Category Archives: Cop on the Edge

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.

The case of the cracked case-cracker: Mad Detective **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 2, 2008)

“When I was in school, I cheated on my metaphysics exam. I looked into the soul of the boy sitting beside me.”

 -Woody Allen

 In the opening scene of Mad Detective (a new psychological drama/murder mystery that cheats on its metaphysics exam), detective inspector Chan Kwai Bun (Lau Ching Wan) appears to be intently staring into the soul of a dead pig, suspended from the ceiling of a homicide division squad room. A group of his fellow officers silently stands by, transfixed by the sight of Bun, wielding a formidable looking knife as he circles the dangling porker.

When rookie inspector Ho Ka On (Andy On) blunders into the room to report for duty, he is pulled aside and shushed by another officer, who whispers, “Bun is immersed in the investigation.” Suddenly, Bun lunges at the pig and begins to stab it repeatedly. Then he dives under a desk and grabs a travel bag, bidding the wide-eyed Ho to accompany him to the top of a staircase. “I’ll lie inside the suitcase,” Bun says. “You push me down the stairs.” And so begins the partnership between inspectors Ho and Bun.

Bun apparently possesses the ability to literally “look into the soul” of both perpetrators and deceased victims alike (a neat trick that handily one-ups the cognitive abilities of your typical criminal profiler), and has consequently racked up a 100% success rate solving his murder cases.

This odd ability doesn’t come without its psychic/social price; Bun is viewed by most of his peers as a bit of a freak show and is pushed into an “early retirement”. The doubts about his overall mental state appear to be confirmed when, at the end of his career, he inexplicably slices off one of his ears (a la Van Gogh) and dutifully presents it along with his gun and badge. (Cuckoo! Cuckoo!)

However, according to the Rules of Old Mentor/Young Protégé Cop Buddy Movies, at this point in the narrative, an occasion must arise that precipitates Bun being dragged out of retirement to help solve “one last case” (otherwise, we would only have a 20 minute film.) After a cop mysteriously disappears, Ho talks the reluctant Bun into assisting in the case, to lend that special voodoo, that he do, so well.

Now, this is where co directors Johnny To and Ka-Fai Wai decide to borrow a few tricks from M. Night Shyamalan, and have some wicked fun with the viewer’s perception of reality; especially when you realize that you are “seeing” the inner personalities of certain characters just as Bun “sees” them. Toss in a prime suspect with multiple personalities, and buckle up for a real mindfuck.

While this is not your typical Hong Kong crime thriller, it contains enough requisite elements to genre enthusiasts, like the inevitable denouement wherein all the principal characters converge (usually in a deserted building or warehouse) and have a Mexican standoff. There are some nice visual touches, especially in a nifty “hall of mirrors” climax a la The Lady from Shanghai or Enter the Dragon.

Although there isn’t a lot of “ha ha funny” inherent in the screenplay (written by co-director Ka-Fai Wai along with Kin-Yee Au), it does contain dark comedy, helped by some subtly arch undercurrents in Wan’s deadpan take on inspector Bun. Not a masterpiece, but an intriguing watch for fans of (really, really) off-beat whodunits.