Cop

July 12, 2012

You can see why James Woods would be attracted to the lead role in Cop, a new police thriller. His character, a volatile big-city cop, is both an intelligent, sensitive family man and a nervy, hair-trigger obsessive. The role fits right into Woods’ gallery of unclassifiables, from the killer in The Onion Field to the buzzsaw reporter in Salvador to the perverse thug in Best Seller.

Woods is never a dull actor, which means there’s always something to watch in Cop. But the movie is a strange, unsuccessful mélange of different styles. For a while, it appears to be a provocative character study of a cop on the edge, similar to Clint Eastwood’s Tightrope, wherein Woods is curiously attracted to a serial-murder case involving innocent girls.

Then the film veers off into an odd look at man-woman relations, as Woods engages the help of a feminist poet (Lesley Ann Warren) with some predictable clashes in sensibility. And then some of the movie is black comedy, as when Woods picks up the companion of a hood he’s just shot in the street; she looks down at the corpse and asks, “Is what’s-his-name dead?” just before Woods takes her home to spend the night.

None of it ever gets in gear. The tone of the film seems to shift from scene to scene, as though writer-director James B. Harris (who also produced the movie with Woods) were trying out different, awkward styles. Harris, who made his niche in film history by producing three of Stanley Kubrick’s earliest pictures (The Killing, Paths of Glory, Lolita), has had a fitful career as a director, and Cop does nothing to advance it.

Every time Harris starts to touch on a potentially interesting subject, the film suddenly shifts back into cop-movie cliché (the by-the-book police captain growls to Woods, “If you go to the media with this, I’ll crucify you!”).

The performers seem uncertain, too. What to make of Warren’s poet, who goes from defensiveness to giggles within a few moments? (Check out her wonderfully blowsy performance in HBO’s recent Baja California instead.) Charles Durning and Charles (“Hill Street Blues”) Haid, both looking more rotund than ever, are fellow cops, but both are sketchily drawn.

Woods’ electric presence—the sharp shoulders, the lean, haunted face, the breathless jabber—can carry a film, but can’t make it comprehensible. Cop may be guilty of relying too much on its star to piece things together. Woods is good, but he can’t do it all himself.

First published in the Herald, April 10, 1988

I don’t remember the movie, but this was in the period when Lesley Ann Warren was finding her post-ingenue career very fruitful. Same for Charles Durning, of course.

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Happy New Year

December 30, 2011

There’s something almost French about the tone and rhythm of Happy New Year, a new movie about a jewelry heist: in the way the narrative pokes along, with more attention to detail than concentration on the big picture. And that’s no accident; this is an adaptation of a French movie of the same title from a few years back, directed by Claude Lelouch.

Hollywood regularly exposes its paucity of imagination by stealing (or buying) foreign vehicles, and French comedies are high on the shopping list. Look for a star-heavy American version of the French hit Three Men and a Cradle later this year.

This translation of Happy New Year doesn’t try to jazz things up. It’s very low-key, almost apologetic, as it plods on in its shapeless way.

Peter Falk takes the lead role, as a congenially crumpled little guy who masterminds the robberies. He recruits an old pal (Charles Durning) to assist in one final job, a trés chic jewelry store in West Palm Beach. They’re an old-fashioned pair—”dated” might be a better world—who talk about “chasing skirts” and old prison memories.

Since the store is physically impenetrable, Falk plots to worm his way in by gaining the trust of the manager (Tom Courtenay) and saleswoman (Wendy Hughes). This he does by applying heavy makeup and pretending to be a doddering old millionaire (and, on alternate visits, the doddering old millionaire’s sister). Eventually, Falk will use the guise to get him in the store after closing time.

Falk also contacts Hughes as himself, and soon finds he’s won over by her charm. So will the audience be: Hughes, a gorgeous, very intelligent actress, who has appeared in many Australian films including Lonely Hearts and Careful, He Might Hear You, brings palpable grace to this movie.

In fact, there are a few bits and pieces of this film that can be enjoyed along the way. John G. Avildsen, who made the first Rocky, clearly is trying to achieve some honestly touching moments, most of which involve Hughes and Falk and the recurrence on the soundtrack of “I Only Have Eyes for You.” These moments don’t add up, unfortunately, because unlike the necklaces and bracelets in the jewelry store, these ornaments lack a complex setting.

First published in the Herald, August 9, 1987

The title of this movie provides a handy send-off for 2011, which was a lively affair. Coincidentally, a send-off to Peter Falk, an actor I liked a lot for Columbo, many other things, but, well, especially Columbo.