Poorly timed and cynically conceived, Tiller Russell’s documentary The Seven Five uses the juicy backdrop of the most violent years of New York City’s most violent neighborhood to relay a story of police corruption that’s transparently designed as a pitch for a feature-film adaptation. The film is set around Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct, where 20-year-old officer Michael Dowd, in 1982, walks onto the streets of East New York and encounters a “war zone” of blight, bloodshed, and crack abuse. (“It would scare Clint Eastwood,” he says.) Feeling “unappreciated” and languishing in disillusionment, Dowd quickly takes to graft. He solicits a bribe from an undocumented driver, then begins skimming cash from raids on stash houses. The Seven Five tracks his evolution from a petty thief into a corrupt cop of the highest order, collecting salaries from both the NYPD and the internationally connected drug lords he’s protecting instead of arresting.
The film is told primarily from the perspective of Dowd (who served a reduced jail sentence after testifying to a panel, the Mollen Commission, about police corruption in 1993) and his former partner, Kenny Eurell. Neither man is given to much self-scrutiny. The Seven Five elapses like a trip down memory lane for the two officers and their co-conspirators, all of whom enthusiastically recount dramatic scenes in order to highlight their virility and bravado. Russell is at pains to match their self-regard, intoxicated by guns and money, but his technique is informed by the Alex Gibney/Kirby Dick school of erratic, temp-track-grade soundtracks and rote, word-associative editing. If someone mentions a weapon, the camera zooms in on a still of it until someone brings up money, at which point the camera pans across a bundled stack of it. Nearly devoid of women, but full of coke, tough talk, and psychic masturbation, the film aspires to be the GoodFellas of the NYPD, but it’s a hollow and morally sketchy emblem of the current vogue for antiheroes.
“The ghetto is one of the richest neighborhoods there is,” one of Dowd’s associates says about halfway through The Seven Five, and Russell’s film happily aligns itself with that narrative. Its interest in morality doesn’t extend much beyond redundant mentions of the distinction between “good” cops (who protect their partners at all costs) and bad cops (who snitch), and its interest in history and poverty begins and ends with a litany of crime statistics and sensationalized archival TV news footage. Dowd is an eager narrator of his decade-long dalliance with the criminal underworld, but his perspective remains resolutely blinkered. Russell doesn’t prod Dowd about his mentioned substance abuse, and the director seems oblivious to the ex-convict’s evident sociopathic tendencies. As such, the film becomes trapped in the officer’s self-aggrandizing version of one instance of a historically vast outbreak of police corruption; the years-long investigation that sent him to prison comes up as a last-minute plot twist. One hopes public sentiment will render the forthcoming feature adaptation of The Seven Five more psychologically acute and historically relevant than its predecessor.