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Copshop Review: Nothing To See Here, Folks

Outside of his harrowing slow burn neo-noir "Narc," the 2002 standout in his filmography he's still yet to top, every Joe Carnahan movie in his twenty-plus years as a director delivers varying shades of the same shtick. He has a singular gift for self-aware, macho moviemaking typified by gonzo violence, acidic humor, and inventive storytelling, but rarely seems to punch above his weight anymore, having accepted his place as a reliable purveyor of meat and potatoes Dudes Rock cinema. But where underrated gems like 2010's "The A-Team" and this year's "Boss Level" are carried by a certain undeniable mirth at play, his latest film "Copshop" feels like autopilot at its worst, a watchable crime thriller as inoffensive as it is unmemorable.

All the pieces are there for something special: the mano a mano chemistry between two grizzled favorites in Frank Grillo and Gerard Butler, a confined single location from which to mine claustrophobic suspense, and a strong premise full of potential. Unfortunately, in execution, "Copshop" never gets into second gear. A film like this could feel like a home run if it just delivered the bare minimum in an efficient and entertaining manner, but the finished product can't even clear that low bar.

Instead, it's a handful of decent moments and some solid performances in service of a muddled script, inconsistent tone, and not nearly enough payoff. 

You're locked up in here with me

Though Grillo and Butler are the marquee names on the "Copshop" poster, newcomer Alexis Louder is the film's real star. Louder plays rookie officer Valerie Young, a veteran of the armed forces whose tenure with the force in Nevada seems typified by hauling drunks into holding to sober up and debating her fellow cops on the efficacy of different gun models. When we meet her, she answers a call to break up a fight at a wedding that leads to her being punched in the face by a mysterious man, played by Grillo.

It becomes obvious that this man isn't part of the wedding debauchery and is just using assault on an officer to get locked behind bars, where he and his bag (the film's nebulous MacGuffin) will be safe from another mysterious man, played by Butler, we see following him at the periphery. 

Grillo is Teddy Murretto, a far cry from the tough badasses he normally plays onscreen. Teddy is a slick, manbun-wearing conman-cum-fixer who has seemingly pissed off some important people, run off with something valuable, and has become so desperate to survive he takes to hiding out in a police precinct. But that's not going to stop Butler's Viddick, a sadistic hitman, from one-upping Teddy and getting himself locked up too, setting up a powder keg of intrigue and tension.

But Viddick isn't the only outside force trying to get to Teddy. Hell, he's not even the only one inside the force in on this dangerous game of tag. There's a lot left to be uncovered, stakes that feel high only by the omission of specifics and one good cop in a sea of bumbling fools stuck trying to parse it all.

The setup has clear John Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13" vibes, but where that film was lean, mean, and undeniable in its exploitation thriller excellence, "Copshop" is too tonally muddled and frustratingly paced to come close to that film in terms of quality. 

The film's first act is suitably suspenseful, deliberate in its movement as Carnahan sets all the varied pieces in their places on the chessboard. But as the noose tightens and the reveals get doled out, it becomes clear "Copshop" doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be, nor will it be able to keep the viewer thrilled long enough for it to figure that out on the back end. The result is a movie that coasts on its two reliable leads, a surprise turn from Louder, and the promise that Carnahan has delivered before with this kind of picture, which makes it all the more disappointing when he fails to repeat his past successes here.

Dirty rotten scoundrels

A slippery scoundrel hiding out in Nevada from hitmen? It sure sounds like 2006's "Smokin' Aces," also known as the exact point in his filmography when Carnahan fully accepted his role as a purveyor of a very specific kind of action film. But where that film was sprawling, ambitious, and possessed a truly wild and diverse cast, "Copshop" is more low-key, more intimate, and altogether less fun. It's a slow burn that feels like it's building to a big bang, but never does. And not in a subversive, statement kind of way, either — it just fizzles out, fails to stick the landing, and feels, if nothing else, like the first draft of a screenplay that no one involved felt was necessary to sharpen or develop further.

Carnahan the director still has fun here, carefully maneuvering his camera around the precinct for the film's first half, pausing to take note of portent and foreshadowing at every turn, and comically cutting away in explanatory flashbacks to cartoonish gags amid the more ominous tone of the present day proceedings. But Carnahan the screenwriter is asleep at the wheel, lazily relying on tired cliches like televised newscasts to fill in the blanks in a manner that works far better in a horror film than the sleepy actioner "Copshop" turns out to be.

The key bit of business that actually works here is the uneasy triangle that forms between Louder, Grillo, and Butler's characters, with Officer Young trying to figure out who among these two untrustworthy villains is the one to form a temporary alliance with. Butler delivers the same kind of bloated grit that made his turn in "Den of Thieves" so iconic, with Grillo smartly playing against type in a role Carnahan has said was inspired by John Cazale. But their low-rent version of "Heat" only works as well as it does because of how wonderfully both men play off Louder, not each other.

She's a welcome presence, exuding a muted kind of charm in concert with a believable amount of everyman relatability. She's a badass, but in an attainable, still scared, and nervous sort of way that makes you wish she was the lead in a more thought-out, better-developed film.

Butler and Grillo will no doubt meet again in some other DTV exercise in the near future, and Louder surely has bigger things on the horizon as well. But if nothing else, "Copshop" feels like a refutation of the Carnahan who just this year merged science fiction with his usual pet themes so well in "Boss Level." Despite this film feeling like low-hanging, soon-to-rot fruit, his last directorial outing suggested he was on the upswing and that his better days were not in fact behind him.

Of all the shames in "Copshop," evidence to the contrary may be the biggest of them all.