Although its roots remained firmly planted in the buddy-comedy genre of previous decades, the offshoot emergence of the buddy-cop subgenre in the mid 1960’s began posing a challenge to post-war American society. Despite some tentative steps that decade, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that the buddy cop movie first began testing the limits of traditional social norms. It was in 1976, when the unthinkable happened; a woman became the buddy to the cop. While the foundations of the status quo were surely shaken to their roots by this and other ruptures, it wasn’t until almost a decade later that the genre really began to come into its own.
The 80’s proved to be the heyday of the buddy-cope genre, a time when the form truly crossed a threshold and, dare I say it, forever changed the face of American cinema. This is thanks to the release of Beverly Hills Cop in 1984, a film which pushed the envelope for African American characters in American cinema. That year, the floodgates weren’t just opened, they were swept from their very hinges. Buddy-Cop films became the leading edge of a social revolution, recasting conventional stereotypes with greater subtlety and nuance and daring us as individual citizens and as a nation to question long held assumptions about workplace integration and traditional ways of combining comedy and action. By the end of the ‘80’s, new and more daring buddy-cop entries arrived monthly, addressing complex social issues each time. Women buddy-cops reappeared, Soviet/American buddy cops, Japanese/American buddy cops, dog/human buddy cops (it’s own sub-sub-genre!) human/alien buddy cops, and even federal/municipal buddy cops. The 80’s was a cultural and political minefield, but Buddy Cops were ready for the challenge.
As the decade came to a close however, it seemed that the Buddy-Cop had reached its apex. It was a heady and inspiring time in America, daily forging a new nation of comedic multicultural camaraderie on the screen. Yet, at the same time the very maturity of this groundbreaking genre prevented it from fully remaking society in its own revolutionary image. The Buddy-Cop could apparently go no further. They may have been a symbol of all that was right with America, but the genre’s aesthetic complexity remained out of reach of the very beneficiaries of the new America that the buddy-cop was carving; children under ten.
In the early years of the 1990’s the genre was foundering, seemingly unable to carry through its promise of a greater society. In the bowels of Hollywood however, a chance encounter between two screen-powerhouses was brewing the formula of a new Buddy Cop that would very nearly achieve the status of its progenitors. With almost half a century of collective experience in the television industry, Henry Winkler and Burt Reynolds had a bone-deep understanding of the American intellect. But how do you translate all the complex socio-cultural commentary of Buddy Cops into an ageless cypher?
The answer turned out to be deceptively simple. By taking the touchstone of modern buddy cop cinema, Axel Foley, and effectively shrinking him into an 8 year old child, the genre became palatable to even the most sensitive of American tastes. While Foley had been a comedic loose-cannon, albeit a “good guy”, he was still a ‘black-man’ and this represented a traditional threat to whiteness that his goofy smile could never quite temper. All the imminent sexuality, violence and anger that black men represent in the white American mythos vanished and was replaced by a cute, well scrubbed and innocuous child that needed to be protected from his own naivete. With Burt Reynolds as the cigar-smoking excessive-force-using bitter old man rougue-Cop to this new incarnation of the Buddy, it was a miraculous reconception of paternalism that transcended metaphor entirely.
Cop and a Half is streaming right now on NutFlex, so go and see the the film that made the 90's the 'cool' decade.