The Policeman on the Silver Screen
Think about cops in movies, and who comes up? If you're into musicals, maybe West Side Story's all-but-powerless Officer Krupke. Maybe you're more a slapstick Paul Blart: Mall Cop type. Or perhaps it's the knightly Bruce Willis in the classic action flick Die Hard who comes to mind.
No matter what boy-in-blue you thought of, though, you might notice that a perfect cop isn't a very popular choice for a movie character.
Why's that? Well, a perfect cop, or a perfect teacher, or a perfect housewife… or a perfect anything isn't very interesting to watch. We kind of hate characters that are flawless and pore-less, sweetness and light. But never fear: Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle is flaw-rich, and can be a pretty riveting watch.
Though the original tagline called Popeye is "bad news, but a good cop," we're not sure that exactly covers the full breadth and depth of this crazy-classic antihero. Now that the tagline mentions it, we're not even sure he was a very good cop.
Or, maybe it depends what your standards are? Witness Popeye roughing up civilians, making himself conspicuous ordering a grape soda while on Charnier's tail, or letting some hot chick use his Department-issued handcuffs for bedroom games. Is that good cop behavior?
Oh yeah: and let's not forget the endless spewing of racial slurs:
POPEYE: You dumb Guinea. Never trust a n*****.
CLOUDY: He coulda been white.
POPEYE: Never trust anybody.
Seriously, someone needs to enroll this guy in sensitivity training… or at least how-not-to-be-a-raging-racist-dirtbag training.
When the Ends Justify the Means (and When They Don't)
The movie isn't shy about letting us know that Popeye's made mistakes before. Both Federal Agent Mulderig and Captain Simonson mention a previous case, where Popeye got another cop killed:
MULDERIG: His brilliant hunches cost the life of a good cop.
We don't know how, or what exactly the circumstances were… but we do know that for Popeye, the ends justify the means.
The movie also points to those means paying off. "Your scrapbook's a mess, just like everything else in your life," Cloudy clucks, going through his notebook of newspaper cuttings that we imagine showcase past professional successes.
That's the thing: most of the time, Popeye's hunches are good. If he didn't have this rep in the force, and if he wasn't known for his blind doggedness and nose for crime, then Simonson wouldn't support him or get him warrants to keep working the case. Without Popeye's track record as a "good cop" within the context of the movie, there wouldn't be any plot at all.
Believing Your Own Hype
In large part, this whole movie is powered by Popeye's rep for being a cop who gets stuff done… and by his almost psychic ability to tell when something fishy's going on. For example, remember when he just decided that the Lincoln Devereaux brought over from France was suspect? Yeah. He doesn't mince words:
POPEYE: That car's dirty, Cloudy. We're going to sit here all night if we have to.
Yup; that's it. A hunch. And he was so sure he was right, they spent all night just sitting there… and eventually found half-a-million dollars in heroin. Sure, why not?
Big Head; Big Porkpie Hat
And Popeye isn't just good with his weirdo hunches. He knows he's good with his weirdo psychic hunches. It's part of his whole thing. It's not so much that he's sexy and he knows it; it's more that he's a grizzled, violent, megalomaniacal cop… and he knows it.
Basically he buys into the hype surrounding his prowess. He buys into his own image. And his confidence—and his desire to keep his rep—works as a plot motivator. After all, you don't get into a car chase with a subway car unless you have something to prove. What does Popeye have to prove? Well, that he's still Popeye.
It's no accident that pop culture has given us only two antiheros that like to rock a porkpie hat. We have The French Connection's Popeye Doyle, and we have Breaking Bad's Heisenberg. Both are bad to the bone. Both of them are riveting. And, most importantly, both of them know that they're living legends.
But unlike the chicken and the egg, we know who came first: Popeye Doyle. Mild-mannered Walter White wanted the perfect accessory to transform himself into a force to be reckoned with, and so he borrowed from a character who is synonymous with "a force to be reckoned with:" Popeye Doyle.
So what makes Popeye the antihero to end all antiheroes? Well that moment takes place at the end, as he stands beside Cloudy in an abandoned building on Ward's Island, Mulderig shot dead by Popeye's gun. Cloudy, with his soulful brown eyes, looks on in horror.
"You shot Mulderig!" he tells his partner. But Popeye might as well be a wild predator with a rumbling stomach. He doesn't respond, saying only: "The sumab**** is here, I saw him!"
A lot has been made of likability and being able to identify with characters in movies and books. So what do we do with a character who doesn't seem to care if anyone likes him, or even gets in the way of his bullets?
Well, if we're Walter White, we borrow his style.