“It’s not the brush, it’s the artiste,” says police officer Valerie Young (Alexis Louder) at the start of Joe Carnahan’s Copshop, after being playfully ribbed by her sergeant, Duane Mitchell (Chad L. Coleman), about the 1800s-style pistol in her hands. Duane believes that her weapon of choice is useless in a modern-day gunfight. Whether he’s wrong or not is beside the point, as Valerie’s turn of phrase is intended as a cheeky statement of intent from Carnahan and co-screenwriter Kurt McLeod. With its pulpy thrills, hyperbolic dialogue, charismatic scumbags, and a score heavy in electronic effects and percussion, Copshop coasts on a gnarly old-school vibe that’s as effortless as Valerie’s handling of her gun.
Valerie finds herself at the center of a violent free-for-all after contract killers, including Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler), converge on a Nevada police station to take care of Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo), a shady government “fixer” who snitched on his criminal colleagues. The battle of wills and wits that ensues never quite achieves the thematic resonance of The Grey, Carnahan’s finest exploration to date of man’s very nature, but the audience never doubts for one moment after a plot-advancing phone alarm goes off and Bob says to his cellmate, “Keep ‘em guessing,” that the film won’t do exactly that for much of its runtime.
Copshop delights in watching how police officers and criminals alike freely abandon their codes of conduct in the face of certain death. Hardly a minute passes in the film without a shift in loyalty, some more brutal than others, creating a thrilling atmosphere of tension and dread. But Copshop is also shot through with a disarming sense of humor, as in the scene where the demented Anthony Lamb (Toby Huss) waltzes into the police station and, after shooting an officer point blank in the head, quips about loving to know what’s going through the man’s mind. Suggesting at times a comic spin on John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, Copshop consistently keeps dramatic inertia at bay as the characters piledrive their way through the prison, systematically wrecking its every nook and cranny as they try to stay alive.
Copshop is a well-oiled machine on the level of action and suspense, but its broad streak of humor does threaten to derail the whole thing at times. Huss delightfully chews the scenery as Lamb, at one point drawing a dick on the fogged door leading into the cellblock where Bob, Teddy, and Valerie are holed up, before then saying, “I drew you a dick. It just got weird.” Indeed. Or maybe it’s just that Copshop could have benefited more from its performers channeling Huss’s darkly rambunctious spirit, as more than a few of the characters, namely a turncoat officer played by Ryan O’Nan, are grimly portrayed to the point of dissonance.
But it’s not as if Copshop isn’t self-aware. “That is a psychopath,” says Bob, pointing in the direction of Lamb as he makes clawing motions at Murretto. What Bob means is that Lamb, unlike he and Teddy, doesn’t live by a code of conduct, and Copshop is given over to scenes in which its characters discuss the degrees to which they themselves adhere to such a code. Valerie and Bob certainly do, and despite being on opposite sides of the law. Copshop isn’t exactly deeply attuned to the idea of how survival in a violent, unruly world depends largely on rigid, unwavering convictions, but it kicks it around in awesomely self-reflexive ways. In short, Copshop is itself a straight shot of uncompromising B-movie style.
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