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“Copshop” is an enjoyable, slow-burn action movie featuring a smart script, sharp direction, strong cast — and the emergence of a possible star.
In Gun Creek, Nev., a sketchy dude gets himself arrested for assaulting a police officer. Soon after, a drunk driver gets himself clinked into the facing cell. The sketchy dude turns out to be Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo), a shady fixer trying to save his own life by weaseling his way into unwitting police protection. However, the “drunk” turns out to be Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler), an efficient contract killer closing in on Teddy. Between them — literally, for some time — is young, determined, cool-as-the-other-side-of-the-pillow rookie officer Valerie Young (Alexis Louder). As Young unravels what’s really going on with these mystery prisoners, betrayals and other killers on the bad guys’ payroll barrel toward them.
“Copshop” rises above the chaff of the genre with well-staged action and strong performances throughout. It’s essentially a chamber drama with bullets; the interesting characters and ticking clock lend the film’s confines the effect of adding to the tension. The name actors, Grillo and Butler, are quite good — Butler turns in one of his best, most understated performances — but the star of this show is Louder.
In her first feature lead, Louder’s determination and focus are compelling. Her screen presence is powerful. Her Valerie’s calm courage is believable; in the hands of a lesser performer it might have seemed a put-on, a plot element, rather than who this woman is. She’s also not generically brave; the film gives her plenty of motivation. Her moral fiber simply won’t allow all this to go down. Yet she’s no Pollyanna; she’s easy to root for.
The actors are helped by an intelligent, precise script (by director Joe Carnahan and Kurt McLeod in his feature debut, with a story credit to “Ozark” creator Mark Williams) that understands not everyone should have one-liners. Butler gets the best of them. It’s some of the most enjoyable dialogue he’s had, and he nails the delivery. He kills it in an encounter with a belligerent drunk and makes the most of exchanges such as “I’m not a psychopath; I’m a professional.” “There’s a difference?” “You’ll know it when you see it.”
Speaking of that particular devil, “Copshop” also gives longtime character actor Toby Huss one of his most memorable appearances in 150 or so credits. He gets the showiest lines. His acting teeth are sharpened and ready to chew the scenery as the presaged bona fide psychopath. He looks like he’s having a ball, so we can’t help but have one as well.
More evidence of the effectiveness of the script and Carnahan’s realization of it (along with casting directors Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas’ fine work) is the believable camaraderie among the police officers. The film doesn’t go too far with their antics but does enough to establish relationships and hierarchy among them. “Walking Dead” fans will be delighted to see Chad Coleman (Tyreese on that long-running show) as the police sergeant; the more annoyed he gets, the more amusing he is.
Producing partners Grillo and Carnahan are on a mini-winning streak, “Copshop” following their excellent, super-fun “Boss Level” earlier this year (they’re now working on a re-imagining of the martial-arts classic “The Raid: Redemption”). Grillo’s role here is very different from his leading-man action hero in “Boss Level.” He handles the ambiguousness of Teddy well. You genuinely don’t know what he’s going to do until he shows his true colors late in the film.
It takes quite a while to get to the action in “Copshop,” but it’s worth it — for the acting, the script, the tight direction, and especially for Louder’s first showcase role.
Rated: R for strong/bloody violence and pervasive language
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 17 in general release