Monday, 20 February 2012

Shoot first, ask questions later: Some great rogue cop movies

A random rogue cop: Emile Meyer in Sweet Smell of Success at right.
'Come here Sidney - I want to chastise you.'
I sometimes think that rogue cops are the most interesting characters in movies. Often they are vile, usually corrupt, but always compelling. In their,  abstruseness, they give the audience a sense of  existing vicariously on the edge without the bruises, the stress, the heart condition and the alcoholism to prove it. 

Let's face it, blanket approval of the rule of authority can get a bit tedious to watch. Rogue cop films fill the vacuum between movies which expect us to go hurrah when some poor sucker gets nabbed, and those that make us angry when an obvious injustice has occurred because of a corrupt system.  Court-room films for example can bristle with their sense of injustice, but somehow getting a big guy to do your dirty work for you can be far more effective than presenting a case in a courtroom where you could possibly lose. 

Made to look in from the outside because of their sheer imperviousness to rules and regulations, and because of their psychotic devotion to a sense of law and order all their very own, rogue cop justice is  dished out without fear or favour to suspects whether they happen to be guilty of a crime or not. The rogue cop is a law unto himself, and sometimes a creature that we are meant to show a certain amount of sympathy for. After all, isn't he just performing a civic responsibility which we lack the nerve to perform ourselves? I sometimes feel a distinct sense of moral twilight coming over me when  asked to sympathise with a violent, incorrigible overage delinquent who roughs up suspects, indulges in bribery, plants evidence, and thinks that he can get away with it. But hey, that's just me.
The occupational hazards of police corruption. Was Sterling Hayden a
rogue in 'The Godfather?' You be the judge.

  If the viewer leaves his/her politically correct values at the door, he/she can indulge in a nostalgic sense of  longing for a time when the  police arrived on your doorstep immediately you called them. When crime was a simple case of personal assault or theft. When, in a nutshell, the police were the good guys and the criminals were the bad guys, and all remained well with the world for this particular demarcation. 

The following films will leave no room for doubt that rogue cops have an underlying appeal to audiences who respond to their viscerality  when the rest of us, in their place, would be considering the implications of our actions, and the conundrum which arises. Should we blame the cop for his moral weakness, or the system for its inability to stay pure in the face of ultimate compromise?  That is the burning question for most films that feature rogue cops as their main protaganist.

     Notes on some boundaries of this list. 

 *Russell Crowe gives a great performance in L.A. Confidential but  is redeemed by the love of a good woman by the end of the film so he doesn’t count.

Clint may be cool, but Dirty Harry isn't included.
You could however, check out 'Tightrope'.
* Gary Oldman gives a good performance as a rogue cop  in Romeo Is Bleeding, but it’s a crummy film I wouldn’t recommend to anybody that I liked.

* He makes so many movies that I could be wrong, but I don’t think Christopher Walken has ever played a policeman. But it's been a long career filled with a generous share of low lifes. He makes a great drill sergeant in ‘Biloxi Blues’. So you could check that out. 

*You may question my omission of Harvey Keitel in ‘Bad Lieutenant’, but he’s a bit too much of a rogue if you get my meaning. The film  is strictly for adults only and is something I shouldn't admit to even seeing because it could get me into trouble.
*Clint Eastwood works so hard to make his ‘dirty harry’ persona appear to be a cog within the system, that I  never envisioned the character as an outsider, so I also haven’t included the initial film, ‘Magnum Force’ (which I actually prefer over the original), or the other sequels to the series,  whose names have, down the years,  totally escaped me.

*Sterling Hayden deserves an honourable mention for his performance as the corrupt policeman in 'The Godfather' but his screen time is minimal -- unfortunately, as I would have liked to see an entire back story devoted to his character. But that was not to be, and we are left  with a portrait of depraved authority. Hayden tells the made men how to run their business, resulting in his demise at the hands of an emerging godfather far more ruthless and brutal than the one he has been used to dealing with. So say goodbye, Sterling.

On Dangerous Ground (1952) Detective Jim Wilson played by Robert Ryan. Directed by Nicholas Ray

Robert Ryan stars as a rogue cop on the edge of sanity, working the city streets where he roughs up suspects in order to get an arrest with no qualms about how unethical his behaviour may be. His superior, wary at the prospect of being responsible should his 'unconventional' methods be revealed, banishes Ryan to a mountain locale where the hunt is on for a suspected killer. Unbenownst to Ryan, the killer is being protected by somebody closest to him. Ryan is humanised by his relationship with a blind woman (Ida Lupino) and attempts to distance himself from the depraved life he's led in the city.

 Charitably described by David Shipman as a "disillusioned, fist-happy cop", Detective Jim Wilson is portrayed by Ryan as alternately psychotic and sympathetic, with nothing much in between. The VHS  which I was privileged to see a number of years ago looked like a transfer of an old television print, but after conducting some research online, I  discovered that this is the way the film was originally photographed. To me, it seemed almost soft-focused, unlike many noir titles with their expressionistic lighting and attention-getting contrasts.  

An appealing mixture of downright dirty police procedural and poetic realism, 'On Dangerous Ground' does a plot about-turn at its half-way mark, but remains a unique introduction to the rogue cop (sub) genre and is as  good a way as any to tune into the many other film noir titles of the 1950's. An interesting review of 'On Dangerous Ground' is available here.

Touch of Evil (1958) Detective Hank Quinlan played by Orson Welles. Directed by Orson Welles
'If you're mean enough to steal from the blind, help yourself'. Charlton Heston
plays a Mexican drug enforcement officer in 'Touch of Evil'.
A noir with the unmistakeable Welles brain propelling it into action, 'Touch of Evil's critical  reputation has increased with the years and rightly so. Orson Welles directs himself as a sociopath whose venality knows no bounds, but is nonetheless human in his monstrousness.

Since expecting some kind of social commentary to magically emerge in '50s movies would be unfair, I think  that our modern, more moralistic expectations of a corrupt system being exposed is not entirely satisfied by this film. Instead we are led down a labyrinth of personal evil on the part of Quinlan, whose corruption began to decay him as a human being long before the story began. That's not to say that the repressive social structure which Quinlan represents is not always present. Quinlan is a lackey of American imperialism, reluctantly sharing his border with a less economically prosperous and much needier partner which, as an American, he has no choice but to resent.
The calm before the storm. Janet Leigh's denouement comes

 Hank Quinlan is nobody's idea of a cultural ambassador or positive role model in law enoforcement.  What he seems to represent to Welles, who never portrayed the wheels of justice in a positive light, (see 'Lady from Shanghai'),  is the unredeemed individual who can blame nobody but himself for his corruption and his inability to any longer protect himself from accusations of  bribery, dishonesty and murder. Honest individuals are needed for the system to function, and this is the only way for corruption to be stamped out. Welles gives a towering performance filled to the brim with menace and regret, and  receives excellent support from Charlton Heston, Akim Tamiroff, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich and Mercedes McCambridge. For Charlton Heston's stories on the making of 'Touch of Evil', you can click right

The French Connection (1971) Detective Popeye Doyle played by Gene Hackman. Directed by William Friedkin

Popeye waves goodbye to his bust, an ironic commentary that only the
connection will understand
A  documentary with a noir sensibility made in colour, 'The French Connection' is a hard-hitting suspense thriller concerning a policeman's pursuit of  the greatest drug bust in history. Gene Hackman's portrayal of Popeye Doyle is based upon the exploits of a real-life police partnership between Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso (Buddy Russo in the film as played by Roy Scheider). 

Popeye Doyle hates drug pushers -- he sees himself on the side of the angels, but he does unfortunately use somewhat questionable tactics.  On a hunch, the partners begin to tail a small-time hoodlum and his wife living in Brooklyn, where they uncover a million dollar drug deal dependent on the approval of payment to the French connection of the title.

Set personnel rugged up for one of New York's worst
winters in living memory.
 Doyle is a bit of a duffer in his funny hat -- he fancies himself as a ladies man, but doesn't have many social graces. What he knows how to do is his job which is to catch criminals, unrelenting in his purpose.  The hunch turns out to have credence, but questions throughout the film arise as to the methods the partners are using and an audience perception that Doyle is merely a thug out to convict a man because of his cultural difference.

 Aside from these existential meanderings, the film has a number of spectacular set pieces including an attempted shooting  at a housing estate, and a car chase involving a train that is one of the most exciting ever committed to film. I find 'The French Connection' to be neutral-free in the way it portrays every-day police work and its portrayal of Doyle leaves little room for questions of guilt or conscience. The man is what he is, and in the pre-Miranda era, he's a guy that you'd like to have on your side.  The fact that he's a thug is not glossed over, so much as left to audience expectation as to whether it makes much of a difference to the conclusion of the story. Which I suppose, makes it glossed over after all. 

The Offence (1973) Detective Sergeant Johnson played by Sean Connery. Directed by Sidney Lumet
Made as part of a deal with United Artists in return for Sean Connery consenting to make his last James Bond film after an absence of five years, 'The Offence' (aka 'Something Like the Truth') has languished as a film made by an important star and a prominent director which never received a proper release in the United States. This shabby treatment of 'The Offence' begs a lot of questions regarding the rise of digital technology which I won't go into right now. But this does not detract from that fact that it's an awesomely fine movie which will eventually find its audience after many years of  being neglected. 

Living in interrogation hell. Det. Johnson goes through the
 Detective Johnson is a riveting character with all the necessary criteria to be classed as one of the  great rogue cops of modern cinema. A demon to work with and a home life which exists but is not the least bit bearable, Johnson is a man obviously at the end of his tether. Working on a child molestation case, he cracks and kills the suspect, a nerdy and unconventional man who goads him into looking at himself before condemning anyone else to a life of punishment and mortification in prison. The guilt or innocence of the suspect (played by Ian Bannen) becomes irrelevant, as Johnson himself is put on trial by his conscience and his almost disturbing self-awareness that his past has most surely caught up with him. 

Sean Connery seems energised by the exceedingly well-written material and Trevor Howard and Vivien Merchant give able support to a majestic performance of dessication, loneliness and despair as interpreted by Connery. The criminal justice system is itself put under the microscope and left severely wanting, and the audience is left with a bereft feeling of being cheated of justice because of the shortcomings of the practitioners. This is a must-see movie which will one day take its place as an exemplary example of film-making, with its astounding central performance and its  insights into the meaning of justice and the human condition.

Q&A (1990) Detective Lieutenant Mike Brennan played by Nick Nolte. Directed by Sidney Lumet

This is another Sidney Lumet entry, with Nick Nolte receiving the acting honours as Mike Brennan, a decorated New York cop with an impeccable reputation, who the audience sees within the opening minutes of the film shooting a man  outside a nightclub. The suspense arises from his colleagues discovering that he is not the honourable cowboy they have been always led to believe, mainly from his record of convictions and his forthright demeanour. After the body is discovered, a conventional investigation is called by the DA's office, but this is only meant to clear Brennan from any wrong doing and close the case. Brennan becomes increasingly jittery as circumstances arise where not only his judgment, but his character is questioned over the incident. 

Cop turned assistant DA Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton), in the manner of most cops, is reluctant to railroad his former colleague, but  evidence of wrong-doing remains. The New York police force is struggling with racism within its own ranks, and Brennan appears to be a dinosaur from another era, who shoots first, roughs up suspects at the faintest provocation and is gun-happy to boot. He has become an embarrassment.  Colleagues Valentin, a Latino (Luis Guzman), and Chapman, an African-American (Charles Dutton), have their loyalty to Brennan exploited by the system and by Brennan himself until it becomes obvious they can no longer stand by him. 

Nick Nolte gives a great performance, recalling Hank Quinlan as a man of little scruple and monstrous in his venality. A good-old-boy chewing the fat with his colleagues as he waits to be interviewed by the investigation, Brennan appears to not be the least bit concerned about the Q&A. That is, until its too late for his soul. 

An annoying sub-plot concerning Reilly's love life is only necessary in that it brings into the plot Bobby Texador, (Armand Assante) married to Reilly's ex-girlfriend and not at all happy that he's been included in the proceedings. All performers mentioned are excellent, but are somewhat overshadowed by this dark, enigmatic and menacing figure that is Mike Brennan. Perhaps not as deep as it would like to be, Q&A is an entertaining police procedural  with a performance from Nick Nolte that is great to watch and highly recommended.

Training Day (2001) Detective Alonzo Harris played by Denzel Washington. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Alonzo sizing up Jake. It's not complimentary.
'Training Day' is exactly what it's name suggests -- a day in the life of a rookie LAPD cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), who wants to join the narcotics unit of Detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). You could call it a pretty long day, because Alonzo makes no bones about showing the newcomer what he's in for, and what life is like on the mean streets of East L.A. Summing up Jake on their first meeting in a restaurant where Alonzo is miffed at being interrupted from reading his newspaper, we can clearly see that Jake could well be out of his depth with this  street-savvy narcotics officer who seems to have seen it all, and done it all. Our sympathy goes out to Jake. 

What follows is a series of tacky events mainly involving drugs, money, and murder in which Alonzo tests Jake to see what kind of mettle this white boy is  made of. The fact is, Alonzo has been messing with the wrong people and his superiors are not  happy with him. Jake does not realise this until its's too late for Alonzo, but not too late for Jake.

Who's the boss. Detective Alonzo Harris, that's who.
 'Training Day' is a really terrific film that takes the viewer on a roller-coaster ride of emotions --  mainly anger, fear, sadness, exhilaration and finally resignation.  A dire sense of fatalism is somehow balanced out by the marvellous character study of Alonzo.  Denzel Washington's portrayal of a cop, a rogue on the outside for the very reason he is a walking time-bomb, is sensational. Washington deserved his 2001 Best Actor Oscar with bells on, he is so good you just have to see the nefarious dealings this character gets up to, and it's a great ride. 

There aren't a lot of other characters with speaking parts, mainly the suspects whom Alonzo either shakes down, or beats up. Scott Glenn is superb in a small but very important role and he makes his mark. Macy Gray makes her debut in movies and I was also impressed by the realism of her performance.  Tom Berenger, Raymond J. Barry and Harris Yulin play the Troika who seem to hold sway over Alonzo, and are suitably sinister puppet-masters, but shown only long enough to make their presence felt in a very effective way.

'Training Day' has a lot of things going for it, and as a study in rogue police behaviour, it may be a template for the next century or so. I really loved it.

Dark Blue (2003) Detective Eldon Perry played by Kurt Russell. Directed by Ron Shelton

I was taken aback by 'Dark Blue' when I first saw it. It had been hyped a bit, and often I take that to mean that because something's not very good, the powers that be have to make a noise about it. But with 'Dark Blue' the hype was justified.

'Dark Blue' is an excellent police procedural and uses as its backdrop events leading up to the Los Angeles riots of 1992. I like this sly combination of fact and fiction, and it actually has a point to it, which is to heighten the drama and make what's going on look far more factually correct than it may have been otherwise. Saying that something has a 'documentary feel' to it is such a cliche, but if it's done subtly the viewer hardly notices, which is, I think, the best way to go about things.

As played by Kurt Russell, Eldon Perry does not have a lot to complain about. He has a good job, and a wife waiting for him at home in the suburbs. Unfortunately, he has a demanding boss in the form of Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson), who treats Perry as his personal attack dog. Anything arriving at Van Meter's desk that's gross, he only has to call on Perry to do it, and it's done. Perry and his younger partner are called in to investigate a combination murder/robbery at a convenience store. Van Meter nominates a couple of suspects. Perry first goes along with this, until he realises that Van Meter is lying, and what follows is a messy descent into double-cross and ultimately murder.

The riot's already started, and I haven't collected my badge yet! Shucks...
Naturally, all is not what it seems with Perry's personal and professional life. He is not married happily, and like Hank Quinlan,  is beyond redemption because the corruption of his spirit has been going on for an eternity. (Or at least before the film started). But what happens is surprising. Perry attends a promotions ceremony and at the podium in front of a big crowd, implicates Van Meter for his corrupt behaviour. The character's sarcasm, and self-loathing are brought to bear in an amazing speech that thankfully rises above self-pity.  Perry's dislikeability is  made bearable by his decision to to take a certain amount of responsibility for the years of racism and neglect that have turned Los Angeles into a riot zone.

 Kurt Russell is wonderful in a part that he just eats up, and 'Dark Blue' is definitely his show. A lot of supporting characters are around but they don't make a big impact and their sub-plots are not as interesting to watch as Perry's character arc. Scott Speedman as Bobby, Perry's partner, seems a bit overwhelmed  as the moral centre of the film, and Ving Rhames doesn't have much to do as the black officer who hates Van Meter and everything he stands for.

Despite these reservations, 'Dark Blue' is very good in almost every other department, and Kurt Russell has a well-deserved place in the rogue's gallery of out-of-control policemen. Congratulations, Kurt!

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