Top 10 Big Screen Detectives of the 21st Century

Last Updated on August 3, 2021

INHERENT VICE opens today and showcases a very unusual detective in the form of Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film will likely go down as a favorite for years to come and Sportello will join the ranks of the best movie detectives of all time. Here is our list of the best crime-solvers from just the past 15 years of film. See if your favorite made the cut. If we missed on, feel free to add it to the talk backs below.

#1 – Nicholas Angel (HOT FUZZ)

Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost found a way to not only parody but pay homage to everything that makes cop movies so damn good. That, combined with one hell of a gory and insane mystery, gives us a movie chock full of memorable moments. At the center of it all is Pegg as Nicholas Angel, a badass cop and detective who puts two and two together and ranks as our favorite detective of the 21st century.

#2 – Alonso Harris (TRAINING DAY)

Denzel Washington’s Oscar winning portrayal may not be the best crime-solver on this list, but he definitely knows how to work the streets in his favor. While Ethan Hawke’s character may be the one audiences can more easily identify with, Washington’s work in the film drives home the harsh realities of what being a cop can do to you if you let it.

#3 – John Anderton (MINORITY REPORT)

Steven Spielberg’s scifi blockbuster was also one of the best studio detective movies in recent years. Tom Cruise knocks it out of the park as John Anderton who is investigating a murder that he himself is going to commit. Great action set-pieces bring this to to top of Spielberg and Cruise’s respective filmographies.

#4 – Brendan Frye (BRICK)

Rian Johnson’s neo-noir thriller is set in the most unexpected place for an adult drama: a high school. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is solid as the main character investigating the disappearance of his girlfriend. Inspired by the pulp detective novels of the 1950s, BRICK is one of the best movies you probably have never seen.

#5 – Perry Van Shrike (KISS KISS BANG BANG)

A fan favorite and one of the films that helped lead Robert Downey Jr on the path to being IRON MAN, KISS KISS BANG BANG is really a showcase for Val Kilmer. The man known for TOP GUN and HEAT delivers one of his best roles as the gay cop who gives Downey shit as much as he takes it.

#6 – Dave Toschi (ZODIAC)

David Fincher’s film is full of interesting and capable investigators ranging from Jake Gyllenhaal to Mark Ruffalo, but it is Ruffalo’s performance that steals the movie. Based on the actual investigator into the Zodiac Killer case, Ruffalo is brilliant and relatable. This is a terrifying and haunting film and one of the best of Fincher’s career.

#7 – Sherlock Holmes (SHERLOCK HOLMES)

Personally, I prefer both of the small screen iterations of the character, but Robert Downey Jr brings a smarmy nature to his version of Holmes that is very entertaining to watch. Guy Ritchie’s films may sacrifice the mystery and deduction for action and comedy, but it is still clearly the Sherlock Holmes we all know and love.


She may be an outsider, a misfit, and not what you would expect, but Lisbeth Salander is a brilliant detective. Partnered up with Daniel Craig’s Mikael Blomkvist, Lisbeth finds ways of using technology and her skills to solve the most heinous crimes. Both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara bring a unique take on the character to their respective films, but both are some of the most intriguing in recent years.

#9 – Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro (GONE BABY GONE)

Ben Affleck’s feature directorial debut is a powerful thriller starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan as a pair of private investigators on the case of a missing child. While the Kenzie/Gennaro novel was part of a series, we only have the one film featuring the characters. But, if someone wanted to make another, I would love to see these two actors reprise their roles.

#10 – Slevin Kelevra (LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN)

An underappreciated flick, LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN has an all-star cast that includes Ben Kingsley, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, Lucy Liu, Stanley Tucci, and Josh Hartnett. The movie tries a little too hard to be a cross between a Quentin Tarantino movie and the Mel Gibson movie PAYBACK, but ultimately it is a funny and action-packed mystery.


About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.