Definitely the more sober-sided of two new films involving cops and cop-killers, “Crown Vic” juggles slice-of-life observation and thriller elements as a grizzled LAPD veteran shepherds a newbie through his first patrol shift. (Also opening Nov. 15 on 10 U.S. screens is “Line of Duty,” which is much more of a gonzo action thriller.) Writer-director Joel Souza’s “Crown Vic” doesn’t always balance those elements ideally, but it’s still a respectable if non-revelatory cruise through a familiar terrain of mean streets and men in blue.
Transformed by a darkened crew cut and ’stache, with a crankypants working-stiff voice, Thomas Jane is almost unrecognizable as longtime peace officer Ray Mandel. He’s in an irritable mood even before meeting trainee Nick Holland (Luke Kleintank, concurrently in “Midway”), who’s just transferred from an off-street post in Oakland to commence his maiden tour in a squad car three years after police-academy graduation. Nick is from a family of cops, and seems to feel he’s got a lot to prove. Yet he’s taken aback by Ray’s cynical, initially bullying manner, as well as by much he witnesses this night — starting with a brick thrown at their vehicle soon after it’s left the garage.
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After a tense start, the twosome get to know each other a bit. Ray can hardly help learning about Nick’s private life, since his nervous, pregnant wife is calling or texting him constantly. On the other hand, it takes a while for Ray to admit that his new status as Field Training Officer is a sort of demotion after 25 years, doled out due to a significant error in judgment or two. He’s also a twice-over divorcée whose relationship wisdoms (“Get a dog”) are not particularly welcomed by his still-optimistic junior associate.
These characters’ dynamic is interesting enough, though sometimes Souza’s screenplay goes a bit slack letting their conversations run on between arrests or other police business. This late-night-to-dawn shift’s incidents run a gamut in gravity and tonality. Some are amusing (like Emma Ishta as a spoiled-brat DUI), others spooky (a parked vehicle in flames that turns out to have a body in it), hostile (some recidivist types aren’t happy to be caught in the act again), or caricatured (an over-the-top scene with Scottie Thompson as a paranoid exhibitionist).
Weaving in and out are three prominent threads we anticipate will come to some kind of climactic resolution before the night is over. Our heroes keep running across (and trying to control) fellow cop Jack (Josh Hopkins), an Afghanistan combat vet turned roided-out speed freak. With his creepy little partner (David Krumholtz) in tow, Jack runs around violently taking his PTSD out on any “scumbag” who crosses his path. Another menace is an elusive pair of ski-masked armed robbers whose spree has not spared the lives of police officers or security guards. Finally, Ray has a personal investigative agenda: tracking down a little girl abandoned by her junkie mother (Bridget Moynahan), whose father was his own slain ex-partner, and who may have been dumped into some druggy hellhole.
That’s a lot of narrative content, and “Crown Vic” varies in involvement and credibility as it juggles the more melodramatic aspects with the quasi-vérité ones. Still, it all works more often than not, thanks to the able lead performances and Souza’s generally smooth handling. While the pacing can be uneven, the film has a graceful visual consistency in DP Thomas Scott Stanton’s widescreen imagery, the slightly dreamy, color-rich nocturnal mood of which is like a toned-down version of the stylization in “Taxi Driver” or Michael Mann’s ’80s oeuvre.
Well-turned in all tech and design departments, “Crown Vic” is almost entirely set on the streets at night — and given how believably it all takes place in Los Angeles, you may be amazed to learn that the film was actually shot in Buffalo, N.Y.