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1 review, 4 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"Just Arresting Enough to Warrant Attention"
3 stars

James Woods is sensational; the film isn't quite up to his level

You'd think the sensational James Woods as a manic Los Angeles cop tracking a cunning serial killer of beautiful women in a thriller adapted from a novel by L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy would result in a simply electrifying entertainment. The sad fact is that Cop, written for the screen and directed by James B. Harris (who worked with Woods previously in the low-key, interesting prison drama Fast-Walking) is admittedly mediocre fare. With a stunted dramatic base and faulty narrative structure, the film exists not only as a blatant star vehicle but as a series of standout bits punctuated by way too many pregnant pauses, which, contrary to Harris' apparent thinking, wind up illuminating very little and, ultimately, signifying little at all except its leading actor's bravado.

Cop begins well enough. In an amusing title sequence, the opening credits appear over a black screen as we overhear an African-American male trying unsuccessfully to get through to the police from a pay phone. He finally dials an operator:

-- "Yo, yo, yo -- I'm tryin' to report a murder."
-- "Have you tried calling the police?"
-- "I ain't got no more money; I'm down to my stolen credit cards. Can I use them?"
-- "One moment, I'll connect you."

The call is caught by Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins (played by Woods), who, in between the coffee machine and his desk, demonstrates his unflappable cop instinct by spotting numerous holes in and deriving an advisable course of action from a first-year detective's case file. He's the first to respond to the murder scene, and discovers a scantily clad woman butchered and strung-up from her kitchen ceiling. Not many clues are derived, Forensics takes over from there, and Lloyd goes home to his family, which, as it plays out, isn't any less a stressful experience. He and his wife Jen are sleeping in separate rooms, and "quality time" with his six-year-old daughter Penny is spent telling her bedtime stories concerning not The Three Bears, but his past work cases ("Once upon a time, Daddy was called to a 211 in progress on Wilshire Blvd..."). Lloyd claims he's readying his daughter for the "real world", but Jen contends he's sick and in need of some serious psychological help.

It's little wonder that Lloyd has taken to rather unorthodox methods for stress relief. That same night, he gets a tip on some robbery suspects and calls up his friend and superior officer Dutch (a grand Charles Durning) to stake their place out ("What's the problem? We've done it a hundred times.") The action scene that ensues isn't exactly all that hot, but the comic payoff certainly is: after Lloyd blows the suspect away, he hustles the guy's busty girlfriend away before the responding officers arrive ("C'mon, Dutch. You blow away a broad's date, the least you can do is drive her home.") So far, Cop is lean and mean and blessed with some well-milked humor -- and with a protagonist who seems a refreshing and interesting character in that he's allowed to come across as a selfish lout.

The next day, Lloyd follows up on the dead woman's case, and traces her mail to a post office box, which she had lent out to a foxy dynamo (the luscious Randi Brooks from the '70s tv series C*H*I*P*S) who specializes in arranging parties for swinging couples -- and whom Lloyd soon becomes involved with. For reasons too complicated to thoroughly go into, he's convinced the killer has struck before; subsequently, after going through all the unsolved female homicides for the past fifteen years, he turns up a series of eighteen possibles, all of whom graduated in the same high school class. A feminist bookstore owner, Kathleen (the excellent Lesley Ann Warren), soon becomes the focal point of both Lloyd's investigation and libido, and the suspect appears to be a disgruntled man who went to the same school as her and has been avenging her long-ago rape by killing off her friends whom he views as having turned their backs on her from way back then.

You'd think that Cop had all the makings for a nail-biting psychological thriller, but James B. Harris deflated and dissipated much of the tantalizing potential with his overwritten screenplay and crushingly lackluster direction. In addition to the characters I've already included, there's also Woods' prissy captain (a winsome Raymond J. Barry) to contend with (or, more accurately, to stomach), along with a corrupt West Hollywood vice cop (the typically smarmy, overacting Charles Haid), and his homosexual street snitch. It's not that Harris was wrong in relying on character rather than mindless violence and chase scenes to pull us into the story, but, aside from Woods and Durning, the supporting performances are dull, with the characters they're portraying contributing little to the overall plot -- Lloyd could have probably located the killer even faster without them. It was clearly Harris' intention to make a tawdry and kinky thriller, but due to the poor development, the bi-sexual and homosexual characters come off more as alluring window dressing than organic integrals.

Harris has an adequate eye for composition, an undeniable love of actors, and a decent-enough sense for shaping individual sequences. But he can't bring everything together into a cohesive, tautly woven whole. You're aware more of the intent of suspense rather than the successful derivement of it; Harris the Writer was able to suggest an element of dread and danger that Harris the Director hasn't bothered to follow through on, as if the supposedly great screenplay was enough to both entice and engage, when in fact it was necessary for the director to give us a few enjoyable whammies by effectively pulling our strings. Harris can be forgiven for having a less-than-enthralling visual sense -- were those interiors shot with nothing more than fifty-watt bulbs? -- but it's pretty sad that more than a handful of scenes drag from one unremarkable revelation to another. It's not that the scenes themselves are draggy, just that Harris' mise-en-scene sense for dexterously lining them together with smooth, seamless transitions is lacking. The suspense worked up in a few choice moments is never sustained because the follow-up moments are usually irrelevant to what just preceded them. As a result, Cop comes off as woefully disjointed, where nothing really builds from moment to moment.

There's also a psychosexual element in that goes unrealized. When Lloyd's having it out with his captain, valiantly trying to convince that a serial killer is on the prowl, he's told he's blowing things out of proportion, that his "wild hair up his ass about murdered women" is clouding his judgment. With all the rough and kinky sex that's detailed and shown, you'd think the film would be rich -- to the point of bursting -- with tantalizing sexual overtones. But Lloyd's sexual encounters don't lead to anything particularly relevant or memorable, except to get across that he's not the most loyal husband in the world, and who, underneath the tough exterior, is a wallowing mess of good intentions. Perhaps if he'd shared a twisted sexual fascination on the level of the killer he was hunting, a disturbing kind of recognition between the hunter and hunted could have juiced up the narrative and fleshed out and filled in the dramatic inconsistencies. Instead of coming full-circle as a probing character piece, though, Cop fails to deliver on its potential.

Contrary to the negative impression I've surely gotten across thus far, Cop is still worth watching. While many promising and intriguing facets to the story have gone unrealized, there's a crucial element of surprise, of jazzy unpredictability that keeps it afloat. Maybe it's helpful that (aside from one fleeting moment in the first-quarter) we never see the killer until the finale; we're left to imagine the human monster responsible for all the chaos. For a while, we think the film has a jolly good villain waiting in the wings for Lloyd to do battle with, so it's disappointing when the villain is revealed as runty and underwhelmingly meek (Lloyd's' closing Dirty Harry-inspired speech to him, however, is pretty winning). A decent amount of Cop manages to grip. The dialogue is refreshingly grown-up ("I don't care if the two of you were fucking each other in a bathtub of cocaine."); the rapport between Woods and Durning is priceless; the music score by the usually hapless Miles Goodman is better-than-average and manages to tweak a few nerves; the violence is justified and not glorified; and darned if I didn't find myself laughing out loud in many unexpected places. (One could persuasively classify Cop as a wickedly nasty black comedy.)

And holding everything together, of course, is James Woods, an actor I can't seem to get enough of. Occasionally he's a bit over-the-top here, and on an artistic level he really should have his wrists slapped for starring in and co-producing a poorly scripted film for the sole sake of having it serve as a full-fledged star vehicle for him. But no one is this dynamic actor's equal when it comes to full-throttled internal intensity and well truthful acting. While some have countered that Woods hasn't a speck of charisma, he's without a doubt one of the most honest and pure thespians I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing; no matter how shabbily written the character, no matter how deplorable the film, Woods has proven time and time and time again that there's nothing he can't partially redeem (like the awful The Specialist and the revolting The General's Daughter).

In Cop, some of the best moments come from Woods simply tossing off one grand one-liner after another, and he's simply exciting to watch. Woods is the film, and while this limits its overall success, it affords fans of one of the five greatest actors on the planet plenty to rejoice in. And, hey, if the majority of critics can give passable reviews to something as uncreative and uninspired as the atrocious The Score on the sole basis of its infamous DeNiro/Norton/Brando pairing, than I feel justified and perfectly apt in giving just as passable a rating to a flawed film starring an actor who can put any one of his peers to shame with merely the blink of an eye.

James Woods rocks in this mediocre but involving thriller.

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originally posted: 12/24/02 06:09:23
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User Comments

1/05/12 hurdygurdy man If ya like 80's flics, break out some herb...kick back. 3 stars
9/11/06 Sepi53 James Woods gives a powerful performance! 4 stars
2/12/03 jeff under-rated movie, its good. 4 stars
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  02-Mar-1988 (R)



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