The gnarly, gritty style of action filmmaker Joe Carnahan never appeared so rampant than in his latest effort in the director/co-writer’s chair. Even if it weren’t an inherent ode to the Jan-Michael Vincent sort of 70s crime drama, there’d be no denying his stranglehold on style. Copshop manifests that clean homage, precise in its shots, steals, and explosions. And in the shared charisma between Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo, an excess of macho charisma. And yet, it’s not fair to undersell what Carnahan takes a different aim for, in a time when fictional police stories have landed under the microscope. It’s not so much about the baddies waiting in a holding cell, as it is about the fresh-faced deputy holding the keys.
Set in the dry, bleak wasteland-esque locales of a roadside police station in a sleepy Nevada town (Carpenter would be squealing with satisfaction at the prospect), Carnahan’s tale, co-written with Kurt McLeod and Mark Williams (Honest Thief), doesn’t settle for that bare minimum, the scenery boosting an accent of class to its tete-a-tete of carnage. A pivotal game of cat and mouse, with sleazy conman Teddy Murreto (Grillo) and burned-out hired gun Bob Viddick (Butler) holding the strings. Murreto claims himself to be the antithesis of a pusher, a networker in his career field, but Viddick had been hot on Teddy’s trail, so much that they end up sharing space in adjoining holding cells after a drunk driving charge.
For hotshot rookie Valerie (Alexis Louder), whom Teddy sucker-punches in retaliation, she’s itching for an opportunity to rise in a wave of doldrums. Hardly much happens in her town. Being placed in the middle of a criminal argument and uncover the deeper backstory within makes for a stark change of pace, as she looks for clues attained to the disappearance of extended family for Murreto, and the murder of a notable state AG. To make matters worse, fellow career criminal Anthony Lamb (Toby Huss) is close on both Viddick’s and Murreto’s heels, complete with a compact weapon array and a sinister yet folksy attitude. A laughable presence, but not much on heat as opposed to a significant internal conflict as a veteran officer (Ryan O’Nan) attempts to conduct a hush-hush drug deal under everyone’s noses.
Carnahan’s always been one for dense, rich tales, oozing in both blood and character flaws. Perhaps blood spilled by way of obliviousness. That’s Murreto in a nutshell, and the bun-headed Grillo owns his ignorance to the bigger picture, masked by a heavy dose of sarcasm. Like a mid-career Pacino role, taken far less seriously. He, and Butler in his shaggy, confused state, are granted free range to play loose and quick with violent pitter-patter and equally sharp dialogue. One-liners that don’t sound anywhere close to what anyone would consider a normal conversation. Just about everyone (save for O’Nan) is guilty by association of spreading Carnahan’s word soup recipe. Huss’s inane, homespun drivel is somehow on point for the trigger-happy assassin he effectively pulls from the script. Both Grillo and Butler answer back by not being as crazy. They’re both angry, but behind the iron bars introspection replaces motives, if only briefly.
Teddy is quick to point out the errant difference between a psychopath and a professional. Teddy is the latter, Lamb could be the former, and Bob is rather uncertain which category he falls in, plagued by personal concern, which Butler commits to without fail. A hardcore action flick adhering to its tropes is perhaps the last place such character-driven intellect would thrive. But Carnahan is eager to surprise the viewer like that, shake things up. And for the high degree of incomprehensible insanity needed to push things along, this twist makes welcome sense. Just like those gritty grindhouse yarns of the 70s, or early-era Tarantino. It asks for a lot out of its machismo, and its aesthetics, giving high marks for editor Kevin Hale holding the pace, and composer Clinton Shorter (District 9) effortlessly mirroring the darker side of Morricone or Manfredini.
Look past the former a little, and then take a turn to the left, however. What really sets Carnahan’s hidden gem apart from that typical shoot-em-up cineplexes would consider easy fodder to program, is with Louder, a still relative newcomer further building her craft as this plot unspools. Having earned out attention over the summer in The Tomorrow War, she elevates into a supporting part worthy of her built-in strengths as an actress. Valerie just has that itchy finger, wanting some excitement in her daily work routine, explaining upfront to her suspects how bored she’s been on the force. Here with this arrangement of events comes that opportunity to excel, with some coupling fear. To carry on with a confident, level head means never allowing that fear to distract from one’s job. Louder gets props for not only maintaining composure but going along with that laxness her co-stars have nailed down to a science.
It’s Carnahan’s bread and butter, crafting a suspenseful tale of corruption, greed, and plain terrible decisions, but only barely taking it all seriously. With Copshop, it’s never completely about glorifying the violent tendencies of long-time rivals in the criminal game. More like poking fun at the flaws in their plan after literally everything goes awry at the mercy of that deputy. Think the hard place versus the rock that must be pushed to escape. It gets a little too ridiculous for my liking, the third act resolution wobbles on shaky ground. And yet it was hard not to look away, if only because of Carnahan not looking to catch himself in a storytelling rut by revisiting his strongest film influences. Nowhere near a perfect game between frenemies, only barely grazing whatever bullseye is waiting in front of his lens. End of the day, with how much fun is on display with its delinquent mediation, it’s still worth the risk. (B+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Copshop opens exclusively in theaters September 17; rated R for strong/bloody violence and pervasive language; 107 minutes.