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I’m just the balloon man.


(SPOILERS) A consistent problem with Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre is that, no matter how confidently his movies begin, or how strong his premise, or how adept his direction or compelling the performances he extracts, he ends up blowing it. He blows it with Copshop, a ’70s-inspired variant on Assault on Precinct 13 that is pretty damn good during the first hour, before devolving into his standard mode of sado-nihilistic mayhem.

And perhaps that’s his core flaw, keeping him from more mainstream favour. Others versed in the snappy, colloquial, kinetic crime genre – Tarantino, Ritchie, even Vaughn – tend to bring with them a certain charm or winning personality. All Carnahan can offer is empty brutality, further soured by an emphasis on sick/twisted graphic violence. He attempted a gritty meditation on mortality with The Grey, but all he came away with was hollow abnegation. Copshop gives us two bad men – Carnahan’s favourite kind – either side of good, super-capable rookie cop Valerie (Alexis Louder), and for a while, at least, her presence ameliorates the obnoxious brew.

Louder’s a likeable presence, and the environment of her police station, staffed by incompetent and/or lazy fellow officers, is a familiar one, set up for her to prove herself. Unfortunately, Carnahan does his best to get in his own way, defusing the potential of the situation. Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo, not as versatile a performer as his facial hair might suggest) is the mob fixer who gets himself arrested in order to avoid hitman Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler). Teddy incurred his bosses’ wrath when he agreed to cooperate with the FBI (following the murder of the Nevada Attorney General), and his attempt to find safe harbour in the station is hampered by Viddick following his example and being placed in an opposite cell.

It’s a scenario to get the creative juices flowing, based on a story by Mark Williams (Ozark) and Kurt McLeod. Initially, at least, Carnahan rises to the challenge, with Valerie intervening just when it seems as if Viddick has Murretto at his mercy. Further plates are set spinning by a bent cop Huber (Ryan O’Nan) and the arrival of competing hitman Anthony Lamb (Toby Huss on extraordinarily lunatic form): “Now you see the difference? That is a psychopath” advises Viddick of the gulf between his “professional” activity and Lamb revelling in carnage (the scene where the doofus desk officer marvels at the balloon man’s similarity to Lamb’s mugshot is most amusing). There are also the crooked officers in the Attorney General case, whom Valerie inadvertently alerts to the station situation.

Up until somewhere around the hour mark, then, Copshop is a largely satisfying concoction, brewing and bubbling with possibilities, especially after the injured Valerie has to lock herself in the cells with her feuding prisoners while Lamb and Huber attempt to break in. But then. Instead of formulating an ingenious way out (perhaps there isn’t one), Carnahan resorts to upping the ante on the ultraviolence. Murretto turns out to be the lost cause Viddick insists he is, and somehow – Butler doing his standard gruff, dishevelled schtick – Viddick emerges as the honourable antihero. I’m not sure quite why Carnahan thinks he achieves or merits this, mainly because he doesn’t. He simply decides at some point that Murretto is wrong and Viddick is right (because Viddick has a code?), and therefore the latter deserves Valerie’s respect.

Most unearned is the salutary final scene, as Viddick escapes the police station and Valerie commandeers an ambulance to give chase, while they both sing Freddie’s Dead by Curtis Mayfield. We aren’t even close to the point where they are old frenemies we want to see embarking on further cat-and-mouse adventures. Further to which, Carnahan transfers the iconography of ’70s action movies – Lalo Schifrin, titles, Clifton Shorter’s soundtrack – but none of the aesthetic affection. Which means it ends up as wannabe Tarantino and exposes how far he comes up short.

More disappointing are the missed opportunities. In Chad L Coleman (Duane Mitchell, who played Cutty in The Wire and Fred Johnson in The Expanse), Carnahan has come up with a classic, loveably grouchy station commander in the Joel Silver mould; it would have been an absolute joy to have him turn out to be the unlikely protagonist of the piece. Instead, the commander has his jaw dislocated, shutting him up for a good twenty minutes before Huber shoots him in the head. It’s as if Carnahan can’t help himself and just has to make movies that are difficult to love and as impossible to redeem as his protagonists.

Which, as alluded, likely goes to explain his lack of mainstream success. Inaccurate swipes at those he’s fallen out with probably don’t help either (“You look like old Tom Cruise in the samurai picture that nobody watched”; unaccountably, since it’s pretty crummy, loads of people did watch it. Will Smith and Bruce Willis jibes will be coming next, I expect). Add Copshop to the pile of Carnahan also-rans. Still, he seems to have found a B-niche right now, after the best part of a decade in limbo. It’s just a shame this year’s rash of activity hasn’t seen him revealing hitherto concealed reserves of humanity.

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