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Non-Review Review: Copshop

Copshop is a loving and pulpy throwback to old-fashioned seventies b-movies, that simply doesn’t know when to quit.

Copshop operates very firmly within the comfort zone of everybody involved. Director Joe Carnahan has made a name for himself as a director of these sorts of high-concept thrillers. Stars Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo both seem perfectly at home glowering at each other across a police station cell block, separated from one another by two sets of bars. Watching Copshop, the film plays as a slight tweak on the basic concept that has made Assault on Precinct 13 an enduring cult hit: an isolated and under-staffed police station finds itself unde rsiege and stuck with a dangerous criminal.

The Butler did it.

There’s a compelling simplicity to Copshop, with the movie building outwards from a solid premise, and understanding the appeal of these sorts of movies. Carnahan imbues the film with an appealing nastiness and cynicism that feels appropriate for this kind of genre throwback. Most of the runtime of Copshop finds its protagonist, Officer Valerie Young, forced to choose between the lesser of two evils as the situation steadily escalates around her. For most of the film’s runtime, Carnahan commits to this meanness in a manner that is often lacking from these sorts of throwbacks and tributes.

Unfortunately, Copshop somewhat falls apart in its final ten minutes, as the film seems unable to settle on a single satisfying ending and so instead cycles through at least three different climaxes hoping that one of them might stick. The movie’s bombastic and over-stuffed third act is a frustrating conclusion to a film that worked to that point largely because of its minimalism and its restraint.

On the chain.

The basic premise of Copshop is straightforward enough. The action unfolds in “Gun Creek”, a seemingly remote and peaceful corner of Nevada. Local law enforcement seems primarily concerned with breaking up fights outside of weddings. The film unfolds over the night shift for the local police department, with the gap between opening and closing credits spanning from dusk until dawn. The night shift are working, and it seems like the most pressing concern of the evening will be Sergeant Ruby pressing his seemingly incompetent subordiate Huber for a long-overdue inventory of the evidence locker.

Naturally, fate intervenes. A routine civil disturbance call is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger who introduces himself by punching Young in the face. “I didn’t mean to lean into that,” he apologises. The stranger is arrested and taken to lock-up. He refuses to speak, but the officers very quickly discover that he is still bleeding from a gunshot wound. Young finds herself drawn to the suspect in detention, convinced that there is more than meets the eye to a man who seems to want to end up in police custody in the middle of nowhere.

Off the Grillo and into the Free Fire.

Simultaneously, while investigating a mysterious crash of an unmarked cop car just outside of town, state troopers wind up taking a drunk and disorderly driver into custody. Gun Greek agrees to take the arrestee in, placing him in a cell opposite their mysterious new arrival. However, it very quickly becomes clear that neither man ended up in this police station by accident. There is something much bigger afoot, seemingly tied to the recent murder of Nevada’s Attorney General.

It spoils little to reveal that events very quickly escalate from this point, and that the characters in the small police station very quickly find themselves trapped. Although actor Alexis Louder is third billed in the opening credits behind Butler and Grillo, she is very much the film’s protagonist. It’s Young who finds herself navigating this extremely volatile situation, a young police officer who is very clearly out of her depth and surrounded by people that she simply cannot trust.

This assignment is a lock.

There are very few surprises within Copshop. It’s probably easy enough to chart the movie’s basic arc from the brief plot summary above. Carnahan takes care to avoid over-cluttering the movie. Indeed, there’s something almost endearing in how eagerly Carnahan will clear out clutter and re-centre the story at certain points in the film. As Copshop progresses, its focus wisely becomes a lot smaller and a lot narrower. There’s a five-minute stretch in the middle of the film when, having established the premise and set-up, Carnahan effectively removes half of the movie’s cast to tighten the stakes.

Carnahan is a smart and canny director. He largely avoids getting in his own way. There’s never any real pretention or excess within Copshop. Like the best of these sorts of movies, Copshop understands what the audience expects from it and knows how to deliver it. At the same time, Carnahan also demonstrates why he has become a go-to director for projects like this. There are playful flourishes that demonstrate his keen eye, without ever getting too distracting – such as a dolly shot under a glass table to set up the obligatory “blueprints” conversation in a movie like this.

No bars held.

Similarly, Carnahan understands how to work with the actors that he has recruited. There’s a distinct hardboiled sensibility to the script from Carnahan and Kurt McLeod. “What are you in for?” the drunk asks the man in the cell opposite him. “Assaulting an officer,” the stranger replies, wary of the drunkard who seems to be pacing like a trapped tiger. Straightening up, making eye contact, the drunk reveals himself. “That’s not what you’re in for. You’re in for a lot more than that tonight, Teddy.” It’s a moment that relies on the easy machismo of co-stars Grillo and Butler, using both actors in a way that plays to their strengths.

Indeed, the cast in Copshop seem to largely be having a good time. Grillo and Butler in particular are cast as larger-then-life characters. Grillo sports a manbun and crocodile leather shoes, while Butler lurks in his prison cell like Satan himself. Copshop is not a movie that calls for particularly subtle or nuanced performances, instead asking its cast to perform like they’ve stepped out of some sleazy seventies exploitation film. There’s a charmingly cartoonish vibe to the film, including a veteran hitman who makes a point to shoot his victims from behind a giant balloon animal.

You know the drillo, Grillo.

However, beneath this bright and energetic exterior, Carnahan taps into a surprisingly cynical and bleak heart, something often missing from many of these nostalgic homages to seventies cinema. For most of its runtime, Copshop offers a grim assessment of human nature. It takes endemic police corruption as a given. It cannily plays with audience expectations and sympathies when it comes to the two mysterious strangers in the police station cell block.

The film even plays with Hollywood conventions. It adds details and shading to these characters that would clearly serve to humanise them in any other movie, but instead Carnahan cannily uses these elements to wrongfoot the audience. As the stiuation spirals out of control, and as Young finds herself wrestling with which of the two men she can trust, Copshop suggests that the answer is neither. It is a movie where it often seems like there is no good option. There are several points where the film teases the possibility of redemption or relief, only to cut that hope off in a very brutal fashion.

Station agent.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Copshop collapses somewhat in its final act. In its closing fifteen minutes, Copshop refuses to commit to the grim nihilism that sustained the movie to that point. There is a sense that the movie might be caught in the gravity of one of its stars, with the movie making a fairly bold choice concerning Gerard Butler’s character only to walk it back twice for the movie’s actual ending. Copshop is a movie that has no fewer than two superfluous endings, both of which feel like an attempt to satisfy the demands of Butler’s screen persona and veer into the realm of self-parody.

Indeed, the first of these two superfluous endings recalls nothing so much as a very particular and memetic Saturday Night Live short. The second of these two unnecessary endings feels like an attempt to correct the excesses of the previous ending, realising that it had robbed the movie’s protagonist of any real agency within the narrative in service of the actor above the title. Neither is convincing. Each of the movie’s three endings are at odds with one another, and the final two just feel like padding.

Still, ending aside, there’s a lot to like in the gritty and grubby thrills of Copshop, which taps into the energy that made these sorts of thrillers so appealing to older audiences.

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