The phrase “they don’t make them like this anymore” gets thrown around a lot. Critics, fans, and even industry insiders love to describe everything from mid-budget dramas to original blockbusters this way, alluding to a time in the filmmaking business when studios put out all sorts of movies, not just tentpole blockbuster offerings. I often use the term myself. But Joe Carnahan’s Copshop is one of the few movies in recent history that deserves an embrace of that oft-used expression.
The setup is a classic action thriller template: warring factions (including cops, contract killers, and con men), all with diverging goals, have descended upon a location in the middle of nowhere—this time, a jail in Nevada. Inevitably, chaos ensues. It’s part Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), part Carnahan’s own Smokin’ Aces (2006)—a “Reno Bravo” if you will.
Copshop opens with Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo), a con artist who’s made enemies of the wrong people, desperate and out of options. There’s a number on his head and several dangerous figures are after him. In a last-ditch bid for safety, he punches cop Valerie Young (Alexis Louder) in the hopes of spending the night securely locked up in jail… but contract killer Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler) also finds a way to get locked up for the night, hoping to get his hands on Murretto.
Grillo is fast becoming the Clint Eastwood to Carnahan’s Don Siegel (although Carnahan may have to fight James DeMonaco for him, especially after the release of This Is the Night), being a no-nonsense figure that perfectly channels the director’s straight-to-the-point action with both his physical demeanor and way of speaking.
Butler is all hulking charisma, a far cry from his post-300 (2007) rom-com days or even his leading man action hero days, suggesting maybe he was best suited to magnetic, imposing, and villainous roles all along (he operates in a similar vein in 2018’s Den of Thieves). Despite ardent action fans knowing exactly what his character is going to say and do, he somehow maintains an air of mystery around him, at least until all of his motivations are laid out on the table.
All three leads are imminently watchable, but Louder, relatively new to the big screen, steals the show. Until a supporting role in The Tomorrow War (2021), Louder has mostly operated on television, including HBO’s Watchmen (2019) and The Good Lord Bird (2020). It’s inspired casting that pays off. Louder comes off as a badass, but not as an indestructible super-soldier like a lot of action heroes do these days. She plays the role with a down-to-earth, zero-tolerance quality, even while delivering Carnahan’s exaggerated dialogue.
Carnahan’s work always seems to be in conversation, or at least aware, of other movies. But unlike this year’s other Carnahan-Grillo team-up, Boss Level (2021), Copshop actually feels like one of the old-school beat-em-ups he often emulates. Boss Level is a thoroughly modern movie, from its video game aesthetics to its hyper-aware plot. It works. But Copshop does too, just without the overly stylized violence and modern trappings. It’s sort of a middle ground between the Carnahan of lean, mean thrillers like Narc (2002) and The Grey (2011), and the Carnahan of wild, OTT adventures like Stretch (2014) and Boss Level. It’s situated right in that sweet spot, a throwback action thriller that isn’t really made anymore, at least not at this budget level. Usually, it would have to be a stripped-down indie film, a foreign production like The Raid (2012), or part of a larger cinematic universe.
By the time Toby Huss’s psychotic hitman Tony “Don’t Call Him Anthony” Lamb shows up, Copshop has veered more toward the Carnahan of new than the one of old, but it never teeters over the edge. A big reason why is the setting. The geography of the police station—the doorways and stairways, exits and entrances, and every room on the premises—is clearly laid out from the get-go. Carnahan turns in his best impression of Alfred Hitchcock’s “showing the audience instead of telling the audience” technique to wring out more suspense. Lingering shots on gun cabinets and missing bullets, on sweaty foreheads and computer screens, keep ratcheting the tension. It’s a cliche, but the setting becomes another character in the film. It’s probably the fifth-most prominent one because, aside from Louder, none of the other cops stand out in one way or another.
However, the reliance on the setting also betrays Copshop as a “quarantine film”—a very of-the-moment industry phenomenon where movies shot during the pandemic look and feel different from movies made pre-March 2020. Isolated locations, few characters, actors staying apart during many scenes… it’s all signs of a COVID-era movie that required a difficult production.
The recent news that Grillo was unhappy with how his performance and the movie as a whole, got edited, is curious. The film still feels like a Carnahan-Grillo production, and quite literally since they’re both listed as producers on the film, as is Butler. But Carnahan, who’s usually pretty active on social media, hasn’t been promoting the film, despite its good reviews and theatrical release. That makes it look as if Grillo’s sentiments were accurate and shared by the director. And I don’t know why they wouldn’t be, as the two seem to have a close relationship.
Any signs of where this unhappiness stems from could be found in the movie’s several endings, of which there are too many, that change the perceptions of nearly every main character multiple times. In general, Copshop has one too many seemingly final moments. It’s the only part of the film that doesn’t feel trimmed down to the bone. But for fans of action thriller relics that get straight to the point and don’t linger much beyond that, this should satisfy. The Carnahan-Grillo combo still has some juice left in it, which is a good thing because they already have two more movies queued up.
USA | 2021 | 107 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Joe Carnahan.
writers: Kurt McLeod & Joe Carnahan (story by Mark Williams & Kurt McLeod).
starring: Gerard Butler, Frank Grillo, Alexis Louder, Toby Huss, Ryan O’Nan & Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau.