Bob Viddick, the grunting, grizzled and scruple-light hitman from the frenetically fun Copshop, informs us at one stage that he received a degree “from the university of common sense”. Is this a good line? It would be a struggle to convince you that yes, this was an absolutely barnstorming retort to an inebriated puka-shell prick with a head on the precipice of getting kicked in.
Instead, that line works better as a mission statement. It sums up Joe Carnahan’s approach quite concisely. There is a refreshing back-to-basics feel about the simple-minded, bloody machismo on display. It’s Ronseal filmmaking. The kind of one-location actioner that knows what works and sticks to it. We have no high concept ‘hook’ here; just tight, workmanlike, cinematic machinery chugging along.
Gerard Butler – who somewhat shockingly is making his debut appearance in the Carnahan oeuvre – plays the aforementioned Viddick. Butler is far from washed up, but recent performances have been hampered by either apocalyptic scenarios swallowing up his presence or a palpable apathy garnered by the schlock he is aware he’s making. Viddick is by some distance the actor’s best effort in years. The consistently derisive, callous killer-for-hire is a meatier character than any agent Mike Banning or engineer John Garrity (admit it, you had to look those up too). It’s a role that suits the 51-year-old, in that leans into the man’s physical limitations, rather than try to mask them. Butler really adds a sloppy, sinister charm to Viddick, enough to keep us unsure of the true depths of his character’s moral debasement.
Much less shocking is the appearance of Frank Grillo. Grillo’s working relationship with the director stretches back just over a decade, when the actor appeared in the underrated survivalist epic The Grey. The perpetually disgruntled brick house is always on hand to put in a good shift as the ‘bad guy with a good heart’ for Carnahan. Copshop is no different. Here he plays Teddy Murretto, a sort of fixer with connections to the mob and the highest levels of local government. When a hit is put out on his life, Muretto sees fit to deliberately get arrested in order to find a safe haven in a police station jail cell situated in the heart of the New Mexico desert. The equally enterprising Viddick, hoping to snag that freelance contract on Muretto, then manufactures a destructive DUI to end up in the cell right across our ‘hero’.
Things inevitably become more complicated when the truly psychopathic assassin Anthony Lamb (Tony Huss) rocks up to proceedings in search of Muretto. If you have seen the trailer, you’ll likely already know this is not a complete sausage fest of a shoot-em-up.
Relative newcomer Alexis Louder, who might just come out on top in terms of committed performances, plays our rookie cop struggling to survive amidst this cornucopia of killers. Huss perhaps commits too much as the unhinged wisecracker Lamb. Louder is maybe best known for a small recurring role in the excellent Watchmen HBO miniseries. Here she announces herself and then some with a russian roulette spin of a revolver chamber.
As expected, violent fatalities and some claustrophobic fight scenes ensue. Carnahan however – I stress with this respect to the rest of his filmography – shows more restraint than we might be used to. Perhaps it’s due to the budget constraints or the limitations of a single location, but Copshop bides its time until it’s welcomingly gonzo, supersoaked finale. Its strength lies in allowing three interesting characters to be just that. We are never entirely sure who our actual protagonist is here, which leaves an enjoyable unpredictability about who’s fate we really should be keeping an eye on. It’s no accident that our three leads are afforded equal billing, even as we must assume the same can’t be said for the paychecks.
Carnahan tried something similar in the cynical, similarly plotted Smokin Aces, but that film had too many players and devolved too quickly into ludicrous mayhem. The gentle narrative chicanery fits the much smaller Copshop much better. I’d be lying if I said the script was always there for them; clunky genre lines rear their head now and then. A needless coda in the form of a tête-à-tête on the open road is probably just a little too silly, even for a film like this. The cast, however, never falters enough to really suck us out of proceedings either.
It’s almost a rarity to see a film like this get a general release. So often nowadays works like this get buried in the graveyard of the streaming industrial complex. Incidentally, Boss Level, Carnahan’s other 2021 feature, was unceremoniously dumped on Amazon Prime Video for its international release.
Copshop isn’t a perfect film, but it has an elegant simplicity most modern blockbusters forgo. Forget that “university” – the ‘film school of common sense’ might well be where a perceived director-for-hire like Carnahan learned his trade.
Copshop is in cinemas now.