Best Movies About Undercover Agents, Ranked

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Becoming an undercover police officer or agent is one of the riskiest career paths a law enforcement official can take. Joining an intelligence agency is a major risk in and of itself, but going undercover as a cop raises the danger level up a few notches. And the home front isn’t much healthier. From frustrated partners to demanding bosses, the stress of the job makes it one of the most physically and emotionally demanding ones out there. Despite rigorous training and high-tech gadgets, going undercover entails a life on the edge, living a lie that can be busted at just about any moment and, at times, lead down a path to becoming a dirty cop.

With such inherent drama at stake, it’s no wonder the undercover cop has become such a popular cinematic trope. Having infiltrated just about every genre, from buddy cop comedies to gritty spy thrillers, the best undercover cop movies take this flair for the dramatic into account. Here’s a look at some of the best movies about undercover police officers ranked.

Update January 20, 2024: This article has been updated by Amanda Minchin with more great undercover cop movies and where each title is streaming at the moment.

10 Rush Hour 2 (2001)

Rush Hour 2, part two of the ever-popular Rush Hour series, saw the roles reversed for the dynamic duo. Picking up right from where its predecessor left off, the film follows Lee (Jackie Chan) and Carter (Chris Tucker) as their holiday plans in Hong Kong are promptly disrupted by the killing of US customs agents after a bombing of the American embassy. As Lee and Carter get entangled in the crisscrossing web of deceit, many secrets from the past come to the surface.

What Makes It Great

Jackie Chan is no stranger to playing undercover operatives in multiple languages (just take a look at his Police Story series). In a mix of high-octane drama with high-octane stupidity, Rush Hour 2 does not make the mistake of taking itself too seriously. This is thanks in part to the dynamic chemistry between Tucker and Chan, which led to a threequel in Rush Hour 3. The pithy, fast-paced dialogue is buddy cop through and through, while the action is woven through with Chan’s signature impromptu fighting style. Rent on AppleTV+

9 Donnie Brasco (1997)

Donnie Brasco is loosely based on the true story of Pistone, who infiltrated the Bonanno crime family in New York. In the film, Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp) pretends to be a jewel thief in order to befriend an aging hitman, Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), of the Bonanno crime family. Depp had cut his teeth nearly a decade earlier as an undercover cop in the hit series 21 Jump Street, making for an easier transition into the role. Pacino is also far from a stranger to mob films, and was surely an easy choice for the role.

What Makes It Great

While at its core, the film is about an agent who puts his life on the line to convict a crime boss and his associates, the film also throws light on the friendship of two men who represent two different sides of the law. Their budding relationship is consistently at odds with the true reason for Brasco’s appearance. Years before, films like The Irishman, this movie explored the long-term effects of the hard life of a hitman, as well as the thin line between friendship and just another job for an undercover cop. Rent on AppleTV+

8 21 Jump Street (2012)

Speaking of… The iconic TV series 21 Jump Street was remade into a film in 2012. In the movie, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play a pair of cops who pretend to be high schoolers in order to expose a synthetic drug racket. Many of the original cast members from the iconic TV show made a reappearance in the film, including Johnny Depp, Holly Robinson, and Peter DeLuise. The film went on to produce a sequel, 22 Jump Street, just two years later which sent the duo undercover to college.

What Makes It Great

This film is a hilarious buddy cop comedy with obvious chemistry between the two leads (interesting, considering how Hill had to convince Tatum to star in the role). The contrast between the undercover officer’s stupidity and the intelligence of the high schoolers makes for some great humor, as does their obviously off-kilter social interactions and physical appearances. The film works well as parody but also a genuinely moving buddy comedy that has plenty of fun at the obsurd premise of sending two adult men undercover to high school. Stream on Hulu

Related: 10 Hilarious Spy Comedies That Will Have You in Stitches

7 City On Fire (1987)

A Gun-Toting Scene From City On Fire
Rim

Not to be confused with the 2023 TV series, City on Fire follows a group of Hong Kong jewel thieves with an undercover cop. Following the death of an undercover operative, the reluctant Ko Chow (Chow Yun-fat) is tasked with taking over his place. The inspectors in charge of the operation, however, aren’t able to play nice when it comes to their related missions, leading to tragedy for everyone involved. When one of their heists goes awry (again), the group becomes hell-bent on fishing out the informant in their midst. This film helped establish Chow Yun-fat as an asian action star with the potential to become even more mainstream.

What Makes It Great

Great minds think alike, and this film is no exception. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is often times viewed as a tributary to Ringo Lam’s City On Fire. Both films run on the same narrative parallels of a job gone wrong, which eventually culminates into a guessing game about the mole in the group. Tarantino has gone on record and admitted having been influenced by Lam’s film and taken the ending of City On Fire, rebranding it in his own unique stylistic way. There’s far more at stake in this version, however, which provides more of an upfront narrative for its undercover operative, including his past as an agent and his potential lost love should he fail in his mission. Stream on AppleTV+

6 Kindergarten Cop (1990)

Somewhere between Terminator and T2, Arnold Schwarzenegger went back to school to become, well, a Kindergarten teacher. Kindergarten Cop stars Schwarzenegger as John Kimble, a rough-and-tumble cop who’s forced to go undercover at an elementary school to locate the wife and child of a drug dealer who are there under assumed identities. Ferreting them out might just be the key to finally putting a dangerous criminal behind bars… if he can survive the classroom first.

What Makes It Great

This film came out at the height of Schwarzenegger’s impressive turn as an all-around action star. At the time, no one suspected his hidden comedic acting chops. This worked well to promote the juxtaposition between a gun-toting fight machine and an understanding caregiver. Interestingly enough, Bill Murray, Patrick Swayze, and even future co-star Danny DeVito were considered for the role, which would have made for a completely different film. Schwarzenegger’s shocked expressions were reminiscent of his action days, which only served to further emphasize the humor. Rent on AppleTV+

5 Point Break (1991)

The iconic cult hit Point Break stars Keanu Reeves as the undercover Johnny Utah, who is investigating a string of robberies committed by a gang dubbed the Ex-Presidents (because of their iconic masks). A clue points them in the direction of some local surfers. Utah makes friends with another group, led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Soon, Utah comes to suspect his newfound friends are the ones in charge. A remake was released in 2015, which did not do nearly so well. It also went on to inspire cult theater productions of Point Break Live!, which casts a new Johnny Utah from its audience pool for each performance.

What Makes It Great

The name for the film comes from a surfing term for where the waves meet a land-based outcropping and it is the perfect metaphor for this film. Reeve’s character is a former all-American quarterback who sticks out among the surfer bros. It could also have been what caused Bodhi’s eventual demise while riding his last wave. The chances of this film being nothing short of great with the acclaimed Kathryn Bigelow at the helm should come as absolutely no surprise. This film is full of adrenaline-filled scenes, many of which were done by Swayze and Reeves themselves. Stylistically, the film’s many short shots come across as bold, intricate, and intense. It’s no wonder this quirky, almost one-hit wonder has stood the test of time! Stream on Peacock

4 Infernal Affairs (2002)

Two Cops Stand Off In Infernal Affairs
Miramax

Talk about Internal Affairs with a twist! Yet another Hong Kong action thriller to make the list, Infernal Affairs served as the inspiration for Scorsese’s epic The Departed (more on that in a moment). Directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, who co-wrote this film alongside Felix Chong, this film dives deep into the stories of two very similar boys who grow up on different sides of the Triad… or so it seems. Lau Kin-ming (Andy Lau) is a young gangster who’s sent to infiltrate the police academy. Meanwhile, Chan Wing-Yan (Tony Leung) is seemingly expelled from the police academy, a cover for his undercover role infiltrating the triad. Tensions continue to rise as they each slowly make their way up the ranks until finally coming to a head as their goals collide. The film soon became the first in the Infernal Affairs series, spawning two sequels.

What Makes It Great

Watching these two progress from young boys with limited options to men stuck in their respective positions is absolutely heartwrenching. This becomes even more so upon the realization that both have a mole in their midst. There is also a distinct lack of information sharing about their respective identities even among those who should know them. This makes things all the trickier as their superiors either die or move on from their respective organizations. By the end, those who survive are left to ponder over who they really are. Rent on AppleTV+

3 The Departed (2006)

the departed
The Departed
Release Date
October 5, 2006
Director
Martin Scorsese

The iconic Scorsese remake The Departed is an epic crime thriller that follows the twisted lives of undercover operatives at every angle. Juxtaposed are the lives of Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who is planted as a spy by Mob boss Frank Costello in the Massachusetts State Police, and undercover officer Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is trying to infiltrate Costello’s crew at the same time. Based on the iconic 2002 film Internal Affairs, this film is also loosely based on the real-life Boston Winter Hill Gang.

What Makes It Great

Their circular stalking of predator and prey makes for some intense and epic drama, right down to its killer ending. Its iconic Bostonography is evident everywhere, from famous landmarks to unforgettable accents. What could easily have been just another mob movie is treated with elegant precision in the hands of Scorsese. The Departed is more than just a tale of two men with different objectives, pretending to live different lives. It’s about two men trying to live public lives that are the radical opposites of their inner realities. Their attempts to do so threaten to destroy them by implosion or betrayal. Rent on AppleTV+

Related: Best Martin Scorsese Films, Ranked

2 BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Loosely based on the memoir by Ron Stallworth, BlacKkKlansman tells the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) as he embarks on a mission to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan of Colorado Springs. In trying to bring them down, Stallworth poses as a white man on the phone while persuading his Jewish coworker, Flip Zimmerman, to impersonate him while meeting with them in person. Increasingly blatant conversations with Grand Wizard David Duke as well as the local chapter slowly reveal members of this otherwise secretive cult.

What Makes It Great

Directed by the legendary Spike Lee, this black comedy thriller juxtaposes strong themes of race discrimination while also highlighting the blatantly flawed ideologies that propagate hate. It seems the deeper they go, the higher up the people they find are in law enforcement. Set against the backdrop of the ’70s, BlacKkKlansman is a deep dive into the corruption of ideologies and opinions. Perhaps more biting is its blatant references to more current events of the time that occurred years after the accounts of the memoir, involving some of the very same people.

The film premiered at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix. It was released theatrically nearly one year to the day of the first anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The film went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards, walking away with one for Best Adapted Screenplay. Stream on FuboTV

1 Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s first feature-length debut, tells the story of six criminals who are ambushed by the police in the middle of a diamond heist. Obvious questions are raised, and motives are questioned after the remaining injured criminals make their way to a safe house. As the film goes on, the gang of thieves begins to realize there must be a mole in their midst. What ensues is a closed-door game of motive roulette between a band of crooks who don’t even know each other’s names.

What Makes It Great

Regarded as one of Tarantino’s best works, Reservoir Dogs has gained the status of a cult classic over time. Taking a chunk from the City of Fire playbook was smart. Tarantino, however, focused on the ending, starting with a single botched robbery. He also created an element of mystery by giving each member a ridiculous code name, the anonymity of which only serves to elevate the tension of the dramatic arc. By its end, audiences aren’t quite sure who to root for, the cop or the robbers. The characterization of the six thieves, along with the unpredictable writing, makes this film an edge-of-the-seat experience. The movie put Tarantino on the map, and likely, for many, is the first film that jumps to their mind when they think of an undercover cop. Stream on FuboTV

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