Kids do very stupid things that seem like the ok thing for them to do at the time. I know that’s not news to anyone who’s been a kid but it needs to be pointed out because it’s the basic thesis of Jon Watts’ well-done second feature Cop Car. The storyline is simple: two kids who are apparently “running away” stumble across a vacated cop car. Rather than leave it be and tell an adult, they steal it even though they’ve never driven a car. But unbeknownst to them this is no ordinary cop car. It’s one that shifty, sleazy Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon) uses to not only uphold the law but also, do some dirty work on the side. In short, it’s bad enough to steal a cop car but the guy these kids steal it from makes it much, much worse.
As the film opens we meet Travis (James Freeson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Welford) two boys of maybe age ten who are reconnoitering around the countryside cussing up a storm. Immediately the film not only lets you know how young these boys are but also hearkens viewers back in time to when they were young and trying out new “adult” things like swearing, spitting and trying to act cool. This is also a time when you felt invincible and things like running away seem simple and wise things to do and bringing along only a single Slim Jim should sustain you on your journey to who knows where.
If the name Jon Watts rings a bell it’s because he was recently tapped to direct the new Spider-Man reboot that really, nobody seems to want. And honestly, as much as I enjoyed Cop Car I really don’t know what attracted Marvel to him as a director and I fear it’s because they know he will be easy to push around because he’s green. It’s a gamble that will either get you the next Fantastic Four/Josh Trank or the next Jurassic World/Colin Trevorrow. I personally have no skin in this new game but frankly, I don’t like the idea of hiring young, solid directors who want to, you know, get paid, as a way to allow studio and corporate interests to push around young talent and screw up films. But, that’s just me. Anyway…
Cop Car quickly turns suspenseful but still maintains its sense of youthful fun and wonder. This is difficult to do and admittedly, where the film struggles is in terms of tone. At once a wonderful, childlike fantasy tale that’s highly relatable it also has art film flourishes as well as Coen Brothersesque characters and violence. While in the end the film comes together nicely it’s still a bit shaggy tonally but that actually kind of fits the tone as well.
I think what I liked best about Cop Car aside from the great story, well told was that I felt like I knew the two young boys in the lead. Or better, they could have been me and my friends at that age. But Watts and co-writer Christopher D. Ford don’t create these characters with expository dialogue or heavy-handed scenes that clumsily give backstory. I was immediately brought right up to speed on who these boys were by the way they dressed in the opening moment of the film. Harrison is wearing a faded, puffy down jacket that is the uniform of a poor, insecure kid. Wes, on the other hand, has an equally shabby jacket that is made to keep a kid warm but definitely not look cool. Both boys are somewhat disheveled with gunk on their faces and in need of a haircut. These are boys who are bound together by poverty and later we learn through subtle dialogue hints, broken homes. It’s the kind of thrifty screenwriting that’s not only hard to do but rarely seen anymore (ie; show, don’t tell).
While it may seem like a film ripe for kids, Cop Car is an adult movie all the way. Just as in real-life big moments and decisions, even when enacted by young people, can have serious and tangible repercussions. Serious ones at that. While you’ll undoubtedly become nostalgic about the simple days of youth Cop Car almost jolts you back to reality in a third act that shows just how serious situations can become when one makes a bad decision. I’m excited to see what Watts comes up with next and I hope the studio system is a good experience for him even though I think his talents thus far lie in more simple storytelling.