Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) are two young boys walking cross-country through a series of fields. In a small grove they find a police patrol car. They dare each other to touch it. They dare each other to get inside. They find the keys. They go on an impulse joy ride. A minute later the local sheriff (Kevin Bacon) returns to find his patrol car missing. He has just buried one dead body. The second is in the patrol car’s trunk.
Cop Car is a low-budget but brilliantly effective comedy thriller. The humour plays like a comedy of errors as Sheriff Kretzer goes on a tightly-wound, drug-fuelled meltdown over the loss of his car, and Travis and Harrison engage in increasingly dangerous hijinks with a back seat full of police weapons and equipment. The thrills come as the tension gradually escalates, some unexpected story developments appear, and the risk to the boys’ lives becomes greater and greater. It is a relatively short film, running 88 minutes including the credits, but it is a strikingly effective one.
The screenplay, by Christopher Ford and director John Watts, is cleverly stripped back. On a pragmatic level they have ensured the film’s budget remains low. On a creative level the limited number of characters and locations ensures there is enormous room for dialogue and character. Both of these are pitch-perfect. The characters are all immediately recognisable, but they have time to be properly fleshed out and show off their own distinctive wrinkles and quirks. Travis and Harrison in particular are beautifully written, and reminded me more than once of Rob Reiner’s excellent Stand By Me. The role of Kretzer provides Kevin Bacon with a brilliantly wiry, unpredictable character, and he visibly relishes playing it. He is an antagonist that is genuinely enjoyable to watch.
James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford do an outstanding job as well. At first their roles seem pretty easy: two kids mucking around like most kids do. As the stakes raise and the story becomes more complicated, the film requires more and more out of them. Both young actors excel themselves.
The film is very well shot by cinematographers Matthew J. Lloyd and Larkin Seiple (who has shot music videos for the likes of Rihanna, the Arcade Fire, and Katy Perry). The American landscape looks outstanding, consisting of wide arid vistas and tumbleweed-filled dirt tracks. There is a bleak open aesthetic to the film that shows off just how isolated and vulnerable the boys become.
I adore finding films like this: well-written and nicely performed low budget films that work based on one particularly inventive concept and then milked for all of the quality that concept inspires. It certainly worked for its director: John Watts’ next feature was the big-budget Marvel film Spider-Man: Homecoming. This is a superb piece of film-making: tightly edited, fast-paced and incredibly entertaining.
This review was first published at The Angriest on 12 July 2016.