1 hour, 26 minutes
Ahh, late August. A time when summer is slowly easing into fall. The leaves are gradually beginning to change, birds are packing up for the winter, and Hollywood’s high octane output slows to a drizzle. The big movie choices this week here on the Peninsula were a D-level reboot of a box office bomb based an old video game, or a hyper-violent stoner comedy about a burnout who is secretly a super-spy.
That one, “American Ultra,” at least stars Jesse Eisenberg, so that’s something, but I still couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to go. The former, “Hitman: Agent 47,” is only tracking one point higher than “Fantastic Four,” so that’s really saying something.
Instead, I went the indie route this week, taking a look at a movie that had been creating buzz on the film geek sites and, I presume, the Kevin Bacon geek sites. “Cop Car,” feels like a real throwback to the best action thrillers of the 1980s.
The film opens with a scene that sold me right off the bat. Two young boys, Travis and Harrison, both around 9, are walking across the prairie in some western state. I assumed Colorado, but the movie never specifies. One boy is saying a curse word, and the other is repeating it, his tone somewhat unsure, as if someone might be listening. The two young actors feel utterly authentic and I was taken back to my childhood, watching movies like “The Goonies,” or “Stand by Me,” two very different films, I grant you, but both that deal thematically with what it’s like when kids interact without the presence of adults.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is that it offers almost no explanatory exposition. We get that the boys are running away, but for what reason, or if they are even serious about it, we never know. After walking for hours, the boys crest a hill and come across something one would not expect to see in the middle of nowhere — a sheriff’s cruiser, sitting empty and alone, far from any road. The two tentatively approach the car and then, in an increasingly escalating series of dares, end up sitting in the front seat of the car, playing cops, pretending to drive and crash as if they were in a video game. Digging around in the console, Travis finds something that will up the ante — the keys. Harrison is hesitant, but his bolder friend’s peer pressure is too much. Before even they know what is happening, the two boys are on a joyride that will soon turn into a nightmare.
Flashback an hour and we see the owner of the titular cop car, one Sheriff Kretzler, played by Bacon with a bit of swagger helped by his aviator shades and a big bushy Ron Swanson mustache. The sheriff pulls slowly into the little clearing and stops. He takes off his gun and uniform shirt, then goes around to the back of the vehicle. Opening the trunk, we watch as he first removes a tarp, then proceeds to pull a body from the space and dump it on the tarp, shutting the trunk with just time for us to register the presence of a second body. He drags the first corpse a long way from the car, out of sight, until he finally comes to what could only be an old well, into which goes his unlucky victim.
Sheriff Kretzler is, apparently, a bad guy. Heading back to the car, presumably to dispatch body number two, the sheriff finds his cruiser has disappeared. The panic on his face is palpable when he realizes that, not only has his car been stolen, but now all the criminal evidence against him is loose in the world. Unless he can find that car, he’s up a creek without a paddle.
I really enjoyed this film, though it does end somewhat bloodier than I’d expected. The tension ramps perfectly throughout the film, the tone progressing from charming to frightening by degrees. Kevin Bacon, who also served as executive producer, is excellent. The movie is small, fairly quiet, and Bacon, who can be a ham when he wants to, plays it subtle as well. But not too subtle. This isn’t a grim character study of a sociopath, it’s a chase movie about two little boys who steal a crooked cop’s ride, and Bacon balances the performance expertly.
Similarly wonderful are the two child actors who anchor the entire production. James Freedson-Jackson, as Travis, and Hays Wellford, as Harrison, embody the chaotic, frightening, though often carefree sense of being an untethered child. Likely they get it so right because they are, indeed, children. Freedson-Jackson’s biggest credit to date was being in the children’s choir at last year’s Superbowl Halftime Show, although his co-star is already building quite a resume. Wellford is set to play a young Davey Crockett in an upcoming TV series, and will also appear in next year’s “Independence Day” sequel, “Resurgence.”
Both boys are excellent in the film and here’s hoping they can have long careers without being run into the ground by the Hollywood machine.
“Cop Car” is very smartly written. The screenplay is lean, without any needless dialogue or backstory. The movie clips along rapidly and gets in and out of the story without overstaying its welcome. Not all of the smaller roles are as well acted as the principals, but that’s a minor gripe in such an excellent construction. “Cop Car” is a perfectly built homage to 80s genre thrillers — a great B movie that gets an A in my book.
“Cop Car” is rated R for violence and language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.