It’s not easy to pull off a satisfying shoot-’em-up in this day and age. The subgenre became somewhat tired long ago, which means that current efforts either try too hard to reinvent old tropes or feel dispiritingly familiar. (For every John Wick, it seems we get any number of John Wick wannabes.) And then there’s the whole morality thing: Get too real and you’ll turn off, or maybe even piss off, a viewing public already sensitive to the real-life toll of guns and glorified carnage. In that context, Joe Carnahan’s Copshop inhabits an enviable Goldilocks Zone for movies about dudes getting their heads blown off. It’s clever but not cute, savage but not depressing, and cartoonish but not asinine.
The film takes place almost entirely within the confines of a small rural police station in the town of Gun Creek, Nevada, where a wounded, man-bunned sleazebag named Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo) has just managed to get himself locked up after deliberately punching rookie police officer Valerie Young (an exceedingly likable Alexis Louder). A mobbed-up political fixer who’s crossed all the wrong people, Teddy’s on the run, and he hopes that a police station in the middle of nowhere will be the safest place to hide out. Unfortunately, the man chasing Teddy, veteran bounty hunter Viddick (Gerard Butler), has a similar idea. He pretends to be drunk, sideswipes a patrol car, and winds up thrown into the cell opposite Teddy’s.
That’s an irresistible set-up, especially since the angular, intense Grillo and the meaty, affable Butler excel at playing different types of scuzzballs. Each actor also has an everyman quality that director Carnahan ably works under the surface here. (Grillo, it should be noted, is also the star of Carnahan’s charmingly unhinged sci-fi action flick Boss Level, which had an under-the-radar Hulu release a few months ago; in ordinary times, actor and director might be recognized for having a pretty good year.) The result is a stand-off in which we don’t really know who to root for: the harried, desperate con-man who appears to be lying through his teeth, or the sensible, seemingly honest killer out for blood.
We definitely figure out whom not to root for, however, when another assassin, Anthony Lamb (a cackling, deranged Toby Huss), shows up and begins laying waste to the entire station, turning copshop into chopshop. It’s best not to get into too many plot details, especially since one of the genre pleasures of Copshop is that you never quite know who’s going to suddenly materialize and zotz whom next. Suffice it to say that Valerie — who, despite being a rookie, also happens to be a sharp wit, a quick draw, and a munitions expert — winds up stuck in the cells with Teddy and Viddick, as Lamb lays siege to them. So it is Teddy versus Viddick, Valerie versus both of them, and all three versus Lamb.
Copshop could have probably gotten along just fine as a cerebral battle of wills among this quartet of characters; all four actors are excellent, and each seems to represent a different square on the infamous Dungeons & Dragons morality grid. But Carnahan loves his over-the-top action set pieces, and he manages to turn this humble, two-story police station into an elaborate slaughterhouse, using the spatial geography to spring surprises on his characters and stage scenes of acrobatic gunplay. The director also loves his double crosses, which means that we never quite know what’s coming next. The result is a film where it feels like anything can happen, which not only keeps us watching but, more importantly, keeps us entertained. In an action movie landscape cluttered with glum, straight-to-VOD knockoffs or bloated, self-important spectacles, it’s refreshing to find one that remembers pictures like these are supposed to be fun.
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