Cop Car: Road to Nowhere, by David Bax
Jon Watts’ Cop Car aims to be a lean action thriller with a dark blend of humor and violence and a delightfully villainous role for Kevin Bacon. In execution, it does all those things but it only does them halfway. There are nifty moments throughout – like Bacon breaking into a car by fashioning a tiny noose out of a shoelace, threading it through a cracked window and hooking and pulling the lock – and it never once drags. But it also never amounts to much of anything. It’s an enjoyable way to pass an hour and a half but it will most likely leave you feeling undernourished.
Two boys, Harrison (Hays Wellford) and Travis (James Freedson-Jackson), having run away from their rural Colorado homes, find a seemingly abandoned police car far from the road, near the woods. It doesn’t take them long to discover the keys are still inside and so their joy ride begins. And it doesn’t take much longer for the car’s rightful driver, Sheriff Kretzer, to discover what’s happened and set out after the kids while trying to keep the car’s theft a secret from the department. Add to that an intermeddling citizen (Camryn Manheim) and the revelation that the boys aren’t the only ones in the car and you’ve got a chase movie with a lot of moving parts.
In the best chase movies, though, those being pursued have a destination in mind. Harrison and Travis don’t know where they’re going even before they find the car and once they do, their only goal is to get away from the bad guys. It’s a bit of a metaphor for the movie as a whole, which has the goods as far as inciting incidents and increasing complications but has no idea where to end things. Watts’ strength is in maintaining tension but not in resolving it.
That strength does pay off well, though. Cop Car is the kind of movie that feels more violent than it is because the threat of violence is constant. That suspense keeps you leaning forward into each next scene and Watts manages the trick of simultaneously undercutting and prolonging the anxious jitters with humor. Once the boys find Sheriff Kretzer’s guns in the car, the risk of shooting themselves or each other is never out of mind, to the point where it seems obvious that Watts is gleefully toying with his audience, chuckling at the waves of nervous laughter that come every time one of them points a weapon haphazardly or looks directly down the barrel. The naturalistic performances from Wellford and Freedson-Jackson only add to the apprehension.
It’s clear that Watts is going for the low-key tension of something like recent indie thriller Blue Ruin along with the violent sense of humor of something like Jackie Brown (we even get one of Tarantino’s classic shots from the trunk of a car). But without a conclusive reason for being, it never amounts to more than a collection of its own influences. That doesn’t keep Cop Car from being a fun movie. It’s just one that will work better as a rental at home than as a pricey night out to the theater.