Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Joe Carnahan’s COPSHOP begins on a literal promising note, harnessing all the grit and gravitas from Lalo Schifrin’s “Main Title” theme from MAGNUM FORCE. It’s a vigorous driving beat, with sharp choral work and massive, pressing percussive and horn sections, overlaid with the imagery of a grease-ball at the wheel of an unmarked, shot-up Crown Vic, barreling down a desert highway to an unknown destination. The set-up is absolutely thrilling, but what follows slowly lets the air out of its tires. Yet despite the straight-forward narrative failing to get the mayhem percolating properly, many wily pleasures are derived from its interwoven character dynamics and subtly potent performances.
Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo) is desperate to find a safe spot to disappear for a night in order to evade a cadre of contract killers hot on his trail. The completely panic-stricken con man has in his possession a baby blue satchel containing some goods wanted by a lot of corrupt folks. His only way out is finding a way in to the last place anyone would think of looking for him: a heavily armored, highly guarded police station in the aptly named town of Gun Creek. So he punches rookie police officer Young (Alexis Louder) and is thrown into the holding pen. Still, neither is expecting the real melee that Teddy’s actions have now incited.
The evening ramps up once ruthless hitman Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler) catches wind of Teddy’s scheme. Two can play this game. Bob gets himself thrown into the facility’s drunk tank, separated from his intended squirrelly mark by a few lousy steel bars. While the pair trade loaded barbs and try to strike a deal, elsewhere in the building there’s a conspiracy afoot involving officer Huber (Ryan O’Nan) and stolen property from the evidence locker. The perpetually perspiring policeman has gotten himself into some hot water with other slippery folks and, seeking salvation from his sticky situation, offers Teddy and Bob in exchange for his freedom. But just as that plan is congealing, positively deranged assassin Anthony Lamb (Toby Huss) descends on the station and causes a ruckus.
Carnahan and Kurt McLeod, working from a story by McLeod and Mark Williams, craft a decent, insular, old-fashioned shoot-em-up containing thrills and a sublimely scuzzy, low-fi energy. Clinton Shorter’s compositions complement the 70s-style vibe, folding right in with soundtrack cues from Schifrin (“Red Light District” from DIRTY HARRY bookends the feature) and Curtis Mayfield, whose “Freddie’s Dead” is called upon in a moment of dark levity. Juan Miguel Azpiroz’s cinematography blessedly doesn’t overly announce itself, but innocuously morphs as the characters’ true natures expose themselves. Viddick and Lamb’s inevitable face-off, where the picture’s brutality is at a crescendo, is cleverly color-coded in a blue-and-black color palette, symbolizing the color of a fresh bruise. Reveals happen at a steady pace and build to their natural conclusions. The narrative itself is clean and mean; however, it could use a harder, cynical edge in order for its cuts to leave a scar.
Though twists and turns dealing with betrayals and deceptions are more predictable than enterprising or surprising, the character dynamics illustrated through the actors’ multi-faceted work make the material more substantive. Butler and Grillo are a marvelous pairing. There’s a lot they dig their claws into with the dialogue, but the magic trick is what they do with the subtext. It’s a blast to see them getting scrappy, subverting the genre’s expected tropes. However, it’s Huss who’s this film’s MVP. The character actor is simply iconic as a beautifully deranged psychopath whose machine gun is as rapid-fire as his heckling (his delivery of “you look like Tom Cruise in that samurai picture nobody watched,” to a man-bun sporting Grillo is indelible).
In the pantheon of “Meathead Cinema,” COPSHOP has far more fun than most playing with testosterone-fueled machismo. Despite the less than arresting aspects holding it back from total success, its atmospheric throwback qualities make it effortlessly watchable – and possibly re-watchable.
COPSHOP opens in theaters on September 17.