Political issues are rarely the province of this blog; I’ve made a point of noting that European media has a strong anti-Republican bias, and also understand that James Woods is something of a media bête noir right now for his outspoken comments on the on-going pre- and post election struggle in the US. That’s an odd state of affairs; Woods has a great star in the 80’s and 90’s, a leading man for the likes of Oliver Stone in Salvador, and in blistering form in this underrated cop thriller for director James B Harris. Having produced for Kubrick, Harris was a major industry figure, and this James Ellroy adaptation is streets ahead of most noir films of the period.
Cop was a little too much for critics and audiences to take to at the time; it would be an understatement to say that the profane script was knowing and salty. “women almost never kills themselves with guns,’ is a good example of the dialogue put in the mouth of detective-sergeant Lloyd Hopkins (Woods) as he goes on the trail of a serial killer, or ‘mass murderer’ as this film terms it. Hopkins is something of a nightmare for his bosses, a fast-thinking, resourceful but utterly obsessive character who frightens his family so much they immediately head for the hills and leave no forwarding address. But Hopkins is also smart enough to inveigle himself into the book-store of Kathleen McCarthy (Lesley Ann Warren) and seem like a credible shoulder-to-cry-on for her memories of a rape she’d suffered as a younger woman. What Hopkins doesn’t realise is that McCarthy’s story will tie into the man-hunt he’d launched, leading to a punchy climax in her old high-school gymnasium.
Cop could easily have been a vehicle for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character, and if it had, would probably have been the third best of the series. It’s a serious-minded film that parses some of the more extreme thinking of the Reagan years, dissecting and also celebrating a wayward main character who believes that he’s holding the world together on his own terms. Woods is great in this role, hollow-cheeked, full of nervous energy, and also believable. There’s also significant roles for Charles Haid and Charles During, who starred with Woods in 1978’s The Choirboys, and enjoy a more sensible look into police corruption here.
But the real revelation isWwarren, who does an amazing job of playing a rape-survivor, and takes the film in a surprisingly modern direction. Hopkins is playing with fire with his fellow cops, but also with his own personality, and her accurate description of the evil that men do threatens to shake him out of his white-saviour bubble. Cop may look a little square by today’s standards visually, but the questions it raises about ‘who guards the guards?’ are vividly articulated. And the ending is brevity in a nutshell; an on-the nose conclusion to an engrossing crime story that’s more than just your average cop-show.