There was a moment in watching Copshop when I found myself trying to find out the two title pitch that made it come to fruition, and I settled on “It’s Assault on Precinct 13 meets a less over the top Smokin’ Aces.” Imagine my feelings of both pride and embarrassment when I recalled that Copshop’s writer (along with Kurt McLeod and Mark Willams)-director Joe Carnahan wrote and directed Aces as well. At least I can spot a style, I suppose.
Copshop Boasts a Grimy Old School Feel and Some Ambiguous Politics
My brief mental lapse does point to a fundamental truth about the film, though. One’s enjoyment will depend a lot on how one feels about Carnahan’s style and thematic preoccupations because they’re all there. Cops and crooks, ambiguous morality, dead-end situations, betrayal, what con artists do when their gift of gab fails them, and so many bangs and booms. If you share the man’s interests, if you like his throwback style, Copshop should delight you. If, however, you can’t get on Carnahan’s wavelength, you’ll likely suffer throughout.
If you’ll forgive the transition, on-screen, Officer Valerie Young (Alexis Louder) does quite a bit of suffering as well. For her, it starts with being the unlucky cop who Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo) targets for a punch so he can earn a trip to jail. Murretto’s a con artist turned mob fixer (though he hates the term) turned federal informant and sees getting locked up as the quickest way to ensure his several when some corrupt officials nearly kidnap him.
Teddy’s wish granted, he heads to the drunk tank of Gun Creek, NV’s police station for overnight holding. (I looked it up; Gun Creek isn’t real, but it seems to be a play on Spring Creek, NV, a town that boasts a surprising number of gun stores for a place with a population under 15,000.) However, Teddy’s plan goes sideways when hitman Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler) plays drunk long enough to end up locked away in the same basement as Murretto.
Things only get worse from there, courtesy of a desperate corrupt cop, Huber (Ryan O’Nan), and a flashy borderline deranged contract killer Anthony “He’s going by Tony now” Lamb (Toby Huss). Soon the precinct is under siege from forces internal and external. Unfortunately, the skeleton crew of cops proves itself not up to the challenge.
Young finds herself alone, clinging to values that seem sure to get her killed. Even with everyone promising her an easy way, swearing they won’t hurt her if she just lets them do what they want, she stubbornly refuses to buckle.
It’s an undeniably fun premise if you have affection for the kind of street-level action films where head games tend to get top bill until the bullets really start to fly. Louder makes a great central figure, giving off prickly charisma. She never lets the more recognizable faces push her off the screen, but she also allows her co-stars, particularly Butler, space enough to make their own impressions.
Butler, so inert in the [Blank] Has Fallen films, finds an interesting niche as morally ambiguous figures on either side of the law. While I had no affection for Den of Thieves, for instance, I still found him as engaged and interesting as he’s been in years as the crooked ‘Big Nick’ O’Brien. Here’s to hoping Butler continues to navigate towards those kinds of roles and projects and leaves behind bland expensive actioners and noxious romantic comedies.
(Grillo is good as well but has the thinnest of the three roles, something that evidently did not escape his notice.)
What proves most interesting about Copshop, though, is its timing. It arrives during a historical moment where even Brooklyn 99 has been called on the carpet for being copaganda. This film gleefully depicts Young using her taser on Murretto beyond any reasonable need. It features Young and a fellow officer engage in mock gun battles, with real firearms, in the bullpen in a way that suggests this is an acceptable way to blow off steam. The sergeant is a man of color and a father figure to Young.
And yet, Copshop also shows us multiple corrupt cops, makes plenty of jokes about how out of shape several officers are, and even depicts Young as a green officer who does more damage to herself than two professional killers manage. And let’s not get too deep into the fact that Young’s great grandfather apparently fought for the Nazis in World War II.
I’ve never found Carnahan to be a particularly politically provocative filmmaker, but I’ve also him a reasonably intelligent director. It strikes me as fairly unlikely he’d have no awareness of the hot spots Copshop dances with and through. However, I have no idea what, if anything, he’s trying to say with it all. If it’s just empty provocation, well, that’s disappointing. But if it isn’t…that might be worse?
I come down on the side that Carnahan is saying what he always has with a nod to the current climate. That is, as a filmmaker, he’s always been highlighting the reality of situational ethics. The hired killer we’d all agree is a bad person is the one we cheer for when suddenly he saves the life of our protagonist. The cop abusing their power becomes our favorite character when they risk their life for the principle of everyone deserving equal protection under the law. It’s why, for example, Ryan Reynolds‘ character turn to vigilante justice at the end of Smokin’ Aces gets a heroic edit.
Carnahan is less engaging the current political zeitgeist than shrugging at it. For him, it’s the same as it ever was.