To find truly gritty police stories, go back to the 70s
No occupation has commanded more attention in movies and television than the police officer, but there has been a wide chasm between the two mediums. The Golden Age of cop movies, in the 1970s, aimed for stark realism (The French Connection, Serpico), while its smaller rival was dominated by cutesy fantasy (Police Woman, Starsky and Hutch). The TV cop changed drastically in the next decade with Hill Street Blues, but it was Miami Vice that jolted it with a splash of color. Its glitzy and gaudy visuals caused critics to unfairly label it “MTV Cops” when its true calling was bringing a more cinematic style to television. One would expect Michael Mann to succeed at adapting his own show to the big screen, but something was lost in the translation. The plot for the new film is too thin to support the weight of its interminable length, and the once-vivid characters need a dose of life support. Mann’s greatest crime was switching to digital video in the hope of achieving gritty realism. At one point I thought I was watching an episode of Cops.
To find truly gritty police actioners, one must go back to the 1970s. Across 110th Street (1972) is a forgotten classic that rode the blaxploitation wave to some minor box-office success. Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto play two New York cops in a race to find three robbers who stole mob money before the Mafia nabs them. The uneasy relationship between the Italians and the blacks on both sides of the law gives this gem a strong subtext. Racial tensions are also at the core of the unfairly maligned Freedomland (2006). Samuel L. Jackson is a New Jersey cop whose beat is a housing project located near the scene of a carjacking. Julianne Moore is the victim, whose son was asleep in the backseat. The police, against Jackson’s wishes, place the project in lockdown, fueling mounting tension with the residents. I can’t figure out why critics called the twist ending stupid. It follows a path to logic without veering off into some contrived heartwarming ditch. Richard Donner, who is known in the genre for the Lethal Weapon movies, tries for some grit with 16 Blocks (2006) but spews out one of the most preposterous cop movies ever made. Bruce Willis has a simple assignment: He is to drive a witness (Mos Def) to the courthouse. The obstacle appears to be the entire New York City police force: they want to keep him from testifying. If you can accept the busy streets’ being turned into a shooting gallery at every turn, you might enjoy the well-constructed action scenes.
New on DVD this Tuesday (Aug. 15): Cape of Good Hope, Land of the Blind, Scary Movie 4, Hoot, and L’Enfant.