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.
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.”
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.