22 May 2010

Bad Cops, Worse Cop

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Hollywood loves a police procedural. It's a sub-genre that can turn out fare as highly regarded as The Departed and Dirty Harry or as fiercely reviled as Hollywood Homicide or any number of Police Academy sequels. Or in this very week, it can turn out the likes of Werner Herzog's bat-shit crazy The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or the Kevin Smith-directed 80s throwback, Cop Out.
The title Cop Out is a fairly witty pun about the studio's insistence that the film's title was changed from its original A Couple of Dicks, for similar advertising-related reasons as the furore around Kevin Smith's last, Zach and Miri Make A Porno. Not the best of starts.

The film itself follows Jimmy and Paul, two cops who get on the wrong side of everyone with their unorthodox methods and general incompetence. They're suspended from active duty after blowing a hole in an important investigation, leaving Jimmy to try and sell an extremely rare baseball card in order to bankroll his daughter's wedding. The card is stolen, and the two cops go on the hunt to get the card back.

From the start, it's important to note that Cop Out is something of a labour of love. Even for a script that was good enough to appear on the 2008 Black List, the studio was eager to scale it back for a more lucrative PG-13 rating. That it remains intact is down to both director Kevin Smith and star Bruce Willis agreeing to take a pay cut in order to keep it at the higher R rating. I would really like to love it just for being a labour of love, but I'm afraid it's not enough.

I'm a big Kevin Smith fan, but he didn't write this one, and by his own admission, he's not the most amazing director in the world. Black Listed or not, the script needed a polish by Smith before it went into production, because given how he's always written honestly, directing Cop Out seems almost dishonest by comparison. The films he scripted always have an affection for their characters, but sadly it seems like Smith has more affection for Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan here.

Willis puts in a fine turn that goes back to his comedy roots, but he's really the straight man to Morgan, who just annoyed me in this one. His brand of bluster that has worked well elsewhere fell short in Cop Out, and he only mustered a couple of chuckles out of me here. As he's one of the stars, that's sadly true for the rest of the film as well. In my view, someone should've figured they were in trouble when they were relying on Stifler to be the film's comedic highlight. OK, fair's fair, I didn't totally hate Seann William Scott in this, but I still believe he's part of the problem.

Smith has spoken of how he wanted to homage 80s cop movies like Beverly Hills Cop and Fletch, and the fine Harold Faltermeyer score goes a long way towards that, but the rest is fairly pedestrian. Instead of laughing, you'll groan when Willis makes an in-joke about never having seen a film with the line "Yippie-kay-ay, motherfucker". It's a lot lighter on belly laughs than I'd have hoped, and sadly recalls less memorable fare like Hollywood Homicide. This really could've been directed by anyone, and it's missing both the heart and the humour that Smith's other films have.

That Cop Out is Kevin Smith's most commercially successful film says more for audiences than it does for Smith. Clerks II was dirty as hell and funny to boot, but it definitely had a heart of gold. Dogma was a comedic projection of Smith's own Catholic faith without ever mocking more zealous people, even though such people went and protested anyway. And yet many more people saw this film, which falls down even without comparing to Smith's better works.

I like parts of it better than the whole. I like Kevin Smith's films. I like Bruce Willis when he's doing comedy instead. But Cop Out ultimately falls down on account of its script. We're never made to care much about the characters, especially when the film is far more concerned with evoking other films and other characters. It's funny by turns, but that's not funny enough. With a less studio-driven project, Kevin Smith really shines. Cop Out is not that film, and I'm tremendously disappointed to say so.

Cop Out is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
Funnily enough, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans centres around a bad lieutenant, in the New Orleans police force. Post-Hurricane Katrina, crime is rife, but so is police corruption. Don't believe the misleading trailers for this one- Terrence McDonagh is not once a good cop throughout this entire film, and indeed, he gets worse as he goes along. Having sustained a back injury which will affect him for the rest of his life, Terrence quickly moves onto substance abuse and an addiction to gambling. An unusual good guy, but there's still a crime to be solved, and Terrence's personal vices are intrinsically tied to catching a murderer who executed a whole family.

If you're not familiar with the works of Werner Herzog, a man who has brought us suicide penguins and variously been threatened with death and "unsuccessfully shot" in his career as a documentarian, this is probably not the film for you. Indeed, Herzog's involvement should scream to the unaware that The Bad Lieutenant is not a film for everyone. Its intentions are essentially to demolish the police procedural genre by trotting out all of its cliches in a surreal backdrop.

Have you ever asked yourself before now if Heat would have been a better film if we had some animal point-of-view shots? And if some of those shots were from the perspective of animals imagined by our hero? Because that really happens when Terrence spots some imaginary iguanas. These asides are all the more powerful for how infrequent and thus out of the blue they are. This is the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas of cop dramas- it is constantly out to unsettle its audience and explode all of their expectations.

It helps enormously that Terrence is played by the Finest Comedy Actor Of Our Time (Even When He Doesn't Know It), Nicolas Cage. Through Terence, he's given a channel for all of his rampant insanity, something we rarely ever see since he became nailed down as the star of compulsively-directed blockbusters like National Treasure. However, Herzog must have focused him somehow, or else this would be another weird misstep like the world-famous awful remake of The Wicker Man. He is dangerous to watch, and he single-handedly makes the film absolutely repulsive, in the best way possible.

The trouble is, in reminding the audience of the tropes in a police drama, it occasionally just isn't weird enough to entirely carry it off. It's easy to get bored in the first hour, through scene after scene of hum-drum police procedure. There are the occasional lifts like the aforementioned animal POVs, which always break any monotony that sadly clumps up on-screen in the earlier parts. As our protagonist's sleep deprivation and drug addiction makes him more unhinged, the same happens to the film just from the act of following him around. There are peaks in the entertainment stakes, but this isn't quite the demolition of the genre that I was expecting.

As I've said, it's not exactly accessible even for those comfortable with the 18 certificate, and all the drugs and violence that comes with it. The absence of sex for the most part is telling- Herzog cuts away every time Terrence is about to get it on with Eva Mendes' tart with a heart. He rejects the titillation of American cinema, but then simultaneously embraces police corruption as a plot device. Terrence goes to extreme lengths throughout, but as mentioned, he's a bastard even before the back injury that sends him on a downward spiral.

Cage's performance reminds me of a joke I used to make about Ash in the Evil Dead trilogy- he's not a character, and the director simply followed Bruce Campbell around with a camera in his everyday life of fighting deadites and killing his possessed friends off as necessary. From most other directors, you might have believed that Cage was out of control, but Herzog's surreal sensibility is ever-present. He wants Cage to be this crazy. Incidentally, if you've seen Cage in Kick-Ass, see if the ending of this film makes it all seem like a spiritual prequel to his character in that film. You know, if some point over the next ten years, he got off drugs, stopped aging and grew a moustache. He's already as crazy here as his Big Daddy...

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is easier to like for what it is than for how good the finished product turned out. It's making a concerted effort to reject all the conventions of a well-trodden genre, but it's almost like the narrative threatens to trip it up. It all makes for an intensely uncomfortable film that's not exactly an auteur's folly, but I don't think it's the modern masterpiece everyone is heralding either. It's certainly memorable, if definitely not a film for everyone.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Cop Out or The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, or just spent your evening watching the rather excellent conclusion to Ashes to Ashes for your cop fix instead, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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