A genre exercise that comes and goes but is entertaining as hell while it lasts.
It’s a kick to see a technically sound and visually disciplined director like Jon Watts apply his skills to a story as straightforward and undecorated as Cop Car. It’s about two ten-year-old boys—Harrison (Hays Wellford) and Travis (James Freedson-Jackson)—who find an abandoned police cruiser in a wide open field and decide to take it for a joy ride. It turns out to be the biggest mistake EVER, as the officer who left the car unattended (Kevin Bacon) did so under some very shady, very illegal circumstances. He needs his car back, and he doesn’t care how he gets it. Boyhood naiveté (“stupidity” may fit the bill a little better) has been a primary source of big trouble since the dawn of mankind, but the bloody mess these little fuckers fall into takes it to another level.
Watching Cop Car is a piece of cake (that is if you aren’t cursed with a weak stomach). It’s a taut, propulsive midnight flick that puts its characters through the ringer without getting a speck of dirt on the audience’s hands. Morality is a virtual non-factor in Watts’ world, and one-dimensional as his characters are, their motivations are identifiable. The boys, well, they see the world as their oyster, only that oyster is actually an aggravated crab ready to snip their little fingers off with its claws. They’re out of their depth—when we meet them they’ve run away from home, stomping through a quiet field, chomping on a Slim Jim they’ve decided they have to “ration” to survive the wilderness. The first thing they do when they happen upon the cop car, they throw a rock at it as if it were a sleeping giant and then deduce that they can’t flee the scene because their fingerprints are on the rock, which could incriminate them and land them in the slammer. Before you know it, the little hellions are speeding across the barren landscape and futzing around with the heavy armaments they find in the back seat.
Kevin Bacon holds up the other end of the story as his Sheriff Kretzer frantically searches for his car while simultaneously keeping his fellow boys in blue in the dark about the whole mishap. He’s a no-nonsense cowboy with a silver tongue and a big fat ego, and Bacon plays the role just right. His performance and everything else in the movie fit snugly into the genre movie category, but there’s a maturity and restraint to he and Watts’ work that keeps everything grounded. Cop Car‘s driven by a simple idea and doesn’t do much to make you think, but it’s a whole lot more artful than your typical midnight movie. A few unexpected plot developments keep the action spicy, and none more so than the surprise the boys find in Kretzer’s trunk.
Watts is all class when it comes to moving and placing his camera, photographing the sprawling landscapes beautifully while planting well thought-out bits of information in the frame when he needs to nudge the story forward or give us timeline clues (the chronology doubles back on itself early on to show the initial car theft from Kretzer’s perspective). The story’s as simple and old-school as it gets, which affords Watts a ton of elbow space to show off his command of the craft. It would have been nice, though, if he’d have been a little more exuberant in his style. When the story spirals out of control near the end and things get out-of-this-world intense, you’d think Watts would film the insanity with a bit of flair. Instead, he does his job, does it well, but doesn’t let loose when the script does.
There isn’t much to Cop Car, but that’s a good thing in this case. It’s a completely fulfilling entertainment experience, and while it won’t give you much to take home with you, it’ll make sure you have a good time while you’re in its company.