The past few years have seen a growing backlash against entertainment that prominently (and without criticism) features police in heroic roles. While there has always been discourse and critiques around “copaganda” in media, this analysis has grown in volume and urgency alongside the Black Lives Matter movement and other actions that highlight the over-militarization of police and far-too-numerous examples of law enforcement being above the law. Most cop-driven action movies portray the heroes as always being right, creating a sense of ends that justify the means as they take liberties with the proper ways of handling suspects or an investigation. But while director Joe Carnahan’s latest film “Copshop” takes place almost entirely in a police station and features a hero who is an upstanding example of lawful morality, people should not assume that it’s a ringing endorsement of those behind the shield. The movie isn’t a typical cops-and-robbers tale but adopts those trappings to create a thrilling Western with murky morals, exceptional characters and a compelling story.
As his bullet-ridden car dies on a dirt road in the Nevada desert, undercover cop Teddy Muretto (Frank Grillo) is in desperate need of an exit, which he finds by assaulting Officer Val Young (Alexis Louder) and landing himself in jail. While Teddy waits in a cell and plots his next move, a DUI offender is brought into the station and put in a separate cell, eventually revealing himself as Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler), a contract killer who has Teddy in his sights. It appears that Teddy’s existence has brought the ire of several different groups onto the station, including those who would manipulate vulnerable officers and dispatch a psychopathic assassin (Toby Huss) to eradicate the situation.
Even with its modern trappings and technology, use of the mob and corrupt political offices, “Copshop” is not a convergence of criminality like Carnahan’s “Smokin’ Aces,” the kind of action thriller that would best be found in the pulp section of a bookstore. As noted, “Copshop” is a Western — a hybrid of “3:10 to Yuma” and “Rio Bravo” that focuses on an isolated outpost in an untamed land besieged by the amoral and immoral alike. At the center of this conundrum, amidst all the ballistics and badinage, sit Val, Bob and Teddy, like a noir thriller version of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” given the various codes (or lack thereof) that direct each character’s life. The “Rio Bravo” elements are rooted in the siege, wherein a specific, confined space is overrun by the nefarious, leading to strange alliances to survive the night. The questioning about what is right or wrong and what is one’s duty to other people in the face of death conjures up that same shaky alliance and philosophical ponderings of “3:10 to Yuma,” all while bullets are flying and the spectrum of virtue is poked, revealing several shades of gray.
Carnahan, who co-wrote the script with Kurt McLeod, manages to invest a lot of weight into the characters so that they all feel like real people or an entertaining variation of a well-known archetype. Much of the dialogue (particularly from Bob and Val) consists of the kind of cool lines that are meant to evoke Elmore Leonard, though it can often feel far too theatrical and artificial. However, this isn’t much of a detraction given the great work that the director and his cast do together. Louder is mesmerizing as the quintessential knight trying to traverse a savage land. She broadcasts strength, intelligence, humor and heart not just through interacting with her fellow castmates but in small bits of physical business and almost imperceptible facial movements that telegraph barely revealed depths. It’s not just that she’s a badass boss lady with a big gun, but she’s also quick to deduce situations and confront them, rather than constantly reacting to new developments like most action heroes do.
Butler is great as the scummy professional killer, coming off like the grimier B-movie version of Russell Crowe, which the actor kind of is in the best ways possible. He’s gruff and dark, constantly emanating a certain air of danger and unpredictability but with a forced attempt at projecting a sense of being fair, logical and all business. This is in perfect contrast to Grillo’s anxious wreck — the captured fox that’s contemplating when to gnaw off his leg. Grillo has played villains and heroes, but Teddy allows him to walk in a gray area where audiences are never sure about the truth of a situation or what exactly his angle is, even when the mask of control slips a bit.
Meanwhile, Toby Huss is a complete joy as a bizarrely folksy psycho who has echoes of those ironic murderer types who sprang up in Tarantino knock-offs in the mid-‘90s. The actor imbues so much genuine weirdness and charm into the idiosyncratic ways of his vicious killer that the outsized performance circles back around to working well and fitting in with the rest of “Copshop.” That cinematic world is essential at making this heightened situation feel real thanks to strong turns by the supporting actors in the precinct and their pithy dialogue that immediately establishes tone and mood whenever they interact with each other.
“Copshop” can be uneven, with some scenes adhering very closely to realism and others featuring over-the-top bantering assassins. This extends to other aspects, as well like how some of the CG elements stand out as flat and awkward compared to the practical sets. These are minor drawbacks that only detract for a few moments, but there are enough that it certainly diminishes the entertainment of the film. Though the film is built on the back of Westerns and familiar story tropes, Carnahan and company find great ways to make “Copshop” feel original and completely engaging. It’s the kind of impossible, Hollywood-type story that harkens back to the golden days of the silver screen, but the writing and performances add enough grit and weight to lessen that incredulity.
Starring: Gerard Butler, Frank Grillo, Alexis Louder, Toby Huss
Director: Joe Carnahan