In “Cop Car,” the title character is found abandoned in a field by two 10-year-old boys, whose exhilaration at such a discovery can hardly be overstated. We’ve been introduced to the boys as they walked, with light-haired Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) saying dirty words and dark-haired Harrison (Hays Wellford) repeating them. Except for the F-word, “the worst cuss,” which Harrison won’t say.
So they’re ordinary boys out exploring, the sort of kids you’d find in a Spielberg movie. Finding the cop car to play with, the keys still inside, has made this the greatest day of their lives. They take it for a spin. In their childlike enthusiasm, they don’t stop to consider that a functioning police vehicle, even one found in an unusual place, doesn’t go missing without someone coming to look for it.
That’s where Kevin Bacon comes in. Sporting a glorious law-enforcement mustache, he plays Sheriff Kretzer, a cop of dubious repute who must now find his missing car without the dispatchers and deputies knowing it’s gone, as this would lead to questions he does not wish to answer.
Thus are the elements in place for a surprisingly rich comedy, with an unexpected dash of tension and Coen Bros.-style crime fiction. Everything with the boys is fun and games: they mean no harm, and they’re driving through unpopulated ranch lands, not in any significant danger. (They are spotted by another motorist, though, played by Camryn Manheim.) Even when they pull over to play with the weapons they found in the backseat of the cruiser, we cringe, but we know nothing TOO serious is going to happen. It’s not that kind of movie.
Or is it? Directed by Jon Watts (an Onion News Network pro) and written by him and Christopher D. Ford (“Robot & Frank”), the film doesn’t have “twists,” per se, but it does establish a dark, suspenseful tone that it reverts to now and then, especially when we encounter a man (Shea Whigham) who has unfinished business with Sheriff Kretzer. We gradually realize that what began as an innocuous pre-adolescent comedy also functions as a crime thriller. Occasionally Watts will slow down and take his time, drawing out the tension. When it takes someone two minutes to break into a car, it’s too much. But when it’s to ratchet up suspense at the finale, one person lying in wait for another, the boys in the crossfire, silence but for the sound of a creaking windmill — I swear, it’s Sergio Leone time. In a movie that started out as a light romp about kids!
The ending is somewhat unsatisfying (we deserve less ambiguity), and the whole thing has some fat on it (like those two minutes of car-unlocking non-action). But overall, Watts’ directorial eye is sharp. The boys are natural and not actor-y, and Bacon and Whigham embrace both the comic and serious parts of their roles. “Cop Car” isn’t just good, it’s good in areas you wouldn’t expect a movie with this premise to be good in.
B+ (1 hr., 27 min.; )