Friday, September 23, 2011

Cop

During the 1980’s, actor James Woods had a fantastic run of diverse, low-budget genre films that included Salvador (1986), Best Seller (1987), True Believer (1989), and Cop (1988), perhaps the most under-appreciated one of them all. It is a fast and loose adaptation of James Ellroy’s crime novel Blood on the Moon and features Woods playing another abrasive, unlikable character but it is the actor’s riveting performance that keeps us invested in the film. Unfortunately, not many people thought so as they were probably put off by the film’s rather negative view of women. Cop was given a limited release and what critics saw it were not impressed. Yet, it is Woods’ uncompromising performance, matched by writer/director James B. Harris’ willingness to fully immerse us in a homicide detective’s grim world that makes this a compelling film.


We meet Lloyd Hopkins (James Woods) in his element – going through several open cases with a clueless underling. In a matter of minutes he has told his subordinate what to do on each of them before answering a call about a homicide. He’s the first to arrive on the scene and Harris sets quite a tense mood as we don’t know what Hopkins is going to find. We dread that it’s going to be something gruesome and the film doesn’t disappoint: a woman has been brutally murdered. We see Hopkins methodically look around for clues and Woods shows how quickly this case has gotten a hold on his character. The actor also shows Hopkins thinking about what he’s seen and how he’s already contemplating his next move.

Harris juxtaposes this grim scene with a lighter moment as Hopkins returns home to say goodnight to his wise-beyond-her-years eight-year-old little girl (she can instantly tell he’s had a bad day). Quite surprisingly, he doesn’t sugarcoat things, telling the child (Vicki Wauchope) that the world is a “shit storm” and that she has to “develop claws to fight it.” She begs him to tell her a bedtime story and he gleefully tells her about a series of drug robberies he helped bust like he was telling her a child’s fairy tale. At one point she even says, “Tell me how you got the scumbag, daddy.” It’s a hilariously darkly comic scene that is sweet and disturbing simultaneously. When Hopkins’ wife (Jan McGill) chastises him for corrupting their child, he goes on an impressive rant about how he’s preparing her for the harsh, cruel world full of disappointment and where “innocence kills” as he puts it so succinctly. She replies with what most of us are probably thinking, “Lloyd, I think you’re a very sick man.” Hopkins is obviously a cop that takes his work home with him and one has to kind of admire his decision not to sugarcoat things for his daughter but on the other hand maybe he could’ve waited a couple of years.

After his wife goes off in disgust, Hopkins gets a call about a robbery suspect. He enlists the help of his old partner Dutch (Charles Durning) and is absolutely giddy at the prospect of busting a crook rather than stay home. He’s one of those guys obsessed with his work. However, ethics aren’t high on the man’s list of virtues as he’s not above having sex with women he meets on cases he’s investigating. Everything, including his family, who leaves him, takes a backseat to catching a serial killer. The film shows Hopkins doing the legwork required – tracking down leads, questioning known associates, analyzing evidence, going through unsolved cases, and so on. He finally gets a break, finding a poem sent to the murder victim from the killer that implies he’s killed before. However, Hopkins’ boss (Raymond J. Barry) isn’t convinced about his serial killer theory and rightly so as all the detective has is a gut feeling and a pretty wild but convincing theory but he’s going to need some hard evidence. Hopkins’ research leads him to the owner (Lesley Ann Warren) of a feminist bookstore. She seems standoffish at first but once the detective works his charms he’s taking her to a party at Dutch’s house, which is full of cops. She ends becoming an integral component in the case and to uncovering the identity of the killer.

Woods brings his trademark intensity to the role. Hopkins is someone who only cares about what people can do for him. He uses both men and women – the former to help him and the latter for sex. For example, he uses Dutch to grease the political wheels with his clout and doesn’t give him anything back in return except for trouble from their boss. Hopkins is estranged from his wife and it becomes readily apparent that all he has is his work and that doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. For example, he hardly reacts to his family leaving him and quickly dives back into the case he’s investigating. Ever the fearless actor, Woods doesn’t shy away from Hopkins’ unsavory aspects but really tries to show us what motivates this guy. He’s just as obsessed with women as the serial killer only he wants to protect them whereas the killer wants to destroy them. It is this aspect that is perhaps the most troubling thing about Cop – its negative portrayal of women. For example, it takes Lesley Ann Warren’s strong feminist character and by the end reduces her to a teary victim. Women like his wife are merely obstacles that get in Hopkins’ way or there to be used, which, in some respects, makes him no better than the killer.

Not surprisingly, Cop received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “They might think this is simply a violent, sick, contrived exploitation picture, and that would certainly be an accurate description of its surfaces. But Woods operates in this movie almost as if he were writing his own footnotes. He uses his personality, his voice and his quirky sense of humor to undermine the material and comment on it, until Cop becomes an essay on this whole genre of movie.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised James Wood’s performance: “Far and away the best thing about it is Mr. Woods, who served as co-producer and demonstrates a clear understanding of what makes great movie detectives great. Even in less-than-sparkling surroundings, he can talk tough with the best of them.” The London Times’ David Robinson wrote, “The script is taut and sharp and the casting exemplary.”

Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll wrote, “But Cop's worst malefaction is a ‘feminist’ character played by Lesley Ann Warren. Poor Warren, a stylish, witty actress, can do nothing at all with what just be the most embarrassingly inane female character in recent screen history.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Rick Groen wrote, “Speaking of cheap tricks, what about that serial killer stuff? Well, stalled in second gear, the plot gets pushed forward by a helpful gang of wild coincidences. And when even that fails, it simply lumbers on in logic-defying lurches.”

One has to admire Harris and Woods for refusing to water down Hopkins one iota. He’s a prickly, confident amoral cop who is also smart and driven. Harris got his start producing films for a young Stanley Kubrick and applies the no-nonsense approach of those early films to Cop. His meat and potatoes style of direction works well with this stripped-down police procedural and this includes the equally direct (and generic) title of the film. What could have been a standard thriller is transformed into a study about obsession, both the killer and the cop pursuing him. Harris’ screenplay really captures how one imagines cops talk and act around each other in a way that feels authentic. Cop delves into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles with unflinching honesty – think of this as the west coast answer to Sidney Lumet’s New York City police procedurals. Harris and Woods have created an engrossing thriller about twisted obsession and its destructive effects. What could have been a typical loose cannon cop character is transformed into something else by Woods who is not afraid to go to dark places and make no excuses for a flawed character that takes the Dirty Harry archetype to extremes. Cop is a grimy B-movie that is refreshingly free of compromise, right down to a memorable punchline ending during the climactic showdown between Hopkins and the killer that helps elevate it from most generic thrillers.

12 comments:

  1. Great piece J.D.! I really need to give this one another look and agree with everything you said about Woods. He truly was hard to top in this period.

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  2. Never saw this one, but I'll keep it on my list to watch it at some point, James Woods is always a plus on any movie. I mean, SAlVADOR is such a great picture because of his acid performance. He always plays these smart aleck type of characters with this acid sense of humor and sarcasm, and Im sure that all comes from Woods himself.

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  3. J.D.

    You are right on! Cop is a fine film. The selection of b-movies are terrific. I've seen them all and the material is buoyed by the wonderful work of Woods.

    The guy is an absolute treat to watch. I have very much the same take on these films.

    Gosh, I remember them well.

    Add to the films you mentioned some other wonderful Woods' turns. The Onion Field. Against All Odds. Once Upon A Time In America.

    Dare I say I loved his streak of films 1979-1990 in particular. These were films that centered on the craft of actualy acting. It was his hey day. These are the ones I've seen for the most part. He was, for me, another actor that mesmerized on the level of a Kurt Russell.

    Woods just grabbed you by the balls and never let go. He was gripping to watch and often frightening and unpredictable. Superb look at the film and the actor in his prime. Best, sff

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  4. Couldn't have said it better, J.D.

    Woods was BEYOND on fire in this period (I think his turn as Clive in Best Seller really gives Hopkins a run for his money before coming in a close second).

    The 911 phone call we hear over the opening credit sequence always cracks me up as well; it strikes me as the kind of thing that happens way, way too frequently in any big city.

    To sum up: James Woods is The Shit. He should just change his name to Pimpslap Johnson and walk around with a diamond-encrusted cane.

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  5. A fine write-up, J.D.! I've been meaning to see this for a while. Woods really was on a hot streak during this span. I must admit to being irresistibly drawn to THE HARD WAY, also (against better judgment).

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  6. Just watching VIDEODROME the other night reminded me how badass james Woods is. Never heard of this before, and your review's got me intrigued enough to check it out!

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  7. Jeremy Richey:

    Yeah, Woods was on a great roll during this period of his career. I hope you get a chance to revisit this film. Thanks for stopping by, my friend!


    The Film Connoisseur:

    You should definitely check out COP, esp. if you dig SALVADOR. It is pure Woods goodness.


    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    I love watching Woods act his ass off as well. Those films he did in the 1980's were so good. He just commanded the screen so well.

    Thanks for mentioning those other Woods films! He is excellent in AGAINST ALL ODDS and actually does a hilarious audio commentary with Jeff Brdiges on the DVD that is definitely worth checking out.

    I totally agree with you on Woods' watchability and his intensity. He always brings it to every role. Total commitment. And you are so right, his run from '79 to '90 is fantastic.


    A.J. MacReady:

    Thanks for stopping by! Yeah, I agree with you on BEST SELLER. That may still be my fave Woods' performance. Alto, his is pretty amazing in SALVADOR. It's a tough call.

    Thanks for mentioning the 911 call that plays over the credits at the beginning of the film. That was a nice added touch that sets the tone for the film.

    "To sum up: James Woods is The Shit. He should just change his name to Pimpslap Johnson and walk around with a diamond-encrusted cane."

    Hah! Love it. I couldn't agree more.


    Sean Gill:

    I haven't seen THE HARD WAY in ages but it does pop up on TV quite a bit. I really need to check it out again. Thanks for the kind words.


    Chris:

    You should really check out COP. I think you'll dig it. Love Woods in VIDEODROME also. He's a big reason that it is my fave Cronenberg film.

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  8. Sean -

    The rest of it is totally killer (witness a young Christina Ricci as Sciorra's daughter), but for some reason the best part is the hot dog eating scene. Fantastic.

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  9. Great write-up! Loved Cop! Very underrated. James Woods was excellent as usual.

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  10. Ty:

    Thanks! Totally agree with you on Woods and the film.

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  11. This was fun to read. Thanks for the ride down memory lane. It was a fun shoot, although what you saw with Jimmy and I was very abbreviated. We originally shot the scene months before and I was in Europe when they called to re-shoot, because the original film was lost. The focus puller made a mistake. So, little Vicki was tired and it was a long day for her doing her scene over and over. Jimmy and I ended up shooting ours at 9 or 10pm in one take, without any of the additional dialogue. That's why you never see the ash fall off my cigarette. He's a good guy. All best, Jan McGill www.thestylexpert.blogspot.com

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  12. Jan McGill:

    Thank you for stopping by! And thank you for sharing that filming anecdote. What fascinating insight into how that scene came together!

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