fulfilling as it does on screen.

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