The premise of Howard Hawks’ classic western “Rio Bravo” is a simple, yet timelessly effective little potboiler. So much so, that it’s been retooled over and over again in any setting and the idea never quite loses its urgency. John Carpenter did it in his own classic, “Assault on Precinct 13” and most recently everything from star-studded thrillers like “Bad Times at the El Royale” to low-budget affairs like “The Void” have had their spin. A building, usually a place of authority, housing a runaway besieged by those who wish that person dead. Secrets emerge, bullets fly, and by the end, our heroes stumble over bodies, out the door, and into the sunset. Never gets old.
It’s a premise so steeped in genre filmmaking that you’re almost shocked a guy like Joe Carnahan hasn’t had a go until now. You could make a case for “Smokin’ Aces,” but that film is often too caught up in a hodgepodge of other influences to let you simmer with it. His latest effort, however, is stripped down, more focused, and has the soul of “Rio Bravo” running through its Monster Energy-soaked veins. “Copshop” follows conman Teddy Muretto (Frank Grillo) as he tears through the desert in a stolen Crown Vic. Who or what he’s running from is initially unclear, but spotting a casino in the distance, he makes a break for it and immediately punches the first police officer he sees and begs her to take him to jail. Officer Val Young (Alexis Louder) obliges and for a time, Teddy believes himself to be safe. Unfortunately for him, the hitman on his tail, Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler) comes stumbling in, playing drunk. As each man settles into their cells for the night and outside forces close in, Officer Young finds herself in the middle of a violent game of cat and mouse.
Carnahan is an odd filmmaker to parse. The general tone of his work is often overtly, superficially masculine with propulsive quick cuts and snappy dialogue. You can view him as someone born from the Tarantino knockoff boom period but that isn’t giving credit to his body of work as a whole. Every once in a while, he’ll deliver a quieter, more meditative (for him) character piece like 2002’s excellent “Narc” or 2011’s somber Liam Neeson vehicle “The Grey.” After a small run of films more akin to his high octane bread and butter (“Stretch” and this year’s “Boss Level”), it felt like Carnahan was content to settle into those, leaving the leaner and meaner stuff behind. “Copshop” isn’t exactly quiet and in no way is it meditative but instead finds a surprising middle ground within the two poles of Carnahan’s work. The result is one of the more interesting films he’s done in recent memory. Peppered with jolts of psychotic energy here and there, he finds his sweet spot in the conversational moments when Young’s trying to figure out who’s worth trusting, Muretto or Viddick.
How much you invest into Carnahan’s brand of mayhem almost always depends upon his cast. While the periphery’s made up of “that guy”-types and there’s a fun but teetering-on-annoying performance from Toby Huss in the back half, “Copshop” rests entirely on the core trio’s shoulders. Alexis Louder is a star and it’s apparent almost immediately. Full of assured charisma and a striking screen presence, she feels right at home between the massive shoulders of guys like Grillo and Butler. Carnahan has a hokey “do the right thing” thread running through an otherwise amoral film. It comes close to making you roll your eyes, especially in a climate where rooting for the police is impossible. Louder more than sells it, though, as a put upon hero whose compass points well north but isn’t unwilling to get her hands dirty.
Frank Grillo’s always a welcome face, especially as a lead, but there’s something missing in his performance. Too much of a blank slate and with little emotion bleeding through, it’s hard to get a read on him. Typically, that sort of thing works for the conman you can’t trust but he’s oddly inert for a guy who usually pops off the screen. Grillo recently took to social media to defend himself a bit stating that the studio cut his performance down pretty heavily. It’s easy to brush something like that off as an artist being too defensive but in the case of “Copshop,” you’re inclined to believe him. It’s most apparent in how the action straddles an odd line of always looking like it’s about to tip into bombastic, violent spectacle only to cut away at the last second. It’s a bizarre, frustrating dynamic. Particularly when you know Carnahan is more than capable. He sets the table well with strong character beats between Officer Young and the men but every time you’re hoping for that pot to boil over, the punch is pulled. Carnahan for his part has done little if any press for “Copshop” leading one to believe that there has to be a more fulfilling cut out there somewhere that was hacked up a bit. It’s a shame because as producer, Grillo clearly views it as a passion project, and to see his performance and the lengths the film goes stripped away has to be disheartening.
Thank god for Gerard Butler. Butler stumbles into this thing sweaty, hulking, and menacingly and he’s an absolute joy. It’s astonishing to think that he was once primed to be our next great action lead with abs of steel. When that didn’t quite take post- “300,” letting himself settle into a slimy, greaseball of a character actor that you can sub in as a lead here and there was a stroke of genius. Ever since the spectacular “Den of Thieves”, Butler has become a must-watch actor. Growlingly charismatic, he’s like a sexier Charles Bronson rumbling through a film and laying waste to anyone in his way with ham-sized mitts. He spends most of his time in a cell here but every cut to his expressions or one-liners are often a lifeline for a film that isn’t quite sinking but absolutely would without him. Watching a current Gerard Butler performance feels like stepping through time to a period of leading men whose tether to reality was either dependent upon or minutes from derailing because of an airport bottle of Beefeater. He’s a mesmerizing force and we’re so lucky that this is the kind of actor he’s become.
“Copshop” is never going to rank among the great “Rio Bravo” riffs but it’s a solid return to form for Carnahan. One still yearns for him to slow down enough to pump out something like “The Grey” again but as a kind of mid-tier action jaunt that seems to disappear from the big screen more each year, it’s got enough going on. We’ll never see #ReleaseTheCarnahanCut trending on Twitter, nor should we, but that this seesaws so closely to being something great almost makes you want to start the movement. Almost. No matter what, it’s essential to those of us enamored by Gerard Butler’s beautifully lumbering presence, an oasis in a desert almost good enough to be an ocean. [B-]
“Copshop” is in theaters now.