Marvel and Sony made headlines recently when they tapped little-known helmer Jon Watts to direct the next Spider-Man movie, so it’s unfortunately inevitable that the bulk of attention afforded to Watts’ sophomore feature, indie thriller Cop Car (his first was under-the-radar horror Clown), will take the form of one simple question: what did the studios see in the director that they didn’t in more accomplished contenders like Warm Bodies‘ Jonathan Levine?
We may never know for certain what specifically landed Watts the gig, but Cop Car‘s killer opening scene is a pretty strong bet. Marvel and Sony have stated their intentions to skew young with this wall-crawler, imparting the incredible emotional stakes of teen life without turning the pic into a world-in-peril superhero movie. And in a single scene in Cop Car, Watt astutely captures that heady feeling of youth we can all remember: of being young, invincible and ostensibly on top of a world we were only just beginning to explore.
Ten-year-old boys Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford), the kid protagonists of Cop Car, are at that exact age, where everything outside of their small-town existence takes on the appearance of a grand adventure waiting to happen. Whatever is waiting around the corner is infinitely more interesting than their current lives, in which they’re viewed as little kids still a ways off from proving their own mettle. And, as all kids do, Travis and Harrison thirst to be treated like adults. And though both of them grew up learning about morality in simple terms of good and bad, the boys are just about reckless enough in their pursuit of that elusive maturity to go ahead and do the wrong thing.
And so the pair, building off one another with a naive and quixotic brand of intrepidity kids of their age possess in spades, run away from home. In Cop Car‘s opening scene, as the two set out across the gorgeous, sun-baked flatlands of rural Colorado, they exchange curse words, both holding in giggles at how deliciously good it feels to be a little bad, escalating their potty mouths up until Harrison balks at the F-word. That’s about when the kids stumble across a police cruiser, seemingly abandoned in the wilderness, door unlocked.
Still giddy about running away from home and finally testing out all the bad language they’ve observed over the years, Travis and Harrison are shocked still by the sudden arrival of outside authority. Has a policeman come to reprimand them for their bad behavior? The thought certainly crosses their minds, especially Harrison’s, given that he’s by far the more cautious of the two. But no – the cop car, such a potent symbol of power and heroism, is without a driver. And hungry to prove, more to themselves than anyone else, that they’re already like the cool-and-collected defenders of justice they grew up idolizing, the pair can’t help but imagine themselves behind the wheel.
Out in the wild, the pair start to test the boundaries their newfound freedoms. To the boys, even running up and touching the cop car feels like a punishable offense – but after looking around for anyone to turn them in, they do it anyway, eyes big but nervous smiles bigger. Quickly, their dares get more extreme. Hit the cop car with a rock. Test the door. Open the door. Sit inside the cop car. Pretend to be a gun-toting hero. Drive the cop car. The script, co-written by Watts and Christopher D. Ford (Robot & Frank), makes it painfully easy to buy this pair of kid runaways speeding away in a police cruiser.
As soon as they take off, though, Cop Car changes gears to show us (via flashback) how the titular vehicle got there in the first place. Turns out, Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon, sporting a clearly villainous mustache) left it there while he was off burying the dead body of some local crook who was involved, along with Kretzer, in some sort of drug deal gone wrong (knowing this is a terribly dreary trope to employ, Watts and Ford don’t spend much time fleshing out that background). Suffice to say, when he returns to find his car gone, Kretzer panics, trying to figure out who took it before they can turn his fellow law enforcement officers onto his dastardly dealings.
There’s obvious promise in that setup, and Watts successfully blends his well-observed kid heroes with Coen-esque dark comedy (complete with a long shot of Kretzer frantically staggering up a hill while wearing a wifebeater) and a tension that recalls Texas-flavored crime noirs like Red Rock West – for a time.
The issue arises as Kretzer, predictably, catches up with the tykes in possession of his vehicle, which turns out to be carrying some cargo that gives Kretzer a ticking time-bomb of sorts for safely recovering it. Bacon is clearly having great fun as the perpetually harangued, increasingly desperate cop (who’s really too much of a fuck-up to be taken seriously as a menacing big bad), but you don’t believe for a second that any real harm is going to come to these kids, not at his hands. He’s too much of a cartoon to really scare anyone, even during the unexpectedly bloody and violent final act.
That knowledge seriously saps Cop Car of some tension, and the ways in which Watts and Ford try to regain some momentum have a bitter aftertaste. Instead of doubling down on the kids’ gleeful delinquency and often hilarious attempts to enact wild fantasies of adulthood, Cop Car delves into unpleasant, borderline-exploitative situations that aren’t taut so much as cheaply stomach-churning. When Travis and Harrison pick up Kretzer’s cache of guns and start tossing them around like toys, pointing them at one another and hurling them against things with no concept of how a safety works, it’s obviously terrifying to watch, but in a disappointingly elicited manner. Cop Car knows how to push your buttons but does so with little restraint, which makes the whole affair grate before long.
Watts set out to blend a coming-of-age story (à la Stand By Me and the Amblin Entertainment movies of yore) with a leaner, meaner thriller evocative of the old Westerns. But those components gel only fitfully, and so Cop Car feels like an exercise in genre that doesn’t bring enough to the table to set itself apart. It’s clear that Watts knows how to mount scenes and establish mood, and he pulls fine performances out of his young stars, but the director’s grip on plot and pacing leaves something to be desired. By the time the movie has dissolved into grotesque nihilism, with a distasteful penchant for wanton cruelty toward its characters, you may wish you’d never accepted a ride from this Cop Car in the first place.
After starting strong as a promising, technically accomplished genre workout, Cop Car gets bogged down by wanton brutality that's far cheaper and more exploitative than genuinely suspenseful.