After seeing SPIDERMAN’S HOMECOMING I wanted to link to my review from director Jon Watts’ great 2015 movie COP CAR, but for the life of me I couldn’t find one. I swore I remembered writing about it, though, so I searched through old notebooks and sure enough I found the handwritten review that I apparently did between THE LAST CIRCUS and CHEERLEADER CAMP. I must’ve been saving it for after Halloween and then forgot about it. So consider this a previously unreleased review from the vault.
COP CAR is an original, expertly crafted thriller that had me from the very start. Which, come to think of it, is a kid saying “Weiner.” Two young boys (James Freedson-Jackson [Jessica Jones] and Hays Wellford [INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE]) have apparently run away from their home in a small farming community in Colorado. They’re walking across a field, playing with sticks, talking about the type of shit that little boys think they know everything about: barb wire fences, snakes, arrowheads. It’s the rare case of movie kids who seem like documentary subjects. They’re not too precocious or romanticized, they’re just dumb boys, like some of us used to be. Not comically dumb, just regular dumb. They do dumb boy stuff. Nobody knows why.
And suddenly they come across something weird – the titleistical vehicle, parked in the middle of nowhere. They react in various stupid ways: paranoid that it’s looking for them. Throwing a rock as a distraction. Daring each other to touch it. Getting inside and pretending to be in a high speed chase.
Then they find the keys.
I think I made it clear, these are not smart kids. And though they have the traditional element of one who’s a little more sensible than the other, he’s not more sensible enough. So they decide “This is our cop car!” and they drive it around the fields.
It’s not a magic car, it had to have come from somewhere, and belonged to someone. That someone is a sheriff played by Kevin Bacon (ELEPHANT WHITE). And the usual thriller way to play it is that he seems like a normal cop innocently trying to get his car back without getting the kids in too much trouble, but then there’s a twist where we find out that actually he’s corrupt and worried it will expose a crime he committed and he will stop at nothing to get it back and now we have a game of cat and two mice on our hands.
Instead of all that, Watts does it in reverse. He first flashes back to show the sheriff parking the car there while he goes to dispose of a handcuffed body (a process he seems very familiar with!) and then, instead of being threatening and scary, or even threateningly-fake-nice, he just acts goofy-fake-nice talking to the kids over the radio. He actually seems harmlessb but we know he’s not – the cards have already been laid out on the table.
The movie also smartly switches to the Sheriff’s P.O.V. long enough to transfer our sympathies – sort of, anyway – to him. He’s a bad man but he’s in a jam (his car is gone!) and he’s very resourceful, very good at problem solving, and it’s mostly visual since he’s by himself. His on-the-fly plans for getting another vehicle, covering up with dispatch and getting a private line of communication to the boys is clever and harrowing enough that I was seduced into rooting for him to pull it off, at least for now, before the kids hopefully outplay him and don’t get murdered.
And the funny thing is that after all this maneuvering, when his plan all works out and he’s able to talk to them, the boys don’t even hear his threats because they’re outside of the car wrapped in crime scene tape playing with his guns that they found inside. Man, I was really squirming. There are so many scenes where the boys flirt with catastrophic gun accidents. They have no sense of gun safety. They can’t figure out how to shoot them, and keep banging them against things and looking down the barrel trying to figure out what’s wrong.
Of course, a little more is revealed about what’s going on, other people get mixed up in it, more people are endangered. It’s simple but very effective. I won’t say much else except that Shea Whigham shows up, and I always like it when Shea Whigham shows up.
I also always like it when Kevin Bacon shows up, because he never phones it in. I’ve said it before, he’s one of these actors I admire because he’s been in plenty of respectable, Oscar-winning movies before (JFK, A FEW GOOD MEN, MYSTIC RIVER, APOLLO 13) but he also has a pretty good eye for interesting roles in indie movies and mid-range genre stuff and when he does it he throws himself into it just like he would the fancy stuff. I’m thinking specifically of DEATH SENTENCE, but let’s not forget WILD THINGS, STIR OF ECHOES, HOLLOW MAN, or SUPER, and now we can add this one to the list. He puts a distinct personal spin on this desperate, scary villain so you can imagine someone else playing it as well.
COP CAR gets tense as hell, but often laugh out loud funny in a dark and deadpan way that reminded me of BLOOD SIMPLE. There are ingenious visual markers to communicate geography and time frame to the audience. There are outstanding performances, especially by the two kids. They hired this director to do the next Spider-man picture, and that actually makes me want to see it. He has chops.
This is a small but almost perfect movie. My one gripe is that after all that I feel like we earned a little more conclusive of an ending. But if the landing is slightly off balance that’s okay, it was worth it for the jump itself.
Watts wrote the script with Christopher Ford (ROBOT & FRANK). These are also the guys who made a trailer for a non-existent Eli Roth movie called CLOWN and then the actual Eli Roth liked it so much that he produced the actual movie for them.