Category Archives: Cop on the Edge

SIFF 2014: Monsoon Shootout **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2014)

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Amit Kumar directs this Bollywood crime thriller, a tale of an idealistic rookie Mumbai cop (Vijay Varma) eager to prove his mettle to his partner (Neeraj Kabi), a cynical and world-weary veteran. He gets his chance when he finds himself in a do-or-die face-off with a notoriously slippery assassin nicknamed “The Axe Man”. To shoot, or not to shoot…that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer through a drawn out court trial, or to take arms, blow this pain-in-the-ass recidivist away now and get a promotion. Perchance to dream…and that’s where the film takes a clunky turn into Run Lola Run/Point Blank territory. Ay, there’s the rub; pedestrian execution of its central conceit puts the damper on an otherwise stylish effort.

Schenectady, NY: The Place Beyond the Pines ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 6, 2013)

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It’s official. Ryan Gosling is the McQueen of his generation. He has already aced the Taciturn Pro Driver (in the 2011 film Drive) and now with this weekend’s opening of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling can add the Taciturn Pro Biker to his Steve cred.

Judging from the chorus of dreamy sighs that spontaneously erupted all about the auditorium when Gosling first appeared onscreen, perhaps “taciturn, ripped and tattooed” would be a more apt description of Luke Glanton, a carny who makes his living charging around the ‘cage of death’ on his motorcycle. When we meet him, the carnival is nearing the end of a run in Schenectady. Killing time between performances, Luke runs into Romina (Eva Mendes) a woman he had a fling with the previous time the carnival blew through town.

Romina is reticent to re-connect with the flighty Luke, for two major reasons: 1) The new man in her life (Mahershala Ali), and 2) A 1-year old bundle of joy named Jason that resulted from their fling. She doesn’t tell Luke about item #2, but he soon finds out anyway.

Now, Luke is determined to “do the right thing” and provide for his son. He promptly quits the carnival gig, accepts a job offer from a shady auto repair shop owner (Ben Mendelsohn) and sets about ingratiating himself back into Romina’s life (choosing to ignore that whole live-in boyfriend thing).

However, minimum wage isn’t fitting in with Luke’s timetable. In lieu of a raise, his boss helpfully suggests that he try robbing a few banks for supplemental income (a sideline that the auto shop owner himself has dabbled in on occasion). With his special skill sets, Luke discovers that he has a knack; soon earning himself a nickname in the local media as “The Moto-Bandit”.

Luke’s reckless approach to his newfound criminal career puts him on a karmic path with that of another young father with an infant son, a rookie cop named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and it is at this point that the film takes some unexpected turns. Without giving much away, we’ll just say Luke’s story is prologue for what evolves into a more sprawling, multi-generational tale in the Rich Man, Poor Man vein.

It can also be viewed as a three-part character study, with Officer Cross’s story taking up the middle third, culminating with a flash-forward 15 years down the road involving a tenuous relationship that develops between the now high-school-aged sons of the two men (Dane DeHaan as the older Jason and Emory Cohen as AJ Cross). There’s also a noirish subplot with echoes of James Mangold’s Cop Land; in fact one of its stars, Ray Liotta, is essentially reprising  the same character he played there in Cianfrance’s film.

While it’s tempting to label Cianfrance’s screenplay (co-written with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder) as too sprawling at times (tossing everything into the mix…from classic film noir cycle tropes to Sirkian subtexts) he earns bonus points for coaxing uniformly excellent performances from the cast (particularly from Gosling, Cooper and the Brando-esque young Cohen), and for keeping true to its central themes: family legacies, the sins of the fathers, and the never-changing machinations of small town American politics.

Field of nightmares: The Silence ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 30, 2013)

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Generally speaking, a field of wheat is a field of wheat; nothing more, nothing less. However, in the realm of crime thrillers, such benign rural locales can harbor ominous underpinnings (Memories of Murder, The Onion Field and In Cold Blood come to mind).

And so it is in The Silence, a low-key, quietly unsettling genre entry from Germany. In the hands of Swiss-born writer-director Baran bo Odar (who adapted from Jan Costin Wagner’s novel), a wheat field emerges as the principal character; an unlikely venue for acts running the gamut from the sacred to profane, as unfathomably mysterious and complex as the humans who commit them within its enveloping, wind-swept folds.

A flashback to the mid-1980s, involving the disappearance of a 13-year old girl, whose abandoned bicycle is found amid the aforementioned waves of grain, sets the stage for the bulk of the story, which begins 23 years later with an eerily similar incident at the same location involving a girl of the same age.

A team of oddly dysfunctional homicide detectives (several of whom worked the former unsolved case) sets about to investigate. However, Odar quickly discards standard police procedural tropes by revealing the perpetrator to the audience long before the police figure out who it is.

Interestingly, this narrative choice echoes another German crime thriller (arguably the seminal German crime thriller), Fritz Lang’s M. And, just like the child-murderer in Lang’s film, this is a monster hidden in plain sight who walks “among us”… personifying the banality of evil.

Putting the “mystery” on the back burner allows Odar to focus on the aftermath of tragedy. The loss of any loved one is profound; but the loss of a child, especially via an act of violence, is particularly devastating to surviving family members (so poignantly evident to us all in the wake of Sandy Hook).

In that respect, I was reminded of Atom Egoyan’s 1997 drama, The Sweet Hereafter. Like Egoyan, Odar deep-sixes Cause and makes a beeline for Effect, peeling away the veneer of his characters like the layers of an onion, enabling his talented ensemble to deliver emotionally resonant performances.

Consequently, this haunting film is not so much about interrogations and evidence bags as it is about grief, loss, guilt, redemption…and an unfathomably mysterious field of wheat.

London’s burning: The Sweeney ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2013)

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If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching hundreds of crime thrillers over the years, it’s this: if you’re a bad guy, be wary of any police team that is known on the street as the “(insert nickname here) Squad”. Consider “The Hat Squad” in Mulholland Falls, Lee Tamahori’s 1996 neo-noir concerning the exploits of a merry crew of thuggish cops (led by growling fireplug Nick Nolte) barely distinguishable in thought or action from the criminals they chase.

The latest example is writer-director Nick Love’s new film, The Sweeney, which centers on “The Flying Squad”, a modern-day team of London coppers who share similarities with their fedora-wearing American counterparts. For one, they’re led by a growly fireplug (Brit-noir veteran Ray Winstone). He’s DI Jack Regan, a “cop on the edge” who swears by the adage: “To catch a criminal-you have to think like one”. You also apparently have to act like one; Regan and his clannish unit bend the rules (as they violate 57 civil liberties) on a daily basis. But they always get their man, sealing every take down with the catchphrase “We’re the Sweeney…and you’re nicked!”

Regan’s questionable methods have put him at loggerheads with his supervisor (Damian Lewis), and with head of internal affairs DCI Lewis (Steven Mackintosh). Lewis and Regan have a history of mutual animosity, which would likely turn into open warfare should Lewis ever discover Regan has been playing bangers and mashers with his estranged wife (Hayley Atwell) who is an officer in Regan’s squad.

However, office politics soon takes a back seat to Regan’s obsession with nailing his criminal nemesis (Paul Anderson), who Regan suspects as the mastermind behind a series of bold, military-style robberies. The squad intercepts the heavily-armed robbers in the middle of a bank score, but after a pitched gun battle on the busy London streets, they elude capture (set in Trafalgar Square, it’s the most tense and excitingly mounted cops ’n’ robbers shootout since Michael Mann’s Heat). Regan’s superiors are not pleased with his disregard for public safety, so they ask for his badge and gun; however with some clandestine help from his protégé (Ben Drew) he is soon “unofficially” back on the case.

Love’s film is based on a British TV series of the same name, which ran from 1975-1979. One needn’t be familiar with the TV version to enjoy this film, which I did immensely. The screenplay was co-written by John Hodge (Trainspotting), and is chock-a-block with crackling dialogue and amusing insult humor. Performances are excellent throughout; Winstone is perfectly cast, and I was impressed with Drew’s convincing performance as a reformed petty street criminal turned cop (you may know him as  rap artist “Plan B”).

Interestingly, while it has a number of similarities to the Mann film referenced earlier, there is one classic neo-noir that Love’s film particularly evoked, and that is William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller, The French Connection. Winstone’s character is a kindred spirit to Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle.

Both bachelors, they are slovenly and bereft of social skills, but on the job, they are a force to be reckoned with; driven, focused and relentless in their desire to catch the bad guys. And like Doyle’s obsession with “the Frenchman” in Friedkin’s film, Regan’s pursuit of his quarry becomes his raison d’etre; all else falls by the wayside.

Most significantly, both characters see themselves as working-class heroes of a sort. The criminals they seek to take down are living high off their ill-begotten gains; they are cleverly elusive, yet so confident in their abilities to cover their tracks that they seem to take perverse pleasure in taunting their pursuers. This is film noir as class warfare. Or, this could just be a well-made cops and robbers flick with cool chase scenes.

Friedkin knocks one out of the trailer park: Killer Joe ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 25, 2012)

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There’s a hard-boiled American crime film sub-genre one might dub “Texas Noir”, with its roots in the 1958 Orson Welles classic, Touch of Evil.  Other notable examples are Sam Peckinpah’s original 1972 version of The Getaway, Bonnie and Clyde, The Sugarland Express, Wild at Heart, Lone Star, Blood Simple, The Hot Spot, No Country for Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Killer Inside Me. These films reside at the crossroads of sun-bleached adobe and permanent midnight; where a wellspring of deceit and malice burbles and roils just beneath the cowboy charm and a laid-back drawl.

The latest genre entry to hit the multiplex is a blackly funny and deliriously nasty piece of work called Killer Joe, from veteran director William Friedkin. Jim Thompson meets Sam Shepherd (with a whiff of Tennessee Williams) in this dysfunctional trailer trash-strewn tale of avarice, perversion and murder-for-hire, adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts from his own play. This is the second collaboration between director and writer, who teamed up in 2006 for the psychological horror film, Bug (which I have never seen).

Emile Hirsch is Chris, a low-level drug dealer who lives with his abusive alcoholic mother. As if his life wasn’t hellish enough, he’s up to his eyes in debt to a  hood, who is threatening to take it out of his hide. This leaves Chris facing deadline pressure, with a short list of options for quick cash. Not being overly fond of his loutish mama, he decides to kill two birds with one stone by (figuratively) throwing her from the train and cashing in on her $50,000 life insurance policy. While he may not be the brightest piece of charcoal in the BBQ pit, he is savvy enough to realize that this will require collusion.

Enter the family:  mouth-breathing auto mechanic daddy (Thomas Haden Church), slatternly stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his Lolita-ish nymphet sister Dottie (Juno Temple), who all live together in a cozy trailer home (now that I think about it, this family would feel right at home in a John Waters film). They tentatively approve of Chris’ plan to hire a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hit man (Matthew McConaughey) to do the deed, with the assumption that the insurance will be paid out to Dottie.

“Killer” Joe (as our bad, bad cop is known) isn’t happy to learn that Chris doesn’t have the cash retainer. Joe is on the verge of cancelling when the virginal Dottie catches his eye. Hmm…perhaps we can work something out (I told you it was perverse).

While the noir tropes in the narrative may hold few surprises (the requisite red herrings and triple-crosses abound), the squeamish are forewarned that the 76 year-old Friedkin still has a formidable ability to startle unsuspecting viewers; proving you’re never too old to earn an NC-17 rating (I would expect no less from the man who directed The Exorcist, which remains one of the most viscerally unsettling films of all time).

That being said, those who appreciate the mordantly comic sensibilities of David Lynch, John Waters or the Coen brothers will find themselves giggling more often than gasping. The real litmus test occurs during the film’s climactic scene, which is so Grand Guignol that (depending on your sense of humor) you’ll either cringe and cover your eyes…or laugh yourself sick.

The biggest surprise is McConaughey’s nuanced work as the creepy, quietly menacing Joe. Frankly, I had written him off as an actor who had been steadily obfuscating fine early-career work in films like Dazed and Confused, Lone Star, and A Time to Kill by accepting relatively non-challenging roles in a forgettable string of boilerplate rom-coms (trust me…you won’t soon forget this film). Gershon camps it up with a cartoon rendering of a trailer park cougar, but that’s what makes her character so entertaining.

Newcomer Temple (daughter of British director Julien), is a revelation. She and McConaughey plunge fearlessly into a seduction scene that recalls controversial moments from Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear (involving Robert De Niro and Julliette Lewis) and Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker’s infamous “porch swing” exchange, which earned the 1956 film a “condemned” rating from the Catholic church’s Legion of Decency).

Judging by the umbrage taken by disgruntled audience members at the screening I attended, Friedkin’s enigmatic fade-out may leave some viewers feeling “cheated”, but those “old enough to remember” will get a chuckle out of the director’s obvious in-jokey homage to his vintage classic, The French Connection (well, that’s my theory). Granted, Killer Joe may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you’re seeking uncompromising, non-formulaic, adult fare…have a sip.

Motel money murder madness: Rampart ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2012)

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In a 1995 interview, hard-boiled scribe James Ellroy said of the protagonists in his (then) current novel, American Tabloid: “…I want to see these bad, bad, bad, bad men come to grips with their humanity.” Anyone who has read any number of his books will glean this as an ongoing theme in his work.

Later in the interview, Ellroy confides that he “…would like to provide ambiguous responses in my readers.” If those were his primary intentions in the screenplay that drives Oren Moverman’s gripping and unsettling new film Rampart (co-written with the director), I would say that he has succeeded mightily on both counts.

And there is, indeed, a very bad, bad, bad, bad man at the heart of this story, and he is veteran LAPD Sgt. Dave “Date Rape” Brown (Woody Harrelson), who earned his charming nickname in the wake of an incident that resulted in the fatal shooting of a suspected serial date rapist. This is another Ellroy trademark; I was reminded of a scene from L.A. Confidential, wherein Lt. Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is cheerfully christened “Shotgun Ed” by the chief after gunning down several suspects.

As there is a 50-year gap that separates Lt. Exley’s era (the 1950s) from Sgt. Brown’s (his story is set in 1999), perhaps this is Ellroy’s way of telegraphing that the more things change, the more they stay the same…at least regarding those who “serve and protect” the City of Lost Angels.

Based on job description, Dave Brown may be a public servant who “protects”, but the more we get to know him, the more obvious it is that he “serves” no one but himself. Despite a career-long propensity for generally disregarding most of the ethical standards one would expect an officer of the law to uphold, Brown has somehow managed to hang on to his badge.

While he embodies many defining characteristics of that noir staple known as the “rogue cop”, he is not quite so in the same sense as, say, Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan (who may be a fascist…but at least he’s a fascist with principles). Nor is he a “conflicted cop”, wrestling with his conscience, because he doesn’t have one. He does have a Code, of sorts; he may be racist, sexist and homophobic (again, a typical Ellroy protagonist) but as he helpfully qualifies at one point, “I hate everyone…equally.”

However, Brown’s karma is catching up with him, particularly after he flies off the handle when his police cruiser is struck by another motorist (who may or may not be a “fleeing suspect”). His subsequent beat down of said motorist is caught on camera, resulting in a Rodney King-sized public relations nightmare for the department that puts Brown at odds with a no-nonsense D.A. (Sigourney Weaver) and an Internal Affairs investigator (Ice Cube).

We see an interesting side to Brown in these grilling sessions; he is quite the silver-tongued devil, articulating his viewpoint with a cool intelligence and developed vocabulary that belies his otherwise thuggish demeanor. Regardless,  reality sets in that he needs to scare up serious coin for a defense lawyer, so he reaches out to a crooked ex-LAPD officer (Ned Beatty) who tips him to an “easy” cash grab. The scheme fails, putting Brown into an even deeper hole.

In the meantime, Brown is becoming more and more alienated from his fellow cops, and (more significantly) his family. His family situation is odd, to say the least. He lives with his two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), who are sisters. He has two daughters (Brie Larson and Sammy Boyarsky), one by each. After witnessing Brown’s on-the-job behavior, I was bracing myself for what I anticipated to be inevitable and horrifying scenes of domestic abuse, but interestingly, they never “go there”.

In fact, with the exception of his youngest daughter, who is likely too naïve to see through his bullshit, he is treated by the exes and eldest daughter like a house cat who keeps getting underfoot at the most inconvenient times. And whenever he’s told to fuck off (which is often), he dutifully slinks away to sulk in the corner. It appears that Brown needs his family much more than they need him; because it is only after they finally boot him out for good that he really begins circling the drain, embarking on a debauched sex, drug and alcohol-fueled midnight alley roam (a la Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas).

Curiously, despite the film’s title (and 1999 time frame), the story has little to do with the infamous Rampart police scandal of the late 1990s, in which over 70 officers assigned to the division’s anti-gang unit were implicated in a shocking laundry list of misdeeds ranging from frame-ups and perjury to bank robbery and murder. There are a few perfunctory references, but I don’t believe that the intention here was to do a docudrama.

Also, the cops involved in the Rampart scandal seemed to operate from a mindless mob mentality; essentially co-opting the gang culture they were supposed to be countering. Brown is a lone wolf, perhaps an anachronism; a sort of “last holdout” to the old school of LAPD corruption that permeates Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet”, a series of four novels that spans the late 40s through the late 50s (including the aforementioned L.A. Confidential).

This is the second collaboration between director, leading man and the film’s co-producer, actor Ben Foster (virtually unrecognizable here in a minor supporting role as a homeless, wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet). Moverman, Harrelson and Foster teamed up in 2009 for the outstanding drama, The Messenger. In my review, I noted:

…there is a lot about this film that reminds me of those episodic, naturalistic character studies that directors like Hal Ashby and Bob Rafaelson used to turn out back in the 70s; giving their actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters in a very real and believable manner.

The same can be said for Moverman’s latest project as well. Some viewers may find this approach a little too episodic, especially if one is expecting standard crime thriller tropes. So if you’re seeking car chases, shootouts and a neatly wrapped ending tied with a bow-look elsewhere. Like those classic 70s character studies, the film just sort of…starts (no opening credits, no musical cues), shit happens, and then it sort of…stops (no big finale).

It’s what’s inside this sandwich that matters, namely the fearless and outstanding performance from a gaunt and haunted Harrelson. Larson (as his eldest daughter) is a standout, as is the always excellent Robin Wright (as a burned out defense lawyer), who nearly steals all her scenes with Harrelson.

So, does this bad, bad character ever manage to “come to grips” with his humanity? It may be too little, too late, but he does. It is expressed in an extraordinary, wordless exchange between him and his daughter. Both actors play it beautifully; and it’s so ephemeral that you might miss it if you blink. So don’t blink. Because by the time it registers, Brown has crawled back into the dark urban shadows that spawned him, just another lost angel in the city of night.

SIFF 2012: Polisse ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2012)

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A docudrama-style police procedural in the tradition of Jules Dassin’s Naked City. You do have to pay very close attention, however, because it seems like there are about 8 million stories (and just as many characters) crammed into the 127 minutes of French director Maiwenn’s complex film.

Using a clever “hall of mirrors” device, the director casts herself in the role of a “fly on the wall” photojournalist, and it is through this character’s lens that we observe the dedicated men and women who work in the Child Protective Unit arm of the French police. As you can imagine, these folks are dealing with the absolute lowest of the already lowest criminal element of society, day in and day out, and it does take its psychic toll on them.

Still, there’s a surprising amount of levity sprinkled throughout Maiwenn’s dense screenplay (co-written by Emmanuelle Bercot), which helps temper the heartbreak of seeing children in situations that they would never have to suffer through in a just world. The film fizzles a bit at the end, and keeping track of all the story lines is challenging, but it’s worthwhile, with remarkable performances from the ensemble  (it won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011).

Hard-boiled eggs: The Killer Inside Me **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 3, 2010)

There have been a number of good films adapted from pulp writer Jim Thompson’s novels and short stories. Neo-noirs like The Getaway, Coup de Torchon, The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, and This World then the Fireworks reveled convincingly in the author’s trademark milieu of tortured, brooding characters and dirty double dealings. Unfortunately, as much as I was rooting for it, The Killer Inside Me is not destined to be held up amongst the aforementioned. Filmed once before in 1972 (with Stacey Keach in the lead), it’s a nasty bit of Texas noir about a sheriff’s deputy (played in 2010 by Casey Affleck) who leads the proverbial “double life”-with a dark side much darker than most.

Affleck plays Lou Ford, a taciturn,  well-mannered 1950s small town lawman whose gaze always appears to be fixated on an indeterminate point just beyond your shoulder. When he is assigned to personally deliver an “out of town by sundown” ultimatum from the sheriff’s office to a prostitute (Jessica Alba), he learns quickly that this young lady is not easily intimidated. In fact, she instigates what escalates into a slapping contest between the two. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, we’re witnessing what could be the beginning of a beautiful sadomasochistic relationship.

This is our first inkling of what may be lurking beneath Lou’s robotic politeness and  “yes ma’am, no ma’am” countenance. In accordance with Film Noir Rules and Regulations, the two overs are soon embroiled in a complicated blackmail scheme. Yes-he is a bad, bad deputy; not to mention that he’s already fooling around on his sweet-natured fiancée (played by a virtually unrecognizable Kate Hudson). His transgressions get worse. Much, much worse (take a moment to ponder the film’s title). Corpses accumulate.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this film didn’t work for me. Director Michael Winterbottom is no slouch; he has demonstrated a talent for effortless genre-hopping with notable films like 24 Hour Party People, Code 46, Tristram Shandy and The Road to Guantanamo. Maybe it was the “near-miss” vibe of the film’s essential genre elements. He catches the look of a small west Texas town circa 1950, but not necessarily the flavor; it’s too glossy, perhaps too “stagey”.

John Curran’s screenplay (with additional writing credits to the director) is adequate, but not spectacular (we’re not talking Chinatown here). It’s a great cast; with good supporting players like Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Simon Baker and Bill Pullman, but they are window-dressed as noir archetypes, given nothing substantive to do with their characters. Also, everyone mumbles their lines-I couldn’t follow a good portion of the dialog (“What?”). In particular, I found Affleck’s vocal inflection (a peculiar, reedy croak) to be annoying.

There has been some controversy regarding the violence in the film; viewers are subjected to not one, but two uncompromisingly brutal scenes where a female character is punched, kicked and stomped to death. There are no artful cutaways; it is grisly, and hard to stomach.

Now, one could argue that murder is a horrible act, and should not be sugar-coated or glorified; after all this is a film about a psychotic killer (Goodfellas had some of the most sickening violence I’ve ever seen on screen, but in the context of the world that its characters live in, it “worked”). But in this case, it feels gratuitous, especially since I can’t really say that the film surrounding those scenes redeemed their inclusion in any major way. I’ve seen this movie before (think American Psycho, The Stepfather, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) Speaking for myself, I think I’ve had my lifetime quota.

CSI Vaslui: Police, Adjective ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 30, 2010)

“What do you think; would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”

 -Fyodor Dostoevsky

 Most people would agree that Bullitt and The French Connection qualify as seminal examples of the modern “cop thriller”. While both are primarily revered for their iconic action sequences, what makes them most fascinating to me is the attention to character minutia.

In Bullitt, it’s a scene where Steve McQueen’s character slouches home after a shift. He walks into a corner grocery and perfunctorily scoops up an armload of TV dinners, then retires to his modest apartment to decompress. It’s a leisurely sequence that may seem superfluous, but speaks volumes about the character.

A similar scene in The French Connection has detective Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) shivering outside in the cold for hours, wolfing fast food and drinking bad coffee out of a Styrofoam cup as he stakes out his quarry, an international drug kingpin who is enjoying a gourmet meal in an upscale restaurant. Both films demonstrate how non-glamorous and mundane police work actually is, an aspect most genre entries tend to gloss over.

“Non-glamorous and mundane” could be a good descriptive for Police, Adjective, the latest film from Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu. In fact, this is the type of film that requires any viewer weaned on typical Hollywood grist to first unlearn what they have previously learned about crime dramas.

There are no foot chases, car chases, shootouts, take downs or perp walks. There are no fast cuts or pulse-pounding musical cues. In short, the viewer is forced to pay attention, to observe and study…to “stake out” the characters and events, if you will. The devil is in the details (like real detective work.) And your reward? Well, you may not solve a major crime, but you could reach a certain state of enlightenment via a 15-minute denouement involving a Dostoevskian discourse on the dialectics of law, morality and conscience (Nothing blows up?!).

We observe a plainclothes cop named Cristi (Dragos Bucur) as he keeps tabs a teenage suspect who may or may not be a low-level pot dealer…pretty much in real time for the first half of the film.

As if we haven’t received an adequate taste of Cristi’s job-related tedium, Porumboiu appends each sequence with a static, several-minute long close-up of the officer’s handwritten report, annotating every detail of what we have just seen. It’s almost as if we’re reading the shooting script; I wonder if the director is conveying an allusion to the relative tedium of the film making process itself (clever-clever!).

Based on my description so far, you may be saying to yourself “This movie sounds like a waste of time.” Funny thing is, that is exactly what Cristi is thinking about his stakeout. He is becoming increasingly chagrined that his boss (Vlad Ivonov) insists that he keeps digging until he finds cause to set up a sting, because he intuits that it’s merely a case of kids just “being kids”…hanging out and getting high together, as opposed to a major drug operation.

Besides, Cristi feels in his heart of hearts that his country is on the verge of joining other European nations in lightening up the penalties for personal pot use (yes-the innate stupidity of most pot laws appears to be universal, and requires no translation).

Cristi’s boss, however, sees this subjective attitude toward his assignment as an opportunity to teach the young officer an object lesson about the meaning of “duty”; literally starting with the etymology of the word “police” (hence the film’s unusual title).

I know that sounds as dull as dish water, and it’s difficult to convey what makes this film work so well. It may sound like the makings of a sober, introspective drama, but there is actually a great deal of wry comedy throughout. One scene in particular, in which Cristi and his school teacher wife (Irina Saulescu) spiritedly banter about the literal vs. metaphorical context of a pop song’s lyrics is a gem.

The film is also a fascinating glimpse at a post-E.U. Romania, and the unenviable task of redefining “policing” in a formerly oppressive police state still gingerly feeling its way as a democracy. Besides-when is the last time you saw a cop thriller wherein the most formidable weapon brandished was…a Romanian dictionary?

Fear and loathing in the 9th Ward: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 19, 2009)

Who could have guessed that the man who helmed art house classics like Fitzcarraldo, Woyzeck and Aguirre the Wrath of God would one day make a film entitled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans? Then again, one might argue that the iconoclastic Werner Herzog’s career would be nothing, if not perennially unpredictable.

Herzog’s latest film, arguably adorned with the year’s most unwieldy title for squeezing onto a marquee, is a (sort of) sequel to Abel Ferrara’s highly controversial 1992 neo-noir about a drug and gambling-addicted NYC homicide investigator. In that film, Harvey Keitel gave a completely fearless and thoroughly maniacal performance as a “cop on the edge” who made most of the criminals he was paid to apprehend look like choir boys. Not an easy act to follow-but Nicholas Cage proves to be more than up to the task here.

To my observation, Cage has demonstrated two basic personas in his repertoire over the years. First, there is the Slack-Jawed, Dead-eyed Mumbler (Peggy Sue Got Married, Moonstruck, Red Rock West, Leaving Las Vegas). His other character is the Manic, Wild-eyed Loon (Wild at Heart, Vampire’s Kiss, Kiss of Death, Face/Off). Personally, I get a real kick out of his performances in the latter mode, and it goes without saying that you can now add the role of “bad” Lt. Terence McDonagh to that section of his resume.

As far as I could glean, there is no effort to bridge with Ferrara’s film and explain how Lt. McDonagh transitioned from NYC to New Orleans. Not that it really matters. Anyone who has followed Herzog’s career probably has figured out by now that he is perfectly content to wallow in his own peculiar universe. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing-it’s what makes his work so continually interesting to me. The “plot” ostensibly concerns itself with the murder of a Senegalese family, and the police investigation. Not that the “plot” really matters, either (although Herzog’s post-Katrina milieu is quite atmospheric).

No, if you are going to watch this film (which has “destined to become a midnight cult item” written all over it), I’ll tell you right now that you needn’t concern yourself with trying to follow the (probably deliberately) convoluted and complex murder mystery. You’ll be too busy asking yourself questions like “Did I just see what I think I just saw?” as Herzog and screenwriter William M. Finkelstein proceed to turn the “cop on the edge” genre on its head with every blackly comic twist and turn.

Cage and the rest of the cast (including Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, Brad Dourif and Jennifer Coolidge) all seem to be in on the director’s joke, and play it to the hilt. By the time you’ve processed Herzog’s use of the “alligator/iguana-cam”, you will have to make a decision to either run for the exit, or go with the flow and say to yourself “Well…I’ve bought the ticket, I’m gonna take the ride.”

This is the most twisted noir I’ve seen since Tough Guys Don’t Dance. So do I think you should rush out and see this? That depends. If you are looking for a refreshing alternative to the usual fourth-quarter Hollywood offerings (Oscar-baiting dramas, prestige biopics and bloated, CGI-laden epics in 3-D)-by all means, knock yourself out. But don’t say I didn’t warn you-if you don’t consider an inspired line like “Shoot him again-his soul is still dancing!” to be pure  genius, then you’d best keep away.