“You don’t… Steal… A Fucking… COP CAR!”
Dir: Jon Watts
Focus World, 2015, USA
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Hays Wellford, James Freedson-Jackson
Cop Car is the simple story of two young runaway boys that commandeer an apparently abandoned police cruiser, much to the dismay of the county’s very corrupt Sheriff that it belongs to. It’s such a terrifically succinct yet open-ended premise that you wonder how Spielberg, Dante, Zemekis, et al. hadn’t conjured it up amongst them in the mid-’80s. Indeed, the thematic nature Cop Car echoes most prominently is a nostalgia for the innocent optomism of certain ’80s films – think of the escapades and camaraderie of the boys in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Explorers (1985) and, much more specifically, Stand By Me (1986) – for the first half-hour at least. Writer-director Jon Watts then switches gear by crossing over into much darker road thriller territory endemic in some of the Coen brothers’ films or last year’s excellent revenge thriller Blue Ruin (2014).
The two youngsters, Harrison and Travis (Wellford and Freedson-Jackson, respectively), are introduced with Travis goading Harrison into repeating his foul language. He works his way from mildly crude words into much more explicit lexicon (“Fuck”) that Harrison is reluctant to utter. Of course, later events will permit him using the word, but with a little more tenacity and spontaneity. They then duck under a barb-wire fence; Travis in one confident swoop, Harrison a little more gingerly. The duo’s dynamic of Travis being the leader and Harrison his sidekick is clear for the outset. It is here that the film reveals its coming-of-age slant; Harrison is outlined marginally as the focal character of the story and the proceedings should hopefully prod him further towards confident maturity.
Cop Car gets under way brilliantly. We see the kids trying to emulate grown-up conduct as they act out their own action movie fantasy by imitating character affectations they probably saw in R-rated films and video games; their behaviour here is endearingly genuine. Their discovery of the vacant titular vehicle and its cache of weaponry, then, is a ticket to actually be grown-ups. For a short while, at least. Cue Sheriff Kretzer’s (a moustachioed Kevin Bacon) arrival: a highly corrupt cop with bodies in the back of his car ready to be buried. A rather cunning bit of writing and editing here tricks us into a flashback without us even knowing; the end-result is unanticipated and quietly hilarious.
Bacon is brilliant in the sleazy, villainous role. His desperate quest to retrieve his vehicle – which involves a lot of running, stealing other cars and him constantly evading contact with other cops and town locals – is the best part of the film. It is disappointing then, that I actually wanted to spend more time around him in his adjacent antics than root for the two boys as the film progressed. Demonstrably, the relatively unknown Wellford and Freedson-Jackson are fine young actors and are not overshadowed by Bacon’s A-list presence, but it was the novelty of their misadventure and central premise oppose to Kretzer’s bizarre predicament that begins to wear their side of the story a little too thin. Despite this, we do see a few wince-inducing moments that occur along their travels – one involving an ill-fitting flak jacket and an assault rifle – but the film eventually culminates with a protracted stand-off that is weighed down further by attempts at black comedy that didn’t quite gel with the tension. A final confrontation also feels slightly tacked on.
Cop Car is clearly, for the most part, a well-made film. The cast of characters is nice and concise, the coming-of-age story plays out finely, the cinematography displays the sparse Colorado landscapes beautifully and the boys’ naturalistic behaviour captures the imagination and freedom of what being young and foolish is all about (the last thing being something many films get so cringe-inducingly wrong). I’ve seen the film twice now, and even though it lasts a trim 88 minutes, its charm is unfortunately lost on me about two thirds of the way through. The two separate narrative strands of the boys speeding around with the cop car and the Sheriff tracking them down are mostly great when not being interfered by the other, but the closer the film gets to bringing the strands together seems to be inadvertently sucking the fun out of the film. I guess I may have preferred it if the boys somehow managed to evade the Sheriff completely for the film’s duration.
Although Cop Car didn’t fulfill my expectations as I had hoped, it did open my eyes to a promising writer-director with Watts. I was even excited to see what else Watts could have come up within this realm of low-key thrillers but then found out that he is now at the helm of the upcoming Marvel Studios-sanctioned Spider-Man reboot (what a leap!); Cop Car and his previously released horror, Clown (2014), are now technically his calling card films. It looks like I’m going to have to wait.
- Liam Hathaway