The Best Movie You Never Saw: The Rookie (1990)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at THE ROOKIE (1990)!

THE STORY: Nick Pulovski (Clint Eastwood), a veteran cop, seeks to avenge the murder of his old partner at the hands of a German criminal, Strom (Raul Julia) and his sadistic henchwoman Liesl (Sonia Braga). His plot is complicated when he’s assigned a well-connected, inexperienced rookie (Charlie Sheen), a yuppie who suffers from bad PTSD surrounding his brother’s death.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Clint Eastwood, Charlie Sheen, Raul Julia, Lara Flynn Boyle, Tom Skerritt & Sonia Braga. Directed by Clint Eastwood.

“I have a project for this spring that will be full of action. It's another cop picture, very different from this one. It has its own character and if it's done well it can turn out to be something good. Charlie Sheen will play the rookie and I'll play the mature cop". – Clint Eastwood interview (1989)

THE HISTORY: Back in 1990, THE ROOKIE really wasn’t anything special. Buddy cop movies were all the rage and Eastwood, whose career was arguably at low ebb off the failure of PINK CADILLAC, jumped onto the bandwagon by marrying his still-successful DIRTY HARRY formula to the trend. Enlisting Charlie Sheen, who was then red-hot off PLATOON, WALL STREET and MAJOR LEAGUE, to be his co-star, THE ROOKIE was Warner Bros., big Christmas release for 1990. It was arguably the movie Eastwood owed them for letting him make WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART (the lowest grossing film he’s ever made).

The film wound-up being savaged critically, with many critics expressing distaste over what was considered crass graphic violence (which says something given the era) and a bizarre scene where Eastwood is apparently raped by Sonia Braga’s henchwoman, a scene heavily featured in the peppy ads. The movie more-or-less tanked, although given that the thrifty Eastwood made it for only $10 million, it still turned a decent profit. Two years later, Eastwood made UNFORGIVEN and was back on track, giving his career a second wind that continues to this day.

WHY IT'S GREAT: OK, so great might be a strong word for THE ROOKIE. I’m not going to sit here and tell you this film is great. My reappraisal of it also certainly won’t be helped by the fact that Charlie Sheen’s in it, with his reputation (deservedly) more toxic than ever. But, there’s something about THE ROOKIE that critics (and audiences) weren’t hip to in 1990. It’s essentially Eastwood’s satire of big-budget cop action movies. The movie is utterly ridiculous from the first frame to the last, but I suspect it’s not intended to be even the least bit serious.

For one thing, Eastwood’s smart enough to know when things are cheesy – hence his wildly criticized decision to cast Puerto Rican Raul Julia and Brazilian Sonia Braga as his German villains. The late Julia was arguably among the greatest actors of his generation. If he wanted to play a German realistically, he could have (and, in fact, did in MOON OVER PARADOR – which coincidently co-starred Braga). Instead, he camps it up like crazy – and there’s no way this wasn’t intentional. Ditto the hilariously over-the-top flashback sequences where Sheen remembers accidently killing his brother, and his transformation from suited yuppie to denim-wearing bad ass. Sheen literally walks into a bar breathing fire near the end, how could anyone think Eastwood wasn’t kidding around?

Among the most violent films of his career (although nowhere near as graphic as the depraved MAGNUM FORCE – one of the most sexist, fascist action films ever made), THE ROOKIE openly mocks the carnage of movies like LETHAL WEAPON by upping the ante, making Eastwood’s “hero” a sexist, racist bully who’s actually rewarded every time he breaks the rules, with him turning full-on vigilante in the end resulting in him being made captain of the police department! Does anyone really think Eastwood didn’t know this was insane? So, if you watch THE ROOKIE as a straight-up action movie, it’s pretty dumb. But, if you watch it as a right-on satire, it becomes something else entirely, and in that I don't think it's fair to label it a turkey, as most do when discussing his filmography. 

"There's a phone call at the very end [of the intervention], and its Clint Eastwood… And he says, 'Come on, kid, you know, you're tougher than this, just go fix yourself, get back in the game.' And I was like, 'Alright, Clint.' How do you say no to Dirty Harry, you know? So I went [into rehab]… It helped at the time.” – Charlie Sheen – Center stage interview

BEST SCENE: Eastwood, whose movies can sometimes be a little less than perfect technically, also knew damn well how to stage a good action sequence, and THE ROOKIE has plenty of them. One is the freeway chase, which predates a similar one by Michael Bay in BAD BOYS 2, but the absolute best is the insane bit where Eastwood and Sheen drive out the window of an exploding building. This bit is nuts!

SEE IT: While not among Eastwood’s more famous films, it’s still available in all the major formats, DVD, Blu-ray and also digitally.

PARTING SHOT: THE ROOKIE is an acquired taste, that’s for sure. If you hate it, well, I’m not gonna argue with you. But, as a product of its era and a surprisingly sharp takedown of the genre it’s ostensibly a part of, THE ROOKIE is worth a revisit.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.