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More tightly controlled chaos from Joe Carnahan with Copshop. Following hard on the heels of Boss Level, it’s another display of post-Tarantino buzzsaw brilliance, and again it has Frank Grillo – late to the action party but most welcome – as a badass lead.

Most Carnahan films – The Grey and The A Team being notable exceptions – are like Copshop. The action starts out with a couple of characters doing something fairly preposterous, and then Carnahan widens his net with real skill to incorporate more and more characters, all also doing preposterous, or bad, or mad things, before he finally gets everyone together for a gonzo finale usually involving excessive gunplay and suicidal bravado (cartoon variety). See Narc, Smokin’ Aces and Boss Level for other thoroughly enjoyable instances of the same.

Frank Grillo plays sleek, long-haired mob fixer Teddy Murretto, so in trouble with his paymasters that he’s engineered his way into a prison holding cell by punching a cop. Soon, he’s been joined over the way in another cell by Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler), a hitman who’s used a similar ruse, having passed himself off as a stumbling drunk he’s now close to Teddy, the better to end Teddy’s life asap.

Our eyes and ears on this situation are principled, smart and competent cop Valerie Young, the still centre (it’s all relative) around which Carnahan constructs his interlocking Jenga of mayhem with a choreographer’s skill – a wounded sergeant, a drunk in need of a tracheostomy, a dead DA, a bent cop trying to spirit drugs out of the building, another assassin, more deaths out in the desert at the hands of yet another bad cop, all building towards an Assault on Precinct 13-style finale, except this time the bad guys are inside the cop shop too.

There are fantastic performances here, most notably Alexis Louder as the hero cop – Carnahan had her watch Clint Eastwood movies, and it shows – holding her own against more obviously attention-grabbing turns by Grillo, Butler and, when he eventually turns up for a film-stealing turn as a loquacious psychopath, Toby Huss as Hitman No. 2, Anthony Lamb. “One of male grooming’s greatest misfires,” Lamb quips when he sees Teddy’s hair. Huss also gets the film’s standout action sequence, which involves a 9mm snub-nosed machine gun, some very resistant bulletproof glass and an incredible number of bullets.

Toby Huss as Anthony Lamb
Enter a scene-stealing Toby Huss

This is a movie that goes to bed at night and dreams of the action movies of the 1990s, and DP Juanmi Azpiroz (who also did Boss Level with Carnahan) shoots it full of haze and smoke and blue light whenever there is the slightest excuse, while Clinton Shorter’s soundtrack itches to get out the military snare drums and the “banging door” sound familiar from all those Arnie movies.

Carnahan, Grillo and Butler are all also producers but Butler graciously cedes the star’s limelight to Grillo, who gives it his all as the utterly untrustworthy charmer Teddy, in a role you could also imagine Mickey Rourke in. Maybe it’s the hair.

You absolutely have seen it all before but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, particularly those beautifully concentrated moments when Carnahan distills the movie down to a glistening essence – like when cop Valerie Young puts a single bullet into her gun, gives the chamber a spin and aims it at Teddy, via a big plate glass window. Truth be told, Carnahan is better at these moments – you might call them a blood-soaked variation on Ozu’s “pillow shots” – than the big action sequences.

Running through it all, well below the surface and not in anyone’s way, is a discussion about who’s the real bad guy here. Mob fixer Teddy. Or hitman Bob. All of which is put into proper perspective once Toby Huss arrives on the scene. Do we need subtext? Not really. The joys of Carnahan’s movies are the joys of the surface. He’s now remaking Gareth Evans’s The Raid. Rubs hands.

Copshop – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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