If anyone was born to play a character from a James Ellroy novel, it’s James Woods. The author and actor both display, in their respective mediums, an insatiable taste for filthy, intelligent misanthropes who frequently confuse fascist neuroses for honor. Ellroy and Woods each also share an ambiguous relationship with their characters that suggests they get off on fictional misdeeds, working through their own toxicity with their art. Many artists editorialize, distancing themselves enough from their projects to allow the audience to discern creator from creation, but Ellroy and Woods pointedly don’t. And both have a musically rapid sense of dialogue: If anyone can spit out Ellroy’s increasingly lurid and labyrinthine verbiage, it’s Woods, who always appears to be moving several beats faster than any given costar.
It doesn’t take long for Cop, a trim, sleazy, uncomfortably exciting adaptation of Ellroy’s Blood on the Moon, to revel in the full potential of Woods performing the author’s material. In the first scene after the credits, we see the actor’s character, LAPD Detective Sgt. Lloyd Hopkins, in his department, barking instructions at subordinates who lack his incisive street skills. Someone tells Lloyd that two perps were probably Mexican because they spoke with accents, and the sergeant immediately asks if they were speaking with accents to one another, rather than the victims. Responding to a subsequent piece of information, Lloyd reveals that a criminal’s supposed address is actually a long-abandoned shack. The expository information being imparted in this sequence is less important than Woods’s delivery of it. He understands Ellroy’s macho, comedic, hyper-tactile rat-a-tat rhythms, recognizing that his character is performing a kind of theater for his fellow officers on the force, informing the cop’s extraordinary intuitions with a sense of mental violence that establishes him as a profoundly gifted yet damaged man.
Cop covers all of Ellroy’s usual fixations, as it’s another L.A.-set crime mystery about a philandering abuser who’s ironically sensitive to the plights of female victims, even though he frequently exploits them in his own way. Lloyd’s vigilante tactics, which grow increasingly disturbing over the course of the film, are never rationalized as anything other than the actions of a contemptuous, disenfranchised, yet weirdly seductive public warrior. Lloyd kills people, even if the murders are in self-defense, with disconcerting casualness, and torture is a key to his maintaining a stellar conviction record.
There’s no handwringing in Cop about whether Lloyd’s a good or bad man, as those sorts of distinctions are clearly seen by the filmmakers as facile. Lloyd proves yet again that protagonists needn’t be likable to command our attention; they just have to be interesting. And Woods, one of American cinema’s great on-screen thinkers, makes fleeting physical poetry of Lloyd’s mind at work, particularly when he’s judging someone, filtering them through his countless prejudices, discarding their humanity to home in on their benefit to him.
Writer-director James B. Harris, who produced Stanley Kubrick’s early films, complements Woods’s performance with a smooth, humming command of storytelling. The plot, as streamlined here, is ludicrous and typical of serial-killer fiction, but the imagery, the pace, and the unusual attention paid to less glamorous specificities of crime detection (namely, pouring over endless case files—an act that Woods, with his obsessive interiority, can somehow render exciting) distinguish Cop as assuredly unnerving pulp. Every scene is pared to the bone, dressed up in cinematography that emphasizes the steely grays of guns, the obscene off-red of blood, and the drab browns of low-income housing. The film divorces the 1980s-era crime genre of the male navel-gazing of, say, Michael Mann’s cinema, reducing the cop/killer doppelganger conceit, with admirably pragmatic aplomb, to a succinct, socially cannibalizing procedure of kill-or-be-killed.
The colors are generally soft and a little faded, and the whites tend to glare, which might be related to the source material itself. Image depth of field is soft and shallow, and skin tones and facial detail are sketchy. The soundtrack is better, with generally well-mixed diegetic muscle that’s particularly evident in the sounds of gunshots. This edition could have used some sprucing, though it does maintain the slightly feral, under-produced aesthetic that one associates with a variety of genre films that first became notable via endless showings on HBO in the middle of the night in the 1980s.
The audio commentary by writer, director, and producer James B. Harris is informative and colored with refreshing bluntness, as the filmmaker is occasionally quite unapologetic in disclosing the hungers and frustrations that he shares with the film’s corrupt protagonist. All the usual production details are discussed, such as issues of financing and casting. Author James Ellroy’s glancing involvement with the project is described, as well as the writer’s evolving opinion of the film, the first adaptation of his work. There’s also a memorable anecdote pertaining to how Harris negotiates with actors using technical advisors as mediators. A fine, salty listen from an old-school insider. Rounding out the package is a trailer gallery, featuring promotions for Cop, The Onion Field, and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
The presentation is simply okay, but it’s refreshing to see this startlingly lurid, well acted, and egregiously underrated thriller accorded any love at all.