Shifty fixer Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo) devises a Hail Mary plan to escape from the clutches of sadistic hitman Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler). He gets himself arrested and locked up in an isolated Nevada police station. But hiding out in jail won’t be enough to protect him from Viddick, who scams his own way into the same detention center, biding his time in a directly opposite cell, until an unexpected arrival leads to unmitigated mayhem. At the center of it all is dogged rookie officer Valerie Young (Alexis Louder), who becomes “a big fucking problem” for the movie’s motivationally ambiguous baddies (there are a few), in a command performance that could prove to be a breakout role for the young actress.
Butler and Grillo seem to be forging a path for themselves in old-school-style action movies that indulge in a bearish brand of masculinity, even as well-paid superhero movie/TV roles with franchise possibilities become increasingly available to almost any actor with name recognition. On paper, a film that pits them against each other as rival thugs would hopefully be at least entertaining. But “Copshop” co-writer/director Joe Carnahan just won’t let his headliners be great. His decision to cage the pair for far too long, as much of the action takes place away from them, neutralizes both.
An oversight or not, their idleness opens the door for Louder’s officer Young to make a splash all her own. Pint-sized, she’s lean and mean, with a confident streak that overshadows her hulking male co-stars. It would be reductive to argue that the film’s marketing underplays Louder’s immense contribution to its credibility. But it’s understandable from a business standpoint. Butler and Grillo are “names”; Louder isn’t, at least not yet.
After a slow, though serviceable setup that opens the film, Carnahan confines the rest of it almost entirely inside the increasingly bullet-riddled, aptly titled Gun Creek police station, interrupted by scattered flashbacks. Within the impenetrable, thick concrete walls of its cellblock, a coolheaded officer Young, on a fishing expedition, strains to moderate the macho posturing between Murretto and Viddick, akin to a mother and her two children.
Viddick, constantly checking the timer on his watch, seems to have some covert plan to get to Murretto inside the prison, but it’s blown up by Young’s faux-naïveté, smarts and determination, and the unwelcomed arrival of psychopath killer Anthony Lamb (Toby Huss), who has old business with Viddick, but was sent there (by whom and why is a mystery) to take out Murretto. Viddick’s presence is an unexpected bonus.
Lamb brings bedlam to proceedings that, up until that moment are comparatively dull. And Huss is clearly having fun with his character’s deviance and unpredictability. Over the course of a single night, bullets fly, bodies drop, chaos reigns. What was initially a somewhat bustling station at the start becomes a cemetery.
By this point, fans of the genre might begin to have a blithe disregard for plot details. Specifics are irrelevant; backstory that would help understand motivation is scarce. The movie becomes a trite game of cat and mouse, including gory gun and knife play, leading to a Mexican standoff that would seem like a suitable ending, but serves as only the beginning of the end.
Subplots abound, including disorder within the Gun Creek police rank and file, corrupt cops, drug deals, money stashed away somewhere, a crooked FBI agent, and an investigation into a District Attorney’s death with an unexplained relevance to Murretto’s predicament. Sadly, these secondary threads, which initially help build tension within the cellblock where focus is maintained, are mostly left dangling, with no resolution, or finale that links them.
Bits of information are dropped sporadically early on, including the revelation of Murretto’s long record of arrests but, curiously, not a single conviction. The assumption here is that, while he does have enemies in high places, he may also have friends in high places. It’s a schism worth exploring further. Characters mention this mystery of Murretto’s inconclusive criminal history on at least two occasions, implying a potentially key plot point, but it’s quickly dispatched.
One result is that Grillo, and Butler as well, start to feel more like supporting characters in a movie in which both are top-billed. If that wasn’t intentional, it’s because, in addition to their prolonged detention, both men are thinly drawn, and ultimately uninteresting. Especially the pony-tailed Grillo, whose casting is logical as an equally hulking foe to Butler’s incessantly gruff Viddick, but feels like he doesn’t quite belong. Maybe it’s the locks.
And Carnahan’s decision not to further complicate either scumbag cheats “Copshop” of distinct characters and gradations of morality, leaving verbal exchanges between the two — which soak up a chunk of the film’s minutes — bereft of heft. When the anticipated showdown between Murretto and Viddick does finally happen, whatever vague stakes precipitated the moment have been muted, and whoever wins becomes inconsequential.
How a bloodied officer Young emerges from the morass becomes the glue that holds the rest of the film together, in a finale that allows Louder to showcase her abilities as an action heroine, if given the opportunity. It hints at a follow-up that could be all hers; but where it goes is up in the air.
A compelling backstory for Young is teased. In one sequence, she tells Murretto and Viddick a short story about her great grandfather, an Afro-German forced to fight for the Nazis during the second World War, in the North African campaign. It’s a very brief window into the extremely thorny history of the racist entanglements between Black people (Americans and Africans primarily) and Germany, from WW1, through the Holocaust, WWII, and its aftermath.
It may not be worth exploring in a superficiality like “Copshop,” because to introduce an anecdote so poignant, without an equally arresting payoff, feels like a waste.
Suffice it to say that Young makes the movie worth a peek (Huss’ demented Lamb gets some props as well). Additionally, as the only prominent female cast member, she earns her way into the pantheon of powerful female portrayals onscreen. In “Copshop,” her gender becomes almost irrelevant, and, in the end, the sharpest and most skilled player wins.
Grillo and Butler may be on the marquee but it’s Louder’s movie. And what’s being marketed as a clash between the two brutes is actually a showcase for the actress, who exudes a natural badassery. The lengthy pressure-cooker setpiece involving Young calmly reconfiguring a nine-digit security door lock, while under a tremendous assault of bullets, will go down as one of the film’s most memorable sequences.
“Copshop” will surely be compared to John Carpenter’s superior, and similarly claustrophobic 1976 action-thriller “Assault on Precinct 13,” and may be able to coast on its old-school atmosphere. Additionally, the lack of overall story and character clarity, a well as the choice not to deviate from standard genre protocol, may not matter to its target audience, who will be satisfied with unfussily supplied essentials, gratuitous violence, and occasional pop-culture references of a bygone era.
But “Copshop” will bore those in search of an action-thriller that adds fresh ingredients to the overcooked genre, remixing or even subverting it.
Audiences will likely be drawn to the movie, enticed by the teased, but ultimately anticlimactic mano a mano between Butler and Grillo. Hopefully they’ll appreciate the revelation that is Louder as officer Young, whose blunt speak, as well as hyper, almost uncomfortable calmness under pressure, and physicality, collectively insist on respect, even from her bellicose co-stars.
Open Road Films will release “Copshop” in theaters on Friday, September 17.
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