Let us consider
the “Cop” sub-genre of crime movies—
It’s a bit schizoid, yeah?
Often it’s either glorified right-wing propaganda or horror-movie-style quasi exploitation of CoPs Iz EviL tropes—
with nothing in between.
[That’s why I love Adam-12 on a philosophical level greater than Dragnet’s—because Adam-12 makes no judgments.
Officers Reed and Malloy are there to keep the peace—“to serve and protect”—and that’s it.
They leave the investigations—and judgments—to the detectives, guys like Joe Friday (I love how Thom Anderson notes in his impossible-to-see Los Angeles Plays Itself that Joe Friday is inadvertently extremely accurate in his portrayal of an LAPD dick—that the cop is judgmental, high-handed and arrogant, and considers citizens to be nuisances at best).
When the dicks arrive, Adam-12 burns rubber.
Reed and Malloy are beautiful automatons—shiny robotic guardians of, as James Ellroy aptly calls it, “White Man’s America.”
The personal life junk they yak about while cruising for trouble are just pre-programmed tapes inserted to fool the public: but the truth is that they’re the missing link between the chrome-droid-cops of THX-1138 (the original! Not the bastardized revision: UGH!) and The Terminator.
But like the Tin Man of Oz, Reed and Malloy have been given hearts: those prerecorded tapes of their so-called “civilian lives.”
So it’s with a quasi-humane nod of understanding as they hold that murdering and thieving dope fiend’s head down as they guide him into the back of the cruiser, or as they simply defuse an argument between two neighbors—even as they suit up to temporarily join the SWAT team.
But we really know what goes on at the end of their shift—the two cops step into their lockers to recharge their batteries.]
That being said, the cop novel was given an invigorating shot in the arm when a sergeant in the LAPD named Joseph Wambaugh started publishing some excellent books about the genuine life of a beat cop.
If you’re a fan of the “cop” genre—Adam-12, I love you!—then picking up Joseph Wambaugh’s excellent novels The New Centurions and The Choirboys is a must-do, especially if you like James Ellroy’s writing, as I do.
Ellroy has repeatedly given great props to Wambaugh as the man who finally made realistic and honest (warts and all) yet entertaining novels about the law enforcement personnel we so rely upon.
Unfortunately, I have yet to see The Onion Field (based on a non-fiction novel by Wambaugh; now available on Nflix Strumming, so I should watch it soon), but its reputation is quite good—but I hear that’s because Wambaugh was involved in the production.
When The New Centurions and The Choirboys were made into films, Wambaugh had no input and was reportedly annoyed by the results. Not that I can blame him.
The Choirboys (1977)
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Screenplay by Christopher Knopf
Based on the novel by Joseph Wambaugh
Produced by Mery Adelson and Lee Rich
Executive producers: Pietro and Mario Bregni and Mark Damon
Director of photography: Joseph Biroc
Music: Frank De Vol
Editors: Maury Winetrobe, William Martin and Irving Rosenblum
a Lorimar/Airone production, distributed by Universal Pictures
Running time: 119 minutes
Like the 1972 cop movie The New Centurions (review below), The Choirboys feels like about one hour's worth of (possibly better) material was cut out, so that what we’re seeing is incomplete at best.
As such, the tone of this flick is all over the place, and some subplots were completely worthless.
Scenes of intense, serious drama are followed--and ruined--by scenes of goofball, fratboy antics that are never funny or cute, and the flick's crude obsession with gay men and their “perversions” borders on the childish and asinine.
Much of the huge cast is wasted, but good performances by Burt Young as a kind vice cop, a very young Charles Haid, an even younger James Woods playing a nerd cop, Charles Durning overacting spectacularly, and Ivanlandia fave Tim McIntire (as the meanest cop around) kept me watching.
Director Robert Aldrich showed in The Longest Yard and The Dirty Dozen that he could balance hijinks and brutality very well, and The Choirboys is not a bad film per se, but a severely, shockingly uneven one.
With three film editors listed, I think that studio interference in post-production is to blame, but it certainly was Aldrich's choice to have the movie photographed in such a dull, flat way.
Now the question is who's to blame for the flick's atrocious music score?
I'm not surprised this movie isn't available on DVD, but as a fan of director Aldrich, I'm glad it was available as an instant-viewing movie (whoops—not anymore! N-flix has earmarked The Choirboys as “unavailable.”)
Aldrich has made a fascinating collection of films, and some are Ivanlandia faves, like Kiss Me Deadly, Attack!, The Killing of Sister George (perfect as a double feature with Santa Sangre for an evening of unhealthy relationships), and Emperor of the North.
In The Choirboys, I can often see sparks of something Aldrich’s going for, like when McIntire and his partner, an incredibly young Randy Quaid, get pummeled by an angry mob of blacks and Chicanos they’ve insulted and brutalized—and then McIntire is given an award for bravery, while better cops are hounded by incompetent pencil-pushers.
The New Centurions (1972)
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant
From the novel by Joseph Wambaugh
Director of photography: Ralph Woolsey
Film editor: Robert C. Jones
Music by Quincy Jones
Produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff
Released by Columbia Pictures
Running time: 103 minutes
Finally released to DVD in 2008, this adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s great novel is worth a viewing by all fans of “1970s Urban Grit,” or TV police procedurals:
The New Centurions essentially created the template they all now follow.
That said, this film is episodic, so the scenes can often vary in quality, but the knockout scenes (like George C. Scott’s monolog in his last scene, or the scene with the prostitutes in the police truck) really give you the feeling of being a fly on the wall during something real.
These moments are often much better than the movie as a whole, and make the flick almost essential viewing.
But there’s some rank garbage and misguided filmmaking you have to wade through to get it: The film begins well enough by sharing the focus between a trio of rookie cops: Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson and Erik Estrada.
Unfortunately, the movie concentrates on Keach, whose plotline feels the most shopworn and simplistic:
he loves the force more than anything, his wife leaves him, he becomes a drunk, and so on—and the scenes of Keach working for the vice squad are played for crass laughs and are an insult to the intelligence.
Wilson and Estrada start off having compelling stories, respectively: one has shot an innocent man, and the other is an ex-gangbanger.
But these plots are dropped unceremoniously, leaving the viewer dissatisfied and a little puzzled. Was there studio interference or re-editing of The New Centurions? A trimming down to fit a more “manageable” length? This film sure feels like it.
The flick entertains me, and my suspension of disbelief accepts the plot and situations. It’s hardly as ridiculous as a Lethal Weapon flick—and Predator 2 can at least say its craziness stems from being in “the future” (of 1997—hah!) and having invisible aliens running around.
And Bill Paxton gets his spine torn out: gnarly!