May 3, 1991
I’d never seen this one before, and from the title I always thought it was a thriller about police corruption. I guess I had only seen the tough guy poster on the DVD and blu-ray, and not the theatrical one that looks like SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE or something.
I think there is some subtle commentary about policing early in the movie, which I will go into, but for the most part it’s not about that. Instead this movie – which was only the fifth release from Disney’s not-for-kids label Hollywood Pictures – really is a fusion of the type of vibe of those two posters. It’s a gritty police/crime thriller about a cop whose partner gets killed, but in addition to going after the people he considers responsible, he and his wife take care of and then try to adopt the dead partner’s three adorable daughters. The amount of screen time and sincerity it puts into the second part is very unusual, so although this is in many ways not my type of movie, I respect its bold mix of genres.
Michael Keaton (between PACIFIC HEIGHTS and BATMAN RETURNS) stars as Artie Lewis, an NYPD detective whose relationship with his partner Stevie (Anthony LaPaglia, soon to be in INNOCENT BLOOD) reminds me of OUT FOR JUSTICE (which was released the previous month). Stevie is widowed and feels guilt about how his marriage went and Artie worries about him and tries to get him to talk about it.
As far as cops-are-regular-cynical-working-men movies go this is very well executed, in part because Keaton is so likable and so much more like a regular dude than a traditional movie cop. They get into a scrap with some dealers in a housing project and they end up bloody and winded – their strength is not to be good fighters, but to be willing to get back up when possible.
Of course, like so many cop movies, they’re frustrated that bureaucracy prevents them from charging dangerous criminals. That seems like some bullshit. But the commentary I referred to a couple paragraphs ago is in the way they approach this visit to the housing project. They’re supposed to be interviewing the residents about a drug dealer shooting that happened in the building, so they very lightly tap on each door, immediately attach a business card and move along. When they accidentally do end up talking to some residents they get an earful, so maybe the movie wants you to sympathize with them for not wanting to get yelled at. But I think it’s a good illustration of the disconnect between police and the policed. These are supposed to be good cops and they completely disregard the people they’re supposedly protecting.
Artie and Stevie are friends with another cop named Felix (Benjamin Bratt in his fourth movie), who brings them, while bruised and battered, to a small bar in his neighborhood. They say they’re not welcome there, and are correct – there’s a tense standoff with Beniamano Rios (Tony Plana, DISORDERLIES), one of those characters who you’re told nothing about at first but everybody knows he’s gotta be someone just by the way he acts and is treated like a bigshot in this place. For all we know it’s a misunderstanding, he’s just there trying to enjoy salsa dancing with his lady Grace (Rachel Ticotin right after TOTAL RECALL). Anyway, Artie makes peace by acting buddy-buddy with him instead of puffing his chest out.
The deadly event is not related to Rios, at least not on its face. I guess Artie and Stevie are more than detectives, because they also respond to a hostage situation in an apartment building when a guy they’ve dealt with before named Mickey (David Barry Gray, S.F.W., DEAD PRESIDENTS) has been “smoking ice” and is acting crazy, threatening his wife and kid. It’s a well executed, tense scene of trying to move further into the apartment while negotiating with him, recognizing the difficulty of these situations in cases where the police choose to try to protect human life rather than just kick the door down and shoot the guy.
(Note: That’s what they did in my building a couple years ago, and that guy only had a knife.)
Rene Russo, in only her third movie, plays Artie’s wife Rita. She’s very good, as always, and they have a nice chemistry, though I’m not a fan of the way the movie already casually dropped the information that she wanted to have children and “would’ve been a good mother” but was biologically incapable. Obviously there are people like that, and the movie illustrates how she’s a good adoptive mother of Marian (Grace Johnston, who had been Barbara Hershey’s daughter in BEACHES), Barbara (Rhea Silver-Smith) and Carol (Blair Swanson). She knows how to take care of them and make them happy but also handle it well at times when they reject her.
But I guess I’m sensitive about how many movies portray motherhood as the most important goal for all women, or wanting to be a parent as the reason to be nice to kids. Like, when I was younger I liked that ALIENS director’s cut revelation that Ripley once had a daughter, because it explained her connection to Newt. But when I got older I thought, “Of course she wants to save Newt. She’s a little kid that could get eaten by monsters! What kind of an asshole needs a backstory to explain why they would try to save her?”
I really was surprised by how much this is a movie about legal guardianship. I kind of wish it was called DETECTIVE MOM. It really is heartbreaking to see them have to come tell the girls – who are excited to see “Uncle Artie” – that their dad is dead. Then they deal with the oddness of trying to stay in an apartment that’s not theirs, sleeping on the couch, checking on the girls when they cry. Then trying to move them to their place, which is still too small. There’s a big scene about taking them to the carnival and freaking out when one wanders out of sight. (And, more interestingly, the older sister being furious that they allowed that to happen.)
But also Artie goes back to work and, since they already know who killed Stevie, he and Felix try to go after the people who sold him the “ice.” There’s a sequence that has a weird combination of effective chaos and laughable silliness when they raid a seedy building looking for drug dealer dudes who yell “Cops! Fuckin dirtbag cops!” And then there’s a close up of a very realistic (but kind of adorable) puppet rat biting one of them. I had to rewind it a couple times, and I was delighted when much later in the movie we hear the phrase, “That was the day we had the rat attack.”
They’re chasing these guys, including Kevin Corrigan, who had already been in GOODFELLAS. I forget if it’s him or another guy that runs out in the street and gets hit by a truck and flies through the air like he got fired by a catapult. But that was some funny shit. He landed on a parked car. I think he was okay. I like some of the colorful details in these skirmishes with criminals. In the earlier fight at the housing project a dealer says, “Step into my office” and pulls them into an elevator, and then his thugs drop in through the ceiling panel to beat the shit out of them. And I like at the end of that scene when Artie is face down on the floor, nose bleeding, and looks completely shocked by one of the residents handing him the gun that got knocked out of his hand.
Also in the cast are Kevin Conway (THE FUNHOUSE) as Artie’s Lieutenant, and Vondie Curtis-Hall (in his followup to DIE HARD 2) as a priest who shelters homeless people, and possibly orphans, in his church.
Of course Rios is the guy at the top of the “ice” totem pole, so they have more tense face offs. Felix does a creepy and inappropriate thing where he walks up behind Grace and bumps his nose into her hair. What the fuck. A not entirely shocking but pretty cool twist (TWIST SPOILER) is that he’s not just sexually harassing the kingpin’s girlfriend, she’s actually undercover and they’re very close to fucking up years of dangerous work. While smelling her hair.
The cop side and the parenting side of the movie meet and turn it into kind of a cool crime movie when Artie decides to steal drug money from Rios to put a down payment on a larger house so he and Rita won’t be seen as unfit for parenting. It’s a reckless one-man-in-a-ski-mask hold up and you spend the whole thing telling him what a dumb motherfucker he is. He’s talked to these people, they’re gonna recognize him. Sure enough it comes back to haunt him.
The climax is legitimately thrilling – a messy, bloody battle as undercover Grace risks it all to free abducted Stevie from the bathroom of Rios’s flashy apartment. (Stunt coordinator/second unit director Gary Hymes, THE UNTOUCHABLES, POLICE ACADEMY 5: ASSIGNMENT: MIAMI BEACH, THE BLOB.) My favorite touch is that Rios makes a molotov cocktail with what looks like some very expensive liquor. And obviously I like any movie where a decorative sword is used for non-decorative purposes.
ONE GOOD COP is the directorial debut of Heywood Gould, which sounds like a prank phone call, but he’s the co-writer of ROLLING THUNDER, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, FORT APACHE THE BRONX and COCKTAIL. He followed this with TRIAL BY JURY, MISTRIAL and DOUBLE BANG. He started his career as a crime reporter, which may or may not relate to how much this movie carries water for police. For me it loses points for its ending, in which (ENDING SPOILER) Artie basically says his goodbyes to the family and goes to face the consequences for his actions (good so far) but then is let off the hook, to the delight of Felix (who had previously provided some good drama by seeming to disagree with his partner’s illegal activities). I don’t know, maybe it’s reflective of the lack of accountability for police in the real world, but it comes off as a bullshit happy ending where we are to believe that justice has been served. I know in the story the bad guys are evil and Artie is our pal but this “What we’re doing doesn’t count as bad, because we’re the good guys!” type of attitude makes me think of every police abuse, every torture, every invasion our country ever did, and every dumb asshole that reflexively defended them all.
But at the same time the movie is a real testament to the greatness of Keaton, who makes us believe that somebody like this could be a regular guy we’d want to have beers with or be guardian to our orphaned daughters. I think his performance alone gives the movie a relatability and depth that was not present when he arrived.
Critics in 1991 largely shared my moral issues with ONE GOOD COP. Actually, they were more harsh about it than me, so no “wokeness” accusations will be accepted at this time. The movie opened at #2 (behind OSCAR in its second week) in what the LA Times called “a slow field.” It did do better than the week’s other biggest release, A RAGE IN HARLEM. Not artistically, but financially.