By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Rookies on the force.
Roy Fehler (Stacy Keach) is a young law student who decides to join the LAPD until he can complete his degree. After graduating from training he gets partnered with Andy Kilvinski (George C. Scott) a veteran with almost a quarter of a century of police work under his belt. Roy likes Kilvinski’s unique approach to cop duty and enjoys his police work more and more to the point that he puts his law studies on hold, much to the consternation of his wife (Jane Alexander). Then one night Roy gets shot while on-duty forcing him to go through a painful recovery, but his determination to return to the force puts a major strain on his marriage and when his wife leaves him he turns to liquor for solace.
The film is based on Joseph Wambaugh’s debut novel, which he wrote in 1970 and based loosely on his own experiences and observations while working as a cop. The novel though differs greatly from the film in that there were three main characters in the book while the film focuses mainly on Keach while leaving the other two, which are played by Eric Estrada and Scott Wilson, as only secondary players that are seen only sporadically. The novel also delved into the Watts Riots at the end, which the movie completely ignores.
The film though does succeed at humanizing those that work on the force as we see them as regular people who just so happen to wear a badge as opposed to authority figures. The story thankfully avoids police cliches and seeing how Keach’s job affects both his home life and personality is quite interesting and something I wished had been explored even more.
The best moments come during the first act as the viewer gets thrust onto the street scene along with Fehler and Kilvinski where in almost cinema vertite style we see what an average night patrolling a poor African American neighborhood in Los Angeles is really like. Some of the time their experiences are quite lighthearted like when they pick up a group of black prostitutes, one of which is played by Isabel Sanford, who later went on to star in the TV-Show ‘The Jeffersons’, who get put into a paddy wagon where they drink hard liquor and tell bawdy stories. Other moments though become tense and serious particularly when they have to wrestle a crying infant away from his abusive mother.
Keach plays his part quite well and one of the reasons that the film is successful, but his character isn’t well defined. We have no understanding why he enjoys patrolling the streets so much and ignores his family life the way he does. Without any insight to what drives him it makes his obsession to return to the force after his shooting injury seem bizarre and confusing. In the novel he was portrayed as being quite arrogant and thinking he was smarter than everyone else, which gets toned down considerably here.
Scott’s character is another confusing mess. For most of the film he’s shown as being rather laid-back only to suddenly shoot and kill himself without warning after he retires. Yet the character is not fleshed-out enough making what he does senseless. The film seems to imply that he was bored in retirement, which is what lead him to do it, but do other policemen who retire also kill themselves at a high rate? I haven’t heard of that many who do so it seemed to me there needed to be a better reason than just that and without one being sufficiently supplied it makes the scene come-off as unnecessarily jarring that creates confusion instead of clarity.
The segment where Fehler joins the vice squad are quite funny and manage to be both outrageous and believable at the same time. However, his sudden descent into alcoholism gets too rushed and the film would’ve worked better had it reflected the same structure as its source novel where the character’s lives are examined every August of each succeeding year after graduating instead of keeping the time period undefined, which makes everything that occurs look like broad composites instead of a fluid situation.
The scene where Scott Wilson’s character shoots and kills an innocent black man gets poorly presented too as we never get to see the aftermath of his actions as the subsequent investigation is never addressed at all. We simply see him back on the force in later scenes like it never happened. The moment is startling, so not answering the question of what penalty he may or may not have faced is frustrating.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: August 3, 1972
Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes
Director: Richard Fleischer
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Feels like an extended TV cop show. Strictly by the numbers.